November 2011 - Posts
As a kid, I remember being confused by the reports that the holidays were a stressful time of year. What was to stress out over? You had good food, family, presents, parties. It seemed like several months of good stuff to me.
Then I grew up and moved out of state.
For many years, I still traveled back to my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. But it got more and more cumbersome to travel as I collected more accoutrements of adulthood--pets, husband, baby. Where once I could throw all my necessary clothing and toiletries in a bag two minutes before leaving for the airport, traveling to the East Coast now requires time, planning and money to rival that of the Invasion of Normandy. (Babies have a lot of accessories! And each one is sold separately.)
So for the second year in a row, our little Mensch family will be celebrating all the major winter holidays at home.
The grand-mensches are understably disappointed. Now that our family has a mensch-kin (he's the first one on both sides, although he's got a cousin arriving next year), they want to be able to spoil him in style. And that's a little harder to do long distance.
This is a weighty problem for a mensch. On the one hand, I want very much to enjoy time with family and for LO to grow up in the bosom of the extended Mensch family. On the other hand, J and I have limited resources (both money and time) and it is difficult to use up all our vacation budget and all of J's time off from work to fly East for a few whirlwind days. On the third hand (didn't know I was using Vishnu's arms to do my counting, did you?) there's the whole question of stress during the holidays. Trying to fly when everyone else is flying on the same tight and stress-filled schedule schedule makes me want to celebrate Thanksgiving in May, Hannukah in July, and New Years in September.
For many of my friends and contemporaries who live out of state from their parents, this is a yearly problem. How do you decide where to spend your money and time during the holidays when you have many people who want to see you and the kids? Do you follow your family tradition or do you follow the dictates of your budget? No matter what you decide, you will be compromising your mensch-hood in some way.
Talk about holiday stress.
So, dear readers, how do you solve this dilemma? Because the title of this post may be "How to Be a Mensch for the Holidays," but I have to confess, I don't know the answer.
My husband works for a company (which shall remain nameless in the interest of his continuing to work for them) that believes in old school ways of taking care of its employees. One of the ways it shows us how much it cares is by giving out free turkeys to employees for Thanksgiving. I believe they give out hams for Christmas, too, but I'm not entirely sure because we keep kosher (ish--I'm originally from Baltimore and have to have a Maryland crab cake occasionally or I lose my Hon street cred).
A week ago, J asked me if he should sign up for a turkey this year. Thanksgiving has been a rather low key holiday for our family the past few years. We live too far away (11 hours by car, more by plane if you add in all the accumulated time going through TSA lines) to go to family for a four-day weekend. And most of our local friends are either living closer to their parents or more susceptible to the pull of Mom's cooking than we are, and our attempts at hosting a gathering here has not borne fruit. The long and short of it is that we celebrate Thanksgiving with just the three of us. Which is not a problem, as I love to cook and having lots of leftovers is part of the joy. In any case, I told J to please sign us up for the turkey and I busily got started thinking about recipes. (Read: I forgot all about it.)
Yesterday, I recieved the following email from J at work:
To: The Aspiring Mensch
How hard would it be to make Turkey
(I'm not joking)
I wasn't entirely certain what Huge meant in terms of turkey, except that I was excited for the prospect of turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, turkey hash, and yes, turkey jerky (if I can find a recipe) post-Thanksgiving. Then J walked in this evening with the turkey. Here is an unretouched picture of the turkey next to something so you can get an idea of scale.
The turkey is Huge. It weighs more than my toddler. (At least currently, while it is still frozen).
Please keep in mind that this larger-than-a-Volkswagen-sized turkey will be feeding the following individuals:
The toddler who is currently only willing to eat applesauce or peanut butter, or in some cases, non-food substances.
I think we're going to need a bigger boat.
(Side note, J unilaterally decided that it would be funny for the turkey to be wearing a mustache. He then wrestled me to the ground any time I got close enough to remove the mustache from the turkey before snapping the picture. I don't understand it, but apparently the mustache is hilariously funny).
There is nothing quite like the relationship between a boy and his dog. Our greyhound, Obie, adores LO and would defend him to the death against mailmen, UPS delivery drivers, door-to-door salesmen, proselytizers, neighbors bearing food and basically anyone else who comes to our door. This is despite the fact that LO investigates things (like Obie's tail) by pulling on them and the fact that LO has figured out that greyhounds roo helplessly when they hear any long sustained noise, like that which a baby/toddler makes all the livelong day. (Call my house in the middle of the day and you're likely to hear LO going "AAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh" in the background while Obie "ROOOOOOOOoooooooooos" in a chorus along with him. And yes, I have purchased stock in Tylenol.)
