Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Actual Conversation Between Matteas and His Banana

Matteas is sitting at the kitchen table alone, eating a banana. I overhear the following. All voices were provided by Matteas.

Banana(in a pitiful voice): Please don’t eat me!

Matteas(in a growly voice): But I’m hungry so I will eat you.

Banana(hopefully): I will find some food for you?

Matteas: Well, ok.

Banana: Do you eat meat?

Matteas: Yes, but if you eat too much meat you will get dia-meena(diarrhea).

Banana: Then I will find you a chip.

*Matteas puts down the banana, picks up leftover chip from lunch*

Chip(same voice as banana): Don’t eat me!

Matteas: But I’m hungry.

Chip(more confidently than the banana): I will find some food for you.

Matteas: Um, ok.

*Chip conducts a search for food, but comes up empty-handed*

Chip:(resigned) Ok, eat me.

Matteas: :Chomp:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Moderate Panic

Since registering for the June Seattle Marathon, panic has set in. Only a little though. I've noticed a slight spring in my step and that I feel generally more ambitious about my day than before I started getting crazy ideas about my athletic capacity, so I plan to proceed with hope and confidence and very serious intentions. And whenever that voice of doubt does pop up, I have plenty to drown it out with, like: -Dietary Concerns -Continuing to Purge Our Possessions -Keeping Up With My Crazy Children We're continuing our wheatless existence with great success in terms of eczema improvement. I'm blown away by what a trooper Jack is being about the whole thing, since most of his favorite foods involve wheat. The boy loves him some bread, which I'm quickly learning is the hardest thing to replace in wheatless fashion. Blogger is trying to tell me that "wheatless" isn't a word, but after cooking for a whole week without wheat of any kind I say to Blogger, it IS a word. Not only is it a word, it's a state of being. We are wheatless. And for the most part happy, although for some time now I've had cheese danish on the brain, which is odd because I can't recall ever craving a cheese danish before our lifestyle shift. After some terrible experiments with alternative flours, I decided to stop trying to substitute things that are supposed to be made from wheat. It's too disappointing. The exception is the brown rice pasta from Trader Joe's which is surprisingly tasty AND dirt cheap, and as long as you're careful not to overcook it you might not know you weren't eating regular pasta. Of course, put enough Alfredo sauce on anything and you can make it taste good...Spelt flour isn't that bad, but I think it might bother Jack's eczema as much as wheat does. We tried it out before we had totally purged the house of wheat though, so some of it may still have been in his system. I'm going to give spelt another try in a few days and see how his skin does. Seriously though, I'm so grateful to be able to do something for Jack to help him. His hands look perfect and only feel a little dry, and he was so impressed by the improvement in the patch on his ribcage that he had to stare at it in the mirror for a while. I think the eczema must have bothered him more than he realized, because he has not once complained about not being able to have wheat. My plan is to be really diligent about it while we're at home so that he can hopefully get away with eating a little wheat here and there when a friend has a birthday party or something. I think it must be the Spring weather we've been enjoying, because all over the blogging world people seem to be cleaning and sorting. I've been picking a new project every few days, trying to identify the things that keep ending up on the living room floor and either getting rid of them or finding a way to store them out of the boys' reach. Right now I loathe puzzles; I think the pieces have found a way to reproduce themselves, because I swear I put the same pieces back in the box six or seven times a day. My tolerance for investing time in caring for our belongings decreases every day, and I've made great strides in whittling down our "stuff." Our furniture keeps breaking, which is a great help because then I don't have to think about whether or not we should keep it or give it away. The other night while watching the Olympics, our last remaining futon collapsed and the side of the frame fell off. "Hey, now we can throw it away!" I said. I'm not sure what we'll sit on downstairs, but at least it will be a nice, open space. The Spring weather also seems to having an effect on the children, since they have been extra crazy lately. I wouldn't have believed they could get anymore energetic, but they continue to astound me. I was so frazzled earlier in the week that Aaron sent me to the bookstore for the evening. I bought myself a Red Velvet cupcake, then felt so guilty for buying wheat while poor Jack goes without that I carried the cupcake around the store for half an hour before I ate it. It tasted like forbidden fruit. It also tasted like gluten and chocolate and cream cheese, so I managed to choke it down. Jack loves it when we "all watch a movie together as a family," but it's hard to come up with movies that are appropriate for them and interesting for the adults. We all love 'Ratatouille,' but we've also seen it a lot already. Tonight, Aaron took Jack to the video store and came back with 'Swiss Family Robinson.' It was fun to watch, but the best part was watching the boys. I thought they were going to explode, especially Matteas who kept shouting helpful tips to the actors like "Cut dat snake in a half!" and "Shoot dat mean pirate!" Poor Aaron bore the brunt of their enthusiasm since he was sitting between them, and during the more intense scenes the boys would both creep further and further up Aaron's body until they were both nearly wrapped around his head, all while doing the aforementioned supportive shouting at top speed and volume. By the end of the movie we were all exhausted, but Jack pronounced the evening "the best day of my whole life." As I was putting him to bed he kept asking very anxious questions, like how long we could keep that movie and if it was available for sale. He said his favorite part was watching the family build all those "booty traps." I thought about correcting him, but honestly, how much better is it to call them "booby" traps? Who thinks of these things?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Winds of Change

