3 Days in New Hampshire

Dear New Hampshire, we barely delved into your beauty and depth! Booking this trip a few weeks before, we intended to drive to the White Mountains to smell alpine air, let the girls stretch out with more room, and hike a bit. But we were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by the most pleasant vacation atmosphere everywhere we went. We are stalwarts of Maine trips, accustomed to claims of “Vacationland!” on every roadside sign. So humble, gorgeous New Hampshire with cheerful Hi-Way roadside diners and 40s of beer for sale at gas stations, surprised us.

The airbnb rental, two hours from Boston, and if you’re not already a member, a $40 travel credit!

There were adorable clusters of cottages (1/2) with stone chimneys and miniature yards draped around kettle ponds. The ponds were stocked with paddle boats and lazy canoes. The restaurants had a view of the mountains and the trip advisor reviews, scanned quickly on my phone, said things like “dated, but the pool is heated year round and the food is excellent.”

I was further entranced by the boy howdy tourist attractions sprinkled about the White Mountains. There are railroads everywhere. Some of them serve lunch and ice cream. Others’ climb steep mountains. There is a place called Storyland, a land celebrating stories of the untrademarked variety.

Everyone we met was boisterously friendly, each practically shouting “Hi!” when we passed them on the trails. A restaurant had taped up a sign that read “30 minute wait for food.” This sign was visible the moment you walked in. Were Boston to follow this trend you would see “30 minute wait for water,” and “30 minute wait for acknowledgement” signs tacked up everywhere. Because we’d fallen for the faux-treehouse vibe and this endearing sign upon crossing the threshold of the building, we ordered anyway and had a delicious meal 30 minutes later. As we left, I noted that a new sign had replaced the old one: “40 minute wait for food.”

hiking a 3.5 mile Mount Pemigewasset round trip.

The three-year-old found an 1000 piece puzzle of a Victorian Christmas scene involving unfurled red ribbons with messages written in a German-style font, framed above and below by a sky and snowy field that were exactly the same color. She spread this across the table and spent thirty minutes twice a day furrowing over the pieces, perhaps matching one or two together by the end the hour. “Who can help me with the puzzle,” she asked us many times. “Mom, will you help me?” Our Little Red Hen, except she never did get her vindictive loaf to have for herself. We would take turns sitting with her, managing to piece a few more bits together before the toddler climbed up to sit on our lap and swept them to the floor like dead flies.

“Maybe we’ll get one for home” I said when we had to put the fragments away at the end of the weekend, “only with a more fun picture.”

“No, I want a Christmas one just like this,” she said.

The road up Mount Washington is privately owned and not managed by the National Parks system. This was very curious, and it was not well run. The line to get in was slow, though once you got to the front you realized that genial grandfatherly types were running it, and forgave them the wait instantly. Gravel had washed off the edges of the already narrow road, and the observation center at the top was rundown and clearly over-stretched. There is an option to send a postcard from their post office, a charming idea, but all the postcards for sale are ugly with almost no photos of the mountain itself. The design of the observation deck felt like a soviet-90s buildout. After sharing two toasted hot chocolates (the weird way industrial chocolate powder burns to taste like peanut butter), we sat outside where there was one weary sign about the scenery.

There is one thing they do that is perfectly done: the red and blue bumper sticker that is included with every single price of admittance: This Car Climbed Mount Washington.

Driving back to the rental, we noted that savvy New Hampshirites had flocked to places named things like The Basin and Land of Many Uses. We resolved to do the same next time. As we drove through the trees I could see merry babbling creeks through the trees. To be there on an 80 degree day and poke creek pebbles around with your toes must be heaven. Hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail would also be amazing. And maybe someday seeing one of the huts! (if you want to fall deeply in love with the White Mountains from afar, follow btonevibes.)

Lux is beginning to read on her own. I’d brought up an early reader with a silly plot that we love, Moose Goes to School, and it was special passing moment to get to watch her read it over and over again to herself on the couch. Vacation at its best!

