Recent Reads: Story Time

Reading with a friend

So we moved across the country. Things are mostly settled, and M has started his new job. I’ve started my new (hopefully brief) chapter as a stay-at-home mother. I am still lining up my thoughts on all the recent changes, but I wanted to exercise my rusty blogging skills. Normally, I loathe doing similar posts in a row, but I need something lightweight before the full move recap and/or welcome-to-Portland post. For now, there is another post on books.

Little Bear's bookshelf

I brought only one book with me on our travels from Boston to Portland: a Fodor’s guidebook of Oregon. I have most of my fiction favorites in digital form on my iPad, so I saved the weight and space. Somehow, though, the kid managed to get us to carry along three hardcover picture books for his use. Happily, they’re some of my favorites, too, so I didn’t mind that we had to read them again… and again… over the first weeks after arrival.

Three Bears in a Boat cover

Three Bears in a Boat
David Soman
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
ISBN 978-0-8037-3993-2
At a library near you

This book was a gift to the Little Bear on his first birthday. Because of the nickname we gave him, bears have been a strong gift theme since the baby shower, and one of these three bears shares his name, so it worked nicely. I had never heard of the book or its author before. M read this one to LB first, once when I wasn’t around, and from then on, the little guy requested it regularly (“beahs in boats, Mama!”).

Sometimes I have to remind myself that children’s books don’t necessarily have to have strong storylines. Young kids in particular generally don’t notice narrative deficiencies (Little Bear was over the moon about this weird example, which both M and I found clunky and hard on the eyes). But I do prefer stories that move along at an appropriate pace and with good development. If the story can also be one that teaches some sort of lesson, so much the better (hey, their little brains are wrinkling furiously at this stage—might as well take advantage). This book fits the bill on all counts.

Basically, the three bear siblings do something they shouldn’t, and they set out to hide their mistake before their mother finds out. They have some adventures and learn that sometimes the best thing to do is to admit when you’ve done wrong and definitely don’t try to blame someone else. The story itself is pretty straightforward, but the setting and illustrations elevate it to magic. These bears inexplicably live on a tiny island that is surrounded by lots of other tiny islands, so their journey of discovery is mirrored in the literal journey they take in their boat. By making these bears seafarers (or explorers in general), Soman is able to introduce a range of fun characters and visuals, and our Little Bear never fails to point many of them out along the way.

M and I are most tickled by the expressions of the little bears and their mama. Even though these animals can verbalize their feelings, their faces speak even more clearly. These characters are only bears because it’s fun, not because it’s necessary. They could be cats or badgers or gryphons or even humans. Their faces transcend their species, because their species isn’t the point.

Three Bears in a Boat page detail

Zen Shorts Cover

Zen Shorts
Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press, 2005
ISBN 0-439-33911-1
At a library near you

In this next story, the shorts-wearing panda’s species is the point (in that the other three characters are human) but then again it isn’t (no one seems to care about his panda nature after the initial surprise). I confess, this book (and, later, its sequels) was part of my personal collection long before Little Bear entered the picture. I first came across it in the picture book section at my first library job. I was firmly into my East Asia fascination at that point, so the title immediately grabbed me. The dancing panda holding an umbrella on the cover obviously didn’t hurt, either.

This was the first book I ever read to LB, back when he was a tiny wee baby. It felt important to me somehow. I am not Buddhist, but there is something timeless and universal about some of Buddhism’s tenets. They align with the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule and other maxims about treating others well and generally being a good person. But they also reach a bit higher sometimes, to the nature of the self and existence. As I said above, I like stories with lessons, and I like that Muth was bold enough to present those lessons via ancient Zen and Taoist tales. Sometimes those tales tax the faculties of grown-ups. I think, with their openness and simple worldview, children are probably much more receptive to them.

Zen Shorts inside spread

Stone Soup front cover

Stone Soup
Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press, 2003
ISBN 0-439-33909-X
At a library near you

Technically, this book didn’t make the trek with us. But this was one of Little Bear’s favorite books to check out from the library, so on our first visit to the venerable Powell’s, we got him a copy of his very own.

I’ve never specialized in children’s librarianship, but I do appreciate a beautiful book, so I can’t help but admire so many kids’ books these days. Making non-graphic “adults'” books gorgeous sometimes seems like pure marketing, but visual appeal is an innate feature of picture books. When I read picture books (and yes, I do read them for my own enjoyment), I like both intricate illustrations and the whole presentation. Two of my longtime favorite practitioners of the former are K. Y. Craft and Jan Brett. Muth’s illustration of the banquet in Stone Soup is very reminiscent of some of their work. You can get lost looking at this image (he repeats the exercise gorgeously in the trick-or-treat double-page spread in his Zen Ghosts).

I think one reason the banquet scene seems so vibrant (aside from the fact that he was probably going for it to support the narrative flow) is that the rest of the book, the whole presentation I love so much, is very subtle and quiet. His trademark watercolor style is so soothing and wash-filled, but he includes some really splendid details. This is the only published example of this story (Aarne-Thompson type 1548 if you, like me, are into that sort of thing) I’ve seen set in Asia, which is a shame. It clearly works well there, though that could just be because Muth depicts the setting so lushly. Long after your fourteenth (in a row) reading, your mind can wander off the story itself and find no difficulty getting lost in the pictures. The magic of books for the young and not-so-young alike…

Stone Soup interior spread

Productivity of Necessity, and a Recipe

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The past month has been a building whirlwind, though obviously not on the blogging front. I like this time of year, but man, it can be exhausting. This year, the buildup to the holidays has seemed coincidental to all the other things going on. That doesn’t make it all less crazy, though.