I have to warn you, the "after" pictures are still pretty disgusting. There are a lot of gross things about our house, and this cabinet is pretty high up on the list. It clearly sustained a lot of leaking in the past and the resident handyman decided the best fix would be to slap some contact paper on it. I cannot tell you how many layers of contact paper I had to peel off of the shelves when we moved in. Incidentally, lining deep(and I mean deep, like four feet) cabinets with fresh liner while seven months pregnant in August is a terrible idea. Anyway....
This is the caddy that scared me. Can you blame me?
Four inches of bilge water. Luckily I have years of practice of breathing through my mouth.
And after. Like I said, it's still kind of scary despite the definite improvements.
Doing things I'm scared of is part of my new lifestyle. I realized recently that I spend a lot of time thinking about the sort of person I'd like to be, but not a lot of time actually becoming that person. This is a common practice usually indulged in while in a fancy store, and one that salesman know and love. They know that if you see yourself in that slinky dress or those fabulous boots, there is a whole new persona that goes along with that outfit. Often it is the fantasy of our new selves and not the actual merchandise that makes the sale. I do this a lot. Not usually with purchases(not a big shopper), but very very often with activities. At least once a day I'm grateful that ESP is not a real thing and no one besides me can see how rich my fantasy life is. The ability to fantasize is a great thing, especially if you spend a lot of time with children. The danger, however, is that the difference between your fantasy life and your real life is often disappointing. Especially if you are a procrastinator, which I am. I have invested hundreds, maybe thousands of hours visualizing the sort of person I want to be, and hundreds, maybe thousands of hours more putting off actually becoming that person. It's hard. And it's work. And I can't do any of it while sleeping in and then spending two hours drinking coffee in my pajamas. I am not a morning person. I prefer to do my partying at night, staying up until I'm so tired I can't keep my eyes open and then stagger to bed and fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I consider anything prior to 9 a.m. early, and anything prior to 7:30 a.m. positively ungodly. So God thought it would be hilarious to give me a kid who is the perkiest early-riser ever. Seriously, Jack puts farmers and birds and dawn itself to shame, springing to life at 6:45 every morning bright-eyed and curious about the day, the world, and all the exciting things that might be going on in it. He's also totally in love with his dad, and waking at 6:45 is the only way he gets to spend any time with him in the morning. Aaron usually leaves the house no later than 7:30, so that's usually when Jack starts coming into my room and whispering urgently about his desire to make a machine that takes old garbage and recycles it into new toys using a complicated system of conveyor belts and pulleys, all of which he describes to me in desperate lisps at a time when I'm still having trouble understanding English. I can usually ignore him for about half an hour, but by 8:00 I'm tired of being bombarded by his grand schemes and I stagger out of bed and head straight for the coffee. I am not proud of my morning routine. There's not really much routine to it, for starters; more like a delay, as if I keep hitting the "snooze" button on my life. Then the other day, I was giving a really moving speech to one of my little brothers about adulthood, and how the hallmark of becoming an adult is the ability to enforce and respect boundaries. So, just to make sure we're all on the same page here, I am a procrastinator, NOT a morning person, and a hypocrite. No wonder I'm having so much trouble instilling discipline in my own children; you can't give what you haven't got. Life has a funny way of backing you into a corner, of insistently applying ever-increasing pressure to change. We all know how much I love to change. But the time has come. It started with Jack's eczema(not, as one might hope, with his birth. I resisted even then.). He's had a small patch of it on his ribcage for about two years, with another small patch(about the size of a nickel) on his inner arm. We don't really do anything to manage it because he hates cream of any sort, saying that even the gentlest emollients sting. I didn't press it because it really didn't seem to bother him that much, but shortly after we eliminated white flour from our diet his eczema flared up in a serious way, the patch on his ribcage doubling in size and two new patches springing up on the backs of both hands, all of it looking red, inflamed and generally angrier than I'd ever seen it before. I'd gotten really enthused about switching all of our white flour products over to whole wheat, and thinking back over our previous meals I realized that in my enthusiasm for whole wheat everything, I'd fed him wheat four meals in a row. So now, faced with the suffering of my firstborn, I was greatly compelled to make some changes and we have now removed wheat from our diet entirely. Within four days, his eczema calmed down. It's still there, but it's no longer red and angry-looking and with the application of 100% pure shea butter(the only thing that doesn't bother his skin) three times a day I think we're keeping it under control. The whole process got me thinking about the way I engage with life, and the fact that until I'm faced with serious consequences I rarely to anything productive. This must stop. I want to stop being reactive and start being proactive. Today. Now. So I've been asking myself some very hard questions, and coming up with some very uncomfortable answers. I try to catch myself in Fantasy Mode and force myself to work through what I'd actually need to do in order to turn that fantasy into reality, and ask myself if that's what I really want. Then I have to be on the lookout for Denial, because that's another tool I'm very good at using. For example, I've always wanted to run a marathon. At least, that's what I used to tell myself. Now I realize that I don't actually want to run a marathon, I just want to be the sort of person who does that kind of thing only without having to put any actual work into it. Problem: running 26.2 miles isn't the sort of thing that happens by itself. You have to work for it. My trainer suggested recently that I train for the Seattle Marathon happening in June, and I say I'm interested. For a few weeks I delude myself into thinking that, just by talking about it and entertaining the possibility, I am now the Sort of Person Who Runs a Marathon. But then I start doing some reading about training schedules, mental coping mechanisms for running through pain, tips on keeping hydrated throughout the race, what to eat the night before, what to eat during and after, and I realize there is an awful lot of work involved in this marathon business. My heart gets all fluttery just thinking about it. So I start compromising, telling myself that a half marathon would be good enough, 13.1 miles is still a pretty good distance to run, etc. Then I start telling myself that I can run 13.1 miles by myself, I don't need to sign up for a marathon and pay $85.00 to sweat for two hours. So I have gone from being the Sort of Person Who Merely Talks About Running a Marathon to being the Sort of Person Who Merely Talks About Running a Half-marathon Unofficially, and I have yet to log a single mile of my training. This is not the kind of thinking that produces excellence. This is not the sort of person I want to be, but in order to make any changes I first have to accept the cold, hard reality that this is the sort of person I am. This will not stand. Unless I plan on raising a bunch of mediocre kids with mediocre ambitions who put forth only the minimal effort required to succeed on a mediocre level. I don't plan on raising those sorts of kids. So, hear this: on June 26th, 2010 I am running a marathon. The whole thing, not just half of it. I will devote time and space to the proper training, I will work hard to be well-prepared, I will suffer through the fact that I absolutely hate running with glasses on my face, and I will show my kids that if something is really important to you, you work for it no matter how hard it is. Did I mention that the marathon starts at 7:00 a.m.?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I Don't Remember Having a Baby Recently...