We watched Hello, Dolly twice. I memorized most of the songs as a kid, unbeknownst to the girls and Joe until the movie started, and I did not hesitate to sing along. I had totally forgotten this connection, but the five-year-old immediately recognized the music from the movie Wall-E replays in the evenings on his makeshift projector. The girls fell hard for Dolly. “Everyone knows Dolly,” they whispered as Barbra Streisand danced around the restaurant. “That looks terrible on him and really good on her,” speaking of the feather boa Dolly wickedly drapes on her distracted love interest. “That looks like something Dolly would wear,” they remarked once back in Boston as we walked past a hat shop.

Everyone got spider bites and there were ticks of course and strange hiking blisters. Buoyed with vacation spirit beforehand, I bought delicious strawberry artisan marshmallows that melted right off the sticks at the first sign of toasting and thus had to be plied carefully onto the graham cracker, at which point the girls declared them “too sticky,” and asked for the “the normal ones.”

clear and present postpartum

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I’ve been meaning to link to this superb writing on postpartum depression on Katrina’s blog. I have experienced moments like she describes and I think she nails the elements exactly. The buzzing thoughts, the way the dark moments can tip the scale, the physical notes that come into play–eye contact, smiles. An excellent read, particularly if you’ve had friends go through this, or brushed against it yourself.

A bit of back story, so you catch the details: Katrina, a calligrapher, painter, and devoted Catholic, gave birth to her baby girl with two young boys already tumbling about her in a tiny space on campus with her husband deeply into graduate school.

Shoo fly, don’t bother me

moving city

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We are apartment hunting which has me deeply nostalgic for our current apartment even as we live here for a few more months. Reminiscing the present is like writing a greeting card to yourself every morning when you wake up. Things become overwrought with significance.

It was originally our landlord’s idea, but once he suggested it, it felt right to us too. Comparing us to us back at our apartment tour, we now feel just a percentage too big, maybe 15%.

Four years, two infancies in our bedroom, a few rooftop drinks, lots of sleeping-in with light blazing onto our pillows (the eastern reach of the eastern time zone), watching rain fall over the park from the windows, watching the tops of the trees change from flowers to leaves. Actually, much of life lived through the windows, often open on both sides like a railroad car, like a porch you happened to enclose with brick walls and place sixty feet in the air.

Joan helping me in the kitchen, Lux in the bathtub, listening to The Last Battle, the sound of the narrator’s British accent coming through the door over her light splashing.

Lux watching the Hancock Tower’s weather beacon visible from her window and reciting the code to us as if it contained predictive magical powers: “Steady blue, clear view. Flashing blue, clouds due. Steady red, rain ahead. Flashing red, snow instead.”

The mice, a revolving chain of them, heedless of the abrupt disappearance of their elders.”I just saw something scamper in the kitchen, it looked like a bird, but I think it was a mouse.”

Four years with just a bathtub for bathing (such a lovely old fashioned word), fun years where I mentally added shower to the amenities I would enjoy on vacation, even when we were just staying over at a friend’s house for the night.

It’s hard to leave a stage you still love.

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Because we still love it, we have become persnickety rental hunters. We have no interest in replicating our space, we want everything we’ve loved so far, but more! Small, quirky, south facing windows, wood burning fireplace, pets welcome, heat & hot water included, washer & dryer, quiet at night, a real patio, wood floors, same fifteen minute commute for Joe. Because this Christmas list continues to be a hopeful prayer of mine I will avoid blasé language, but suffice to say Boston’s rental market is not in the business of making dreams come true.

Around this time of year I often visit friends with yards, kiddie pools, sidewalks, climbing trees, front porches, and extra bedrooms, and I have to stifle my awe of it all. Act natural like them. They shrug at the grandeur, “well, we’re thinking of re-doing the kitchen.” Their children totter from thing to thing, express boredom, ask for snacks. I become overwhelmed by the probability that my children would act the very same way in such circumstances, instead of turning into joyful competitive cyclists or champion swimmers like I secretly imagine.

