Party Tricks

Posted: June 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Food, Housewife Superhero, Other Mothers, Parenting, Sisters | 17 Comments »

Everyone needs a good party trick. Something that’ll wow the crowd you roll with, whoever they are.

And if you’ve got school-aged kids, I’m guessing you’ve been in the eye of the party storm recently. Right now there’s probably some finger food (“healthy, please”) you have to whip up for an end-of-school picnic, or a snack (for 35) for a piano recital. You’re having to remember that Thursday is Crazy Hair Day and Friday’s just a half-day and Saturday the soccer players are each contributing $5 for a gift for the coach.

This time of year for moms is like April for accountants. Our busy season. Teacher gifts, gymnastics performances, field days, staff appreciation lunches. Getting to the end of the school year seems like an endless process.

My mother had a “quality not quantity” philosophy about most things. I see that reflected in how my sisters and I cook. We have a limited repertoire of offerings, but what we do we do well. There are certain dishes—Chicken Marbella, goat cheese and sun-dried tomato spread, sherry poppy seed cake—that may not be on Food and Wine’s latest cover, but are consistent crowd-pleasers. There’s comfort in the classics.

But it’s nice to add something new to the mix, no matter how humble.

That’s why I was thrilled when my former roomie Tanya posted a picture on Facebook last year of a rainbow fruit salad she made for some Girl Scout gathering. It was adorable. And easy. And healthy, damn it.

The next day I took one to a ballet potluck to rave reviews. Teens were taking pictures of it with their cell phones—no lie! The ratio of effort to gushing praise was unbeatable. It’s been my suburban mom party trick ever since.

Here’s one that I made last week:

Cute, right?

If you’ve still got some end-of-the-year events on your calendar, try this out and report back on the accolades you get. I require no credit, but will happily receive royalty payments via PayPal.

At this rate I’ll be bringing this fruit salad to my kids’ college graduations. (Thank you, Tanya.)

Of course, there was a time when my idea of a good party trick didn’t involve a platter of fruit labeled with masking tape with my name on it.

I mean, I’ve never seen anyone chug a goldfish, but I’ve known people who opened beer bottles with their teeth, or knotted cherry stems with their tongues. I’ve seen people ride bikes down stairs, light  farts on fire, and do The Worm. I’ve witnessed folks climb up roofs, jump out windows, turn their eyelids inside out, and shave their heads.

Ah, youth. Such foolish acts of bravado. Makes me question sending the girls to college some day.

Some party tricks involve skill. I was proud to see my brother-in-law in action at a family wedding a few years back. It was a late-night karaoke after party—no elderly grandmas around—and he performed the 90′s hit The Humpty Dance. It’s his go-to song, and with good reason. He totally rocked it, had the crowd loving him, and then at the end he dropped to floor in a full split, then pulled himself up and did a spin. It brought the house down.

I was standing and clapping and howling like some studio-audience mom who just watched her son win big on Jeopardy.

I’d keep saving for college for the girls if they could pull off something like that.

My sister Judy and my dad used to have a trick they’d do via phone. She’d ask someone to pick a card from a deck. Then she’d call to “The Wizard” and ask “Could you please tell this person what card they’re holding?” She’d hand the phone over and my dad—I mean, The Wizard—would reveal the card.

Apparently this trick wowed many a drunk at my sister’s college. And gave my father the gratification of being part of a good party stunt. Dad still maintains you can call him any time of day or night to do this. The Wizard, apparently, is always in.

I’d reveal how it’s done but I’ve probably said too much already. And I’d like to stay in the will.

Anyway, the other day we were at a picnic and my friend David offered to open my beer. He took out his iPhone, pushed against the back of the case, and a flat bottle opener slid out. From his phone. It was SO COOL.

Turns out it’s marketing schwag with his company’s logo on it. I begged and whined and pleaded for him to get me one.  And last week he did. [Thrill!]

So I think I’m pretty cool now.

I mean, sure, I’ve got the rainbow fruit salad up my sleeve, should I ever need to bust one out. But now this suburban mama’s got a party trick that has nothing to do with kids, thankyouverymuch.

And I don’t even have to wake up The Wizard to do it.

What’s your party trick?


Hippie Birthday to Me

Posted: May 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: California, Discoveries, Food, Husbandry, Miss Kate, My Body, My Temple | 7 Comments »

I’m using this time while I’m not working to become more of a hippie.

My recent birthday might have brought this all on. It’s less about wanting to hang out in drum circles and more about wanting to be super healthy. Like, I’m someone who won’t use lotion with parabens, but I’ll drop $300 on a pair of sandals no problem. So whatever that makes me—a typical San Franciscan? someone who confuses marketing companies? a woman with smooth skin and over-priced shoes?—well, that’s what I guess I am.

I started my recent personal overhaul with my armpits. Because when you think of hippie women it’s that part of them that immediately comes to mind, right?

And noooo, I have not stopped shaving. I’m half-Italian, people. If I dropped the ball on hair removal my poor husband might wake up one day entrapped in a dense thicket of hair that sprouted up overnight. It’d be like those impenetrable thorn bushes that grew around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, except it’d be coming from my body. And we’d need the Jaws of Life to release him.

Though I guess a magic sword would work too, if we had one handy.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes—armpits.

No, the change I’m making has to do with deodorant. You may be relieved to hear I’m not forsaking it altogether. I’ve been using some major market anti-perspirant for ages. Then I shared a hotel room with a friend recently and she told me the stuff is loaded with aluminum. Which, it turns out, is wicked bad for you. I feel like I’d heard about that once, but then I saw something shiny, got distracted, and forgot about it.

So now I’ve started using some earthy-brand pit spray that’s $17.99 a bottle. (Hippie livin’ don’t come cheap.) It smells, literally, like roses. The helpful woman at the alternative pharmacy told me she uses it. And she didn’t stink.

Worst I can figure is I’ll smell like that basket of rosebud potpourri your grandma keeps in her bathroom. At least until my natural funk breaks through. Which’ll likely be nine minutes after I leave the house each day, or any time I do something strenuous like update my Facebook status.

My other hippie undertaking is that I’m juicing. I think that’s slang for when people take steroids, but I’m just putting lots of veggies into a machine and drinking the liquid it spits out. Mark got me this awesome appliance for my birthday a few weeks ago. I’ve become obsessed with concocting the most wretched combinations—kale, chard, collard greens, bok choy, carrots, apples. It’s like the darker and grosser it looks, the better it is for me, and the happier I am to drink it.

My friend Mary (also “a juicer”) tells me I’ll live forever. I’m happy someone’s paying attention.

Get this—I even bought wheat grass last week. Hilarious, right? It’s like one part chia pet, one part food product. I don’t know whether to glue googly eyes on it and give it a name, or mercilessly throw it into the churning maw of the machine.

I just hope my rose deoderant can manage the hearty kale-and-collard-greens funk my body’s likely producing.

The fact is, my hippie aspirations are nothing new. Six years ago, partway through my first pregnancy, I decided to ditch my popular O.B. for a midwife. I got super groovy about how I wanted to birth my baby—intervention-free, drug-free, and under self-hypnosis (I’m so not even kidding). So we went shopping for midwives.

Mark was a sport about it. When you consider that his dad is an O.B., it was pretty rad that he obliged my desire to overthrow western birthing conventions so I could burn sage and yodel in Sanskrit during my labor.

And his input on my choice of midwives was important to me—for an unlikely reason. Mark’s tolerance for hippies is much lower than mine. I feared that my labor would involve a long-haired, peasant-skirt clad woman dancing around and entreating Mark to praise Gaia and rub organic lavender oil on my girl parts. He’d be all annoyed and eye-rolly, and peacemaker that I am, I’d spend the moments between contractions trying to getting him and the midwife to like each other.

“You know, Harmony,” I’d say puffing and wheezing, “If you look past his button-down shirt, Mark and you have a lot in common! He was an Eagle Scout, you know. You live in a yurt, and he’s spent plenty of nights sleeping in a tent!”

“And Mark?” Loud moan as a contraction begins. “Harmony may not have a TV, but she does have a bike and YOU like bicycles. Now—discuss!”

I thought of this last weekend when I took Kate to the Himalayan Fair in Berkeley. I’d never been but instantly loved the winding pathways through the trees, lined with booths selling batik scarves, jingly ankle bracelets, woolen animal-shaped toys, and all sorts of tunics, sundresses, and man-skirts you’d feel totally comfortable wearing to a Hari Krishna cook-out.

