Cooking for Other People’s Kids

Kids (most) are funny and obtusely illogical about their food. I’m sure there are real reasons, and I know that in utterly powerless childhood what you actually eat is often the only power you have over yourself, but cooking for other people’s children is impossible. I have actually served ice cream for dinner because I am not a fucking magician and I am often very tired. Out of the four kiddos I’m usually surrounded by, two are infuriatingly picky. My greatest accomplishment this year has been finding meals (or anything close to resembling) that the three pickies (1 adult, 1 teenager, one tween) and the adventurers (1 adult, one teen, one tween) can all enjoy on some level. As entertaining as it has been to watch one of them fake wretch every time I serve something not quite fitting, nothing can destroy already fragile self esteem like a 10-year-old. So I aim to please.


I recently spent an extended period of time with the BKs and cycled between anxiety, frustration, anger, and excitement while preparing for this visit. Don’t judge; it’s complicated. My solution to head off as much anxiety and hunger as possible was to make a meal plan and list of activities. My main line of defense started with a big batch Jenny Rosenstrach’s Macaroni and Cheese (we have modified this and renamed it Cheez It Mac and Cheese). This is magic medicine, and by far the easiest to make with the least amount of mess. If you have kids who are culinary minded or like to help, the white sauce is a good opportunity to use them either pouring or stirring. I’ve added more milk or cream that Rosenstrach calls for, and reduced the mustard powder. She suggests bread crumbs and while I’ve had good luck with panko for the topping, we prefer Cheez It’s.

Cheez It Macaroni and Cheese

Cook 1 lb of pasta (elbows, shells, anything that will hold sauce) in a Dutch oven or big, ovenproof pot. While cooking pour 2-2 1/2 cups milk and set aside. Likewise, measure 3 tbsp flour, 1/4 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp mustard powder, and salt and pepper as desired together. Stir and set aside. Slightly under cook the pasta, toss it into a colander and leave it there. Preheat the oven to 350*. Throw 3 tbsp real butter into the already dirty pot/Dutch oven and put on medium heat. Once the butter melts whisk in dry ingredients. Let sizzle for a few seconds, and when it has some color SLOWLY drizzle in the milk. Whisk as you pour, and once it has the consistency of thick hot chocolate you can dump the rest of the milk in. Raise the heat, simmer and stir. Once the sauce has thickened, dump the cheese in. Rosenstrach calls for 2 cups of grated hard cheese but I’ve always used whatever I had available. This is usually the last of a bunch of bags of shredded cheese. Sometimes it’s less than two cups, often it is more. No one notices either way. Stir until melted, then add the pasta. Sometimes the pasta needs a quick spray of very hot water to separate it before your pour the pasta in. If you do this be sure to give the pasta a few extra shakes in the colander to get excess water out. Stir all, lick the spoon, and top with about 1/2 cup of crushed Cheez It’s mixed w a tablespoon of butter or olive oil. 

Now, this is not just for the kiddos. I’ve dressed this recipe up for date night (pumpkin and Gorgonzola)and down for PMS and pajamas (Kraft slices and cheddar ends). It pairs well with a dry red and Scandal or juice boxes and Unfortunate Events.

I’m signing off with apologies for the disorganized post. My laptop is dead and I ran over my Lofree Bluetooth keyboard and I’m trying to type on my iPad and my house is destroyed because I was not prepared for multiple days on my own with medium sized children. But also! Check out Dinner: A Love Story blog and books. I loved Jenny Rosenstrach BEFORE I entertained picky eaters, and her writing and her recipes are right on. Some of the recipes are still a little much for me and my tiny kitchen, but the writing is gorgeous and the tenets of feeding pickies lay the groundwork for everything else.

Enjoy!



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Gratuitous Pictures of Dogs and Miscellaneous Early Mid-Life Musings

I can’t stop watching my dogs play. You heard me correctly – dogs – plural. A soccer mom friend asked me “What were you thinking?!” as I was tangled up in two on the sidelines. “I wasn’t,” I replied, “Everything’s easier that way.” All joking aside, the universe lined up. Our new boy is an untrained, skidding everywhere, pees-when-he’s-excited heart salve and every single person in this household loves him. He makes the little dog better, and I think he makes all of us better. There is no magic medicine for melancholy, but puppy love is pretty damn close.

