Cooking thru my kids’ cultures

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A few years ago, I read a book called In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption. It had many fascinating observations, but one that has stuck with me was the advice to make sure my home has objects representing my kids’ cultures. I’ve made efforts since then to ensure my Black kids see their African American and Kenyan cultures reflected in our white-centric home, but it’s proven trickier than I expected, partly because of budgetary constraints and partly for lack of ideas. What exactly makes a house scream “East African” or “Black American culture”? Art, of course, but art is not cheap. Is the wooden “karibu” on my daughter’s wall sufficient? What about the Jackie Robinson books on my son’s shelves? My mother-in-law made Lydia a comforter with African print fabric, a friend handed down several African print dresses her daughter had worn, and I love my Kenyan tablecloth purchased from an online fair trade store, but I’m always on the lookout for more ideas of Black or African items to add to my decor. I want my kids to see themselves reflected in their home environment.

Recently, the Denver Post published an article about the best cookbooks coming out in the fall. Two caught my eye. In Bibi’s Kitchen has recipes from East African grandmothers as well as interviews with those grandmother cooks and a brief history of her country of origin. The cookbook covers the eight countries that touch the Indian Ocean, including Kenya. The Rise tells the story of Black cooking in America and showcases the diversity of black recipes. It claims so much of what we love about American cooking can trace its history to black cooks.

I love to cook, and my kids love to help me in the kitchen (although I don’t always enjoy having them *both* help me at the same time), and I wondered if cooking with them through these cookbooks would count as exposing them to their cultures. My kids are not adventurous eaters, so my premise is probably shaky — hey kids, let’s try this recipe full of ingredients you’ve never heard of! — but I want to give it a try. I learned a lot from my previous attempt at cooking with them; for starters we won’t try to cook something new every day, and I’ll probably take turns with each of them.

We’re unlikely to get to Kenya in the near future, so this is a great way to explore Kenyan traditions at home. In normal times, there are plenty of opportunities to expose my kids to Black American culture, but COVID-19 has made it a bit more of a challenge to take advantage of them in a way that is engaging for kids.

I was going to start with the first recipe and work my way through, but In Bibi’s Kitchen has several flatbread recipes, so I decided bread might be an easier onramp for this project. Soon after the cookbook arrived, on a recent snowy weekday, when bread of any kind is extra comforting, I made Somali flatbread, called sabaayad. I intended to use it as a replacement for pita to go along with hummus and cut veggies for our dinner that evening, but I made it in the morning, and of course everyone wanted to sample it at lunch. It was delicious. Good thing the recipe made 8 pieces! We could each have one for lunch and there was enough left for dinner. Lydia was so enamored she declared she wanted only the flatbread for dinner. Ordinarily I’d be frustrated by her rejection of proteins and veggies, but this day I was just happy the first recipe was a success.

I made sure everyone knew we were eating Somali flatbread, but I didn’t share anything else about East African culture this time. We have a whole cookbook to work through, so I figure I have plenty of time to educate my family about what they’re eating and the cultures from which the foods come.

I’m excited about this project. Looking through the book, I think The Rise recipes will be weekend ones; they appear to need a bit more time to prep (six hours to cure eggs, for example). But I’m particularly excited about this book because the author, Marcus Samuelsson, is adopted. He dedicates the book to his birth mom.

And even if Lydia pushes the plate away in disgust (as she’s taken to doing with any new recipe I try), at least I’ve made one more effort to expose her and Teddy to their cultures.

Twitter and children’s books: #pbcritiquefest

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Early this fall, I got stuck. After spending the first half of 2020 writing a picture book manuscript while my kids were in school, I proceeded to aggressively query agents during July and August. At first I pitched only those whose agency bio or manuscript wish list contained a nugget I connected with, a sentence that led me to believe that particular agent would be a good fit for my book or was simply a fact about them that I resonated with. But I exhausted that list pretty quickly and had to broaden my queries to every agent I could find who accepted unagented picture book author (not author-illustrator) manuscripts.

That list was also despairingly short. I’d queried only 28 agents and I was at a loss for next steps.

And then one evening, while walking around my neighborhood, I was listening to a writing webinar (not picture book specific) featuring advice from published authors , and one of the quotes reminded me to check Twitter for resources. I’d read before about the children’s book community on Twitter but, having uninstalled all social media from my phone early in the summer, I hadn’t explored it.

However, now I needed new resources, so I logged on (via my laptop — I wasn’t willing to commit yet and reinstall the app on my phone) and pulled up the #pbchat and #kidlit hashtags. And I was shocked. Within minutes, my clicking led me to Julie Hedland and her picture book summit and 12×12 picture book challenge (I immediately signed up to be notified when registration opens for the 2021 iteration), Brian Gehrlain and pbspotlight.com and the picture book critique fest, and #pbpitch, the Twitter picture book pitch party. A few more minutes of rabbit trail clicking and I’d discovered blogs that highlighted picture book authors and agents. I was thrilled to realize Twitter is a veritable gold mine for picture book authors!

