Sunday, December 23, 2012

Examining the 12 Days of Christmas

Trust me when I say I am all about Christmas.

And believe me, I love me some Christmas music.

But there's one song that baffles even a Christmaso-phile like myself, and it's a classic. I'll give you a hint... in fact I'll give you 12 hints, one for each day of one of my least favorite Christmas songs.

Because really, could anyone handle the shopping and the wrapping and the baking and the cooking and the cleaning if we had to keep it up for TWELVE consecutive days of Christmas? That's nearly two weeks of Christmas, in case you're keeping score. It was hard enough growing up in a culture that celebrates Christmas on December 25th but a church that celebrates the birth of Christ on January 7th- and that's only two Christmases. So again, TWELVE?

Clearly this song was not written by a woman (9 ladies dancing- need I say more?), and sure, I know it's the thought that counts, but come on. Pipers and drummers? Have you ever heard of a little thing called naptime? Shhhhh already!!! And what in the world am I supposed to do with leaping lords? With three children ages five and under in our house, we currently have all the circus action we can handle.

Let's delve a little more deeply in the specifics of the 12-day extravaganza as laid out in the festive tune. Each year the U.S. Bank calculates the cost of the 376 gifts in the song, and this year the total comes in at $107,459.72. That's a lowball estimate, assuming minimum wage for unskilled workers in the milking department, and not taking into account things like the cost of the cows. Last time I checked, the cows constitute a rather integral part of the milking operation, and don't be looking at me because after having 3 babies in less than 4 years, I can assure you that my personal milking days are behind me.

But the biggest problem I have with song is all the poop. That's right, poop. While it's not explicitly mentioned, please note that between the partridge, the hens, the geese, the swans, and the other members of the menagerie, there are 23 birds gifted to the lucky recipient. And because the song repeats the previous verses, by my calculations that yields:

12 days X 1 partridge/day = 12 partridges 
11 days X 2 turtle doves/day = 22 turtle doves 
10 days X 3 french hens/day = 30 french hens 
9 days X 4 calling birds/day = 36 calling birds 
7 days X 6 geese-a-laying/day = 42 geese a laying 
6 days X 7 swans-a-swimming/day = 42 swans a swimming 

...for a grand total of 184 birds. Nothing says Merry Christmas(x 12!) like 184 flapping, squawking, e-coli carrying, feathered creatures flying around the house. Pooping everywhere. Did I mention the poop? Because what woman hasn't at some point said "You know, the one thing we need around here this holiday season is more poop. Now THAT would make for a Merry Christmas."

To make matters worse, apparently the cost of these foul fowl is up significantly this year, because the nation's drought drove up the price of bird feed. Let's just be clear: you can save yourself a whole lot of cash because the only bird welcome in this house is the $4.99 rotisserie chicken from Costco.

Perhaps if we gave this some thought we could come up with a more satisfactory, less expensive, and less poop-filled alternative:

On the first (and only) day of Christmas my true love gave to me... a nap. Repeat for 12 days. Now that's what I call true love.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good nap.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Firsts and Lasts

My oldest son doesn't take baths anymore.

Now, before you call the health department, rest assured, he does still bathe, but he's switched to taking showers. All by himself. All of a sudden.

I can't even remember exactly when it happened. I just know that there used to be three little wet, wiggly ones in the tub in need of a scrub, and now there are only two, with one increasingly independent boy down the hall, singing to himself under the spray. For so long they were all in there together and now they're not, nor will they likely ever be again. It's just soap and water, but with it comes a tidal wave of independence that's sweeping through our house. And somewhere, lost in the shuffle, was one last bath.

Had we known it was going to be the last one, would we have done anything different? Added extra bubbles? Perhaps. Let them splash a little longer? Possibly. Saved a vial of tub water? Umm, have you seen our tub? I don't think so. But the fact remains, we didn't know.

Parenthood is marked by the celebration of so many "firsts." Look no further than Facebook for proof of that. Status update: Baby's first smile! Mobile upload: First taste of solid food! New album: First Day of School! But the "lasts" don't often get mentioned, much less "liked," because we rarely if ever know they're happening until it's too late.

I can describe in great detail for you the first time our littlest little one walked, but not the last time he crawled. I remember the first time our biggest little one sat at the kitchen table, but not the last time he was in a highchair. I know what my daughter wore on her first day of preschool, but not on her last day of whatever you call that time before a child goes to preschool. You'd better believe I remember the first time baby slept through the night, but not the last time I held that fuzzy head against my chest for a 2 am feeding. First teeth, yes. Last gummy grins, not so much.  

