Archive for June 2007

My Parisian Vacation (Not)

After a perfectly fine but very long week, it was time to go to the movies. Paris, Je T’aime recommended itself as one a) that I probably wouldn’t need to write a column about and 2) set in Paris. It’s a collection of eighteen 5-minute films from a range of directors (the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, Alexander Payne, Isabel Coixet, Alfonso Cuaron — a total all-star list) and starring a range of actors from around the world.

Now, I love to read anthologies (so much that now I’m editing one!). The first that really made an impact on me was Twenty Under Thirty, edited by Debra Spark (which I read when I was, in fact, under thirty). This is the book that introduced me to Lorrie Moore; I read her story “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love” over and over (I can still quote it) and tried (unsuccessfully) to steal from it in a recent essay (ah, she’s still the master). Lately, there’s been a fabulous run of parenting anthologies, from the excellent Toddler to It’s A Boy, and of course the Literary Mama anthology. Then there are the food anthologies, the Best Food Writing books and my new favorite (which is really too heavy to read in bed but I do anyway), Molly O’Neill’s American Food Writing (an anthology with recipes; my dream come true!)

The appeal of the literary anthology, of course, is the range of voices. But it works, for me, because you can put it down. Pick it up, read a selection, put it down, reflect. Lovely. Perfect for bedtime reading. But you know, the anthology of movies, it’s a tricky thing. The putting down and reflecting moment isn’t available to the viewer, you just have to let the whole thing wash over you and hope that you retain something when it’s over.

So while on the one hand, you could just let Paris Je T’aime wash over you — it’s a series of love stories set in Paris, after all — a couple of the stories are just trying so hard that they’re irritating. And then they start to blend together a bit. After the sixth, I confess, I checked my watch, because that one had been so annoying (and the fifth one so perfect) that I wanted to leave and just remember the beautifully sad face of Catalina Sandino Moreno singing to her baby in the fifth story, Loin du 16e. But I stuck it out to the end (because I’m optimistic enough to rarely walk out on a movie; Scoop and Wild at Heart are the only two I can remember every leaving) and I’m glad I did, because Alexander Payne’s contribution, 14e arrondissement is also perfect. (Hmm, the two I really liked feature a single actress and hardly any direct dialogue.) So 2 for 18 is not great, perhaps, but only two were truly annoying, and the rest, like most movies, were just fine.

Kids in the Kitchen

I am all about encouraging kids to cook, to experiment with food, to hang out in the kitchen with me as much as possible. This often means creating a big mess, but I think the long-term gains (kids with healthy attitudes about food) are worth it. At the moment, my boys eat well, have strong opinions about food, and are happy to watch the Food Network with me when we fly on JetBlue. So far, so good.

So I was happy to learn about Spatulatta, a cooking show by and for kids. It’s not on network tv yet, just on the web, but they’re aiming more broadly. It’s a sweet show, with recipes and videos demonstrating essential kitchen skills, from separating an egg to arranging a Mother’s Day breakfast tray! If you agree that the show offers good, educational entertainment for kids, click on the survey at the website; the results may help them get their own PBS show!

More Good Reading

Here’s another chance to see what your favorite Literary Mama editors and columnists are reading these days; take a look! Me, I’m off to update my Amazon wish list…

Kids Make You Stupid

A recent NYT article discusses studies finding that the first-born in a family has a higher IQ than that child’s siblings. It makes some sense; as the article points out:

Firstborns have their parents’ undivided attention as infants, and even if that attention is later divided evenly with a sibling or more, it means that over time they will have more cumulative adult attention, in theory enriching their vocabulary and reasoning abilities.

What researchers can’t figure out is why, among kids under 12, the younger siblings outscore their older sisters and brothers on IQ tests. One theory:

Adding a young child may, in a sense, diminish the family’s overall intellectual environment, as far as an older sibling is concerned; yet the younger sibling benefits from the maturity of both the parents and the older brother or sister. This dynamic may quickly cancel and reverse the head start the older child received from his parents.

See, this is why we can’t risk having a third kid, despite how much fun some people make it sound. We just can’t risk diminishing our overall intellectual environment any further…

Summer Fruit Crisp

I’m sure I’ve posted this recipe before, but it’s my favorite thing to do with summer fruit, and it’s incredibly easy, so I’m posting the recipe again, this time with a picture (before I topped and baked it, because honestly it’s prettier then).

This is two peaches, one nectarine, one pluot, one plum, and about a dozen cherries (ie, the fruit that wasn’t going to last another day before spoiling). The topping is a half cup each oats, wheat germ, flour, brown sugar, and melted butter, plus a dash of cinnamon. Bake at 350 for half an hour or so, until the fruit juices are bubbling around the edges. Eat with vanilla ice cream.