I added #pbpitch to my calendar and registered for the picture book critique fest and Julie’s How to Win with Twitter Pitch Parties webinar about crafting a great Twitter pitch. That presentation included so many great tips, I signed up for Julie and Emma Walton Hamilton’s webinar package about writing a great pitch. And then I went back to my own pitches…and realized they needed work. But I had new tools for revision, so I attacked my sentences with gusto.

I also read through numerous blog posts with agent interviews and first page critiques. And of course, any agent I came across in this Twitter journey, I added to my list to query.

Since entering the #kidlit and #pbchat worlds on Twitter, my “following” list has grown considerably, giving me more insight into what agents are looking for and encouraging me when I’m facing another rejection.

And finding #pbcritiquefest has renewed my enthusiasm for this work when it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rejection rut. The last few weeks have been so fun following this hashtag. Not only have I found wonderful books to buy during a time when I can’t browse shelves at my local library or bookstore, I’ve been encouraged to see authors support each other in success–and not-yet-success.

I’m thankful to have found this little community. Participating in #pbcritiquefest has shown me that I’m not alone in my writing journey. It’s similar to a running group: we’re not in competition with each other; there’s room for all of us. We’re there to cheer each other on and celebrate our wins. This is a long road — I should expect to query at least 100 agents?! — and I look forward to sharing my own successes as we all pound the pavement together.

Camp Kitchen

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We stared at the mixing bowl on its side on the floor, half its contents, including two raw eggs, spreading across the dark wood. Teddy, in his haste to take to the sink the dish he’d used for cracking the eggs, knocked the bowl with his elbow, and down it crashed, splashing batter on the cupboard doors on the way down. The eggs oozed; flour dust floated in the air, caked cocoa powder wedged between cupboard and floor, and both kids waited for my reaction. I took a deep breath, let it out, and simply said, “We all make messes. When we make a mess, we clean it up.” I was not Mary Poppins the whole we cooked together, but in this moment, I managed to summon my saintly nanny side and pull the three of us into a mess-cleaning machine.

This was day 2 of Camp Kitchen, a collection of 15 recipes put together by Kiran Dodeja Smith (@easyrealfood on social media) to get your kids cooking for a week. There are three recipes per day, with a theme each day. The day of the Big Mess was baking day. After making chocolate chip cake in a mug and chocolate chip scones, we lost our donut batter. But we scrubbed the floor, wiped down the cupboard doors, dumped the remaining flour/cocoa powder mixture in the trash, and then set about putting together the ingredients again. The donuts turned out great. We enjoyed them for breakfast the next couple days.

Through that experience and many others, I learned several lessons from our week in the kitchen.

Cooking with kids is messy. This probably is too obvious to mention. Of course when you cook with kids, the process will not be as tidy as when you cook by yourself. I cook most days and on occasion have invited the kids to help, but inevitably, I send them out of the kitchen because we’re all frustrated, them from being constantly reprimanded about the correct way to do things and me from, well, seeing them do things in a way that I know will lead to a mess. But I usually go into the experience with an agenda. So when a half cup of flour gets knocked against the mixing bowl, sending white dust to the counter and the floor, I want to scream. But with Camp Kitchen, I went into it intending the kids to do as much as they could. So when we lost the donut batter, I was able to stay calm, declare that messes happen, and get us all working together to clean it up. And putting the ingredients together was a lot easier the second time around! Besides, epic messes make for epic stories.

Everything takes longer when kids are helping. Another obvious one, but in the past, when I’ve had the kids help with, say, making Sunday morning biscuits (a tradition in our house, although one that might be replaced with the above-mentioned scones), I’ve been super frustrated when the whole process takes twice as long as when I do it myself. I saved myself a lot of foot tapping by taking seriously the time suggestions of this home camp. As stated in the introduction, “campers” can expect to be cooking for two to three hours every day. And the first day (pizza day), we took the whole three hours. So when my kids measured the flour soooooo carefully (albeit still spilling quite a bit) and needed multiple turns stirring the simmering sauce, I was cool, so cool, and let them enjoy the process without trying to speed them along.

Telling is (a lot) harder than showing. The opposite may be true in writing, but when cooking with kids, describing what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re not familiar with the steps is…challenging. I found myself struggling (and, let’s be honest, sometimes failing) not to raise my voice when I repeated the same instruction multiple times when they failed to understand what I was explaining. So many times I wanted to grab the utensil/ingredient/measuring cup and just show them how to do something, but I have two kids who are excited to measure and pour and scoop by themselves AND want equal turns at everything, so I tried my hardest to narrate rather than do.

