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    The Hoboken Chicken Emergency
    by Daniel Pinkwater
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    Gilead: A Novel
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Transition: part three

This week that is full of preparation for the celebration of Thanksgiving seems a good time to tie up the loose ends the story of WJ’s transition into his new class.  I confessed to you earlier how hard the beginning of this change was for me and provided a peek at another surprise along the way. But I also promised you the good news and here it is.  Very simply.

When I ask WJ what he likes about school, he says everything.  Sometimes I push and say, “But what parts are you favorites?”   His answer remains the same.  All of it; all parts of it; I like everything.  WJ is happy about school. 

I wish I had a lovely and poignant story to illustrate this for you.  But the truth is that the majority of this adjustment has been mundane.  WJ goes to school.  WJ enjoys school.  We, his parents, enjoy the growth we see in him and the room he has to develop.

WJ brought a gift for us home from school this week.  It was a Thankful Tree that he made in his preschool class.  The children each bedecked a branch with leaves cut from their tempera paintings.  The branch was rooted in a baby food jar filled with lovely rocks.  On small white cards tied to the limbs the teachers recorded the things for which the children would like to thank God. One of WJ’s cards reads: I am thankful for Mom and Dad.  Another offers: I am thankful for Grandma and Grandpa, Oma, and Pop.  The last says: I am thankful for my stuffed animals.

More has stayed the same than has changed for WJ this fall.  He loves all the same things.  School.  His teachers.  Making art.  Friends. His grandparents.  And his best imaginary pal, Doggie.

It has not been a time without questions or worries but none of it has been more than we could handle.  Those shaky times are so overshadowed by what is good.  It is like those early, rocky moments were the first leaves that fell from autumn’s trees.  They trickled down one at a time, largely unnoticed by passersby, and were one day covered by a deluge autumnal glory, by red and yellow, by orange and the occasional purple.  Those first leaves have already disappeared, fallen apart at the bottom of the piles.  They are already melting, turning back into the good soil down under the drifting coating of the beautiful leaves, down at the roots of the Thankful Tree.   



Photo by Jennifer Mowery Marsh

I have been trying to decide what to tell you about my trip to Vermont with the girlfriends last weekend. It was so tempting to take this awkwardly snapped backseat photo of our run-in with Officer Morrison, tales from the newly downloaded Truth or Dare iPhone app, and the fact that we had chosen a signature cocktail for this getaway to spin this story into a hyperbolic Moms Gone Wild tale of mischief. 

But I think it serves me better to stay closer to the truth.  Let me begin at the beginning.

Just over five years ago a group of new mothers organized ourselves in miraculous ways in order to gather—babies, burp clothes, and every manner of diaper in tow—at a local coffee shop for lunch.  The babies, and our motherhood, were six-weeks-old. We were strangers, the four of us. The bags under our eyes and the nursing tanks under our hoodies, however, were enough common ground on which to stand.  Lunch came and plates were eventually taken away.  Coffee and milkshakes followed.  Water refills and water refills and water refills and suddenly it was dinnertime and a friendship had been formed.

I suppose it is excessive to say, well over a hundred playgroup sessions later, that meeting these women saved my life but I know that there are ways in which it saved my mind and perhaps even my heart.  Mothering is isolating work and I am thankful that I have spent only a rare moment of this journey in isolation.

It took five years of dreaming for us to gather in this newly miraculous manner: four women piling together into a car with a trunk full of warm layers and snacks, music and reading material, and not a few bottles of wine.  Moms-Only Weekend Trip to Vermont.

Without exaggerating, I do not have much of a story to tell.  What did we do all weekend?  We talked.  We talked through NYC Friday evening traffic, over diner fries, and along windy country roads.  In conversation we migrated from the cottage’s couches to the kitchen table and back again.  We talked over coffee, tea, wine, scones, chili, cookies, tapas, and gluten-free crackerbread. We talked while climbing up a mountain and while wandering back down.  It wasn’t until well into the drive home that there was a brief lull in the conversation.  Brief.

Photo by Jennifer Mowery Marsh

We drove five plus hours away from our husbands and children and careers, but we did not really leave any of it behind.  Out of cell phone range but still ourselves, we did not exactly escape. 

In my church there is a phrase that echoes among the congregation.  We hope together that our community is a place where people may come to multiply their joys and divide their sorrows.  In Vermont last weekend we multiplied and divided: our husbands’ habits and children’s quirks, our grief and struggles to adjust, health concerns and medical investigations, the highs and lows of vocation, families falling apart and coming back together.  Each of us gave over a little of what burdens us and traded it for the burdens of the others.  Speaking for myself, I can say that in these few short hours my heart breathed a sigh of relief.  Nourished by the listening ears and compassion of these friends, I am like a broken bone healed, I feel strong in places where I had been weak.

