Archive for August 2006


I had to stop watching E.R. when I was pregnant with Ben. The September 11th attacks had just happened, and I was all too cognizant of the dangers of the world. I didn’t need to invite them into the living room.

I had to stop saying “Drive safe” to Tony when he headed off on his 45-minute commute. After a few months of the ritual, he worried how I’d fret if I missed my chance one day, how guilty I’d feel if somehow my ritual words failed to protect him.

I had to stop stepping directly in to crosswalks, insisting bodily on my right of way, when I started pushing a stroller in front of me. “You can be right,” remarked my reasonable husband, “Or you can be safe.”

I had to tell Ben last spring that a child in his preschool had died in an accident.

I had to watch yesterday, my heart in my mouth, as a mad driver swerved toward a dad walking his son into our preschool. I was a few steps back. We’d both heard the crash behind us as the driver hit a car, the squeal of the tires as he pulled away, and the scream of a police car’s siren. The siren made me feel momentarily safe, until I looked back and saw how cautious the police car was in pursuit, until I saw the other car, its front end smashed, race up the street toward us. The dad scooped his son up into his arms. I pushed Ben and our carpool companion behind me, then hustled them onto the ramp in front of the school, which is protected (somewhat) by a metal railing. Ben and his buddy were delighted; they love to run up and down that ramp after school, playing a game they call “Dong!” I kept an eye on the car–which had strangely, thankfully, swerved away from our schoolmate, roared up the street, but then u-turned and headed back toward us–as I hurried the boys into school. I was glad it was my school workday, so I didn’t have to say goodbye to the boys but could stay and play. They never knew that for a moment, for them, it hadn’t been safe.

I have to think today of all the people who weren’t safe yesterday, and hope that those who survived will heal.

I live in earthquake country. I’m a parent. I don’t need to read the paper to know, really know, that I’m not safe. I don’t dwell on it; we keep earthquake kits in the car and garage, we have an emergency plan. But I don’t much like to be reminded of it, either. When danger swerves so close, it makes me want to gather the family close and hunker down.

After 9/11, after the tragedy last spring, we gathered friends around the dinner table. Yesterday, I came home to find Tony, unaware of the news, frying tofu, boiling noodles, steaming vegetables — making a fabulous meal. I’d brought (a different) one of Ben’s preschool friends home, and she and her parents wound up staying for supper. After those scary moments earlier in the day, sharing a meal together made me feel truly safe.

20Something Essays by 20Something Writers

Who even remembers their 20s?! Now on the cusp of forty, I’ve been reminiscing about my thirties a lot. It was a good decade: I earned my PhD, married my husband, had two kids, and started to publish my writing.

But my twenties, though I was happy to be out of them at the time, were a good and productive decade, too. After all, that’s when I moved to California and started graduate school, lived on my own for the first time, did all the work for my doctorate, and met my husband just weeks before I waved hello to thirty.

The writers in this great collection aren’t thinking too much about thirty right now–they are keeping way too busy for that. Raising kids; nursing a boyfriend through terminal illness; maturing in Kuwait; working at Wendy’s; learning to dance with their OCD; logging on to Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and Nerve accounts — they’ve got a lot going on, and it was fun to check out of my life for a bit and listen in on theirs.

My favorite essay, of course, is Elrena Evans‘ “My Little Comma,” first published in the section I co-edit over at Literary Mama. I’ve read this essay, in various versions, over a dozen times in the past year and it never gets old. This is my favorite section today:

I just got off the phone with my advisor, and if my daughter weren’t watching me, I swear I would spit. The pressure is on, he admonishes me: finish your project or lose our funding. I wonder: if he knew how close I was to leaving, what he would say? I wonder what would happen if I left in the middle of the year, just scooped up my plump little baby and left. I wouldn’t wait until the end of the semester to go, and I wouldn’t leave everything tidied up behind me. I’d simply up and leave, tear myself out of the university and leave a gaping, jagged hole in my wake. My spine prickles guiltily at the thought. What a lovely mess I would make. Part of me just wants to say “I don’t care” and wait for the lion to eat me.

Meanwhile, the conversation about mothering and graduate school that Elrena’s essay started is turning into a book (stay tuned to see how it all turns out!)