I wish I could remember the last day my oldest son's eyes were blue, but all I know is that at some point, they turned green. I wish I had known that at some point, my kisses wouldn't be enough to heal all my kids' booboos. Which one was the last?  I wish I knew.

Recently, I attended the wedding of a dear friend. As I watched the glowing bride dance with her father, I found myself overcome with emotion. She was so happy, he looked so serious. I was instantly taken back to a day almost a decade ago, when another ecstatic bride danced with her very serious father. Both were nervous- it was actually his first time on a dance floor, he had even taken lessons to prepare. But neither knew the twists that life and health would take, and that their first dance would likely also be their last.

I don't think we're supposed to know when "lasts" are happening. If we did, we'd never have the strength to move forward, which is the only direction worth going. But perhaps just being a bit more aware that each "first" comes at the expense of another "last" helps us to appreciate the "during" just a little bit more.

Parenting is the most beautiful but also the most difficult thing I've ever experienced, and I think at some point, all parents have the feeling of wanting to hit fast forward and skip over a particular experience, or a tantrum, or a phase... or a year. "Just get me through the teething," we say. Or "If I can just make it until they're all in school all day." We look to the "firsts," the major milestones - we use them to pull ourselves up from the muck of daily life. But it's those "lasts," from the most routine ones that happen naked in a tub, to the ones that are covered in sequins and lace, that sneak up on us and knock us down.

There may not seem like that much difference between a shower and a bath, but for me there's a big reminder to be more aware.

Because all of this eventually washes away.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to School Blues

'Twas a few nights before school starts
And all through the land,
The packing of backpacks
Was almost at hand.
(And making lunches, and remembering gym shoes on Fridays, and oh by the way Mom, there's a bake sale today and we're supposed to bring 4 dozen cupcakes)

The kids were all sleeping,
Bedtime stories were read.
But one mom was still up,
She was tossing in bed.
(And that says a lot given how freaking sleep-deprived she is)

She's not sad because school
Marks a milestone so big;
Her 5-year-old boy
Is so up for that gig.
(And so, for that matter, is her 3-year-old who keeps telling everyone she's also going to kindergarten. Nice try, Preschool Princess.)

She knows of many moms
Who've been counting the days
'Til school bells would ring
And they'd have their turn to play.
(That includes the 3 separate "First Day of School Champagne Toast" parties she'd been invited to, but had to decline because office policy doesn't really allow for boozing it up at 10am on a Tuesday.)

No, this mom's head danced
With a mixture of dread and of fear;
It'd been such a sweet summer
In the midst of a very tough year.

There was the week at the lake
And all those times at the pool,
Long nights in the yard,
Movies inside to stay cool.
(Not to mention the teething baby and his endless puddles of drool. Hey, it rhymes, and it was certainly a big part of the summer.)

There were moments, though brief
So easy and free;
Times of respite and pause,
When she could finally just BE.
(As much as a mom of 3 kids ages 5 with a Type-A personality, a full-time job, and overtime neuroses is ever capable of just being)

In those moments so fleeting
She forgot to be stressed,
Or to worry, or struggle,
Or sometimes to even get dressed.
(Hey, working from home a few days/week has its advantages.)

Two kids mastered bikes,
The third can now walk.
They all splashed and they swam,
And all of them talk.
(OK, one of them mostly screams, but he does have a handful of words.)

Now with school will come changes:
New faces, new places.
Between preschool, kindergarten, and daycare-
It's off to the races.
(In which the goal is not to win, but to just successfully transport all children to their respective dropoffs  and somehow make it to work before noon.)

And once the clock runs out
On those summer delights,
She'll find it hard to ignore
The darker corners of life.
(Though still easy to ignore the darker corners of the house when it comes to cleaning.)

There's illness and pain
And suffering so great,
In loved ones, and it seems
It's now all up to fate.

There's the feeling that
She is always two steps behind,
At home and at work,
In and heart and in mind.

But she must keep on going,
Can't live in the past,
Because time is too precious,
Childhood too fast.

So she hoped all the warmth
And sunscreen and chlorine,
Would trigger some sort of reaction
In ways unknown and unseen.
(Because it definitely did a number on the carpet in the front room, but that is neither here nor there)

She prayed that summer would stay
In their hearts all year long,
That she could feel that soft breeze
When she needs to be strong.
(And also on those days when the AC goes out in the office and it starts to smell like a mixture of desperation and feet.)

