Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Own Worst Enemy

I have a tendency to make life more difficult for myself.  This is ironic on all sorts of levels; it's not as if I don't face enough challenges in a regular week.  Case in point: two weeks ago, on a Tuesday afternoon when JT had a good hour of homework ahead of him, I decided this was the day when I could no longer deal with the loose leg on my table.  That day, I'd had enough of the creaking.

So, I upended the table in an effort to make the repairs.  And one tightened leg led to another.  And another. And another.  Pretty soon, what I had hoped would be a 10 minute chore was now an hour long event.  At one point, sitting on the floor in my work clothes, I announced that I was uncomfortable.  JT looked at me, and calmly suggested that I go upstairs and change clothes.
From the moths of babes and all that......

Before the repairs were completed, I succeeded in damaging one of the corners of the table; for a bit I feared that I had completely broken the piece where the leg attaches.  I called my father for help.....he lives 2000 miles away, of course, and could only offer long-distance phone advice.  It says a great deal about how well he knows me that rather than suggest that I was incredibly stupid to have undertaken this project in the first place, he instead suggested solutions.

One of those solutions worked and the table was ready to be righted.  For this task, I had the good sense to realize that I needed another adult, so I recruited my handy next door neighbor.  And a few hours after I started the chaos, we were back in business.

I've thought about this afternoon a great deal since it happened.  I've thought about the ways that I make my life harder than it needs to be.  I wouldn't say that I've learned my lesson.  But after 42 years of living this way, at least I'm thinking about things.  I'm going to call that progress.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Endless Snow

The shortest month of the year has really delivered when it comes to snow days.  This morning we awakened to the fourth snow day of the month.  And nearly a foot of very wet snow piled all around the house, including a very snowy front porch.
There is only one remedy for such a mess: my snow removal double-punch.  Punch 1: JT.  The kid can shovel like no one's business. 
Punch 2: The snow blower which clears out the mess and admits me to the neighborhood snow removal team.  This time around, I even showed JT how to use the snow blower (don't worry, Dad, I was right at hand). 
 We blew out the driveway and the sidewalks and then made another snowman. 
Clearly, our snow sculpture artistry is lacking.  But there's only so much to be done about that when your Mama is from California.  And what we lack in skill, we make up in style. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Real Life Conversations with JT: Jailbird Edition

The backstory:  JT and I each own striped black and grey shirts and he's taken to calling them our jailbird shirts.  This morning, I set off for jury duty wearing my striped shirt.  JT was concerned.

JT:  Mama, that's your jailbird shirt.

Mama:  Yes, it is.

JT:  Do you think it's a good idea to wear that shirt today?  If you're not careful, the judge will make a mistake and off to jail you'll go.  But don't worry, I'll come bail you out.  Tomorrow.

Mama:  Thanks for your support, son.

I reap what I sow, people.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Party On

A few years ago, when JT turned 8, I organized a sleep over party for 8 boys.  The theme: 8 for 8.  It was very loud in my house.  Clearly, I am a woman who learns her lessons.....this year, for his 10th birthday, we had just 7 boys to spend the night.  That's still a lot of boys.
My friend Miss A joined us for the fun.  She provided necessary humor and good sense, as well as quick service for hungry beasts.   She also made an emergency sugar run on Sunday morning when I realized I didn't have enough sugar on hand to make the breakfast muffins....disaster averted, thanks to the amazing Miss A.
Once the party got under way, the cats were having none of it.  For the majority of the night, they staged a silent protest.  After I managed to get the boys in the sleeping bags in the playroom, the cats briefly emerged to stalk about the living room, looking like they had developed PTSD. 

Some of the boys fell asleep by 11 and so I hit the sheets and promptly fell dead asleep.  At 1 am, I awakened to a whispered uprising in the rafters.  I headed upstairs to lay down the law, using my best teacher voice.  Quiet (briefly) ensued.  The boys came awake by 6:30 the next morning, a little early for my weekend tastes.  By 10, the beasts had been returned to their parents and my home returned to its peaceable kingdom status.
But JT has some very happy memories and my sanity is making a slow return.  So I think we can call the weekend a success.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Sign of My Advancing Age

What is the damned deal with snow boarders and the ridiculous outfits they wear?

For one thing, it's impossible for me to take you seriously as an Olympic-level quality athlete if you are wearing blue jeans while you snowboard.  At that point, you transition from high caliber competitive athlete to some dude on a snowboard who is inexplicably on my telly.  Also: why won't you wash and comb your hair?  I am assured by those in the know (e.g. teenagers of my acquaintance) that 1) the blue jeans are actually snowpants which merely look like blue jeans and 2) hair combing is over-rated.  But still.

