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Archive for the ‘Making Life Easier’ Category

Thank you all for your kind words on my last post. It’s so easy for that feeling of discomfort and awkwardness to spread until it’s stained every bit of me with self-loathing. I seriously never thought to consider my attempts to be friendly as… progress. I will try to do so from now on.

In the month since I wrote it, well. Life has gone on. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it heartbreaking, the regular amalgam of living. And, listen, I don’t really want to talk about any of the reasons I might have needed comfort during that time period. (It’s nothing serious, although it felt like it was. In any event, everything is fine.) Today, I just want to talk about the comfort part.

What I turn to, when I need comfort, are distractions (reading, writing, TV) and comforting food. And the food is what I’m most interested in today, because I find it fascinating (and soothing, in itself) to learn what kinds of food people turn to in times of stress or grief.

Sure, food is primarily for sustenance. But it can also carry so much emotional weight. (No moral weight, though; I feel strongly about that.) (Unless you are killing endangered species because their XYZ is a delicacy. Then I’d have a moral objection.)  For instance, my first helping instinct is often related to food. When a neighbor lost her husband earlier this year, I immediately wanted to give her a meal. That just seemed the most useful, reasonable thing I could do, to provide some modicum of comfort to a person I know but don’t know well, a person who was likely reeling with shock and heartache and visitors and logistics and grief.

I looked online, as one does, and was surprised – probably naively so – to see what a wide variety of options people recommended. I always thought a casserole was the appropriate thing to give. A nice, hearty macaroni casserole. Or a lasagna. Something like that: easy to heat, carb-heavy. But the recommendations spanned everything from veggies and dip to cookies to fried chicken to stew.

(I ended up making a stew. It was delicious, and hearty. The death happened in the winter, and I thought it would be good for freezing or ladling out to visitors.)

Lately, after needing some comfort myself, and then remembering that stew, I got to thinking about Food As Comfort in general, and how my idea of Comfort Food might be totally different from yours.

When I am in need of comfort, I turn to the carb-heavy stuff. Chicken paprikas is my go-to favorite. It’s creamy and noodle-y and spicy, and it just makes me feel warm and cared for. It’s kind of weird that it should be my top favorite comfort food, I think, because I didn’t grow up eating it. Instead, it’s something my husband and I started making together back when I was in grad school. Well, maybe that’s the reason: I associate it with him, with cozy dinners at home together with the one person who comforts me more than anyone else.

Sometimes, though, the comfort I need is more primal – a bear returning to its cave to weather the icy winds, a newborn nuzzling up to its mother to nurse, a caterpillar spinning itself a chrysalis. I want to retreat to childhood, which was safe and loving, during which I was free from the horrors of the world. And there are many foods from my childhood that surround me with that kind of basic, fundamental warmth.

One comforting favorite is spaghetti with meat sauce. That’s the first meal I learned to make for my family, back when I was a kid. It reminds me of my childhood and of my own self-sufficiency.

Most recently, I turned to bagels. Another longterm favorite, my mom used to toast Lender’s bagels for me when I was a kid. Dripping with butter, they taste both decadent and simple, life’s complications reduced to its elemental truth: Warm bread. Melted butter. Sometimes honey, making its way in sticky rivulets down my wrist. When I was pregnant with Carla – and horribly sick for twenty-five weeks (I first typed “months” and yes, that’s how it felt) – I subsisted on bagels and pizza. The bagels would stay in my stomach when nothing else would.

Grilled cheese holds a special place in my heart. It was my mother’s go-to Miserable Wintry Day food. A crust of butter on each slice of bread. A thick molten heart of Velveeta. A glass of classic Coke on the side. The unbeatable combination of gooeyness and crunch.

And I’ll always have fond memories of Lipton noodle soup. My mom swears by chicken noodle soup; Lipton did the job just fine, and (a plus for me), has no unappealing chunks of white Styrofoam masquerading as chicken. I tore open many a paper packet and watched the tiny freeze-dried noodles plump up in a swirl of boiling water.

The comfort may not be permanent. But it does help.

What are your go-to comfort foods?

 

Chicken Paprikas 3

This is a ridiculous photo, but it’s the only one I have. I never eat this little. I eat a FULL BOWL, primarily full of sauce, which is the best part of any meal. 

Chicken Paprikas (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

Ingredients:

Approximately 6 servings

1 to 1½ pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast, chopped into bite sized pieces (pre-cooked is ideal; I’ve included a modification below in case you want to use raw chicken breast)

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 white onion, chopped roughly

1 Idaho potato, chopped roughly

1 to 3 Tbsp paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

½ to 1 tsp salt

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 8-oz container sour cream (I use the fat free sour cream from Trader Joe’s)

3 to 4 Tbsp flour or cornstarch

1 package egg noodles

Directions:

  1. Heat vegetable oil in a stock pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion and paprika (and optional cayenne) to vegetable oil, stirring occasionally, until dark red and glossy.
  3. Add salt, chopped chicken breast, and chicken stock. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the chopped potato. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until you can stick a fork into the potato chunks and they slide off easily. I don’t know how to say this a better way; make sure the potato is cooked.

* If you have raw chicken breast pieces, you can do this step slightly differently. Add the raw chicken together with the salt and stock. Then, once it comes to a boil, simmer everything for 15 minutes until cooked through. Then add the potato and cook for another 15 minutes.

