Sunday, December 30, 2012

our apocalypse

Next Monday, whether we’re ready or not, we’ll jump into the van and ship out. It’s our own private apocalypse.


The freezers are defrosted and everything is stuffed into the large chest freezer. I’ve made arrangements for my starter baby to live at my brother’s house. Five-sixths of us are done with our typhoid vaccine. The kitchen sink is scoured and most of the windows are washed (thanks, Mom!). The grape arbor is pruned (thanks, Dad!). The ceilings and walls are patch painted. The toilet doesn’t leak anymore. We've made arrangements for what to do with our bodies should we die (that was a fun Christmas Eve morning activity). Flip-flops and money belts are purchased.


It closed, but just.

Crisis happen on a semi-regular basis—the refrigerator died! we can’t find suitable jeans! the insurance company dropped the ball on all the prescription meds!—but we plow through. (We still haven’t caught the Large Animal that is living in the floor of the upstairs.) (Renters, if you’re reading this, panic now.)


clean clothes, ready for the suitcases

There are happy-dance times, too. Like when I posted on Facebook that we needed a dog kennel and within five minutes we had one. Like when we combed through stores for hours in search of plain jeans for my non-trendy preteen and came up empty and then, within the next couple days, found a variety of perfect jeans, shorts, and capris from just one thrift store run and several friends’ houses. Like when the refrigerator's thermostat stopped working so we had to plug and unplug the refrigerator to regulate it but then it died anyway but then my husband gave it CPR and it came back to life, ginormous sigh of relief. Like when a multitude of generous people loaned/gifted us a huge variety of backpacks and suitcases. Like when my order of books arrived at the door in all their glorious fresh-smelling newness.

Our family is an emotional smorgasbord. My husband is in denial. I am achy-sad and a bit in awe that this is actually happening. One child is excited, two are a bit sad (one is worried about the giant hornets and the other one explains the torn feeling perfectly: I really want to go but I don't), and the last one (guess which) is suffering from headaches, stomachaches, nightmares, and lack of appetite—at the mere mention of “packing,” she crawls under the covers and hides.


Next Sunday during the worship service, there will be a commissioning service for us. I intend to cry bucket of tears. I will begin crying when the prelude starts and I will not stop crying until the benediction is over. (I'm undecided about whether or not I'll cry during Sunday school and the potluck.) If you plan to attend, wear your wading boots.

This same time, years previous: giant sausage and leek quiche, Christmas 2010, windows at dusk-time, spaghetti carbonara, marmalade-glazed ham, for my walls, Christmas 2008, chopped locks, one step above lazy, tomatoey potatoes and green beans, hats

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

hot buttered rolls

Before we get to the bread, several vignettes...

***

Forklifting the Baby

During our Christmas Eve service, I was focused intently on singing Angels We Have Heard on High when suddenly a little boy and his even littler sister started walking up to the front of the church. They were dressed up like Mary and Joseph, and their arms were extended in front of them like forklifts, their baby brother stretched across their arms.The big brother was responsible for the head; the big sister for the butt and legs.

Surprised, I half gasped-half laughed, and my eyes involuntarily welled with tears. And then, without even realizing I was doing it, I glanced behind them, looking for a wise man bearing a ham à la the Herdmans. And then, when I realized what I was doing, I really did laugh.

The mini Joseph and Mary tumbled their fat-cheeked, kicking brother into the wooden manger and stood guard over him, taking turns shoving his pacifier back in his mouth, while angels, shepherds, and a baby sheep (who was munching on a piece from her cotton ball-studded hat) gathered around them to stare into the manger.

That little scene may have been the highlight of my entire Christmas.

***

SNOW!

It snowed for Christmas!


Actually, it snowed the day before Christmas, but the white stuff lingered. There was enough snow on the ground for one Christmas morning sledding party before it melted away into nothingness. And then the next day we woke up to more snow, glory be!


The kids realize that they won’t be seeing one flake of snow for quite a few months and so they’ve made it their personal responsibility to play in it as much as possible.


The downstairs of our house is littered with boots and coats and gloves in varying degrees of sogginess. The upstairs is littered with huge pieces of luggage.

It’s a lot to wade through.

***

The Goodbyes Are Coming


We’ve had a nice Christmas, but it hasn't been easy. We are in the final days of packing. Our family is stressed and tired and anxious.