It also doesn’t negate the impact some recent illness has had on our growing to-do lists. I was just pondering my PTO accumulation, but apparently I tempted fate. An early-season daycare bug quickly swept to Little Bear and home, and I used up sick days in rapid succession.

The unforeseen upside to that, however, was that I suddenly became a productivity machine. I am not one of those people who claims to work best under pressure. The idea of cramming for tests or speed-writing papers still makes me cringe, years after school. But one thing I am good at is buckling down when I simply have no other choice. And so it has been recently (hence the blog-radio silence).

So what have we been up to?

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M carved pumpkins.

His m.o. since we moved to this place (okay, so just the last two Halloweens) has been to carve while handing out the candy. Since he telecommutes, he’s out on the porch promptly as trick-or-treat starts, so he multitasks until I get home with Little Bear. It’s turned into a fun little two-year tradition that I think we might just continue.

This year’s main pumpkin was, as you can see, Minecraft themed. This was a big hit, particularly with the kids dressed in similar style. I was bemused by the mother who suggested that we must have some Minecraft-loving kids. Some people really do feel that games are not for adults, I guess.

Kabuki faces

I went to work.

The last couple weeks have included sick time and holidays but also work events and tons of checked-off tasks. Our director retired last month, but he continues as director emeritus, and we hosted some of his fellow Grolier Club members during the recent antiquarian book fair. It’s always fun to show off collection highlights, and our guests, booklovers all, were appreciative and interesting.

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I’m especially enthusiastic about showing off materials lately, because I’ve been having a blast with our collections myself. I even finally finished a post for our library blog, and I’m planning my next draft. My current fascinations lean heavily toward book history and East Asia, so I’ve been hunting for great examples to support these themes. I took a little detour into Japanese maps, and I’m not sorry.

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I even dragged Little Bear into the fun. My office’s proximity to his doctor means that he gets to accompany me occasionally. Now that he’s toddling, he’ll be reshelving in no time. He’s growing so fast, he will certainly be tall enough!

Training

Embroidery ready

Outside of work, I happily headed home for some domestic bliss.

I have finally, finally reached the end of the hand-stitching the quilt I’m making for Little Bear. I don’t mean that to sound bitter. I actually prefer hand sewing to machine, and it’s been a nice meditative way to end nights. It has simply taken so much longer than I originally intended. Now I’m preparing to add a little decoration in the form of French knots, and I’m looking forward to learning a bit of embroidery.

Cooking shrimp and baby bok choy

Aside from that, and all the housekeeping catch-up, I’ve been in the kitchen. Cookies, pancakes, and chili rolled out as we got over our bugs, and then I finally made soba with shrimp. I’ve been planning a dish made of these two components for weeks, and I made it now because I find soba noodles very comforting. They remain so in this recipe.

Soba with Baby Bok Choy and Shrimp

Shrimp and baby bok choy on soba

I aimed for light but warm, bright and nourishing. I adore baby bok choy, and the shrimp revived my strength after days of on-and-off illness and fatigue. I’m getting more confident at improvising Japanese food, and I considered this meal a success. Note that the sauce measurements are approximated and adjust to your liking. I’m a big fan of the Japanese seasoning blend of shichimi togarashi, but red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds would add the spice and crunch, too.

  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1½ tablespoons minced ginger (I used ginger paste)
  • 1½ tablespoons crushed garlic
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 bundles of soba noodles
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil, or more as needed
  • 2 pounds baby bok choy, trimmed, halved, washed, and dried
  • 1 pound shelled shrimp, tails removed (I used thawed precooked shrimp because it was on hand but prefer raw)
  • shichimi togarashi

Whisk together the rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust as necessary, then whisk in the cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and cook until al dente, just a few minutes. Pour into a colander to drain, rinsing a bit to separate if necessary.

Place a wok over medium heat. When hot, add the canola oil and the baby bok choy and toss. Cook, stirring frequently, until stems soften a little and leaves wilt. Add the shrimp and cook until barely opaque, stirring frequently. Add the sauce, stir, and cook until bok choy retain just a bit of crunch and sauce has thickened, stirring regularly.

Divide the noodles among four bowls and top evenly with the shrimp and bok choy (and plenty of sauce). Sprinkle with shichimi togarashi to taste. Pick up your chopsticks and enjoy.

Miscellany: Sunlight

It’s been awhile since I did a miscellaneous post, and it is exactly the sort of post I need to do right now, when my mind seems to be sparking in a dozen directions.

Speaking of aimlessness, I’ve been going through an unsettled music mood lately. Do you ever have times when you just don’t like any of the music you try to listen to? That’s where I am now. Or was, anyway. Then I put on a playlist of Trio Mediaeval‘s albums. The group is a trio of Scandinavian women who sing (mostly) medieval polyphonic music. I am a fan of that genre anyway, but it’s usually sung by men. Hearing it done by women adds an even more haunting quality.

Speaking of haunting, I’ve had Dinan on the brain. Dinan is a town in Brittany, France, where I spent five days during a study abroad trip in high school. At the time, it was the second half of a two-week trip, so I was getting a little tired, and it was basically another French town. I saw an album of photographs of the town on Flickr the other week, however, and now I am remembering what could have been. Dinan is an old town with beautifully preserved half-timbered buildings, a lovely riverfront, and a quirky steep medieval street called the Rue de Jerzual. We carefully made our way down the latter daily with the daughter and cousin of the family with whom we home-stayed.