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I am still gutted. I am loading the dishwasher or teaching a lesson or on the phone and a wave a grief pulls me under and I just. can’t. breathe. I am underwater. I make actual lists of the great good fortune in my life, but then I button pants and I did not expect to be wearing real pants right now. I am walking and talking and meditating and medicating and doing everything in my power to just feel better. And I am, sometimes, better. But I do wonder if I’m holding on to this what if, this almost, because I’m afraid this is as close as I’m going to get. I am sad and I just can’t imagine what my life is going to look like when I am no longer actively parenting. I’ll complain all damn day about how hard my kid is but that does not negate my desire to parent until the day I die.

Cooper and Sweet Pea are smoothing out the edges.

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These boys are doing their adolescent jobs and preparing me to be ready to let them leave. This is code for they-are-driving-me-fucking-crazy and I-thought-I’d-be-better-at-this. The highs are high and I wonder what I will ever do without them; the lows have me searching for boarding schools with financial aid that start tomorrow. Like I will pack this car and drive you there right now heart of my heart and fruit of my loins. While I’m busy worrying about their social skills and general academic competency they are out there doing exactly what they need to do (and probably some shit that they shouldn’t but anyway).

We spent an evening at the sweatiest college fair of all time. I felt a flutter of hope as I heard the boys asking questions that I NEVER expected to hear from them, “What is the expected SAT score?” and “Tell me about life at _______.” My heart is expanding and contracting at such a furious rate I have zero faith I will survive until graduation. All those 20-something college reps? The best entertainment of the night was watching them pack up to get them SUM DRINKS. You should have seen the eyes being made across that field house. I almost pissed myself. Oh, to be 20-something. I just wanted a shower and yoga pants.

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Hockey season! The crown jewel of my year. I love peace and friendship and all that shit but GIVE ME SOME HOCKEY so I can regress like a proper human.

We had nearly full-family participation in spirit week. If you are not a high school student or a teacher you have blocked this memory out. It is when zero learning takes place over the course of one week because football.

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Mama/Ms. W as Madonna for Decade’s Day – The English Department is full of characters and friends and we NAILED it with 80’s icons ALLLLLL day. Also my getup scared the dogs so much I couldn’t get them inside. No sparkls mma plz wi scurd.

Kid did not go with either of these outfits but solidly represented Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Class color day and Bangor day were fully observed throughout.

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This picture does not do justice to the perfection that is Mark Bittman’s popover recipe with Trader Joe’s Everything But The Bagel seasoning. I would eat these every day.

What else? OH! I fixed MY OWN DAMN CAR!

This is a much longer story, but here’s the Spark Notes version: BF borrowed my car, car came home broken, I lost my shit, but then I googled shit, and texted my ex-husband, then I got my code scanned, bought parts and fixed this damn thing. Thank you, YouTube.

It turns out this old dog still has some capacity for new tricks.

I hope the rest of this month finds you well.

Heather

September, again.

Here we are, again. September seems to be exactly the same as all teaching Septembers are: Crazy busy, dazzling weather, lively students, the edge of a nervous breakdown.

 

So, remember when my dear pup, Sam, was ill? And I wasted her last few months mourning her in advance? Because I am the way I am, the thought of her just DYING on me was unbearable. I needed to know that she was okay or not okay, in pain or in rest. If I was going to spend $200 on a necklace made of ashes (I didn’t – yet). Did I forget that things happen and I have no control over this all? Yes, absolutely. Am I doing this again, always? Yes, absolutely.

Who was it that said that they feel like they are in control, they have the steering wheel in their hands, but it turns out they are in the back seat and just pretending? Was it Anne Lamott? Glennon Melton? That’s the situation we have here. Except I am alternately grabbing onto that wheel for dear life, and throwing it right out the fucking window.

I’m looking in the backseat of my empty minivan. Colby is a Junior, so is *BK. I am crying when I miss a minute of Colby’s soccer game and also swearing to send him to prep school because he won’t GET THE FUCK OUT OF BED.

I’m sitting with loss and straddling a river the size of the Mississippi – Will there be more? Or will I be content with what I have? I want to close my eyes and pick one – and that’s that. But I can’t. Each choice could be right and wrong in direct proportion. The problem isn’t the choice, really, it’s me.

I’m dancing with my boyfriend in the endless ‘do we’ or ‘don’t we’ and ‘how’ and ‘when’ on the floor of misnomered blended families.

I want to sell my house and buy a condo. But I also want to stay there and make room – make a home. I want for the pieces of my family to come together, to revel in the chaos of a new adventure. I want to sleep with my own person in my own bed every single night.

If I keep going like this, though, I risk wasting everything that is right HERE and right NOW. I have Colby home now. BK is home now. We may not be in the same home but we are certainly not far apart. I have had moments in my life where I made a decision just to have the process over. Very few moments of my now are going to be easy, but I’ve looked elsewhere enough to know that what comes after is more than worthwhile. There is no way out but through, and I am wasting my through.