Up until now, I’ve been super excited. And I still am, lots of times. But now the excitement is tempered by a thick, choking sadness: the Goodbyes are coming. (If that sounds ominous, that’s because it feels ominous.)

Of course, I’m really, really, really glad I have people to say goodbye, too. I’m glad I’m sad to leave them because it means they matter, right? RIGHT! And we’ll get through the Goodbyes, and we’ll all be okay.

But still, being sad isn’t very much fun.

***

Things We Did to Celebrate Even Though I Wasn’t Really Into It



We delivered toffee and peppermint bark to the neighbors. It was snowing (yay), so my pretty little labels got spotchy. Oh well.



Santa came.



Nobody left any cookies out for him, so he ate had to raid the kitchen for some clementines. Also, he got so frustrated trying to cram the gifts into the poorly-made stockings (the insides of which are filled with loose yarn that snags on everything) that one of his buttons popped off his suit. 



The kids ate enough sugar to last them for a very long time.

For Christmas dinner, my husband made his much-loved ham.


I made a pot of potatoes in cream. I hadn’t made them for a long time, and the kids went wild. In fact, they were so busy eating the potatoes that the ham got neglected.



Also, I made hot buttered rolls. They may have been my favorite part of the meal.

In fact, these rolls don’t actually belong under the title of "not really into it" since I really was into them. (I was probably into them a little too much, groan.)



Today, we ate (fought over) the leftover rolls for lunch. We stuffed them with cold ham, grainy mustard, and cheese.


Hot Buttered Rolls
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook

½ cup warm water
1 tablespoon yeast
2 cups milk
6 tablespoons butter, divided
5 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 egg, beaten
1 cup whole wheat flour
4-5 cups bread flour
crunchy salt, optional

In a small bowl, stir the yeast into the warm water and set aside.

Scald the milk. Add 4 tablespoons of butter and let sit until melted.

In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, whole wheat flour, yeast, and milk (taking care that it’s not so hot that it will kill the yeast). Let rest for 10 minutes.

Stir in the egg, salt, and remaining flour. Knead the dough till satiny smooth. Sprinkle the bottom of the still-dirty mixing bowl with flour and plop the dough into it. Sprinkle the top with flour, cover with a cloth, and let rise until doubled.

Divide the dough into 24 pieces and shape into rolls. Place the rolls in two buttered 9x13 pans. Cover with a cloth and let rise until nearly doubled. Bake the rolls at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and brush over the hot-from-the-oven rolls. Sprinkle with crunchy salt, if desired. Serve warm.

Friday, December 21, 2012

self care

I first started writing this post in my head while I was working in the kitchen with my little boy. He was painstakingly cutting out leftover gingerbread dough. He had flour smudges on his cheek and forehead. His nose was snuffly. His pants were falling down.


My little boy is six, the age of most of the children who were killed last week. When I realized this, several days after the fact (because I’m slow), all the air whooshed out of me like I had been kicked in the gut. Oh, the unspeakable, heart-wrenching agony those families are going through!

Shortly after this realization (and after letting myself have a good cry), I made a deliberate decision to stop thinking, reading, listening, or talking about the shooting.

I realized that I could spend hours mulling over the pain of those families. I could superimpose their reality over mine, imagining what it would feel like to go through such suffering. Inevitably, I'd start to hurt as though I actually might understand what they’re going through. I'd feel sad. I'd grow anxious, worried, and depressed. I know myself. This is how I respond.

The truth is, however, that I don't understand their pain. I couldn't possibly because it's not my reality. Letting my mind play over the horrific happenings does me no good. It doesn’t do any good for my family, nor does it do any good for the grieving families.

See, I do not know those families. This does not mean I don’t care about them, because I do. As a human, I am connected to them. We share the same culture. We share the parent-child bond.

But honestly, how much can I really care about someone I’ve never met? For me, caring demands a hands-on response. It means dropping what I’m doing to meet someone where they’re at. When our friends’ son went missing, we dropped and went. When my girlfriend’s husband was dying, I dropped and went. When my children are crying, I drop and go. (Though sometimes I don’t. It depends on the kind of cry.)

***

There have been so many different responses as a result of this tragedy. Some people are weepy, others angry. Some people act like nothing has happened. Others are debating gun control and mental illness. There are people who feel like they can't continue on with glorious everyday life in the face of such pain.

None of these reactions are wrong. We all have our own ways of processing. But in order to take care of myself, I have to draw a line somewhere. There are tragedies all over the world all the time. If I internalized them all, I'd be stuck in bed forever.

