Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holiday Sanity in 10 Easy Steps

Following our Thanksgiving travel, I've had some time to ruminate on the 2010 holiday season, and wanted to share my thoughts on how to up the sanity and actual cheer this holiday season, while minimizing the tinsel (and/or menorah) induced craziness.   Friends, here is my official 2010 guide to holiday bliss:

10.  You know what?  You don't have to do everything.  You don't have to do anything! You don't have to send holiday cards, you don't have to throw or attend any parties, and you don't have to cook anything you don't feel like cooking.  The original idea behind all of these holiday-related traditions was to bring/spread joy.  When things start feeling like obligations instead of joy-enhancing activities, that is the time to scratch them off the list.  Choose to do just one, or even none, and let yourself off the hook.  You'll be surprised how quickly the holiday spirit washes over you.

9.  No matter your religion, none of the winter holidays are truly about gifts.  Why not simplify your list?  This year, my family has instituted a kind of (non)Secret (Jewish)Santa system where each of the adults is only giving to one other adult instead of everyone trying to buy for everyone.  I used this Secret Santa Random Name Generator website to orchestrate our gift exchange.  Not only are the randomly-generated pairs going to help us get to know our brother-in-laws better: I pulled my sister's hubby, for example, and most years I get "them" something with my sister in mind ;)... now I have to really think about what he would like for himself, and that's kinda cool; on top of that unintended perk, all of our holiday budget and time pressure was just instantly minimized as well.  Everyone is happy, and what better way to start the holiday season?

8. Declare December to be One Pot Dinner month.  Everyone seems to be busier this month, and it's not the time to turn into the Weeknight Gourmet.  Bring on the Quickie Indian nights!  Better yet, have a big yummy salad for dinner at least once a week; it'll combat the effects of all the office treats and candy, and is ready in five minutes flat.  Buy some good bread to go alongside and you're done.  Look for more easy dinner ideas here as the month continues; I've got loads.

7.  Consider buying your gifts handmade on Etsy.com.  Not only will you support small businesses run by amazing craftspeople (like my lovely cousin Allison or talented friend Amy) instead of big corporations, you can also complete all (or almost all) of your shopping from the comfort of your couch, with a dirty martini in hand, on one blissfully Silent Night... no parking or battling the mall crowds... just put on your favorite holiday tunes and point and click your way to shopping nirvana. 

6.  Speaking of holiday tunes, nothing grounds me or lifts my spirit like music.  There are all kinds of amazing playlists to checkout and download on iTunes... the husband and I used these playlists to come up with our own comprised completely of Motown and Reggae holiday tunes a few years ago.  We burned copies for gifts and they were a huge hit.  Another option?  Stream holiday music from Pandora.com on your laptop... it's a great way to discover new music, boost your mood, and get in a holiday frame of mind.

5.  When/if you fly with a toddler: dig deep for patience, remember to stay on the same team with your partner, dress the whole family in clothes and shoes that will be easy on the security experience (no belts is helpful, and, yes, they make a 19-month-old take off his shoes for security lest he be a tiny shoe bomber in training... sigh), hydrate, fortify yourself with snacks, and pack a plane bag loaded for bear (changes of clothes for all, snacks, drinks, coloring stuff, favorite books, and in our case, a certain Thomas the Tank Engine DVD was worth its weight in gold).  If possible, don't fly Southwest.  The cattle call system is not, I repeat NOT, toddler-friendly.  Also, when flying in general, try to remember that everyone around you is just another human being trying to get somewhere, as infuriating as each and every one of them may be (I'm talking to you, man shoving that ridiculous bag in the overhead bin... check the damn thing!!!).

4. Two words: Trader Joe's.  They have fantastic (and fantastically affordable) dips, cheeses and charcuterie, not to mention great wine, beer and bubbly.  TJ's is one-stop shopping for a budget-friendly, low-stress holiday soiree.  Forget the stuffy dinner party and do SMJ's favorite: dinner of appetizers! And don't forget: you can't go wrong with pigs-in-a-blanket and deviled eggs (the sleeper hits of any appetizer party).

3.  Kill 'em with kindness.  This time of year is hell for customer service people of all stripes.  From the airline ticket agent to the checkout gal, they've all pretty much had it.  Maybe you have too, but why not be the person who smiles, is polite, and makes their day a little better?  Kindness is contagious.  Just sayin'.

