Thursday, December 16, 2010


A new great thing--of the few great things--about Cincinnati in the wintertime is the opportunity for birdwatching. When nature is stripped bare, it's easier to see what, and who's, left during the cold season. We can now see seemingly far-off traffic lights flickering through the bare treetops. We glimpse neighbors we didn't know we had. But we're also seeing birds now.

Some dear friends gave us a terrific bird feeder stand, with hooks and spots for everything imaginable. After a false start with squirrels--I'm sure they'll be back--our recent snowfall and frigid temps brought the birds flocking to our yard. Hurrah!

We've hung the World's Cheapest Bird Feeder (free) and a suet feeder. In the past few days the birds have outnumbered squirrels by an appreciable margin, and so we're tickled pink. We've spotted:

House finches
Tufted titmice
Carolina wrens
Downy woodpecker

I doubt we'll see anything exotic, but any little thing that makes our ho-hum corner of our city more lively is a step in the right direction. We're making small steps with the bird feeder.

Another benefit is that its location, just outside the dining room window, encourages more time spent at the table, which is a definite plus for my two fidgety, picky eaters.

Of course the cats enjoy the entertainment as much, or more, than we do. And I'm sure our hungry bird neighbors are happier still.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Casing the Joint

Just before Thanksgiving someone relieved our neighbor of her central air conditioning unit. More specifically, they ransacked the a/c unit, leaving the carcass strewn about her back yard. It was a mess. "Thousands of dollars in damage for twenty bucks' worth of scrap metal," that's what the cop told her. They do this for the scrap metal they can cut out of the thing. It goes without saying that she was finding it difficult to get into the holiday spirit when I talked with her that Thursday morning.

If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it countless times more: “People. They’re the worst.”

Last night Jay discovered a bag of trash that was not ours in our recycling bin. We aren’t the neatest family, but we do know what trash is ours. This wasn’t. Opening the bag revealed standard poor-folks trash: quickie-mart trash, smokeless tobacco package, small cardboard cartons of some kind of milk or juice. The kind of junk you accumulate if you don’t cook much and/or don’t have much money.

The disheartening thing was that our recycling bin wasn’t on the curb. It was tucked beside our a/c unit, which is beside our garage door, in a secluded little corner in our driveway. When we had our roof redone, this is the corner, we later realized, that the roofers used as a bathroom.

So, of course, we put it together, ran through some scenarios, and our hackles were, and are, up. Someone may be scoping our house. Maybe they brought the trash over so they looked more legit as they checked out our a/c unit. Sure, they could’ve just needed a place to ditch their trash bag, but why in our bin, when it’s not readily visible?

So tonight I looked out the back door and noticed some fresh tracks in the snow leading from the sidewalk, straight through the back yard, around the end of the driveway, over to the corner of the neighbor’s house, and then down to our driveway. Big man-sized tracks, so they don’t belong to any of the neighbor kids. They were quick tracks, with no detours, but no purpose either, which is the most disturbing thing. They don’t belong to any of our neighbors or their kids. Weird.

People. They’re the worst.

Earlier today I spoke with the local police officer in charge of our area—about the trash incident—and he confirmed that it sounded odd. So now, with tracks through the yard, I have a rash of emotions—a lot of anger, and a little trepidation. It could all be coincidental, and not easily explainable, and just plain random. Or it could mean that someone would like to help themselves to something we own.

Going into the Christmas season, this may be the perfect challenge to my general belief in the goodness of humanity. When I play possible robbery scenarios in my head, none of them involve any kind of compassion or forgiveness on my part. Mostly I just unleash, with “great vengeance and furious anger,” in the words of Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction, who was quoting the Bible, ironically.

The home is one’s castle. At this time of year, it’s usually a joyous castle. It’s a shame to want to keep the lights on not out of festive spirit, but rather to discourage thieving shitheads.

I really wanted to write about how I saw a coyote tonight. It crossed Westwood Northern Boulevard in front of my car, and for that split second, I had that sense-of-a-moment, part delight, part sadness, that you get when your sphere collides with that of an animal who deserves more nature than what it has.

But instead, the tracks I focus on are the ones that are much closer, still, to home, where we apparently live in contested territory, too. May the thieving shitheads not win.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why, homemade mustard, of course!

This morning finds me snuffing and sniffling on the couch, trying to remember how long I've been coughing and blowing my nose. Has it been one week or two? Is it a continuation of the last cold, or a new cold? And why does that even make a difference? Could drinking apple cider vinegar help, if I don't want to go to the doctor? Would apple cider vinegar make me gag? Oh, the questions of a congested mind.

Well, yesterday morning was exciting, unlike this morning. As Jay enjoyed his raisin bran, I busily stirred some homemade mustard on the stove. I brimmed with pride--I can make my own mustard, so Ha! Take that, commercialized world! I can make a condiment!--as Jay retreated to the living room, trying to avoid the pungent aroma that soon dominated the house.

He left for work, and I sheepishly put it in the fridge. Come lunchtime, though, I couldn't wait to whip out the mustard and a soft pretzel to have a taste. (The pretzels, made the day before, screamed for mustard, and so a mere project became an Affair--not uncommon with me, as you may well know by now.)

This mustard. Mmm. Words fail me. Dear reader, get thee to a kitchen, I say, and make mustard. If you are not too unlike me, you'll be tickled pink to realize you can do one more thing better than some thing from a store. And that, in this day and age, is triumphant.