And she prayed the new season
Would bring lessons for all.
So farewell sweet, sweet summer,
And happy school days this Fall.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Olympics and parenting- what do they have in common?

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Make that the most wonderful time of the quadrennial! (And yes, I did just Google "What do you call a four year period of time?"

Chills? Check. Shakiness? Check. Am I ill? You bet- with a massive case of Olympic Fever!

I absolutely love the Olympics, particularly the summer games. I love the pageantry, the absurd choreography of the Opening Ceremony, the flags, the uniforms, the excitement, the simple fact that Bob Costas is everywhere, and oh yes, the competition isn't bad either.

It's a love affair that began early in my life. Though I was only 3 years old in 1976 when Nadia Comaneci landed that historic perfect 10, I firmly remember in the years that followed, my mom, with her heavy Egyptian accent, would proudly introduce herself as "Nadia, like the gymnast," and everyone understood. 

I remember my dad's furrowed brow as he watched news reports in the months leading up to the 1980 summer games, and his patient explanation of how "boycott" did not refer to a gender-specific type of bed.

My brother and I spent much of the summer of 1984 reenacting key moments from the Los Angeles games in either our backyard swimming pool, or in the basement on our then state-of-the-art Apple II+, where we'd fight over who got to be Bruce Jenner in the Olympic Decathalon game. We scarfed down Wheaties from the Olympic edition box in preparation from the extreme thumb workout that would follow.

I've closely followed every summer Olympiad since then with a growing passion. 1988- remember all the sidebar stories about unusual street foods in Seoul? The 1992 Barcelona games took place just as I was packing my own bags for a year abroad in Europe. The shootings at the 1996 games in Atlanta nearly sent me over the edge. Sydney was one of my favorite Olympics, probably because Sydney is one of my favorite places (and it probably didn't hurt that at one point I had carried an Olympic-sized torch for a certain tall, blond Australian). 2004 in Athens- the modern day Olympics in Greece? Oh, the fabulousness. And who didn't spend the summer of 2008 holding their breath through each flip turn as Michael Phelps splashed his way through Beijing?

Which brings us to now, the start of the XXX Olympiad. And I mean that in the roman numeral sense, not in the "Debbie Does Diving" sense, because fortunately the Olympics are the essence of good, clean, televised family fun.

I'll watch because I love the sports, even though I'm not exactly a typical sports fan (I also have to Google "Who is playing in the Super Bowl" on a certain Sunday in January. Or is it February?), I'm definitely not what you would call coordinated, and I have a massive fear of games that involve flying balls (I was hit in the head with a baseball at my brother's 9th birthday party, which explains a lot in my life). I'm passionate about fitness in general and running in particular, but the only time I've ever won a race was at age 28, when those numbers were somehow reversed on my entry form. Eat my dust, octogenarians.

It's not just the sport but the sportsmanship of the Olympics that draws me in. I love that for this brief moment, regular competitors become team members. They are part of something bigger than themselves, if only for 2 weeks. I love watching the tears well up in their eyes as they hear their national  anthems played, a rare moment of patriotism for our increasingly polarized planet. I particularly love the demonstration sports, the ones played often just to show off something that's popular in the host country, like Icelandic wrestling in 1912.

I love the Olympics so much it made me wonder what the world would be like if we had something similar for parenting. What if there was a time and a place, every four years, where moms from around the world would come together, not to compete against each other, but to just show off the great feats of strength we're capable of and to learn from each other? (Sincere apologies to dads- you are just as integral a piece of the parenting puzzle, but in this case someone needs to stay home with the kids) It would be one giant demonstration sport.

Just like the traditional games, the Organizing Committee would scour the globe for an appropriate location to hold the Momolympics . It would have to be a place with all the required features to host such an elite bunch, somewhere desirable and accommodating, somewhere far from the distractions of daily life. Somewhere like Club Med Bora Bora.

We'd wear momiforms to level the style playing field, preferably something universally flattering, functional, and fun from our official sponsor, Target.

We'd march into the stadium with our flags and heads held high, having had a good night's sleep in our Momolympic Village and a massage from a guy named Sven.

And then, the games would begin. The "Making Grilled Cheese Sandwiches While Emptying the Dishwasher" event would bring out some of our nation's fastest hands, but might perplex the Europeans who don't necessarily share our rushed pace of life. We could discuss further over cocktails. The "Getting Babies to Sleep" event would highlight marvels from around the globe. And don't forget the always popular "Tantrum Taming" event- I can't wait to see what the Brazilians have to offer this time around.