  1. Whisk flour/cornstarch and sour cream together in a small bowl.
  2. Add a ladle full of the stock mixture to the sour cream mixture and whisk until incorporated. Do this three times.
  3. Add the tempered sour cream mixture to the pot. Stir.
  4. Serve over egg noodles.
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A new market opened up in our neighborhood, so close that I can easily walk to it. Which I did, a few days ago. I can’t tell you (and probably shouldn’t; it’s embarrassing) (when has that ever stopped me before?) (carry on) how much… pride? No, that’s definitely not the word; happiness? Hmmm, not quite right either… I can’t tell you how much satisfaction I felt, braving the snowy day, trekking to the market to buy a bag full of fruit to bring home to my family like some sort of pioneer. Forget that my strawberries are packaged in plastic and that my avocados are really more of a fashion statement than a source of sustenance, at least these days (I use them to decorate my nachos.) and that absolutely ZERO of my day-to-day experience has any relation to pioneer life.

I don’t know WHY it should feel so satisfying. The snow was meager to begin with and in any case it had melted, if I’m being honest with you. And it’s not like I had to travel any real distance; I was disappointed to learn it was under 3,000 steps, according to my Fitbit, which I am beginning to suspect is a dirty dirty liar. And even though I felt very I Can Totally Survive without Modern Conveniences Like Transportation!, and I didn’t even use a credit card, I did have my phone on me. And I was wearing the aforementioned Fitbit, a device that would surely make Laura Ingalls Wilder sigh at the dissolution of societal values (we would keep the phone from her entirely; at least it has some utility in an emergency – I mean, what if another Kardashian gave birth?).

So it would have perhaps been even MORE satisfying if I’d gone outside and harvested the fruit from my very own fruit trees, which I’d planted and nurtured and tended to maturity. Or if the market had been a milliner and I had purchased a skein of wool out of which I produced clothing and linens for my entire family. (I’m not advocating woolen bed sheets; I simply like the word “skein.”)

The last time I clearly remember feeling this type of satisfaction was going on six years ago when I completed a minor repair on my new-to-me washing machine. The hot and cold water valves – if that’s even the correct term – were backwards; I switched them. I felt so pleased with myself after I’d made the repair. And I’d done it all with my father on the phone, walking me through the entire process; it’s not like I did it myself of even did any research.

It doesn’t take much to make me feel Laura Ingalls Wilderian, I guess is what I’m saying. And it’s a good feeling. A feeling of capability. Of ingenuity. Of I-Can-Deal-with-Whatever-Life-Throws-at-Me. A feeling I honestly wish I had more of (and, let’s be honest, more right to).

The very opposite of that feeling is sitting on the couch, watching a DVRed episode of Real Housewives of New York City while texting your horrified reactions to your friend in another state.

What an utter feeling of uselessness, watching in mute horror as a woman with countless piles of money asks an artist – whom she’d invited to bring some of his own artwork to her house so that she could choose which paintings should adorn her walls – to move furniture for her. And yet, I cannot look away!

I see that the winds of societal/televised decay have blown me off course.

Ahem.

For me, another feeling directly opposite to the Laura Ingalls Wilder glow of satisfied resourcefulness is taking your car to the service station. Which I have to do.

I need an oil change, and I want someone to look at the tread on my tires and tell me when I need to replace them, is the real reason. But my car is old and it tends to always need Additional Somethings whenever I go, and that’s frustrating. I don’t know anything about cars (my poor father; his life’s work – thwarted) (I mean, he TAUGHT ME how to change my own oil and I have forgotten/don’t want to) and so I always feel ornery and suspicious when the service station people tell me in their earnest, automotive-terminology-speckled way what’s wrong and what they recommend I should do.

Usually, I leave the service station with a very light wallet and a renewed vow to find a Basic Car Mechanics class and just learn! So that I can talk about cams and transmissions and axles and I have already exhausted my knowledge of car terms with the best of them! So that when they tell me what the problem is, I understand it! And can understand the solution! Or, better yet, I can anticipate a problem before I even take the car in!

Isn’t that a good idea? A way to better myself? To infuse a regularly uncomfortable situation with an ongoing sense of Laura Ingalls Wilderian competence and practicality?

The problem is that I am so bored by the car stuff.

Listen, it’s not inherently boring; it’s just that I personally have no interest in it, and the thought of spending any time at all learning about how my car works makes me want to crawl under the nearest vehicle and allow it to run over me. My father, who rebuilds cars, sends me lovely charming emails about his car-rebuilding adventures and I understand maybe every third word. And even though I love him and want to share in his car-rebuilding joy, my brain reacts as though he’s spoken in some long-forgotten language. Sometimes, in a fit of daughterly love, I ask him to expand on what he’s saying, because I genuinely wish I could be enthusiastic about something he finds such delight in. Sometimes, I get angry with myself at my complete lack of curiosity about the subject; this is something I know NOTHING about; shouldn’t I want to correct that????

But man, even those two, powerful motivating factors are not enough to make me turn off my RHONY and subscribe to Popular Mechanics.

Okay, I have spoken to my father and now have developed a compromise plan. I am going to order a new air filter for my car and change it myself. And then I plan to gloat over it. A lot.

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I woke up at five this morning after dreaming something ridiculous that I won’t go into here. (It wasn’t salacious, sadly. Just odd.) The key part was that my husband was somehow melded into my high school boyfriend in that weird way of dreams. So that when I woke up my brain decided to replay in gory detail how awful I was to said boyfriend when I went away to college. There’s nothing I can do about it now, and also I don’t think it was really THAT bad, and also we were friendly years afterwards so I don’t think there are lasting scars on his end, plus we are both married and I haven’t thought about him in countless months. But thank you, brain, for steeping me in shame at so early an hour so I can bask in it all day long.