Having multiple sets of measuring utensils on hand is helpful. I happen to own a couple sets of measuring spoons and cups, not in preparation for this exercise, but just because I’ve acquired them over the years. I find them helpful to have when I’m cooking by myself, but I was especially grateful this week to have them. Because with two kids measuring, it’s convenient to not have to wash between measurements. And when one kid doesn’t want to use the same utensil their sibling was using, it’s nice to be able to indulge that ridiculousness and avoid a fight. It’s also helpful to have indestructible, lightweight tools, so you don’t cringe every time something is dropped, because things will be dropped.

Cooking with kids requires flexibility and quick thinking. Both my kids want to have a part in each step, so I had to figure how to split up almost every step. Two tablespoons of olive oil? I measured, but each kid poured in one tablespoon. Four cups of flour? I used a half cup measure so the kids could scoop easier and then each kid got to measure and pour four times. Salad day was easier: I gave each kid half a vegetable to chop. But key for me was working with what my kids wanted to do and not insisting on a certain way. I wanted to keep their interest for as long as possible. I also had to remind myself that, unless we’re accidentally adding salt instead of sugar, recipes are often pretty forgiving. My daughter was having a hard time measuring the dill for the ranch dressing recipe and we ended up with two teaspoons instead of just one. I thought it would be too strong. It was fine. And even if it had been too strong, we could have saved it by adding a little more milk. And even if it wasn’t salvageable, part of the kitchen experience is learning from your mistakes.

I cook most nights of the week, and sometimes one or the other of the kids helps, but Camp Kitchen was the first time I stepped back and encouraged them to do it all, jumping in only to retrieve ingredients and cooking bowls/utensils. And I was blown away by their competence. My eldest read the list of ingredients and the directions, and together, they measured and mixed and simmered and stirred and tasted and spread and chopped and kneaded and watched through the oven door. And then, with the kitchen a disaster, we enjoyed what we’d made, a couple times sharing with our neighbors. The experience opened my eyes to what my kids are capable of. To do it again, I would spread it out over five weeks instead of doing it every day for one week, but I hope this is the start of more regular cooking together.

Our Summer Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic Plan

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It’s a beautiful day, and I’m in my happy place: sitting in a book bar, drinking a latte (I though it was too early for a glass of wine, but that is an option here), and trying to write.

This summer, in addition to a couple summer camps, museum visits, and outdoor activities, we’re exploring different coffee shops, a new one each Wednesday. This is my attempt to be intentional about setting aside some writing time despite having both kids at home for ten weeks (school finished May 31 here!), as well as provide a change of scenery for reading and math work. (I got summer bridge workbooks for both of them.)

Last week, I was quite productive. The coffee shop, QuinceEssential (hidden away on residential Quince street) lived up to its playful name. The walls inside were decorated  with a jumbled assortment of pictures and knickknacks, old-time toys filled nooks and crannies, and a bookcase was stacked with board games. We settled ourselves outside, where a grassy area with a cornhole set provided play space while I worked. The kids drank hot cocoa and then happily entertained themselves with the beanbags while I sipped a delicious nondairy Venetian cream iced coffee (I was sad to discover the strawberry croissants were sold out) and tapped away, although no reading or math was accomplished.

This week, we’re at Denver Book Bar, where you can read while sipping a glass of sangria and enjoying a Cabernet caramel (cookies, hot cocoa and soft drinks available for the kids). This book store/coffee shop/wine bar also has a lovely outdoor area: lime green couches partially shaded and a hammock strung under a tree. But, after taking turns lounging and then reading in the hammock, both children declared it “too hot” to stay outside, so we found space in the air conditioned interior.

I’m trying to write and resist the urge to browse the bookshelves. (But I can’t stop myself periodically glancing up to read the titles. I so love bookstores.) My 7-year-old minime has lost himself in book two of the Harry Potter series. On our way out of the house this afternoon, I told him to grab a couple books to read while we’re here (he has several from the library) as I did not intend to buy any, but they were forgotten on the table in the rush to get on shoes. While we walked through the bookshop to get a lay of the land, Teddy spied the paperback version of Chamber of Secrets and pleaded with me to buy it. (I got him the illustrated version of The Sorcerer’s Stone for Christmas and after I read it to him, he started reading it himself, so I’m confident this book, which has already been stained by hot cocoa, will be well loved.) He’s been engrossed for nearly two hours.

My daughter was initially too interested in the treats available to crack a book or do worksheets, although she did dutifully flip through a few early readers to earn a cup of cocoa. (What is up with my children’s obsession with hot cocoa even on 80-degree days?!) And then after giving herself a whipped cream mustache and downing the chocolate drink, she fell asleep on my lap.

Given that I’ve written this much, I guess I’d call this a productive outing as well =) I don’t have a plan for next week, yet, but I hope we can keep this up all summer. I suppose I can always return to one of these two places.

