The Tender-Hearted Carnivore

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My husband is a carnivore, or actually an omnivore, like the bear that he resembles. But if he tried to live like a bear, he would never survive. He’s just too sensitive about what he eats.

He’s not a member of PETA, but he has certain qualities in common with them. He won’t eat veal or goose liver because he objects to the conditions in which the animals are raised – closely confined and force-fed. It’s no life for an animal, he says. Neither is being slaughtered, sauteed, and served for supper, for that matter, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. I can sympathize with his position.

When he’s forced to participate in said slaughter, he’s even more uncomfortable. My mother was raised in the country and delighted in fishing. She also delighted in frying and eating her catch. Dan can tolerate fishing if it’s catch-and-release (though just barely). And he would refrain from commenting when my mother served up her self-caught delights. But on the way home, he would look positively morose.

He had an even more extreme reaction when we were on a sailing vacation off the coast of Maine. We anchored at a tiny, uninhabited island and the ship’s cook started a fire.  A huge pot of seawater and seaweed sat ominously nearby. So did a container of live lobsters.

Now, Dan doesn’t even like to watch live lobsters being prepared on television. He began referring to Emeril Lagasse as “the Evil Cook” when he saw the TV chef throw live crayfish into a hot skillet and laugh about it.  If I’m watching a cooking show, I have to tell him to cover his eyes whenever a live crustacean is going to be sacrificed.

Anyway, when the cook in Maine got ready to drop the lobsters in the pot, Dan took a melancholy walk around the island. Mind you, when he returned and found the lobsters bright red and safely dead, he devoured three of them, banging their bodies against rocks to get them open, proper lobster-cracking tools not having been provided. Lobster juice ran down his face into his beard. He wasn’t squeamish about that.

I began to think he was carrying his sensitivity too far, however, when he started objecting to barbecue restaurants whose signs featured happy pigs serving up platters of ribs. “They’re showing smiling pigs serving themselves up to be devoured,” he asserted. No amount of reassurance that the signs were merely illustrations could suppress his uneasiness. It was the principle of the thing.

When I totally lost sympathy for his obsession, though, was when he started objecting to TV commercials that showed cereal squares eating other cereal squares (and licking their nonexistent lips). He objected to the cannibalistic element, which he found offensive.

“They’re cereal,” I pointed out. “And they’re animated. No grain suffered in the production of the cereal. Nothing alive was harmed in the production of the commercial.” It didn’t matter.

“They’re presented as sentient,” he said, “and they’re eating their own kind.”

Well, there’s really no way to argue with that, so I just roll my eyes and don’t even try.

Oddly, Dan loves movies and shows about mountain men who hunt and forage for their food under harsh, primitive conditions. He doesn’t like it when the animals get their paws caught in traps and suffer because of it, but he suddenly doesn’t object to the killing of a sentient being and the subsequent devouring of it.

Despite his affinity with mountain men, I try to point out that he would be lousy at it. “Not if I was hungry enough,” he replies. “Then I could do it.” He’s eaten venison, but personally, I can’t picture him shooting, skinning, and butchering a deer. He might have to become a vegetarian at that point and his career as a mountain man would be over.

Until a moose was magically transformed into moose steaks and presented to him wrapped in styrofoam and plastic at the local grocery, I doubt he’d survive.

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Lies We Tell About Bullying

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Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

Which Meal Kit(s) Did We Like Best?

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Not too long ago I decided I would try a few meal delivery kits, the kind that send you a box of fresh ingredients with enough food for three dinners, plus recipes.

I was curious and I had heard that meal kits could help reduce grocery bills and food waste, both of which can be problems in our household.

Full disclosure: I did not tell anyone that I was doing this, most particularly not the producers of the meal kits. I did not set out to rank the kits and I am receiving nothing in exchange for my opinions.

The services I tried were Home Chef, Hello Fresh, SunBasket, EveryPlate, and Dinnerly. I took advantage of introductory offers to order a different kit every week for a month. Here’s what I found.