Perhaps if we had the chance to celebrate our accomplishments, as well as our differences, we'd stop fighting "Mommy Wars" that have no winners.

Perhaps we'd understand that if our goal is to raise a world full of happy, healthy children who contribute to a global society, we need to stop tearing each other down.

Perhaps we'd see that we're really playing for the same team.

Perhaps if we felt less threatened and more supported, we'd stop trying to hold our children up as some kind of trophy. 

Perhaps if we could have a round of applause for sticking a landing (or sticking to our guns when it comes to enforcing bedtime), we'd see that what often feels like thankless, exhausting work is actually a gold medal worthy performance.
Perhaps we'd remember that we really are part of something bigger than snot and playdates and bake sales. Something bigger than ourselves.  

Perhaps we'd have a little more fun along the way, because parenting really is the greatest demonstration of love, of sacrifice, and of joy in the world.

 It's a lot to hope for, this Olympic dream of mine, but once every four years, once a quadrennial, it all seems so very possible.

And so I declare with a shiver of anticipation and a glimmer of hope, let the games begin.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Belated Birthday Wishes for My Baby Girl

My sweet little Ceci Bear,

I can't believe you are three years old!

OK, technically you are more than three, since your birthday was a full month ago.

Believe me, I do realize that some little girls have mommies who would have had an official birthday message prepared in time for the big event, printed out on fancy paper, folded into origami owls, and embossed with some sort of organic, edible monogram she found on Pinterest. Some little girls also have mommies who perform great feats of strength for a living. 

Maybe your mommy just needed a little extra time to get things just right. Or maybe your mommy is just struggling a bit with the fact that you are in fact three (and one month, I get it).

Maybe deep down, your mommy's biggest wish for you is that you would just stay two forever. Not even specifically two, just generally two-ish and most definitely, little-ish. Because the fact is, you are getting big-ish. Where just a few months ago you were a pocket-sized peanut, a speck in the middle of your big girl bed, you have suddenly become a long, lean, jumble of limbs surrounded by a a mess of crazy bed head.

And while I love that you're becoming so much more communicative, you're also becoming SO much more communicative which includes the bold declaration of your sudden and urgent need to poop in the middle of a grocery store at a decibel level most operatic sopranos would envy, or the equally assertive discourse issued from my bedside at 3 am that you are all done sleeping, and the general ability to talk virtually non-stop, about virtually nothing, from the backseat of the car.

So when I think of you getting bigger and older, I really do try to focus on all the wonderful things ahead, the wonderful person you are becoming, and the wonderful times we'll share. But I can't help but fear that every birthday brings you closer to the moment when ruffles and flowers and kitties and bows and your beloved Super Grover shirt are replaced by much....different things.

And from there it just seems like a short walk down a very scary alley to a place where you're you're getting piercings in places that most certainly should remain closed, and introducing me to your boyfriend, Snake, who you met online, and telling me that you've decided to give up that college scholarship to be a roadie for his band, Venom, and it's all so dark that I can't even remember a time when sunny days used to sweep all our clouds away. 

But since you seem so completely determined to grow up, so resistant to the idea of staying my baby girl forever, then you'll have to just allow me a few wishes of my own as you blow out the candles (OK, OK, you blew them out a month ago- work with me here!).

I wish I could bottle up a big batch of you at two and carry it around with me for the rest of my life. I wish I could take it out and spritz a little Eau de Deux behind my ears in those stinkier moments that are sure to come. I wish I could spray it all over the future and use its precious scent as a talisman to ward off the backtalk and the sass, because I'm sure teen spirit just doesn't smell that sweet.

I wish your vocabulary and pronunciation weren't expanding quite so rapidly, because quite frankly I love it when you say things like "flamily" and "my boo boo hoots" (although we really should work on the proper enunciation of the letter "l" in "clock" and it's really not fair that I don't correct you when you refer to a certain cartoon workman as a Dilder and not a Builder).

I wish you weren't so darn cute because that makes the whole discipline thing a bit tougher.  

I wish that I could stay up all night and watch you sleep because in your constant blur of motion, and in the chaos of daily life, I fear I don't always see you as closely as I should. But that's just not going to happen because let's face it, I'm exhausted, and I'm also more than a little creeped about by that book where the mom climbs up the ladder and sneaks into her grown child's home to watch him sleep. I'm sure in the sequel to that book he takes out a second mortgage on that house to pay his therapy bills. Boundaries are important.