(that said, I affirm any dissatisfactions with space, no matter how much of it. Having looked at approximately two hundred real estate listings, I believe we can say that space does not equal human comfort–comfort typically found in things like light that pools on the floor, windows that open, hearing your family while you cook, a room looking clean after you’ve cleaned it, the way a wall can expand a room instead of dividing it.

Is it odd or totally natural to experience deep identity crisis with a new home? Why are we as humans always leaning into things to make them who we are. Must your clothes, job, children, home, aspirations, facebook profile remind you of your value?

Naturally the girls hate the idea of moving. Like a loyal friend, they sing the praises of our current space  (“Isn’t it so quiet on this street Mom?”), brush over the negatives or simply don’t see them (“I don’t want to say this out loud around anyone because I might hurt their feelings, but we live on the top floor.”)

You could make the argument that fertility is arranging this need for a new apartment. We have outgrown it. It worked for the 3rd infancy, but with all five of us walking now, it feels clumsy; the enforced minimalism more insistent than we want it to be.

Fertility can seem like a moving walkway that keeps turning me into new things and handing me things–infancy, baby, kindergarten, drop off and pick up, doctors appointments, feeling late a lot, nights on zappos analyzing miniature sandal straps, grocery lists peppered with apples and peanut butter jars, afternoons that begin when I pack the snacks and end with a bowl of tuna fish between us on the floor, me scooping spoonfuls into their mouths.

To some extent I feel like an active participant, in others, like leaving this apartment, I feel like decisions were made by some other creature.

 

13 months

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a now, a few notes on Alma before another month slips away:

She still has eczema, especially around her ankles, patches of dinosaur skin that blister red and itch. It’s hard for me to know how much it bothers her. After moisturizing her skin (primarily I use compounds with coconut oil), I pull on socks and then booties, and tuck her pants into those. If I leave her skin bare, she itches it and scratches herself fiercely. But if the skin is covered, she doesn’t seem to notice it.

I miss seeing her bare legs and feet though. Clothes are a poor varnish for babies’ perfect bodies.

Because of the eczema and the potential of food allergies causing it, I’ve delayed weaning her. I’m happy to be nursing a bit longer than I did with the other two, though I think we’ll be done by the end of the month. I sense that she’s weaning herself, and feeling very cuddly as a result, often pulling herself onto my lap to sit, or crawling merrily behind me while I pace (as it must seem to her) the apartment.

She plays by herself the most of all three of them, often crawling into the girls’ room on her own and slowly destroying it. I lean into the doorway and find her settled on Joan’s pillow, her tongue-tap “ta, ta” as she tosses, one by one, a stack of cards over the edge of the bed. She turns to glance at me, grinning. We smile at each other for awhile and then go on with our duties.

She now gets frustrated when she isn’t given something she wants the moment she wants it–like being allowed to climb on the table and pinch cereal pillows out of the girls’ bowls, milk dripping down her arm. She sees my iphone as a possession which we share; she likes to coo at softly while holding it with both hands. Fortunately I have two other children so I know that the cellphone ownership-mimicry gradually fades and it is not an early indicator that you have developed a creepy tech-obsessed enfant terrible.

She is very happy when imitating a pretentious stage reader. She comes upon books left on the floor, and settles down cross legged to examine them. She grabs the edges of the pages and flips at random through the book for several minutes, never looking up, all the while running a loud, low-pitched tone, like an aged generator that happens to drool. She often does this while I’m reading aloud too, perching next to me and nearly over-droning my voice while I read to the girls. If she finds me reading to myself, she grabs the edge of the book and flips through it as if looking for a page number, slowly pulling it away from me. She thinks it is hilarious if I try to read aloud to her in my lap, giggling loudly and then demanding the book for herself.

The girls are extremely indulgent of her and hate to hear her cry. If Lux is sitting next to her in the car, she’ll drape her hair over Alma’s fingers to yank on, sing to her, dig through her backpack to find distractions. Lux’s teacher told me she is often raising her hand and asking “if babies can come” to any school event being announced. Joan will cry ALMA! and dart around the house looking for a toy to give her.