From Home Chef we selected the shrimp yakisoba noodle bowl, New England fish cakes, and Italian pork wedding pasta.

Our selections from Hello Fresh were orzo and sausage with veggies, shrimp with zucchini ribbons, and sweet and smoky pork tenderloin.

The SunBasket meals we ordered were salmon with white bean artichoke salad, coconut shrimp, and a skillet version of moussaka.

From EveryPlate we chose spicy chicken tacos and slaw, chicken cutlets with mashed sweet potato, and Asian bbq pork with rice and broccoli.

Dinnerly provided mole chile and rice, caprese pasta, and spicy egg rolls with Thai sauce.

Now on to the comparisons.

Delivery

Each box arrived in a timely fashion, most of them by noon and all before dinner. The boxes were sturdy cardboard with cold packs inside to keep the fresh ingredients that way. The boxes were left on the doorstep without our having to sign for them, which was good, except when it rained and the bottom of the box became soggy.  But I prefer that to needing to be home when the box arrives.

Packaging

Packaging evidently makes a difference to some users of the services. Three of them packed the ingredients for each meal in a separate bag, Hello Fresh and SunBasket’s in brown paper bags, Home Chef’s in plastic (though reusable) bags. Dinnerly and EveryPlate went the grocery cart route, with all the ingredients somewhere in the box, making the user sort them into each meal’s supplies.

Ingredients

All the ingredients arrived in satisfactory condition, although the chard in one box was slightly limp but usable. Sauces and such came in little restaurant packages or cute little jars.  The pesto for the caprese pasta and the dipping sauce for the eggrolls were in lidded plastic cups inside plastic bags, which made me nervous, but held up despite the potential for mess. The one egg called for in a recipe came in a cunning little individual egg box and, amazingly, arrived safely.  If garlic was required, a whole head arrived, with instructions to use two cloves and save the rest for later.

I was generally satisfied with the amount of ingredients, although all of the services should look at sending more tomatoes than they do, especially since they provide roma tomatoes and tell you to seed and core them, leaving very little actual tomato flesh.

I was surprised that shrimp featured in so many dishes. Pork and chicken were other prominent proteins. The lack of beef was explained when I noticed that most beef dishes cost extra – keep an eye peeled, because these premium prices aren’t prominently marked.

Recipes

Detailed recipes are included with each box, except for Dinnerly, which asks you to download the recipes from their website. Home Chef’s recipes came packed in a notebook binder, making it easy to save the hole-punched instructions. The recipes all included five or six steps, mostly evenly divided between prep and cooking. My husband had been worried that the dishes might not be filling, but he was wrong. He was satisfied with the portions.

The meal delivery services assume you have some standard pantry ingredients like salt, pepper, and flour, and common kitchen implements such as knives and colanders. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a vegetable peeler, which meant our zucchini ribbons were less than uniform, or a grater, so the carrots in our slaw were rather larger than recommended.

Flavor

I’d have to say that the results here were hit or miss. There were excellent dishes from each service, and less successful ones as well.  Particular favorites were Hello Fresh’s sausage with orzo, which was more flavorful than Home Chef’s similar Italian wedding pasta. SunBasket had one real winner, the salmon with white-bean/artichoke salad, and one not so great, the coconut shrimp. Overall, we liked the Dinnerly dishes the best, though of course we had no way to judge the flavor when ordering. You’re totally dependent on the pictures and descriptions, though some are thoughtfully labeled “spicy,” which may or may not be accurate.

We found many of the dinners a little bland, probably because they recommend adding a fair amount of salt, which we don’t for health reasons (the sodium levels in the nutrition information can be quite high). We had to supplement with Mrs. Dash or ingredients like chili flakes left over from previous meals.

Price

Here’s where the meal services really differ. Although all of them do seem to reduce food waste, and you probably do save money by not buying a whole bunch of carrots instead of just two or two ounces of Thai chili sauce instead of a whole bottle, the dinner boxes are not inexpensive. EveryPlate and Dinnerly were the most economical, with prices around $5 per person per meal, which is not unreasonable.  The other meal services were as high as $11 per person per meal, which means they’re comparable to eating out at a casual dining restaurant, something we couldn’t do three times a week.  Add to that the delivery charges, and the prices are more appropriate for someone with a higher income than we have.

