Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rolling Pin Envy

I will confess that my child has a better rolling pin than I do. His is a diminutive number in smooth red silicon, nicely weighty, and was purchased for rolling out pizza dough. I've been making my own pizza for years, ever since the penniless days of early grad school. When E was about 18 months old I started including him in mixing the dough. Now, at nearly three, he assists in kneading and can even roll out the dough for his own personal pizza. The results of his efforts are never attractive, but he absolutely loves the process. When we make pizza together, I am reminded of some of the things that are really important to me in life - spending time with my child, being mindful of the joy in everyday things, and good food.

Since I usually top this dough with jarred pizza sauce and pre-shredded mozzarella cheese, this is actually a pretty quick and convenient meal, but you can get fancy with it too. I have served it at dinner parties topped with homemade pesto, sundried tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella. (Tip - if you do top it with pesto, substitute some of the flour for cornmeal to help absorb the excess liquid from the pesto.) It is best when baked on a pizza stone, but I have made it on cookie sheets as well. Bottom line, whether you have a child helper or not, want a basic pizza or a gourmet one, this recipe is a great starting point.

Herbed Pizza Dough

2 cups all purpose flour (can substitute one cup with whole wheat if desired)
2 1/4 ounce envelopes rapid rise yeast
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup very hot (but not boiling) water

Mix together all dry ingredients, including yeast. Pour honey and olive oil onto dry ingredients, then pour over the hot water. Mix together to form a soft dough, then turn dough out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, or until it feels smooth and elastic, dusting your hands and the dough with flour whenever they get sticky. Cover the dough with the mixing bowl and leave in a warm place for about 15 minutes to rise. Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees.

After dough has risen, dust the pizza stone or baking sheet with flour, and roll it out. Top with sauce and cheese, and bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, until crust is golden brown and cheese is just starting to get bubbly. Remove from oven and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. This helps prevent the cheese from tearing apart when you slice it.

This recipe will feed two adults and one toddler experiencing a growth spurt. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

83 Pages in 10 Years - Procrastination and Absolution

I am on page 83 of a 589 page book that I began reading ten years ago. For years, I've dragged this book around with me, telling myself that one of these days, I would finish it. Recently, I resolved to finish it, once and for all, and I am making slow but steady progress.

The book is Oscar Wilde, a meticulously detailed biography written by Richard Ellmann. I wrote my senior thesis in English Literature on three of Wilde's plays. Although I can no longer remember which ones, I do recall my advisor telling me to read a biography of Wilde. I began reading and then promptly abandoned my efforts. This isn't unlike me. Reading the biography wasn't crucial to completing my project; it just would have been helpful in developing a more nuanced understanding of the work I was trying to analyze. I always seem to look for the easy way out.

This is likely why I've been lugging this brick of a book around with me for the past ten years. Because while I always seem to look for the easy way out, I feel guilty when I actually take it, and reading this biography is a way to absolve myself of that guilt. Now that I am actually reading it, however, I see things a bit differently. This book is hard. It is a highly detailed account of Wilde's life, but also an extremely thorough analysis of both his work and the influences shaping that work. It is a book written by an academic for a scholarly audience, and it assumes a level of familiarity with the intellectual environment of Wilde's time. In college, trying to slog through this book, I thought I just wasn't disciplined enough when I fell asleep reading it, bored because I couldn't understand enough to get interested. Now, ten years and one PhD later, I see that it's just a hard book. The only thing not finishing this book would say about me is that I am not a professional scholar of Oscar Wilde's work.

Ironically enough, now that I've given myself permission to walk away from this book, I actually want to finish it. Even though I am not particularly riveted by reading descriptions of what Wilde ate for breakfast on April 19 of his first year at Trinity College or how he decorated his room at Oxford, I find his story fascinating. Even more than the enjoyment I've had reading this book, I've gained the realization that I don't have to be perfect, and that not all of my failures (namely, the failure to read this book when I was supposed to) are condemnations of me as a person. I may have taken the easy way out not reading the biography, but the thesis still got written. And if my memory serves, I even got an A.

So whatever your Oscar Wilde biography is, embrace it or let it go, but stop letting it drag you down.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mid-Morning Conversion

Like many people, during the recent holidays, I gave more thought to religion. Our family is interfaith - I am Catholic and my husband is Jewish. While we are not very observant in either of these religions, we chose to baptize our son in the Catholic church and we celebrate the Jewish holidays in our home.