 

 

Three pantry staples worth making from scratch

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PASTA

When we renovated our house a couple years ago, we had to move out for a few months. We subletted the apartment of a renter who owned a kitchenaid stand mixer as well as the fettuccine and spaghetti pasta attachments. I’d always wanted to try making pasta from scratch, and here was my change to do it. The recipe book promised I’d have delicious egg noodles within an hour. So I put my 1 year old down for her afternoon nap and got to work. I didn’t know what my dough was supposed to look like so I had to watch a few youtube videos and keep adding water and flour until I had what seemed to be the right consistency. And in one video, the women demonstrating how to flatten the dough had a beautiful sheet of dough after only a few runs through the roller attachment. My dough needed significantly more taming. That first effort to turn flour, eggs, and water into spaghetti took considerably longer than 60 minutes. Fortunately, my daughter slept longer, too, so I was able to complete the project without interference. And dinner that night was magical. I could not believe the difference between scratch and boxed pasta.

During our summer in that apartment, I determined to improve my technique since a three-hour process was not going to be regular weekend one. And by the time we moved back into our house, I was ready to invest in my own attachments. (I already had the stand mixer.) I can now make spaghetti and fettuccine in the promised hour, and I rarely use boxed anymore for the carbonara we have twice a month. Homemade pasta makes an everyday meal feel so special and fancy. And it turns your standard spaghetti with Bolognese sauce into a meal worthy of company. It also enables you to have date-night in and still feel like you’re enjoying a restaurant quality meal. It is definitely an investment, but it’s a worthwhile one.

RECIPE

GRANOLA

I’ve always loved granola, but I didn’t buy it often because I considered it too expensive. Then I got Deb Perelman’s the smitten kitchen cookbook and saw her recipe for big cluster maple granola. It didn’t look too complicated, so I gave it a try. It was delicious. I’ve since modified it a bit to suit my tastes, and now I always have a batch in the cupboard. My kids have oatmeal topped with granola every school morning, and small containers of it make a great gift. It does take nearly an hour to make, but 90 percent of that is hands off time as it bakes, so you can do other things while your house steadily smells like cinnamon and sugar. Without fail, the days I make it, my eldest walks in the door after school and immediately says, “You made granola!”

RECIPE: The smitten kitchen recipe I started from isn’t available online, so below is the basic recipe I use now:

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup each sunflower seeds, chopped cashews, chopped pecans, sliced almonds
2 tbsp chia seeds
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup maple syrup or honey, or enough to coat
Mix dry ingredients together, then mix in oil, vanilla, and natural sugar. Spread out on baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 50 minutes, flipping halfway through. Let cool and then scoop into a air tight container. I have no idea how long it will last because we go through it so quickly.

CHOCOLATE PUDDING

Ok, I’m probably pushing it to call this one a staple. But who doesn’t like chocolate pudding? I actually had never particularly enjoyed chocolate pudding–until I made this. When I was a kid, my mom occasionally made tapioca pudding, which I loved. I remember waiting impatiently with my spoon, ready to dig in to the dessert, still warm from the stove. Between my brother and me, I don’t think it lasted the day. I haven’t made tapioca for my kids yet, but I came across Deb’s recipe for Best Chocolate Pudding. It has only six ingredients (JELLO pudding cups have 16) and involves only about 20 minutes of hands on time. (It does have to set for a few hours.) My daughter loves it and I frequently have to disappoint her eager request for some for the third day in a row because I finished it myself while she was at school. #sorrynotsorry It’s actually best eaten within two days because by the third day it gets a bit runny. It’s still delicious, but it loses that wonderful rich thickness and behaves closer to creamy chocolate milk.

RECIPE

I exercised for 100 consecutive days. Here’s what I learned.

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Monday marked my 100th day of exercising at least 10 minutes every day.

At the beginning of May, I decided I needed to start running regularly again. I’d fallen off the exercise wagon early in the new year, after spending a week in Cancun (I know, poor me), and was having trouble getting back on. One evening in late April, I climbed both flights of stairs in our home to share a story with Mike. But I couldn’t tell him right away because I was so out of breath.

This is always my personal measure of fitness: can I climb a couple flights of stairs without being winded. If not, time to do something about it. Twelve years ago, I took up running after I climbed a flight of escalator stairs and had to pause at the top for several seconds. And now, every time I find myself choosing the lounge pants over the running pants a few too many days (or months) in a row, my catalyst for action is difficulty breathing after climbing a flight of stairs. So while Mike waited patiently for me to be able to relate my tale, I decided it was time to don the running pants again.

But action is hard. I often find it challenging to get back into a routine because my regular 45-minute run or DVD workout doesn’t always work for a given day. Then I listened to a podcast by The Lazy Genius about establishing morning and evening routines, and regarding exercise, she advised her listeners to set a goal so small you couldn’t fail. Her example was doing just one position in Yoga every morning, and building from there. I decided, my “couldn’t fail” goal was 10 minutes of exercise every day. I figured I could always manage 10 minutes, even if it meant squeezing it in right before bed. And I’d recently purchased a DVD that was a collection of 10-minute workouts.