Kate got a henna tattoo, we ate some vegetarian stew, and sat in an open field watching an Indian dance troupe do their thing. It was actually pretty hard to see the stage since half the audience was standing—doing those long-armed swim-strokey dance moves, closing their eyes and holding their faces up to the sun.

Let’s just say there were a lot of other folks there who don’t use Dry Idea anti-perspirant.

As I nibbled on chickpeas and took in the scene I turned to Kate and said, “This is excellent. I’m happy we can have some alone time today.”

She said, “Yeah, Mom. But, can we go to Target now?”

Ah, sure. The girl’s got a lot of her dad in her. She’s no hippie wanna-be like me, but she’s got plenty of birthdays ahead of her to change all that.


Happy Easter-Passover Hybrid

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Extended Family, Food, Friends and Strangers, Holidays, Kate's Friends, Mom, Other Mothers, Sisters | No Comments »

I heard the most EXCELLENT thing this week. I was chatting with a mom from Kate’s school, and her cell phone buzzed with a text. She leaned over to look at it, and slowly said aloud as she typed, “Yes, we’re still on for Saturday night.”

Then she looked at me. “We’re hosting a Seder this weekend—not because we’re Jewish or anything—but Dustin,” she nodded in the direction of her son, “wants to be half-Jewish.”

“Wait—” I said, confused, “Dustin’s half-Jewish?”

“No, no,” she explained laughing. “Not Jewish at all. But he wants to be half-Jewish.”

Okay, so how rad is THAT?

As a fervid, shameless wanna-be Jew (and the mother of one as well), this news shook me to my goy core. I’d never pondered the concept of half-Jewdom, and it struck me as sheer genius.

I mean, as a half-Jew you can just pick and choose what you want to get out of the either scene, right? Not into gefilte fish? Why should you be? That’s your WASP genes talking. Don’t want to sit through synagogue? Wear a yarmulke? Or miss out on Santa Claus, Christmas trees, or sneaking spiked egg nog? No problemo! That’s your other half talkin’. Take what you want. Leave the rest behind.

On the other hand, you’ve also got free reign to stuff yourself sick with latkes, call your grandparents Bubbe and Zeyde, feel a deep dramatic connection with Fiddler on the Roof, and have a blow-out bat mitzvah that’d make a Kardashian wedding look like a low-budg gig at a VFW hall.

Man, I’m all hopped up on the brilliant potential of it all.

Needless to say, I wanna be half-Jewish now too. DESPERATELY. And I no doubt freaked out that poor kid the other day when I got all in-his-face freaky fired up. “Dustin! I LOVE that!” I bellowed. “I wanna to be half-Jewish too!”

He was all wide-eyed backing towards his mother’s car, like, “Okay, Kate’s-weirdo-mom… whatEV.” But of course, he was too polite to say that.

Alas, until the time I’m fully indoctrinated in half-Judaism (in a ceremony I’ve yet to concept but will certainly relay the details of here), I’m staring down the barrel of a full-on Easter-only celebration this weekend. Somehow we’ve fallen off the guest list of our friends’ Seder, no doubt because I over enthusiastically made all manner of faux-pas in past years, tapping bitter herbs behind my ears like perfume and feigning gagging noises when Uncle Myron poured me a glass of Manischewitz.

Or maybe it’s just that they’re out of town this weekend.

Anyway, our Easter plan is brunch and and an egg hunt with our turbo-creative neighbors. Their yard is a gorgeous overgrown garden paradise that makes you feel like you’re in some Tuscan village not a suburban North Oakland double lot. Mark’s baking cinnamon buns and will no doubt bust out some highbrow mimosa-like drink.

There will be plenty of other folks and food there too, but there’s part of me that still needs a ham-and-scalloped-potato dinner later in the day as well. Oh, and green beans. Might as well go full-bore traditional.

So I’ll be the last-minute loser at Honey Baked tomorrow being told there’s only a 65-pound 280-dollar ham available that’ll feed 30-40 buffet style or 80-100 for apps. And because I’ll feel like a failure making pasta for dinner on Easter, I’ll buy the damn thing and we’ll be eating ham ’til Fourth of July.

But really, really what I want more than anything is a ham made by my Aunt Jennie. The woman is truly a wizard with a ham. I mean, grown men have wept eating her ham. It’s like some crazy gift, her and the hams.

When my mother was sick Aunt Jennie came to visit with my cousin Sue. They live a couple hours away. The day before, Mom was having a bad day and didn’t get out of bed. But at one of the times when she woke up she told me, “Call Aunt Jennie and tell her when she comes tomorrow not to bring a damn ham.” (Mark still cannot say the word ham without using the adjective “damn.”)

Of course, it’s not like Aunt Jennie had even said she was bringing one. But in one of those ways that you know your siblings inside and out, my mother just knew Jennie, and that Jennie would think a ham was in order.

That’s how Jennie rolls. With a large home-baked ham in tow.

So I called her. “You guys still planning to come?”

“Oooh yuh, yuh,” she clucked.

“Okay, so Mom said for you not to worry about bringing a ham,” I said. Then thinking better of it I added, “I mean, really? She said not to being a damn ham.”

Aunt Jennie just said, “I’m bringing a ham. See you tomorrow.”

And really, when I hung up the phone my sisters and I were relieved that Mom’s request carried no weight. Why would you EVER want to dissuade that woman from working her magic?

My Aunt Jennie is a world-class crack-up. She’s always been my favorite aunt—and my mom’s from a family with eight kids, so that’s actually saying a lot. Jennie has chutzpah like nobody’s business. She’s in her eighties and still works taking care of “old people” (as she puts it). She’s a first-rate grandmother, buying her grandchildren laptops, watching broods of kids after school, and cooking massive Sunday dinners. You can’t leave her house without a plate of something “to have later” and money she managed to stick in your bag “for something for the kids.”

And she will make you piss your pants laughing, in the most dry, innocent-about-her-humor way. Get her talking about the geezers she’s cared for who’ve hit on her. (Scary proof that even decrepit and in oxygen tents all men ever think about is sex.) You’ll nearly pull a Mama Cass on the ham you’re horkin’ down you’ll be howling so loud.

Anyway, God bless my most excellent, one-in-a-million Aunt Jennie. She recently had a mild stroke. Word is it wasn’t so bad, and I truly hope that’s true. If I know her she’s bounced back, poo-pooed anyone who so much as asked after her health, and is planning to serve up a meal this Sunday that’d make Jesus rise from the dead with a napkin tucked under his chin.

If I weren’t 3,000 damn miles away I’d be pulling up a seat myself to that table, as excited about the company as I’d be about the food.

Anyway, as you’re tucking into your holiday meal this weekend—whether it includes matzoh crackers or a green bean casserole, I’d sure appreciate it if you sent a little healing thought my Aunt Jennie’s way. Think of it as paying homage to the High Priestess of Ham.

And if that doesn’t feel quite right to you because you keep kosher or are somehow not a fan of pig meat, no worries. Feel free to consider yourself half-Gentile, if only for the moment.

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The Buzz Around Here

Posted: January 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Discoveries, Doctors, Firsts, Food, Milestones, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Preschool, Scary Stuff | No Comments »

Paige has developed a bizarre and extreme fear of bees.

I have no idea what brought this on. Every time I ask her about it I get a different answer. “Luke at school likes bees.” Or, “No reason.” Or, “Because bees go buzz.” Or, “Can I watch Sesame Street?”

When you want to get to the bottom of something with an almost-four-year-old, they’re often the worst ones to ask about it. Mark and I refer to this as the “bad witness” syndrome. What your preschooler reports ain’t always what happened.

But I know for sure that she has not been stung by a bee, negatively interacted with a bee, or read any scary books or seen videos about bees. I have not punished her by saying, “If you hit your sister again I will stick your hand in a bee hive.” I swear I haven’t. Even if I’ve maybe sometimes wanted to.

I have assured Paige that bees don’t come into the house. I’ve told her that if you don’t bother bees, they won’t bother you. I have remarked that in wintertime, bees aren’t even around because of the cold. (Though this is a bit of a hard sell with our NoCal winter this year. It’s been sunny and in the 60s for most of December and January.) I even said that if you DO get stung by a bee, it hurts for a little while, then goes away. No. Big. Thing.

But for a few weeks now she will wake up in the middle of the night and ask questions like, “Are there any bees in my room?”