I wish I could find a way to hold on to all these two-year-old moments so that they'd never dry up. I get sad enough when that little damp spot dries up- the one your freshly bathed head leaves on my shoulder when I read you stories before bed. It reminds me that no matter what happened during the day, no matter how many tantrums either one of has had, there's always a chance to wash it off and start clean. And the damp spot is a huge improvement over the spit up spot that you left in that same place for the first year of your life.

So maybe that's the key: maybe your mommy just needs to remember that even though things change, they often change for the better.

Maybe your mommy shouldn't over think things quite so much.

Maybe your mommy should just wish you a happy birthday (plus one month).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Safety Town

First day of Safety Town, June 2012
So there I was, for the second time in as many months, sitting in a tiny school gym on chairs designed for much tinier behinds than mine, watching my almost five-year-old walk across a stage in a makeshift cardboard mortarboard with Pomp and Circumstance playing in the background.

The first time, it was for his preschool graduation. (I'm pretty sure my parents never attended such a ceremony for me circa 1977, but I digress...) This time, it was Safety Town graduation. For those not familiar, Safety Town is a one week program for 4 and 5-year-olds that teaches lessons about fire, pedestrians and traffic, water, guns, strangers and poisons/drugs. Each day has a safety theme that is accompanied by age-appropriate aids including puppets, songs, games and crafts, and special visitors like Neighborhood Safety Officer Mike, or Louis the Lightning Bug. One of the highlights of the program is a daily cruise  around the miniature town they construct in the parking lot on Big Wheels so the kids can practice traffic and bicycle safety under controlled conditions.

Around these parts, the week is a rite of passage for rising kindergarteners, one of those things that everybody just seems to do. "What week is so-and-so doing Safety Town?" is a commonly heard between parents on playground this time of year. So I didn't give much thought to the whole thing beyond getting our registration in before the deadline, which miraculously, I managed to do. A week of camp sounded great. Safety camp? Even better.

But somehow over the course of that week, something changed. As my little Safety Towner came home each day and shared his new found expertise (including a thorough inspection of our house and yard which turned up numerous egregious safety violations), I felt myself growing more and more concerned, and not just about Violation 107.4, subsection C: we do not have a fire extinguisher in the attic.

Fire. Strangers lurking in the park. Electrocution. Fingerprint kits. The more he learned about safety, the more dangerous the world suddenly seemed to me. As he ran through the house in his plastic fire hat singing "If you don't know what it is, ask a grownup not a kid, if you don't know what it is, walk away!" to the tune of "If you're happy and you know it," I did not want to clap my hands, but I did feel an overwhelming urge to get in bed and pull the sheets up over my head.

It's not that I haven't discussed safety with my son, and it's certainly not that we live in some sort of an idyllic bubble. As a former news reporter, I'm all too aware of crime, of tragedy, and of suffering, particularly where children are concerned. I've sat in courtrooms across from accused child molesters and murders, interviewed grief-stricken parents, friends and neighbors in the midst of their anguish, and stood by the side of the road as rescue crews worked (often in vain) to separate survivors from mangled metal.

But until that week of Safety Town, it hadn't occurred to me that I wouldn't be there to protect him from all that. Though he's gone to daycare, gone to preschool, he's even gone to spend the night at his grandparents' without me, his experience with the world outside our bubble has been limited until now. Home has been his dominant sphere, and I hope it will always be. But in September, he'll head to kindergarten, thus beginning a process where School and Friends and the vast mysterious Outside World will play a larger and larger role in his life.

I see that my little boy is ready for that seismic shift, that he has the confidence in his inner world to navigate the outer one. I understand that it will be good for him to experience different people, different ideas, and different ways of life. And as much as it pains me to accept it, I know that I cannot always be there to shelter him from harm.

Already, I see the changes. A cruel comment from another little boy made him realize that not everyone in the world is nice, and that words can be the most painful boo-boos of all. An ailing loved one has shown him that hospitals aren't always happy places for Mommies and new babies, and that some boo-boos just don't get better. I know that these lessons will continue, right along the ABCs and the 3Rs for the rest of his life. I see how important they are in building the person he is becoming, and yet I still can't help but want to push them away.

As we left Safety Town on that final day, I stepped off the curb and was heading for the car when he suddenly grabbed my arm.

"Stop, Mom," he insisted in a voice filled with authority I'd never heard from him.

"You need to look both ways. It's how we stay safe."  

Sunday, June 24, 2012


It was one of those moments that seems to happen in slow motion.