This mustard is hot. Very hot. And quite sweet. Think of the mustard you get with Chinese take-out, with some sweetness added. I'm sure it's basically the same. The recipe--and encouragement--is Ann Hodgman's Heroic Mustard, from her darling, priceless cookbook, One Bite Won't Kill You, which I will rave about endlessly until I die. If I could be Ann Hodgman, I would, but I can't, unfortunately. So I'll pore over her cookbooks, and maybe I'll send her a gentle reminder to get those cookbooks reprinted, and this time, with a sturdy sewn binding, and on better paper.

Oh, back to the mustard. It's basically one-half cup Colman's mustard flour and one-half cup distilled white vinegar, and a wee bit of salt, which you mix up and let sit overnight. Then you add one-fourth cup sugar and a beaten egg, and whisk it all in a small saucepan over low/medium heat 'til it reaches boiling (steaming and bubbling). Let it cool, scoop it into a clean jar, and keep it in your fridge. AH says it'll last a month in the fridge, but if I make another batch of pretzels, mine will be gone lickety-split.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What the day brings

Do you ever have one of those days? One of those moments when you must give it up to Humility? Like yesterday, when feeding the cats, I flung a chunk of it into Ezra's hair, and then Ezra had to endure a dry cleaning of sorts, while Elliott screeched for more sandwich? (When, I ask, isn't FOUR sandwiches in one day ENOUGH?)

Today's one of those days, too, apparently.

I wake up early--after a 10-hour crash, no doubt my body trying to get an upper hand on the second sinus cold of the season--to make sure we still have money. And the student loan, which has been on "auto-pay," is no longer auto-paying. Of course the student loan site yields no helpful information. So I must wait for the rest of the world to wake up, so I can try to cough up a chunk of money, pronto, in addition to the phlegm.

I should have known something like this would end up on my plate. The weekend went well: a visit to the in-laws' with enough beer and not too much political talk. I accomplished some knitting. We enjoyed being outdoors in a way that's difficult in our corner of Cincinnati: free-range children riding bicycles in the road and inky, sparkly nighttime skies.

Ah, the fly's in the oinment today! At the House of Bunthoff we'll ready ourselves for a good slather; it's too early to succumb. It's Monday, it's Ohio, it's November. Bring it on; we're not ticklish.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boo! Boo! Boo!

the wizard; no beard just yet

Bob and The Wiz

Our delightful cat-o-lantern

Our first real Halloween: we walked the street and brought home candy. In case you can't tell, Elliott was Bob the Builder, and Ezra, despite popular opinion tonight, was not Harry Potter, but was just a plain old wizard (our answer to What is a boy witch?).

Being the mom, and a mom who loves making things, I was quite pleased with myself that the homemade costumes--well, the homemade parts--came off so well. Though you can't really see it, Elliott's Bob the Builder shirt is a painted long-sleeve t-shirt. (His knit hat is homemade too, but it was a necessary addition, not keeping with the theme, though I was delighted he'd wear it. I can never bundle him up enough.)

Ezra's wizard hat was my triumph. I whipped it up in a quick hour while Elliott was at preschool one morning. It was a felted wool sweater and some scraps of fabric and ribbon. It became a wizard hat that barely fits. Again, I'm tickled pink that he kept it on his head--more attributable to the dip in temperature than to my fine handiwork, I'm sure.

Ezra's gown is a piece of plain fabric, folded in half and with a head hole cut out. The little belt is another fabric scrap. His beloved broom got spruced up with some sparkly ribbon wound around and taped on.

We gathered altogether too much candy on our brief walk, and Elliott's sweet tooth is raging. I'm sure he'll make a beeline for it tomorrow morning.

The pumpkin is another delight, though it was short-lived. Elliott was not nearly as interested in pumpkin carving as I'd hoped. Both boys were actually much more fascinated with the carving tools (not a knife, thank goodness, but a "safe carver") than what we found inside the pumpkin. Elliott helped a wee bit, and Ezra just sat on the kitchen table.

As you can see, we carved a darling, mischievous, snaggle-toothed cat. He came out well, and I was so proud. And so I took it personally when I found him this morning all chewed by squirrels. I know it's just the way of the world, but I couldn't help feeling that the squirrels singled me out--not unlike that angry humiliation one might feel upon finding the car rifled through after leaving it unlocked overnight. I was asking for squirrel trouble.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Small things: mirepoix

As we age, and our tastebuds dull, one might generalize that we mature into an appreciation of complex flavors. There's definitely something to this, and I'm sure I'll explore it in a later post. We tend to like more things because, ironically, we don't taste them as well, or as acutely, as we could or would have—had we dared—in those youthful salt-and-sugar-filled days.

But I'd argue that we also have the capacity to appreciate simple tastes. As I become a more mature cook, I thing I'm appreciating simpler fare. Okay, I give myself too much credit. Perhaps I'm just becoming a lazier cook. Regardless of the reason, today I sing the praises of mirepoix.

I remember my delight at discovering this luscious French word that makes "onion, carrots, and celery" sound exotic. But of course those foodie French have a lovely little word for, according to my trusty Food Lover's Companion, "a mixture of diced carrots, onions, celery and herbs sautéed in butter" (391).