When we first got engaged and began contemplating how we would someday raise our children, we knew that we wanted to expose them to both faiths, have both sets of traditions, both cultures, be a part of our life. As a childless couple, it was difficult to envision exactly how that looks in practice, but we understood that the role of faith in our family life would necessarily continue to evolve, and it has. A prime example? Our son was circumsized in the hospital because I was not open to a bris at that point (and not particularly happy with circumcision, period, but that is another post), but if we were to have another son, I feel very strongly that he should have a bris.

The evolution continued one morning during Hannukah. The previous night, we had given E a wooden puzzle in the shape of a menorah for his Hanukkah present. Every year as we've lit the menorah, I've silently stood by, observing the ritual but never participating in the prayers. This past year, my husband started teaching the prayers to our son, and E, quick child that he is, memorized quite a bit. That morning, as he began "lighting" the candles of his puzzle menorah, he looked to me to guide him in the prayer. And I couldn't.

I have not stepped foot in a Catholic church for nearly two years, but I am a Catholic down to my bones. It is about tradition, it is about continuity, culture. It is about my grandmother. And yet that morning I realized there is a part of me now that is Jewish. That part of me is my son. I need to know these prayers for him, because he looked to me for guidance in a ritual that gave him joy, and I couldn't guide him.

That night, we lit the menorah for the 7th night of Hanukkah, and though awkward and fumbling, I repeated the prayer with my son, because earlier that morning I realized compartmentalizing the dual faiths of an interfaith family is to close yourself off to a part of your child. Opening yourself to the aspects of your partner's faith that bring joy into your home, and into your child's face, will only bring you joy as well.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Different Perspective

There was a really interesting article in the New York Times earlier this week about being a mother in Germany. While it appears (based on numerous readers' comments) that there are some minor factual errors, I found the article as a whole to be quite thought provoking in that it offered insight into a system the complete opposite end of the spectrum from that of the U.S. Initially, I found myself somewhat envious of these women - they are "allowed" to stay at home with their children, even if they are highly educated and have had successful careers. In the U.S., we often judge women who choose this path.

Yet, as I continued to think about the German system and how it affects women, I realized that as much as I enjoy being home, I am grateful that I am not to be compelled to be home. Based on this article, it seems the German system essentially compels women to remain home while their children are small, and makes it very difficult for them to resume work even after the children are school aged. I can see how this might easily lead to women feeling trapped - trapped in their homes, trapped by their children, trapped by the expectations of society.

At times, I too feel the weight of society's expectations; in particular, the fact that I am not meeting them. I have a PhD, yet I am a stay at home mom. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I was supposed to be a professor, or at the very least, a researcher or analyst for the government or a non-profit. If the prestigious occupation didn't pan out, I could at least do noble, worthwhile work. Either way, the plan was never to be home full-time. While I know a number of other women in similar circumstances, that doesn't change the fact that many people judge you when you choose to remain home with your child. You are "wasting" your education and potential, putting too much pressure on your partner by “forcing” them to be sole income-earner, and of course, letting your brain turn to mush.

The U.S system of mothers returning to work anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks after giving birth contrasts sharply with the German system. In the U.S., mothers are seen as almost dispensable - we are told children will be fine even if they are in daycare upwards of 10 hours a day and only spending an hour or two each day with their parents during the workweek. In Germany, it seems the opposite holds true - mothers are seen as so indispensable that society must be structured around the model of the stay at home mother to the point of making it nearly impossible for the mother of small children to engage in work outside the home. In the U.S., we tend to believe that our children don’t really need us around very much, and so we are better off spending our time focusing on a career, whereas the German model appears to place such a high value on the presence of a mother that there is little opportunity for a mother to pursue anything outside of that role. Either way, we're losing something - the notion that women can be both mothers and individuals.

In Germany, I might very well be living the same exact kind of life I live here in the U.S., but I am happier living this life knowing that it was shaped by choice rather than circumstance. Still, I cannot help but wish that we could extend the recognition for mothers that appears to be so prevalent in Germany to mothers here in the U.S.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chunky Granola

One of the things that I struggled with when we moved from Denver to Virginia was not being able to find some of the foods I enjoyed. There are certain things that we just haven't been able to find in this town and we've gotten used to not having them. Others, like granola, I've learned how to make myself. Now, to be fair, it is possible to buy granola here. But it just wasn't doing it for me, and it was very expensive. This recipe is easy and cheap to make, and it's a great project to do with kids. E helps me every time we make it.