This is the part I am kicking myself over. We stayed with a French family in a traditional stone farmhouse outside of town. As it was summer, there were a few relatives in and out, and farmhands occasionally joined us for dinner. We ate outside, on a beautifully set table, enjoying wonderful food and speaking ever more fluently (the patriarch of the house gently insisted that we resort to English only when at an absolute standstill). In the mornings, we drank coffee out of latte bowls and bathed quickly in a tub under the low eaves.

It was, in essence, precisely the sort of envious existence reveled in by American ex-pats in any of a number of recent books. We lived that beautiful life for five days, and I barely remember it now. I certainly didn’t appreciate it fully at the time. It was fun, to be sure, but my primary thrill was how easily my French was improving. Now I find myself craving an almond croissant from the bakery in the medieval town and wanting to stroll along the river. It’s a very odd feeling, given that I haven’t been there in fifteen (!) years. But hey, I have out-of-brain-to-London moments daily, so I suppose it’s not that much of a stretch.

Speaking of traveling to France, I have been playing a lot of Sims 3 lately. (Bear with me, it connects, I promise.) The reviews for Sims 4 are rather troubling, so I will not be spending money on that game anytime soon. However, they have reignited my love for the franchise in general, so I’ve been firing up Sims 3 after dinner and just letting it play on my laptop while I do other things. I check in occasionally to make sure the house isn’t on fire or to send my Sim on a trip. One of the destinations in the World Adventures expansion is “Champs-les-Sims,” a faux French village (see, the tenuous segue!). I’ve had her there exploring tombs and making wine and generally living it up. Now I think it’s time for the next step.

I have played Sims in one edition or another for years, but I was recently reading Carl’s Sims 3 Guide (such a good resource) and realized that I have not been doing Sims 3 to its full potential. Now I’m sort of stuck between keeping it casual so I can leap to chase this guy off furniture or really getting into it and playing. I suspect I’ll do a bit of both. I love playing games, but every so often I hit a TOO MUCH wall and have to pull back. Good thing M has Destiny back starting tomorrow. I can lean back and watch that.

Speaking of things to watch, APPLE EVENT TOMORROW. I am an unapologetic Apple fan (though not opposed to other products – that intriguing new curved-screen Samsung, for example), but this event feels even bigger than most. Part of the anticipation is that I am really tired of my Fitbit. It’s ruining the clothes I clip it to, it’s falling apart, and it gets lost too easily. I’m ready for a wearable that tracks more data while not looking obvious, and I hope that Apple can provide exactly that. I am worried that it won’t work with my aging iPhone model, though. I cannot afford to get both.

Speaking of shopping, I am really looking forward to this ink. Maybe it will prompt me to drag out my dip pens more often.

Speaking of dipping into things (such a stretch; I’ll make this the last thing), I have been reading up on heraldry in my ongoing quest to learn about my family’s history and genealogy. I have no idea if we have any associated arms, but it’s so fun to read about in general. It reminds me that I still have not finished A Game of Thrones, which I was mostly drawn to because of the sigils. But the research I’ve been doing gives such a fascinating look at medieval (and later) history and the way human beings always find a means to craft a self-identity. I’ve been trying to create a personal badge, and the list of elements I have considered and rejected is long. It is surprisingly difficult to distill your entire personality, interests, and allegiances into a few basic symbols. Nevertheless, I keep at it, even just to have a letterhead for stationery.

I hope everyone had a wonderful summer and welcomes the cooler temps as much as I do. Bring on the apple cider doughnuts!

Chaos Theory

Day 342

We have a near-toddler in the house, and I cannot understand why everyone says the newborn phase is the tiring part.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t out of the blue. Things began ramping up the moment Little Bear started to crawl. Once he learned how to pull himself up, sitting down for a moment became a luxury. He’s just so tall and apparently fearless. But this? He has leveled up, and our response has had to scale accordingly.

Day 327

I mentioned before that I was surprised by how well I adjusted to the dirtier aspects of parenting. I really am. In fact, I have to say that the hardest part for me turned out to be the chaos. Children have a rationality all their own, and we adults are not a part of it. That is unfortunate for me, as I have never, ever liked not knowing.

Parenting advice columns and blogs will tell you to give in and embrace the chaos. While I have considered that, even as an exercise in mindfulness, I know that I cannot go further than halfway. I am not a person who thrives on entropy. Giving in to the crazy throws me off balance.

When I was pregnant with LB, I used to lament the need to return to work. My mother stayed at home to raise my sister and me, leaving a career in kitchen and bath design and, I now suspect, some independence behind. She was always there when we got home from school. She shuttled us to our dance classes and piano lessons and tennis camps. She kept house and baked and balanced the checkbook, and I dreamed of having what I believed she had. How could I just ship my tiny baby off to daycare? How would I have the time to cook fresh, nutritious meals if I was working full time? How could I ensure clean, neatly folded laundry and dishes always washed?

In the end, the decision was made for me. Daycare, incredibly expensive in Massachusetts and a big reason women leave work, turned out to cost barely less money than I would earn working. So I returned, and boy, am I glad I did. Even a few recent days home sick with Little Bear had me climbing the walls, especially now that he is so mobile. He doesn’t even walk unaided yet! But he crawls and cruises and climbs, and we’d have to baby-proof down to no furniture to completely keep up. We spend a lot of time having to say no. I think even he finds daycare to be a welcome place of permission.