 I saw her reach for the jar of sprinkles, then begin to shake it up and down.

 "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!" I yelled, but it was too late. Hundreds, no thousands of teeny, tiny brightly colored balls went flying into the air, then landed with a bounce, bounce, bounce, ALL over the kitchen.

 Everywhere I looked there were sprinkles: on the counter, on the floor, on the rug, in the sink, in my hair, here a sprinkle, there a sprinkle, everywhere a sprinkle sprinkle. Yes, Old McMommy had some sprinkles, E-I-E-I-OHHHHHHHHH was I mad!

 But perhaps I should start at the beginning, back in a time we'll call BS (Before Sprinkles). It's been a rather chaotic few months (which partly explains my lack of writing lately, and completely explains my abundance of dark eye circles). I have three wonderful, but busy kids. Those kids have two wonderful, but hospitalized grandfathers. I have one full-time job and it has countless stressors. There are dozens of meals to make and messes to clean and mountains of laundry to scale and birthday parties to plan and playdates to feel guilty about not being able to attend and kindergarten roundup and dentist appointments and well-child visits to schedule and reschedule and I hear that there is sleeping that is supposed to take place at some point as well.

 But that hasn't been happening much lately either, because when I lie down and close my eyes I start thinking about the new job, which is really not all that new anymore, and then I start to wonder how much longer I can get away with a "Well, it's still so new" answer when I'm asked how I like it, and how there are some parts and some people that I really do enjoy, but most days it doesn't even feel like I speak the language with all the KPMs and the CC-ing and the EOM-img and the annualized this and the PTO that has nothing to do with parents or teachers. And then my heart starts to race so I have to stop thinking about that.

So then I'll think about my dad and how much I want him to come home from the hospital, but how scary it is to think of him NOT in the hospital, and I wonder who will walk first- my dad or my baby boy, and I don't like the likely answer, and when I try to close my eyes all I see are flashing ambulance lights and I hear sirens and my heart starts to race, so I have to stop thinking about that.

So then I'll think about my kids and my husband and how much I love them, but then I remember that I'm supposed to bring in a treat for daycare tomorrow, and that reminds me how my little girl was clinging to my leg when I dropped her off, and that makes me think of how I won't even see my baby boy before I leave tomorrow and he'll be almost ready for bed by the time I get home, and does he still know that I'm his mom? And why hasn't he started talking yet? And maybe I should ask his doctor about that but of course I forgot to schedule his 12-month appointment and speaking of 12 months, it feels like it's been about that long since I've had a decent conversation with my husband who is currently snoring away, and how come he can sleep but I can't? And then my heart starts to race so I lie just there and stare at the ceiling and try hard not to move until the alarm goes off and then I get up and run.

 I run as fast as I can (which isn't very fast), and I pray as hard as I can (which is very hard), and I race up and down the big hill by our house. With every step I stomp all over those cryptic emails from work, and I stomp all over the Mommy Guilt the Wife Guilt and the Friend Guilt and most of all I stomp on those flashing ambulance lights.

 But lately even my standby stress reliever doesn't do the trick because I hurt my calf, and the physical therapist told me to get new shoes, and those made my foot hurt, so the doctor gave me orthotics, and those REALLY made my foot hurt, so now I'm stuck.

Which brings me back to the sprinkles: in an attempt to get unstuck, I've taken to baking with the kids. They love it and it's always been one of my favorite diversions: relaxing and delicious. Usually. Until that moment when your 3-year-old grabs the sprinkles you had prepped by loosening the top and she shakes them like maracas and then... well, we've covered that already.

"WHY DID YOU DO THAT???" I yelled, and I mean YELLED at that sweet girl and her brother (guilt by association- he was standing right next to her). I saw both of their little lips tremble and their chins quiver but it was too late- I couldn't stop. "I TOLD you not to touch anything! Why can't you listen to me? Why doesn't ANYONE listen to me??? EVER??? " I shouted.

And then they sobbed. And then I sobbed. And I'd like to tell you that we hugged it out and finished baking our cupcakes, but it wasn't quite that simple. Because when you stick a cork in your anger, when you put on your happy face all day long, when you're sleep deprived and confused and scared and a little bit lost, cupcakes alone aren't the answer. There's work to be done here and I'm not just talking about the sprinkle cleanup, which will likely last into the next decade (those little buggers are like jumping beans when confronted with a vacuum or a broom). Life work, soul searching work, sometimes gut-wrenching but always worthwhile work.