My challenge, this year, is no longer that of making lunches and checking homework. It is to be right here, right now, even when I would rather be anywhere else. And that is far more challenging.

 

*Bonus Kid

Found and Lost

There is a $5 Maclaren stroller sitting in my barn.

Early in yard sale season my partner and I were out. We drove through a subdivision not far from home and saw signs of life. “There,” I pointed toward a split level ranch with a minivan parked diagonally across the entrance. He turned, we parked the car, grabbed our still-hot coffee and ventured over.

I saw the stroller before I saw anything else. I walked over while glancing around – my condition was certainly not public knowledge and followed directly after an early loss. I was holding my joy gingerly and privately.

I didn’t see anyone I knew, and so made my move. “Max,” I said, “I want that.” He looked at the $5 sticker, ducked his bald head toward his shoulder in approval, and took out his wallet. We looked the stroller over before sealing the deal. He fiddled with the back latch and deemed it an easy fix. I unfolded a rain fly that looked as if it had never been used. A pack of tow-headed boys swirled around us, not minding the detritus of their childhoods on sale. A woman matching the boys came over taking her hands out of her money apron. “Ah,” she smiled. “We loved this.” I loved it, too. The boys looked – happy. As they talked and walked through the common stroller set up conundrum, I looked from the stroller to the contents of the driveway. I could see the trajectory of these boys’ lives unfolding. I imagined the red top was faded from games and vacations. The back latch bent from a quick stop maybe, the handles worn from trips to and from the neighbors – chasing siblings and company.

We paid and I grinned as I drove the stroller toward the car. Our first purchase – and a steal!

I parked the stroller in the barn, a patch of red reminding me that we would soon be 7. An auspicious number. I slept grew and kvetched about my restless legs and vomited. Until I didn’t.

Now, whenever I go into my barn I see two worn handles peeking out behind the couch and I’m not sure what to do. I planned to send that grand old Maclaren into retirement, but now? I washed and folded my much loved maternity shorts and packed them away in my hope chest with a book and the ultrasound pictures. I can justify not passing these on – no one needs bad luck maternity shorts –  was an easy call. I can’t even fold up the stroller, much less pack it away. And I don’t really want anyone else to have it.

I know we are done now. We are surrounded with more love and fortune than most, and the only thing I am trying for is contentment. But for now, I think, the Maclaren stays.

Re-reads: Good in Bed

My first Jennifer Weiner book was In Her Shoes. The last time I saw it, many years ago, it was held together with a thick rubber band I had stolen from a stalk of kale in my refrigerator. The book was tattered; coffee stained and dog eared, its appearance confessed exactly how many times it had been read. In Her Shoes never returned home, but I still have many of Weiner’s on my shelf. I return back to them periodically, as needed.

I jumped off the deck of the Facebook ship late spring and have been reading ferociously ever since. If reading was my escape as a child it is 176% more so now at 36. But, I’m still operating on the same budget. The obvious benefit is the ability to drive my own car to Goodwill. I found a copy of Good in Bed and Little Earthquakes on discount book day, and stacked them on my living room bookshelf. I just finished (again) Little Earthquakes and then Good in Bed.

This was a smart move for many reasons. I had been disenchanted with Hungry Heart mostly, I think, because of Weiner’s Twitter response to the success of Glennon Melton’s Love Warrior. It seemed like the wizard had been revealed, and she wasn’t so tough after all. Actually, a little bitter. But, I thought as I approached Earthquakes and Bed again, isn’t that exactly why Weiner’s characters work for us? For me? We are ALL of these things: bitter, sweet, jealous, proud, insecure, fierce. Human.

Anyway. I’m in mama mode and Little Earthquakes did the same things to me it always did. Hug my friends, kiss my kid, remember that every person has a story I don’t know, look at my dirty Vera Bradley bag with more tenderness than disgust. A bit into Good In Bed I was talking to a friend and said something to the effect of “meh, I’m not sure if I’ll finish it this time around.” I kept reading. And then . . . the unintended pregnancy! The asshole impregnator! Bad dad! The career crisis and crazy family and legacy of painful childhood! I had forgotten about ALL OF THAT.

“Ahhh” I thought, “here we go.”

As improbable as Cannie’s financial and professional luck rang, I wanted it for her (and for me). Brief Phish culture commentary? I’m a Northeast 90’s product, I got it. Making peace out of white hot fury? I needed to watch someone else do it before I tried to do it myself.