Come morning she’ll drop her cereal bowl into the sink and troop off to her room to get dressed announcing, “I’m not wearing anything black today.” This because Kate’s preschool teacher told her FOUR YEARS AGO that the color black attracts bees. A fact that Kate has cleaved to, out of scientific interest more than fear. Therefore any time we come anywhere near a bee or perhaps the kind of flower a bee might like Kate does an inventory of all the clothing we’re wearing to ascertain whether any of us is in imminent danger.

It’s a shame too, since black looks so fab on Paige with her blond hair.

Last week I took Paigey to a pediatric allergist. She’s had some puffy-lip/barfy reactions to walnuts and I wanted to see if there was a legit issue at hand. The allergist was one of those super-goofy-friendly docs who works with kids and could probably make so much more money gruffly caring for adults, but is just too kindhearted and caring and gooberish. Thank God for folks like him, I guess.

Anyway, he was so desperately hell-bent on connecting with Paige I nearly had a diabetic seizure from his saccharine-sweet “Your lovey looks like a wonderful friend” and “Baba… what a nice name for a stuffed sheep” banter.

Paige was even a bit leery of the dude.

He went on to remark that if Paige was three she must be learning how to read, and started quizzing her on what letter makes the sound “rrrr” and, “What is the sound the letter ‘e’ makes?” Hell, I’m not even sure what sound the letter ‘e’ makes. Is it eeee or eh? Anyways, I don’t know what preschool HIS kids go to, but Paige comes home from school with paper plates that have colored cotton balls glued to them and with glitter ground into her scalp. And I don’t think it’s from rigorous academic sessions.

Anyway, Mr. Overly Nice Guy ended up balancing out Paige’s perception of him when he pricked up and down her back with tinctures of various allergens. It was not only pokey and painful, but many of the spots turned into itchy burning pits that she could neither reach nor scratch.

And worse than that the nurse wrote numbers on her back in red pen to indicate what each allergen was. On the car ride home between sobs she relayed to Mark on the phone, “They wrote numbers on my baaaaack!!! In PEN! I want to go home and take a baaaaath!!!”

Turns out she is allergic to walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts. This prompted me to tell Goofy Allergist Doc, “I guess I’ve got to get her off that hazelnut coffee in the morning.”

To which he looked at my blankly and said, “Really? She drinks that?”

I assured him she does not drink hazelnut coffee (while sounding out the words in The Wall Street Journal). She’s more a double-espresso kinda gal.

When, oh when, will the rest of the world understand my sense of humor?

Anyway, now we’re one of those families who carry epi pens with them everywhere and have the preschool stock-piled with various meds. We have a kiddie rainbow-beaded Medic Alert bracelet on order. And I’m an even-more-avid food label reader. Were nuts processed in the same facility where this granola bar was manufactured? Was there “shared equipment?” Does this fruit chew possibly contain “trace elements” of nuts?

Doc Smiley told me that if the equipment in question is used to process almonds—no problem! Paige is not allergic to almonds. So he told me to just call the different companies to find those details out.

For real?

Me: “Hello, Nabisco? It’s Kristen. I’m wondering about the machines you got goin’ there. What nuts are we talking about?”

This does not seem like a call I’m likely to ever make. Not that I want to put Paigey in any jeopardy, God knows. But REALLY? Call the food manufacturer? I mean, who the frick do you ask to speak to? How many hours are you thrashing about in that corporate phone-tree quicksand before you eventually find an administrative assistant who is sitting in a cubical in St. Louis 2,000 miles from any actual food-makin’ “equipment” and really just wants to get you off the phone so she can get back on Facebook who gives you a vague, “Uh… I’m not sure” answer? Or worse, she lies just so she can return to her online solitaire game then update her status that the chicken salad she just ate for lunch was gross.

I’m supposed to trust her?

I think I’ll just be steering away from processed foods—as I try to do anyway.

And blessedly, Paige’s allergies are apparently mild. Not like some kids who see a picture of a peanut and break into hives. Benadryl will likely do the trick if Paige is ever exposed to something. The epi pens are for unusual, hopefully rare reactions. And, I think, just so I’m required to cram one more thing in my already unwieldy mom purse. I can’t get feelin’ all freed up now that I don’t have to carry diapers any more.

The allergist wants us to come back in a month just to check in. After this “lifestyle change” he said people often have many questions. Though I wonder how it is we’ve gone for nearly four years never knowing Paige had a tree nut allergy. (And is it just me, or are you also unclear about which nuts grow on trees? We didn’t have that unit in my science classes…) I mean, if we can just continue to do what we were doing up until now, seems like she should be okay.

Despite Paige’s tormented screams and wailing about her itchy-owie back, interspersed with rants about the numbers drawn on her—”Why numbers? WHY, Mama??”—I did manage to summon some rational thought to ask the doctor some questions, and one was about bee stings. In my mind bee stings and epi pens go hand in hand.

“Is she is more likely to be allergic to bees because she has a nut allergy?” I bellowed over the din.

And the answer it turned out is—no! There’s no relation to the nut and the bee thing.

Well, she may not have a physical allergy to bees, but she certainly seems to have a psychological one. I’ve just got to figure out what the antidote to it is. If any of you have successfully wrangled with similar sorts of preschoolers’ fears, I’m all ears.

I now also know to never write numbers on Paige’s back in red pen. And thankfully, that’s a lifestyle change I can easily accommodate.

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Love Letter to Oakland

Posted: October 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: California, City Livin', Food, Friends and Strangers, Other Mothers | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

Dearest Oakland,

I’m lying in bed (with my laptop) feeling dreamy about our recent weekend together. And while I linger in this hazy bliss I thought I’d write you a letter to tell you just how dazzling you are.

First off, on Friday—remember how I was so crabby? The kids were wild, I was exhausted, and the minutes ’til Mark would get home from work seemed to stretch out mercilessly. I was like a beaten-down soldier whose dismissal date kept getting moved just out of reach.

But then you, Oakland—as if you somehow knew I needed you—you sent in back-up, in the form of my wonderful neighbor, who I spotted from the kitchen window waltzing across my yard holding a plate of cheese and crackers, her children in tow. In minutes my kids were swept from my skirt hem (where they’d been clinging, whining, and fighting all afternoon) to dash off to play with their homies. And me? I was left on the sunny front porch, splayed out in a wicker chair with a dear friend, some processed pub cheese, and the most delicious, well-deserved beer I may have ever consumed.

My mood took such a fast turn I wouldn’t be surprised if I laid down rubber. And all because of the dumb luck served up to me by having settled in my groovy neighborhood. So thanks, Oakland. I needed that.

And if all that all wasn’t day-changing enough, we breathed a collective screw-cooking-dinner sigh, and walked JUST BLOCKS AWAY (frighteningly close, really, considering I’d never been) to a delightfully homey, Friday night food truck event. It was sunny and warm, children frollicked on a grassy knoll (for realz!), and folks gathered on blankets to eat gourmet foods they didn’t cook and wouldn’t have to clean up after.

I love the trendy fanci-fication of roach coaches. I mean, as trends go it’s MUCH better than the whole jeggings thing. And not only do they serve up a mean chicken tikka masala, or mac and cheese with truffle oil, or spicy Thai shrimp with the heads still on right from their little sliding windows, but all the hip food trucks have clever names too. Names that, like nearly every joke I’ve ever heard, I’m immediately unable to remember. But trust me, those trucks had some clever, pun-a-licious names.

Oh, Oakland, you know exactly how to turn a grumpy worn-out mama into a happily fed mother hen, pushing her brood home in a stroller awash with snug contentment that all those people in other parts of the country who own much larger, fancier and less expensive houses—and who send their kids to excellent free local schools—THEY don’t get to walk three blocks to a super-groovy food truck ho-down. No, no, Oakland, I don’t mean to boast about you, but those folks don’t got what you have, honey. No way, no how.

Then Saturday you kept the love coming. Like the cleverest people who ever did live, we went to your shores, and climbed aboard the ferry to our sister city San Francisco—and not with the intention of getting off once there. No, we took the boat as a wonderfully mobile, water-borne, crowd-free way to watch the Blue Angels air show. So smart! So simple! So CHEAP. Yes, we just did a loop through the bay, admiring the sailboats and massive aircraft carriers. It was sunny. It was easy. And it was a lightening-charged THRILL to see those planes roar overhead in tight formation, doing loop-dee-loops, epic free falls, and even drawing a breast cancer ribbon in the air.