On Sunday we gave thanks over bleak dinner fare: pasta and sauce. As my ever-gracious husband noted, "It's food."

Unsurprisingly, Monday found us with plenty of leftover pasta and a sauce that, while not bad, was clearly a dinner plate team-player without a team. Poor jarred pasta sauce. You tried.

Enter mirepoix. What would we have done without you? With you, dinner goes from blah to blah-ZOW!

So if you find yourself in a similar tight spot, consider a little mirepoix magic:

Lovely Baked Pasta

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F. Get a casserole pan ready.
  2. Boil some pasta in a pot (shapes are better than spaghetti).
  3. Meanwhile, mince an onion, a carrot, and a rib or two of celery. Use a food processor if you've got it. That's your mirepoix, darlin'.
  4. Sautee the mirepoix in some butter. Cook it until it's good and soft.
  5. If you want to brown a little ground beef too, throw it in.
  6. Add some dried oregano and basil, and a little salt and pepper.
  7. When it seems nice and cooked down, add some spaghetti sauce. How much? Whatever's in the fridge or the cupboard. Whatever looks good to you.
  8. Now toss the saucy mix with the pasta, which should now be cooked and drained, and pop it into the casserole pan.
  9. Add some cheese if you're into cheese (we are).
  10. Sprinkle more cheese on top.
  11. Cover with foil and bake for at least half an hour.

This, like many pasta meals, improves with age—to a point, of course. Enjoy it, and enjoy your leftovers the next night. Pat yourself on the back for (1) learning a French word, and (2) jazzing up a boring old pasta meal. Go you!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Home again, home again

We're back in Cincinnati, from a trip to NC: job hunting, football game, and time with the grandparents. We're saying our prayers for the job; the game was good (though Cincinnati lost); and time with the grandparents is always fun.

Of course, returning home from home makes me think about how we think about homes.

This was our first trip to NC since December 2009, and the time away has given us some perspective. We arrived home to our house last night with a sigh of relief. The 8-hour drive was lengthened by an hour sitting in stopped traffic, and we were so relieved to be in our own space again. The boys played with toys they had forgotten they had. We made some omelets for a quick dinner. We went outside as it was darkening for those last few minutes of play time.

What makes home home? Familiarity and comfort, and they often go hand in hand. Safety. Family. Here in our little house on the corner, I have a laundry list of improvements to make it homier. The list remains untackled for two reasons: (1) start-up money, and (2) fear of commitment. After more than three years here, I'm still having a hard time calling this "home" emphatically enough to invest in some serious housewarming projects, like painting rooms, framing art, sewing curtains, and--gulp--installing that fence I so desperately want.

As I think about moving to NC, hoping that we'll be able to live closer to my family, I have conflicting thoughts. Shouldn't I be able to make anywhere "home"? On the other hand, what is it about the area I grew up in, apart from my family's proximity, that makes it feel like home? I can't articulate why it feels comfortable, but it's an unmistakable feeling. Is it landscape, weather, deeply imprinted memories, or "a certain slant of light"?

I likely won't figure that one out soon. What I do know is that my boys need outdoor space. The hands-down best part of visiting grandparents is their outdoor kingdoms. Both sets of grandparents are blessed with a world of outdoors for our boys. Though our own yard is modest, we can long for that delicious free roam at the grandparents'.

This weekend the boys sat on tractors, had tractor rides, played in the hammock, dug dirt in the yard, walked and biked 'round the yard, took stroller rides, collected acorns, and ate most meals outside on the deck. Don't fence them in! (Oh, but a fence might be nice!)

Homes should give us room to grow, I think. And while I know we're truly blessed to have a safe, spacious, comfortable home here, I think we could do with less space inside and more outside, because boys grow best when they get that sunlight and fresh air. It seems to make their smiles brighter.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

But is she working enough?

At quarter past eleven I'm here grading papers. The rest of my family is sleeping. I am incredibly envious. I waver, as I do every night, between rest and work. Most nights I work, but I'm tired, unfocused, impatient, and uncreative. I hate night work. I'm a morning person.

The same old discussion surfaced again tonight, and the usual fallout has me angrier than usual. It's the "we don't have enough money" talk, but it should really be called the "I don't make enough money" talk. Because I don't. The kids should be in daycare, and I should be making money. One of those lucrative teaching or administrative jobs. You know, those jobs they're waving at adjuncts and career students? Yeah, one of those great jobs.

Every time I number-crunch, the answer is a no-brainer. Making $13/hour, full-time, I would make enough to cover childcare, I think. Um, please? I would be working so that...someone else could be working to watch my children? Isn't that just a little nutty?

So I adjunct-teach one course right now, via the internet, and it helps. It really helps. But I am exhausted. Really exhausted. It looks like I'll try to pick up more classes, though I don't know how I'll actually teach them. We need the money.

Don't get me going about pay for adjuncts. It's untenable for teachers, a bargain for schools: that's the politest way I can describe it.

My point is that I'm the one that's "not working," and so I really should be working more, since I'm the one who's just having fun with the kids all day. It's only fair that I should burn the midnight oil. I know he likes his job, and works full-time, which is plenty. When is what I do considered "plenty"? Well, when I get a DAMN JOB, apparently.