2.  Keep it all in perspective, people.  While in St. Louis, we took little J to the fabulous train room at the Missouri Botanical Garden.  While there, I spied a woman so dead-set on getting a Christmas card photo of her perfectly costumed and coiffed girls, that I don't think those little gals even got a chance to look at the trains.  Boo.  Let's try not to get so wrapped up in holiday perfection that we forget what really matters.  Like having fun. 

1.  Make time to exercise.  This is truly my number one piece of advice.  Exercise is everything.  A run or a yoga class can turn your whole day/week/month around, and now is the time of year when we are most apt to let exercise fall by the wayside in favor of holiday chores and parties and the kind of laziness that just naturally sets in as the year reaches its darkest point.  Do yourself a favor and just continually move that run or walk to the top of the list.  Endorphins=sanity, pure and simple.  This I know for sure.

What is your secret for holiday sanity?  Please share!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Over the river and through the body scanner...

We're off to St. Louis for Thanksgiving!
I am living in fear of the new security system at Logan and how long the lines will be today, but with my new-found ability to just let everything go, I am sure things will be hassle-free and peachy throughout.  I am also slightly nervous about flying with little J, but I have a diaper bag absolutely loaded for bear (Thomas the Tank Engine DVD, four top favorite books, crayons and paper, Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Sandwich crackers and a full and complete change of clothes are all in there) and am ready to rumble.  Give me a Caramel Macchiato and an on-time departure, and I shall be unstoppable.  If things go well, perhaps I'll do a post about flying tips with toddlers.  If they don't, I'll forget it all ever happened while soaking in my in-laws' hot tub.  It's a win-win, really.

I am excited to catch up with our family and blow town with my boys for a few days.  If time allows, I'll post from STL... if not, more next week!  In the meantime, have a beautiful Thanksgiving!  And as my Turkey Day gift to you, here are some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipe round-ups from across the food blog world:
Enjoy and be thankful!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mental Clutter

I am currently transitioning out of the job I've had for the last five years, and preparing to hand over my laptop in a couple weeks when the gig is up.  In real life, I'm something of a neatnik, with all of my drawers and files in order.  My computer, however, is another story.  I've got files of recipes I wanted to try in 2006, several spreadsheets regarding the arrival of the baby and everything I wanted to do to prep for that, photo files that have long since been copied to our home computer, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Wiping this laptop clean for its return is turning out to be quite the project, and an unbelievable trip down memory lane.
Some of the memories are good: like the first twelve-week ultrasound photos of Baby J where he's sucking his thumb in exactly the same way he does now, the extremely exuberant invites and directions to the husband's law school graduation, the letter I wrote to the lab rescue organization trying to convince them to give us Louie when they almost didn't because our house was too small (it worked!).  There's the menu planning document prepared by a law school friend when another friend broke her leg and we all were determined to keep her and her husband well fed through 1L finals, which warms my heart even to this day, so earnest was the desire of our community to help.  There are Christmas lists and travel plans and more recipes than I can count or cook.  All of these bring a grin to my face as I save them or toss them accordingly.

Then we have the less pleasant things: appeals to insurance companies and minor squabbles over minor things at work and home documented in the form of letters of protest are at the top of this list.  Reading back over, say, my request for specific asthma medications to be covered by insurance during my pregnancy (this request was denied, btw), I get that same pit in my stomach and clench in my fist that I got when I was originally authoring the letter.  I feel my blood pressure go up and my shoulders tense.  There's a lesson here...

One of the first times I ever hung out with my husband, long before we got together, we were having drinks at some friends' house in Boston, and we had both had a day of car trouble.  I had gotten in a little fender better with my truck, and his car had been towed from a no parking zone. Our reactions?  I was apoplectic; enraged at the unnecessary expense I'd incurred, the damage to my car, the inconvenience of it all.  He was copacetic; "these things happen" was his mantra, and then he just let it go.  I'd go home later that weekend and write, "I wish I could be more like B" in my journal.  This anecdote still makes us both laugh, but it also kind of makes me cringe.  As with the documents I've been reading through today, just thinking of that fender bender two cars and ten years ago still gets my heart rate going.  I guess you could say I have a hard time letting things go.