And so I began: every day, I would either go for a run or do one of the 10-minute workouts. Most days I managed at least 30 min. Some days–running days–it was more; other days, it really was just 10. But every day, I did something, and lo and behold, yesterday I hit 100 days in a row of exercise, and that seemed an achievement worth celebrating.

Over the last 100 days, I learned a few things:

I had to redefine progress. I had several goals in mind when I decided on 10 minutes a day, one of which was to lose a few pounds. Over the last 100 days, I GAINED a few pounds. This has been grit-my-teeth frustrating, to the extent that I’ve vowed every time I step on the scale to never weigh myself again because I know it’s not an accurate measure of my progress. I still weigh in every month (I can’t resist), but I try to focus on non-scale victories: I can climb the two flights of stairs in my home easily! Even while carrying my 3-year-old! I’ve gained flexibility by doing that 10 min stretching workout so many times. Once impossible exercises are now merely challenging. I have more energy in general. I’m motivated to make healthy choices every day since I’m working out every day.

The chain effect is a powerful motivator. Once I’ve done something a few days in a row, it’s much easier to get up and do it again the next day–even if it’s the last thing I want to do–because I don’t want to break the chain. I’m a morning person, so I prefer to exercise right when I wake up, but several times in the last few months, I did my 10 minutes late in the evening, around 9 pm, because I hadn’t had a chance earlier in the day and I didn’t want to have a missing link. One particular day, we left first thing in the morning and were out all day, so after dropping the zip car off that evening, I ran home and then around the block a few times.

Two weeks ago, we went to Las Vegas to visit my in-laws. Our plan: play in the pool. Going by my track record (ahem, Cancun), this should’ve been an exercise-free seven days. But I’d done the math by then and realized I had more than 70 days of daily exercise under my belt. I wasn’t going to let a week away break my chain that close to 100 days. So I brought workout clothes and my DVD and determined to keep up my regimen. And I did. And it was not that difficult. Jet lag helped. (I was up several hours before anything began, and even before my children woke up — might as well work out. This also helped me read three books, so overall I call this week a resounding success.)

It’s easier to continue something than start from nothing. I normally find it challenging to resume an exercise routine upon return from vacation (again, see also, Cancun). But this time, I had never stopped exercising. Every day away, I had made sure to do some intensive movement for at least 10 minutes. So possibly two of the hardest days for me to exercise — the day I travel and the day after — I got in my 10 minutes. I didn’t do any more than 10 minutes, but that’s ok.

I have to be willing to incorporate my kids. I’m a SAHM. As I mentioned, typically I work out right when I wake up. Sometimes my daughter wakes up the same time I do. So if I want to burn some calories first thing, she’s doing it with me. The easiest way to make this happen is to take her for a run in the jogging stroller, which she LOVES. But both kids also love doing my DVD workouts with me. Unfortunately, their participation equals a less intense workout for me because they’re a bit crazy and frequently get in my way. But no matter, I still get my time in, and I love that they love to exercise with me. In fact, they often practice the moves outside of our exercise time. At the pool the other day, Lydia kept exclaiming, “Mommy, look!” as she maneuvered her legs in the water in movements that resembled those we watched on screen.

Also, on my bucket list this summer was to do yoga with my kids. From a friend’s Insta story, I learned about cosmic kids yoga on you tube. The woman yogi choreographs moves to accompany her retelling of popular animated movies. The onscreen background reflects the movie’s environment, and she dresses as the heroine. We did the Trolls episode, which I found to be a good workout, and the kids loved it, having just watched Trolls several times.

I plan to continue doing 10 min a day because I know I’m in better shape even if my scale doesn’t reflect that. A friend on Instagram (@humansoutside) has been chronicling her year of spending at least 20 minutes outside every day, which has inspired me. But for now, I’m excited I made it 100 days.

File under “kairos moment”

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My 6-year-old can be quite challenging. In his best moments, we can butt heads. When he hasn’t had enough sleep/food/connection, we seem capable only of argument. This morning I was sure was going to feature the latter: he’d had a hard time falling asleep the night before (when I checked on him at 10:15, he stared at me, undoubtedly waiting for me to explode…which I did), he hadn’t had breakfast yet, and we needed to leave for camp. He’d already declared he didn’t want to go because he hadn’t enjoyed it the day before. After a nonsensical conversation about why he had to go today (“I think you have artistic talent and this will give you more ideas about what to create. And we’ve paid for the week, so you’re going.” “I want a different answer!” “I don’t have a different answer.” “Why not?!” Sigh…), I told him we were leaving in 20 minutes and left him in his room to get dressed. I fully expected he would not be ready in the allotted time, especially when we had another nonsensical conversation once he came downstairs: “Ok, buddy, you’ve got about nine minutes to eat before we need to go.” “Stop telling me the time!” “But you need to know how much time you have.” “But I don’t want to know the time!” Smh.