What happens in Vermont, stays in Vermont, we joked with irony, barely finishing a second bottle of wine.  But the truth is none of it stayed in Vermont.  Multiplied and divided in perfect equation, I carry it all.


Portuguese sweet bread

Don’t be fooled by the picture above.  Peter Reinhart is kicking my butt.  And I am morally opposed to using the word butt.  That is, however, where I am finding myself on this one.

Despite its appearance, my Portuguese sweet bread was not a huge success.

Last Sunday morning I rose early and started the sponge while making some morning tea.  As it bubbled away, I resumed our normal Sunday morning routines, getting us all ready for church.  What could be better than this? I asked myself this as I padded around the apartment in my slippers: warm tea at my lips, my family together in the early hours of the day, homemade bread growing itself in the kitchen.

But when I wandered back into the kitchen at the appointed time to check the sponge and move on to Step Two of the recipe, the mixture had definitely not doubled in size.  The cool humidity of the day was making the yeast sluggish.  I decided to come back to it after I was completely ready to go, but when I did I could tell the sponge needed even more time.  Which is exactly what I did not have.  If I left the sponge working for the four hours we would be away, I would be putting bread in the oven around 2AM.  I had to keep going with the recipe, doubled or not. 

I donned a spirit of hope and quickly mixed in the next ingredients, kneaded with the help of the electric stand mixer while I put on shoes and lipstick, covered the dough and set off for church in the city.

What I returned to four hours later was a sad looking lump.  My bread, it seemed, was suffering from failure to thrive.  Already halfway through the process, I debated the future of these loaves: the oven or the trash bin?  Mustering another burst of optimism, I decided to proceed with the recipe. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice offered little in terms of pictorial support for this particular recipe. It was a little bit possible, a very little bit, that this lumpy sadness was what the dough was expected to look like.

I divided the dough, shaped it, and left it for its final rise.  Reinhart did not provide many pictures of this dough’s progress, but he did provide this description for the bread as it should be as you prepare to put it into the oven, “Proof… until the dough fills the pans fully, doubling in size and overlapping the edges slightly.”

Just take a look at the photo below.

This is the point at which I knew, and I apologize in advance for having to say it again, that my butt was kicked.  And still, I could not resign myself to putting the dough into the garbage.  Why?  This last stage is called proofing.  It is seeking the physical evidence that this bread is healthy and growing and working to its potential.  Clearly my dough was lacking proof.

I think it is the scent.  Yeast lives and you can smell it. It is difficult as a parent and a teacher to turn one’s back on life, no matter how sluggish it is.  I heated the oven and popped the pathetically empty pie pans onto the rack.

And, as if out of gratitude for my persistence with them, the loaves did perk up a bit in the oven. The bread filled the pans and browned glowingly.  And I ran around the apartment in a corresponding glow calling everyone to come and see.  My bread was making strides toward success. 

But there are things that cannot be rushed and despite my hopefulness and optimism and persistence and determination, I had pushed my Portuguese sweet bread sponge to be ready for the next stage before it truly was.  And everything thereafter was lacking.

Here is what Peter says about the Portuguese sweet bread, “The bread will soften as it cools, resulting in a very soft, squishy loaf.”  Soft and squishy—that is exactly what my bread was not.  It was dry.  The color was lovely, the scent was delightfully floral, the flavor had hints of citrus, and the texture was... dry.  A heavy slathering of butter was not even remedy enough.  WJ, the quintessential dough-belly left chunks of sweet bread on his plate at dinner, a sure sign of failure.

There are worse ways to spend a Sunday than hoping in some dough that is not ready to fulfill its potential.  But there are things that cannot be rushed.  Peter Reinhart is breaking me down.  I think I am taking it slow but I am beginning to see that I don’t yet understand even the half of it.


Mummy and his Mommy

Just as there is a trend toward high tech today, there is another trend toward high touch – homemade and wholesome.

–Meryl Gardner

I recognize that my desire to make WJ’s Halloween costumes is a little silly.  But my mom made ours. 

I remember watching the other kids come to school in store-bought costumes, the plastic suits reminiscent of doctor’s office dressing gowns and the shiny plastic masks with scratchy elastic, eyeholes the size of peas, and pinholes for air at the nostrils and mouth.  I remember watching them walk through the piles of leaves in little bunches of superheroes and watching them climb onto the bus like a living listing of the Saturday morning cartoons.  I remember watching them and being so jealous. 