Last night I made an excellent recipe for zucchini noodles. Let me state for the record here that I have no patience for foods masquerading as other foods. I love zucchini, and therefore I enjoy zucchini noodles (although in their noodleishness they are difficult to eat). But I’m not going to try to convince you that they are a good or even fair approximation of noodles themselves. I’m not going to replace them in my recipe for spaghetti and meat sauce, for instance. I am not going to dress them with cheese and pretend they bear any resemblance to macaroni and cheese. They are not noodles. They are zucchini in noodle form. If you don’t like zucchini, you will probably not enjoy them. I discovered this the hard way, by trying cauliflower rice a few years ago. NEVER AGAIN, Internet. Never again. I don’t like cauliflower and spending nearly an hour rasping it against a box grater and getting cauliflower shards all over my kitchen did not change that in the least. I keep hearing about cauliflower mashed potatoes and cauliflower pizza crust and while I am intrigued, I am NOT going to fall for it. STOP PRETENDING, cauliflower. Just be who you are.

ANYWAY. The recipe I tried last night is really good, but it is good in a zucchini way. If you like zucchini you should try it: Easy 10 Minute Asian Zucchini Noodles from Gimme Delicious.

What do you do when you find a recipe you like, and you want to try it again? I’m really curious, by the way. Do you have a list on your phone? A folder on your desktop? A physical file folder into which you stow printed recipes?

I really want to know, because I haven’t found a good system.

As pretty much sole cook for our household, this is the kind of boring thing I spend a lot of time thinking about. As I’ve mentioned previously, we eat a lot of meals that look like Chicken + Vegetable. That is a combination that gets boring realllllllllly quickly, so I am always on the lookout for new, delicious ways to shake up the boring. But there are three problems I’ve run into:

  1. What is the best way to keep track of recipes that look good but I haven’t tried?
  2. What is the best way to separately track recipes that I have tried and want to use again?
  3. What is the best way to avoid re-making a recipe that I have tried and was terrible?

Okay, maybe they are three variations on the same problem. What it comes down to is that I need some sort of filing system. One that is more efficient and comprehensive and located in one, easy-to-access spot than what I currently use.

What I do now is a combination of things. First, I have a folder on my laptop where I bookmark recipes that I want to try. Since I follow a bunch of food blogs on Feedly, it’s really easy for me to put things into my Recipes folder.

But it’s super unwieldy. I have SO MANY recipes. And there’s no rhyme or reason to them, either. Chicken dishes and veggie sides and frosting recipes and how-to posts for making rainbow layer cakes and the best marinades for steak are all jumbled together in the same folder, and many of those are recipes I’ve tried and either liked or NOT.

Meal planning 3

This blog post is chock FULL of really boring, really poorly lit and off-kilter photos! I know my photography skillz keep you coming back!

You may be thinking, Why not just go in and set up some additional folders? And you would be smart for thinking that, and also I tried that and it isn’t working. First, I had been collecting recipes for about a year before I went in and tried to organize them, so it was already a jumbled mess. Second, the organization tools at my disposal are not particularly user friendly. I can’t easily grab a recipe or ten and drag and drop them into the Veggie Sides folder, for instance. Getting things into the appropriate folder involves a lot of scrolling and it is tedious and time consuming. Third, I still run into the issue of what to do with things I’ve already tried. Sure, I could set up a sub-folder in each category for Make Again and Don’t Make Again… but that gets to be even more unwieldy and also I am kind of lazy.

Meal planning 4

To the left is an example of what’s inside one of my folders. Supposedly, this contains favorite recipes that I should return to again and again. This is the first time I’ve opened this folder in many months, so it’s not really working as planned. Also, you may notice that I occasionally (okay, more often than reasonable) bookmark something I’ve already bookmarked. I REALLY need a better system.

PLUS, I am not always on my computer doing stuff. I do a lot of recipe finding on my phone. So I have a folder of recipes on my phone, too… and getting them to my computer is not simple. I really need a system that works across devices.

The best part of my system is my weekly dinner plan email. Each week before I go grocery shopping, I create an email to myself that lists all the meals and includes links to online recipes. Sometimes I’ll open the email a few days in advance, if I already know that I’ll be making something specific, or if it’s a week where I’m feeding people beyond my own immediate family. I always reply to the previous week’s dinner email, so there’s a single record of everything I’ve ever planned to eat since March of 2017 when I started it.

Then, after the week’s meals, I try to write notes to myself about what worked and what didn’t. So after last night’s zucchini noodles success, I responded the email and wrote, DELICIOUS! MAKE AGAIN.

This email is also really useful for any modifications I do to a recipe. For instance, last year I found this Martha Stewart recipe for crockpot garlic chicken that sounded so good, but wasn’t. But instead of giving up on it, I kept tinkering with it until I got it right. And I put those notes to myself in my dinner planning email. If I get any feedback on the recipe from my husband, I put those in the notes. So it’s all there in one place.

Meal Planning 2

I first tried the Martha Stewart recipe in May of 2017. My reaction was that it was too sweet. Hot tip: “More lemon juice” can solve most of the world’s ills. At least foodwise.

