Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Real Life Conversations with JT: Prep School Math Homework edition

The backstory: On Monday afternoon, JT and I were hard at work on his math homework, a few pages which asked him to compare fractions.  So there we were, working on fraction math (is 4/5 larger than 2/10? how do you know?) when JT read  aloud the next question on the page.

JT:  It says "Without multiplying, Emily knew that 4/9 was greater than 4/10.  Explain how she knew."

Mama:  Well, how did Emily know?

JT:  Emily knows because she takes Kumon.

Kumon is a math enrichment program very popular in my corner of New Jersey.  A lot of JT's classmates take it.  This response...a no-doubt accurate reflection of everyday events in his classroom, made me laugh out loud.

Also, we think it might be true.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tulip Tuesday

It's Tuesday and that means tulips.  March is shaping up to be the wettest March on record in my neck of the woods, with nearly 10 inches of rain having fallen in my backyard in the last 30 days.  It's pouring again today.  Between the water in my basement and the (hopefully repaired) leak in the dining room, I could use some of the more happy signs of Spring.  Enter the tulips, a very welcome distraction from my rain-induced anxieties.  
More, please.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What He Said......

I had intended to write a post about the ridiculous Republican rhetoric that accompanied the passage of healthcare reform earlier last week.  But Paul Krugman's March 25 editorial in the New York Times really says it all.  So go read it and picture me nodding my head vigorously.

True that, Mr. Krugman.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reality Bites

As a result of the legal agreement I came to with my ex, she has JT for two weekends a month and for two additional weeks over the course of the calendar year.  In the grand scheme of things, it's not really much.  On a daily basis, my house is his home; I am the parent most often in his life.  Sometimes, when her time comes around I'm even a little grateful for a few hours to myself.

But once those hours have passed, reality sets in.  Reality is that time off isn't really what I want, even if I need it.  Reality is that  her weekends with JT leave me at cross-purposes.  For most of my days and nights I am the mama, party of one.  There are plenty of chores and responsibilities to fill my time.  The time is always carefully marked with the reality of raising my son and keeping our household humming.  And then, just when I've got my pace, along comes a weekend in which I have no parental responsibilities, at least in the form of a ever-present child with immediate needs and requests.  I plan things to do, of course.  And often it's things that I enjoy.  But it's not the same. 

If I mention this to other parents, parents who still have partners, they invariably sigh and tell me how much they'd love some time to themselves.  As if this is a luxury I should enjoy, one they can't take for granted.  I've given up trying to explain that this is no luxury; that there is nothing about my life that should strike longing in their hearts.  In fact, I try not to bring up at all ----- it's not worth being misunderstood or, more often, dismissed.  What I really want to say is that nearly four years into the destruction of my family, those weekends still feel like  interruptions  into my regular routine; a regularly unpleasant reminder of a life I didn't choose.

I feel ungrateful when I express it this way.  I'm frustrated with myself for feeling dissatisfied; I know I should be grateful for everything that I do have in this world.  I am grateful.  But I miss having a family to care for on a Saturday night and I'm tired of pretending otherwise.  So I'm just going to say it:  I really miss loving my life.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sartorial Issues

I am a girl who demands exacting rigor in her reading of the calendar,  Come November, I expect the weather to turn appropriately cold, so that I can wear sweaters and tights with no fear of being overly warm.  I feel the same way come March, but in the reverse: I'd like to wear warm-weather, spring clothing.  And because that's what I want, that's what I expect ---- so I banish the dark wool and corduroy skirts and tights in favor of lighter weight skirts and sweaters.  While the tights are washed and put away; sandals and flip flops are located.  I am ready for Spring.

This tidy, ordered system would work quite well but for Mother Nature, who is unwilling to just flip a switch and declare the arrival of spring.  So there will be a day or two of warmth followed by the return of cold.  Things will go back and forth and I will be hopelessly unprepared.  And cranky about it.

I refuse to wear tights past the second week of March.  Right up until then, I will tolerate cold weather, taking the attitude that Mother Nature just doesn't get it.  But once past the 15th,  I grow sternly impatient with Mother Nature and her fickle behavior.

Not surprisingly, Mother N doesn't give a damn.  She treats me like the child I am.  I could hear her speaking to me this morning, as temps stopped rising at 45 degrees and I still went to work sans stockings.   I could just hear Mother Nature speaking to me: "Fine, missy.  Dress that way if you like, but you'll be cold."  And, damn it if she isn't right, I am cold........but I blame Mother Nature, not my own poor judgment.