And while I'm on this rant, I also worry about the giant pants those snowboarders wear.  They are skiing fast and flipping upside down and jumping all around.  I for one am deeply concerned those pants will fall down and they will suffer epic shame when we all see their underwear.

Then I remind myself that 1) they don't care if we see their skivvies and perhaps even hope that we do and 2) they are professionals and probably have pants-fall-down contingency plans (the teenagers experts report that suspenders are at work).

But still, for the sake of my sanity would it kill you kids to pull up your pants and comb your damned hair?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

This Week in Study Hall: Get Out

This week's study hall book is entitled: Get Out of My Life.
Great title.  Sadly, it is actually a parent's guide to dealing with teenagers....and I think the suggestion is that teenagers tell their parents Leave Me Alone but secretly they want their parents to remain involved.  Its presence in a school library devoted to the needs of students begs the obvious question: are we expecting teenagers to read the parent's guide to teenagers?  Are they supposed to check it out and bring it home for the folks to read?  As in, "Mama, here's some advice for dealing with me.  Read it and report back next week."

I'm understandably confused.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Big 1-0

Today, my little boy turns 10.  To be strictly accurate, for some time he hasn't been my little boy.  He is a boy and he is mine.  But at nearly 5 feet tall he's no longer little.  His feet are bigger than mine and when he stands in front of me, I'm looking directly at the top of his head. 

While JT is excited about double digits, I am a little anxious about this milestone.   I'm not quite ready to leave behind his little boy years.  This spring, he will finish the 4th grade, and with it his time at the lower school.  Next fall will land him in middle school and four years from that, the 9th grade will beckon.  I feel the passage of all this time; I'm just not ready for these years to fly by.

It seems extraordinary that I am the mother of a ten year old boy.  And yet, that's clearly the case.  This past year has found him at the intersection of life that is tweendom.  He is still a child in so many ways: his ability to suspend reality and still believe in the man in red; his amazing imagination; and his capacity to have fun for hours with just a few playmobil toys.  But in other ways, he's growing up and becoming a citizen of the world; one with a quick mind and a compassionate heart.  He's reading a book about Abraham Lincoln and the other day he asked me to explain slavery to him.  I started at the beginning and he followed along, asking questions and expressing a very adult outrage at the hypocrisy of humanity.  Days later, he keeps coming back to the conversation with more questions.  He's equipped with an terrific curiosity I am so proud of his incredible interest in the world around him.

The boy who was once my baby has got a lot of independence.  Shoes are tied and jackets are zipped before I ask.  Gloves and hats are located and crammed into pockets. He keeps tracks of dates and deadlines for his schoolwork.  And it's not just that.  He helps around the house and he's suddenly aware of me not just as his mama, but as a person.

A few weeks back, I had a leg cramp in my calf that seized up all afternoon.  At one point, JT found me on the stairs as I was yet again trying to rub out the cramp.  He dropped his pirate ship, helped me upstairs, and then patiently rubbed my cramped calf muscle.  His massage got the cramp to finally release but the most surprising element to me was his attitude that of course he could help me out of jam.

In the time since I have been a single parent, at the moments when things are at the most challenging;  when I have felt that I'm not really strong enough for the struggle, it's the thought that my boy needs me that has propelled me forward for one more day.   And so I pack one more lunch and wash one more load of clothes.  I just do what it takes to keep going.  But we've crossed into new territory in the last year.  A territory of mutual need.  I care for him and he does his ten year-old-best to look after me in return.  He's good at it.  In this boy of mine, I can see glimpses of the man he will become.  He's thoughtful, kind-hearted, compassionate, and helpful.  He does his mama proud. 

Happy Birthday, sweet boy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Snow Circles

Farmers have their crop circles but here in the land of the daily snow, we have sprouted snow circles.  These were on the hood of my car this morning and JT and I aren't exactly certain what caused them.  JT feels that they are a sign from the Universe that we should stay home from school.
 Of course, JT often feels that the Universe is signaling a school holiday, so his word on such matters is not to be trusted.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


This past weekend, JT and I went to an art community in northern NJ.  We were there with my school's very patient ceramics teacher and some of his students.  The students are there to learn how some different kilns work.  The biggest event of the weekend is the building of a wood fired kiln; getting this project to succeed requires 24 hours of supervision.  I am not the person to supervise a zillion degree kiln, though JT did have a turn or two.
I spent my time reading, playing cards with JT, watching the students at work and I helping to cook food for the work crew.  JT and I also took some very nice walks in the snowy woods. 
But the most amusing part of the weekend is the giant van I drove to help bring the students and their supplies up north.  On Friday, as the students got to work, JT and I set off in search of a sled (we'd forgotten his and all that snow on the hills around us was just calling his name).  In the empty giant van, with enough room to seat 12 people, JT climbed all the way to the back of the van announcing, "I need a break from all the chattering on NPR."
Roger that.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Icy Hot

No snowstorm would be complete without a little snowball fight.  On Wednesday, as the snow was still falling, JT and I had a nice snowball fight with lightly-packed snowballs. 