I'm having a hard time with this. How much more am I supposed to do in order to do "my share"? I think I'm supposed to try to get my eves and weekends job back so we can all be miserable all over again. Oh yeah, I forgot. That was really great. It was really great, having enough money. I forgot how much fun that was.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Cincinnati's Just OK

I wrote a piece that's in CityBeat this week; here it is.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Life of the Mind

Jay returned from an evening walk with the boys and again proclaimed that we must move out of our neighborhood. Alas, we cannot afford to, as you've heard me griping about already. When I hear him say, "I make what I make. We don't have enough money," what I hear is, "If you had a real job, we could afford to move (and afford a million other things)." The message I hear sends me into a tailspin every time.

The job thing. It's more complex than having or not having a job, firstly because the pay in my field is modest. Adjunct English jobs pay a pittance, generally not enough to make it worthwhile if it necessitates childcare. For example, a course at a local community college pays $900 for a nine-week term. Childcare for two would mean about six hours per week. Do the math. It's sobering.

But as my one adjunct gig wants to see me "professionalizing" in my field—writing papers, presenting at conferences, getting articles published—I realize that my hang-up with teaching isn't purely economic. It's the challenge of maintaining the life of the mind when my daily life leaves no room for such luxuries.

Why, I ask myself, did I pursue an area of study so irreconcilably at odds with the practicalities of life? I'm baffled by my oversight. And now I'm scrambling to figure out how my schooling may transfer to some kind of livelihood outside of academia, because I don't see any way of scraping together the massive amounts of thinking time I'd need.

So now I'm thinking of all those other mothers out there, whose life of the mind is challenged by raising a family. Our minds are never idle—not by any stretch. Rather, they are occupied constantly by the daily details, vigilant attentions, to-do lists, decisions, and tiny teachable moments that have taken the place of quiet reading and careful scholarly contemplation.

Truthfully, it's much easier to attend to the daily life than it is to retain academic conversation in the foreground. The struggle comes with hoping they'll reside under the same roof. It's hard keeping house here, sometimes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Elbow Grease

Those of you who have visited my home have no doubt noticed that our bathrooms don't typically exude that "We Were Expecting You" feel, even if we were, in fact, expecting you. We knew you were coming, but still, it wasn't enough of a nudge to clean the damn bathrooms.

First of all, I apologize. I love a clean bathroom as much as the next person, but for some reason I just don't get enthused about cleaning my own, and there are a million other things to keep clean: dishes, diapers and duds immediately come to mind. What's more, a bathroom in my house stays clean for about forty-five seconds (just like the litter boxes). Maybe there's a bat-signal I don't know about: Clean bathroom! Clean bathroom! So although it makes no sense, there's little encouragement. At least I can admire my clean sink until the next meal.

Well, back to the bathrooms. Did you notice the toilets were not as sparkly as they should be? That they even had stains in the bowls? Why am I asking? Of course you noticed. Who hops onto a toilet without looking in the bowl? No flies on you. The toilets were atrocious.

Well not anymore, I smugly report. I whipped them into shape. So come on over, 'cause they're clean as new and we all know they won't stay that way for long. I'm not going to include a snapshot, because you know what a clean toilet bowl looks like. You haven't seen one in my house, so all the more reason to stop by. Have a drink. Visit the powder room.

But my post, though brimming with satisfaction, is not simply about Mission Accomplished. It's the means, my friend, not the ends. "Scale remover" topped my grocery lists for the past month because I was too miserly to spring and exorbitant eight bucks for a bottle of mystery chem. I absolutely hate spending money on something like that, potent but undrinkable. Gawd. If I'm going to get a bottle of whoopass, it's bleach. Bleach is bleach. Cheap, mean, and gets the job done. End of story. It's my version of having a gun in the house.

So no scale remover. Just me versus the toilet. I did use some bleach, let it sit, let it think about the possibilities. Not much help. Then, scrubbing away with my yellow gloves and scrubby sponge, I began to think of other tactics. What is this stuff like? It's the question I ask when I don't have the right word, or tool, or technique. It should have been so obvious, perhaps: removing toilet scale is like getting my teeth cleaned. Scrape scrape scrape. So I grabbed a small flathead screwdriver and got to work, carefully chipping away. It worked like a charm. Pretty nifty.

Now I'm thinking of all those other chemicals people use in their home, and I wonder how we'd all make do without them. We'd probably have stronger, well-greased elbows—and minds too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Quiet time

When Elliott's asleep it's hard for me to reconcile this picture of peacefulness with the ball of fire he is when he's awake. Lately he has become more assertive, getting angry when he comes up against all those "can'ts"--can't hit or kick or sit on Ezra; can't use the windows as drums; can't have cookies instead of dinner. And on it goes. It's damn difficult redirecting him, changing can'ts into cans in the blink of an eye. I'm not that good at it, really, and I say "no" an awful lot more than I'd like.

But then I look at him sleeping, and I think, "How on earth do I say 'no' to this guy all day?"

Friday, July 9, 2010

Forget about the Toe!

As I sit here at my laptop, late at night, in the quiet house, I'm searching to learn what my fellow Cincinnatians are saying about Westwood. I live in Westwood. It's the city's largest neighborhood, and its reputation is complex and generally unflattering.

This all matters to me because I think we'd like to move (away from here), which will be very difficult unless something miraculous happens. But that's another post.