Undergrowth

The point of this story, finally, is that despite the chaos, we had a practically perfect summer weekend. The sort of weekend that reminds you of the carefree summers of childhood. There was a balance achieved between Little Bear’s “jerk” moments (did I mention that he’s discovered hitting?) and the bright, sweet curiosity that shines when he encounters new things. The balance was as close to absolute equilibrium as I think is possible for us right now.

We ran errands in New Hampshire, then, on a whim, took lunch to a wildlife refuge that had a lovely little half-mile trail to a pond. We saw no wildlife but the two-legged kind, but the woods were beautiful and reminded me sharply of my desire to visit the Pacific Northwest again.

Out of the woods

After our picnic, we spent a few lazy hours at home. Then we went out for sushi. I must say, I am really starting to see the point of raw fish. Fresh salmon has such a luxurious texture. Bear actually woke up to partake this time, enjoying miso soup (though confounded by the spoon) and even a miniscule taste of wasabi. To work off the abundance of seafood, we headed to the beach. Our usual beach is in New Hampshire, but this time we decided to try Plum Island.

Beach study

It was not what I expected. I knew that it was inhabited (houses are routinely reported to have fallen into the ocean during hurricanes), but I didn’t realize how many people must at least summer there. We did a circuit of the peninsula before finding parking, but what we found was amazing. It is relatively rare to get a good beach sunset view on the East Coast, for obvious geographical reasons. To our surprise, there was a near-deserted beach facing west, with a gorgeous red-orange sun descending over the opposite shore. For whatever baby reason, LB took an immediate aversion to the sand and had to be coaxed to keeping his toes in it. We’ll keep working on that.

Outrage

After a gorgeously lazy Saturday, we got a surprising amount done on Sunday. I attacked my fledgling garden with a ferocity borne of too many recent sick days. Though we actually have a small patio at our current place, it’s still difficult to maintain outdoor harmony when renting in a multi-unit building. We’ve had enough rain to make the weeds go crazy, and I finally got fed up. I swept away old leaves, repotted some herbs, moved some plants into the ground, and harvested some successful vegetables.

Cherry tomato

After a couple hours outside, I even managed an experiment. Little Bear is increasingly ambivalent about jarred baby food, and I decided to try a possible way to use up the surplus. I love banana and pumpkin breads and I figured that baby purées of fruit could be swapped in easily. I was too cautious about proportions and my product was a bit dry and dense. I’m not sure I’m willing to buy more baby food just to refine the recipe, but never say never. No matter the result, baking was a nice way to end the weekend.

Baby food bread

Sick again

The weekend’s lovely glow didn’t last long, I’m afraid. In a callback to the terrible long sicknesses of late winter, the Bear succumbed to a virus just a week after finishing a round of antibiotics for his ears. He’s on the mend, but not 100%, so I am really exercising my chaos tolerance muscles. This is much easier, unfortunately, because the baby is so clearly miserable. Poor little guy. If anyone has any tips on forcing a willful one-year-old to take in liquids even though his throat hurts, I welcome them!

The First Year

Shades

Our Little Bear recently turned one.

Funny on the feet

His birthday was on a Wednesday, so the lucky little man had a family party the weekend before, a dinner out on the day proper, and a party with (our) friends the weekend after. The first party was quiet, just the three of us and M’s immediate family. Bear received a bunch of new toys, chowed down on dinner and a whole nectarine, and enjoyed his first run through a sprinkler. It was sweet and lovely and Bear had a great time.

Sushi

The midweek dinner was, honestly, more for M and me. We were craving Japanese food, and we wanted to celebrate our first year as parents. For once, I actually got sushi instead of noodles, and M donated one of his tuna maki to the cause of my continued training in raw fish tolerance. I had a salmon skin roll and tamago nigiri, both of which were fantastic. The restaurant had a wish tree set up for Tanabata, so I wrote a wish in hopes of continued happy, healthy family life. The baby slept through the entire dinner.

Balance

The second party was more rambunctious. One is still pretty young for a party with other children, so we didn’t bother. Instead, we invited some of our close friends over to eat good food and play video games. Watching LB scramble around was part of the entertainment, and he always had willing hands to stroll him up and down the apartment. (All that hunching gets really exhausting when you’re tall!) M and I got to breathe and sit and interact with other (non-work colleague) adults. I made the first of many birthday cakes (from this recipe). Only Bear’s developing pinkeye put a slight damper on the day. But even I managed to avoid catching it, so all in all, the birthday was a success.

Checkup

It’s true, of course, what they say about children. They grow so fast! The time just flies! But it hasn’t entirely. A steady progression marches along the center of the rushing current. His development seems accelerated lately, but it still shows the linear advancement of time. A month ago, he was a crawling fiend. Last week, he cruised the furniture (a new phrase learned from the pediatrician) adeptly. Maybe next week, he’ll let go and walk alone. Maybe he’ll refer to us by name. He’s very close to saying “Batman”. And that would be fine, too! Sometimes you have to let his priorities take precedence. We certainly won’t discourage the proper growth of his geek cred.

Day 001

We’ve been doing a lot of marveling lately, looking at old photographs. Despite knowing that it’s happening, you don’t easily notice, day-to-day, how much babies change. I’m sure there are individuals who simply become increasingly larger versions of the same newborn. But Little Bear has changed so much! He was so round and had much darker hair (and less of it). Now he’s tall and skinny and has a surprising amount of pale gold hair that I always brush upward for maximum fluff. He looks completely different and exactly the same.

