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. 

our favorite headphones

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I was thrilled to see the Wirecutter’s review of kids headphones. There is not enough said about the brands on the market that don’t offer volume-limiting. When marketing to kids, it should be an obvious inclusion. After 80 hours of research Wirecutter’s resulting choice, a pair that goes for $100 on Amazon, looks pretty great. But I’m skeptical of bluetooth with kids—it sounds like a nightmare trying to resolve the pairing anytime it goes wrong (and you know it would). But the comfort level looks amazing for a child over age seven.

That said, the pair they awarded second place to are the OnanOff Buddy Headphones, which we’ve had since last spring. Built-in-splitter. Yup. I know. Brilliant. Solves so many issues, no matter what weird scenario you’re in–only one of the airline seat tvs in your row is working, only one of the downloaded shows is actually interesting, one of your iPads died enroute. And they retail for $33. Recommend.

Drafting an advent calendar

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Alongside the tiny-door cardboard calendars for the girls, this year I’d like to do a book calendar to mark the passing days of December. Unwrapping and reading a favorite book every morning sounds lovely. I first encountered this idea on Andrea’s bookscout blog two years ago. I’d love to wrap them up this way created by Oh Happy Day, pictured above. Brown paper book packages tied up with string.

Last year out of the twenty or so holiday books we checked out of the library, I found twelve favorites that the then-four-and-two year old loved (that means I need to come up with thirteen more!). I look for books that have detailed illustrations and writing that hints at even more of a story than it tells. All of these have that!

Here are last year’s favorites:

Christmas in Noisy Village, Astrid Lindgren // by the author of Pippi Longstocking, enchanting stories that portray life in a tiny Swedish village. Three small neighboring houses celebrate together, bake gingerbread once a year, and expect bright new rag rugs on Christmas Eve. It’s a peak into some amazing traditions that you’ll want to copy. amazon

The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren // This is a book that should be creepy but instead it’s calming. Last year it really spoke to two-year-old Joan. It’s quiet story about a tiny elf that wanders around a farm and checks on everyone who is sleeping. It’s not particularly about Christmas, more about quiet winter nights. Joan spotted these sweet Tomten ornaments in a catalog and I couldn’t resist getting them for her to accompany the storyamazon 

The Christmas Party, Adrienne Adams // I feel that Wes Anderson must have used Adams’ illustrations as inspiration for some of his own characters and dialogue. These trim and buttoned-up bunnies are so charming. The rich pastel colors are a break from the REDGREEN illustrations of many Christmas stories. amazon used

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, Gloria Houston // It really doesn’t get better than Barbara Cooney illustrating a snowy mother & daughter tale set in Appalachia. If your town has a Christmas tree, time the reading of this book with a visit to see it. amazon

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Robert Barry // a rhyming romp, fun to read, plenty of critters scattered across the pages, and the moral of sharing the season. “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree came by special delivery…” amazon

The Night Before Christmas makes for fantastic reading aloud no matter, dare I say it, how many times you’re asked to read it. The poem is packed with vocabulary words and simply by reading it I feel like I’m introducing the girls to our rudimentary American approach to Santa. Two favorite illustrated editions of mine: by Roger Duvoisin or by Holly Hobbie.

Joy to the World, Tomie dePaola //  gives children a peek into some of the Hispanic Catholic background of our traditions, like Poinsettias flowers. DePaolo’s illustrations so soothing and cozy, yet artfully Romanesque. amazon

The Jolly Christmas Postman, Allen & Janet Ahlberg // I submit to you that you’d better buy this one, and you may have to re-buy it after a time, because those letters are just too fun for children to keep them in one place! amazon

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien // Though Joe read this one as I kid, I don’t know how I managed to miss it! A collection of illustrated letters that Tolkien wrote to his children for over twenty years. swoon. Please note: buy the 1999 version that I’ve linked to, or a much older one. There is an edition from 2004 that omits many letters and abruptly cuts off others–outrageous! amazon

The Littlest Evergreen, Henry Cole // A story told from the tree’s perspective: too little to be cut, he is instead dug up and brought inside, only to be planted after Christmas. He has a long life alongside the family. We loved the forest illustrations. amazon

Two wordless tales: I find that children love wordless books because it makes the reader-adult talk so much more!

Don’t Forget Me Santa Clause, Virginia Mayo // a little boy who notices his crib was skipped by Santa, so he tags along to the North Pole to get his due. Warm cozy illustrations and good for houses with sibling babies. amazon used

Peter Spier’s Christmas // Peter Spier’s spirally sketchy warm fuzzy spilling-over-everything illustrations are so amazing. The holidays in this book are not tidy, but rumpled and doing the best they can. amazon

Please share your favorites, I would love to check them out!

 

Grinching triumph

Joan_fields“I know why the Grinch doesn’t like Christmas. Because his Sister Grinch died. And SHE was the one who wrapped all the presents and bought the pumpkins. She was the one who put up the lights. He can’t do it because he’s at work all day and he’s TIRED. That’s why he doesn’t like Christmas.”

-Joan, zeroing in on the near-Grinch lurking in all of us.

Things have felt mystifyingly terrible since that foolish and violent man was elected. It even feels hard to pray for, or hard to know where to begin with my prayers. The young soldiers who will soon be sent to more wars? The terminally sick who so-briefly had insurance that will be shoved off again? The companies that will move to other countries where skilled workers are accepted, regardless of their nationality? The police brutality that will unfold? Funny how things that feel very close and fragile can feel the hardest to pray for. Like it’s too risky for me to acknowledge how worried I am.