Chunky Granola

6 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup nuts
1 cup shredded coconut (optional)
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup almond butter or peanut butter (You can leave this out and increase the butter to a whole cup if you prefer.)
1 cup applesauce
1/4 cup honey
1 tbsp vanilla
1 cup dried fruit or chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a microwave safe dish, melt the butter and almond or peanut butter in the microwave. Once it is melted, add the applesauce and vanilla to the dish and stir until thoroughly combined.

In a large bowl, mix together the oats, coconut, and nuts. Pour in the butter and applesauce mixture and stir until the dry ingredients are thoroughly coated with the wet. Drizzle the honey over the oat mixture and stir.

On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or Silpat, spread the granola in an even layer of about 1/2 inch thick, pressing it down with the back of your spoon. Bake in the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes. The baking time will depend on your oven and on how dark you'd like your granola. Stir the granola gently once halfway through baking to keep it from getting too brown at the edges.

Allow granola to cool before removing it from the baking sheets - this helps keep the granola chunky. Once cooled, add in any dried fruit or chocolate that you'd like, and enjoy!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fondue, Two Ways

The smell of wet dog hit me as soon as we walked in the door, so overwhelming that I wasn’t sure I would be able to bring myself to eat there, but the restaurant was packed and no one else looked pushed to the point of nausea by the smell. Plus, it seemed rude to leave just as we were about to be seated.

We were seated at a small table situated in very close proximity to other small tables. It was close quarters, but that’s just how things are in Paris. Every square inch of space gets used. The restaurant was warm and cozy, its ancient look probably only partly contrived. We were there for the fondue, which I soon found to be the source of the wet dog smell. Gruyere has a particular kind of smell, and when large quantities of it are heated, well, it smells like wet dog.
It does not, however, taste like wet dog. (I assume. I have not tasted an actual wet dog.) It has a distinctive taste, a bit shocking to my taste buds after a week of feasting on mildly tangy chevre and soft sweet brie. Still, once I started eating, the wet dog smell receded and my senses focused on the contents of the fondue pot.

It was a lovely meal, although not the best that I'd had in Paris. (That is a tie between a tomato and camembert baguette sandwich, purchased at a market and eaten on park bench one cold cloudy afternoon, and dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, where three different credit cards were rejected due to their broken machine, and they made me stay as “collateral” while my husband went to the ATM for cash to pay the bill. All of this negotiated, of course, in a mix of bad English and worse French, while a huge Lebanese family held a celebration a few tables over. There were no other customers.) Except for the wet dog smell, I’m not even sure it was a particularly memorable meal. In fact, I had nearly forgotten all about it until the other night, when I went to a social networking event at a restaurant called the Melting Pot.

The Melting Pot is a chain restaurant, sort of like a fondue version of Benihana. It’s supposed to be upscale and romantic, but instead it has a kind of lonely feel to it. It’s large, with granite tables that have built-in induction cooktops to heat the fondue, and the air smells ever so slightly of cooking oil. The bread is just a bit too obviously cut by a machine, rather than by hand, and the chocolate a bit too cloyingly sweet. It soon became clear that the Melting Pot is about spectacle and excess.

There is a restaurant here in town that offers homemade chocolate pistachio truffles on their dessert menu. Given the choice, most people will always choose the huge pot of steaming chocolate over a single, perfect, pistachio truffle. I oohed and ahhed over the pots of cheese and chocolate, the wide variety of dippers; it was a matter of being polite, wanting to fit in. I was there to make friends, after all. Despite the vast quantity of food - Four courses for 32.50! Decadent chocolate fondue desserts! - I left feeling unsatisfied.

After our fondue meal in Paris, it took days to get the wet dog smell out of our coats. When I came home from the Melting Pot, the faint odor of cooking oil clung to my clothes, an unpleasant reminder of being polite, yet feeling like I didn't quite fit in. What I really would have preferred was that single pistachio truffle, or a tomato and camembert baguette sandwich, eaten on a park bench in the cold winter wind.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wonder or Regret?

Is it such a bad thing to look back and wonder? Not have regrets, necessarily. Just wonder about choices you've made, paths not taken.