I suppose I should dredge up some tights and wool to deal with the cold.  But the biennial  closet change-out has already been made.  And I am a girl who takes comfort in her strict routines.  And so I am left to hope that my pride will keep me warm.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Life List #23 : Basement Clean Up

Last summer, I put some basement work on my life list.  My basement is large ---- two rooms with nearly 700 square feet of space.  And it was a mess; the depository of all sorts of junk, much of it unneeded and most of it in cardboard boxes.

The fact that my basement takes on water when there is a heavy rain meant that on occasion those boxes would become my private disaster zone.  In the aftermath of the first flood in 2007, some things got tossed out.  The rest got stacked up to await an eventual clean-up.

Clean-up arrived in the form of basement flood number two earlier this month. As the stink of wet cardboard filled my home, I was inspired for a massive clean-out.  And that's exactly what happened last weekend.  JT was a tremendous help, helping to haul things out for the garbage men to come and carry it all away.  When the final mountain of trash was collected in the driveway he took a critical look at it and announced. "that's just shameful."
I must agree.  But in the aftermath I have an organized basement. The remaining boxes, filled with things I want, are placed on shelves, carefully ordered so that I can find the things I'll use ---- Christmas decorations, winter scarves and mittens, and some of JT's childhood treasures ----- while the junk has been excised from our lives.

Every once in a while, I just walk downstairs to admire the glorious order of it all.   And, of course, I checked number 23 off the list!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 24: Tulip Tuesday

Rain fell as I headed upstairs to sleep last night ---- the forecast called for 2 inches of rain ---- and though my basement is now ready to absorb the onslaught (e.g., the cardboard boxes are all gone), I still went to bed with a sidekick of anxiety, worried I'd wake up to flood waters.

Instead I awakened to the sound of birds chirping, always a good sign.  Though the basement has a bit of dampness, it is by no means a crisis situation.  And when I walked outside I could see that my tulips are hard at work in the garden, getting ready to greet the spring.
It's all good.

Monday, March 22, 2010


 The final weekend of spring break found me once again pumping excess water out of my basement.  Under the best of circumstances, this is not a fun job.  Between the constantly wet, cold feet; anxiety over the state of the appliances in the basement; and the smell of wet cardboard (best described as the smell of ass), it's just not fun.

I was on my own for much of the work; JT was away for the weekend.  By Sunday afternoon, the pace of the water flow had slowed, the appliances were safe and I had decided that JT"s 7 pm return would be a fine time to break camp from my basement hell.    He had been away for 5 days and I had spent much of Saturday and all of Sunday in a dank, wet basement.  His return was my excuse for a hot shower, a warm supper and some time spent doing something else.  Plus, we had some NCAA tournament brackets to watch together.  When he came home Sunday evening, his first question for me was, "how is the basement?"  I gave him a tour of the mess and he was immediately concerned; especially about me.  "Are you tired, Mama?" he kept asking me. 

I took my scheduled break and JT and I caught up.  As 9 pm approached, I couldn't resist one last look at the basement.  JT came downstairs with me and as I set up to pump out the water, he volunteered to help.  It may have been a weak moment, but I was exhausted and help seemed like a good deal.  I took him up on the offer, though with some trepidation.  There is nothing fun about a wet-dry vac and gallons of water and I figured he'd soon tire of this adventure. 

But I was wrong.  The next afternoon, after we got home from school, JT accompanied me downstairs and set to work again.  This water removal project was the result of a day's over-fill; requiring both the 800 gallon an hour pump and the wet/dry vac to bat clean-up.  It took nearly an hour and JT helped for the duration.   And the next morning, when he heard me arise at 5:30 am, he came downstairs to help again.

It's no secret that this boy of mine is my pride and joy.  I love him with every fiber of my being.  I am regularly proud of his sense of humor, his imagination, and kind heart.  But his good-natured help with the basement simply blew me away.  He was matter-of-fact in his assistance; hard-working and strong and with the ability to laugh thrown in the mix.  As he stood in the basement, wielding the wet/dry vac and laughing all the while, I was as proud of him as I've ever been.

He's a keeper.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Road Ahead: Healthcare Cost Containment

At the start of the year, I came as close to a New Year's Resolution as I am willing to get by planning some posts on political issues for the next decade.  I've written about cynicism and food security.  This month, I'm thinking about healthcare cost containment.

In the interests of complete transparency, my preference is for universal healthcare using a single-payer system.  If I were in charge, I'd shut down the current private insurance system, organize government ownership of American hospitals, and open government-financed clinics staffed by well-paid physicians and medical specialists for the provision of healthcare.  I am convinced that this would lower costs and improve care.  But I'm not in charge and I've given up hope that the majority of my nation actually considers healthcare a right and a common good that we must provide for one another.