I do find myself often stalling on a request of Joan’s because Alma needs something, which I regret. I’d like to streamline my actions and the household revolutions more cleanly. Right now I’m often feeding one, cleaning up after the other, in endless cycle.

There’s no denying that a thirteen (to eighteen!) month old is a chaotic element for a household. You never know where they are or how they might be attempting to poison themselves. They require constant vigilance, and if I could find a robot to follow her around and undo her every action, that would be fantastic. That said, we are absolutely obsessed with her presence in our lives.

a hot chocolate stand in February

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A hot chocolate stand setup in 20 degrees is a very popular thing, almost too popular for us to keep up with! Lux watercolored the sign, and we found a spot in the sun next to our neighbor’s house. Mini marshmallows (in the Luxardo can) and whipped cream were included with purchase. Joan sat sedately behind the table, Lux eagerly filled cups, and our neighbor friend counted out change. They sold out quickly, and we learned a few lessons, like: always start with two gallons of milk, buy more cups than you think, and practice basic business habits (“thank you!” “have a nice day!”) beforehand. There was lots of talk about next time, and I’m already looking forward to it.

They made way too much money, because everyone was overpaying, which led to an easy lesson about net profit after cost and tithing.

Lux spent the rest of the day making jokes about how gross profit sounds like “gross pockets.” A thing, I might say, she knows quite a bit about.

I struggle to type anything against Ina Garten, but her onion dip recipe is a mix of sour cream and cream cheese which is too sweet to go with onions. Julia Turshen’s adds mayo to sour cream with a 1tsp douse of sherry vinegar. An action that suggests that you put the “salt and vinegar” in the dip instead of the chip. (Her dip recipe, though I did a thin-sliced caramelized onions version instead of roasted scallions.)

My super bowl weekend was a new jar of pickles and gin martinis with fresh orange juice, the girls running down to the neighbors’ to color while I cooked venison burgers in silence, save the sizzle. Reading Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen, which is excellent so far. Too many twitter checks for me, for sure, but what’s a savvy girl to do these days? I saw a pussy hat out in the wild, shopping with her daughter, and I realized: these pink handknit babies will be with us all winter! We’ll see them out: pulling sleds, loading up groceries, examining birthday cards in the aisles of Target, shoveling sidewalks. A cheering thought.

 

 

January 2, milk street

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This week I listened to vintage Diane Rehm episodes. She has already retired from her daily radio show, but before she did, she replayed old favorite episodes. In one, an interview with her best friend, they confess that they’ve spoken to each other every morning at 7am for over thirty years. ADULT. GOALS.

(Thank you to reader Julia for suggesting these wireless headphones for nap time listening/doing, right when I needed something to ask for Christmas! Thanks mom.)

But I began by listening to her interview with Fred Rogers, a show which sounded like a pillow and a blanket had curled up to talk to each other and recorded it for radio. Quiet and deeply soothing. I listened to the whole thing on the couch and nearly teared up it was so encouraging.

After the episode finished I immediately hunted down the current best-method to watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which is: all seven seasons streaming on Amazon, free to prime members. What a gift to modern parents! The girls have both watched Daniel Tiger, the cartoon iteration produced by PBS that carries many of the same sensibilities (and the background-ambient feeling that this is all just a rouse to make better parents out of us), but I see a big difference between the shows. On the Neighborhood adults are running into each other all day and interacting: well mannered and thoughtful. You see adults shaking hands, asking after each other’s health, thanking each other, and bidding good day. You see Mr. Rogers make a point to greet his local shoe salesman, his grocer, his milkman. Watching this social courtesy modeled in slow-motion on television is really quite something.

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Another wonderful thing from last week: I had the great pleasure of visiting 177 Milk Street, Christopher Kimball’s (founder of Cook’s Illustrated) new endeavor in downtown Boston. Like Cook’s Illustrated, Milk Street has a TV and radio show and a bimonthly magazine. However, unlike Cook’s Illustrated, they have designed their kitchen to host monthly classes and talks. It is a wide open space with fabulous big windows, located right in the heart of downtown. They are offering free cooking classes to Boston teenagers, which is so cool.