I was girding myself for a fight once he finished his breakfast, and then Lydia interrupted my mental prep: “You count, I hide,” and proceeded to fit herself under the folded over Bob stroller, pretty much disappearing. If I hadn’t seen her scrunch herself into the small space, I might have had a genuinely difficult time finding her–she hid herself really well. But I did, so I had to pretend. Dutifully, as she remained hidden, I counted to 10, and then proceeded to name all the places I was looking. “Is Lydia next to the couch? No… Is Lydia under the couch? No…” And then Teddy joined me. “Is Lydia in the closet? No… Is Lydia behind the chair? No…” And after a reasonable number of wrong guesses, we both turned toward the stroller, and Teddy feigned surprise as he looked at the floor, where his sister was gleefully covering her eyes. “There she is!” he exclaimed, and Lydia squealed and maneuvered back out of confinement. Teddy and I exchanged grins at the ridiculousness of preschool hide-n-seek, and he returned to eating his breakfast.

We enjoyed another couple rounds of play (with Lydia resuming her position under the stroller each time–if it worked the first time, why not try again…and again…and again?) while Teddy finished his oatmeal, and then we got our things together and left for camp.

So many mornings when my initial interaction with Teddy is less than agreeable, I have a hard time recovering. Today I didn’t let my frustration take the reigns. And today I got to enjoy watching him be a fun big brother.

And we even got to camp in time.

The therapeutic art of making pasta from scratch

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It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon over Memorial Day Weekend. Out on the back patio, Mike is putting together a shed, and the kids, for once, are playing well together. Since Mike needs my help only sporadically, I pull my turquoise KitchenAid closer to the edge of the counter where it’s stored and attach the hook. I heft my five-pound bag of flour from its perch on the pantry shelf, sending a slight smattering of the white stuff into the air to land, invariably, on my shirt. For the millionth time, I make a mental note to get canisters. This will never happen: I oscillate between getting cheap ones off Amazon or splurging on good quality ones from a socially conscious organization–and never land anywhere, so do neither. And therefore dust myself with flour every time I bake.

I measure three and a half cups of whole wheat flour into the mixing bowl, add half a teaspoon of salt, and let the hook do its thing. As it works, I crack in four eggs, one at a time, watching flour and egg incorporate. I help the process along by pouring in a cup of water, and the mixture turns craggy before coming together in a cohesive, slightly sticky, whole. I sprinkle a baking dish with more flour, tear the dough into two parts, place them in the dish and cover it.

“Alexa,” I command, “set a timer for 20 minutes.” Time to let the dough rest.

The first time I made pasta was in someone else’s house. We were subletting an apartment while our house was being renovated, and our “landlord” also had a KitchenAid stand mixer as well as the pasta attachments I’d long coveted but always dismissed as too expensive. One afternoon while my eldest was at summer camp and my youngest was napping, I hauled out the box with the dough flattener and spaghetti and fettuccine cutters and got to work. I Googled “how to make fresh pasta” and found Mario Batali’s recipe, which instructed the would-be pasta maker to mound the flour on the counter, make a hole in the mound, crack four eggs into the hole, and slowly work the flour into the eggs. In theory, one should find oneself with a cohesive whole of pasta dough. I dutifully added the recommended the three tablespoons of water, but I could not get the dough to come together. Hoping I hadn’t just wasted four free range eggs and almost four cups of flour, I reasoned that dry dough needed more water, so I kept adding a bit at a time until it seemed right. Eventually I would learn this part of the process is way easier in the stand mixer and that the best recipe is actually the one in the KitchenAid recipe booklet.

I should pause and point out here that KitchenAid claims you can make pasta with their implements in an hour. Let’s just say that first time took me a bit longer than the promised 60 minutes. Because once the dough was formed and had rested for the requisite 20 minutes, I still had to portion it, flatten each portion and actually cut the pasta. I had watched a YouTube video on how to push the dough through the roller, and my dough looked nothing like the dough in the video. The dough the woman in the video was pressing through the roller looked, well, like I imagine sheets of fresh pasta would look before being cut. Mine? Looked like burlap. The woman in the video passed her dough through the roller maybe four times. That first attempt, I think my poor dough balls were shoved through a couple dozen times.

Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that you can  ruin pasta dough. Despite the excessive “kneading” — which is part of what the rolling out does — my pasta turned out fine, although I hadn’t yet learned to add flour as I went, so I spent a lot of time separating individual strands of fettuccine that were too sticky going through the cutter. But no matter, fresh pasta turned out to be vastly superior to its boxed cousin. It was so delicious, I determined to give it another try, although I decided to wait until a Saturday afternoon when Mike would be around to keep the kids occupied. I wasn’t going to press my luck that Lydia would nap for three hours (!!) again.