Short of the Sassafras Takeover, we must engage in some cost control of the current multi-heahed hydra that is the American healthcare system.  I have some thoughts.

1.  Wellness Programs
Let's set aside the tyranny of nutrition and instead concentrate on teaching folks how to enjoy food made from things grown in the ground.  Let's make life-long fitness something we pass on to our children.  Let's concentrate on that old-adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  And for the love of God, let's teach ourselves that just because big Pharma says our lives would be better if we take Drug X, doesn't mean we should immediately demand a prescription from our doctor.

2.  Evidence-Based Medicine
There is a lot of research that suggests treatment protocols for various diseases and disorders range so significantly in the United States that we are often providing care that is neither necessary nor recommended.  It may even be dangerous.  In short, because of the balkanization of the practice of medicine and our focus on physician-autonomy, we over-treat in so many regions of the country that we are spending billions treating nothing.  A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine spells it out.  We could cut our healthcare costs by one-third if we would just stop over-treating people.

3.  Tort Reform
I am not convinced that tort reform will actually lower costs much.  I am convinced that physicians believe tort reform is necessary.  And we need physicians on our side.  So let's engage in setting some reasonable limits on the damages people can collect from suing their doctor.  At its best, this will help to reduce some of the backside-covering over-treating that doctors who fear lawsuits engage in.  And at it's worst, well, it won't make things any worse.

4.  Consumer Cost Control
People who do not pay for their health insurance benefits treat it as some sort of free service whose costs do not exist.  This is just ridiculous.  The frank reality is that employer-sponsored healthcare costs an employer at least $10,000 per year per employee (more if family members are also covered).   Healthcare economists agree that Americans who bear some costs of their insurance (paying  a share of their premiums and also reasonable co-pays) will become more responsible consumers; attentive to costs and cost-control.  Let's insist upon doing right by ourselves.   The predominant expert on this issue is Henry J. Aaron, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.  He has a lot to say on this and many other issues.  Read him here.

5.  Pass Obama's Healthcare Legislation
I was among the Obama voters who hoped that the President and Congress would come together to provide healthcare for the 45 million uninsured people in America.  I now realize that many of the 250 million of us who have insurance don't give a fig about those who don't.  I am profoundly disappointed in my nation.

The bill before Congress is imperfect.  But the Congressional Budget Office reports that it will lower costs over the next ten years.  It will cover some of the uninsured; it helps parents to provide insurance for their twenty-something offspring (thus keeping healthy people in the insurance pool and helping to lower costs); it creates some incentives for lower-cost insurance pools.  To be sure, it is only a start.  But it is a start.  President Obama made a strong case yesterday and the final push is on.  Failure this time will leave millions of people with nothing.  Contact your member of Congress and let them know you support the legislation.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Food Friday: Spring Pasta

This dish is a riff on a recipe from Cooking Light.  It's a quick and easy dish to make; and the basics (pasta, the garlic dressing) can be adjusted for whatever you crave (or have on hand).  Don't like asparagus?  Try steamed broccoli.  Crave spinach instead?  Add a few fresh cups to the hot pasta and let it wilt.  Let the contents of your cupboard serve as a guide. 

8 ounces of uncooked pasta (I used mini penne this time; stick with something small)
1 pound of asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-2 inch pieces
2 cloves minced garlic
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
3 ounces diced smoked provolone
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

To toast pine nuts, preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Arrange nuts in a single layer in a shallow pan and toast for 3-4 minutes; the nuts will toast quickly, so keep a close watch.  Remove from the oven and place in a small bowl. 

Cook past according to package directions.  In last few minutes of cooking time, steam asparagus (it should take about 3 want the veg to retain its crisp texture).  Drain the pasta and then return it to the pan; sprinkle with the garlic and then add the asparagus.

Combine lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper; stir with a whisk.  Drizzle over the pasta & asparagus mixture; toss well to coat.  Stir in provolone and pine nuts.  Serve immediately.

This recipe will serve 4.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

March 16: Tulip Tuesday

Early last week, we had some gloriously sunny warm days.  That bliss was followed by 3 days of rain and wind (more than 6 inches of rain fell in my backyard).  I've spent nearly every spare moment of the last few days in my very wet basement, contending with the rising tide. But this morning I awakened to a world without rain; birds were chirping as the sun rose.  Sunny blue skies and warmth are forecast for the rest of the week. 
The flower bulbs in the front yard seem to sense the promise of it all.  They proclaim it to me every morning: spring is coming, spring is coming.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Household Happiness: Etched Butter Dish

 I've had this glass butter dish for nearly 15 years.  It came from my grandmother's home.  One day, as a surprise, she boxed up  some old bowls that she knew I admired and sent them my way.   When I opened that box in my apartment in Nebraska, I found this butter dish among the treasures.  It's small but lovely and makes an appearance on my table for holiday meals and other special occasions.