As parents we try so hard to shield our kids from the painful parts of life, to surround them with nothing but sunshine, but eventually there's a breaking point. For me it was the sprinkles. It's inauthentic to push all the anger and the stress and the reality of life into the nighttime hours, and to become some sort of Happy Mommy (or Wife, or Employee) Robot by day. Eventually, you just end up sobbing on the floor as you chase down sprinkles that hop away like jumping beans when you try to vacuum them up.

I don't have the recipe for a well-balanced life, but I'm sure it includes a dash of reality with tablespoon of sugar.

And probably a few sprinkles.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Aunts and Two Recipes: Life Lessons Learned in the Kitchen

This is the tale of two aunts. Two dearly departed aunts who both had a profound impact on my life. It is the story of two women with seemingly nothing in common, the similar paths they carved through our family, and the recipes they left behind.

First, my aunt Nabila, my mother's sister. She was a force to be reckoned with, not that anyone would dare to reckon with her. Widowed at an early age with three children, she was a determined businesswoman who doggedly rose to the top against the most incredible odds. You think it's tough being a woman in a man's world? Try being a Christian woman in a Muslim man's world.

She lived high above the city of Cairo, Egypt on a mountaintop, which only seemed appropriate because nothing, and I mean NOTHING could take her down. Not diabetes, not cancer, not hepatitis, not anything. The more life threw at her, the higher she seemed to rise.

Her career took her around the world and I'm guessing it was on those travels that she developed her passion for the finer things in life. She surrounded herself with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, Swiss watches, and French purses. Her home was a palatial spread of marble floors, ornately carved furniture and hand-woven tapestries. "Less is more" was not exactly her motto. She was definitely the only one at my son's 2nd birthday party in a beaded evening gown.

Like all good Egyptian women, my aunt Nabila loved food. Any gathering at her Cairo compound was sure to include dozens of giant silver platters piled high with grilled this and roasted that, enormous porcelain tureens of steaming soups. But unlike most Egyptian women, I never actually saw her cook anything. I'm certain she could cook, she just chose not to, preferring to take a supervisory role over her army of help.

On one visit to the States, she was supervising the cooking of rice before a family get together. Now, if you've never been fortunate enough to experience Egyptian rice, let's be clear- we're not talking about any boil-in-a-bag, grains of bland, sticky, white nothingness. No, Egyptian rice ("roz") is a different story. It's always nutty and fragrant and buttery, sometimes spicy and usually mixed with little bits slivered almonds or raisins or pinenuts or bits of vermicelli-like noodles that have been sauteed in some secret blend of what I can only assume contains unicorn powder and fairy dust.

"The rice, it needs some salt," my aunt Nabila loudly declared, even though she hadn't been in the room when the initial dose of salt was administered. But I wasn't about to argue with her so I dutifully got out the salt.

"How much?" I asked, calibrated measuring spoons at the ready. "A teaspoon? A tablespoon?"

"Enough so that it tastes delicious, but not so much that it is tastes salty."

Ummm.... OK? This non-recipe felt like so much in my life- chaotic, unruly, unpredictable. But I dutifully put in "some" salt and threw "some more" over my shoulder to ward off the potential Wrath of Nabila in the event I had over or under delivered on my duty.

"Now add the water," she ordered. "And make sure you put enough."

We sat and talked for a few minutes as the pot simmered away, and then in an attempt to show her how dedicated I was to the cause, I got up to stir the rice. I lifted the lid and was lowering the spoon when all you-know-what broke loose.

"NO!" she boomed, and jumped up next to me. My aunt Nabila was no small woman, and this was no small feat. She grabbed the spoon from my hand and shook it in my face. "You never, ever stir the rice while it is cooking," she admonished. "When you begin, you mix, you season, you stir. But once you put the water in, you close the lid and trust. If you stir, if you shake, if you don't have faith, it will fail."

At least then the rice and I would have something in common, I thought to myself, feeling more like the black sheep of the family than ever over my obvious lack of riceability.

As it turned out, the rice that night was delicious: not too salty, just fluffy enough. Not shaken, and definitely not stirred. All it needed was a little faith and a whole lot of luck.

My aunt Nabila passed away in June of 2010 after a prolonged illness, and to this day, every time I make or eat rice I think of her. Maybe life isn't really like a box of chocolates- it's more like a pot of rice. You need to do what you can, mix it up while you can, and then sit back and trust. Let the water work its way in, let the heat build up and have faith that those hard grains will magically be transformed. It was more than just the way she made her rice (or delegated the task to others), it was the way she lived her life.

