The Needlework Gene

My mother used to make me dresses out of flour sacks. No, we weren’t sharecroppers, although one of my great-uncles was. Back in the day, flour sacks were printed with calico patterns just so people could use them for clothing. It may have started back in the Depression, but it lasted well into my childhood. Later in life, when I was a teen, my mother found a bolt of cloth in the fabric store that was printed with a design that looked exactly like a feed sack. Of course, I insisted that she make me a tunic with the company logo featured prominently as a call-back to my childhood garb.

The gene for needlework may have been passed down through my family. My maternal grandmother was a knitter. She made sweaters for everyone in the family and sewed a little tag into each of them saying “Made Especially for You by Grandma Rose.” She could even knit a sweater from a crochet pattern, which if you know anything about needlework, is quite a feat.

My mother, of course, was a seamstress. She made a lot of clothes for me and my sister, including lots of calico shirts when the cosmic cowboy craze was on in the ’70s. She was prone to whimsy, as you probably guessed from the flour sack story. Once when she found some camouflage-print flannel, she made me my favorite floor-length nightgown (I had ones in yellow and blue) from it. One year at Halloween she even made me a nightcap to go with it. I powdered my hair and went to the party as “Rambo’s Granny,” a joke that no one seemed to get. Another time she made me a forest green wool cape and matching Robin Hood hat, which I wore to my college archery class. (The teacher just rolled her eyes and said nothing.) But most of the time she stuck to doll clothes and dresses and the like.

Later in life, my mother took up crocheting. She collected crochet pattern magazines and even acquired some foreign crocheting pen pals from the classified page. They exchanged handmade Christmas ornaments (crocheted snowflakes “starched” with Elmer’s glue were a favorite) and my mother sent needlecraft supplies that her correspondents couldn’t find in India or the Dominican Republic. Of course, we all got homemade Christmas sweaters that I would never dare call ugly, though my husband got one with a large moose on it.

I thought that perhaps the needlepoint gene had skipped a generation. I sewed a skirt and vest when I was forced to in junior high home ec, but my crafty efforts were more usually paint-by-numbers or wood-burning or ceramics. Then I discovered latch-hooked rugs, which involves short strands of yarn and a device that looks like it was designed to be used on high-button shoes. I still have on the sofa a small pillow that I latch-hooked and somewhere there’s a planet-scape rug that I hooked. This may have been a different manifestation of the needlework gene, as my maternal grandfather braided rugs in his time.

Hooked rugs quickly became passé. I’ve noticed that needlework crafts tend to come in waves like that. So next I took up needlepoint, then bargello, and eventually found my métier in counted cross-stitch. This provided the illusion of sewing without the need to actually sew anything. Instead one followed a pattern of wee Xs in different-colored thread (called floss) to make a picture. The cloth was full of tiny, regularly spaced holes to make the Xs in. It took less skill than embroidery and produced works that were easier to give away than hooked rugs. My mother-in-law still has a set of red-and-blue quilt-patterned pillows that I made for her.

Now, however, my eyesight continues to grow poorer and my hands to shake more with each passing year, so I’ve had to give up cross-stitch. Despite the fact that my mother continued to crochet dolls and stuffed animals for her church’s Christmas bazaar while her eyes were failing, I still don’t crochet. I can never get the tension right although there’s lots of it my life. And since I don’t have kids, the needlework gene ends here.

Still, I haven’t lost my interest in the needle arts. Just start doing petit-point or quilting near me and I’ll be looking over your shoulder.

 

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Long-Distance Love Can Work

We met under the most unlikely of circumstances: in front of the food tent at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, introduced by mutual friends. Dan was from the Philly area, but I was living in Ithaca, NY, and scheduled to relocate to Ohio within two weeks. Unlikely as it may seem, we fell in love.

Not right away, you understand. It took us at least the two weeks that intervened before I moved. I invited Dan to a house party in Ithaca. He drove all the way there to see me despite having spent only the long weekend of the Festival with me. At the party we were inseparable. By the time I left for Ohio, we were in love.