It reminds me of my grandmother, of course.  And it also reminds me of a story my family tells about bread getting to the table a bit late in the supper, after the eating had begun.  My parents were in college and my mother had brought her boyfriend to meet her family for the first time.  Everyone was on their best behavior until the realization that the rolls had been left in the oven.  My grandmother rushed to bring the rolls to the table and when my father asked for a roll, my grandfather picked one up and made a pass down the table.  As my grandmother and mother looked on in horror, my dad caught the roll.  The eating resumed and my dad's ability to roll with the punches was noted.

I have memories of many suppers at my grandmother's home and those memories are of a laughing family, often engaged in loud political discussions.  Across generations, in places far and wide, this butter dish has been present. 
Oh, the stories it could tell.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Food Friday: Italian Salad Dressing

The recent spell of warm(ish) weather has me thinking about spring and summer cooking.  And to me, that means salads, lots and lots of salads.  There is lettuce in my garden and should any survive the bunnies, I'll be serving that at my table soon enough.  In the meantime, there's always the fresh greens at my local market to satisfy my cravings.

I make homemade dressings because they taste amazing, are easy to create, and are generally much less expensive than the bottled kind.  In the past, I've posted my recipe for blue cheese dressing and I highly recommend that y'all stir up a batch of that.   I also recommend this basic Italian dressing:

2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon onion salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 ounces white wine vinegar
8 ounces olive oil

Mix well at least one hour before you intend to dress the salad in order to allow the flavors to mingle.  You'll need to mix it again before you put it on your salad as the oil and vinegar will separate (but you knew that, right?).  The yellow color in this batch is a bit unsettling (the olive oil was a bit golden), but the taste is still great.  The dressing will keep in the fridge for at least two weeks, though I expect you'll have eaten it well before that date.
The recipe is easily adjusted:  substitute balsamic or red wine vinegar for the white wine vinegar to suit your tastes (or the contents of your pantry).  If you like basil more than oregano, swap the amounts.  If you don't have onion salt on hand, use regular salt and finely mince some shallots or a mild onion.

I use a salad dressing cruet to make most of the oil based dressings in my cookbook.  My mom gave it to me years ago.  Though a quick Amazon search revealed plenty of cruets on the market, a jar with a secure lid will also do the trick.

Happy eating!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Meanwhile, Here at Smuggler House

The other day, JT had a friend over to play.  At one point, I overheard them planning out the game of the hour, plotting to be smugglers. Later on, curious to see what he knew, I asked JT about smuggling.   But my questions quickly yielded to his and I found myself explaining the economics of smuggling.  Namely, that a smuggler typically deals in restricted or rare goods and extracts profits from the price of the goods as well as the risk that the smuggler undertakes when he delivers the forbidden goods to the buyer.  Note to the folks: see, I do use my education.

He found this all rather interesting and began to plan a smugglers game for the afternoon.  His play is often a merger of his 10 year-old imagination and what he understands of the real-world, and this game was no different. There are a load of pirates, Vikings, Romans, and assorted other dangerous dude living in his playroom and he devised a game involving these folks.  Guns were to be the smugglers' product of choice.

The next thing I knew, he'd come downstairs to ask more questions.  He wanted a real-world smuggling game.  So I said the guns would have to come from a weak state; a place where the goods were available but where the government's ability to enforce the rules is limited.  Some calculations followed and then he announced that Russia would be source of the guns.  But to whom should the bad guy smugglers sell?  A place where guns were desirable and perhaps rare.  A place with another weak or perhaps corrupt government; one that might let his smuggler dudes trade in their illicit goods with less risk of being caught.  Pakistan, he decided.  He returned upstairs to set up the game.

Secretary Clinton, if you're reading, the boy's services are available.  My advice is to get him on our side now, while he's still amenable to our message.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Tulip Tuesday

When I lived in Nashville, the first signs of spring could be seen in February as the daffodils emerged from their winter nap.  By the end of the month, brave yellow daffodils could be seen all over town.  I loved this seasonal transition and even though I've lived in a colder climate for more than 15 years, I still keep an eye out for daffodils in February.