Dinner Planning Email 1

Here is where I recorded the modifications that made the Martha Stewart recipe not only edible but delicious. Ah memories. This is also the day when I discovered my husband — whom I’ve known for SEVENTEEN YEARS — doesn’t really like soup.

(Sometimes, when I have the wherewithal, I post the modified recipe here. Like with the “chicken tikka masala” recipe I revamped to suit my own needs. It got to be too annoying to look at the original recipe and try to remember what I changed each time I made it.)

So my meal planning email is the best part of my meal planning system. But it’s not perfect. Sometimes I have to scroll and scroll through old emails to find what I’m looking for. And, because I haven’t mastered the art of organizing what I haven’t tried, I tend to go back to the same things over and over.

I’ve contemplated doing a weekly meal plan blog post. Many bloggers do this, and I always enjoy reading them. And I could always add notes to myself in the comments. But again, this does nothing for the stacks and stacks of recipes I have yet to try.

There’s got to be an app that handles this, right? But I don’t want to look for and evaluate and try a bunch of them. And honestly, thinking about moving all my carefully curated but as-yet-untried recipes to a new place sounds exhausting. But I WANT something better and I suppose I am willing to do a certain amount of work to make it happen.

How do YOU keep track of what you’re cooking? What’s working and what isn’t? Have you come across a magic app that does it all? If you have a meal planning and tracking system you love, I am HERE FOR IT.

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Well. Two months just sped by bloglessly, didn’t they? I suppose that is a good indication of my current writing habits, which have been fruitful. Just not… blog-fruitful.

Anyway, let me ease back into blogging by posting about a few things that I am LOVING lately. If you have read this blog for any amount of time, I don’t think you’ll be surprised that most of them are food-related. What can I say? I love to eat.

Silicone Clip Strainer

Fave Things Clip Strainer Amazon

Photo from Amazon.com

You know how I love my kitchen gadgets! Well, one of my deep dark secrets is that I hate colanders. They are big and bulky. And, worse, I think they are kind of gross. I don’t like the idea of putting my just-cooked food into a sink that may have not been scrubbed since the previous evening. My colander – one of those big silver jobbers – even has a foot, so the food can’t touch the sink. But the drained water can rise up to above-foot level, or, even if it doesn’t, there’s always the risk that some sink-y water will drip into the pot when you pour your strained food back in. YES I KNOW I HAVE ISSUES. Anyway. My husband got this little guy for me for Christmas and I adore it. It clips on to any pot and allows you to pour out all the water without dumping your pasta/potatoes/broccoli/whatever in the sink. It’s very easy to use and I just throw it right in the dishwasher after I’m done with it. The one caveat I have is that the strainer is markedly smaller – covers less of the pot opening – than some of the Amazon photo options imply. It still works, though. Totally worth $7.99.

 

El Yucateco Chile Habanero Hot Sauce

Fave Things El Yucateco Walmart

Photo from Walmart.com

This is my (current) favorite hot sauce. I love hot sauce. It is my condiment of choice and when I use it, I use a LOT of it. My pantry has Sriracha, Cholula, La Victoria, and usually some fancy-dancy specialty hot sauces that my super romantic husband bought me as a surprise. (If you don’t consider getting surprise hot sauce super romantic, well, then, it’s good you didn’t marry me.) I fell in love with El Yucateco at our local Mexican restaurant – which is much too delicious, inexpensive, and close for my desired pants size. “Fell in love” is probably too mild a term. I became obsessed. In some ways, it feels like I am addicted to it: I think about it when I’m not eating it. I crave it. When I use it, I use wayyyyy more than is necessary. It makes my stomach hurt the next day, I consume so much. But it is wonderful. It’s got plenty of heat but it also has a nice, semi-fruity flavor. It goes really well with cheese enchiladas and burritos. I get it at my local grocery store for $4.99 an 8-ounce bottle, so it’s not an inexpensive habit. Apparently, you can get it at Wal-Not-Target for $1.84, but that’s for 4 ounces. Otherwise known as one meal. Or you can buy it by the case on the El Yucateco website. Which I am seriously considering.

 

Recipe Tin Eats

My husband and I eat a lot of chicken and pork, and it is exhausting trying to find new, delicious ways to mask the blandness that is a boneless skinless chicken breast, I tell you. Enter Recipe Tin Eats. Cue angels singing, champagne popping, balloons everywhere. I have tried maybe ten recipes that Nagi has posted, and man alive they are GOOD. She has such a great way with flavors! And the recipes are all very simple. And she includes very careful notes with each recipe, letting you know about substitutions and cooking variations and how to make it in advance.

Two that have become regulars in our rotation are her Oven Baked Pork Chops (I have been replacing the potatoes with green beans or broccoli lately), which has a marinade that I love so much I actively prevent myself from making it more than once a month so we won’t get sick of it, and her Asian Marinated Chicken, which has another super-easy, super-delicious marinade that I love. Other favorites that I see us making again and again include her One Pot Greek Chicken and Lemon Rice, her Chicken with Mushroom Gravy, her Lemon Garlic Marinated Pork Chops, and her Chicken Fajitas (the fajitas are on my meal plan for this week, in fact).