As I sort through these documents, it holds up a mirror to the last five years.  I'm doing my best to savor all the great memories being conjured, but I am downright embarrassed by some of the more impassioned "protest documents", as I've named them.  I think because my partner is so good at letting things go, rather than follow his example as I promised I would in my journal years ago, I've become all the more stubborn about holding on to arguments, subconsciously feeling like I'm doing so for the both of us.  The letter I found that I wrote to a landlord claiming a small sum of a security deposit is a perfect example of this... the husband was ready to let it go and move on, while I flew into a zealous campaign to reclaim what we were owed, come hell or high water.  Again, the blood pressure climbs; again, I find myself blushing at the paragraphs long case I made, arguments framed carefully in a Word document.  I won that battle, btw, and perhaps that's another reason I have a hard time letting go... whether through natural loquaciousness or law school osmosis, my powers of argument often end up working in my favor, at least in the short term.  Still, as I sort through this virtual pile, it is clear to me how much I could benefit from just.letting.go.

Do you have things like this in your mental filing cabinet?  Small yucky slices of life that you hold onto and allow to irk you when you should have long since rid your memory of them?  If so, do you care to join me in a resolution?  Sorting through these files has made me resolve to be better at sending things to my emotional recycling bin.  Yes, there will be appeals to file and small injustices encountered down the road, but I renew my vow of many years ago to "be more like B" and let these things wash over me and out of my life more quickly and efficiently.  There's no good that can come of dwelling and ruminating on these things; they must be sorted through in the paperwork of life and then thrown away.  There is no time like the holidays to make such a resolution, I might add.  At a time of year when everything from people cutting in line at the store to security lines at the airport can make your blood boil, why not recommit yourself to not sweating the small stuff?  With a sense of humor, perspective and scale, these things won't be absorbed into your psyche and shoulder muscles, and you'll be able to enjoy your December so much more.  I know that I will.  Let's just let it all go, shall we?  I'm hitting "empty" as we speak...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Paint Stress

On Friday mornings, I take the little man to an art class called "Paint Playground".  A room is draped with tarps on the floor, and filled with low tables containing different art supplies each week.  Some Fridays, we roll spiky balls through paint and across paper.  Some Fridays we stick feathers and googly eyes onto contact paper.  It is almost always a good time.
The one downfall of the class is the teacher, who is getting her masters in art education, and has a lot of knowledge to share.  I am all for learning more about developmental psych and how different art activities will effect the growth of the little dude's brain and creativity; however, a room full of paint-y, screaming, running two-year-olds is not the best place to impart knowledge on their paint-y, over-stimulated, under-caffeinated, chronically sleep-deprived parents. Also, sometimes she takes it a tad too far.  For example, did you know that if you draw a picture of say, a boat, while you are coloring with your child and it is better than a boat that they could draw, that it shames them, stifles their creative process and traumatically prevents them from having their own artistic growth?  Well, now you do.  You can see how this is not information easily absorbed while your son is chucking "moon sand" at other toddlers. Often, she laments that she is just talking to herself.  Because she is.  Anyway...

Today was our last class before the holidays, and we were encouraged to bring in canvasses for our children to paint, which we could then take home as keepsakes or give as gifts.  Little J's aunt brought him two canvasses on Sunday, and I was so excited by the idea of him painting art for the whole house and family, that I made an ill-advised trip back to the art store in a wind storm, getting lost in the Fenway neighborhood, inadvertently pulling into an expensive parking lot, and ending up walking about five city blocks holding little J and four awkward canvasses to get back to the car.  It would all be worth it, I thought, when our wee Picasso went to town today and made some cool prints.
Outside the paint room is a room with toys and a big wooden school bus to "drive", which little J adores.  We arrived early.  He drove the bus.  We went into the paint room.  I set up canvas #1.  He got a small dump truck and rolled it across the canvas once.  He filled the back of the truck with paint.  He took the q-tip intended for paint-smearing and pretended to clean his ear.  He shoved his hands wrist deep in green paint, then ran them through his thick, curly hair.  Then he looked at me, started screaming, and ran for the door.  The next five minutes were spent with him frantically trying to get out of the gate and back to the bus, tears rolling down his face.  The other parents looked at me with a mix of sympathy and disdain.  I worked to get the paint out of his hair and off his hands and the gate so he could get out.  It was then that the art teacher approached me.  Certainly, I thought, she's going to tell me to stop cleaning the gate and just go comfort my son.  Whew.