I went with a gaggle of wonderful-cook girlfriends to see Julia Turshen. Julia was a wee bit shorter in person than I expected after seeing many photographs of her fabulous hair. She was soft spoken yet an amazing public speaker. She made several simple recipes for us but even in their simplicity we were all able to pick up a few professional tricks. For example, before mincing garlic, she always crushes the cloves under her knife to flatten them. Genius. When adding garlic to a pan of olive oil, she tips the pan for a minute so the garlic can merrily slosh around and very-nearly fry. She said she roasts pretty much everything at 425–easy to remember!

There’s something reassuring about watching a professional do things you do in your kitchen every day.

So we began with glasses of wine, potato chips, and scoops of her scallion chip dip. Then we sat and watched her cook (luxury!), then we got to taste everything and get our copies of Small Victories signed. It was really fun and I highly recommend it for your next outing.

The photo above is from when I made her turkey and ricotta meatballs along with her very easy to doctor-up can-of-tomato sauce. The next morning I turned the leftovers into shakshuka, where you poach eggs in the simmering sauce (takes about ten minutes, just dump them in and put a lid on the pan) and then serve with a crumble of goat cheese.

secret peek at your neighbor-human

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Even if you skate alone ice skating is romantic because it is a valentine to winter. People leave their cozy couches and make their way in the cold to a clear patch of blue ice. Then they lean down and yank-yank on their skate laces, totter like penguins over rubber mats, and finally step with their steel spindles onto the frozen water.

A few sail away like pretty ships, but many, many, slip and slide, fail, flail and laugh. Get back up, grab their friend’s hand, do it again. Laugh at themselves, lunge into the wall, gently push off, start over. Adults do this! They pay to do it! Sure, some of them are high on drugs, or optimism, or both. But they do it and it’s inspiring to see.

Sometimes you see someone walk out, just a guy, dressed in sweats. Maybe he’s slouching. His hat is covering his eyes. He walks to the ice and all of sudden it’s like he’s dancing. You can’t help but watch his ankles because they are like two birds weaving through the trees. He’s so good! Did he play hockey? Did his mom used to take him skating as a kid? Does he love to skate by himself on Tuesday afternoons every week? We’ll never know. Without them saying a word, you get a secret peek into your neighbor-human and you see how talented and graceful they are, and you just admire them so much, these strangers.

January 1, ladders and roe

lunchComing back to our 700sq feet home as a family of five after an expansive sunny vacation is like parachuting into a gray November day from a bright one in June. You’re happy to have your feet back on the ground, it feels familiar and cozy and yet…crowded. Certainly there is too much stuff, and look: we’ve brought more back with us! Why are the book shelves already full? one wonders with a stack of new books in-hand.

It’s a puzzle to find a spot for everything, and the trick is to take pleasure in the solving of it. 

Over Christmas, my sister-in-law Hannah got me into this book Super Nutrition for Babies. I’m really grateful because reading it has been a wake up call for habits in our house. I find that you begin parenting saying to yourself my children will never order off a kid’s menu, or I’ll never buy kraft mac & cheese by the dozen and then things just happen. It starts to feel normal to have bags of animal crackers, pretzels, bread, and frozen waffles filling half your cart, or you get demoralized when they don’t fall in love with your roasted root veggies with horseradish on first kiss.

In particular, I was often offering Alma the same easy finger food as Joan: tossing pasta and fruit on her tray while I prepared a vegetable, only to find her full once I offered it.

So, after highlighting half the book on my kindle, I plowed into this week in full pursuit of a protein diet for the whole family, slipping lots of hard boiled eggs in (“here, eat this egg while I make you a sandwich”), keeping a steady supply of baked sweet potatoes in the fridge, and offering cheese or cold chicken for snacks. I made my first very tiny batch of bone broth. I poked around our seafood section for salmon roe for Alma, and I realized they sell white anchovies, a very mild and tasty fish, preserved in oil and vinegar, that all three girls love. I had never noticed it! I pestered our butcher counter and learned they tuck (incredibly cheap) frozen lamb liver and heart in nearly hidden spot in the freezer aisle.