...but for all the sleep I've been getting I may as well have. Poor Matteas has had a rough go of it lately, battling successive illnesses which resulted in massively interrupted sleep for everyone. It's been kind of a hazy week, but there have been some bright spots. Matteas is finally big enough to navigate his boots with some degree of control, if not finesse. Definitely not finesse. He tried running across the rocks at Picnic Point and suffered a major fall, but after he learned his lesson he remembered to reach for Mama's hand before breaking into a trot. He's admiring a fish, of which I could not get a satisfactory picture because the darn thing wouldn't hold still. It was a very wiggly bullhead which I managed to catch with that bucket and a little shovel, plus some bad-ass wilderness skills. If I didn't hate bugs and being cold, I could have my own Survivor Girl show. But since there are bugs and cold to contend with in the wild, I prefer to limit my foraging skills to demonstrations close to home where I can have a warm bath and eat roast beef for dinner, which is far tastier than bullhead. Also, roast beef can't sting you. I think this is one my favorite Jack projects ever. He loves, loves to write with permanent marker and is generally very careful about where he does it so as to avoid having his Sharpie privileges revoked. This morning he went out and gathered a bunch of rocks, cleaned them off with diaper wipes and then turned them into dinosaur skulls. The biggest one is the skull of a T-Rex, in case the fierceness of the teeth didn't clue you in. In other news, our house is coming along. Tristan has been devoted in his efforts to tear down what was once a make-shift(ghetto) "sun room." The paint smears around the window are color samples which will one day grow into full-on coverage, at which point we'll have a big party to celebrate. I don't know if it's the weather or the progress on the outside of the house that's been inspiring me, but I've been working on the interior or our house as well. I haven't done anything major, but I have begun what I hope will be a thorough culling of the flocks that are our too-many belongings. It began a few weeks ago after a particularly squirrelly morning with the boys during which they made one disaster after another, demanding multiple snacks and wiping of bottoms all the while. By the time I took Jack to school I was frazzled and wondering how we were going to get through the rest of the day. As I walked Jack into school, I was struck by the quiet hum of activity. I actually stood there and counted how many children were in there; 16 kids, most of them only four years-old, all working quietly with the supervision of only two adults. How is it possible that 16 kids can be quieter, more organized and more peacefully engaged than just my own two at home with me? I've concluded that the key to success lies in the organization of their environment and have henceforth decided that I'm going to organize my home more like a Montessori classroom. I want them to be able to access work independently and put it away independently, which will require me to better enforce the way things are organized. I want them to be able to respect a few things that are not for touching, but I don't want to frustrate them by filling their space with lots of things that aren't meant to be touched. I also have serious Ikea fantasies involving enclosed storage space so that things with lots of little pieces or that are special projects for a special time can be out of sight and out of reach. And now, I'm off to my trainer's where I will hopefully find the motivation to power through the rest of my day. I discovered that while the kitchen faucet was leaking(which lasted for approximately four months), dirty dishwater was slowly collecting in the caddy of cleaning supplies underneath. I'm afraid. As should you be also, because I'm going to post before and after pictures.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Matter of Life and Death