As my head spins with a million conjectures, my thoughts naturally turn to my two boys, who are sleeping soundly. Elliott, poor dear, has one fewer toenails than he should. While romping in the back yard last night, he caught it on something, and pulled the pinky toenail right off. He has taken it well, though he limps around a bit, and I am doing my best with the Bactine and ointment. If our luck holds, we won't have a toe situation on our hands.

I can't protect them from everything. Try as I might, I can't ensure that all toenails will remain on their toes, as we hope they will. But I do my best. And that's why we're trying to move, away from our corner lot, and a bit farther away from the rough-around-the-edges parts of our city. I look back at the environment my parents created for me, and contrast it with the one I'm providing for my kids, and I keep wishing I could do better. Something quieter. Something greener. Something safer.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pass the Soda

During this past weekend, we had a small party for Ezra's first birthday. We asked family members if they could bring some things, like soda and snacks, because the way I see it, "fun" food turns a party into a Party.

We here at the House of Bunthoff like junk food. What's not to like? It's super-sweet, or super-salty, or fattening. It's unnatural--nothing you'd find growing in a field or, say, trailside when you're out gallivanting in the woods. But it does what it does well, socking us right in the tastbuds so that we come begging for more.

As I said, we like junk food. But we don't keep it around. Why? Because we'd eat it. Duh. And just because they sell it doesn't mean we have to buy it and bring it home. Still, a party's a party. And a bit of junk food is okay, at least right now.

Well Elliott zeroed in on the soda--or "pop," for all you Ohioans who may be asking why I'd lump baking soda in with junk food. Elliott adores soda. When we're driving he always spots the beverage trucks. If he could drink soda instead of water, I'm sure he would. The only two year old that wouldn't is either disturbingly self-controlled or has been amazingly sheltered from a sugary world.

Elliott drinking soda at a birthday party is fine with me. I'd rather him enjoy his brother's birthday than become pissed off, at his young age, that it's a party celebrating his brother rather than himself. I want him thinking that parties are fun, where people are happy to be together and celebrating.

On his third cup of soda in, let's say, three minutes, Jay starts to feel like he should step in, as a responsible guardian. I'm already on my second glass of wine, and so I agree, but am also thinking, heck, how much soda could he drink in two more hours, and how much harm could it do? Knowing we were partying with family members who are much more soda-permissive than we are, I didn't want to foul the pudding, as it were. And neither did Jay, I'm sure.

When Jay limited Elliott's soda refills, one family member responded with something like, "If you didn't limit his soda so much, if he was around it more, then he wouldn't be so keen on it."

Um, okay.

So let's get this straight--if we gave him soda MORE often, he'd end up drinking LESS? But I don't think that was even the assertion. I think it was more like if we gave him soda more often, we just wouldn't notice him going gangbusters for the soda. Because we'd all, like, be used to drinking soda. Instead of other stuff, like water.

I don't know where to begin with this. I'm no nutritionist, and I'm no crunchy food saint. I have, and have cooked meals from, some of the better vegetarian cookbooks, but I also, just tonight, fed my family leftover chicken, au gratin potatoes from a box, and NO VEGETABLE. I've done worse, but am capable of much, much better. Still, though, we never pass a two-liter of soda 'round the dinner table. It's just not part of our food agenda.

And, gentle readers, fellow Americans, it shouldn't be. Soft drinks should be a treat. An occasional indulgence. Those sodas you suck down are a main reason why you're overweight. Each sweet 12-ounce can provides you with nearly 200 calories that you'd be better off not consuming. Food for thought, as they say.

"What about diet sodas?" you may ask defensively. I'll rant on that another time. I'll tell you this: if you have one every day, they may not be helping you that much.

So you can tell I'm a little steamed, because the reasoning just doesn't add up, and what's more, someone in my own family thinks there's a better way to feed my kids--a way that would give them more enjoyment. But that would be hedonism, wouldn't it--and we've all been getting the hard sell on hedonism for a long time.

Since I'm sure you're thirsty now, why don't you just crack open a can of soda and raise it in the air. To hedonism! Take a swig. Life is so, so sweet, isn't it?!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Same Boy, Different Year

June 10, 2010
June 10, 2009
A year ago, Ezra was tiny. Now he's less tiny. Today's his birthday, and during the quieter moments I found myself remembering what it was like to be laboring, to be at the hospital, and to be holding that tiny new boy. Today he's busy crawling, climbing, standing, and almost walking, becoming a little less babyish each day.

Truthfully, it's difficult stirring up a commotion for his birthday because he doesn't know the difference. He doesn't understand "birthday." A babe's birthday is really an occasion for the family members. And his Papa doesn't come home until tomorrow, and his grandparents, who are most excited, don't arrive until Sunday. So it's a prolonged celebration.

So my mother and I had a lovely day that didn't include too much: storytime at the library; lunch with Aunt Linda; plenty of playtime outside. Mom recalled all the wacky, wonderful birthday cakes she made for us over the years: Raggedy Ann, Big Bird, a train, a roller skate, and even a racetrack with galloping horses. My birthday cake track record is abysmal by comparison, but granted, the kids are young. This year it'll be cupcakes for Ezra. But I'm already thinking of what traditions we should foster, what rituals may mark our most special days.