Other essays I particularly loved… Jess Lacher’s “California” reminded me of how strange and unfamiliar it all seemed when I first arrived here myself: the “gentle and mysterious suggestions” of the seasons; the intense and exotic plants; the sense of being on a “vacation life” (yeah, that ended for me a while ago). Emma Black writes about teaching elementary school and learning how to “Think Outside the Box But Stay Inside the Grid.” For the sake of her students, I hope she keeps trying. Radhiyah Ayobami spends “An Evening in April” getting a treat for her son before the curfew at their shelter; they give some change to a woman on the corner, and Ayobami imagines someday going to the park with this stranger and her kids: “People would look at us, and instead of seeing two beggars, they’d see two mothers with children, and they’d smile. I had big plans for that woman, if only I could see her again.” In Shahnaz Habib’s gorgeous “Backlash,” written the day of the bomb blasts in Delhi, she worries about an old friend and thinks sadly of the secret relationship they have now lost.

When I started reading this collection, I was thinking I don’t know too many people who are in their twenties, but now I kind of feel like I do. That’s some fine writing.

Mom’s Fruit Crisp

There are lots of delicious things to do with fresh fruit, but this is one of my favorites, and it’s also just about the easiest. Despite all the baking I do, I can never remember a recipe well enough to make it without referring to the recipe (or sometimes a couple of recipes); this is one simple enough that I can do it by heart. It scales easily, so you can make it for two or for a crowd. I’ve been making it since I was about 8 years old, and although every once in a while I’ll try a different recipe, just to see if there’s something I’m missing, I keep coming back to my Mom’s.

I’ll give you the recipe for 6 peaches (approx. 6 cups of sliced fruit); use more or less fruit and adjust your topping amounts accordingly. Of course, you can also make this with apples (peeled or not), nectarines, plums, pears, some berries, etc.

for filling:
6 peaches
1 tbsp lemon juice (or juice of one lemon)
1/2 tsp cinnamon

for topping:
1/2 c butter (1 stick)
1/2 c flour
1/2 c oats
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c wheat germ
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375.

Peel and slice the peaches. Pour into a shallow gratin dish and sprinkle with lemon juice and cinnamon.

Melt the butter in a container big enough to mix the crisp topping. Add remaining ingrediants and stir well with a fork. Sprinkle over fruit, and bake until browned on top and bubbling around the edges, about 40 minutes.

Team Player

Tony and I met with a financial advisor today. He was recommended to us by our tax guy. The fact that we have a tax guy, someone we pay to do our taxes, makes me feel more grown-up than the fact that I have a mortgage. Or kids.

But I digress. It was a very boring meeting, and he used a lot of jargon I didn’t understand, but it seemed important that I attend, and look, shall we say, present. So I tried. Good student that I am, I started to take notes. But it’s hard to take notes on information you don’t entirely comprehend. So then I started jotting down ideas for my next column. Then I tuned in to the meeting again and started writing down the sports metaphors he used. I wish I’d done this from the beginning, so that I could offer you a complete list, but he did pretty well in the last half hour:

That’s our bogey…

We won’t try to swing for the fences…

It does you no good to have a roller coaster ride…

We wade into the pool, we don’t dive in the deep end…

We’ll keep these positions covered…

We’re meeting another such person next week; will it be sports metaphors again? Can we choose an advisor based on their figurative language?

Proof of Global Warming

Al Gore’s movie is pretty convincing, but this has put me over the edge:

Ripening tomatoes in our foggy garden.

Time to start researching solar panels…

Something Sweet To Do With Bread Dough

Are you making ricotta cheese yet? And saving the resulting whey (previously, and less appetizingly referred to as the thin, milky liquid that drips off the cheese) to bake with? If I tell you can make cinnamon rolls really, really easily will you make them? I must credit my mom here, who on a recent visit reminded me how effortlessly this can be done.

OK, you don’t have to start with ricotta cheese. But do start with this bread recipe; then, when the dough’s risen once and you’re ready to shape loaves, make one loaf of nice sandwich bread, and one nice pan of cinnamon rolls. Or skip the loaf entirely and make a whole lot of cinnamon rolls, I won’t tell.

2 tbsp dry yeast
1/2 c lukewarm tap water
2 c warmed buttermilk (or the liquid that drained off your homemade ricotta cheese)
2 c unbleached bread flour

2 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp salt
3-3 1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp olive oil or more melted butter

Combine water and yeast in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Add the buttermilk and bread flour
and stir well. Cover with plastic wrap and let ferment overnight at room temperature. It may bubble up and then fall — that’s fine. In the morning, it will be bubbly and fragrant.