It's been a busy three years, life-cycle wise. I got pregnant, then miscarried; Karoly died; I got pregnant with Matteas; Aaron's maternal grandpa died; my maternal grandpa died; Matteas was born. And now, Aaron's paternal grandpa is slipping away from pneumonia and a tired heart. The doctor said if we wanted to say goodbye we should do it sooner rather than later, so yesterday Briana and Shane took the kids and Aaron and I drove up to Mt. Vernon to be with Grandpa Caseri. Grandpa Caseri is actually Aaron's step-grandfather. He married Aaron's grandma, Doris, when he was 51. It was a second marriage for both of them, each having been previously widowed. They recently celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary. The first time I met Aaron's grandparents was at Thanksgiving dinner. I was three months pregnant with Jack and a little apprehensive about meeting Aaron's extended family as the pregnant girlfriend, but everyone was very kind and when Aaron introduced me to Mr. Caseri he said, "You can call me 'grandpa.'" When we walked into his hospital room last night he perked up visibly, smiled and thanked us for coming. Grandma Caseri sat in a wheelchair next to her husband's bed, smiling vacantly. She has pretty severe dementia and often has trouble remembering people. She's not so steady on her feet anymore(thus the wheelchair for the long hospital halls) and is completely dependent on her husband, who she calls Bobby and who is now dying slowly but surely in front of her unbelieving eyes. It was so sad to watch her; you can tell that every few minutes she notices her surroundings and wonders why she's not at home, wonders why her husband is lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his nose and why he won't get up and come home with her. She asks him to come home every few minutes. "Bobby," she demands, "get up out of that bed and come home with me." He has become so vital to her that she cannot possibly conceive of ever being without him, pneumonia be damned. "I'll come home tomorrow Doris," he replies patiently. He's not lying. He wants to die at home, so arrangements have been made to have a hospital bed set up in the living room so he can be comfortable in his last days. He doesn't tell her he's coming home to die; he knows it won't do any good, because in five minutes she won't remember. She lives in a perpetual present, all her short-term memories slipping away from her and the only constant in her life is the familiar comfort of her husband. He follows her around the house as she totters on uncertain feet, her hand on his arm always so she doesn't fall. He bathes her, dresses her, puts her to bed, remembers things for her. It's been long enough that she knows who I am now, but I can tell walking into the hospital room that she doesn't know what we're all doing there. She is so afraid of Bobby dying that she won't let him fall asleep, something he tries to do occasionally until she barks at him. His eyes begin to close slowly, but he's not dying yet, just dozing. "Bobby!" she scolds, and he jerks awake. "What is it Doris?" His voice is soft and gentle, not a hint of reproach. "You keep your eyes open, you hear?" "It's alright if he falls asleep Grandma, he'll still be here," I offer, hoping to soothe her into allowing him a small nap. "He'd better not sleep while I'm here. Bobby, are you ready to come home with me now?" she nags. "I'd like to Doris, but I have to stay here tonight; I'll be home tomorrow afternoon." His voice is still soft and gentle; they have this exchange several more times before Aaron's dad takes her home for the night. While we visited, I worked on the blanket in the picture at the beginning of this post. I've been working on it for over three years, casting on the first stitches while I was pregnant with the baby we lost. I put the blanket away for a while after that, and the following month Karoly died. A month after that I got pregnant again, and I brought the knitting out again. Two months later, my mother's dad lay dying in the hospital and I spent long hours sitting by his bed while the blanket grew in my lap, the sound of my clicking needles mingled with hospital machines and Grandpa Ken's quiet breathing. I think the blanket was comforting to Grandma. Knitting is something from so long ago that she can remember; she pointed to my work and said she used to do a lot of that stuff. I asked her if she wanted to feel it; I was sitting next to her so I draped a piece of the blanket across her tiny old lady lap. She gripped it with her wrinkled hands and sighed appreciatively, then complimented me on my time investment. She did this several times, since conversations with her tend to repeat themselves on a ten-minute loop. She kept asking me who the blanket was for, and I kept telling her I don't know. I intended it for two different babies, first one who died and then one who outgrew the need for a baby blanket before I could finish it. It even moved with us from one house to another, spending long periods packed away in closets and boxes. The baby it will eventually keep warm is still just an idea, a future possibility. As it grew stitch by stitch last night, I realized what day it was: Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day has always been tricky for us; we usually manage to get into a fight a few days prior and ruin any chance of a good time. We weren't fighting yesterday, and for the most part I'd forgotten what day it was until it occurred to me that it would be the last Valentine's Day that Grandma and Grandpa Caseri would have together. It was amazing to see how much they still love each other after 38 years. They still flirt, still make racy comments to each other(seriously, I can't repeat some of them in a public forum), still find the other person totally essential to their own happiness. It was clear from watching Grandpa that he's not afraid of dying, but he is afraid of what will happen to his wife after he's gone. There's plenty of family to care for her, but no one will be able to replace her husband. He is her entire point of reference, the only thing that makes any sense to her mind which cannot grasp the passage of time or form new memories. His arm under her hand, his body next to her in bed, his voice responding whenever she calls out, his daily presence in her life is the whole of her existence. As Aaron and I made the long drive home, we agreed that this had been our best Valentine's Day so far. There were no flowers, no chocolates, no cards, no fanfare; but there had been witness to deep love between two people, a memory that will be woven into the blanket that was in my lap that night and will some day be wrapped around a baby Grandpa Caseri will never meet.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sausage, Leek and Kale Soup