It’s easy to remember that Little Bear has completed his first year of life. I have to remind myself that the flip side of that is the first year of parenting for M and me. That achievement needs noting, too.

Issues of partnership timing and marital status aside, I always knew that I’d rather have kids later than my mid-twenties. I just figured I’d be better prepared by then. I think that panned out nicely. Of course, I certainly haven’t had all the answers (impossible without having the experience). But I know I’ve gone about it with a strong foundation, a touch of maturity that would have been missing earlier.

Day 189

That being said, I’m still surprised by how well we’ve dealt with some aspects of parenting. I have changed some horrifying diapers, been thrown up on, held the baby down for needle sticks and up for chest x-rays, and put him in a headlock to administer eye drops. Truly, I was surprised by my ability to handle the more disgusting, bodily function-related aspects of raising a child. If you’d asked me pre-LB, I would’ve sworn that I would run out of the room when faced with such things. But hey, guess what? It turns out that I have an ironclad gag reflex.

I am also amazed at how well we’ve coped when none of us are feeling well. It is incredibly difficult to parent a sick child while sick yourself. Sometimes it feels impossible, until you realize that it has to be possible. The past weekend, Bear has had an MMR-given fever, so he’s been home from daycare, perfectly coinciding with my bout of food poisoning. All I want to do is curl up in bed with absolutely no distractions or demands whatsoever, but that is not an option. And you know, I am just dealing with it. I think I might have been much more selfish about that a few years ago.

Day 137

One thing that has helped immensely is the partnership I share with M. He has been a staunch support from the beginning, and we make a great team. I know he felt a little helpless in the newborn days, when so much of the baby’s interaction was with me out of necessity. But I think it is because of that early distinction that he and Little Bear share a special bond now. We’re parenting equals, but, without discussing it particularly, we’ve evolved certain separate roles in our son’s life. Mama is for comfort, and Daddy soothes big hurts. Mama is there for the early morning, Daddy when we get home from our days. We didn’t have to arrange for things to balance. I know not every parent gets this equilibrium, so I am grateful for it every single day. Especially these days, when LB is increasingly mischievous and M finally took the next step of instituting “tiny time-outs” for major infractions. I am still a bit too much of a sucker for Bear’s big blue eyes.

Day 363

So we made it through three hundred sixty-five days and the next year is well underway. We are so excited for what it’s going to bring. If he changed this much in one year, imagine how the next will be!

Travels and Firsts

Crossing the Hudson 20140627

Blogging has taken a backseat during this busy month. July started off with a flurry of travel.

My uncle, a distinguished professor of botany, retired after a long career, and we traveled to upstate New York to wish him well. This was Little Bear’s first big road trip. From the North Shore, it’s a seven-hour drive at best. With a baby in tow, I expected to add at least an hour. That expectation ended up being quite close to the reality, but for the trip out, at least, we were in no rush. Western Massachusetts and upstate New York are both beautiful areas, so we just enjoyed ourselves.

LB naps en route to New York

The visit itself was quite a whirlwind. We arrived too late on Friday evening to do more than check into the hotel. LB’s relief at being out of the carseat was palpable. He spent a good twenty minutes just tumbling around on the bed, burning off energy. The retirement party was midday Saturday. It was wonderful to see my family. M’s is mostly close to our home in Massachusetts, so we see them frequently. Mine, however, is scattered, and Bear had only met three of my family members to date. In one fell swoop, he was introduced to my uncle, aunt, two cousins, and their families. M and I met new additions, too. Since the last time we were all together, five babies have arrived. For a little guy with no first cousins, LB suddenly encountered a bunch of related children. It was fun to see them all try to figure each other out.

After the party, and a brief stop at my uncle’s former classroom and laboratory, we went our separate ways, which was sad. My cousins are several years older than me, which was a bit of an obstacle when I was a kid. Now that we’re all grown, we’re discovering new connections through parenting and life, and I wish we had more time together. Now that we know Little Bear can handle the trip, we’re going to have to drive over more often.

Shotgun 20140627

Two good college friends of mine also live in the area, as one of them coincidentally joined my uncle’s department awhile ago. We spent the evening with them, and it was so nice. I’ve made great friends and have wonderful colleagues in New England. But sometimes, I really miss my friends and family from the Midwest. There is no good way to reunite with them all, as very few of us remained in the same place. All I can do is occasionally visit and make a better effort to stay in touch. Thank goodness for video chatting.

We made our way home on Sunday in time to do a quick load of laundry, repack our bags, and get some sleep. We had a normal work/daycare day on Monday. On Tuesday, we drove to Logan and whisked Little Bear off on his first airplane flight. We held our breath, but it was as close to a flawless trip as we’ve ever had. Security that early was empty, TSA and airline staffers were helpful and friendly, and Bear just took it all in with wide blue eyes. He was completely unfazed by the flight itself, napping for the first half and climbing all over his seat for the second.

Little Bear naps 20140701

One of my earliest memories (the first being knocking out my front teeth on a playground slide at the age of 2) was a flight to visit my grandparents. What I mostly remember is crying outside the gate because my dad wasn’t coming with us, not the actual flight itself, but watching LB reminded me of my much-younger self. I am so glad that he had a good time with it all. And I am very glad the women in the row behind us were charmed by his reaching through to them, rather than annoyed.

Hide and seek 20140707

To avoid having to change planes during our first trip with a baby, we opted to fly direct to Minneapolis, then drive south. It made for a long trip, but it was an easy drive through beautiful country. Sometimes I forget how big the sky is in the Midwest.