Triple Citrus Poppy Seed Coffee Cake

I haven’t posted an actual recipe in a while, and this is a delicious one. It’s based on one I tore out of a Martha Stewart Living a few years ago, and it doesn’t seem to be on her website any more so I’m doing you all an enormous favor by posting a simplified version of the recipe here. My main edit is to change the ridiculous first ingredient, which she list as “1 5/8 cups (13 tablespoons) butter” — as if either of those measurements are at all simple to calculate. Further, you actually only need one stick of butter in the dough; the remaining tablespoons of butter are added at various points — to grease the bowl, to brush the dough before its rise, to brush on the loaves before their rise. And you can take or leave those. In fact, you could just grease the bowl with the butter wrapper and be done with it. Next time I make this, I’m going to leave the egg yolks out of the filling (mostly because it’s annoying to have 2 leftover egg whites), and I’ll report back on how that works.

For the dough:
½ c warm water
2 T active dry yeast (2 envelopes)
1 t sugar

½ c butter, melted and cooled (plus some more to grease the bowl)
2/3 c sugar
1 c orange juice
2 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 orange
1 t salt
5-6 c flour

For the filling:
1 pound cream cheese (room temperature)
1 c confectioner’s sugar
2 egg yolks
2 t vanilla
1 c dried cranberries, dried blueberries, dried currants (or a mix)
2/3 c poppy seeds

For the egg wash:
1 lightly beaten egg

Stir together the water, yeast and 1 t sugar in a large bowl until yeast dissolves. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Now whisk in oj, eggs, remaining 2/3 c sugar, melted butter, zests and salt. Stir in flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and forms a ball.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until just slightly sticky, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a buttered bowl and turn so that the dough is lightly coated with butter. Loosely cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, either at room temperature (about 1 ½ hours) or in the refrigerator overnight.

Meanwhile, stir together cream cheese, egg yolks, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add poppy seeds and dried berries. Set aside (at room temp or in the fridge, wherever your dough is).

When you’re ready to shape and bake the coffee cakes, butter 2 baking sheets and set aside.

Punch down dough and divide in half. Roll out one half into an 11 x 15” rectangle. Spread half the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a 1” border. Beginning at one long side, tightly roll dough into a log, encasing the filling. Pinch seam to seal. Carefully transfer log to baking sheet. With a sharp knife, make cuts about 2” apart along one long side of the log, cutting just three-quarters of the way across. Lift the first segment, turn it cut side up, and lay it flat on the baking sheet. Repeat with the next segment, twisting it so it sits on the opposite side of the roll. Continue down the log, alternating sides.

Roll out, fill and cut remaining dough.

Preheat oven to 350. Loosely cover dough and let rise until almost doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes. Brush dough with egg wash, avoiding the filling. Bake until cooked through and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Carefully slide coffee cakes onto wire racks, and let cool completely before slicing.

I Am Irritated

A new restaurant has opened in our neighborhood, and I want to like it, I really do. The menu is vegetarian, the food organically grown, sustainably harvested, locally sourced (wherever possible, of course). The restaurant uses environmentally friendly products. It’s a kid friendly-space with toys and large tables. They are trying to do the right thing, and it’s clearly hit a chord around here (of course it has) because the place is usually busy.


I cannot read the menu without wincing. Every item on the menu is an emotion, every dish a proclamation:

“I Am Sacred.” “I Am Joyful.” “I Am Triumphant.” “I Am Festive.” “I Am Bright-Eyed.” “I Am Sensational.” “I Am Prosperous.” “I Am Elated.” “I Am Plenty.” “I Am Charasmatic.” “I Am Precious.” “I Am Succulent.”

I Have To Stop!!!

I try to get past the names of the dishes and focus on the descriptions: the tabouli with hummus and spicy olive tapenade on pita sounds fine (“I Am Flourishing”), but it’s right there next to the “live sun burger” (“I Am Cheerful”) with macadamia cheddar cheese and I want my (veggie) burger cooked, thank you, and made with dairy cheese please, and then I see the basil hemp seed pesto (“I Am Sensational”) and although I know hemp is good for you, I’m not putting it in my pesto. The thought makes me cranky.

I will just never be the flax seed-eating, hemp-wearing person my zip code might suggest; in fact, I guess you can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take the New York out of the girl.

Father’s Day Reading

Check out all the good Father’s Day reading over at Literary Mama, including Libby’s column, my column, and one of the new features that we have been working hard on: a reading list!