1 pkg. Italian sausage, any variety(I used chicken, but pork also works well) 2 leeks, cleaned and sliced 1 onion, chopped small 3-4 carrots, peeled and chopped 1-2 bunches of kale(red, green or black dino) ribs removed and leaves cut into small pieces` 4 cloves garlic, chopped 2 qrts chicken stock/broth 2 cans diced tomatoes, undrained 2 cans white kidney beans(also called cannellini or great white norther beans), drained and rinsed fresh or dried thyme, oregano or rosemary salt and pepper cayenne pepper Heat a little olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Crumble the sausage into the pan and saute until cooked through, chopping the sausage into smallish bits. Remove the sausage to a bowl, reserving any oil left in the pan(if using pork sausage, drain some of the fat). Reduce the heat to medium and saute the leeks and onion together and cook until soft and a little caramelized(don't stir too often). Toss in the carrots and cook another five minutes. Add the kale and toss until the kale begins wilting. Add any herbs you're using(one or all three is fine). Add the garlic and toss everything together for roughly 30 seconds, then immediately add 1 qrt of the stock. This will deglaze the pan, so be sure to scrape up all the lovely browned bits at the bottom and watch your stock turn a rich golden color. Add both cans of tomatoes with juice and the other qrt of stock. Add cayenne to taste(this soup is delicious with lots of heat). Return the sausage to the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer(don't boil) at least 15 minutes. Serve with a hunk of crusty bread and plenty of grated parmesan. Notes: I normally prefer the fattier version of things, but I actually like chicken sausage better in this soup; it makes it very light so you really taste all the vegetables, and you can eat a lot of it without feeling weighed down. Also, there's as much fat in a single link of pork sausage as there is in 5 links of chicken sausage. I've made this soup using all three herbs; fresh oregano is my favorite, but I've also used dried oregano, fresh or dried thyme, or a small sprig of fresh rosemary. The soup is delicious with one or all, and I'm guessing fresh or dried basil would also be interesting. If you're using fresh thyme, there's no need to remove all the little leaves; just toss in a couple of sprigs after the leeks an onions caramelize. The same goes for fresh rosemary, just be careful to only use a small amount; fresh rosemary is potent. Regular red kidney beans would also be fine, but I find I prefer the lighter flavor of the cannellini beans. Whatever you use, always wash your beans; the packing fluid can be very salty and make your broth taste too bean-y. A great way to get lovely parmesan flavor is to toss in the rind from a spent wedge. Whenever you use up a wedge of parmesan, put the rind in a zip-lock bag and keep it in the freezer. When making soup, toss it in at the beginning of the simmering stage. Of course, you could also cut the rind off of a wedge you have on hand. Lots of recipes call for cooking onions and garlic together; I never, ever do this. Onions need a long cooking time to develop their sugars and caramelize, while garlic burns very quickly. Nothing ruins a dish faster than burnt garlic. I always add the garlic at the last possible moment, just a quick saute before adding the liquid. This goes for making red sauces too, but is especially important with soup. This particular recipe results in a lot of browned vegetable matter at the bottom of the pan, especially if you're using stainless steel. This is fine as long as all you're cooking is vegetables, which can become quite dark without developing an off-flavors. If your garlic were to get as dark as the bits sticking to the bottom of the pan, it would be game over. This is one of the best soups in the world for a cold, especially with lots of cayenne.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On The Importance Of Knowing What You Really Want

