Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Summer Garden Part II: Simple Gifts

Continued from Part I

my lemon basil

A friend gave us a bag of surplus from his beautiful gardens. Cucumbers (he had extra before my first were ready), green beans, peppers, jalepenos, garlic. Another friend had a potted lemon basil plant and asked me if I'd ever used it. I hadn't, so she told me to take a sprig and try it out.

These are the simplest of gifts, and yet again, somehow they feel decadent. Operating under the assumption that everyone else gets as much pleasure from their gardens as I do, I know it's not a small thing to share what you've grown. And, when I'm on the receiving end, it's not a small thing for me to accept such lovely offerings.

Like a transaction between associates of a members-only club, knowing looks were exchanged when the produce changed hands. Our friend knew I was going to enjoy the goods, and so did I. I was absurdly excited to present a pile of fresh cucumber rounds (skins peeled in stripes for effect) to the son who balks at most veggies but loves cukes. I could not wait to trim, wash and blanch the green beans, then quickly saute them with olive oil and garlic and serve them to my family as a wholesome, delicious accompaniment dish at dinnertime. And the gorgeous garlic - the bulbs sit in little, multi-colored, ceramic pots in the window above my sink. They are so pleasant to look at while they wait their turn to be used - so aromatic and deeply flavorful - in the next meal. And, I think of our generous friend every time I see them - a nice bonus.

The friend who gave me the lemon basil knows that I enjoy cooking, but she doesn't cook, herself. So, while she might not understand the joy I got out of those few leaves, I'm so grateful that she sent them my way. There's a dish that I make for only myself because none of the menfolk in my household like what's in it (I think they're crazy, and sometimes I'm glad because I don't have to share it). It's a mock-ceviche with shrimp, lemon juice, olive oil, avocado, oninons, kosher salt and basil. I thought I'd substitute the lemon basil in for the regular basil I normally use and it was phen.nom.i.nal. Appropriately named, lemon basil has a delicate yet intense lemon essence (in addition to being basil-ly). This amped up and deepened the flavor of the lemon juice to make the dish incredibly bright and sunny and the close-your-eyes-and-give-thanks-for-your-tastebuds kind of YUM.

I don't know about you, but I never felt this way about grocery-store produce. I know it's mostly my dramatic perspective, just me making mountains from molehills. But, considering that the final products came from little seeds and some dirt, water and sun, I think it's an appropriate outlook! Plus, I know my fellow growers personally (and am very fond of them). This makes it about more than just swapping a few veggies. It's about friends sharing a love of the experience, from humble start to glorious end. Simply wonderful.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Summer Garden Part I: It's Romantic

Is it just me, or is there something luxurious about eating from your own garden? It seems backwards to feel that way. I mean, there’s nothing particularly fancy about digging in the dirt to plant seeds and sproutlings, and nothing really glamorous about tending and weeding and watering most days. You can just trot down to the store and have things ready and waiting, any time. But to me, harvesting, prepping and savoring the literal fruits of my labor feels romantic – decadent, even.

I know exactly why. It’s because, 9 out of 12 months of the year, I feed my family out of convenience. I know it’s ghastly, but my normal weekly grocery list includes things like microwave-steamable veggies, 3.5-minutes-in-the-nuker mac-n-cheese, zapable, frozen, square, mini cheeseburgers, pre-marinated chicken breasts, a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, tubed crescent rolls…the list goes shamefully on.

I'll hurriedly add that that’s not ALL that’s on the grocery list. You can even ask Hubby if I’m not a pain everyone’s ass all week long, trying to get them to eat healthy elements. "Fresh" veggies are a must at some point or another every week, although it’s always in the back of my head to worry about where they came from and if they’ve been handled properly. Ditto fruits. Sometimes I even buy those pre-packed (at least I insist that they’re packed in juice and not syrup). I do like to try to feed everyone reasonably well. It’s just that, more often that not, we use convenient, modern shortcuts to help us out along the way.