By the end of the summer–and the renovation — while I hadn’t reduced the time to the sought-after hour, I was hooked to the process. There’s something undeniably satisfying about making a staple from scratch, about working with your hands. I could’ve used the time to listen to podcasts, which I do enjoy, but I preferred to forego the distraction and simply focus on the dough and the machine, letting the whirring of the roller and the cutter be the soundtrack to my art. And converting flour, eggs and water into pile after pile of fresh pasta felt like a huge accomplishment, something I’ve found elusive as a SAHM. Not to mention that I was making restaurant-worthy meals for a fraction of the price. Since we don’t eat out much in this season of our lives, serving pasta made from scratch allows me to have a meal that feels special without the nuisance of dining out with littles.

When we moved back into our house, complete with brand new kitchen, I decided to finally splurge and purchase my own pasta attachments. It was close enough to our anniversary that I could call it a present, although I only needed to justify it to myself. Mike had seen how I’d benefitted from the hours in the kitchen, and deemed the “gift” cheaper than therapy. Now, whenever it’s been a tough week, or if I just need to accomplish something, I pull out the box of attachments and mix together some flour and eggs.

So on that holiday Sunday, the fourth day of a DCPS five-day weekend, as the kids happily entertain themselves with the box the shed came in, I contentedly coax one piece of dough after another through the roller and then the fettuccine cutter, sprinkling flour liberally over each pasta sheet, and then over each waterfall of cut pasta that I drop into the waiting pan to go into the freezer to set.

And 40 minutes later–yes, I finally got the process down to an hour — I have a freezer bag full of noodles and a refreshed spirit ready to engage with my kids for for the rest of the evening and another full day.

 

 

 

Don’t break the chain!

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Over the last few months, I have been learning that I’m a chain person: when trying to establish a new habit, once I’ve done it a few days in a row, I want to keep the chain going. Every X, whether mental or physically marked on a calendar, gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. (It also releases a shot of dopamine in your brain, so there’s science to back up this chain method. There are even apps to help you keep a virtual chain, since a calendar you can mark with a red sharpie is so last century, not to mention you’d need multiple calendars if you have more than one habit you’re trying to establish.) Evidently, Jerry Seinfeld used this method. The story goes, another comic asked Seinfeld’s advice about coming up with new material. Seinfeld advised the new comic to write one joke every day. Seinfeld said he did use a paper calendar, a large year-at-a-glance one. And for every day he wrote a joke, he marked an X on the calendar.

Of course, for this method to work, the daily habit has to be reasonable. Seinfeld didn’t advise the amateur to come up with a new set every day. And even if I successfully make pasta from scratch three days running, I’m unlikely to continue that chain, no matter the rush of feel-good hormones; that activity just takes too much time. And my 3-year-old likes to help, and I only have so much patience for that. Not to mention, I don’t have the space in my freezer for that much fettuccine.

In one episode of her podcast The Lazy Genius (highly recommend this podcast–especially the two episodes about creating routines), host Kendra talks about forming habits and recommends choosing something so small, you can’t possibly fail. Like writing one joke, if you want to do stand-up. Want to start doing yoga every morning? Pledge to do one down-dog. That’s it. Want to start meditating? Commit to one minute. Or if that even proves too long (because meditation is really hard and my mind wanders 400 times in one minute), maybe try 10 seconds. Anyone can focus on their breathing for 10 seconds. Take two deep intentional breaths. There. Done. And when you’ve got a chain going for that, after a few days, or even a few weeks, add to it. One down-dog and one butterfly stretch. Double the meditation to 20 seconds.

In my case, I realized I needed to get back into a regular exercise routine. Winter was…cold. So I didn’t run…at all…for several months. I just can’t run in single digits. Nor did I even do my beloved DVD workout. I just couldn’t be bothered. But at the end of April, I had just climbed our two flights of stairs and had to pause telling Mike a story because I was so out of breath. (This is always the key indicator for me that I’m out of shape. I should be able to get from ground floor to third floor without breathing hard. And I’m really in a good place if I can do that while carrying my daughter.) And my in-laws had just visited and we’d talked about our visit this summer. I want to not feel too self-conscious wearing a swimsuit (I don’t think it’s possible to avoid all self-consciousness).

So the first of May I determined to exercise for 10 minutes every day. Exercising just a couple days a week doesn’t work for me. I really need that chain effect. And as I’ve written about before, I can do anything for 10 minutes. (Except meditate, evidently. Gotta start with ten seconds, there.) Conveniently, the DVD has six 10-min workouts. I can do just one or I can do a couple. Often, I’ll get myself going by promising myself I only have to do one of those workouts but then I’ll tack on another one, because it’s only ten more minutes. But sometimes I really do quit after the first one. And that’s ok. If I’m exercising every day for ten minutes, that’s a great start.

I usually plan to exercise in the morning, since I find that’s a good way to start my day and then I’m done with my 10 (and often more) minutes and don’t have to think about how I’m going to work it in at some other point during the day. But some days, it’s just not possible, and if I didn’t have a chain going, I’d probably not bother. But I currently do have a chain going — a 19-day chain as I write this. So on Mother’s Day, when I read for an hour before church instead of getting in my workout (despite knowing we’d be out of the house all day hitting up my favorite crab shack, in Pope’s Creek, Maryland), I went for a 10 minute run that night after the kids were in bed, because I didn’t want to break my chain.