Thursday afternoon, JT went to work on ammo for round II. 
He filled the weapons depot and we started to throw.
 These snowballs were icy hard numbers and while I'd like to think I could out-gun the kid, he has a lightening fast arm .... not to mention a disarming smile.
 Next snowstorm, I'll know better than to engage in a day two battle with the kid.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snowy Back Deck

We took a lot of photos of the snow, but none seems to illustrate the volume of snow that fell as well as this set of pictures of some of my favorite things on the back deck.
 I made these two pictures around 3 pm on Wednesday, just as round II of the storm was winding up.
 Two hours later, the pot was more snowbound.
 I snapped this final photo around 8 pm.  The snow fell for a few more inches after that.  The back deck was simply over-flowing with snow.
At some point this summer, when I'm sitting in these Adirondack chairs wearing flip flops and a t-shirt, I plan to pull out this collection of photos and raise a cold beer to the power and beauty of Mother Nature.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day, Round I

 We're having our share of the East Coast blizzard today.  The snow day was called early and so JT and I stayed up late last night playing cards and generally having a big time.  When we crawled into bed, a few flakes had started to fall.  This morning, we woke up to a thick heavy coating of snow.
JT and I headed outside for a preliminary round of shoveling to clear a path to the front steps and sidewalk.  Another round of snow is expected this afternoon and this half of the storm is expected to bring more snow....perhaps as much as a foot of the white stuff.

But that's no reason not to have some fun now.  We made a snow person (of admittedly little styling) and then JT loaded up a sled with snowballs for a snow ball fight in the backyard. 

As I write, big heavy flakes are falling and the wind has started to blow.  The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning and that sounds quite menacing.  Fortifications in the form of homemade bread, mushroom soup, and a lovely view from the back window are in our immediate future. 


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Project Valentine

As soon as I saw these over at Mighty Girl, I knew that I would be making dozens and dozens of matchbox valentines.  JT helped and today he'll be distributing tiny valentines to all of his classmates.  I plan to tuck a few into mailboxes of some folks at work.

To quote Willa, from one of my favorite children's books: That's happy.  What else?

Sunday, February 07, 2010


I always have a book by my side but lately my reading has increased in volume.  Yesterday, when I took a minute to organize my pile of books-in-progress I noted that the combination is a bit.......well, odd.  Charitably, I could call it diverse.
I'm reading some books for a class I'm taking (topic: democracy....which I'm gathering is an important idea).  At the school library, I grabbed up a book about the plague in Byzantium (wow, those folks could have really benefitted from some hand sanitizer).  The fiction will last all of a week, maybe less if I can score a snow day this week.

No doubt the Amazon computer could work its magic and find out even more books for people with tastes like mine.  But, honestly, that idea scares me. 

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Road Ahead: Food Security

Last month, I posted some of my thoughts about political challenges for the next decade.  I wrote about cynicism.  I'm continuing that line of thought today with some thoughts on food security.

When I was a high school debater (I can hear your scornful laughter; mock me if you must but debate made me smart), we all had a "food security" diasdvantage in our files.  Back then, the food security argument was pretty simple:  any political change (disarmament, revisions of the justice system, changes in US education policy....debate was sometimes an exercise in logic over common sense) would ultimately result in a break in a food chain, leading to massive hunger (or fear of hunger) and then political instability and then bad, bad, bad.

But the base argument was usually a simple claim: we don't have enough food.   Given the multiple African famines of the 1980s, this was a pretty easy claim to believe.  These days, food security discussions typically aren't about a lack of food.  The world largely has enough food.  But we frequently suffer from the inability to distrubute that food wisely.  The result is shortages and hunger.  That is a problem, and a significant one.  But I want to think about food security not in terms of the world's food supply line, but in terms of the long-term safety and sustainability of that supply. 