February 5th, 2005
"The cool thing about you is, you're like an older woman." Aaron says this to me over dinner one night, back when we were still dating. "Um, how exactly am I like an older woman(I was 21), and why is that cool?" I ask. "Because you know what you want and you don't play games," he answers, clearly satisfied that he's paid me such a great compliment. "Ah. Thanks. I guess." I didn't really feel like what he was saying was a compliment at the time, and, as a few years of marriage would teach us, it wasn't entirely true. I definitely thought I knew what I wanted, but I turned out to be lying a lot of the time. Fast-forward about a year. We are living in our Tiny Stinky Apartment, and Jack is teething. I've been giving him Motrin. Aaron expresses concern that Jack seems to be spitting up more than the usual amount lately, and wonders if the Motrin is irritating his stomach. I calmly assure him that I've been alternating Motrin with doses of Tylenol; Motrin is processed through your kidneys, Tylenol is processed through your liver. I further assert that one of my nieces used to projectile vomit(as opposed to spitting up normally) and she still grew round and chubby, so even though it looked like Jack was spitting up a lot I was certain he was still getting enough calories. "You know," Aaron says, "you say that kind of thing like you're absolutely certain you're right and there's no room for error, but you turn out to be wrong about 80% of the time." "Excuse me?" I splutter, so angry I can barely speak. I grew up in a family of nine, I have dozens of nieces and nephews, I was a nanny for eight years, did two years of nursing prerequisites in college, and I'd watched a lot of 'ER,' so naturally I resent my husband questioning my medical expertise. I get angrier and angrier, and very shortly it becomes clear to me that I am far more furious than the situation warrants. I excuse myself, saying I think I needed a time-out. I step outside and sit on the top of our steps, trying to get a little objectivity. A few days later I'm still so upset that I decide I want some professional counsel and I make an appointment with a therapist. I meet with her once a week and we discuss my marriage, my romantic history, my adolescence, my childhood; she asks very good questions, and I do my best to give honest answers. I can tell when we are really getting somewhere, because sometimes after she asks me a question I get really uncomfortable and I don't want to answer, but I do because I don't want to waste my time or poison my marriage. I work at it and work at it, and eventually it becomes clear to me that I have never in my whole life had a clue about what I really wanted. I thought I wanted to be smart, to be respected for having all the right answers. What I actually wanted was to be loved, but I'd been so busy trying to be right all the time that I didn't know I already had what I really wanted. Turns out, I don't have to be right all the time for my husband to love me. He does anyway, and he'll keep loving me no matter how often I'm wrong. Which is a lot. The summer I got pregnant with Jack, two of my siblings separated from their spouses. My oldest sister decided after five kids and fourteen years of marriage that she would really rather be single, so she left. She lives in another state now and I haven't heard from her in years. She got married when she was nineteen and had her first baby at twenty. She was young and in love, and for the first several years of her marriage everything appeared to be great. She married a very nice man who loved her, earned a solid living, and their kids were cute. But somewhere along the road, something in her started to break down. She gained weight. She watched a lot of TV and didn't leave the house much. She started drinking and gained even more weight, which eventually led to a cycle of rehab and relapse. Whenever she went to rehab(which was pretty often), I watched her kids so her husband could work. The days were long and intense as I attempted to fill in for a mother who'd been absent for a lot longer than she'd been physically gone. This went on for two or three years until she finally left for good, and by that time I'd decided I never wanted to have kids. It just looked way too hard, and the stakes were so high if you screwed it up. Five little boys, the youngest only four, were left without a mother. I still don't really understand what happened to my sister; maybe she's crazy, maybe she's ill, maybe she's wicked. Maybe all three. For a long time, I hated her. Loathed her. Then I felt sorry for her. Today, as Aaron and I celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, I'm grateful to her. It may sound like an odd thing to say, but I really mean it. I only have two boys(for now), yet I've had days when I thought I would go stark raving mad if I had to change one more poopy diaper or settle one more fight. Motherhood can be incredibly exhausting; it is constant, unrelenting work that often demands everything of you and never says 'thank you,' just tortures you through the night so you don't get any restoration and then you have to drag yourself out of bed and do it all again the next day. And the next. And the next. For years. So why am I grateful to my sister? Because she showed me what not to do, and otherwise I might not have known. And I feel sorry for her because I don't think she ever knew what she really wanted either. I don't think she really wanted to be married. I think she wanted love, attention, excitement, and change. Marriage can give you those things, but it's a really bad plan to get married because you hope to get something. There's a lot of giving involved, and she didn't like that part. So she took and she took, and she still didn't get what she wanted. In the meantime, she had a lot of kids, and life got harder and harder. To this day, I doubt she knows what she actually wants. Had someone asked her at nineteen where she hoped she'd be in 19 years, I highly doubt she would have described her current situation. It probably wasn't what she wanted, but she got it anyway. The big surprise was that I didn't actually not want children. What I wanted was to do it differently, to not force myself into a role I wasn't certain I wanted and then make all kinds of restrictions about how I had to do it. I make an effort everyday to know what it is I really, really want. Some of the things I want are good, and it's helpful to be in touch with those desires so I can make a plan to achieve them. Some of the things I want maybe aren't so good, and it's really helpful to be in touch with those desires so I can try to figure out what in my life or heart is out of alignment and needs to change. I still enjoy being right, when it happens(which, despite what my husband says, is more than 20% of the time). But I enjoy being loved a lot more. If you're not honest about what it is you really want, you're never going to get it. If you really want to be married and have kids, you need to accept the reality that it will require you to work your ass off every day. If you don't want to do that, you don't really want to be married. The good news is that when you know what you really, really, really want, getting it is really satisfying. I'm going to get off my soapbox now because my husband just walked in with groceries and flowers. We're going to put the boys to bed early and then cook dinner together. Later we'll sit by the fire and drink wine, and talk about how we want to be married for a long, long time. This is what I want. This man. To be married to him, to grow with him, to learn, to change, make babies, and get old and wrinkly.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beef: What's For Dinner??