 

Trader Joe’s Green Goddess Dressing

This is a brand-new discovery (for me), and I am really excited about it. I enjoy a salad now and again, but I tend to avoid them because I really like dressing. A lot of dressing. And dressing isn’t usually worth it for me, in terms of calorie intake. But I spotted this Green Goddess dressing near the lettuce at our Trader Joe’s and snapped it up on a whim. Turns out it is delicious. Light and summery, not terribly avocado-y, and thicker than I expected it to be (almost the same texture/thickness of a restaurant-made salsa). I can’t remember how much it cost, but I think it was something like $4.99. Which is NOT inexpensive. But at 20 calories for a 2-tablespoon serving, it is totally worth it. Trader Joe’s makes a couple of other flavors, too – a carrot ginger miso dressing and an almond butter turmeric dressing – but I haven’t tried either of those.

 

New Adventures of Old Christine

Fave Things Christine Amazon

Photo from Amazon.com

My treadmill is somehow messing up the Internet in our house, which means that I can no longer watch Netflix or DVRed shows or even cable TV while I’m chipping away at my step goal for the day. So I have been making my way through old DVDs we bought in Ye Olden Times. I already churned through Arrested Development, which doesn’t stand up to the test of time in a lot of ways (some of the humor is centered around stuff that isn’t really funny these days). Okay, some of it is still REALLY funny. But it wasn’t as great as my memory of it. I also own the complete series of Ally McBeal, so I am forcing myself to watch that even though it’s driving me crazy. The music, the characters, the situations – I roll my eyes so hard I almost fall off the treadmill at least thirty times per episode. And I HATE BILLY. Well. That is a rant for another time.

But I have found a new, deep appreciation for the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine. I had the first season already and have since ordered seasons two and three. Seasons three through five are much more expensive than I had hoped for years-old DVD sets, but I have some additional Amazon gift cards that make buying them more palatable. (I haven’t looked for this series at the library, but our library’s DVDs – especially ones that are a few years old – are notoriously scratched and beat up and I think I would cry if I had settled in for a long morning of treadmilling and my Christine DVD stopped working.) My realizations as I watch have been a) Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hamish Linklater, and Wanda Sykes are national treasures; and b) damn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has incredible hair.

If you haven’t seen it, the show is a comedy about Christine Campbell and her life as a recently-divorced working mother. It centers around her relationships – with her ex-husband, his new girlfriend (also named Christine), her brother, her best friend slash business partner, the other parents at school, and a variety of men she dates. Her son is in there somewhere too, but he’s more of a plot device than a real character. I fear I am not describing this in an appealing way, but it’s really appealing! It’s funny and absurd and heartfelt at times but not in an over way. And it puts a hilarious twist on Mom-Type-Things (taking your kid to school, dealing with other moms, volunteering for school projects, balancing work and home life, etc.) and there’s also all the stuff about handling a divorce and dating and dealing with your ex’s new young girlfriend. It’s much more relatable to me, now that I’m a mom with a kid in school. I laugh – truly, heartily, out loud – a lot while I’m walking nowhere. And even though it’s a comedy – and much of it is really ridiculous – I find myself feeling deep empathy for Christine. It’s not perfect; again, humor has evolved over the past decade. But it’s making my treadmill time much more enjoyable and I would definitely recommend it.

 

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Conditioning Spray

 

 

Fave Things Fairy Tales

Photo from Amazon.com

Kidwise, this spray is making life MUCH easier lately. For both me and Carla, I would say. Carla has long curly hair which means that every morning our neighbors pick up their phones and prepare to call the police and report a murder in progress. We’d been using the Johnson & Johnson conditioning spray, and it worked okay. But then a friend recommended the Fairy Tales spray and OUR LIVES HAVE FOREVER CHANGED. I can’t speak to the fact that this conditioning spray repels lice or not (we haven’t had any, but I’m not falling for confirmation bias) (if confirmation bias is the term I am looking for; I am not convinced that it is). But I can tell you that it makes combing Carla’s hair SO EASY. And if I comb it with the spray at night, her hair is much easier to brush in the morning, too. (The link above goes to a two-pack, because the single bottle of spray isn’t available. But I have, in the past, bought the single bottle of spray, so I hope it comes back.)

 

(By the way, no one paid me to say any of those things above. These are just some things I really enjoy lately.)

What’s making your life brighter/better/more fun these days?

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Carla has decided that, when she grows up, she wants to be a zookeeper. A zookeeper with a cat for an assistant.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Carla. She loves animals more than anything in the universe. She chooses videos of animals whenever I give her the chance to watch something on my computer. She prefers stuffed animals over dolls, and her favorite game of late (read: past year and a half at least) is playing “Kitty,” wherein I count to ten, she hides, and then she pretends she’s a cat and I have to bring her home and teach her to do tricks. (The reward for the tricks is Goldfish crackers, obviously.) If I hand her my phone in the car or in the grocery store, she will keep herself busy googling pictures of whatever animal is most on her mind (mountain lion, giraffe, porcupine, praying mantis, armadillo). She has no innate fear of animals: she loves snakes and lizards and insects as much as she likes the fluffier, cuddlier critters.

If I had to choose her FAVORITE animal, though, I’d say dog.

She claims she likes cats best – and maybe she does; that’s certainly the animal she pretends to be. She seems to play with her stuffed cats most often. Cats star in her favorite online videos. But she hasn’t had much real-life experience with cats.

Dogs, on the other hand…

Dog

I don’t actually know this dog. But it hasn’t gotten the memo that I am firmly and forever A Cat Person. It’s very cute, though. 

Carla’s first experience with a dog was at her great grandmother’s funeral. Well, to be more accurate, the reception after the funeral; this wasn’t the type of mortuary that has dogs wandering around, although that sounds like it would be quite comforting. She was not quite a year old, and she fell in love with the dog who lived at the house where the reception took place. And she followed it around the ENTIRE TIME we were there. It was some sort of golden retriever and so it was big enough that it could knock her over with a wag of its tail. She loved it and I think it launched a passion for dogs that has so far only continued to blossom.