My open eyes don't receive their reward until March, and we're still several weeks away from actual flowers.  But this week, in the aftermath of a thaw in winter's grip, I've seen the tips of flower bulbs peeking out all over my garden.  They are a most welcome sight.  For the next few weeks, I'll be snapping a picture of this flower bed every Tuesday.  Daffodils will come first and then I'll have tulips.  Soon enough, other parts of the garden will be looking green and hopeful.
I can't wait!

Monday, March 08, 2010


Later this week, as Spring Break wraps up, JT will head off for a few days time with my ex.  That will require some persuasion on my part ---- he no longer seeks the time with her and those 5 days on his calendar look like eternity to him.  Whereas he would once go to her house with no complaint, he's now concluded that her life is not his and he doesn't want to go there for more than a day or two.  And so I must prepare him for the time away from his home; time he increasingly resents.

I understand that resentment, though I never share my feelings with him.  That wouldn't be fair to JT; his plate is already quite full on that front.  So I patiently remind him that he loves her and will be happy to see her everyday.  He listens but he's mostly unwilling to accept that claim, not when seeing her means not seeing me.  I brace myself for the day he refuses to go.

I know he doesn't express these feelings to her.  He's told me point blank that she wouldn't listen and doesn't care.  I'm in no position to assert otherwise.  But I'm tired of this being my burden; I'm tired of having to clean up a mess I didn't make.  I dearly wish that help was forthcoming.  I know that it isn't.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Greedy, Greedy, Greedy

JT and I are very happy to see the early signs of spring around here.  Today, the high cleared the 50 degree mark and we were practically giddy with excitement.  He had baseball practice in the lovely sun and while I wouldn't say he worked up a sweat, it was clear that the hours outside got him thinking about summer.  He climbed in the car after practice greedy for more summer-like activities and begged me to take him to the nearby Sonic Drive-In so that we could eat outside, one of his favorite summer activities.

I laughed and pointed out that many truly warm days would surely follow; days where it would actually be plenty warm enough to eat outside...and before I could even finish that sentence, he looked so crest-fallen.  So we ate our Saturday supper outside at Sonic.  It is Spring Break, after all.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Real Life Conversation with JT: Healthcare Policy Edition

The backstory: In keeping with his Sassafras Family origins, JT is prone to talking back to the television.  The other morning, he was watching a game show and talking back to the telly.

TV:  Blah, blah, blah, medicine for depression, blah, blah, blah....side effects may include bleeding.

JT:  A depression medicine with a side effect of bleeding?  I think that unexplained bleeding would make me even more depressed.  Fools.

Wisdom like this might be very useful in the on-going healthcare debate in Washington D.C. I will notify Congress at once.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


JT lost a bet and was forced to choose: would he vacuum the living room or clean a toilet?  I figured him for the vacuum job, since he's pretty well-schooled in that art.

But I'll be damned if the kid didn't opt to clean the toilet.  And he followed all my precise cleaning instructions, with nary a complaint.  Impressive, really.  It's only fair to admit that I was already quite charmed by the boy.  But this?  Skill (and willingness!) to clean? Internet, I've got a keeper here. 
 Get your own.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Making My House a Home

Most mornings in the winter, Tiger stakes out napping ground on the radiator in the dining room, keeping me company while I get work done in the early morning quiet.  This locale affords him a view of the front yard as the sun rises, my company at the table just a few steps away, and the warmth of the radiator.  
His presence each morning is the sort of quiet companionship that makes my morning complete.  I love Tiger and Lucy more than I can possibly express.  They make my little family feel complete.  But I love them best for the reminder that a little relaxation in the windowsill is a very good thing.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Forbidden Fruit

We had a cold and very snowy February.  For almost half of the month, there was so much snow in the backyard that I couldn't easily get to the compost heap, let alone the apple trees that stand in a line at the back of the yard. 

I don't worry about that; there aren't many garden chores in this season.  All living things require rest to face the demands of the growing season and a dormant winter provides that rest.  But I have grown accustomed to frequent winter walks through my quiet backyard for the opportunity to daydream about the things I will plant in the spring.
My garden stockpile from the fall is nearly exhausted.  The local market's store of fall apples is considerably shrunken.  All of this is more bearable come March, when the cold dark days begin to yield to days with temperatures in the 40s, then the 50s, and soon enough day after day in the 60s.  When that happens, these trees will come alive, with tiny green buds and the prospect of apples and pears. 

But at the moment, with cold snow on the ground, it seems so unlikely that I will have buds of prospective fruit in this garden.  So I remind myself that there is a season for every growing thing.  And a patient gardener will eventually be rewarded.