I feel I should begin this post by sharing some of my darker food past. I was not a born organic zealot, I was a convert. I grew up eating like most other American kids; cheeseburgers, spaghetti made with ground beef, the occasional trip to McDonald's. At the time, there wasn't much information to indicate that any of those choices were ill-informed. My Mom made good food with ingredients purchased from the supermarket, a place most of us assume carries products which are safe for consumption. My girlfriend Anna ate only organic foods. We used to tease her about how much more expensive her groceries were, and as far as I could tell they didn't taste any different than the non-organic versions I was buying. Then I started reading. An article here, a book there. Before I had kids I wanted to be an investigative journalist. In college I got straight A's in English, Journalism, and Research Writing. Also Chemistry, which is sometimes a handy research skill. What I have learned is that there is a lot more involved in the production of food than just food. Politics, money, lobbying, more money, and a lot of very badly done science. I understand that it's a widely accepted industry standard for companies seeking USDA or FDA approval to conduct their own research, but anyone who's taken a high school-level biology class knows that such a practice violates some of the most basic premises of science. Science is supposed to be objective and conducted without bias. If you are a multi-million dollar company trying to bring your product to market, you cannot be objective. Also, you're going to keep throwing money at your experiments until you get the results you want. I'd already decided we would stop purchasing certain foods unless they were organic or, if they lacked certification, passed what I felt were reasonable quality tests. First on that list was ground beef, a product which has been in the hot seat of the food safety debate for years. We buy only organic ground beef from Costco or from PCC, which carries two brands of ground beef; one is certified organic and one is not. The reason for the non-certification is that Country Natural(the brand) is a collection of family-owned farms and ranches who graze their cows in open country, and not every piece of grass and weed can be tested and certified as organic. I don't think being certified organic necessarily guarantees the quality of a product, nor does it promise that the animal in question was ideally raised. "Organic" doesn't mean "grass-fed" when it comes to beef, but it does mean "not washed in ammonia" like 70% of the ground beef on the market today. This isn't news to those of you who've seen the movie Food Inc. I watched it twice this week and, while it wasn't all new information, it did serve to reaffirm my determination to know what's in the food I'm eating and feeding to my children. Then I read this article in the NY Times. The practice of washing beef trimmings(trimmings as opposed to whole cuts of meat) in ammonia to kill bacteria like E. coli and salmonella was engineered by the company Beef Products Inc., in an effort to utilize otherwise-useless scraps of cow leftover from commercial slaughter. At least, they were useless with regard to food intended for human consumption. The scraps which are now processed, cleansed and combined with 70% of commercially sold beef(fast food chains, supermarkets, and school lunches) used to be reserved for pet food and other non-human consumption. The contamination rate of these "trimmings" is very high, due to the fact that many of them literally wind up on the floor of the slaughterhouse. The trimmings are processed to remove most of the fat and connective tissue, then ammonia is added in high enough levels to kill the bacteria not only in the finished product, but also any bacteria which may be present in the ground beef it is intended to be combined with. The goal of this practice is two-fold: to increase the volume of ground beef using a cheap filler, and to kill harmful bacteria. So the logic is, save money by using cheap, contaminated trimmings and then make them safe to eat by adding chemicals. Um, what? Why don't we spare ourselves the ammonia by eating only meat that was clean to begin with? Oh, right: because you can't make as much money that way. People who are critical of the organic movement often cite the fact that the U.S. feeds so much of the world's population, and is in a position to do so because of innovations in food production which afford high-output for low-cost. My concern is this: you get what you pay for. If you're paying .99 cents for a cheeseburger, you might feel like you're getting a bargain. What you need to consider is that for only .99 cents, someone is still making a profit, which has to make you wonder what that cheeseburger is actually worth. I'm well aware that raising cattle as ruminants instead of corn-eating machines costs money. It requires a lot of land, produces leaner meat, and results in a product that costs more for the consumer to purchase. Traditionally, people tend to consume less of something that's more expensive. I don't think this is a bad thing. Broccoli is cheaper than rib eye. Cost aside, there should be proportionally more broccoli in our diet than rib eye. If the price tag contributes to reasonable ratios, so much the better. I'm perfectly happy to pay top-dollar for a high-quality product. I'm not happy to be assured I'm getting a quality product at a reasonable price when there are ingredients in that product not listed on the label. Beef Products Inc. managed to convince the USDA that the ammonia they use should be considered a "processing agent" and not an actual ingredient, so it doesn't have to be listed on the package as an ingredient. The only ingredient listed in Beef Products Inc. hamburger filler is: beef. That's it. Pardon my skepticism, but I don't feel like that single word tells the whole story. A friend e-mailed me some time ago to share my concerns over food safety and then asked a really compelling question: how should it change the way we eat? Lots of ways, but the bottom line is this: less meat. There's no way around it. It takes a while to shift your thinking away from American portion sizes, but the fact of the matter is that the average American consumes way more meat than is necessary or healthy(200 lbs per year. Per person.). That deserves more than a parenthetical reference: 200 lbs of meat per year. No wonder we're a nation of obese diabetics. What we need to get away from is the idea of meat as a main entree, as the central item on the plate. It's not that I'm opposed to meat consumption; I love a good cut of meat and I will never, ever be a vegetarian. But I definitely eat less of it than I used to, both for health reasons and economic ones. The idea that food should be cheap is also something that should be done away with. The reality is that good food isn't cheap(which is why income is the single greatest predictor of obesity rates), and it shouldn't be. I'm not interested in what can be produced at the fastest rate in the greatest volume for as little investment as possible. I'm interested in real, good, healthy food. I will cut back elsewhere, but the quality of the food I put into my childrens' bodies isn't something I'm willing to compromise. The question shouldn't be whether I can afford to feed my kids healthy food, it should be "Can I afford not to?" Think of it as preventative care: you won't have to spend money on the medical costs of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, cancer, acid reflux, food poisoning, and a host of other things that can cost a lot more than organic food. To that end, two things about the way I cook have changed: the proportion of meat to other ingredients has shifted considerably; also, I think of a meal less in terms of a recipe and more in terms of whole foods. Chicken, brown rice, broccoli. That's a meal. I love cooking, I love experimenting with different spices and flavors, but for the time being I've decided I need to simplify. My kids actually prefer to eat this way; they're not terribly interested in cuisine, they just want food. Another great way to use less meat is to make soup. I still need to nail down more precise proportions for ingredients before I post recipes for all of them, but two of our favorites have been a potato, leek and kale soup with bacon, and a chicken tortilla soup with black beans. The kids won't touch anything with kale in it, but Jack actually loves the tortilla soup. I buy organic chicken stock in bulk from Costco, use a single chicken breast for an entire pot of soup and I can feed my family a delicious, healthy dinner for around $10. No ammonia necessary. Chicken Tortilla Soup with Black Beans 1 onion, chopped 4 ribs celery, chopped 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped 2 TBS chili powder 1 TBS ground cumin pinch of red pepper flakes OR 1 chopped jalapeno(optional, especially if cooking for children) 3 cans diced tomatoes, undrained 1 quart chicken stock 10-15 corn tortillas, cut into strips 1 bone-in skin-on chicken breast, roasted and shredded 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed Sour cream, fresh lime, chopped cilantro, and grated cheese for serving Salt and pepper the chicken breast and roast in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. When cool enough to handle, shred by hand into bite-sized pieces. Set aside. Over medium heat, drizzle a large soup pot with olive oil(I like to use a little butter too). Saute the onion and celery until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chili powder, red pepper flakes(if using) and cumin and saute 1 minute more(don't cook it any longer or the garlic could burn). Toss in the tomatoes, juice and all, then add the chicken stock. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Using an immersion blender or blending in a regular blender in batches, puree the soup. Return to the pot and add the corn tortillas. Simmer until the tortillas have disintegrated and thickened the soup. If your soup gets too thick, add some more stock or water 1 cup at a time until you get the consistency you want. The soup should be fairly thick. Add the black beans and the shredded chicken breast. Simmer everything together for about 5 minutes, and season with salt and pepper. This soup is perfectly tasty on its own, but is also delicious with any(or all) of the toppings I've suggested. Note: this recipe is really flexible. I've made it using an onion, celery and carrot base but also with a pure onion base; use any combination of these you have on hand, but don't leave out the onion. The carrot and celery are less important, but add a nice complexity and subtle sweetness which balances the heat. I love this soup spicy, so I often wait to add the red pepper flakes until after I puree everything, remove a portion for the kids and then add as much heat has I want. Jalapenos have great flavor, but if you don't like the heat remove the seeds before adding. Keep in mind that the corn tortillas will absorb a lot of the heat, so you have a chance to tone it down if you get overzealous with the red pepper flakes. Also, I've used different blends of chili powder in this, everything from plain chili powder to chipotle and all are delicious. The smoky flavor of the chipotle was amazing, but if you prefer a milder soup stick with plain chili powder. I've seen recipes that call for adding canned corn, but I found I didn't care for the texture. The chicken and the black beans have a nice smooth texture that compliment the texture of the soup, but I thought the corn was too crunchy and too sweet.