Perhaps this sounds selfish. Maybe narrow-minded or naive. But I think not. Some battles I am forced to fight, whether or not I want to. But I have a choice on others. Just as I am careful how we structure our days, what people we relate to, what movies we watch and books we read, I am also careful of what types of emotional/political/theological/etc. struggles I will allow myself to engage in.

***

The other day on a walk with my sister-in-law, we discussed the shooting. Which then got us talking about other horrors—Rwanda, North Korea, etc.

"Sometimes I wonder if it does any good for me to even know about this stuff," she said. "We think it's important to know but maybe it's not."

I wonder the same thing. What good does it do us, hearing about every kidnapping, shooting, robbery, and rape that happens the world over? Are we a more compassionate society than we were a hundred years ago? I doubt it. Perhaps we're more savvy, sophisticated, street smart, educated, and globally aware, but I don't think those characteristics ensure an increased level of compassion. In fact, they may even hinder it.

***

A couple days ago, my older son said, “People keep saying that you should always say good-bye when you leave because you never know when it will be your last good-bye.”

“Well, yes,” I said, suddenly exasperated. “You should say good-bye, but do it because it’s good manners and because people need to know you’re leaving, not because you’re afraid you won’t see them again. That's kinda morbid.”

***

Because of the shootings, everyone is being advised to hold their babies extra tight. On several different occasions I’ve allowed myself to do this, to soak up their sweetness while thinking of the mothers who can no longer hold their own children.



But then I make myself stop because it somehow feels wrong to use someone elses grief to intensify my love for my children. I want to hold my babies simply because I love them.

***

It is not easy, even impossible sometimes, to turn the sadness off. On the other hand, sometimes the sadness gives us pause and helps us to become more thoughtful, more sensitive, more authentic. My genetic make-up is such that the sadness pulls me down into depression, a depression that is neither virtuous or necessary.

How about you? How do you practice self care in the light of such tragedy?

***

*Thanks to this post for providing clarity.

*Here's some questions and lots of thoughtful comments regarding the shooting and why it feels so close.

Update: Lenore reposted this on Free Range Kids!

This same time, years previous: Christmas pretty, middle-of-the-night solstice party, lemon cheesecake tassies

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

toasty oatmeal muffins

Okay. So you know those oatmeal muffins that I make? The ones that I’ve written about and that Aimee raves about? The ones I serve to everyone, take to breakfasts, and eat like candy? Well, I decided to write about them for my newspaper column (back when I had a newspaper column), but then my husband dropped a bombshell.

“I don’t like them,” he said. “They’re gummy."

Which is ridiculous because they are most certainly not gummy, but I couldn’t very well write about something as basic as an oatmeal muffin without my husband’s seal of approval. It would feel deceitful. So, grumbling under my breath, I set the recipe aside.

But this week when I was at the library, I picked up the most recent Cook’s Illustrated. In it I found, lo and behold, a recipe for an oatmeal muffin. And knowing that magazine, any recipe they put out is, they believe, the best one ever. I read through it, became intrigued, and then actually shelled out 25 cents to make a photocopy.


The goal of the article's author/chef was to make a very oatmeal-y muffin but without any gumminess (because I guess my husband isn't the only one). The trick? Toast lots of oats in a spot of butter until golden brown and then blitz them in food processor. The resulting caramel-y oat flour makes for a gorgeously speckled muffin.

The topping is perfect, too. A crunchy sweet blend of oats, pecans, brown sugar, cinnamon.


I had some leftover batter so I made mini loaves. Just feast your eyes on that topping gloriousness!

Could it possibly get any better? I don't think so.



And guess what? My husband loves them! (The kids don’t, though. Whatevs.)


Toasty Oatmeal Muffins
Adapted from the January-February 2013 issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.

For the batter:
8 tablespoons butter, divided
2 cups rolled oats
1 3/4 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/3 cups brown sugar, packed
1 3/4 cups milk
2 eggs, beaten

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Add the oats and stir over medium heat for about 6-8 minutes until toasty brown. Blitz into flour in the food processor—30 seconds should do it. Addt the remaining dry ingredients (not the brown sugar) and blitz to combine.

Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter. In a large bowl, whisk the butter with the sugar. Add the eggs and milk. Whisk in the dry ingredients. The batter will be very thin. Allow to rest at room temperature for 20 minutes to thicken up before ladling into paper-lined muffin tins.