From my grown-up mommy vantage point, however, I am finding that a homemade Halloween costume is so much more fun and possibly holds a measure of nourishment I did not fully comprehend as a child.  I like this idea of “high touch.”  It must be genetic.

Last Friday night, our family set about the task of creating WJ’s requested mummy suit.  We needed the costume for a party on Saturday morning so it was not the relaxed, taking things slow kind of moment I would have preferred.  But we did have fun. 

Everyone helped.  WJ helped me rip a white sheet into long strips.  Dave was on duty with the pulling off of loose strings.




And I was armed with my hot glue gun.  I can knit but am not exactly a whiz with a needle and thread.  In hindsight, I am not sure exactly why I felt it was prudent to wrap and hot-glue the white cloth to WJ’s costume while he was actually wearing it, but at the time it seemed very important and I only burned him a few times. 

Was WJ pleased with his costume?  Yes, he did not seem to mind that it was “high touch” instead of high tech.  For now anyway.  Ask me again this time next year.

Do you have any "high touch" traditions in your family?


Stove-popped thyme popcorn*

You may have read about how standing at the dairy display, struggling over my weekly yogurt purchase, was giving me sweaty palms but the news today is that the time I am spending in the snack aisle lately is making me just plain old mad.  A few months ago I made a decision.  No more high fructose corn syrup in this house.  No more.  And then I decided that it would be nice to have a few child-friendly snacks around for a play date we had coming up.

What I discovered is that if you would like to buy a cracker with no high fructose corn syrup, you are going to have to settle for one with enough sodium to make your child float in the bathtub or one containing enough saturated fat to warrant your starting a bypass surgery trust fund in his name. 

Twenty minutes and a headache later, I realized that the convenience of these boxes of snacks is not all that convenient.  I could have whipped up something corn-syrup-free at home and slipped it into the oven by the time I resigned myself to the futility of finding a whole-grain, low-fat, low-sodium package of snacks free from artificial colors and high fructose corn syrup that cost less that four dollars a box.

I think there is a whole series here.  In this year of taking things a little more slowly, the next item on my list of problems that need creative solutions is this: Snack Food.

Partly because our microwave was broken for over a year and partly because of my attempts at eliminating the instant from our diet, lately I have been popping popcorn. Old school. On the stove.  In a pot.  I know that popcorn is not a Superfood and I hope to offer you some nutrient-packed, homemade and convenient snack options soon, but since the idea for this post grew out of my struggle to purchase the perfect cracker, this crunchy, savory, classic snack food seems as good a place as any to begin.

Have you ever cooked popcorn on the stove?  It is incredibly easy.  And a bag of popping corn is much less expensive than a box of the microwave variety.  I follow the directions on the bag almost exactly.  It calls for three tablespoons of oil but I have found that if you use a small pot, you can get away with much less.  I use about a tablespoon of canola oil along with a third of a cup of popping corn.  Since one batch easily feeds four people, each one of us is getting less than a teaspoon of the oil.  Most dietary recommendations of late suggest at least two teaspoons of heart healthy oils like canola a day so this is one fantastic way of getting in these healthy fats.

When the popcorn is popped, I sprinkle it very lightly with olive oil and even more lightly with kosher salt.  Finally, I add about a pinch, or several hearty shakes, of dried thyme.  Delicious.  And I am in control of all of the ingredients.  Have I mentioned yet how wonderful the house smells after preparing a batch?  What a way to greet your guests.

Quick brainstorming about ways to vary the approach to this easy snack solution brought me to a few combinations I am hoping to try.  How about using a very light drizzle of sesame oil and some black pepper?  Or flaxseed oil and some Pecorino Romano cheese?  Or you could make it spicy with some fresh cilantro and chili powder or cumin. 

Any other ideas?

*This blog post is part of SteadyMom’s 30-Minute Blog Post Challenge.  This challenge stems out of her recent blogging resolutions and her attempts at reminding the rest of us who blog about all things family to put down the laptops and be preset to our children.  SteadyMom challenged us to complete an entire post, start to publish, in 30 minutes today.  I must confess that I downloaded and formatted my photos in a separate session while I was doing photos for work but I am considering that the trade off for the fact that while I was writing, my lovely niece called to quiz us on our ability to name all 50 states for a school project.  It was a little hard to focus on writing while listening to my husband chanting, “North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, South Carolina…” If you haven’t checked out yet, do so now.  You will love her.