In the morning, add the butter, honey, and salt to the sponge and mix well. Stir in flour until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Rub your hands with oil or melted butter and lift the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Knead once or twice. Now let it sit a minute while you rinse out the mixing bowl with warm water, towel dry, and coat with olive oil. Put the dough in the oiled bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap, and let rise about 1 hour.

At this point, you can butter or oil either two 8 1/2 x 4″ loaf pans, or one loaf pan and one 9×9″ square baking pan (the one you use for brownies), or a larger, lasagne-size, roasting pan. Just use metal pans; glass ones don’t give you as nice a crust.

Divide the risen dough in half. To make sandwich bread, form the dough into a vaguely loaf-like shape (really, you can pretty much drop the dough into the pan and it will find its shape), place in the pan, cover and let rise until the dough reaches the rim of the pan, about 30 minutes.

To make cinnamon rolls, take your half lump of dough (even if you’re turning all the dough into cinnamon rolls, working with half the dough at a time makes life easier), and roll it out into a rectangle, about 12″ long. Dot it with butter, then sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon on top (or you could mush the butter, sugar and cinnamon up together in a bowl and spread it on the dough). Do this to suit your own taste; I used about 2 tbsp each of butter and sugar, maybe a teaspoon of cinnamon. Toss on a bit of orange zest if you have it, and sprinkle with raisins and/or walnuts if you like. Roll the dough the long way into a cylinder, and slice the cylinder into 3″-thick slices. Lay the slices in the baking pan cut side down, cover and let rise about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 420. Bake for 25-40 minutes. Check for doneness by turning one loaf out of the pan and tapping the bottom; if it sounds hollow, it’s baked through. For the rolls, check by lifting up a corner and seeing if the bottom is crusty and brown. If the breads are browning too much but don’t seem quite done, cover loosely with foil for the final 5-10 minutes of baking. Cool on a wire rack.

Crazy Cake

Everyone has particular food routines when they’re sick. For me, recovering from a stomach bug means plain toast, white rice, and ginger ale. Once I’ve really turned the corner, I move on to Tony’s hot & sour soup and chocolate cake. Don’t ask me why, but when I’ve been without food for a couple days, I want strong flavors, and that peppery, vinegary soup always does the trick. For the cake, Tony used to run out and get me a slice of Just Desserts’ weekend cake (a triple-layer chocolate cake), but the bakery moved out of the neighborhood and nothing else has really filled the gap. This week, it occured to me that I was feeling well enough to make my own recovery cake.

Crazy Cake is the first cake I ever made. I think I made it with Libby, and I may be to blame for the salt-for-sugar debacle. The recipe is all over the place: in Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book (a fabulous book even for those of us who like to cook); in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (where it’s called, accurately, 6-Minute Cake; even in my fevered state, I had the batter together in half the time it took for the oven to preheat), and it goes by many names (cockeyed cake; vegan chocolate cake, which is also accurate, but less appetizing). All you need to know is that it’s good, quick, and plenty chocolatey. I don’t know why I don’t make it more often.

1 1/2 c white flour
1/3 c unsweetened cocoa
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

1 c water or coffee
1/2 c vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp vinegar (any old vinegar will do, though I grabbed a fancy red wine vinegar this time and it was particularly good)

1/2 c semisweet chocolate chips (optional, but what’s not better with some chocolate chips?)

Preheat the oven to 375.

Combine the dry ingrediants in an ungreased 8″ square or 9″ round baking pan. In a 2-cup measure, combine the water, oil and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingrediants into the baking pan and mix the batter with a fork until smooth (make sure to get into the corners so that you don’t get dry floury bites in the finished cake!). Now add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter from the baking soda and vinegar reacting. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed. Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. Bake for 25 minutes, cool a bit, and enjoy.

Movie Minutes

Skip Scoop. Unless of course you’re such a fan of Woody Allen that you want to see Scarlett Johansson act like Woody Allen. I love her, I really do (though I think I loved her more before she got quite so beautiful; check out Manny & Lo to see her as a tomboyish tween), but after an hour I got tired of her all ticks and jumpiness and had to flee.

March of the Penguins. Beautiful, informative, anthropomorphizing. Not a kid’s movie, but it doesn’t seem to have scarred Ben.

The Beach. Blue Lagoon meets Lord of the Flies. It’s very pretty and all (Leonardo di Caprio, the beach), but who really needs it?