"He can feel your stress", she said.
Say what, sister?
"He feels your stress.  These canvas painting days are really stressful.  Parents expect a finished product, and the children just feel the pressure, and it is too much.  Buddy, are you stressed out?  I'm so sorry", she said to my howling child.  I promptly swiped my rag over the gate one last time, scooped him out, delivered him to the bus to play (where he was instantly happy), and gave myself a bit of a time out.
Here's the thing: people have been telling me a lot about my stress lately.  I've had comments from people of all stripes, some of whom don't know me all that well (the art teacher, for example).  These comments range from helpful to didactic to judgmental to sympathetic.  I've been given advice on how to diffuse the stress, why the stress exists, why it should or shouldn't exist, and how it may or may not be effecting my health, my son, and my life in general.  My usual Libran approach is to consider any advice or input I'm given, taking it with a grain of salt but trying to be open to the thoughts as well, with the idea that the opinions of others are valuable.  And to some extent they are, but today this went too far.  The only thing stressing me out in this situation was the art teacher, and I knew exactly what I needed to do to soothe both myself and my son. I just needed to tell her that and go do it.

I've decided the only way to be less stressed right now is to become more centered and sure of myself and my own life.  Yes, I'm stressed, but what working mom, what mom in general, isn't?  My stress is normal, and it isn't all-consuming.  If I'm seen by someone in an off moment of an off day and they choose to weigh in, I can't let it derail a certain sense of my own capability and solid foundation as a mom, a wife, and a grown woman.  If my green-haired son doesn't feel like painting, perhaps it is because you people have structured this studio so that the kids can still see all the cool toys in the other room while they are meant to be painting, not because I expected my boy to turn into a one man print shop and he feels the pressure from me.  And even if he does, he'll get over it.  He's resilient, I'm resilient, and stress is part of life. 

So, I am now making a declaration:
I hereby accept and embrace the stress in my life. The husband and I have stressful lives because they are rich and full with devoted friends and family, interesting work, stimulating creative outlets and our beautiful son and lovable dog.  We load our plates with these things because they interest us and make us feel alive and complete.  And sometimes they cause me stress as well.  But I can handle it.  I am handling it.  And I will continue to handle it with the help of friends, yoga, wine, music, running, cooking, and the love of my husband. Art teacher, thank you for your input, but we're doing just fine.  I'm going to keep on doing my thing, and so is the little man. 
And we're going to be great.

*Photo credits and thanks go to my sister-in-law, who agrees that the art teacher is a bit much.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inspiration Soup

A ninety-minute, butt-kicking power yoga class last night, followed by a late dinner of little nibblies and high-quality girl talk at a fun little place downtown has turned my week around, and I'm ready to start crawling out of my rut.  A gal can only eat so many scrambled eggs, after all.  That said, I got some good advice from the sage women in my life after yesterday's post, one of whom wisely encouraged me to embrace the rut and see what I can learn from my time in its folds.  I think there is some value to that, so in the name of both embracing the blech and starting to pull out of it, I decided to get back in the kitchen this morning, but to cook nothing but comfort food. 

A little chopping and stirring is always therapeutic for me, giving me time to ponder my next move in life, and gain some inspiration in the process. This flavor and protein-packed soup is meant to warm, nourish and energize the body and spirit.  The caramelized sweetness of the roasted squash contrasts the bite from the sausage and the toothsome lentils, making this a complex and hearty fall dish.  I say, make up a pot, dish yourself a bowl and enjoy it while flipping through the pages of something beautiful (Vogue?  Food and Wine?  The Style Section of the Sunday Time? The Joy of Cooking?... I personally chose an old favorite, Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser. I've always loved this book and am going to try making her oven fried chicken tonight... I'll report back on the results.).  Who knows what muse might be awakened?   
Inspiration Soup
Serves 8
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 butternut squash, halved and seeded
1 large onion, diced
4 carrots, diced
2 sweet Italian chicken sausages, chopped*
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
2.5 cups French lentils
8 cups chicken or veggie stock
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste
*Veggie friends please note: the sausages are totally optional.  I just love the depth of flavor a sausage gives to the soup, and they make soups and stews more salable as Dude Food in this house.