My friend suggested we start reading up on the resistance movement in world war II. (Here I always think of a favorite story of Norwegian citizens hopping on skiis and cleverly skiing in to disable a hydroelectric plant.) Joe’s family is Mennonite, a religious group that’s been quietly disagreeing with the government for years–deeply pacifist; attempting to redirect their taxes away from the military defense, devoted to issues of social justice and the marginalized. The idea of actively and consistently fighting with your government is not a new one. But it sounds mighty tiring. Though, I sort of fell in love with the idea of political PARTIES mentioned here.

Still, the hearth keepers must carry on, kneading the bread and chopping the kale, even as their ear tips towards the Diane Rehm Show playing in the background. Ruminate over ice skating lesson fees. Request a list of favorite Christmas books from the library. Remark upon the desperate need for plain candles in the house. Pull out coats and boots for the coat drives at church.

We didn’t guide the girls into beliefs of Santa as a gift-giver, but Joan is a big fan of his nonetheless, in the general good-citizen category. So I’ll map out a few places to take her to see him. (What if you could visit a favorite dignitary, and talk with them on a nice armchair for awhile?)

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Cold Weather Reads

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It’s dark in the morning and dark over dinner, there are cranberries at the farmer’s market and foggy blue squashes on my neighbor’s steps–it must be autumn on the east coast! It feels like everyone in this little family is reaching for a book these days. Between my own book, and the pile of books Joan carts over to me every morning, I seem to spend most of my day reading–which is ideal!

Here’s what everyone is enjoying right now…

Joan, 3yrs old, friendly Halloween books and cozy stories, best read by the stack: The Soup Bone, Halloween Pie, Treasure Hunt, Each Peach Pear Plum.

Lux, 5yrs old: Lux is going to be Medusa for Halloween, a character she fell for after we read Athena. She is so intrigued by all the Greek Gods right now so I was happy to order other books from this illustrated and historically-accurate Olympians series for her. Please note: these are violent and selfish characters, and though I feel comfortable introducing these themes (I vastly prefer them to the same themes introduced in Marvel comic-types), you may not!

Rachael: I just finished Barbarian Days, a surfing memoir by a New Yorker staff writer. The first part and the last part of the book are the best. In the first part, he is a middle school outcast in Hawaii, who grabs his surfboard first thing in the morning. In the last part, he’s in his forties, fifties, and sixties–a successful writer settled in New York, still chasing waves. I had to skim a lot of the wave-description parts throughout, but I loved his humble storytelling style, his affection for the characters in his life, his wry theories about the surf obsessed. You will never look at a surfer the same way again.

Next: I think I’ll try The Everlasting Meal again. I couldn’t get into last time I tried, but a friend argued that it was best read in cold weather as it’s all about roasting, grocery shopping with economy, and planning ahead. Yes please.

Joe: Joe is finishing Substitute, Nicholson Baker’s somewhat dreary nonfiction chronicle of substitute teaching in a Maine public school.

If you’ve never read Nicholson Baker, his fiction title A Box of Matches is absolutely the best cold-weather read! It’s a love letter to fireplaces and thoughtful dark mornings.

What are you reading?

playground for the one and under set

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Two new moms friends have asked me about the delightful topic of toys. Sadly, no matter the toy, it’s only going to occupy them for a few minutes everyday, and only when they are feeling fresh after a rest, or after having been outside. With gusto: if you don’t want toys that make noise or take up space, absolutely don’t keep them in the house (but do eagerly place them within reach when at the library drop-in). 

Incidentally, if dear Matilda drops something from her chair or stroller, and you don’t give it back to her, you’ve introduced an intuitive sign-language for both of you to use from now on: Matilda doesn’t want it anymore, and dropping means it goes away. Easy.

Alma has a little tin of toys that we carry about and offer to her once or twice a day, alongside a few board books for chewing on. The tin is itself a nice toy because it rolls easily and makes a metallic thump if you hit it, or kick it against the wall, which she does. I put the tin out when she was six months and it will stay out until her first birthday and then I’ll hide it again, up with the sweaters and aging humidifier in my closet.

The tin contains a fondly amnesic graveyard of my toy hopes from when I first offered them to Lux: this will be the toy that she loves! A banana chew, a soft mouse, a wooden ring, a leather key chain, a wooden fish rattle. How the drily squeaky Sofia giraffe has made the cut these five years, I have no idea {leaves laptop to pick up Sofia and put it in a giveaway bag}.

In reality, movement is the only engaging challenge that they will throw themselves into, objects just can’t compete.

Here is the playground of the one and under set: reaching for things under the couch, tugging on a rope (that perhaps you’ve tied to the arm of a chair), steadily unpacking a paper shopping bag of objects like a spoon, a tupperware container, a plastic water bottle sealed with a little bit of water in it or maybe something that rattles, like dried chickpeas.

It does build an argument for living room playdates though, particularly in the winter! Build a rotation of friends to trade-off hosting each week, lay a couple blankets on the floor, prop a mirror in the corner, and all three or four babies will tackle your small assortment of toys with delight, then boredom, then the playdate will be over. Next week: new territory.

When Alma turns one I will ask for a wooden pull toy for her to pull around as she walks, it will be adorable and she will love it. As with everything BABY, if you are delighted by something, by all means, own it. Waldorf wooden toys, engaging stuffed animals, rainbow ring stacks, handmade wooden rings…there’s so much to love!