The industrial food system in the United States, one that developed in the latter half of the 20th century, does have the virtue of inexpensive abundance.  In the U.S., since the 1970s, our food costs have not kept pace with inflation and we spend less of our income on food than the rest of the developed world.  Costs are lower because of government subsidies to the food production industry, in the form of crop price supports.  So large food producers make most of their money from government subsidies, not profits from food consumers like you and me.  It's an inelegant and costly form of corporate welfare, keeping corporate profits stable and consumer prices relatively low.  And American consumers have grown used to that $1.99/pound chicken in every pot.  But at what cost?

The cost is substantial.  As seen in the  abundance of e-coli scares of the past 10 years, the industrial food supply has become less and less safe.  And it's not just a question of safety; there are also the problems of a production system that utilizes gallons and gallons of petroleum, pesticides, and antibiotics in order to secure cheap abundance.  A lot of the corn and soy grown in our nation goes straight into the food we eat.  Naturally ruminant cows are fed with corn that they can't easily digest and then require antibiotics to survive the effects.   Though high quality, safe, alternatives, in the form of home-grown or locally produced food are available, they are often more pricey than what we can toss in the cart at the local grocery store.  Because much of that food is grown without pesticides or from animals raised responsibly, there is more labor involved and that labor is costly.  Though many families would prefer food produced in a responsible fashion, they can't afford it, especially in a nation where mid-level family incomes  have not kept pace with inflation in the last ten years.

Thus the problems pile up.

This is a problem that didn't develop overnight and it won't go away without a plan.  In this case, I mean a plan that first informs us of the real cost of cheap food in the United States and then enables us to purchase and consume good food.

We must:

1.  Use government food subsidies at the consumer-level, to subsidize the food purchases of low and moderate income Americans instead of the profits of ADM, Tyson Foods, and Con-Agra. 

2.  Teach folks how to use good food.  Processed food is cheap and convenient.  Cooking good food can be convenient, but families need to know how to prepare it.   The rewards in terms of taste, quality, and health are self-evident.  But it will take time to change our mindset.

3.  At all levels, food producers need to be held accountable for their activities.  At the same time, we need to substantially increase our commitment to small-scale, sustainable agriculture.  How about subsidies for small-scale farmers who want to farm 40 acres without hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides?  As small-scale producer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has noted, we'll also need safety standards appropriate to this model.  At minimum, we need to significantly increase the presence of federal inspectors in industrial food production facilities.

These changes would represent a significant start in changing our behavior and our mindset.  We would reap the rewards in terms of food quality and health.  The real question is whether or not we have the national will to make it happen.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

This Week in Study Hall: Sad & Luminous

This year, I have a study hall in the library.  It's an arrangement I enjoy, because no matter what time of day I am here, the light in the library is amazing.  Plus: books.  Lots and lots of books.  In addition to all the books I might read, there are also books whose titles amuse me.  This week's fascinating title:  Sad & Luminous Days. 

Great title for a book.....though the book subject itself disappoints.  It's about Cuba after the Missile Crisis.  The title is a reference to a speech Castro made after that crisis, as Cubans were coming to terms with their new life as a superpower chess piece and.....blah, blah, blah.  Sad & Luminous Days sounds like a poem about heartbreak and loss.  Maybe some dark work of British Victorian fiction.  Maybe the alternate title for Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.  I'm just not sold on this title for a book about such an oft-analyzed (dare I say overdone?) subject.  In fact, I'm a little sad about it.  I am not luminous, however, and rather doubt that I ever have been.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ganache Superpower

When I was making ganache for my cupcakes on Saturday, I tweeted that I planned to rule the world of 9 year old boys with my new ganache-making skills.  My friend Sharkbutt responded to my tweet that I had already conquered the world with my hot fudge cake recipe.  Ganache, she asserted, was superpower status.

That made me smile.
And, if so, I have achieved it.  The recipe comes from Pioneer Woman and you should make it straight away.  Since my success, I have spent my free time daydreaming of all the ways in which I can use ganache.  Mostly, I just want to eat the leftovers with my fingers.  For obvious reasons, this will have to take place while I am running on my elliptical trainer.  Let's hope I have the balancing skills to make that work. 

Monday, February 01, 2010

Apple Dreams

We had a particularly cold January and the only warmth to be found is from cuddling up with garden catalogs in my flannel nest at night.  Despite the cold, I'm out in garden every few days to empty my kitchen composter.  When I'm there,  I stand by my stark and slender-limbed fruit trees and think about all the things I'll plant this spring and pick later this summer.  The warm days that the seeds will require seems like a fantasy here in the midst of the silently cold winter. 
Things don't look promising at the moment.  But my seed order will be placed later this week.  The sunlight lasts just a bit longer every day.  And I remind myself that the cold can't last forever.