My parents have a dog, and Carla has been OBSESSED with him since she first met him. She will follow him around constantly. She has to be touching him at all times. Whenever she’s not with him – even if that means she’s sitting at the table eating breakfast and the dog is on the other side of the room – she has to know what he’s doing. Even though we were all in the same room together, she would insist on narrating what the dog was doing. “He’s licking his paw!” she would crow to my mother, who was sitting several feet away from the dog. “He’s sleeping!” she would announce to my father, who was literally at that moment petting the dog. When we are away from my parents and Carla mentions them – I miss them, I love them, I wonder what they’re doing – she never omits the dog. When we talk about members of her family, she lists the dog right up there with her uncle and aunt and grandparents and cousin.

We are lucky to live on a quiet cul-de-sac that has MANY dogs. One dog lives next door. Another lives across the street. Another lives across the street and three doors down. There are four others that live at the north end of the street, and three more that live at the south end. Plenty of dogs in close proximity.

Which is great!

But it’s also raised previously unknown-to-me etiquette concerns. What is an ideal Dog Neighbor Relationship supposed to look like? What are the appropriate Dog Neighbor Boundaries? How can we be good and non-irritating Neighbors to Dogs?

To make matters more complicated and uncertain, I do not like dogs.

Perhaps this changes your mind about me. I’m sorry if it does. But dogs are not my thing. I do not like how slobbery they are. I don’t like the licking. I don’t like the idea of picking up another creature’s excrement. I don’t like the hair or the scent or the forced walking.

Listen, I’m not going to be mean to a dog. I will say hello to a dog as I pass it on the street. I will happily look at your dog pictures. I will even, on occasion, pet one. I can appreciate a dog. I certainly want YOU to love dogs.

But I bring this up because I don’t really know anything about what it means to HAVE a dog. To be a Dog Owner. I mean, I grew up with dogs… but they were outdoor-only dogs and they had the run of our many-acre property so there wasn’t any pooper-scooper action or even any walking to be done. I never went to a dog park. My parents were responsible for the brushing and the feeding. They kind of existed at the periphery of my attention.

This means that I’ve had to learn, from scratch, how to interact with other people’s dogs. I’ve always sort of thought of Dog People as sociable types, who enjoy being outside with their dogs, who bask in sharing their Joy of Dogs with other dog lovers. So when Carla learned to walk, and we’d be out and about in the neighborhood, I thought nothing of allowing her to pet our neighbors’ dogs.

(Note for the concerned: I have always taken great care to teach Carla about Dog Safety: asking the dog’s owner before touching a dog; allowing the dog to sniff your hand first; preferred places to touch the dog; steering clear of dogs alone on their lawns, protecting their homes; being alert to signs that the dog is frightened or upset – ears laid back on the head, tail between the legs, growling.)

At first, it was easy enough – and, frankly, tiny Carla was adorable enough – to get away with a lot of dog attention. Our neighbors were very indulgent. But as Carla’s gotten older and more autonomous – and ever more obsessed with dogs – it’s gotten more uncomfortable. For me, I guess I should say. I have no idea how the neighbors feel. I am just assuming that their patience with Carla and our constant Dog-Related Interruptions is wearing thin.

For instance, Carla would see a dog in its yard as we walked past and would call out to the owner, “Can I pet your dog?” Or she would see a dog passing the house and would run to the door shrieking after the owner, “Can I pet your dog?” Or, worst of all, she would see a dog owner arriving home, and would call out, “Can you bring your dog outside?” Anytime we glimpsed one of the dogs on our street, Carla would make a beeline for it. And then she’d foist attention upon it – to the exclusion of all other things, like neighbors asking her kind questions about what she’d done in school that day, or like her mother noting that we’d need to leave in two minutes to go eat dinner – until the point where I would physically extract her from the situation, sometimes with accompanying tears and/or screaming.

Delightful, right?

Our kind, patient neighbors would usually acquiesce to her doggy demands with gracious kindness. But it makes ME feel like such an imposition. And an over-indulgent parent. And a person who doesn’t understand proper Dog Boundaries. AND a Bad Neighbor.

In maybe the past six months, we’ve instituted a new “rule,” which is that we only ask if we can pet someone’s dog if we encounter it on a walk. As in, if the dog is walking with its owner and we are walking. If we are on a walk and we pass by someone’s house, even if the dog and its owner are sitting outside on the lawn, we will not bother them. The rule is accompanied by a stern reminder that we need to pet the dog for short time, and when the dog owner or I say it’s time to go, we need to leave immediately and with no tears.

So I am trying to teach her about privacy and boundaries and all the things that are important to me. And we’re having success!

But it’s HARD. Because she LOVES THOSE DOGS. And sometimes, before I can remind her of the rule, she calls out – across the street, down the block, out of a car window – “CAN I PET YOUR DOG?” And then the neighbors feel obligated to comply.

In those cases, I usually explain to Carla that it’s not the right time, remind her of our rule, etc. And guide her away from the dog. But occasionally, the dog owner will say something like, “It’s okay,” and then Carla gets to pet the dog anyway. And I die quietly of humiliation.

Because I never know what’s appropriate, you know? I never know if I am being too strict with my own boundaries, or if I’m reading the situation correctly, or if I am totally overthinking things, or if I am being way TOO lax with what I allow Carla to ask and do.