EveryPlate and Dinnerly suffer, though, by offering a choice of only five and six different meals per week, respectively. Perhaps that’s how they keep costs down. Other services offer up to 18 choices per week.

Bottom line? If we were more financially stable, EveryPlate or Dinnerly would get my vote. There might be fewer choices per week, but since I never really know how any recipe will taste, that doesn’t seem a complete drawback. Plus, if nothing appeals, I can always skip a week.

 

Early Childhood Education: Then and Now

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Back in the ’80s, I edited a magazine called Early Childhood News. It was aimed at owners and operators of day care centers (as we called them back then), though there was content that was of interest to employees as well.

Times have changed. But how much? A lot of what concerned early childhood educators back them reverberates through the field today, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Here’s what the experts are saying now.

Abysmal Economics. Back in the ’80s, child care worker pay was a big concern, as was the cost of child care. Government subsidies to child care centers and workers seemed like the answer but went nowhere aside from Head Start. Many mom-and-pop child care centers popped up in homes around the country, a good number of them unlicensed; they were the only kind many parents could afford. As low as teacher pay was in accredited centers, professional child care was out of reach for the poor and even for large parts of the middle class.

Not a lot has changed. Government being largely unresponsive on the subject, and child care tax credits making little actual difference, parents began to turn to employers as sources of care. Alas, only a few forward-thinking companies provided any on-site care for their employees’ children. The Baby Boomers were aging out of the parenting years and, as good a benefit as it seemed, child care in the workplace never took hold.

One thing that hasn’t changed as child care workers morphed into early childhood educators is the fact that salaries remain so low that such work cannot provide a living wage. NPR had this to say about salaries for a typical worker:

Why would she teach preschool when she could make a heck of a lot more money teaching kindergarten? … In some places, we pay early childhood teachers less than fast-food workers, less than tree trimmers. As a country, we’ve acknowledged the importance of early learning and yet, when you look at what we pay those educators, it doesn’t add up.

This despite the fact that preschool teachers are increasingly well educated – NPR reports that 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor’s degree for the main teacher in the classroom and 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor’s degree. Even in a credentialed center with educated teachers, salaries still put early childhood workers below the poverty line.

Still, parents find it difficult to pay for child care. Care.com’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey reports that:

One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care. Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.

Yet child care is a service that few can do without:

American families will go to great lengths to pay for child care. In fact, 26 percent would put themselves in debt or further debt to pay for child care, and parents report they’ve saved less money (54 percent) and made major budget cuts (41 percent) to pay for the rising cost of care.

Even family planning is affected. The same study finds that “one in three families (33 percent) say the cost of child care influenced their family planning, in that they either waited longer to have children or had fewer children than they would have liked because of child care costs.”

Education versus play. The term “child care” seems to be fading out in favor of “early childhood education.” Along with that change comes an increasing focus on academics.

While it is true that many children come to kindergarten unready to learn, a debate still rages about what the role of the child care center is – early education versus play. “Academic” centers abound, to the extent that some of them appear to be mini-kindergartens. Some parents apparently eat this up, perhaps thinking that for the to-them-exorbitant price of child care, their children had better be learning something.

PBS, in a focus on teachers, had this to say:

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” [Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] says.

Play-centered environments have their champions as providing that kind of readiness. They say that play-centered learning is more than mere play. In play-centered (or as they often say, “child-centered”) environments, children can learn not merely socialization skills, but preparation for learning without all the academic trappings. Preschools that feature exploratory science equipment (such as water tables and sand tables), well-stocked libraries of good-quality children’s literature (and story time to go with it), art areas, and other manipulatives and play centers are actually imparting valuable lessons about the way the world works. The NEA is a particular champion of play-centered care.