I'd like to think that I won't soon forget the intense thrill of welcoming a new babe into the world, but it likely fades with time. So today--what's left of it--I'm savoring the memory of holding that fresh little one, all warm and sleepy and so, so tiny. But with a year under his belt now he's a plucky, sassy fellow.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Summer of Ezra

It's strawberry time again here in Ohio, and my mom is here to help out--in countless ways, but tonight it's with strawberries. On a Tuesday night a year ago, we did exactly the same thing. We stayed up late, after I had come home from work, coring and slicing berries I'd bought that day and preparing batches of jam to make the next day. But baby Ezra arrived the next day, so mom handled nearly all the strawberry work.

Ezra is a year old this week, and here we are putting up strawberries again. Amazing! And what I love most is that Ezra loves strawberries. If he didn't, it all just wouldn't make sense somehow.

Today we trekked to the Wyoming farmers' market for a flat--my second this season--and the entire affair was a thousand times easier than last year. A morning spent at the zoo had exhausted the boys, and so they slept in their car seats, and Grandma Cole sat with them, while I trotted down the street to claim my berries. We returned home with still-sleeping kids--amazing! Tonight we put up two jam batches to finish tomorrow, and prepared the rest for freezing. And dinner featured a lovely salad of romaine and strawberries with a poppy seed dressing. All in all, a banner day.

Though you're surely not a grade-A strawberry fiend like me, I must recommend the berries from Branstrator Farm, near Wilmington, Ohio. They're as close to perfect as you'll ever find, with every one a model berry.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Mouths of Babes

The mouth of the baby is really one of the main sources of parental anxiety. They need to eat, and it's our job to feed them. They wail. They upchuck. (Had to go with "upchuck," because hey, when do you get a chance to throw in a word like that?) They are incredibly cunning when it comes to hiding contraband in their mouths. Ezra eats garden-variety foul things on a daily basis, such as errant rocks and cat crunchies.

But kids also talk, and it's the straightest straight talk you'll hear. And that, dear reader, is priceless. Ezra, at eleven months old, babbles and coos, says "ma," "ba," and "da," in a half-purposeful way, sometimes, and makes a terrific little grunt when he's coyly trying to attract attention—or a partner in mischief. But Elliott, the eldest, at nearly three, offers up the real deal, a compendium of our best and worst daily words.

"Shut up baby!" he rattled off weeks ago. I was stunned, until I realized that it's one of Jay's phrases from the trying nightly routine of putting two to bed simultaneously (Ezra ALWAYS cries at bedtime). "Very very special," my favorite, comes out as "Ver ver feshul." Lots of things are special. Anything delicious, like soda, a trip to McDonald's, or a brownie, is very very special. A trip up or down stairs used to elicit "Hope not fall down"—a testament to our deep-abiding fear of our own staircases. "Umbrella" comes out sounding Italian, and "Make it louder," as in "turn up the music," sounds strangely British.

I could go on. Of course I could go on—I'm his mother. But today took the cake. I've fixed him a snack of Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese. The snack retained his interest for about thirty seconds, then ended up on the floor, where it quickly attracted the attention of Ezra (crackers) and Tater, our cat (total cheesehound). Elliott was bummed when I swept up the crumbs, tossed the licked cheese, and nixed any notion of another snack. "More damn crackers," he said. "I think he just said…" I thought. "Have some more damn crackers," he repeated, in his precise but stilted way. He got this one from me. There are so many damn things I've cooked, cleaned, found, or thrown away that I should be surprised that he's been expletive-free so long. Anyway, I did what any self-respecting pottymouth parent might do: I pretended to misunderstand him while vowing that I MUST come up with better ways to verbally vent my frustration. "No, no more brown crackers," I replied. "The brown crackers were left on the floor."

"Damn" and "brown" sort of rhyme. That's my cover-up. If Elliott can call bean bags "green bags," and bathing suits "baking suits," then damn it, they're brown crackers!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Quittin' time

Quittin’ time

Today was my last day working at the library. I gave my notice two weeks ago, and suddenly my final day was upon me, and like any other noteworthy day, it just slipped by in time’s silent, relentless way of going. So tomorrow I won’t be going to work, but of course, I’ll still be working.

Why did I quit?

In an age when any job—especially a halfway decent job—is a blessing, how could I quit? I generally like going to work. It could be a lot worse. But I’m tired of Jay hating the weekends that never quite arrive with our tag-team parenting schedule. And I’m tired of it too. And I’m tired of staying up late to get things done. I’m just tired. I’ll spare all y’all the Marxist-feminist analysis of what all’s wrong with how work gets doled out in our fair land. I just want to feel less exhausted and more connected with my family.

I’ll miss my friends at the library, and the camaraderie that comes with serving a diverse population. I’ll miss the variety of the job. But I won’t miss the challenges that come with serving a diverse population. And I won’t miss the mundane aspects of the job. Same as in most jobs, I guess.

I’d love to say I have big plans for Life, Part III: After the Library, but really, I don’t. First order of business: get some sleep. Second: enjoy a weekend, for crying out loud. Third: maybe go to the library.

Monday, April 26, 2010

On Fiction

What, after all, is fiction? Can you give me a good, clear definition? Bet you can't, beyond "something that didn't really happen." But I really can't offer you a much better one. The border zone between truth and fiction is a hazy place. However, most of us would assert that "real life" is not fiction, because it's, well, real.