Lots of those shortcuts really keep you away from getting to “know” your food. The steam-bags of veggies don’t even let you SEE the food until it’s done cooking. Pre-marinated and pre-cooked anything denies you of an opportunity to be creative with herbs and spices. I guess, if you like to bake, you might feel like you’re missing out on something by buying cylindrical cans of raw dough – I don’t personally have a problem with that one though; I really hate baking. But you get the idea.

And then, 3 months out of the year, my garden, like a fair-weather lover, bestows on me the finest of fine things. I do my best to earn my gifts and wait patiently for them to be presented. While I wait, I am charmingly and whimsically entertained. I watch bright green, tender, new shoots stretch and lengthen and bear pretty little curlicues and eventually, flowers, which are a promise that the best is yet to come.

The emergence of young fruit brings excitement, but it’s not until they’ve plumped up and colored-in and hang heavy and lush and ready on the vine that the bliss really begins. There’s a certain thrill in the harvesting. When you go to pluck a ripened fruit and it gives way easily, practically jumping into your hand – you know you and your garden are intimately in sync.

Washing still-warm garden bounty is a joy. A quick rinse under cool water serves only to carry away the dust from the soil or the remnants of a dried raindrop. Worries about harsh, unnatural repellants or waxes don’t even exist on this plane; there’s a certain serenity in that.

Taking a few moments to look at, smell and touch the harvest is the tantalizing, penultimate experience prior to taking the first taste. Truly a feast for the eyes, the color palette is deep and rich, bright and vibrant; aptly, jewel-like, since these are, after all, the gems of the garden. The fragrance – that can only come from the newly-picked - is earthy with a certain perfume-y quality, compounding the allure. Holding and feeling (caressing?) the heft of ripened fruit, with its taut skin and firm yet yielding flesh, is a tactile delight. Even the bite of the knife is a satisfying feeling – the fruit offering the appropriate amount of resistance before giving way.

And then, finally, to taste. Richness of the earth, warmth of the sun, sweetness of the rain, freshness of the breeze. Sustenance the way sustenance was intended to be: pure and clean and good.

For me, growing a garden and reveling in its yield is an anticipated experience, an enticing affair. It engages my emotions and indulges my senses in the most pleasant ways. It’s romantic and seasonal - the quintessential summer fling!  And it's exclusive - not everyone gets to enjoy what a garden has to offer.  A luxury, indeed, and one that can definitely not be found in the produce aisle.