These two trends, the economics of child care and the push-pull between academics and play, are likely to continue. Absent better salaries for both workers and parents, early education centers will have to choose between offering learning and play if they cannot convince the public that they are two sides of the same coin.

 

The Great Meal Kit Experiment

We have had trouble with our meals.  Well, that’s not quite true. We’ve had trouble with our grocery budget. Actually, both those things are true.

The first part of the problem is shopping. My husband works in a store that sells, among other things, groceries. And he just can’t resist meats which, while on special, are still so expensive I’m tempted to take out a meat loan to get them. Plus, he’s unable to resist the Manager’s Special, Close-Out, and Day Old tables.

That might seem like frugal shopping, but it results in a variety of bizarre foods that we would never otherwise have purchased. Vanilla butter. Bourbon-apple salsa. Snacks that taste like sesame-flavored cardboard. And the “reduced” prices don’t mean they’re cheap. You should have seen the price tags the week the store cleared out the “Imported from Italy” section. Imported pesto isn’t cheap, let me tell you.

Our next problem is waste. We waste a lot of food. Our refrigerator is so unreliable that it regularly freezes any produce we buy and turns it into unidentifiable slimy green goo. This is good neither for our budget nor for our appetites. We are reduced to buying prepared deli salads – which are hideously expensive but can be eaten the same day – or getting bags of cole slaw mix that are hideously expensive but can be eaten with my special slaw dressing (mayonnaise and pickle juice) which my husband loves. That we devour in a day or two. Frozen peas and corn and canned tomatoes are the most vegetable-like things we can keep on hand. And sometime V-8 juice.

Anyway, our food expenditures are outrageous. I’ve tried setting a budget, but my husband does the shopping and is unable to understand the concept. I’ve tried splitting the shopping with him, but every night when he gets off work he picks up a few more (or even more) items that he seems psychologically unable to resist.

So, in the hope of reducing both the amount we spend and the amount we waste, I have decided to try an experiment. Those meal kits we hear so much about on TV and online promise solutions to budget, preparation, shopping, and variety of meals. They are said to provide good nutrition, reduce waste, and be ever so yummy.

So each week for the next six weeks, I am ordering one of those yuppie, home-delivered meal kits. I am taking advantage of special promotional deals, as there is no way that paying the full price would produce any actual savings. I am not receiving any freebies or reduced prices by promising to blog about any of them.

The services I have chosen for this experiment are:

Home Chef

Blue Apron

Hello Fresh

EveryPlate

SunBasket

and Dinnerly.

Each week will receive three recipes and sets of appropriate ingredients for the making thereof. My husband is dubious of this experiment, as he claims (rightly) that the portion sizes they will deliver will not match the portion sizes of meals that he prepares. I try to point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing and that we can always supplement with appetizers, yogurt, pretzels, or popcorn should we feel unsatisfied.

I am trying to select a range of meals that will be filling yet different from our usual fare, involving ingredients we don’t usually have on hand and international cuisines we don’t make at home.

For the rest of the meals for the week, hubby can shop for whatever he chooses, though I fervently hope he will stick to staples like chicken, ground beef, fish, rice, beans, canned tomatoes, mushrooms, frozen vegetables, potatoes, pasta, eggs, bread, and the like. He makes an awesome frittata, an amazing shepherd’s pie, and a killer deconstructed mac-n-cheeseburger.

At the end of this experiment, I will report back on the results. My goals are variety in cuisine, reduced waste, lower grocery bills, and fewer odd ingredients that go with nothing else.

Our first delivery is arriving on our doorstep Tuesday.

Wish us luck.

Burn Down the “She Shed”!

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At first it sounded like a good idea: a dedicated space where a woman could pursue her interests. Kind of like a Man Cave, but with curtains and flowers.

You’d think that as a writer, I’d love a She Shed where I could create and recreate to my heart’s content. Maybe have a friend over for a glass of wine or some tea and cookies.  But the more I thought about it, though, the more I kept asking myself: Do I really want a First-World, savings-sucking, sexually segregated hut that smells like mulch and motor oil to pursue my dreams in? I think not. And here’s why.