But it's not so simple. We tell ourselves fictions, and they become our realities. Truth is often stranger than fiction—but only for the simple fact that the truth is often ignored. Fiction, it seems, is often more palatable.

I think of this because my mother-in-law, bless her heart, recently asked my husband if our marriage is doing poorly. Not long before, when I had explained that I'd likely be leaving one of my part-time jobs soon, so that we have more family time together, she said, "So your marriage isn't doing that great." There's a difference, but it's she apparently only sees binaries. Truth is, we've been tag-team parenting for about 18 months—more about that in a later post—but I'll just say that it's exhausting. I can't tell you how much we're looking forward to sharing weekends together again. My dear MIL has apparently imagined us on the rocks—but nope, we're here, same as it ever was.

When we were married, my mother in law (bless her heart) asked me repeatedly whether I was sure I wanted to marry her son—as if she couldn't quite believe it.

When I look at the track record that has emerged, I would say that my fictional life, in her mind, is filled with much more drama than my real life actually features. While I'd like to be sitcom-worthy—we all like a good story—the truth is, things are more or less fun and okay.

Our lived realities are created in large part by what we tell ourselves—it's not what is true, but rather what we convince ourselves is the truth.

My mother-in-law isn't the only one imagining a better real world, though. If you've watched Food, Inc., or read anything by Eric Schlosser, or Michael Pollan, you know that the way we eat in these parts is a case of willed ignorance. Food, Inc., didn't tell me anything I didn't know already about our top-heavy industrial food systems, but it highlighted the clandestine nature of the way much of our food is produced. We imagine transparency—healthy farms, lush plants and animals, and even fairly paid and well-treated laborers—but much of our food comes from places that would turn our stomachs. Sure, this food is inexpensive and readily available. But we kid ourselves about its origins. We don't want to know the path from cow to hamburger—facing the truth would leave a bitter taste in our mouths. So we keep telling ourselves stories, imagining nice farms, happy animals, and various iterations of agrarianism.

I may come across as pointing fingers, but if I do, rest assured that four fingers point right back at yours truly. I still grocery shop like anyone else.
More "ethical" food comes with its tradeoffs, like cost and convenience, and those are biggies. And I tell myself other fictions, too. I live in Westwood—is there any other way, if you live in Westwood? "This is a really nice neighborhood," I tell myself. It is--mostly. Good neighbors, it's generally quiet, access to public transportation, a local library nearby. But it has its problems: plenty of casual theft; drug traffic; underperforming public schools. Ignoring the problems makes the place seem nicer, but only if I remain ignorant. And if I remain ignorant, I'm complacent. I'm a bystander. I'm not part of the solution. Optimism, and believing in the possibility of something better, is only healthy when one's eyes are wide open to the problems.

So, in terms of truth and fiction, I suppose it's important to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves, about how the world works and why we do what we do. And if we don't like the stories, we need to try to retell them. Try to change the endings. Imagine ourselves as protagonists. Reading the world around us can be a challenge—and rewriting it even more so.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sweet Little Bites

Sure enough--give a finicky boy a plate of heart-shaped sandwiches, and they disappear! We finally whipped out the mini-sandwich maker that Elliott got for Easter, and I must say--little bits of food never looked so appetizing. If you're feeling a bit down, or can't figure out what to eat, why not make it heart-shaped, or triangular, and see what happens?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mom Vision

Being a mother twice-over qualifies me to chime in on a whole host of mom-related issues. Perhaps I give myself too much credit. But the way I figure it, plenty of non-moms are telling moms how it is, and how it should be. I’m at least as qualified as all y’all, I say. So hear me out.

One of my starkest realizations, as I spiraled deeper into motherhood, is that mothering changes the way I see the world around me. I’m not talking about the phenomenon of seeing other moms everywhere, or noticing the countless cute kid things I could spend money on now that I’m child-laden.

I’m talking about how living with children—say, when I’m cooking, or talking on the phone, or taking them somewhere outside my house, heaven forbid—changes how I perceive and absorb what’s going on.

This new way of seeing is not to be confused with a state of distraction. And this I state emphatically, for the mother, especially the stay-at-home mother (whose ranks I count myself within) is often as misunderstood and denigrated as she is loved. I mean, how hard can it be, right? All you have to do is watch the kids all day!? Oh, gentle reader, were it that simple…

Take my trip to Ye Olde Muffler Shoppe a couple of weeks ago. As I herd my two boys into the shop, Half Pint is caught off guard by the New Situation, which can balk a toddler as quickly as a housecat suddenly finding a dingo in the house. Half Pint whimpers, shields his face from the other waiting customers, and immediately wants me to pick him up. When I hand over my keys, he’s wise, even though he can’t see the countertop, and starts calling, “Car, white car, white car,” in a distressed tone. “Mama home. Mama car.” He senses trouble.

Little Bit, the darling sack of potatoes on my hip, gets interested in things and starts squirming. As I try to explain my car’s symptoms, the when-where-and-how, hoping to guide Muffler Man’s prognostication, I simultaneously try to keep Half Pint and Little Bit calm and cool. At this point I’m holding both of them, trying to keep them happy, as I continue talking with Car Man. As we manage out the door, I silently say to myself, “Ahhh. Crisis averted.”