Monster-in-Law. See, after three days stuck at home, sick, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is even worse than you would expect. Although I must admit that the last scene between Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda made me tear up a bit. But I still miss my mother-(never a monster)-in-law. Plus, I was feverish.

Under the Weather

Once you become a parent, you pretty much say goodbye to the days of “enjoying ill health.” No more days on the couch with the TV on, drifting in and out to the lineup on Food Network, no more lying in bed with a box of tissues, a bottle of Tylenol, and a couple fat novels. No, once the little people enter the picture, you’re up and doing no matter how lousy you feel. I’ll never forget the first time I came down with a stomach bug after Ben was born; we cuddled up in a nest of blankets and towels on the bathroom floor. Occasionally, I’d haul myself up and get quietly sick, then lie back down and nurse Ben. Or last summer, which I think of now as the Summer Of Strep (4 cases in as many months), when I had to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to get a throat culture and antibiotics, running a 101 fever and, once I got to the doctor’s office, hauling Eli along in the sling. It felt like a good day, in the end, because I’d only had to take care of one kid.

This weekend, though, as I deal with my mystery bug (is it a cold? is it a stomach bug? is it strep again? who really knows?), I’ve had a taste of those old days. Tony took the boys for 3 days straight, leaving me to watch a couple movies, read a couple books, and spend more time in bed than I have in ages. Last night, I even pulled Ben briefly into my slothful state, as we cuddled up together, eating chocolate and watching March of the Penguins (this morning, he gave Tony an accurate census both of chocolate pieces consumed and penguin deaths witnessed).

The thing is, though, despite how lovely — and I’m sure restorative–it has been to rest, I’d much rather be up and hanging out with the guys, clamorous arguments and all. Turns out the old days have gotten a little old.

A Day in the Life

I keep thinking that I’ll have a normal day to report on this project; maybe next month!

Dark o’clock I roll over and realize Ben is in bed with us. For the next couple hours, I sleep fitfully as his slow scissor kicks push me into the middle of the bed. I don’t know how Tony is managing to stay in bed. He must have the kind of gear climbers use to sleep on the sheer face of El Capitan.

5:40 Ben wakes with a little squeak and trots back down the hall to his room. I hear him shut the bedroom door behind him.

6:30 “Dah!” Eli’s awake. It’s my turn to sleep in, which means Tony goes to get him, brings him to me in bed to nurse.

6:45 Eli sits up and gestures toward sleeping Tony (how can he get back to sleep so fast?) like a pointer, every muscle taut. “Are you ready to go play?” I ask. He dives back onto my chest. That’d be a no.

6:50 Done nursing. Tony picks him up, and Eli blows kisses and waves as they leave the room.
I read an essay, roll over, and go back to sleep. I dream that midgets are breaking into our house and I’m offering them stuff if only they’d leave, but they keep rejecting my offers.

8 Ben comes in and says hi. I can’t move or even open my eyes. He leaves. I hear him go downstairs, and hear the happy terradactyl shrieks as Eli greets him. I listen to the zoo sounds awhile, then roll out of bed and go downstairs. Raucous play ensues.

8:30 Finally get to my breakfast. I serve myself more cereal than I need, knowing that Eli (who’s already eaten a big bowl of oatmeal with Tony) will mooch. We eat our granola and o’s together, then play with Ben.

9:15 Tony takes Eli upstairs for a nap. Ben pulls all the dining room chairs into train formation and we play train for awhile. It’s a commuter train, so I’m allowed to read the paper.

9:30 Ben sits down to an episode of Sesame St; I go upstairs to take a shower and get dressed.

10:00 Ben and I settle in to play trains.

11 It dawns on me that I have a cold. It also occurs to me that since Eli won’t nurse again till tomorrow morning, I could take some cold medicine. The mind reels — this makes having a cold kind of exciting! But I can only find some advil. Better than nothing.

11:30 Realize I’m feeling way too lousy to take the kids to the zoo as planned; Tony rearranges his day in order to take the boys and I climb back into bed.

2 Wake up, completely disoriented. If I’m in bed and the clock says 2, it must be the middle of the night, right? But it’s so bright in the room. I stare at the clock for several minutes trying to make sense of the situation. I don’t think I’ve taken a nap in a year.

3-something Tony and the boys return, but my cold keeps me on the fringes of the family for the rest of the day. We’ll try another Day in the Life report next month when I can fully participate!