For the topping:
½ cup rolled oats
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup pecans, chopped fine
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Stir together. Sprinkle over the muffins.

Bake the muffins at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Yield: 12 large muffins or 18 medium muffins

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.19.11) 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

how to have a dunging-out date


*Decide to leave the country for nine months.
*Wait until the last minute, like a couple weeks before you move out. This way procrastination is not an option.
*Get child care for an entire weekend—three nights and two days, bam. You don’t need little people indulging in full-blown meltdowns over every broken shoe, bent thumb tack, and torn-up book that gets tossed.


*Stay focused and work together. When your wife crumbles to the sofa in despair, pull her off it. When your husband gets too snarky, make him eggs.
*Be brutal. GET. RID. OF. EVERYTHING. When in doubt over whether or not to toss a map, manual, or book, yell, I can find this information on line! Or, Guess what, dodo brain? I can buy another one later! If you can’t bear to part with a box of drink umbrellas that you bought in Chinatown, pack it up and shove it into the attic. (But you should probably just get rid of them. If you ever find yourself in dire need of umbrellas for the fancy alcoholic drinks you don’t make, remember, there’s this thing called...AMAZON!)


*Trash the house. Empty drawers, closets, and cupboards. The messier the house gets, the more effective you are.
*Constantly berate yourself for any packrat tendencies. For example, “I can’t believe I let this broken piece of crap exist in my house!” Or, “Why in the world did I ever buy this crap?” It is important to use the word "crap" (or something similar, ehem) to the point of excess.
*Yell a lot. This is a great way to maintain momentum. War whoops are required. High fives are good.


*Burn, baby, burn! Turn that 30-gallon trashcan of papers to ashes. There is no going back, wheee!
*Reserve the evenings for pizza, Bailey’s-spiked hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows, and obscene amounts of Netflix.
*Exhale. Admire all the empty. Notice how light you feel. (You may need to tie concrete blocks around your ankles to keep from floating away.)

This same time, years previous: chocolate-dipped candied orange rinds, walnut balls

Monday, December 17, 2012

the quotidian (12.17.12)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace
 


Sweet rolls for sweet people.



Rediscovering the trash in the field.
(I never noticed what a great photo op I had sitting right out my back door.)



On the way to town: our view.
It never grows old.



I am at loss for words.
Can YOU come up with a caption? 
Maybe I should start my own line of quirky greeting cards?



My monkeys, desperate for thrills.
They made a rope zipline (or somethingorother), but instead of zipping on it,
they used it to boing themselves into the air.
 Method: one (or three) children would pull the line down
 (what the children are doing in the picture) while another child held on to the rope with both hands. Then everyone would let go of the line except for the kid whose turn it was to boing.
Up he'd go into the air, dangling by his arms, 
and then swing enthusiastically back and forth, wheee!



The kids built (dug out?) a fort in the burn pile.



It's actually quite spacious. There's even a hay-lined bedroom back to the right.



Seeing stars!
The night of the meteor shower, we woke the kids at 1 in the morning
and herded them outside to lay on the frozen ground and stare at the sky.
Also, this is my first foray into night photography.
It's nothing to write home about, but still, I'm a wee-bit happy.
I mean, I gave myself a crash course in bulb mode and infinity mode,
and then, voila, I got some pictures of the stars!
Someday I'm going to learn about this stuff for reals. 



Lazy morning: what with the middle of the night star-watching
and the typhoid vaccine side effects, the kids weren't feeling all that chipper.
Can't say I blame them... 



She wore these (and a smaller version of) masking-taped-on earrings everywhere.



Christmas wonder (and camera wary). 



Cozy evenings.
(Hanes should hire us to do some advertising, don't you think?)

This same time, years previous: peppernuts, my baby, scholarly stuff, crazier than usual, a pragmatic man, fig-and-anise pinwheels

Friday, December 14, 2012

soft cinnamon sugar butter bars

“I just wish I could stay home and make cookies,” I whined to my husband the other night. “I just want to experiment with new dishes, and write, and go on doing all the normal things I do every day.” I slumped over until my forehead rested on the table and I was talking to the wood. “I don’t want to go annnnnyyyywhere.”

My younger daughter wishes I would make cookies, too. I mixed up the dough for the gingerbread men a few days ago and she keeps pleading with me to make the cookies already. But it takes work to stand at the kitchen table and roll, slice, bake, and ice. I’d rather... I don’t know, trim my toenails or something.