Then there was my aunt Dianne. She married my mother's brother and found herself plucked out of Flint, Michigan and plopped down smack in the middle of a Big Fat Egyptian family. She was young, energetic and beautiful, someone I saw as a big sister figure from the very beginning.

Where Nabila was larger than life and more than a little bit intimidating, Dianne was warm and sunny, cheerful and calm. I think we both felt the chaos of living between two worlds, the Egyptian and American culture clash, and perhaps that's why we got along so well.

She was in many ways my refuge. An older, wiser friend who had been through many of the experiences I struggled with, many my own parents couldn't relate to. She'd tell me stories about high school dances, learning to drive on her dad's lap, baking cookies with her mom.

And that became our favorite thing to do together: we were the family bakers. At Thanksgiving, she taught me to make pumpkin pie with flaky homemade crust. "Always keep the butter cold," she explained. At Christmas, we'd churn out cookies and treats by the dozens. Shortbread, chocolate chip, Snickerdoodles and 7-layer bars, to name a few. We'd page through her cookbooks and recipe cards, lovingly handed down from generations before. Seeing those dog-eared pages, I could easily picture her as a child, standing over the counter with her mother or even grandmother, following the same steps and getting the same results. We'd measure everything out precisely, mix to exact specifications, and set the oven timer to bake the recommended amount. It was so deliciously predictable, and I hungered for every bite.

Our favorites to bake together were the raspberry thumbprints. Sweet, buttery pillows of delight that would be tasty enough on their own, but just to make things extra special, you press your thumb into the soft, squishy dough and fill that imprint with tart raspberry goodness. We'd bake a batch, she'd brew some coffee for herself and a hot cocoa for me, and together we would feast. "Sometimes you just can't afford to save dessert for dessert," she'd say with a wink, and pass me another cookie.

Dianne passed away in May 2011 after a brief but intense battle with cancer. As she slipped away from us in the spring, I found myself wanting to bake more than usual. To experience that sense of order, that deliciously magical process by which powdery flour and chunks of butter become food. I will always wish we could have shared one last cookie, but I hope she knows how much sweeter my life is because of her.

They were two aunts with very different, and yet somewhat similar stories. One lived like a queen in a palace in the Middle East, one came from the humblest of homes in the Midwest. Where one was hard, the other was soft. One loud, one quiet. One salty, one sweet. But both were beloved by all who knew them, both were tough as nails. Both were strangers in a strange land, fighting in their own way to find their way the best they could. Both had three children: two boys, one girl. Both loved their kids with a Mother Bear-like, animal ferocity. And both left me recipes I'll cherish the rest of my life.

Now I find myself in a kitchen of my own, with a family of my own: two boys, one girl. Beautiful children who have brought out the Mother Bear in someone who once thought herself a failure of a cub. I've learned from the best that in life, you must stir while you can, you must take the savory with the sweet, you must always make time for dessert, and above all, you must always have faith.

Now it's my turn to see what I can cook up.

Egyptian Rice (all measurements and times approximate)

1 c. vermicelli
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. long grain rice
1 c. onion, chopped
2 1/4 cup chicken stock or water
salt and pepper to taste

Break the vermicelli into 1-inch pieces (or use an Arab or Indian brand that is already broken up). In a wide non-stick skillet, saute onion in oil until translucent, and remove from pan. Saute vermicelli pieces in leftover oil till golden (this happens mroe quickly than you expect it to). Add onions back to pan and add rice; stir to combine. Pour in boiling stock, stir. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes. Do not stir. Fluff, eat and enjoy.

Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies

1 cup of butter (2 sticks or 8 ounces), room temperature

1/2 cup of sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

2 cups of flour

1 cup of chopped nuts (optional)

3/4 cup of raspberry jam

Cream the butter and sugar on high speed for about 3 minutes. Separate the eggs. Add the yolks and vanilla extract to the butter mixture. If using nuts place the egg whites in a shallow dish on the side and whisk them until bubbly and frothy (the egg whites will be used to keep the nuts on the cookies). Add the flour and salt. Mix until just combined. Place the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 350F. Roll the dough into balls about 1 inch in diameter. If using nuts, dip the balls into the egg whites then roll them into the nuts until covered. Place the balls on parchment lined cookie sheets. Press down with your thumb to make a small well in the center of the cookie. Do not press too hard or the cookie will fall apart. Fill with 1/2 teaspoon of jam. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until slightly firm. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet to firm up before moving them to a wire rack to finish cooling.