The She Shed Is Elitist

The only people who can have She Sheds are those who live in suburban or rural areas and own at least a quarter-acre of ground. Just imagine living in a three-room apartment in an urban center and asking the landlord if you can build a She Shed on the roof. It seems to me that the woman in that situation is the one who needs a She Shed the most.

Of course, this is true of the Man Cave as well. Small apartments just don’t have a garage or a spare room to devote to manly pursuits (whatever they may be).

The She Shed Is Expensive

You can certainly build a She Shed from scratch, but even the materials are pricey. The smallest pre-fab DIY shed kit I’ve seen runs over $1000. And that’s without furnishings, paint, amenities, and whatever equipment you need to pursue your hobbies or dreams.

The Man Cave is expensive too, with all those super-sized televisions, kegerators or mini-fridges, billiard tables, recliners, work-out equipment, and possibly power tools.

The She Shed Is Impractical

Many of the articles I’ve seen recommend repurposing an old shed you already have – say, a lawnmower shed – for your dream woman-friendly den. Never mind that most existing sheds either already serve a function (say, lawnmower storage), they are also too small for all the necessities and frills that Pinterest tells us are part of a proper She Shed. A potting shed, maybe – but who has a potting shed that they’re not using for actually potting? Or is that supposed to be the woman’s fun and fulfilling activity? If so, why build another shed for it?

Besides, tool sheds and potting sheds lack many of the necessaries for a properly inviting environment – electricity, say, for the writer’s computer or the reader’s lights, or even running water. Just to go to the bathroom, a woman must leave her She Shed, troop back into the “real” house and avail herself of the plumbing, then reverse the process. Unless, of course, there is another shed-like building outside – the kind with a crescent moon carved on the door.

Man Caves have the advantage here, since they’re usually located in an “unused” room or a garage, which usually have all the modern conveniences built in or within easy reach.

The She Shed Is Sexist

Which bring us to another point. Why should a man get to take over an entire room of a house, while a woman is relegated to an outside structure, which has the feeling of a children’s playhouse (not to say doghouse)? The house is hers too. Doesn’t she have as much right to that den or garage as anyone? A couple could also share that den, spending alternate days in it and leaving it empty one day a week.

Man Caves are sexist too. They imply that women are so awful or annoying that men must have a place where they can be alone or with other men. That a woman, if not forbidden to decorate a room, will fill it up with frou-frou furnishings and paint colors like daquoise and saffron and elderberry. That no woman enjoys sports and beer. That men are such boors that no one but other men can stand to be around them. It insults both sexes, which in its way is quasi-egalitarian, though not desirable.

The She Shed Is Ridiculous

We have a few sheds out by the driveway and around the side of the house. I suppose I could repurpose one of them into a writer’s retreat, except for the no-electricity thing and the trek to the bathroom thing. But these sheds are made by Rubbermaid. They have no windows for darling curtains or even fresh air. A person trapped inside would be overcome by a scent like the sole of a sneaker. Besides, they are full of lawn and gardening supplies, which means that if I took one over, we would need yet another shed. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve reproduced enough.

Besides, “She Shed”? The term is ridiculous. What do you keep in a shed? Gardening supplies. Chainsaws. Lawn tools. Cases of motor oil and washer fluid. Lumber. Chickens. Stuff you don’t know what else to do with.

“Man Cave” isn’t even alliterative like “She Shed.” At least call a woman’s retreat something dignified, like, well, a “Woman’s Retreat.” Personally, I call my study “My Study.” And my husband comes in regularly for conversation or to look up things on the computer. He doesn’t mind my collection of stuffed animals – he bought at least half of them for me. We write his appointments on my whiteboard along with my projects. And there’s a small TV and a sound system, plus iTunes on the computer.

And that’s what we do with our spare room. Make it inviting for both of us.

A Not-Mother’s Mother’s Day Post

This is my mother. I’m not like her – I never had children. But what if I had? What would my life with children have been like?