Antidotes to a Lousy Hour

Luckily, it didn’t take much (it was really only an hour, after all, and I didn’t even get any bruises) but it was abundantly, extravagantly erased by:

lots of sympathy from family and friends, both in the computer and out

+ a quiet afternoon playing with my boys

+ Saturday morning at the farmer’s market listening to a friend’s band

+ an afternoon at our friends’ new home, making up for the previous day’s aborted playdate

+ an impromptu barbecue with three other families (8 kids under 6 all playing easily together while the parents eat and visit)

+ Sunday morning’s chocolate-chip coconut coffee cake (happy Father’s Day, Tony!)

+ a sunny afternoon at the San Jose Giants game, both watching the game and, when it got too hot, watching the boys play the carnival games in the parking lot

+ another great dinner with friends (two nights in a row being fed by someone else!)

+ another late night, carrying sleepy, sweaty-headed boys from the car up to bed

= a sunny summer weekend with old friends and happy kids and good food

One Lousy Hour

I wasn’t planning to participate in today’s blog bonanza on discipline. I loved The No-Cry Discipline Solution, but I thought I’d said all I had to say about it, and discipline. Or maybe I just didn’t want to think about discipline anymore. It’s like thinking about global warming, maybe; you know that your thoughtful action will make a difference, but sometimes you just want to pretend things’ll change on their own, without you.

But in fact, I do buy those twisty light bulbs, compost, recycle, and turn out lights when I leave the room. I also spend an inordinate amount of time saying “use your words” or “calm your body down” or “take a deep breath with me” and reminding Ben that his actions, like his brother’s, like mine, have consequences.

Which is why today, less than thirty minutes after we’d arrived at his friend’s house, a half-hour drive from ours, I packed him, kicking and screaming, back into the car, and drove home.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. I’ve been feeling lousy all week, and so haven’t been the most present parent. The boys had been up less than half an hour this morning before they were fighting over a spoon, and although I handled that fine, I didn’t see it as a sign of things to come. I suppose if you took every struggle as a sign of worse to come, you’d just crawl back under the covers. Sometimes it gets worse, but sometimes it gets better, and the uncertainty generally leaves me pretty optimistic.

Meanwhile, the end of preschool last week brought a fun week of vacation this week, but also a dizzying lack of schedule and routine.

Also, his good friend, one he’s known since before he was eating solid food, the one we tried to visit today, moved to another town.

Also, the week’s been hot and sunny– weather I soak up like a chameleon, but which leaves my fog-raised boys a little out of sorts.

So there we were: me, dosed up on advil and pseudo-sudafed, pretending I felt well enough for the excursion, dressed in my pretty new Goodwill sundress and a bangle bracelet Tony’s dad made in the 70s; the boys in shorts and t-shirts, wriggling through my careful application of sunscreen, eager to just get there already.

They sang a song about garbage all the way across the city and over the bridge, but even though it was tuneless and repetitive, they were happy, and I was happy, and I didn’t complain, even when it turned into shrieking.

When we got to our friends’ house (because of course these are my friends, too, the mom a person I treasure for getting me through some comically low points – like ten minutes with 2 toddlers, a crawler and a newborn in one grimy bathroom stall—with incredible good cheer), Ben told Eli he couldn’t play in the basement playroom. We got through that one.

Then Ben and his friend started running back and forth from playroom to living room, bringing out a toy stroller, a batting helmet, toy guitars, setting up for a concert. The halls are crowded with boxes (they just moved in last week), and Eli kept nearly getting knocked over. I asked Ben to keep the toys in the playroom, to open the sliding door into the backyard (“Look, this can be your curtain!”) and make the yard their stage. He started arguing with me about how far backstage (the playroom) needed to be from the stage (the living room), and I tried to have the reasonable conversation about concert hall lay-out, but I’d already lost him. He was shaking and shouting, red-faced, crying, still upset that I’d let Eli in the room at all, flailing his arms and legs the way he does when he wants to hit me.

So I asked him to sit with me a minute and try to talk, but it was too late. I suggested maybe we should set up another game, but he was stuck on the concert idea and couldn’t let it go. And then I pointed out that maybe if he couldn’t listen to my ideas we should leave, but that just made it worse, and then he did kick me, and being hit by a 45-pound 5 year-old hurts pretty badly, but I still didn’t lose my temper, just said I thought it was really time to go.

Eli was watching all this calmly, unsure what to make of it, and Ben’s friend and little sister were looking on in surprise at this uncharacteristic outburst from their friend. Their mom, bless her, strapped Eli in to his carseat and put all my other stuff into the car because I had my hands quite literally full with a kicking and flailing boy who wouldn’t walk out the door. I had to push him into his booster seat and he got a few more good kicks landed while I buckled him, and then he screamed the first 8 miles of the drive home. I know, because I was watching the odometer, willing myself not to cry, because then we’d just get in an accident and that would make one lousy hour last a whole lot longer.

So there it is. I think I did the right thing, but sometimes even doing the right thing doesn’t feel so great.