Mark, Kate and I were punching the air and screaming “Yee-ha!” like some amped-up rednecks watching Nascar. Paige, on the other hand, wailed and covered her ears from the noise. But really, Oakland, don’t feel bad. You can’t make everyone happy all the time.

Waking up next to you Sunday morning, dear city… Is it wrong to say I’m getting used to you being there? Used to rolling out of bed and having you serve up our feel-good neighborhood farmer’s market groove? I’ve grown so contentedly used to this happy scene. There’s music for the kiddos, great produce year-round, and delish hot breakfast and lunch foods. The farmer’s market on Sunday mornings is our form of church.

And the frosting on the cake—because I’m not done yet—was seeing the movie Moneyball. Total sports movie that you don’t have to like sports to like. Or to love. It’s about the Oakland A’s, ya know. An underdog story (the best kind). And it stars Brad Pitt, who actually looks kinda old in it, which has the strange effect of making him seem mortal and therefore somehow even more likeable.

Plus, there’s something extra specially cool about watching a movie about Oakland IN Oakland. Or rather, a movie about you, in you. Well, you know what I mean…

Anyway Oakland, thank you, thank you for the non-stop excellent happy good love. Sure, I fantasize about other places at times. I won’t lie. I daydream about what small town life could be. I flirt with the idea of nearby, fancy-pants Piedmont (‘though I also admire Porches, but will likely never own one). Anyway, I haven’t always been the most loyal lover, Oakland, but at the end of the day the fact is, it’s all about you and me, baby.

So let’s just keep being excellent to each other, shall we?


P.S. Write back.


Camels and Cranberry Sauce

Posted: May 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Firsts, Food, Friends and Strangers, Miss Kate, Sisters | 4 Comments »

My friend Maria is shopping for a new religion.

She’s a nice Italian-American gal. She’s married with two young kids, and wants to do something religion-wise with her fam. But she’s just not feelin’ it from the Catholic Church any more.

I think she’s looking for something a bit more New School, if you know what I mean.

So Maria did what anyone does these days who’s looking for a good dry cleaner, or a restaurant tip for Date Night. She posted something on Facebook.

“Religion shopping,” she stated simply. “Any advice?”

I loved it.

The thing is, about half her Facebook posse seemed to think she was kidding. They left comments like, “WHAT??????,” and “‘Religion shopping. Hmmm. I don’t get it.” One person even asked, “Religious items or actual religion??”

Maybe they think The Internets aren’t the appropriate medium for finding one’s Higher Power. But as someone who’s wrangled with what-do-I-serve-my-family-for-religion-tonight questions of my own, I wholeheartedly condoned her approach.

In fact, I was hoping I might be able to coast on her tailwind. You know, pick up some useful insights for myself. (Mental note: Must follow up with her on this over a bottle of wine this summer.)

So a month or so ago, my SoCal sister Judy came to the Bay Area for Spring Break. She’s no college co-ed, but she was entertaining two students. And she was hell-bent on introducing them to Yosemite, Wine Country, San Francisco, Berkeley, and every roadside attraction, restaurant, and fabulous friend she had along the way.

When my sister does something, she goes big. Trust me.

In the midst of this break-neck Spring Break, I invited her and her friends over for dinner. My girls love their auntie—and we don’t get to see her nearly enough. Plus I was curious about the students she was spending so much time with.

“No pork,” she said, when I asked about their food preferences. “And you can’t go wrong with rice.”

As a hardcore hater of certain foods (mostly mushrooms, really), I always ask guests what things they don’t like to eat. I appreciate when folks do the same for me. But I also wanted to be cool from a cultural perspective, since my sister’s friends are from Egypt. They’re Fulbright scholars doing a year-long program at the university in her town.

While I knew there was little chance of making these guys feel truly “at home” in my Craftsman cottage in the middle of Oakland, I at least wanted to be sure they’d enjoy their dinner.

So while I focused my attention that afternoon on what we’d be eating—roast chicken, cranberry sauce, broccoli, and plenty of rice—I was utterly unprepared for what we’d do. Or rather, what they’d do. Which was, to be specific, pray.

Because after they’d swept in, and I set out cheese and other nibbly things, and after I offered wine (which was declined), and they allowed my unabashedly un-shy girls to literally crawl all over them, my sister turned to her friends and said, “There are two bathrooms if you’d like to wash.”

Which struck me as a bit odd.

I mean, I know that I unintentionally mother people, by sheer force of habit. I’ve been know to ask adults if they “need to go potty before we get in the car,” and to hand Kleenex to sneezers “in case they need to blow.”

But my sister’s got dogs, not kids. If anything I’d expect her to hold the back door open, make a smooching sound, and ask liltingly, “Have to go out?” Or maybe inquire in an excited tone if they want to go to the park.

Yet her friends didn’t find her directive to wash at all odd. In fact, they looked out the window at the near-setting sun, detangled themselves from Kate and Paige, and headed to the back of the house.

“They wash before they pray,” Judy whispered.

And sure enough, ten minutes later, after having flipped the roasting broccoli and needing to use the bathroom myself, it was apparent that some washing certainly had taken place in there. And from the state of things, it might have happened with water shot from an elephant’s trunk. Or a fire hose, perhaps.

The whole room was soaked.

Back in the living room my sister was catching up with the girls. Her guests were nowhere in sight.

“—and we went to the zoo. Paige tooted really loud. It was soooo funny! And Dad got a flat tire on his bike… ” Kate was breathlessly babbling, deep in one of her non-sequitor-laced talk-a-thons.

“Oh and I got a purple pony in a goodie bag from Zoe’s party!” Kate continued. “Lemme show you. It’s in Paigey’s room.”

My sister held her arm out. “No. Don’t go in there right now, honey.”

Kate stopped in her tracks. “Why not?”

Judy: “My friends are in there.”

Kate: [scrunching her face] “What are they doing?”

Judy: “Praying.”

Kate: [pauses] “Why are they doing that?”

Judy: It’s their religion.”

Kate: [thinks] “What’s religion?!

Ha! Exactly.

[Cue a large plot of my deceased Catholic relatives turning over in their graves.]

When Kate left a small opening in the conversation into which I could wedge a few words, I got the download I’d been desperate for.

“Yeah, so what’s up with the washing and everything? Explain, please.”

In a fast-paced whisper, Judy gave me the low-down on how her friends were Muslim. They pray five times a day, and one of those times is at dusk. And before they pray they do what she called “ritual washing,” where they splash water on their face, hands, arms—ears and feet even–in a special way, and a certain number of times. (Which explained the soggy state of my bathrooms.)

I felt bad that my humble home didn’t better accommodate their needs. I envisioned them facing Mecca on Paige’s hot pink polka-dot carpet, alongside the stinky diaper pail. All that washing and preparation, and they were probably kneeling on a lost Lego piece, and growing faint from poo fumes.

During dinner our new friends fawned over and joked with the girls. They tried cranberry sauce—something Kate and Paige would fight to the death over—and didn’t care for it. It blew Kate’s mind that one of her favorite foods was something some grown-ups hadn’t ever tried.

And in the relative calm of the dinner table, Mark and I had a chance to ask them about the changes that’d taken place in Egypt since they’d been away. “Was it weird to not be there for that? What were the reports from their families like? How did they feel about going back now?”

We asked about what their houses were like. How much English they’d known before coming here. (Not much.) And how they planned to apply their studies here to their careers at home.

Every question I asked seemed to spawn three more in my mind. It took all my restraint to not pull out a video camera and dive into a deep documentary-like interrogation.

It was fascinating, and heartwarming, and an incredibly unexpected way to spend a Wednesday night at home.

Kate asked to be excused to fetch the globe from her room, then had the guys show her where they were from. Then she asked, “Do you have camels?” which we all had a good laugh over. Mark and I had no idea where she’d come up with that. (Apparently some cigarette companies are doing an excellent job of marketing their products to kindergartners. Thank goodness. See how much she’s learned!)

My sister posted on Facebook a few days ago, “It is hard to prepare yourself emotionally that you may never see someone again.” And I knew she was referring to her Egyptian friends, who are heading home today.

She met them though a professor friend, who works at the college they attended. The woman thought they needed someone to practice their English with, so Judy invited them to her house for Thanksgiving. And many months later, they’d gotten into a groove where they all walked her dogs daily, cooked together and taught each other recipes—even planted a garden at my sister’s house.