Actually, that’s not true. I’d rather do just about anything than trim my toenails. But I’m trying to make a point. The point being that I don’t want to exert myself in frivolous baking even though I’d rather be baking.

It’s confusing, I know. Just go with it.


Part of the problem is that we don’t need cookies. We have butter bars in the freezer and who needs cookies when you have butter bars? Not me!


This was my second time making these bars. The first time they were wonderful and we scarfed them down. (The males in the family are particularly fond of these bars. The girls are not. I am a woman, not a girl. I love the bars.) The second time, I took more pictures and put some in the freezer so we wouldn’t eat them all at once.


These bars, though unassuming, are rather exotic. There are two parts to them: the firmer cookie-cake bottom and the softer, almost gooey, cookie-cake top. They remind me of a cross between a pound cake, dense and rich and vanilla-y, and a cinnamon flop or coffee cake. Serve the bars plain, with coffee or tea, or dress them up with a splat of whipped cream and some berries.


(Did I really just say “a splat of whipped cream?” I do believe I did. Oh dear.)


Soft Cinnamon-Sugar Butter Bars
Adapted (not much) from David Lebovitz, who, in turn, got the recipe from Deb of Smitten Kitchen

There are two parts to this recipe. Since the ingredient lists are similar, I make them simultaneously, with two sets of bowls. It’s a little confusing, but only for a couple minutes. The recipe comes together quickly. Just don't multitask while making these cookies. Because you already are.

The cookie bottom:
1 ½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup milk

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg and milk. Add the dry ingredients. Spread the thick batter into a greased 9x13 pan.

The gooey top:
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
12 tablespoons butter
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, sugar
1/4 teaspoons salt
1 egg
1 1/4 cups flour

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the corn syrup, milk, and vanilla. Beat in the egg and salt. Add the flour.

Dollop the batter all over the thick batter. Spread it out as smoothly as possible.

Topping:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

Stir together the sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle over bars.

Bake the bars at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. The center should still be quite soft but no longer jiggly. The top should be golden brown and puffy.

Cool to room temperature before cutting into bars.

This same time, years previous: ginger-cream scones

Thursday, December 13, 2012

my elephant


Our newspaper subscription ran out and we decided not to renew. Now my mornings feel naked.

We’ll probably make one more library run this month and then we’ll only head back to return books (and pay fines).

I make cookies and bread, put them in the freezer, and then wonder if we’ll get around to eating them before we leave.

Last weekend we sent the kids away (not by themselves) and filled up the car with stuff to get rid of. The house still feels full and cluttered. This weekend is Dung Out Session Number Two.

***

It’s like there’s an elephant in the room, an elephant named Guatemala. It sits there, smack dab in the middle of everything. Sometimes I think it looks lovely and exotic and other times it seems scary and downright wrong. But there it sits. So I shrug my shoulders and go on doing other things, ordinary things, because I can’t spend my whole day staring at an elephant.

***

I skipped the quotidian post this week. My routines are fading. The chaotic unknown is encroaching. I feel myself slipping into lockdown mode.

I go for walks and play with my camera and watch Parenthood. I stock our toiletry kits with little tubes of toothpaste and write thank you notes and stare at the wall.

It’s too much.











Photos courtesy of my older son.

This same time, years previous: cracked wheat pancakes, gingerbread men

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

light painting

Back to that smoking hot photography: Reader Carol guessed correctly, yay Carol!

Here's what we did. We took the picture in the completely dark toy closet. The exposure was set for eight seconds. While the shutter was open, one of the kids jiggled a piece of twine around the object while I shone a flashlight straight down. I also made sure I shone the light on the front of the object so that it would be visible.

That’s it! Pretty nifty, no?

That night the kids and I moved the sofa out of the way and settled down in front of the tree to do some light painting.















These (very amateur) effects were accomplished by an assortment of the following:

1. Zooming in and out with my 18-55 mm lens.
2. Using a long exposure—about 5 seconds.
3. Using a flash.
4. Rotating and jiggling the camera proper.
5. Flashlights.
6. Finger flashlights.

While we played (i.e. vied for camera time and argued loudly), my potatoes that I had set to simmering on the stove boiled dry and scorched. It was kind of fitting, after all those smoking hot photos I had taken that day.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.12.11)Sunday Vignettes: Human Anatomy ("tit-bit nipply"—oh boy, I'm laughing all over again!), cashew brittle