Obie is such a sweet soul that he would love and protect LO no matter what. But his devotion has been strengthened by one thing: Ever since LO started eating solid food, he has been sharing said food with Obie. The photograph above was the first instance of it. LO held out the roll he was eating and Obie gently pulled the bread out of the chubby fist. You can tell that J and I are first time parents, because instead of discouraging this behavior, we got out the camera.
That, of course, was not the end of it. It doesn't matter what LO is eating, he generously wants to share his portion with his best friend. Often, this just means that LO will drop his food on the ground. (That's also his signal to us that he's finished eating. We're working on the "fold the napkin over the plate and then ask to be excused" skill, and I think we'll be a while on that one). Sometimes, LO will taste something, decide he's not a fan, pull it out of his mouth, and pass it over to Obie--who is the only individual in the house who doesn't care if the food is already partially gummed.
At first, we tried to stop all food from going from LO to Obie. We're trying to fatten the baby up, after all, so that he'll be big and strong. Obie has already been fattened. He's retired from racing and he takes the responsibility of a life of leisure seriously. It's difficult to tell with a greyhound, but the pup has put on a pound or two since becoming ours and he certainly doesn't have the spring in his sprint that he once had. LO still has many more years of growth ahead, so we would like the nutritious food to stick to his ribs rather than the dog's.
That original intent went slowly by the wayside as we noticed the price of particular foods that were making their way to the dog. "Don't feed the dog," became "Don't feed the dog your hamburger! Lean ground beef is $2.99 a pound!" or "Don't let the dog eat your peanut butter! Don't you know prices have just gone up?"
For the record, the following foods are officially the most expensive dog treats in the world:
Salmon with pesto
Wisconsin 5-year aged cheddar
Gerber Graduates Toddler Snacks (Incidently, this is also the most expensive baby food in the world)
It's a difficult tightrope to walk. We very much want to encourage this relationship, but we'd prefer to not see our dog eat up all of our groceries. Most important, however, is making certain that neither J nor I ever find ourselves shouting "Do you think money grows on trees?" Because that would signal the death of our youth as we know it.
One of the weird aspects of working from
home as a stay-at-home-mother is trying to figure out when you have
reached the tipping point of needing some sort of childcare. On the one
hand, my freelance income is still something at which you can shake a
stick. So, with the lack of stick-proof income, it seems awfully
wasteful to send LO to daycare when I need all the pennies I'm making.
On the other hand, I'm finding my turnaround time is getting slower and
slower since LO is refusing to adhere to any kind of predictable nap
schedule, and if I have any intention of adding to my client list, I
will most definitely need more dedicated work time. So I can't put him
in daycare until I have more money. I can't get more money until I have
more time. I can't have more time until I put him in daycare...
Let's all sing together:
Here we go 'round the daycare dilemma, the daycare dilemma, the daycare dilemma, so early in the morning!
I am ashamed to admit to the
amount of time I have spent on this ridiculous non-problem over the past
month and a half. If you were to wake me up from a sound sleep, you
would hear me mumble "5 hours a week would only cost..." I'd spend my
time dreaming up schedules and using a stopwatch to time LO's naps and
my writing time. I even tried to convince our greyhound Obie to become a nanny-dog,
like the one in Peter Pan. If I could teach him to change diapers, I
could potentially get a couple of extra hours a day for writing.
Added to this was my
overwhelming maternal guilt at the thought of leaving LO screaming his
lungs out in daycare. As the child was precocious when it came to
separation anxiety, I was thinking he'd be precocious in getting over
said separation anxiety, but boy was I wrongo. He's been giving the
nice workers at the Y daycare terrible complexes since he was about 6 or
7 months old. He's over a year old now, and he still throws a fit
when I leave him at the Y.
Last week, however, I decided
to just take the child to daycare for a couple of hours so that I could
get some work done. J has been working crazy hours the past couple of
weeks, and losing the extra pair of hands in the evening had been taking
its toll. The house looked like Who-Did-It-and-Ran. The child had
some sort of food substance in his hair that I had neglected to clean
off twice while bathing him. I was behind on several deadlines. So one day last week, I dropped LO off with the nice ladies at the Y, came home full
of virtuous plans to clean or write, and then slept for two and a half
It was glorious.
When I went to pick LO up, I
signed up for 10 hours a week. It was that easy. I forgot how
productive I could be when I had uninterrupted time. (What? Sleeping is productive!) We'll worry about the money aspect of it later.
Right now, I'm just reveling in the idea of being able to single-task.
This is a recent conversation J and I had while shopping at Target:
Me: [Reacting like a magpie when seeing something shiny]. Look, they have one of those programmable universal remotes. We can get rid of the three remotes lying around the living room. And it's only 10 bucks! I'm going to get it.