I feel her pain. When our long-time nanny went home to Israel last fall, I felt the same way. In my sadness I asked Mark if he thought we’d ever see her again, and he gently responded, “Probably not.”

Why is it everyone’s always talking about how small the world is, instead of how damn huge it is?

After our dessert the night of our dinner, I tucked Paige into bed then closed her bedroom door behind me. Judy and Mark were quietly standing in the middle of the kitchen. I felt like I’d clearly walked in on something.

“What?” I said, looking around for clues.

And without a word they both opened their eyes wide, and jerked their heads towards the living room. I craned my neck to peek in, and saw that our guests were praying again. This time, wisely, not by the diaper pail.

I tiptoed over by the refrigerator to give our new friends some privacy.

That afternoon Katie hadn’t even known what religion was. But by the end of the evening we’d all gotten a chance to see it in action—twice. From people who, I imagine, never questioned the faith they grew up with, or felt the need to shop for a new one. People who went to amazing, bathroom-drenching lengths to practice their religion several times a day.

I’m so happy we got to spend an evening with those guys. What an education for all of us.

I send them both a wish for happy trails and safe travel. And I hope that they find peace and contentment in all they are going home to.


The Recipe Box

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Extended Family, Food, Kate's Friends, Kindergarten, Miss Kate, Mom | 5 Comments »

I recently discovered granola. Turns out it’s really good with fruit and yogurt.

Who knew?

I realize this is not a revolutionary finding. I think others before me have stumbled upon this holy trinity of foods. But what can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

At the holidays some friends brought us homemade granola as a hostess gift. It sat around for a while until I was desperate for food one day. Then, as these things usually go with me, I became obsessed with it. After devouring it all, I needed to lay in new supplies. And I remembered that my mother used to make her own really really good granola.

Over the years I’ve found that taste memories have been a weirdly strong way of reconnecting with my bygone Mama—through her wine biscuits, her chourico and peppers, and especially her Polish golumpki. So I was especially fired up to unearth this long-forgotten recipe.

And, luckily for me, I have her old recipe box.

I grabbed the black Tupperware thing from my cookbook shelf. It’s hardly a charming tin box decorated with little red roosters or the word “recipes” in some cute script. This thing is a dull dark rubber, awkwardly bigger than your typical 3×5 cards, and hard to wedge into a cupboard alongside anything else. It’s unapologetic in its homeliness and obtrusiveness. And, like everything in the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle life of my mom’s, it’s utterly and thoroughly disorganized.

Of the 200-plus index cards, newspaper clippings, and recipes scrawled on random notepaper (“Glens Falls Cement Company” and “State of Rhode Island House of Representatives”), there was no way to distinguish entrees from side dishes from desserts. If I wanted my granola taste flashback, it was going to take some digging.

But as I sifted through the recipes, some hilarious in their typification of the Bruno family’s Americana cuisine—Seven-Layered Salad, Seafood Newburg, Strawberry Molded Salad, Magic Cookie Bars—I came across something totally unexpected. Postcards that my sisters and I, along with some other folks, had sent to Mom.

I had my kids late in life (told you I was a later bloomer). I’ve spent the majority of my existence child-free. But there are times when I feel an especially acute super-saturated dose of mama-ness. And it’s not when one of the girls runs to me for a hug ’cause she bonked her head, or when one of them screams from the bathroom hallway, “I had an accident!” It’s other weird little times that are harder to put my finger on. But I do know that one of them for sure is when I feel the need to hold onto something that my daughters made for me.

This fall, with Kate just a few weeks into kindergarten, Mark and I went to Back to School night. All the parents were given a little envelope of things their kid had made for them. The one from Kate contained a bunch of different drawings, and a strip of maroon paper that had the words “My family is ____.” printed on it. In the space Kate had written in “SPSHL.”

I wanted to weep with how sweet it was, and run around the room waving it in the faces of all the other parents. “Look what my smart Katie did! I didn’t even know she could sound out and write words! Is this not TO DIE FOR?!”

If only there were a locket big enough for me to hang that thing from my neck every day. It’d be like some maternal gang medallion.

If the house ever goes up in flames, I’m running back in to get that scrap of paper.

So anyway, finding these post cards, wedged into my mom’s recipe box with the same lack of order everything else was shoved in there, was like unearthing a trove of her my-family-is-SPSHL papers. Things I can imagine she wanted to look back on one day. You know, some day when she was hot on the trail of her Spicy Swedish Meatballs recipe.

One card from 1996 is from my cousin Nancy, who my mom considered to be her fifth daughter. It’s entitled “Route 1 to San Francsico” and pictures the Pacific Coast’s dramatic cliffs and coastline. “I have sore, tired feet from traipsing all over this beautiful city,” Nancy wrote. “The weather has been pretty weird—but a nice change from R.I. heat and humidity.”

One card from London, date-stamped 1998 is in my sister Marie’s writing. “Yesterday was the queen’s birthday and they had a special ceremony at the changing of the guard.” Turns out they never laid eyes on her Highness, as they were hoping to. On that card my nephew—now a few years out of college—signed his full name in a sweet, loopy school-boy script.

And from Venice, in a card without a date, my other nephew reveals, “Daddy got us lost twice already.”

There’s a card from me praising the wonders of the new-fangled heat-resistent spatula, two of which I’d apparently included with the note. And my friend Amelia sent a save-worthy card, addressed to “Mrs. B” as she called her, thanking mom for the meatballs she’d made her and remarking, “despite my protestations, I haven’t taken off the kakhi J. Crew shorts since you kindly passed them along.”

There was one from my junior semester in Paris, and another from my sister’s visit to Rome. For all I know more cards will fall out of Mom’s battered Betty Crocker cook book the next time I haul it out for something.

Did I feel at all voyeuristic reading mail that was addressed to my mom? Nah.

The fact that they were postcards—generally not the medium one reserves for private or intimate communication—helped me get past any such thoughts. And with her gone, I can’t help but feel like any new discoveries about her world are fair game.  In fact, they’re happy accidents I relish.

Besides, it wasn’t the contents of the cards that was revelatory. It was finding them in this unlikely spot. Getting a glimmer of insight into what it was my mother held dear. Always one to choose home over travel, I imagine my mother cared less for the places we all went, and more for the fact that her people thought about her when they were away.

Kate’s class put on a play a couple weeks back. A fabulous rain-forest-themed musical where the kids sang in English and Spanish, signed all the words in ASL, helped make their costumes, and painted and built out the dizzying colorful set.

It was a tour de force. The students have come light years from their “My family is____.” exercise. And Kate, as Tree Frog #2, was unstoppable.

The day after the play Kate’s backpack was brimming with artwork as usual. As I sifted through the crumpled papers—some penned by Katie, other art-gifts drawn by her friends (“To my frend Kate, Love Emily”) I came across a yellow envelope that said MOM in red, surrounded by black hearts and stars. Inside it was this letter:

Thac you MOM!

For makeg my costom.

It was grat. Avre wun wonid to tac picshrs uv me! Thac you for hlpeg me practist my lins.

Love Kate

I had to sit down on the kitchen floor to read it again.

Thank you, my dear Katie. I’m not sure where I’ll stow this little gem, but you can bet that this letter is a keeper.

As for the rest of you, if you’re ever seeking out a recipe for Ratatouille, Tuna Casserole, Green Tomatoe [sic] Relish, Pecan Sandies, or something simply called Bean Bake, I’m your gal. I’ve also got one for a little crowd-pleaser called Cut Glass Torte, which involves two different colors of Jell-O, whipped cream, and graham cracker crumbs. Take that, Alice Waters!


Highlights and Lowlights (and I’m Not Talking about My Hair)

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Bargains, Birthdays, Books, Daddio, Food, Kindergarten, Milestones, Miss Kate, Movies, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Parenting, Shopping, Summer | 3 Comments »

My friend Barb is perfect.

She’s extremely kind and thoughtful. She’s genuine through and through. She’s creative and silly and fun and smart. And, of course, she’s gorgeous. So much so that she was asked out on a date—approached on the sidewalk, no less—when she was nearly eight months pregnant.

If she wasn’t so wonderful, I’d hate her.