In my younger days, I never really expected to get married and had never pictured myself having children. But I married in my mid-20s and kind of assumed that I’d have children, or at least one child. I remember telling my husband that if we did so, I would like to have said progeny before I turned 30.

That never happened. Then or later. There are various reasons for that, most of which boil down to choosing not to procreate. Suffice it to say that my husband and I have remained childless, or child-free, or whatever you wish to call it, and (as far as we know) not because of any medical complication.

But recently I stopped to think: What if I had had those theoretical children according to my imaginary schedule? Where would they (and I) be now?

First, I assume they would have been boys with bad eyesight and funny hair. My husband’s family runs not-quite-exclusively to boys, he’s near-sighted and I’m far-sighted, and he has a non-Afro-Afro, which his mother determinedly tried to part and subdue, to little effect.

I also picture them – or him, at any rate – being a difficult child. Dan’s “inner child” is, shall we say, very close to the surface, and I’m certain that among the three of them (Dan, inner child, and outer child), the testosterone level would have been high enough to cause a flight hazard for jetliners. I would have been severely outnumbered and completely unprepared, never having had even one brother. They would have ganged up on me, I feel sure. That would have left me to be the “Bad Mommy,” in the sense of being the one trying vainly to impose a little order, something I’ve never really been able to do in my own life.

Long before now, we’d have been paying for little Jim’s therapy. (James is a name that appears in both our families, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave out all the negotiating that would have happened.) Jim would have needed the therapy because my bipolar disorder would have not just affected my parenting skills, but might have increased his chances of having the disorder too.

(I’m sure there are bipolar people with children who manage somehow, but I don’t understand how they do it. Really, I don’t understand how parents without bipolar do it.)

Most of my friends who reproduced around the same time I “should have” turned out children that are intelligent, sociable, as well-behaved as one could reasonably expect, and likely to be talented at artistic or scientific endeavors. They are now, by and large, collegians, college graduates, and productive members of society – and some even parents themselves. (And wasn’t that a shock when someone I was in Girl Scouts with became a grandmother!)

One or two of the kids have had difficulties of the kind that need extra nurturing and support, or illnesses or conditions that require medical treatment – but there’s no way to predict those or blame them on the parents. Only one that I know of has had trouble with the law, which is a pretty good average, considering all the friends I have and the propensity they’ve shown for reproduction.

The children have brought the families love, satisfaction, struggle, pride, work, expense, joy, tears, and excitement – exactly as we kids brought my parents, I believe. And that’s what I believe children would have brought to me as well.

I don’t regret not having children. Eventually I learned that was not the path for me. But still sometimes I wonder:

Could I have done as well as my friends? As my own mother? I’ll never know.

 

The Year Our Christmas Presents Changed

Our family Christmases were idyllic, if simple. Each year on Christmas Day, we would all open our presents. My sister and I would get doll clothes (this was when you got outfits, not multiple Barbies) and plush animals, Spirograph and paint-by-numbers, and such.

Then we’d get dressed, jump in the car, and drive to Granny’s house, where we’d open more gifts of clothes and stationery and Avon cologne. We’d wreak havoc on a turkey and trimmings, before the adults went off for naps, after dropping us kids off at the movies.

Then came the year when my sister and I had to grow up fast.

My parents had always tried to keep any bad news away from us and carry on as normal, but there was no hiding this bad news. After being accidentally hit by the garage door, my father’s injured neck turned out to be something much worse than a sprain, strain, or contusion. It wasn’t the garage door that caused it. of course, but that was when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

It’s a horrible form of cancer that attacks the bones all throughout the body and destroys them. I hope the treatments have gotten better in the decades since, but for my father cancer meant radiation, chemotherapy, and an operation to fuse the bones of his neck using bone from his hip. He lived many years longer than the doctors predicted, which I attribute to his stubbornness. He certainly wasn’t a health aficionado.

Naturally, all those cancer treatments and hospitalizations were expensive. My parents had good insurance, but even that was nowhere near covering the costs. And my father’s illness was not something my parents could keep secret from us kids, much as they would have liked to. It affected every part of our lives.