Big sky 20140701

Peeking 20140705

What can I say about the week at my mom’s house? It was relaxing, rejuvenating, and filled with just enough activities. We went to the zoo, went out to eat a few times, watched fireworks, and visited with old friends. One afternoon, we sat down with family photos and my Ancestry app, and my mom filled in some gaps.

Family history 20140704

I’ve been working steadily, if less frequently than I’d like, on genealogy the last few years. Most of my facts are in order, but my mom’s details fleshed out the stories. I only wish we’d had more time, and that I hadn’t now truly hit a wall. I need to find a way to take the next steps to confirm shaky details and forge a more solid connection to the older names. My dad’s family arrived only about a hundred years ago, but my mom’s earliest North American ancestor landed in the early 1600s. That far back, “facts” take on a hazier quality, and it can be frustrating for a librarian like me.

Anyway. That’s another post entirely.

Storms at sunset 20140706

One major relief of the trip was the beautiful weather. Having lived in Iowa most of my life, I was apprehensive about that horrible summer visitor, the tornado. We missed all the terrible weather but some very strong rain. Shortly before we left, big storms hit to the southeast, providing us dramatic sunset skies. M got a chance to test his camera with lightning, and I got a reminder of how beautiful the Midwest (and nature) can be.

Mom and me 20140707

Sadly, the visit came to an end, and we headed back north to fly east. We took a last couple of selfies and hit the road. The trip back was uneventful, Little Bear had a ball on the plane again, and we made good time.

No NIMBY here 20140707

Nearly home 20140707

And then we headed out of Boston under a tornado warning. Figures. But hey, the rest of the trip was a breeze!

Après Iowa les tornades 20140707

Good Mornings

Hurricane Little Bear

I haven’t slept in in months. As tired as I can get, however, this doesn’t really bother me. First, I like mornings. Second, I realized a couple of months ago that Little Bear’s consistent rising time is a blessing in disguise. Not only does it mean that he wakes up in a timely, chipper fashion for daycare during the week, but it gives me a little quiet time of my own.

M has been casting pretty regularly on Twitch the past few months. The dichotomous effect of this is that it makes me want to play video games while using up all the weeknight time for such an activity. Light bulb realization: wait, I have mornings! I figured out very quickly that, now that LB is very mobile, intensive games are off the table. Pausing mid-dungeon crawl in Skyrim to extricate the baby from a mess is frustrating at best (i.e., when I remember to pause). If I play the Sims, however, the worst that usually happens is that my Sims sleep through work and cook three dinners in an hour instead of eating leftovers. I can deal with that.

cheeky Little Bear

So the little man and I have quietly spent our weekend mornings the last few months. He crawls and, as of the past weekend, steps carefully while holding the coffee table, throwing all our DVDs to the ground and laughing when I sternly order him to leave the power cables alone. I start up Sims or SimCity 4 and let things play out, intervening when LB allows. And sometimes, I can snag enough time to make breakfast.

I love breakfast. The Frenchman in M gets by with a single muffin. I prefer savory breakfasts, with at least two food groups, though I am not opposed to baking something sweet. Lately, I’ve had the opportunities for both, and I took advantage. Here are a couple of recent favorites…

Herby Bacon Ricotta Quiche ingredients

Feel free to alter the herbs and other seasonings. I know the celery salt seems like a strange addition. M is obsessed with the seasoning Camp Mix, and so we’ve been trying it on everything. It is surprisingly good on eggs, so I couldn’t help but add some here. If you’d rather not, I like this quiche fine without. But it definitely adds something.

Dropping in bits of ricotta makes the resulting texture incredibly creamy. I love eggs in all forms, but this is especially luxurious.

baked quiche

Herby Bacon Ricotta Quiche

forkful of quiche

  • 1 pie crust, thawed if frozen, rolled out if homemade
  • 6 thick-cut bacon slices
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, divided
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh lemon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • celery salt

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly press the crust into a deep 9-inch pie dish. Fit a piece of foil into the crust and fill with pie weights or uncooked dried beans. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the foil pulls away without sticking. Remove the weights, and set the crust aside for now.

Cook the bacon in a nonstick frying pan until crisp and set aside on paper towels to drain. Pour off almost all of the fat and add the butter to the pan. Add the shallot and cook gently until translucent.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the cream, eggs, and ½ cup of the ricotta until smooth. (I tend to take pains to keep my dirty dishes to a minimum, so I usually measure the cream in my 4-cup glass measuring cup, then add the eggs and cheese and whisk right in the cup. It makes filling the crust later easier, too.) Whisk in the herbs, pepper, and celery salt until evenly mixed. Pour the mixture into the prebaked pie crust. Dollop the rest of the ricotta over the top in little spoonfuls.