Barb and her hubby had kids long before Mark and I added to the world’s population problem. So going to their house for dinner always was an exercise in note-taking for our future family. One night after dinner I remember their kidlings hauled out a bunch of different instruments. We had a music and dance party that was such good clean fun I wanted to make lederhosen for them out of the drapes while belting out “The Hills Are Alive.” (Note to my sister-in-law: This is a reference to The Sound of Music. Which is a movie.)

At dinner each member of Barb’s family shares the highlights and lowlights of their day. It’s something we started doing, and a few of our friends have since picked it up from us. It’s a sly way to lure kids into old-fashioned dinnertime convos. I never knew how deeply shrouded in secrecy a day at kindergarten could otherwise be.

Someone recently told me she does this too, but calls it ‘Roses and Thorns.’ She borrowed the name from the Obamas. Such a schmancy Presidential Rose Garden spin! Hey, what’s good enough for Malia and Sasha is good enough for my girls.

I stumbled across some other tips on Motherboard for taking the gruel out of family din-dins. Did you know that the more family dinners teens attend, the less likely they are to smoke pot, run away from home, and dress like sluts? Okay, so I’m not sure about that last one, but I’m still willing to enforce the you-sit-right-here-for-dinner-Missy rule for a while to come.

So, where was I?

Well, God knows it doesn’t some dinnertime game to get me talkin’. But with 2010 in my rear view mirror, I’ve been thinking about some of my year’s highlights and lowlights.

First, for the highlights:

Best Times with Paige: Every day when she climbs on me in bed for our delicious morning snuggle. I love this even when it’s brutally hellishly early in the morning. I can’t help but think she won’t be doing this forever, so I’m basking in it while it lasts.

Best Times with Kate: Reading. This year Katie Pie learned to read, which was magical and thrilling. But she’s not exactly devouring books on her own yet. And I cherish the times each day that I read to her. For an active kiddo, she totally calms down, snuggles up, and gets absorbed in stories. It rocks. We’re reading chapter books now too, which has lots of great day-after-day satisfaction, like some weird good-for-you soap opera.

Best Meal: The first out-put of Mark’s food smoker—pulled pork sandwiches for Paigey’s 2nd birthday party. (Feeding the kids was a total afterthought.)

Best Dessert Recipes: Three-way tie between The New York Times’ Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake, Sunset’s Lemon Rosemary Buttons, and Martha Stewart’s Cornmeal Cookies.

Best Yard Sale Bargain: Four Reidel stemless wineglasses for $2. (And to think I almost asked “For each one?” Ha!) Now I wish our vast Reidel collection was all stemless.

Best Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip: The Winter Olympics in Vancouver with Mark (who covered the games for Wired) and my dear collegiate frienda Brenda. If you have never been to this event, GO. It will renew your faith in, well, the world. Plus, you haven’t lived until you’ve gotten emotionally invested in a curling match.

Best Party We Attended: A Father’s Day brunch in our beloved friends’ the Bibbo’s back yard. We came for breakfast and stayed through dinner. Such fun. And the food! Oh, the food.

Proudest Mama Moments: Watching Kate walking into her first day of Kindergarten like such a big big sweet girl. And seeing Paige running around with the other kids at her 2nd b-day party. (If 2009 was about Paigey Wiggles learning to walk, 2010 was about her running and dancing and jumping and skipping and never looking back. Yippee!)

Best Televised Sports Experience: Watching a Canadian Olympic hockey game at a bar in Whistler with one of my best friends and my best (albeit only) husband. Man, those Canadians really do love their hockey. And their beer. (Turns out we do too.)

Best Life-Improving Purchase: Our super-cozy eco-groovy Keetsa memory foam mattress.

Best Happy Tears Moment: When I read the letter to Mark over the phone that Kate had gotten into to the super-excellent school she now goes to.

Best Date with Mark: His birthday dinner this November at Quince in San Fran. We forsook the entrees, ordered all five pastas, and had them bring us whatever wine they wanted with each course. And we didn’t talk about the kids once!

Best Summer Trip: Spending three glorious weeks at my dad’s house with the girls. The mercurial New England weather was set to Perfect Summer Beach Day the whole time. The girls were like little nature nymphs, dancing around in the waves and happily playing in the sand for hours each day. (TV? Who needs TV?) The 4th of July parade rocked, like it does, especially with all the far-flung friends we’ve managed to have to join us in Bristol. Best of all, we got truly excellent quality time with my Daddio, who watched more patio-staged ballet performances, and drew more hearts and princesses and rainbows then he ever bargained for.

Best Dose of I-Still-Got-It: Shaking off years of professional rust to do some freelance work at the very cool design firm in SF Hot Studio. A week into the project I told someone I’d been working at home as a mom for the past two-plus years, and he said he couldn’t believe it. (When he sneezed and I automatically started wiping his nose, I think he caught on.)

Best Home Furnishings Score: When my sister unloaded about a dozen duvet covers, sheet sets, pillows, bed skirts, and cloth napkins on me from her vast and fabulous personal collection. I now have a bad-ass world class bedscape. But it also takes an extra 20 minutes to move the pillows off our bed before going to sleep at night.

Best Wine: The huge-ass bottle (I think that’s what vintners call it) of supreme Surh-Luchtel vino that our friends Don and Shelley brought to a party at our house. Not only did it have A LOT of wicked good wine it it, the bottled was inscribed with our wedding invitation. (Try registering for that.)

Best Personal Challenge: Doing Oakland Adventure Boot Camp this summer/fall. I pride myself on voluntarily waking up at 6AM every-other morning, as well as the endless rounds of push-ups, wind sprints, and squats with medicine balls. Go me.

Best I’m Not As Young As I Used to Be Moment: Playing field hockey at my 25-year high school reunion. The other team (our old rivals who were also in town for their reunion) decimated us, but it was hilarious getting out on that field again. And it’s nice knowing that nothing I do now requires a mouth guard.

Best Foodie Celeb Sighting: Meeting Sarah Foster at her cafe/store Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we spent another fine Miller Family Thanksgiving.

Best Novel: The Help. But I also *loved* The Eloquence of the Hedgehog.

Best Non-Fiction Book: Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat. Mark got to know Chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea in Chicago) after writing about him for Wired, then contributing to his dazzling cook book. Even though I know the story, it was a total page-turner. I was lucky enough to read an advanced galley. When this book comes out in March, if you have any interest in the foodie realm, check it out. It’s way cheaper than a dinner at Alinea.

Best New TV Show Addiction: Seems pretty trite and light-core, but it’s Parenthood. A friend of mine said he and his wife were TiVoing it, but before they’d watched it someone told her, “I LOVE that show. It’s makes me laugh! It makes me cry!” So my friend’s wife went home and deleted it from their TiVo. Well, I admit it’s made this Mama laugh and cry too. I wuv the cast (Peter Krause is the celeb version of Mark), but there are a couple actors I loathe, which it turns out I actually kinda need in a show. And, of course, it’s supposed to be set in Berkeley. So I dig seeing the local landmarks, the Craftsman houses, and of course, the bra-less women and pot-adled liberals.

Best Old TV Show Addiction: Tie between Dexter and Damages. Glenn Close is so good at being bad. (What else should I be watching on DVD?)

Best Party Mark and I Threw: Hiring a chef to cook dinner for our six nearest and dearest Oakland friends, and my dad and stepmother who were visiting from Rhode Island. All I had to do was buy a centerpiece, set the table, and take a shower. Bliss! Plus, the food rocked. As did Dad’s card tricks.

Best Kiddie Music the Whole Family Can TolerateLaurie Berkner

Best Self-Preservation Maneuver: Hiring a “hangover helper”—i.e. a babysitter to come over one Sunday at 7:30AM, the day after we had a party. She whisked in, took the kids out for breakfast and to the park, and allowed Mark and I some desperately-needed sleeeeep. This was such a supremely smart idea I think there’s a business plan in there somewhere.

Best Meeting I Attended: One in which it was determined that Paige was doing so well (physically and verbally) she was no longer eligible for the state’s early intervention services. Woo hoo!

Best Article of Clothing I Bought: A brown cotton Max Studio dress that I wear like it’s my favorite pair of jeans. Looks kinda like this one.

Best Hobby I Got Back Into: Reading. And really, reading one good book is like grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You want to start reading everything. According to the widget on this here blog, I read 20 books in 2010, about two a month. And that doesn’t count the small handful I started and abandoned.

Best Gift I’ve Used Every Day: When Mark was in Switzerland last winter for work, he bought me a fabulous perfect-for-everyday-use indestructible Freitag purse. It’s fabulous, and he’s fabulous for having such good taste (in wives, and in business-trip gifts).