Continue to Part II

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A bit of despair

A corner was turned recently, though I can’t pinpoint exactly when or where.  Kind of suddenly, things seem to be on a different course than they were just a little while ago.
It started dawning on me when we were, after 15 years in the house, starting to haul out stuff that had been accumulating.  Toys and other activities were the biggest culprits.  It was easy to get rid of some of them.  Setting them out by the driveway with a “FREE” sign made quick work of several piles.  As I sifted through stacks of old workbooks and coloring books, I began to recall why I still had them.  It seemed not that long ago that I put them aside with all good intentions to get them out on some rainy day and have some wholesome, educational fun with the boys.  Maybe we didn’t have a whole lot of boring, rainy days between then and now, because I don’t think we ever did get back to those books. 
At some point during the purge, Hubby tried to get rid of our entire stockpile of crayons.  When I balked, he asked, very reasonably, “When’s the last time they used crayons?”  That triggered a follow-up question in my mind: When will they ever use them again? and the gut-wrenching, bitch-of-a-truth answer:  Probably never
Hubby was going through a spindle of DVDs and remarked, “Suddenly we have a whole bunch of movies that the kids won’t watch again”.  And he was right.  Transformers, Scooby Do and other once-safe favorites have been replaced by all kinds of other viewing, much of it requiring a pre-screening by us for appropriateness and some of it requiring a firm denial for being not appropriate at all.  Apparently, as evidenced by his word choice (he'd said suddenly), Hubby was feeling the abrupt shift in direction, as well.
The huge binful of Hot Wheels tracks and sets offered some brief hope.  I was all set to put it up for sale but when I checked with the boys, they said they  - mostly the youngest one - wanted to keep it and set up the tracks one last time. He was particularly interested in one set – a car wash system that used actual water and soap to spiffy up the cars.   The first time we played with it, I can remember that it was quite a production.  It involved cups of water and dishsoap and towels and a bit of effort, but he just loved it!  And then I can remember at least one time when I said, “Not right now” when asked to set it up again.  I’m hoping that it’s not a phantom memory conjured by a guilty conscience, but I think I can remember a few other times when he enjoyed that set…right?   And, oh no – please be a phantom memory of him playing with it in the driveway, all by himself because everyone else was busy doing something else.  Ugh.  Screech back into real-time: even though it’s only been a couple of weeks since he wanted to save his Hot Wheels, he has since given me the go-ahead to sell them. And we never got around to playing with that set again. 
And then there’s the office.  Within the last year, I saw a pic on Pinterest of a bright and cheerful room, decorated with kids’ art, with the daybed turned into a happy reading nook.  It has been my mission to transform the office into that place; a vibrant yet peaceful retreat for the boys.  Maybe they would come to enjoy reading (it’s usually like pulling teeth) in that room.  I even bought blank framed canvases on which they were to create original paintings to hang on the walls above the daybed.  Um.  When, since the first time I saw the picture and thought it would be perfect for my kids, did my vision for the room suddenly become out of touch, too juvenile for them?
Finally, I had to full-on acknowledge the truth I’d been ducking.  On a recent beautiful Saturday morning, I found myself watching what was to be C’s very last game at our little league park, ever, and I couldn’t really believe it was happening.  As if on a drive to an unhappy destination, I always knew where we were headed.  I had made the most of the journey, not focusing on what was ahead, but instead looking out the side windows and thoroughly enjoying the spectacular sights as they came and went.  Then, out of nowhere – brake check!   What, we’re here already?  The ride was so much fun!  How can we possibly be at the end of the line so soon?  But there we were. 
At the beginning, when they're babies, there are only open doors – open wide to the future.  As they go along, some of those doors begin to close.  Some close softly, without notice, like growing out of the last shoe size.  Some doors are closed joyfully – buh-bye, diapers!   Some close sneakily, because you’d probably have been able to keep them open a little while longer if you realized they were closing, like the kids taking tub baths together or pulling them around in the Radio Flyer.  And some doors are slammed shut loudly and abruptly, jarring you out of your reverie, sometimes even catching a few fingers in the jamb, because you weren’t quite ready for the finality and sometimes outright busting your nose because you stood stubbornly in the way.
I’m feeling like a lot of doors are closing around me lately, right in my face, rudely, without my permission or regard for my opinion on the matter.  Each time, I feel like I stand there staring at it, wondering if – and doubting that – I did the best I could before it was too late.  Was there really a lack of rainy days when we could have leisurely browsed through those neglected activity books, or did I waste so many opportunities?   Did I color enough with them?   Did we start letting them watch big kid movies too soon?  Did he get to enjoy his Hot Wheels car wash as much as he’d liked, or was I “too busy” too many times?  Why didn’t I get that reading nook together sooner?  In the end, a closed door means no going back, no matter what regrets or questions still remain.
Not one to wallow in a funk for too awfully long, I’m trying to buck up for whatever comes next.  I’m still feeling a bit of despair, but holding on to a few mementos and changing my mental tack seem to be helping.
I kept one big box of 96 crayons – just in case someone wants to use them.  I've noticed that the boys will still sit and watch practically any Disney movie on TV if they happen upon it, so  I think we’ll keep some of those DVDs around for a while longer.   I’m still planning to convert the office into a pleasant space for them, but with d├ęcor befitting young men.  I’ll take my cues from the art they create on those canvases.  Little league might be over for C, but there’s modified baseball and Babe Ruth to look forward to and besides, E still has 3 more years at the little league park.   And, perhaps by the hand of providence, that binful of Hot Wheels won’t sell.  I’ve lowered the asking price, but so far, no takers.  So maybe if I hurry, there’s still time to get in one last car wash.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Table

This is our table.  As the focal point of our dining room, it's a disgrace.  