J: The silver remote can be programmed to control the TV and the cable box, and the Xbox can't take a universal remote, so we need at least two. And weren't you going to cancel the cable anyway?
Me: [Putting the universal remote back on the shelf] Wow, you really know how to take the wind out of the sails of an impulse buy.
A central tenet to organization, frugality, healthy eating and other important aspects of mensch-hood is meal planning.
This, surprisingly, is one area where I do not fall down on the job. I think is is partially because it gives me a weekly excuse to read recipes, which is like giving an 8-year-old a weekly excuse to flip through a toy catalog. Cooking satisfies two of my basest urges--the one for books and the one for delicious food. J will sometimes find me on a Sunday afternoon cross-eyed with yearning while every cookbook I own is strewn around me.
Once I have my dream meals planned for the week, I make my grocery list, and on Monday afternoon LO and I go shopping. (Shopping with a 14 month old who vehemenly objects to riding backwards in any kind of conveyance including a shopping cart is an issue for a separate post). Generally the shopping goes well, despite the fact that I forget something every. single. week.
No, the only issue with meal planning is not the planning, nor the shopping, nor even the cooking. The problem is the leftovers.
I don't know who decides how many people recipes are supposed to feed, but they are always wrong. (Interestingly, they seem to be wrong on the low side when I'm making desserts and wrong on the high side when making dinners. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions, and no, that is not cookie dough clinging to my fingernails.)
Last week, for example, I made the following recipes:
Monday: Cabbage Soup
After J and I each had two bowls, there were approximately 2000 bowls-worth left.
Tuesday: Easy apricot baked chicken
This one is my fault. When you run out of freezer bags, the decision to just go ahead and cook all the legs and thighs at once is not really the best and most rational course of action. We could have fed much of the neighborhood on my folly.
Wednesday: Stuffed Shells
The 12-count recipe made 18 stuffed shells, because apparently cookbook authors aren't accountants. Or at least, not honest ones.
I could go on, but you get the drift. At any given time, my refrigerator is stuffed to the gills with fresh ingredients for this week's recipes, leftovers from last week's recipes, and science experiments from the recipes of yore.
Have you earned your mensch credential for the day?
Vote, wear this sticker proudly, and know that you're done with all mensch-like duties for the day. (And yes, that does mean you can watch TV in your underwear while eating potato chips for the rest of the day. Voting is that menschly an activity).
I am one of those rare beasts who actually enjoys balancing her checkbook. It might have been Mrs. Turley's excellent fourth grade instruction of math, or perhaps I'm just a bit of a masochist, but I kind of love getting all my bills together, writing out checks or checking my automated debits, and subtracting the money going out from the money I have. I have been known to pour myself a glass of wine and get a nice chunk of dark chocolate or good cheese to go along with my checkbook balancing. If I could figure out a way to pay bills and pad my savings account in a bubble bath, that would probably be the ultimate relaxation experience for me.
I know, there's something wrong with me.
There are several benefits to this kind of money nerddom. First, Mrs. Turley would be proud because I have kept my simple mathematical skills sharp. I can add and subtract in my head, but to double check the math, I'll have random bits of paper all over my desk with barely legible equations scribbled all over them. (Once I've completed the math necessary for a particular debit or credit to my account, I cannot usually make heads or tails of the numbers on subsequent viewings.)
Second, I've been able to follow my interests in terms of jobs. (Other folks have described this as "Emily just quits jobs she doesn't like!" but it's really semantics). Since I've always known pretty much to the penny how much is in my checking account, I could decide to leave the (relatively) lucrative office job that was sucking out my soul in exchange for becoming an AmeriCorps Volunteer and sometime bookseller. I was still eating ramen every night at the time, but I knew exactly how much money the ramen was saving me.
Third, you can wake me up from a dead sleep and ask how much money is in my account, and I'll probably be able to give you a pretty good estimate. I have no idea how this translates to a real world benefit, but I think it could be a neat party trick for the world's dullest party.
There are some downsides to the fact that I balance my checkbook something like four times a week. Remember those unintelligible numbers I mentioned above? Yeah, sometimes I have no idea what the heck I was doing the first time around and then think I've "lost" money somewhere. This prompts a hunt for the money which I then take the time to reverse, transfer back or otherwise reclaim into my checking account, only to find that prior me knew what the heck she was doing and now me has to go through and fix my fixes. It's a great use of my time doing all of this, let me tell you.