Best Kitchen Gadget: An electric kettle, which I dropped and broke last week. It had been great for everything from making tea, to hot water for the kids oatmeal.

Best Stupid Comedy Rentals: Step Brothers (AMAZING tip, Drew!), and The Hangover. These bad frat-boy-humor movies were so damn good, I can’t believe I ever liked (okay, loved) Dumb and Dumber.

Best Stay-cation: Our Christmas/New Year’s break. The kids were off school for two weeks, and Mark was off work (for the most part) then too. It was the perfect balance of social plans, sleeping late, and lazy rainy days. Mark and I gave each other time for golf (him) and yoga (me). And I didn’t get out of my PJs all day on Christmas. I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Best Social Event: My high school reunion. If everyone waited until they were in their 40s to go to high school it’d be a much friendlier place.

Best Compliment: A babysitter told me I look like Ari Gold’s wife, Mrs. Ari, from Entourage. She was certain I “must hear that from people all the time.”

As for the year’s lowlights, I’m happy to report there were far fewer than the highlights. Which also means this blog post will end soon(ish) for you. Phew!

Saddest Loss: Mark’s wonderful grandpa passing away. And my Dad’s BFF and most-excellent neighbor, Eddie, and my sweet Uncle Ade also died.

Worst Foot-in-Mouth Moment: Asking a mother at Paige’s preschool if she was a nanny. Ugh!

Worst Mama Moment: How much time do you have? Seriously, nothing huge and hideous comes to mind here, THANK GOD, just a long list of times when I’ve lost my temper, raised my voice, irrationally barked out a, “No!,” or had my own form of grown-up of tantrum. You know, the usual stuff.

Worst Weekend-Away Phone Call: The one in which Mark reported that Kate got kicked out of kindergarten. Just for the day. But still.

Worst Morning: Crying at boot camp—while running the stairs!—because I had barely slept the night before (see Paige’s sleep issue below). The petite drill sergeant trainer gave me a double dose of tough love, when what I needed was a wee bit o’ encouragement. (At least she emailed me an apology that afternoon.)

Worst Weather Interference: A local daytime Halloween parade is a supremely super-fun place for kids and Halloween-obsessed adults (like moi) to revel in the holiday. This year it rained. Waaah! I was like a bride on her rainy wedding day. Even though the die-hards still came out, the raincoats over costumes were a bummer.

Worst Wretched Sleep Pattern: Paige went from being a star sleeper, to the kid who gets out of bed 15 times after you tuck her in. Plus a few times in the middle of the night. Oy! We’ve considered returning her to her crib (since this all started with the move to her Big Girl Bed), but I fear if we did that we’d leave her in it ’til her teens. And that’d bring about a whole ‘nother host of unsavory issues.

Biggest Regret: Realizing that the 8-hour drive to Palm Springs to visit my sister Judy is totally do-able with the kids—especially with a DVD player in the car. Why haven’t I been going to see her more? (And this doesn’t come solely from my desire to score more sheets.)

Worst Airline Travel: Twice—or maybe even three times—this year we’ve taken family trips with flights departing at 6AM. One time Kate refused to get dressed when we woke her up. We finally put her in the car in her panties, since we were about to miss our flight. At the long-term parking lot her tantrum continued, until Mark and I strong-armed her into her dress and shoes (a lovely public display of excellent parenting). Later, in a long busy airport hallway, she had another diabolical fit. Over her head (and while pretending to not be her parents) Mark and I vowed to never take a 6AM flight again. No matter how much cheaper the tickets were. And then, we went on two more trips with 6AM departures. Sigh.

Saddest Farewell: Our long-time nanny and friend Shelly moved back to Israel this fall. We are thrilled that she is back with her family and friends, but we miss her madly! It’s super sad to not know when—or if—we’ll see her again.

Most Shameful Injury: Pulling a groin muscle while bowling with the kids and Mark’s parents on our Thanksgiving vacation. My chiropractor said, “I don’t know what’s worse: Admitting you were bowling, or that you got injured while bowling.”

When it’s Mark’s turn to tell his day’s highlight at dinner, he sometimes says, “Right now.” Even though it means a relatively early dinner hour and food that’s geared towards the whole family, we’ve been making an effort to eat with the girls every night,. (Except for when we ditch them with a sitter and go out.)

So it’s sweet that our family meal is sometimes the highlight of Mark’s day. Either that, or his work day really sucked.

Now Kate and Paige sometimes use “right now” as their highlight too. Which would be fine if it wasn’t on the days I’ve busted my butt to take them to the beach and out for ice cream, or to a children’s museum, or to some other kid-gasmic concert or party or special event. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it takes the wind out of my sails when the turkey burgers en famille beat all those other things out.

But maybe I should wise up a bit to Mark and the girls. Maybe the best highlight of all is the sum-total of our sweet family dinners together. Maybe turkey burgers really are the key to happiness.

I love you, Mark, Kate and Paigey, my three life highlights!

And Happy Happy New Year to the rest of you. In 2011, may your highlights blast your lowlights out of the water.


Locked and Loaded for Thanksgiving

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bad Mom Moves, Drink, Extended Family, Food, Holidays, Housewife Superhero, Husbandry, Miss Kate, Mom, Other Mothers, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Sisters | 2 Comments »

My mother got headaches on holidays. The kind that required to her to be alone in her darkened bedroom. A room that she entered after shouting, “A little bit of appreciation would be nice!” then slamming her door.

Truth be told, I’m not sure this holiday ‘tradition’ took place on a truly regular basis, like the arrival of eggnog at grocery stores. But it did go down a few times for sure. Which in my tattered memory qualifies as something.

Of course, back then, my three sisters and I thought she was a drama queen. We rolled our eyes, called her nasty names (under our breath), and phoned friends to bemoan our misery. But now, as a Mama myself, I’m not so sure my mother was the offending party.

When I think of my mom at the holidays, I see her rolling out these Italian fruit cookies she used to make. More often than not, this was a late-night project. It took up all the counter space and the kitchen table. The cookies are super time-intensive and the dough’s delicate and tricky to work with—so much so that even now as a graduate of cooking school, I’ve shied away from ever attempting them.

But us kids loved them. They’d become tradition. So even if it meant finding time to bake at 10PM—and even though they were her ex-husband’s family recipe—Mom made them. Never fail. Every year.

Like many of the things she poured time and energy into—making pine cone wreaths, going to a farm for real hay for our manger, nurturing Christmas cacti year-round and baking cranberry bread on Christmas morning—all these things we all just took as traditions. Hardly considering how Mom toiled to maintain them.

What I’d pay now to be a fly on the wall back then. There were four of us girls, one of her. What was it we did to set off her tirades? Lazed about in our Lanz granny gowns, refusing to even let the dog out, when she’d woken up at 5AM to start the bird? Moaned about going with her to Christmas Mass? Or complained that the cocktail sauce for the shrimp was too spicy—or worse—was a new recipe we weren’t used to?

Embarrassingly entitled behavior, I know. But all totally feasible scenarios.

From where I stand now—a Mama who’s decorated and baked and shopped and wrapped ‘til all hours of the night—I can’t help but think that the odds were Mom’s tantrums were legit.

Too bad it’s too late to tell her I feel her pain.

When Paige was in a crappy sleep cycle a while back, waking up sometimes five times a night, I was also dragging my ass up at 6AM for boot camp. I was a zombie. Some days when Paigey napped, I’d crawl into my own bed. But Kate doesn’t have the ‘constitution’ for naps. (The gal’s natural pace is hopped-up like a speed fiend’s, and I have no one but myself to blame.) So to ensure Katie-Pie was well occupied, I’d plop her in front of the boob tube. I felt guilty, but I also felt so very very sleepy.

A couple weeks later, Kate and Mark were talking in the kitchen. “You know, Mom’s tired all the time,” Kate reported. “I always watch TV during the day so she can sleep.”

Whaaaat?!” I cried from the next room, tripping over myself to bust in on their convo and rectify my reputation. “I did that TWICE!” I said to Mark. “Okay, maybe three times… Back when Paigey kept on waking up at night.”

Then, turning to Kate like we were sisters in a spat, I sneered, “It wasn’t ALL THE TIME.”