It's almost 13 years old.  I know this because I remember that the day it came
(unassembled, from the furniture company, I hustled to put it all together so Hubby would be surprised when he came home from work) I was about 5 months pregnant with C.  And C is almost 13, too.

Back then, we'd been in the house a couple of years already and had been making do with the teeny, round, brass and glass, garage sale-acquired table from our stint as apartment-dwellers.  We'd also been limping along with the old, semi-functioning, glass-top stove that came with the house.  Our means were limited, but we'd managed to save up a modest amount and decided it was time for some upgrades.  As we shopped, we immediately gravitated toward the beautiful cherry dining sets.  Something like that would cost us all of our savings, but how elegant and sohpisticated!   In the end, we went for economy and purchased both a new stove and a dining set.  We knew the new table wasn't the greatest.  It was good enough, though, for the time being and, surely, we'd eventually get something nicer.  But mostly, we were thrilled - our very own first set!  And, it came with a leaf.  More than just an auxilliary piece of wood; a hope and promise that there would be lots of people to accommodate around our table, and many occasions to do so.

Over time, plenty of validation was given to our suspicions about the quality of the table.  The thin veneer was no match for little ones transitioning out of sippy cups who repeatedly spilled their drinks, or a cat who had the unfortunate fondness for tipping over abandoned, half-finished cups to see what was inside.  Neither could the cheap finish defend itself against the ravages of arts and crafts.  Who knew that glitter could permanently embed itself into wood?  There might have also been a few times when oven-hot casserole dishes and pans didn't quite make it onto their trivets, adding to the surface damage.

For all of the cosmetic abuse it suffered, the table has done its duty.  It's been the undeserving recipient of rough poundings during boisterous family game nights.  It's been a perfect pedestal from which to display the occasional vase of flowers.  It's been a dutiful bearer of mail, schoolwork and other piles of miscellanea.

And so, it's time for a new table.  It's almost certainly past time to replace the one we have.  But I don't think we will; not just yet.  I'd like to think we're not yet done having the kinds of adventures that have left our table in its sad, sad shape. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas: it's time to lower our expectations

There gets to be a time every Christmas season when the magnitude and madness of it all hit home. Often, the first pangs occur when I’m driving home from work in the dark, making my way through the neighborhood streets to my house.  All of the outside decorations on houses, trees, bushes and lawns that just yesterday seemed so perfectly festive and cheery suddenly seem severe and too bright and frantic.  It’s like they’re screaming in desperation, “CHRISTMASTIME!  HAPPY!  MERRY!  HAPPY!  MERRY!” 

Obviously, the lights never change.  I’m pretty sure what’s really happening is my annual and inevitable trip, clawing and scratching, across the border from Trying to Make Everything Perfect for Christmas-ville to Yeah, It’s Not Gonna Happen-town.  It’s me who’s frantic and desperate.

Some years are better than others, but sometimes Christmas just doesn’t come together the way we think it should.  Sometimes there are circumstances – a new baby in the house (lovely in theory, but exhausting in reality), financial woes, the loss of a loved one or a hundred other things - that could really throw a wrench into the finely-tuned expectations of blissful holiday happiness.

 The holiday machine is a juggernaut of incessant demands on our time and our resources of money, energy and goodwill.  It enslaves us to perceived obligations such as attending parties and buying and baking and decorating and mailing – all in the name of getting into the spirit of things.   It’s when you’re dutifully doing it all but still aren’t feeling it that things start to get dicey.