We've really been struggling recently with deciding whether to have a second child. I don't feel a particularly intense desire for another child. I am really good with and love the baby stage, but I hate pregnancy. Now that E is two and a half, things are getting easier, but I found the past year to be pretty challenging - I'm just not a toddler person. Added to all that, there is a lot I'd like to focus on and accomplish, and as things ease up with E, I am finally finding time for those things. It's difficult to think about going through another pregnancy, or being engulfed once more by the all-consuming needs of an infant. It often seems that the best choice for us is to remain a family of three.

One of the main things that gives me pause, however, is the question of will I look back and wonder. Wonder what life with two children would be like? Wonder who that child would have been? I've heard the advice given that if you think you'll look back and wonder, you should just go ahead and have another because you don't want to look back and wonder. Yet, wonder is not the same as regret. I do think that if we choose to remain three, then I will always wonder about what might have been. I don't believe that's a negative thing. I often wonder about paths not taken, but it doesn't mean I regret not taking them. For example, I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like had I married my college boyfriend, as I was so desperate to do at the age of 21. It's a pleasant thought experiment when I want to feel particularly thankful for having dodged the bullet of my own youthful bad judgment.

So I suppose the real question is will I regret not having another child. We've got another 6 months before we need to make a decision, a year at most, so while there is time to ponder, it is not infinite. Will I regret never seeing E with a sibling? Will I regret never again seeing my husband holding our newborn? Will I regret never getting to watch another little person become who they are going to be?

But just as valid are the questions about regret stemming from taking that path. Will I regret giving up the balance I have in my life now? Balance that gives me time to think, to write, to be someone other than Mama. Will I regret the impact of another child on my marriage, which has gone through some difficult times in the past 2 years. Will I regret giving up some of the dreams that would not be impossible with two children, but would be far less difficult with just one.

The question of regret is far different than the question of wonder. Both wonder and regret are an inevitable part of life, but there is only one that I actively try to limit. So now I find myself with questions that leave a phantom baby hanging in the balance, and the clock continues to tick down the days until I must decide: wonder or regret?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Suburban Discontent

Up until about 18 months ago, I lived in a city and walked everywhere. Now I live in a small town and drive so often that my child thinks sidewalks are an exciting novelty. More than anything else about living here, that is what troubles me the most.

E's first year of life involved a daily stroller walk. We walked up the street to grab a coffee, we walked to the park, we walked to library, we walked to the grocery store. You get the point. We lived in a highly walkable neighborhood, and walking was a way to get outside, get exercise, and do errands in one easy transaction. It was all so incredibly simple and efficient.

Now, we get in the car to do all of those things. We get in the car to drive to the gym, to drive to the coffee shop, the grocery store, the library, the park. Every so often, we will drive past the rare little stretch of randomly placed sidewalk, and E will ask to get out and walk on the sidewalk. This breaks my heart, because the sidewalk is symbolic of all we left behind to come here. The lifestyle we left behind is one that I know he would enjoy and be enriched by, and I can't help but feel that he is missing out because we live here.

E has shown an aptitude for art, and I've been looking for an art class unsuccessfully for quite a while now, whereas I know that if we still lived in our old city, finding an art class for him would not have been a problem. The nearest museums are all one to two hours away, and places like Whole Foods are now an exciting destination rather than an everyday errand.

In many ways, our life here is blessed, and I see my family becoming more and more comfortable as we grow more used to the limits of this small town. Yet that is what worries me. My husband and I know there is more to the world than this small town, but if we stay here too long, our son will not, and someday soon, he will no longer ask to walk on the sidewalks.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Death and Poverty in 10 Minutes

Yesterday, I found myself explaining both death and poverty to my son over the course of a ten minute drive to the craft store. Given that he's only 2, I found this disconcerting.

Death came first, in the form of him asking to see my parents' beagle, Julie. Julie died just about one year ago, and it's been longer than that since he has seen her. I explained to him that Julie got very, very old, and when people and animals get very, very old, they die. "Die?", he asked. I went on to explain that when people and animals die, they go to a place called heaven, where they are young and strong again, and they can run and play. Once a person or animal goes to heaven, we won't see them again, but they are very happy in heaven and they will be there waiting for us when someday we go to heaven.

This explanation seemed to satisfy him, particularly since I coupled it with a description of my childhood dog, Apple, who I told him was playing with Julie in heaven. At this point, we pulled up to the light to turn into the mall where the craft store is located. It's a rather long light on a busy divided highway, and on the median next to us was the usual homeless person begging for change.