The other day, we walked a few blocks to the post office. On the way, we noticed that our neighbor was walking his dog – about half a block in front of us. I reminded Carla of our rule, and told her if we crossed paths, she could ask if she could pet his dog. So Carla took off running. I had her stop and come back, but of course she wanted to catch up to the neighbor dog. At one point, the dog stopped to sniff a tree and we were within a few yards. So she yelled, “Hello, Mr. Neighbor! Can I pet your dog?” (I am also trying to teach her to acknowledge the person and not simply the dog.) But he was wearing earphones and didn’t hear.

I knew he had seen us though; we’d exchanged a wave. And I also knew that he KNOWS Carla and her dog obsession. I wondered if he was purposely staying ahead of us so he didn’t have to deal with Carla. And then I began to panic that he might think we were following him. No! We were just going in the same direction! Fortunately, he veered off one way and we went the opposite direction to the post office.

But of course, on the way home, we spotted him. I told Carla that we would probably cross paths and that she could say hello and ask to pet the dog. But he STOPPED, on the other side of the street. I don’t know why. To avoid us? Perhaps. (Panic, panic.) But we had to cross the street anyway, and then he was maybe five yards away, and she had been so patient and so rigorous in sticking to the rules, so I let her go up to him and say hello and pet the dog. Our neighbor was very pleasant about it. But sweet amaryllis did it make me anxious, intruding on his walk like that! If it had been up to me, I would have assumed that he was keeping his distance on purpose, and then I would have waved, stayed on my side of the street, and walked briskly to my house.

As an introverted person with, shall we say, Very Strong Boundaries, it is extremely uncomfortable for me to try to navigate these types of situations appropriately – and even worse when I have to teach my boundary-light daughter how to do so. What’s the right thing? What’s overstepping? What’s too much Dog Joy vs. not enough?

I think Carla is going to win lots of friends in the neighborhood when she gets old enough to be a dog walker. But until then, I guess I will just keep bumbling my way through Neighbor Dog Relationship Issues.

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First, Carla has begun referring to limes as “green lemons.”

Second, I don’t think you will be surprised to learn that I don’t adjust to change easily. I mean, not THAT many people are all “Woo hoo, change!! Let’s tilt the world on its axis just for the hell of it!” so I am probably not the anomaly here.

I like to think of myself as a loyal person – once I find something that works, I stick with it. I like to think of myself as adaptable and flexible; I don’t need things to be perfect all the time! I can work with non-perfect! Also, I like knowing what to expect. I like routine. I like to be able to depend on something. My aversion to change is why I stuck with my first job for seven years, even after it became clear that we were no longer as great a fit as I’d hoped. It’s why I’ve kept my same Honda for nearly 15 years, despite the fact that it needs increasingly expensive “fixes” to keep it in running condition. It’s why I have a hard time imagining ever moving out of this house, even though it’s a little small and even though I DESPISE our tile floors and even though I would LOVE to have an actual mud room.

My philosophy – because it’s always been that way – is that if we’ve always done something a certain way, there’s probably a good reason for it and therefore NO REASON TO CHANGE.

All of this to that I have a hard time accepting – despite my advanced age and extensive experience – that sometimes, changing something – ON PURPOSE – can make things BETTER and/or EASIER.

Example 1: When I was… ten, maybe? my mother gave me the occasional responsibility of cooking for the family. She got me a cookbook – Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual – that I loved and remember fondly. For my chosen meal, I always made spaghetti with meat sauce. I always made it the same way: brown a pound of ground beef, add diced onion, minced garlic, and diced carrot, add pasta sauce, add Hunt’s tomato sauce, add dried basil and oregano, add splash of Tabasco, cook until you can wait no longer. THAT was just The Way to Make Meat Sauce. There were no deviations.

Until I met my husband. And the first thing he helped me change was the (store bought, jarred) pasta sauce I used. I’d always used Prego; it was the brand my mother used, I was accustomed to it, it was just how it was done. But it had tomato chunks in it, and so I had to put it through the blender before I added it to the meat and veg. My husband pointed out that Ragu is completely smooth. So – with great trepidation – we made the switch. Instantly better and easier!

And then I admitted to him that I hate the carrots. I dislike cooked carrots as it is. Plus, they are super annoying to dice. And I ended up picking them out of the sauce every time we made the meat sauce. So my husband suggested that I just not add them. What?!?! But… carrots were an INTEGRAL PART of the sauce! What about the flavor profile?! What about tradition?!

I stopped adding the carrots. Instantly better and easier.

Example 2: When I started hosting Thanksgiving dinners, I bought a potato masher.

When the potato masher wasn’t in use (you know, 364 days a year), I would stow it in the Random Utensil Drawer. Do you have one of those? It’s not the silverware drawer, where you keep the forks and spoons and knives. No, it’s the drawer where you stuff all the other random things you use rarely or never: the lemon juicer, the grapefruit knife, the zester, there must be some non-citrus tools as well… oh yes! The whisks, the garlic press, the can opener, the pizza cutters, the offset spatula, the regular spatulas, the miniature spatula, so many spatulas. What the hell else is in there? There are WAY more things cluttering up my RUD. Who knows. Anyway. That’s where I kept the potato masher. It was very cranky and easily offended. I mean, if it got twisted at all, it would prevent the drawer from either opening or closing. Worst was when the drawer wouldn’t open. Then you’d have to stick your hand in as far as you could and try to maneuver things around in the drawer to see if you could get the masher to lie flat. It was very frustrating.