I think Mark knew Kate was stretching the truth to con him into turning on TV. “Hey, it’s cool man! We roll like this all the time when you’re at work!” But maybe, like my memories of my mom’s holiday headaches, Kate saw a small pattern in my behavior and blew it up to be much bigger in her mind.

Whole families can have collective distortions of how things went down. Don’t you think? Stories are told and retold and embroidered along the way, and before you know it that famous playground scuffle William got into in third grade involved seven other kids and a pit bull. And he stole a police car after to get away.

I wonder if that’s the case with Mark’s family and their tales of talking politics around the turkey table. From the lore I’ve heard, there were some holidays that got pretty ugly. Folks fired up with a wee bit o’ holiday cheer duking it out over differing political opinions. I mean, far as I can tell there were never fisticuffs. But maybe a turkey drumstick or two got chucked across the table. At least, it’s fun for me to imagine that.

Were their political imbroglios ever really THAT bad? I can’t picture Mark’s mild-mannered Midwestern family bickering over Hilary’s foreign policy. I’m fairly apolitical, so I can’t even see doing that myself. Just like how I don’t get how a football team losing can put someone in a bad mood all day.

In my family accusations are flung, people storm around, and doors get slammed. But that’s just ’cause we’re Italian. It’s built into us. Moments later we’re all back at the table tucking into slabs of pie like nothing happened.

Anyway, all I know is, at some point prior to my indoctrination at Mark’s family holidays, an edict was set forth to suspend all political discourse. Forevermore.

But, you plug up one hole and eventually water spurts forth from another, right? Try as you will, there’s no way to ensure that a big extended family—with differing ages, political views, and opinions on how the stuffing should be cooked—can gather at the holidays with utter serenity. Even if you cook all your side dishes ahead of time, and avoid dinner-table talk on legalizing marijuana, healthcare reform, and failed family investments, something’s gotta give, right?

A recent Motherboard story I read gives the best reality-based holiday advice. Listen, your mother is going to be critical of what you cook no matter what, so just brace for it, honey. And when your brother-in-law acts all tweaky and insecure about something, GIVE INTO HIS SHIT. Toss out some crap that shocks and soothes him with how understanding and supportive you are.

I just LOVE that. Instead of willing it all to go away, step right into it.

Thanksgiving is always with Mark’s family. It rotates between being at his Mom’s house and her siblings’. This year we’re in North Carolina, which is fab, though frankly we could be in [insert some crappy place here] and it wouldn’t make a difference. Wherever we are we all end up just hanging out in the house anyway. Totally by choice.

Everyone’s even got their own foam coozy with their name on it. How rad is THAT? The bar’s open all day and the food don’t stop coming. This year there are even two—count ‘em TWO—newborns we can babble at and whose heads we can smell. And I just KNOW the cousins from Kentucky will bring some truly excellent bourbon. [Nudge, nudge.]

What’s not to love?

The Milller Family Thanksgiving is nothing like the holidays at my house used to be. (They actually watch FOOTBALL. And sometimes even play it!) But ten years in I can’t imagine spending Turkey Day any other way. Is it too meta to be thankful for Thanksgiving itself?

Well, who cares, damn it. I am.

A few years ago one of Mark’s relatives made a request to omit the nuts in the Chex party mix. This person lobbied that everyone in the family just picked around them anyway. A year or so later, the little pretzels were also removed. (I know, right? One of the best parts!) I joked—after a couple bourbon and Cokes, mind you—that the next year they’d be setting out empty bowls.

“What are these?” folks’d ask.

“Oh, the Chex party mix!” the host would reply. “The recipe that everyone likes.”

So, no political banter. And eventually I fear, no Chex mix.

We will get there! We will achieve celebration perfection!

If anyone’s bound to throw a wrench it in the well-oiled Miller Thanksgiving machine, I fear it’ll be me, or one of my kids. (Our wild Italian genes can’t be held down.) So I’m just bracing for Kate to start lecturing her cousin that daddies should be able to marry daddies. Or ranting about BP’s management of the oil spill. (Kate LOVED that damn spill and still goes on about how “some birds died, you know” and “Uncle John plugged it up.”)

At the same time I can picture Paige spitting out a brussel sprout, screaming, “ME NO YIKE DIS!” then spilling my red wine all over the white linen tablecloth.

Should this take place, I offer this up to our hostess, Aunt Ann, in advance: Talk a deep breath and a swig of chardonnay and remember that you’ve got a back-up plan: There’s a dark bedroom and a headache—either real or well-acted—that’s waiting for you.

Trust me on this. I’ve learned from the best.


The Bristol Two-Step

Posted: February 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Daddio, Eating Out, Food, Kate's Friends, Little Rhody, Miss Kate, Mom, Paigey Waigey Wiggle Pop, Travel | 1 Comment »

We were in the library, so I decided to let out a blood-curdling scream.

I’d been chatting with the librarian. There are two gray-haired ones who still serve there—at my hometown bibliotheque—since back when I was a kid. I’d mentioned that to one of them once, thinking we might have a nice moment. Instead she looked at me like she’d sucked a lemon.

But yesterday I took a chance and mentioned to Kate as we were checking out books, “The woman who is helping us was the librarian when I was a girl.” And, thankfully, she looked up and smiled.

And then we did the Who Are You? Bristol Two-Step. Which is to say she asked me what my name was and who my parents are. And when I told her she said, “Oh sure” then listed off the names of all the streets we ever lived on in town. “Now your mom was on Hope for a long time, then she moved to Beach, right?”

“Your mother,” she said, hunched over the desk leaning towards me. “Her and my friend Dottie DeRosa, those two were out in their gardens at the very first signs of spring. We’d say the ground is still frozen, but there’s Vicki out there gardening.”

I admit my awareness of the girls’ whereabouts had faltered a bit. I was drawn in by the kindly gray-haired librarian. I wanted to hear more funny little stories about my mom. But before I could coax more out of her, I looked up to see Paige step into the empty elevator, and the door start to close.

PAAAAAAAAAAAIGE!” I bellowed, as I did a sideways-flying Superman-type lunge for the door. I wedged my hand in without a second to spare. Blessedly the door lurched back open. Paige was standing inside smiling, as I skidded into her like home base.

After that wake-the-dead Mama shriek, those librarians should have no trouble remembering me the next time I drop in.

At dinner last night, at my favorite chicken parm place, a couple walked in and sat at the table next to us. Some sort of comment on Paigey’s ability to pack away the pasta ensued. Then my father held out his hand towards the man, but squinted by way of saying he didn’t remember his name. Cue the Bristol Two-Step.

“Oh yes,” my father said, hearing the guy owns the photo shop in town. “You live on Court Street! My cousin Jimmy Rennetti used to own that house.”

There have to be a million annoying things about the lack of anonymity living in a small town. But this absurd form of interconnectedness is so extreme, is such a weird form of sport, it’s brilliantly entertaining. At least for someone who only lives it for a week or two every year. Despite the fact that I’ve been away for so long, I love that I still have enough hometown equity to play a fair game myself.

At the end of our meal a little girl wandered over to say hi to Kate, her mom trailing behind her. Kate, demonically excited to be in possession of a piece of take-out chocolate cake, was disinterested in the girl’s attention. So I tried to jump-start their conversation.

“Are you in kindergarten, honey? Where do you go to school?”

When she responded “Rockwell,” my own K through third-grade alma mater, I nearly squealed with glee. I forget sometimes when I’m in Rhode Island, and get excited to see someone wearing a RISD sweatshirt. Or I’ll be driving along, then perk up at the sight of an Ocean State license plate.

Proof of my spaciness perhaps. But also that I’m more used to home being a place where I’m not. My default setting is that any Rhode Islandisms I come across must be far-flung artifacts that’ve managed to make their way West. Like me.

At any rate, Kate’s would-be friend didn’t find my enthusiasm about Rockwell far-fetched. “Did you have Miss Sousa too?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Aw, honey. The thing is, I probably did have a Miss Sousa, but a very different one than yours.

There’s a strong tug of temptation to run around and see a ton of people while I’m here, to schedule non-stop things to do. Instead I’m trying to melt into the scenery. I’ve already handed over highlighting my hair to a chap in Newport who did a bang-up job for—get this—$50! And aside from a grandparent-sponsored jaunt to the toy store for Valentine’s Day, and dinner out for Dad’s birthday, the only plans we have are to go to story time at the library.

We’re meeting Kate’s new friend there. Which is great since I never got a chance to ask her what street she lives on, or who her teachers were at preschool.

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