When Christmas came that year, I was 15 and my sister was 16. My mother explained that because of the family’s medical expenses, we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas as usual. No driving from Ohio to Kentucky to see our relatives. And no Christmas presents.

Except one.

My mother said that all we could afford was a magazine subscription for each of us. Our choice of titles. She hoped we weren’t disappointed.

I wasn’t. To me, a magazine subscription was special, something that grown-ups got, and something that kept giving all year long. I chose Analog, a science fiction magazine, and my sister chose Sixteen. It was exciting to watch the mail for each month’s issue. (As kids, we didn’t usually get much mail, except cards on our birthdays.)

For the Christmases after that, my mother would renew our subscriptions, or let us change to a different title. When I started studying astronomy in high school, I switched to Sky and Telescope. When she turned 17, my sister switched to Seventeen.

Now I subscribe to the electronic versions of three magazines –Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Discover. I still get a little thrill each month when the new cover icon appears on my e-reader screen. It reminds me of the first time I ever got an actual, grown-up present – when I started becoming an adult, whether I wanted to or not.

 

The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.

 

 

Getaway: Creepy to Castle to Country

“How far away is Massachusetts?”

“About 12 hours, maybe more.” My husband has less than a keen grasp on geography. Also, he asks questions out of order. When he asks me about Massachusetts, I know there’s a question behind the question.

“How would you like to sleep in Lizzie Borden’s house?” Ah, the real question. Dan had read that the Borden residence was now a bed and breakfast and he was pretty sure I’d be interested. After all, he’s met me. When we went to London I insisted on taking the Jack the Ripper Walk, the one led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, so I could get him to autograph my copy.

I’m not saying that I would want to do the Assassination Vacation thing like Sarah Vowell, but true crime interests me and we had been talking about a long weekend getaway.

But there was a problem. Two, actually. Apart from the fact that Massachusetts was too far to drive for a three-day weekend, there was the ambience of the Borden b-n-b, as I learned online. Far from true crime, it was being billed as paranormal. Psychic readings. Ghost cams. All that ooga-booga shit I have no use for. I was glad to abandon the idea and search for less hokey, and closer, accommodations.

The next thing Dan suggested was a castle. I had told him about the wonderful castle tours in Ireland, and he thought he remembered that there were castles – or at least replica castle hotels – within our state. So back to the Internet I went.

There are indeed castles in Ohio. None authentic, as we’ve never had an Earl of Chillicothe or Baron of Akron, but several nonetheless. Some sounded very interesting, with little, attached taverns or pubs or assorted square and round towers. The problem here was that they were out of our price range. We could afford one night. Driving somewhere, spending one night, and driving back isn’t my idea of relaxation, unless we have an interesting relative within driving distance, which we mostly don’t.

(We’re keeping some of the non-hotel castles in mind as day trips. A tour and a meal sound like a fine one-day getaway.)

By chance, the next day I got an email from a travel discounting service (all right, it was TravelZoo), advertising a 60% off rate on a stay at a working farm in Kentucky. Not an old farm, but one built in the 90s, recent enough to have Jacuzzis in some rooms and Wifi throughout.

If that sounds a lot like glamping, well it is. But the place also offers opportunities to milk cows or goats; gather eggs for breakfast; learn canning, gardening, and other farm-type activities, plus take tours of a thoroughbred horse park or bourbon distilleries and vinyards.

Two discounted nights at the farm were only a few dollars more than one night in a castle, and only three hours or so away. And it seemed a pleasant combination of rest and recreation. I emailed, got a speedy answer to my question, and booked right away, in the middle of the night, from my tablet. Now we have a voucher and just have to pick a date, perhaps around our anniversary.

There’s no crime connection, and no pseudo-castle, but there is fresh air in different surroundings, plus activities that will take me back to my childhood stays at Uncle Sam’s farm. (Yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam. I also had an actual Aunt Jemima. Yes, I know it’s funny.)

In one day our travel plans had ricocheted from creepy to medieval to rustic. We’re flexible like that.