Some panic and throw it into overdrive.  We’re sure that if we kick it up, we’ll get done all those things that “need” to be done and then it will finally feel Christmassy.

Some feel guilty.  We feel like we’re letting people down if we can’t get into full-on Christmas mode. 

And some forfeit any hope of feeling the Christmas spirit altogether.  It’s been a horrible year, and even going through the motions is more painful than anything.

I say Christmas doesn’t have to be glitzy and glossy and bright and cheerful at all, let alone all that, all the time.  I call BS on the notion that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.   I say it’s time to lower our expectations for Christmas. 

Considering all we go through just to get by, day by day, it’s unreasonable to think that we should be awash in Christmas magic each and every moment of the season.  But, I think if we’re open to it, the Christmas spirit will find us every now and again.

I think it comes to us on the strains of a Christmas song that brings us, even briefly, a warm feeling of comfort.

I think it comes to us in a solemn moment when something inside us stirs as we contemplate the very first Christmas.

I think it comes to us in our dark corners at the end of the day, as we think about the ones we love and our hearts silently wish Christmas happiness for them, even if we don’t think we feel it ourselves. 

For me, this year, it finds me on the commute to the office every work day.  I’m strapped in with nothing else to do for 35 minutes than enjoy my playlist of very favorite Christmas songs.  As I auto-pilot to work, still relatively optimistic about the day ahead, I’m not distracted by my beloved-but-needy children or a business email or an overdue household chore.  Bing and Buble, the little drummer boy and the poor orphan girl named  Maria, the Ave Maria and Feliz Navidad – they bring me the Christmas spirit without asking a thing in return. 

Unfortunately, the evening commute isn’t quite the same.  I’m tired and possibly frazzled from the long day so far and have, still, to re-engage home life where I left off this morning.  And, I have to drive by those damned, obnoxious lights again.  They're still screaming, but I look the other way and ignore their demands for my immediate merriness.  I choose, instead, to relax and let the holiday spirit come to me as it will. And, inevitably, it will.

Here’s to letting Christmas find us in meaningful ways, whenever and wherever it can.  In place of feeling despair over impossible expectations, let us feel peace from expecting less.    

Merry Christmas to all.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mercy me

There’s a mom I know whose parenting style has me confused. Some days I think she’s my hero and then some days she scares me and I’m glad she’s not my mom.
It’s because she’s so, SO confident in all of her parenting choices. I envy her conviction sometimes. She takes some of those really difficult situations, deals with them head-on, and never looks back. It seems like she has so much strength and perspective and vision to always do the right thing. 
I remember once, when her child was going through an especially difficult stretch, the mom resolutely handed out punishment after punishment until it was resolved. Ooooh, and sometimes the punishments were hefty! She once even took away her child’s birthday (let her look at her presents for days until her behavior warranted the privilege of opening them)! Someone must have asked her about it, because I remember her saying any punishment she ever gave her child was fully deserved. She was 100% unapologetic for her system of discipline.
Now, I like to think I run a fairly tight ship, too. My BS tolerance threshold is permanently set on LOW and when it’s breached, I can go from Nice Mommy to Who-Are-You-and-Can-You-Please-Release-Your-Demonic-Hold-on-My-Mommy Mommy in no time flat. I can hand out scathing punishments with the best of them. Okay, maybe not – I don’t know if I could ever be angry enough to cancel a celebration of the day they were born - but I’ve been known to issue some good penalties. And I’ve also been known to retract them.
I recently withdrew a punishment I imposed on our oldest son, within a half hour of sentencing. He got himself grounded because he didn’t meet one of my homework deadlines. Yes, the guidelines were set beforehand and yes, he was fully aware of the consequences of missing the deadline. He had extra homework that night, but the guidelines allow for that sort of thing, so he must have been goofing off. The penalty was justified. And, bless his little heart, he didn’t fight it. He sat right there through the angry lecture and took it.
Afterwards, I got thinking about it. He had been working for hours. Could he have met the deadline? Probably, with some laser focus and zero distractions. But, even lacking those, he really had put in a great deal of effort, and it showed, physically. His face was tired and his body was sagging. 
I normally advocate for following through with guidelines and consequences. (When the kids were little, it was never a bluff when I said,“I’m going to count to three!!”) But that night, even though I was completely in the right because 1) it was an established process and 2)“I said so, that’s why”, it felt wrong. He was normally very dutiful and never maliciously broke rules. He hadn’t handled the extra workload well, but didn’t truly deserve a punishment.
I went back in and rescinded the grounding. And, in answer to his look of shock and disbelief, I told him that I didn’t want to be the kind of parent who can’t see beyond all the rules and regulations. I also let him know that, just as he was going to make mistakes being a kid, there would be times when I would probably make mistakes being his mom, too. And I apologized for being unreasonable with that particular punishment and lecture.
Does that make me wishy-washy? Will I regret it later? Am I setting myself up to be walked all over with regard to following the rules? Will he lose respect for my authority? I’d like to think not. I am hoping what I showed him was 1) that the rigid edges of guidelines can sometimes be tempered when a situation truly calls for it and 2) that even if you don’t have to, because you’re the boss, you can still own up to and atone for your mistakes and 3) mercy.
So, I don’t know – is it better to always be confident that your parenting choices are right (even if it’s only because “mother (or father!) knows best”), or is it sometimes okay to second-guess your own judgment and go back to see if there’s a better way? Is pre-determined, justified, regimented punishment the best way to deal with transgressions, or is it sometimes okay to soften the blow, when there are other factors in play, in order to teach broader and more benevolent lessons?
It's hard to say. But my hat's off and this blog is dedicated to all of my fellow parents who are making their way through, the best way they know how.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Be thankful like you mean it