But that’s WHERE THE MASHER LIVED. Its home was in the RUD. That’s just how it was done.

When my mother came to stay with us after Carla was born, she noted that the masher was really irritating, and I agreed but sort of shrugged because what can you do, right? It’s just how it was.

My mother, bless her bravery, MOVED THE MASHER. She put it in the little bucket that holds all the tongs and the ladles and pancake turners etc. that lives on the counter near the stove. And lo, the RUD opened and closed, and lo, the sun continued to rise in the east and set in the west, and life was instantly better and easier.

 

I think about these lessons a lot. A lot a lot. Whenever something annoys me about the layout of my house or about how I’ve set up my cupboards, I think, “It doesn’t HAVE to be that way! I can CHANGE THINGS!” I haven’t actually made any changes, but I know that I CAN, should I choose to.

Like sometimes, I think about how great it would be if we could get rid of 85% of the cups on the top shelf of the cups cabinet. We use about 5% of the cups up there, and then there are 10% that we use on a very occasional basis. But the rest are just… sitting there, taking up space. I could get rid of them! Or move them into a box!

Or! Carla’s crafts (workbooks, sticker books, crayons, drawing paper, paint supplies, play-doh) live in two separate places: an armoire in our dining room and a curio cabinet in our kitchen. The armoire has some other things in it and the curio has a bunch of odds and ends in IT. I don’t know if those are the correct furniture names, but whatever. Sometimes I think about how I could totally consolidate ALL of Carla’s craft supplies into ONE of these furniture items! And either pack away, get rid of, or move the other odds and ends!

Even the prospect of changing things from the way they’ve always been is truly liberating.

Of course, the actual effecting change is not quite as simple. But still. LIBERATING.

 

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We have reached the stage of life where I am constantly searching for books that have some sort of teaching component.

Carla loves to read. And I find that reading a book about a topic and then discussing that topic and whatever lessons are inside it really help secure them in her brain.

But I am picky about the books.

The Berenstain Bears series is okay.

We have Too Much TV and The Truth and both are all right. Not perfect – Papa Bear is (as many cartoon/children’s book fathers seem to be) kind of a dolt, who seems to have as much to work on as the cubs do. And that annoys me, for some reason. Not that parents in kids’ books shouldn’t be real and vulnerable and have their own struggles, but… I don’t know. There’s just something mildly irritating to me about how the Bear Family parents come across. They are SUPER CHEAP though, so that’s nice.

I love the Frances books.

We have A Birthday for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances and we have checked out Bedtime for Frances from the library many, many times. They are not perfect either; I seem to recall that the father threatens to spank Frances in the bedtime story, and I am not a fan of that. But otherwise, I very much admire her parents’ calm, unflappable way of dealing with Frances’s antics. My biggest complaint about the Frances books, perhaps, is that there aren’t enough of them.

Last fall, we were getting some… feedback from Carla’s teachers that she may benefit from a refresher on listening and following directions. So I researched a bunch of books on the topic, looked them up at my  local library (NOT IN THE SYSTEM AT ALL), and ordered a few highly-rated books from Amazon.

We read them each once.

(In case it’s not clear, I did not like ANY of them. I Just Want to Do It My Way would have been better titled “Staying on Task” or “Asking for Help” or something. And, in that book and in That Rule Doesn’t Apply to Me, I found the inconsistent rhyming and use of different fonts very irritating. Plus, they seemed to be geared toward a kid a bit older than Carla is. Which I guess isn’t the BOOK’S fault so much as mine. They are destined to be donated, I think. [To be fair, Why Should I Listen was okay. It showed multiple examples of a child not listening, and the consequences. And it also showed a few examples of how bad the child felt when others didn’t listen to him.])

Now, I am looking for books about talking to strangers and being polite and keeping your hands to yourself. I have a bunch in my Amazon cart, and I just need to order them. But what I keep wishing for is these books that I had as a kid.

At first, I couldn’t remember anything about them except that they covered a wide range of topics. But then I found them on Amazon! They belonged to a series by Joy Wilt Berry, and when I was a kid, the series was called “Let’s Talk About…” Looks like the originals came out in the early-to-mid 1980s. Of course, they are long out of print. (It seems like they got revised and republished a few times, as recently as 2000. But even those aren’t sold directly by Amazon.) (I haven’t looked for them anywhere else. YET.)

It makes me laugh to scroll through all the titles. If you take a look at the ones that I remember CLEARLY from my childhood, you may get a sense of what a delightful child I must have been.

I like to think I really absorbed the lessons of the books and have transformed into a polite, honest, non-greedy, hardworking, non-bossy person. But let’s be honest, I’m still not the neatest.

It’s comforting to think of my mother seeking out books in the same way I am now seeking books for my own daughter.

I suppose I can order used copies of some of them. I wonder if they hold up to my memory of them?

Anyway, I am wondering if YOU have any books of an instructive nature – about anything, really, from using good judgment to table manners to making friends to using an indoor voice and everything beyond – that you loved, as a child or as a parent.

In the meantime, I am going to go order some books from the Cheri J. Meiners Learning to Get Along series.

And maybe a couple of other random books for good measure. (At around $3-$6 a book, why not?) (I may have a book buying problem.)

Note: All of the photos above came from Amazon.com. I think you can see that if you scroll over the photos themselves, but… who knows.

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