I’m very glad to be shifting habits around in the pantry and refrigerator. These types of things are always followed by a briefly higher grocery bill, packing the wrong snacks, and lots more mental work. I’m trying to take it slowly and not be disappointed when change doesn’t come about with brilliant success. For instance, several times this week Lux ate nothing out of her lunch but the raw veggies I sent–all of the proteins (chopped chicken, container of yogurt) didn’t appeal to her by the lunch hour. 

Upon reflection, nourishing this family is probably THE hardest job I do. I’m often amazed at how much time it takes to plan, prep, feed, and clean up. Other times I realize how important it is, and try to take up my pantrykeeper mantle boldly. 

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A rope ladder for Christmas, technically for Joan, but enjoyed by all three girls. Most of Joan’s play is imagination-based, she could pack a covered wagon full of salvaged post-it notes and beaded necklaces before you could say “cholera”, so it’s nice to have simple (mess-free) toys that facilitate her adventures as well.

a book in context

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I started the The Good Earth, published 1931 by Pearl S. Buck, mid-December in the two weeks after Joe’s brother died; wretched strange weeks when the girls and I were sick with one morphing virus, a flu-cold, flights were delayed, our planes home sat on the tarmac then skid into airports hours late, we seemed to tuck them into bed, fall asleep listening to them cough, and then drag them out again before the sun even bothered to wink awake.

At the memorial service for their uncle the girls crumpled with me in a back row in grumpy feverish moods, wiping their snotty noses over and over, hiding their flushed faces in their elbows as old friends of the family stopped to say hello. The service was beautiful but our children weren’t, a fact that both prickled our pride and seemed fitting. One family member dead and well remembered, the rest alive and hard to look at. Each morning I woke up expecting our hack-coughs to be emptied overnight, no. Meanwhile our hero Wang Lung gratefully accepted his morning bowl of hot water, in bed, served by his new wife just after she carefully stoked the fire and served another bowl to his father. 

Naturally there was no mention of Christmas on the pages of The Good Earth–though there is occasionally a fearful and fitful devotion to various gods, grabbing an incense stick when things seemed worrisome, cursing them loudly when things fell apart. Wang Lung’s marriage to O-lan is pragmatic, met with unexpected kismet and peace, yet there is still the unerasable impact of O-lan’s deprived childhood–the details of which are eluded to only vaguely. Wang Lung made no move, ever, to fix or soothe what had happened to her. Meanwhile I chased the girls with ointments of various types, devoting fifteen minutes to cajoling a smear on their red skin that was raw from their furtive side-wiping. The girls seemed to collectively give up eating, their proud young playground muscles almost immediately disappearing into knobby knees. At a certain point all three began to watch me as nothing but a kleenex threatening an attack on them. I fell into the role, really, it was almost impossible for me not track their snuffles and new symptoms with a graph chart.

Steadily I closed my senses to the american christmas hoopla around us that did not frame our Christmas this year at all. The sweet heaven-bound songs of the memorial service rang instead of carols, toast and soup replaced hot cocoa, sleeping late and watching movies, often oblivious to the accomplishment of festive traditions around us. Joe and I mostly looked at the girls, but when we managed to look at each other it was difficult to avoid the topic of missing Ross or preemptively imagining how sad this or that were going to be without Ross. Steadily Wang Lung remained devoted to his land, wholly disinterested in political events in his country and often oblivious to anything beyond the demands of his social structure. The narrative pours out like hot tea, the irony-free meditations faintly fragrant and soothing. Pearl Buck was the child of American missionaries, she held the duality of American and Chinese worlds in her mind, but she loved the Chinese one most, I think. Her flattering sketch of the countryside, the affectionate description of the “loaf of bread wrapped around a stick of garlic,” the laboring, planting, harvesting, well-earned resting that framed Wang Lung’s noble year. The pre-revolution farmer peasant world was harsh indeed, but you can tell she loved it. The GOOD earth.