Hopefully this bodes well for achieving my summer goal of being able to fetch something quickly from our top-floor bedroom just as we’re leaving the house. And lounging happily by the pool at our Las Vegas resort.

My son competed in his first spelling bee

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When we first learned about the spelling bee, I was excited. Teddy is a great speller, and my parents were going to be in town, so they could come with Lydia and me to cheer him on. Teddy was decidedly less enthused. My mini me was wary of standing on stage and speaking into a microphone. I get it. In fact, in the face of just such a scenario when I was in sixth grade, I preferred to intentionally misspell a word (village — I dropped an ‘l’) during the class spelling bee to avoid the school wide affair, a story I actually shared with Teddy much to my husband’s chagrin. I wanted my kid to compete, but I totally understood if he wanted to opt out.

A list of 60 words came home, and we immediately ran through them. He spelled 57 of them correctly the first time. I put the words away, planning to quiz him periodically during the next couple weeks. Then, the day before the spelling bee, snow was forecast…and school was cancelled in advance. The bee was rescheduled for the following week. Another list of words came home (the same? not sure, actually; I didn’t compare them) and again we went through a few, although we didn’t get through all of them this time; Teddy got restless–and possibly bored. But…it turned out that the week of the rescheduled bee was also the week of testing for the upper grades, and those teachers resented giving up precious prep time to the bee. So the bee was rescheduled…indefinitely.

We forgot about it. I figured it wasn’t going to happen, and I didn’t think Teddy would mind.

Then, the second week of May, I got a text from Teddy’s teacher saying the bee was back on — that Friday. The afternoon of the spelling contest, Lydia and I and a handful of other parental cheerleaders sat in the cafeteria and watched each class’s star spellers file onto the stage. Teddy looked…enthusiastic? I was shocked. He sat quietly onstage with a dozen other kindergarten, first and second graders while the pronouncers settled in with their lists and microphones. He was speller number four in the first round. And his first word was “ship”. I smiled to myself, knowing he could spell that one in his sleep.

He strode to the microphone with a smile. (My kid? Comfortable on stage?) “Ship,” he said clearly in a strong voice: “S-h-i-p, ship”. Then he returned to his seat, his face neary split with his grin. I was baffled. Who was this kid who just stood onstage and spoke with such confidence to an audience? The same kid whose kindergarten teacher intentionally moved him to the back of the class to force him to speak up — to no avail? How could I replicate this at home?

The first round continued, eliminating a few kindergarten spellers. Round two brought “parents” — another easy word for my confident?? kid. Round three: “Awake.” No hesitation. Round four: “vacation.” Just before Teddy, another kindergartner had spelled “lotion” l-o-s-h-i-n, but my word nerd got the “tion” just fine.

It was about round five, when the first second grader misspelled a word, that it occurred to me that Teddy could actually win this thing. He hadn’t seemed baffled about any of his words, yet. And then in round 7, he got “bakery”. “b-a-k” he spelled, and then paused. And I held my breath. “e” he continued, and stopped again. I couldn’t decide whether it was better to stare at him for support or look away. But I couldn’t look away anyway. I was so tense! “r”. I was sending positive spelling vibes as hard as I knew how and doing my best to keep Lydia quiet, who, a half hour into the spelling, was hitting her wall. Finally, he finished the word: “y”, and I could let out my breath in a whoosh. And relax. And focus more on setting Lydia up with something entertaining.

And then the round was finished, and Teddy was one of two spellers (both boys) left on stage. And I just stared at him, thinking how proud I was that he got this far.

Teddy’s kindergarten teacher, who was MC’ing the whole thing, took a moment to explain the final round: if the first speller missed his word, the second speller would have a chance to correctly spell that same word. If he also missed it, both would remain in the competition and the first speller would get another word. Teddy was speller number two. The other contestant walked to the microphone. His word was “dishes.” He said, “d-i-s-h-s.” And my mouth dropped open. I couldn’t help it. Teddy was going to win. I knew he could spell dishes. And by the smile on his face, I could tell he knew it, too. Indeed, he practically skipped to the microphone. “Dishes. d-i-s-h-e-s. dishes.”

And that was it. He won the spelling bee for the lower grades. My child who loves language as much as I do, whose idea of fun is making up words that rhyme, who’s been asking me to read him road signs from the time he could talk, won his first spelling competition. I could not stop smiling. And neither could he. And his trophy. Oh my word, the thing was huge! He thought that was awesome. (He took great delight in attempting to hide it behind his back when Mike came home that evening.) And as if that wasn’t enough: the prize for first place? Nats tickets. Because obviously. How fitting is that. The only real question that remains: who gets to go with him? 😉