We know what fiction does for us, and for our world. Re-reading Good in Bed in a very different decade of my life was much less beach read than role playing, shuffling the cards in my hand, and realizing there are more combinations than I am aware of. If that isn’t hope, I don’t know what is.

Replacement Filter

I tell all of the parenting stories I shouldn’t. Stories where I swear and fail and damage my child in ways we all do but all ignore, and sure as hell don’t tell the other mothers. My verbal filter is notably porous.

During my first year teaching at a new school where I felt utterly out of my league, I told the “put your fucking boots on” story (cementing my position as the office over sharer).

It’s legend now. During that first year my son and I commuted an hour to our respective new schools. We are not morning people; it was challenging. We were running late, and I can still see my black skirt and broken old Danskos and feel the wet hair dripping down my back. For whatever reason, Colby was bouncing around the small, white kitchen like a pinball machine. “Colby!” I yelled, “Just put your FUCKING BOOTS ON!” I then had 45 minutes of driving during which I could cry and apologize.

When I told the PYFBO story, I learned immediately where and with whom I would fit in. From that day on, my colleagues have found me in my classroom or copy room or office bathroom, grabbed my arm and said “Heather! You’re gonna love this one . . .” And they proceed to tell their very own version of the Horrible Parent Story.

Ann Patchett says that every author has one story, and I’m afraid this one is mine.

I am sure it is annoying and probably the result of a personality disorder, but I can’t stand to walk around with an untold story. I feel an untold story bubble under the skin of my chest and wrench tight the muscles in my back. Also, I quite enjoy the opportunity to entertain my friends, to shock, to be a walking PSA shouting “We are all different!” and “Different is good!” Underneath all that, though, is the knowledge that these stories, the boots and the bongs and sending your kids to school sick, these are the stories that can cause us the most shame. My friend Sarah recently wrote about how we are freed from being the perfect wife but now must be the perfect mother, which is maybe more insidious than the first. Not only this, but we need to be perfect mothers with perfect kids.

Even though I know this, I still find myself wrestling with parenting decisions and sometimes making not the one that I feel is the best fit for my child and my family, but the one that best fits the governing perception of good kids and good parenting in my own community. These are unwritten rules and will change at any time.

My Horrible Parenting Stories are certainly not solely mine. The locus of impact is closer to me than my child in most instances, but these days I’m achingly aware of a new line. A boundary between the stories that are shared and do not affect my child’s peer group or reputation, and the stories where they do. I feel the same way about my nascent romantic relationship. Grateful, curious, protective. My filters have changed.

So I’m learning, as always. Which stories to tell and to whom.

xoxo

Heather

On Love and Langue

 

My boyfriend and I, we don’t exactly speak the same language. And for once, I am not being hyperbolic.

By profession I am a teacher of English. By birth I am a bibliophile of the first order. I am sensitive and perceptive and have tendencies to overthink that certainly allow me to suss out the nuance of a passage or situation. It also allows me a diagnosis. And a prescription. Any old way, words matter. In 2016, words matter a lot.

But now, this tendency of mine to ponder and parse and analyze is less helpful. Maybe it wasn’t so helpful all along.

My boyfriend, he’s a talker. Even though he knows I only understand about 60 % of what he says on the phone, he still wants to talk, and I feel the same way. Even if I don’t understand the words, I understand his pace, his tone of voice, the way his timbre shifts when he’s tired. Where I once would have pulled an entire conversation into columns of words, words that are friendly or unsure or loving or reticent, I am left with only an echo, an imprint of what was said.

Because when he is looking for words the best word isn’t always available. He’ll lapse, frustrated, into his own language; he’ll choose the closest option. When I am trying to articulate a feeling with idiom (last week it was the impossibility of translating “all worked up”) my best choices include hand gestures and eye rolls and eventually, the grasping of a word that is close, but still not right.

We were talking about the near completion of my second master’s degree the other night. “The only disappointment for me,” he said. I winced, curled up on the couch, squinting my right eye and cheek and corner of my mouth all together. “The only disappointment for me and you,” he tried again, “is that your salary does not reflect the work that you do.” I gave him a pass. I could hear what I would normally say reverberating in my brain: Disappointment? How do YOU get to be disappointed in MY success? Is money really what matters? Are you saying I am a financial liability? But there is no room for that now. I can no longer assume the meaning behind a word, or even the intent. My information comes from elsewhere. I am learning to pay attention to other things.

I am paying attention to things that defy logic and science and definition. To the way four voices fill a house and empty a refrigerator, to the way hope rises; I am paying attention to possibilities and the soft edges of human love.