Gosh.  Thanksgiving.  A gleeful and hedonistic start to the Christmas season proper.  We try to rein ourselves in to acknowledge the real reason why the house is overcrowded and the table is bowing under the weight of its delicious burden. Even if we’re perpetually aware and thankful for our bestowments, we take a special moment or two on this particular day to “officially” offer up our gratitude.

The further along I get toward “geezerhood” (thanks, kids), the more I find that it’s not always fulfilling enough to only be thankful.

I once saw a man in the city who had waterproofed himself by tying scraps of different umbrellas (with the metal ribs still attached) to his coat and sweatpants.  Ingenuity out of necessity, for sure, and necessary because this man was outdoors.  I instantly remembered him as I scurried into the house on a recent bitter, cold and rainy day and a wave of warmth and comfort hit me as soon as I opened the door.  My heart had already issued silent thanks before I’d even had time to think on it, but it didn’t make the image go away, because I knew that all my thankfulness wouldn’t help that man in the least. 

Sometimes, when we sit down to too much food at the table, my dad will recount his memories of a host family he lived with in China during his days with the Merchant Marine.  He says that he would look around their dinner table and note that he could comfortably have eaten not only his portion, but everyone else’s, as well – the entire spread was incredibly small.  Every night.  That story sticks with me and always makes me thankful for my food, but none of it helps hungry people to not be hungry.

And so I try – and encourage others also – to reinforce gratitude with action.  Volunteering for various social service projects can be very satisfying.  It usually costs nothing but your time and most towns (even small ones like ours) have a need for helping hands.   

But sometimes there just aren’t any hands-on options available and I’m not always in a position to offer financial support.  Like in the case of the umbrella man.  The best I could do for him and others like him is to relay his story to my boys and use it to teach them about being grateful for what they have as well as to have compassion for those who have not.  Hopefully, it will be something they remember when, someday, they find themselves in a position to turn their appreciation into action.  And if there’s no one with which to share lessons of goodwill?  I don’t know – say a prayer, perhaps?  I just think that any action taken in support of being grateful makes all the difference.  It’s so important to be thankful like you mean it.

Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy, fulfilling Thanksgiving.