Bake until set, about 30 minutes. If the crust browns too early, cover with foil, but don’t let it touch the filling, or it will stick. Let cool and finish setting for a few minutes, then slice and serve with a morning beverage of choice.

zucchini bread slices

Lemon Thyme-Zucchini Bread with Sweet-Salty Crust

Can you tell that I have a thriving lemon thyme plant in the garden? M suggested zucchini bread awhile back. I added the herb on a sudden inspiration, and likewise the salt in the crust. I wasn’t feeling a super-sweet breakfast, so that was a small concession. It worked perfectly.

zucchini bread ingredients

Adapted from The Williams-Sonoma Baking Book

Makes one 8½-by-4½-inch loaf

  • 1 medium zucchini, trimmed (about 8 ounces)
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  •  cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  •  teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon minced fresh lemon thyme
  • ¾ cup chopped pecans
  • For the crust:
    • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
    • 2 pinches fleur de sel
    • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, or more to taste

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease (I used salted butter, because I currently have a delicious tub of Plugra in my fridge) and lightly flour one 8½-by-4½-inch loaf pan. Mix the crust ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Using the large holes of a box grater, shred the zucchini. You should have about 1 cup. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Beat vigorously with a whisk or with an electric mixer on medium speed until pale and creamy, about 1 minute. Stir in the shredded zucchini until blended.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, lemon thyme, and pecans. Add the flour mixture to the zucchini mixture and stir just until combined. The batter will be stiff. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crust mix evenly over the top.

Bake until the top is firm to the touch and the edges pull away from the pan sides, 50-60 minutes. A cake tester inserted into the center of a loaf should come out clean. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the bread out, place upright on the rack, and let cool completely. Serve with salted butter or a drizzle of a favorite honey.

Bon matin!

baked zucchini bread

Quietly at home

Mother’s Day and the Weeks After

Quietly at homeOh, May. It seems you just arrived, and already you’re almost over. Time flies when you’re constantly under the weather.

My first Mother’s Day saw all three of us at home with a violent cold. Fevers were raging, and poor Little Bear had his second ear infection. It was a quiet, ragged-feeling day. We’d had big plans for some work around the house, but we barely managed one of the tasks before retreating to the couch. And that was fine. Sometimes, it’s better to give in.

After Sunday, things improved rapidly. I took LB to the doctor and we got him started on antibiotics. That was really all he needed. He consented to accompanying me to my office for a bit on Monday and Tuesday, where he explored the new environment and charmed my coworkers. I was relieved to catch up slightly with work. It amazes me when I consider the difference between last autumn and now. I deliberately took some of my maternity leave unpaid so that I could save my paid time off for what I assumed would be inevitable illnesses after Bear’s birth. Instead, I wound up having to use up all that time on long weekends before the fiscal year ended in January, and I had to start over from scratch when we really did need the sick time in 2014. I think I’ll finally be out of the hole on PTO sometime this summer. As long as we don’t get sick again.

If only I hadn't had to see this pretty tree at the doctor's office.I am confident that things are improving. The onset of spring (finally) has my energy up. After recovering from the cold (also finally), we managed to catch up a bit on our to-do list. We’ve also squeezed in a surprising amount of social interaction in the last two weekends. We visited M’s former roommates in Framingham. It was one last chat in the old duplex, which everyone will shortly be leaving. It was a bittersweet moment, but interesting. Everyone is off on new adventures.

Little Bear's first parade

This past weekend, we saw more family and friends. We spent Memorial Day in M’s hometown, watching the parade (LB’s first), enduring the gun salute (he was stoic), and enjoying some barbecue. It was relaxing, and the food was great. As with every meal these days, Bear had a taste of everything and wanted more. He has no idea what to do with that tiny new tooth, but he tries his damnedest. He crawls, he stands, he shouts, he sings, and he is desperate to add to his repertoire of skills. It is fascinating, frustrating, and, generally, funny as hell. He’s figured out so many new ways to express himself, and he is very obviously a tiny version of the person he will grow to become. It is incredible.

So our little family trundles on. Now that we’re all feeling better, we’re also feeling the urge to get outside. My fledgling garden is (so far) thriving. M mentions the beach daily. And, judging from his fascination with the grass yesterday, Little Bear would also like to commune with nature. We’ll have to make that happen. Housework can be fit in around the edges. Might as well enjoy the good weather now that we have it!

On the path in New Hampshire

Little Bear reaches for the camera

PAX East with a Baby, and Other Recent Events

I confess to being lax in the blogging department lately. After a solid month or so of health, Little Bear and I both succumbed to a bad cold and conjunctivitis. We’re on the mend, though my sinuses seem to be moving smoothly from cold congestion to allergies. My left ear has been deaf for almost three days now, and it is making me crazy. I’m trying decongestants for now, but the experience has convinced me to finally buy a neti pot. I look forward to an awkward, choking learning period with that.

So while I haven’t been blogging, what have I been up to besides feeling ragged? Well, we went to PAX East again. And we dared to take the baby. To our relief, he had a great time!

Little Bear reaches for the camera

PAX East, if you are unaware, is a game convention held yearly in Boston. I’m by no means as experienced in that area as M is, but I have sufficient geek cred to enjoy myself. This year seemed a little lackluster compared to last year’s exciting announcements and many gorgeous games, but we still had a good time. Given that we don’t live in the city anymore, and we had a baby in tow, we drove for the first time. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. And it was very nice to see beautiful Boston again.

South Boston at dusk

PAX East attracts tens of thousands of people each year, and I’m always reminded of this when walking through the cavernous convention hall.

The now-empty line area

So many Starcraft players

Expo Hall from above

Despite the attendance, the size of the place means you can almost always find a little quiet corner if you need a breather. That was one reason I wasn’t too concerned about bringing Little Bear. He was a great sport about the Expo Hall, and when he got tired, I carried him off and we tucked ourselves away for some peace.

LB taking in the Expo Hall

LB watches his daddy try a game

LB encounters a glass wall

Really, the biggest lingering thought I had was that for a baby, there probably isn’t anything strange about cosplay. LB doesn’t realize yet that people don’t usually dress that way.