This situation is remarkable only in its ubiquity; it replays itself whenever we go to the grocery store; doctor’s office; any store; church; restaurants; friends’ homes. You name it. And I’m sure countless other moms are out there, trying the same aversion tactics. The best way I can describe it is that only half of my brain is engaged in whatever I’m trying to do, and my eyes only occasionally focus in the same direction at once. Though my visage may suggest serenity, make no mistake: I’m constantly on damage control duty.

Multitasking? This may be what I do, but true multitasking is a myth. What I do, as a mother, is more like driving while trying to see clearly through bifocals. I’m trying to handle the immediate task at hand while also scanning the terrain for stormy weather brewing. Have you tried to coupon shop while managing two kids in the cart? I’m not sure if it’s an amazing feat or a sign of my own persistent haplessness. Depends on the day, I guess.

I know I do this because I notice how it’s difficult for my better half, who is easily frazzled by such situations—and rightfully so. I’m only marginally frazzled, and it’s mainly because I don’t have a choice. Like it or not, the groceries must be bought, the car must be fixed, and we simply must leave the house. And as a result, though Half Pint and Little Bit rarely melt down in a store, or at church, or at the library, I often do the most harebrained things. A few weeks ago I left groceries in my cart when I drove away from the grocery store. The kids, of course, were fine, strapped in and safe. But some of the groceries mysteriously didn’t make it into the trunk. It’s as if I just didn’t see them, didn’t really focus on the groceries by the time we arrived back at the car. My mind had refocused on more important things, ostensibly.

As a person who has long valued her solitary time—time to write, recharge, and generally spend time on whatever I wanted to focus on—this new way of seeing the world is unsettling…and necessary.

Monday, April 12, 2010

It Takes All Kinds

Those of you who know me know that I may live in Cincinnati, but I don’t LOVE Cincinnati. I complain about a lot of things. I’m trying to become more positive. I hope that, someday, maybe 85 percent of the words I speak will be affirming, optimistic, glass-half-fullisms. But that’s someday.

When you live in the Queen City, you must either embrace its complexities—fascinating and thoroughly disorienting, the way I imagine having a deep relationship with a bisexual person might be—or you must have one sick case of willful ignorance. I have neither, so I settle for chronic , if measured, displeasure. There are great things about this city. But there are many shitty things about this city.

Take today, for example. Driving to work, a guy in front of me at a light calmly opens his car door, places a Colt 45 tallboy on the pavement, and closes the door. Like waitstaff will come along shortly to pick it up.

Turns out, surprise surprise, our neighbors—and I use “neighbors” loosely, meaning “people who constantly drive through our neighborhood”—include drug peddlers. Though dealing drugs IS a home-based business of sorts--Flexible schedule! Be your own boss (sort of)! Meet all sorts of interesting people! Unlimited earning potential!—it’s also ILLEGAL and attracts UNSAVORY characters. And they park in front of our house. These qualities might make playing porchmonkey more INTERESTING—you know, DRAMATIC, SUSPENSEFUL--but drama isn’t what I’m looking for in a neighborhood, if you follow me here.

So E and E, and I, dressed as we were, were having a great good day today, eating lunch on the lawn, horsing around, ringing the doorbell, eating sand. All the usual stuff you might do if you’re 32, or 2, or 0. Of course, along with the food, and toys, I’ve brought out a pen and paper, just in case I see something interesting I might want to recall later.

Nothing transpires, of course. But when I get home from work tonight, Jay gives a full report.

Not only the two main cars, but a third car this time, and they all sped by twice. Our casual talk now includes druggie details, scenarios, speculations. Jay’s an expert on it, from my way of thinking, because (1) he has watched “The Wire,” and (2) well, that’s my only reason.

I explain that I sit outside with a pen and paper, and sometimes a camera, because the local PD said that tag numbers would be helpful.

“I don’t think I’d make it obvious that you’re taking pictures. Or writing things down,” Jay says. “They’ll know we’re watching them.”

What I should’ve said is, “Well, I don’t think THEY should make it obvious that they’re dealing drugs. If they don’t want people watching, they should go somewhere WHERE THEY WON’T BE SEEN.”

But it was more like BLAH BLAH BLAH Damn it I’m taking pictures BLAH BLAH BLAH. What I was trying to say is that, damn it, the cops don’t care, the dope fiends don’t care, and the local civic association looks the other way because property values are—whisper it—de-li-cate. These people can suck it.

The whole city, it seems, turns a blind eye on bull like this. I KNOW it’s hard for cops to catch these guys. But that doesn’t mean I should PRETEND I don’t see it. If you are reading this, and happen to BE one of the drug dealers, then YES, we’re watching you. You make us unhappy. I’d like you to secure gainful, legal employment and cease tearing ass through my neighborhood.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A wife and mother's rant as she sits awake in a quiet house...

Why can't we see the work she does?
When is her work deemed "real"?

The tired mother ponders half-angrily--no, just angrily--after another weekend of tag-team parenting. He works days. She works eves and weekends. She pieces a few other things together.

They both work hard. Still, her work is strangely invisible, and he expects her to be doing MORE. She is frustrated, and discouraged, and indignant.

A reading recommendation for my countless invisible readers, with their own invisibly busy lives: What Mothers Do (Especially When It Looks Like Nothing), by Naomi Stadlen.

Good night, strengthy mother. It's a cold night. Sleep tight.