"What's that man doing?"

This is the moment when many parents, even myself on a different day, would have airily responded, "Oh, nothing, sweetie." But already being in the frame of mind for difficult explanations, it didn't occur to me to brush off the question, and I responded honestly. "That man is asking people for money."

"For money?"

I will add here that we are open in our house about money. Daddy goes to work to earn money to pay for our house, our groceries, fun things like toys and going out to the coffee shop. We give all our spare change to E for his piggy bank, and when the bank is full, we take him to deposit its contents into his savings account. He also accompanies me on most shopping trips and understands that we have to pay for the things we get at the store.

"Yes, money. Some people don't have enough money to pay for a house to live in or food to eat, so they have to ask people for money, and that's what that man is doing."

Silence in the backseat. A quick peek in the rearview mirror reveals a furrowed brow.

"We have money?"

"Yes, we have money."

"We have money in our piggy bank?"

"Yes, we have money in our piggy bank."

Silence once more in the backseat. Checking the rearview mirror shows the furrowed brow is gone. We enter the craft store, where his attention immediately turns to the Cars stickers I've promised. These discussions, these hard truths, do not seem to have fazed him; he seems to have accepted them as simple information. Rather, I am the one who has struggled all day with the reality of my child growing up in a world where death and poverty are constant, with knowing that his innocence lessens with each passing day, and that there are many, many more hard questions to come.

Stella the Pug

Stella tolerates having her ears rubbed. Meaty, velvety bits, they have a comforting scent. Her body is both solid and soft. It curls against mine and she breathes out a sigh of relief. She is in her right place and doing her job.

When I was pregnant, Stella would wedge her sturdy body against my aching back. Her warmth and the slight vibrations of her snoring soothed the pain, and she bore my weight without complaint. She knew I was pregnant before I did, and two days before I went into labor, she started acting very oddly. Although she didn’t seem to particularly like E, from the day he came home, she has exhibited a protective attitude towards him. She seemed to understand from the start that he was something very precious and very fragile. Now, also without complaint, she joins him in his bed every afternoon for his nap, her head resting next to his on the pillow.

Stella has excellent taste in gourmet cheese and a massive sense of entitlement. Her fondest dream is to catch a squirrel. She spends most of her time dozing on the back of the sofa, its cushions now grossly misshapen by her weight. At one time, Stella was accustomed to visiting restaurants, accompanying her humans to work every day, and air travel (in the cabin, not the belly, of the plane, thank you very much). She had a little carseat that boosted her up enough to see out the window and was given biscuits during her regular visits to the local wine shop. All of these things as befitting a pug.

But then things changed. We decided that if one pug was wonderful, two would surely be even more so. One hot July day, we brought home an 8 week old male pug we named Hercules. Hercules was small and cute, as all pug puppies are, but he lacked Stella’s shrewdness. We once attempted to take him to a creperie in our neighborhood. Sitting on the patio, he barked, shrilly and maniacally, at every passer-by. Of which there were dozens. Stella sat patiently waiting for her bite of gorgonzola crepe, bearing the indignity of her new brother’s behavior as the price she must pay for the finer things in life. Our future visits to the creperie were pug-less. A year later, her human brother was born, and visits to the creperie ceased entirely.

These days, as I watch Stella and E together, my heart breaks a little. This dog who has been my rock for almost seven years is now E’s dog too. As E has grown older, Stella has accepted that he is one of her humans, and thus she has a job to do. She must listen patiently as he reads her stories, tolerate him petting her ears, and sleep next to him. It brings me great joy to see the bond between them grow, but one day, the inevitable will happen. My mind shies away from the reality that she will not always be with me, and I am even more reluctant to consider that as the bond between E and Stella grows, so does the loss he will one day experience. As an adult, I chose to get a dog, knowing that the relationship would end in loss. My son made no such choice. Yet, I encourage this bond.

I have great faith in animals, dogs in particular. What you get from a dog who is close to you is unlike any other relationship in the world. A dog can sense what you need and will do its best to give it to you, without judgment or reservation. A dog will comfort you, protect you, give its life for you if need be. As much as I dread the day I lose Stella and I dread the day E loses her even more, living with a dog is a constant practice of living in the moment. For now, she is lying next to him as he sleeps, in her right place and doing her job. That is enough.