Sesame Street cosplay

The weekend after PAX, we eased back toward home life by spending Easter in Maine with family. It was a lovely short trip, with good food, good conversation, good company, and even a little sleep. Bear was a charmer, adjusting quickly to relatives he hadn’t seen in awhile (and his first cat!). He even delighted his admirers by standing up for the first time that I’ve seen outside of daycare.

LB standing

The fact that he biffed it shortly after this picture was taken probably explains why I didn’t see him stand up again for over a week. You’ll get there, little man. For now, enjoy your newfound mobility.

LB crawling

Other than those two big weekends, things have been relatively quiet. Since illness is running high in our household lately, that’s been a blessing. And it matches the drizzly, cool grey weather that persists. I’m not complaining, though. Early spring rains bring about that day when everything green suddenly pops, and it is magical, even though it’s the cusp of May.

I hope everyone is healthier than we are, and that your spring is shaping up nicely. Now that I’m slowly emerging from the fog of my cold, I am so excited about all the fun warmer weather will bring. Spring seems like a great time to show a baby how beautiful his little world can be.

Tipsy Daddy

Remembrance

Tipsy Daddy

I lost my father to cancer nine years ago today.

I know it was today because of what the records say and what people have told me. I was studying in Ireland at the time, and my memory combined with the time difference leaves a surreal impression in my mind. I have to remind myself every year. I became too embarrassed to go to my mom or my sister, so I surreptitiously check my family tree on Ancestry.com to confirm the date. It is intensely frustrating that one of the most important moments of my life remains fuzzy instead of crystal clear like I think it should be.

Having a ball at training

There are days when I don’t think about my dad. Sometimes I challenge myself to bring up as vibrant a mental recreation as I can. It’s not easy. The sound of his voice is elusive: unable to replicate it myself, it always skates away just as I think I recall it. I can mostly picture his face, though it shows up differently (dark hair, grey hair, no hair) on any given day. I can still reel off plenty of facts: companies he worked for, sports he played, foods he loved. I can see him polishing his combat boots and mowing the lawn. Though for the latter, I prefer the version from my childhood, without the little cigar hanging from his lips.

When I do consider my dad, I think all of the usual things. Some less fair than others: How dared you value smoking more than us? Advised by doctors, he quit to protect me when I was born prematurely. But somewhere along the way, it didn’t stick. I still remember the moment I found out he’d resumed the habit. I was at the public library, sometime in my early high school years. I’d driven myself and was still in the parking lot when I saw him come out of the building. I didn’t know he’d walked over from home. I watched him light up, hiding behind the car in shock. I didn’t emerge until he was down the street.

I can’t believe I never confronted him about his smoking, I wrote in my diary on March 1 the year that he died. My justification at the time was that I figured he would brush me off. Probably true, but of course now I wish I’d risked it.

A close momentA day will come, sooner than I’d like, when the time I’ve spent without my father is longer than the time we shared. Even then, the time we shared was frequently separate. As a corporate pilot and Army reservist, he was often away from home. We had a fine relationship, though we shared too many volatile traits to be as close as he was with my sister. I was closer to my mother and remain close to her as I get older. She’s been there as I graduated from college, moved to Boston, earned my Master’s degree, got married, and had a son. It is strange to realize that my father missed all of that. I have such a sweet little family now, and I wish like hell he’d had the chance to get to know them. And me, for that matter! He never knew me as an adult.

That works both ways, unfortunately. I never got to find out if we would be friends. I never got to laugh as my father tried to sternly interrogate my future husband. M missed out on that. And he doesn’t know what parts of me come from my dad. He doesn’t see that we share the same brow and the same temper. It will probably be years before my son understands that I, too, had a father. Little Bear knows his paternal grandparents and three of four paternal great-grandparents. On my side, he has my mom. Life isn’t equal, I know, nor is this unrealistic. I am older than my husband, my parents are/were older than his, and so on. It isn’t surprising that there has been more loss at a closer level in my family than his. That just doesn’t make it any easier, though.

I’ve always been blasé about the fact that my family is scattered. Aside from a paternal home base in Iowa and a maternal in the general St. Louis area, most of my relatives live apart. I have kin in California and New York, Illinois and Oklahoma, Michigan and New Jersey, and plenty of places besides. For a modestly-sized group, we have gotten around. As a result, we see each other infrequently. I’ve spent much more time with my in-laws than my relatives in recent years. I love that Little Bear has so much family close by. But boy, do I miss my own. Video chatting and digital photos just don’t make up the difference. Sometimes you want to be face to face.

looking like my sonWe take at least one photograph of our son every day. That was a conscious decision, even if we don’t eventually do a clever online album or photo book using those snaps. I usually go beyond the minimum, trying to capture his funny expressions and increasing coordination. Be it thanks to my training as an archivist or my history with my father, I want as many recorded memories as possible.

I’m going about it the wrong way, though. If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that M and I should be taking photographs of ourselves. We should be recording our voices and our smiles and the songs we sing. We should be taking pictures of every relative and friend we see. I desperately want our tiny son to be aware of his family, even just by sight, because someday we will lose each other. I have no power over life and death, but I can make damn sure he knows such love existed.

Life is short, but legacies can go on and on if you help them along. Memories fade so easily. Sometimes we need reminding. Someday, preferably many years from now, my son will be able to point to a photograph (or hologram, or whatever) and say to his great-grandchildren, “This is my grandfather. I never met him, but I know I would have loved him. My mother told me so.”

Sleepy, then and now