1) Pre-heat your oven to 425F.  Place your halved and seeded squash on a baking sheet and rub with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.  Roast for 45 minutes, or until fork tender.  Remove from oven and allow to cool, then peel and chop into rough chunks.
2) Heat the remaining oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven.  Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add the carrots and continue to saute for another 5 minutes, then add the sausage and thyme, and stir well.  Allow to cook for about 5 to 10 more minutes, until the sausage begins to brown slightly. Finally, add the chunks of roasted squash and the lentils.
3) Cover completely with stock.  Stir mixture until well-combined.
4) Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, and cook the soup covered, over low heat until the lentils are tender, about 1 hour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Enjoy and be inspired!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Small Rut

I'm back!  I had a wonderful trip at both work and play, and took the end of last week to bounce back from travels that were long on adventure but short on sleep.  Now, Thanksgiving is upon us, and I find myself curiously silent.

I've been at this blog thing for over a year now, and more often than not find myself overflowing with ideas to write about and musings to explore.  I usually have more thoughts to write than hours in the day, and a running list in my head of what I want to talk about, look into, link to or cook.  Yet, I came off the plane last week and ever since have had a kind of stunned silence in my mind, and every time I've logged into SMJ, I've blinked blankly at the screen a few times and then inevitably clicked away.

Perhaps it is because I've resolved to keep things positive on this blog and not to delve into things too deeply personal that I find myself with a bit of writer's block this week.  I have a lot going on right now, but much of it is lurking in a messy, dark and utterly personal corner in my mind and feels like it needs to be hashed out on a therapist's couch or in a dark corner of a cafe with a girlfriend and a glass of wine and not on the internet.  The funny thing is that life is good.  All the logistical puzzle pieces that were missing for us earlier this year... a place for us to live, a community to be a part of, a routine to be in... have been worked out with great results and we are nestled into a place that is exactly where we want and need to be.  Yet, I still have some pretty major things to sort out in the coming months....
I need a new job.

I need to transition out of the job I've had for 5 years (the longest I've been anywhere practically in my whole life).  There's a whole lot to do on that front and so many emotions.

When I am lucky enough to find a new job, we have to sort out what childcare will look like in our lives again... which is a very fraught and expensive task in so many ways and one that seems to have no winning solutions sometimes.  Just ask the bazillion Boston moms on the listserve I subscribe to who debate the topic ad nauseum almost daily; from daycare to nannies to full time SAHMs, no one seems totally at peace with their choice... it's wild.

The holidays are coming and need to be navigated in a financially responsible yet festive, joyous and creative way.  I'm feeling that some innovation is needed in the realm of cards and gifts, yet am drawing a total blank.  I am clearly the red-headed stepchild of merry, glitter-wielding, DIY mommy bloggers everywhere.  Humbug.

When I think about cooking, all I want to make is scrambled eggs.
This, my friends, is what I believe they call a rut.  Not a big, stuck in the mud, call a tow truck to pull you out rut, but a skidded-off-the-road-in-the-snow rut that is just going to take a bit of pushing and shoveling and a few choice swear words to overcome.   I need a bit of inspiration, a bit of rest and a kick in the pants.  I've lined up a week that I'm hoping will provide all these things in the form of yoga, running, and the aforementioned wine chats that are needed.  I may even make some soup in the midst of it all... I have French lentils, lovely sausages and butternut squash calling my name and luring me beyond my scrambled egg funk... if they succeed in inspiring me, you'll be in the first to know.  In the meantime, I'll just be digging away over here. And swearing occasionally.
Tell me... how do you push out of your ruts?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Brief Hiatus

I'm about to hit the road again, friends. 
Today is a day of figuring out which work pants fit me this week, and getting them all into one tidy rolling suitcase so I don't have to pay for extra luggage.  Today is a day of triple caffeination, lists and lists of lists, and VOTING!  Today is a day for extra snuggles for my boys, and extra gratitude for my sister-in-law, who will be holding down the fort in my absence. 
And then tomorrow I get on a plane and fly away...
On the other end of the flight, I first have lots of work to do, and then have a fun weekend planned with friends and family I don't get to see nearly enough of these days.  As such, I don't see a whole lot of blogging in my future in the coming week.  So, I'm going to take an official week-long hiatus, take care of business and take care of me for a bit, and then catch you on the flip side with lots to report!
Have a wonderful week.