This happened when I donated $100 to my sister's yoga-thon to benefit lung cancer research and made a notation of my sister's name in the transaction description line, assuming I'd know what it was for later on. (I should know me better than that by now, but it's nice to know that I can still surprise myself.) When the lung cancer folks (whose name was abbreviated to something that did not register as a lung cancer charity in my short-term-memory-impaired brain) actually debited $100 from my account, I contested the charges. The cancer research folks were very nice and gave me the money back. As that transaction was going through, I realized what a bonehead I was being, and had to call the nice people who are trying to save lives back one more time and tell them to please re-take my boneheaded money.
If I could figure out what type of stuff I was likely to forget, I could leave notes for myself and reassure myself that the choices I made were correct the first time around, but of course, I'm not that predictable. And I might not be able to make sense of the note, anyway.
Overall, despite some very notable exceptions, I feel my money management is pretty good. After all, this has only happened once:
And she only ordered a pizza with her mis-gotten gains.
How do you handle your finances? Are there any other wine-drinking, donation-forgetting money nerds out there?
Which is why I'm still only aspiring. Yesterday, rather than clean the litter box, finish writing an article or give my kid a much-needed bath (he prefers to wear his peanut butter sandwiches rather than eat them), I filled my time with these worthwhile activities:
1. Watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory that I had already seen twice. (Okay, you've got me! It was three episodes, each of which I had already seen twice).
2. Rearranging photos of the Mensch-kin (aka our son LO) in my Facebook photo album so that the picture of him in his Halloween costume would be first. (This took an inordinately long time, as my tech savviness only matches my ability to buckle down and get things done in a timely manner).
3. Reading to LO my childhood favorite "There Are Rocks In My Socks!" Said the Ox to the Fox. (I don't feel bad about this use of time, but I do need to admit that I specifically started our reading session because I would otherwise have had to go downstairs and deal with a litter box full of kitty poo).
4. Grooming. (Though I generally don't do more than run a brush through my hair in the mornings, when deadlines and tasks are looming, I suddenly find myself in full makeup, hair blown dry and each tooth meticulously brushed and flossed. There's extra irony considering the fact that LO's bath was one thing I was avoiding doing.)
5. Running to Target. (Theoretically, I needed more kitty litter in order to deal with the litter boxes. But this was an unnecessary trip as we still had half a box of fresh litter left and it kept me from writing the article that was what I was supposed to be doing with my time that afternoon. And then the litter boxes remained unchanged even after the Target trip. Procrastination accomplished!)
Each spring, I go through the same exercise in self-delusion that I have taken part in since I read The Secret Garden when I was ten: disregarding 30+ years of evidence to the contrary, I decide that this year I will finally access my inner Earth Mother and grow all of my own organic food which I will then can, jar, preserve and bake into whole-wheat crust pies, thereby saving money, improving my carbon footprint and making my family's diet healthier. I truly believe that this will happen, despite the fact that J and I are such city slickers that we refused to eat the Concord grapes growing in happy profusion in our backyard for fear that they were poisonous and despite the fact that I have a habit of killing nearly any plant that comes within a 5-mile radius of me. (I tend to forget to do important plant maintenance procedures, like watering them).
This year, J made the unilateral decision that we would only plant a few things in our little backyard garden. We've had some luck in the past with tomatoes and peppers so those were no-brainers, and since I've been known to inhale entire melons in one sitting, he decided to add a few cantaloupes to our bounty.
From that modest garden, we ended up with a single living tomato plant. That got off to a late start.
But gardeners who know what they're doing call tomatoes the gateway vegetable for a reason. Once you've enjoyed a delicious and perfectly red tomato still warm from the summer sun over your own backyard and dressed with nothing more than a pinch of salt and pepper, you can never go back to the pallid mushiness the grocery stores pass off as tomatoes.
There weren't nearly enough of the gorgeous red tomatoes to suit either of us, and as we have passed into November, it's become clear that many of the green tomatoes would not be able to ripen here in Indiana in this weather. So, I decided to fry me some green tomatoes.
I used this recipe from Simply Recipes because it impressed me as being authentically Southern and because it was the first hit on Google for the serch term "Fried Green Tomatoes" that wasn't a link to IMDB.
I found that even working with underripe homegrown tomatoes was a delight. Just look how beautiful they are!
The recipe got a fabulous crisp coating on the tomatoes, but there was a little something lacking flavor wise. We have plenty more green tomatoes, so I will try this again and tweak the spices to add a little more flavor.
Since I was serving this to company, I had the Goldfish crackers to hedge my bets in case the tomatoes were lousy. Luckily, we didn't need the crackers.
The last time I ate fried green tomatoes at a diner, I was offered a buttermilk ranch to dip them in, so I might try that with the next batch as well. (As you may recall, part of my commitment to gardening is healthy eating, and I can't imagine anything healthier than double crusted fried tomatoes with ranch sauce. Ahem.)
What do you do with your green tomatoes?
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