No one figured that we had a chance to make it work. Long-distance relationships never succeed, especially those that start with such a brief acquaintance. But no one had considered the stubbornness of either him or me.

At first, things went about as you’d expect. I rented a four-room apartment in a small house in Ohio and Dan continued to live with his parents and work at a nearby hospital. We resolved to keep in touch.

This was in the days before texting, IMs, and the Internet existed, so we kept in touch via actual physical letters. In those letters we opened up to each other, getting to know each other’s most personal feelings the way we never could have just by dating. I typed my letters on my brand-new portable electric typewriter. Dan wrote his longhand in the breakroom at his job. Since he worked third shift, his letters often became long, funny, surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness rambles created in the wee hours of the morning. There’s nothing like stream-of-consciousness for getting inside someone’s head and learning all about him.

Neither one of us had much money for phone calls or visits, but we managed to work in some of each. And in the February after our August meeting, I was startled to receive flowers, the first Valentine’s Day bouquet that anyone had ever sent me. I took a Polaroid picture of them, which I still have.

As the months went on and our letters became more infused with growing love, we began to talk about the possibility of actually living in the same state. I went back to college and settled in to wait. I figured Dan would eventually get tired of living with his parents and make the move.

And so he did, arriving in an orange Pontiac Ventura with a U-Haul trailer of his belongings. He found a small apartment just down the street and around the corner from mine, and we began getting to know each other in person and seriously planning our lives together. At last he proposed and I said yes.

It wasn’t all smooth and steady, of course. We were both young and had problems we hadn’t worked out. Some of mine involved the bad relationship I was in when we met. Some of his involved his family, who didn’t want to see their son settle so far from the family home as his brother had. Both of us had emotional baggage that seemed as though it might drive us apart.

That’s where the stubbornness came in. After all the time apart, the soul-baring letters, and then the luxury of living within walking distance of each other, we were determined to make this relationship work. We worked on our problems, separately and together, until we achieved liveable compromises with our pasts.

Now, 35+ years later, we are still together. Not that we have been solidly joined and happy the entire time. I remember at least once when I called around looking for an apartment that would take a woman with two cats. He once worked on a budget to see if he could live on just his own salary. We fought. We sought counseling. We made it through.

I can’t advise that anyone begin a long-distance relationship. More often than not, they don’t work. But when they do, it’s magical.

New Year’s: A Kiss, a Clink, and a Shaky Wallet

There are plenty of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day customs out there. A lot of the traditions don’t work for us. Over the years, we’ve kept a few but mostly arrived at our own.

One superstition says not to let anything leave the house on New Year’s Day, except for people. Evidently, this means one should take one’s garbage out on New Year’s Eve.  Now, I don’t know about you, but we can’t leave our trash just sitting out. We live in a wooded area and the possums and raccoons are more than capable of ripping open the bags and festively decorating the cul-de-sac with the contents. On the other hand, there’s also a superstition about avoiding paying bills on the holiday, which would be much easier and more pleasant for us to carry out but would mightily piss off our mortgage company.

And forget football and parades. We spend the entire football season as well as the parade season avoiding them religiously. I don’t really mind the giant balloons and the floats made of flowers, but if I hear one more pop song played on tubas, my head will explode. Forget Polar Bear Plunges too. All my Christmas gifts this year were things designed to keep every part of my body warm.

As far as celebrating New Year’s Eve goes, one of our celebrations has been to have a celebration at all. When my friends and I were all 18, my family invited one particularly close friend over to spend the evening with us for pink champagne, snacks, music, and general frivolity. She enjoyed herself so much that she gave up her previous New Year’s Eve ritual, which was babysitting for more fun-loving couples.

The same friend also gave us another memorable New Year’s Eve when she acquired a boyfriend. None of us had ever met him and we didn’t know how serious it was. Midnight at the party was an exercise in yoga. My husband and I had to kiss and clink our glasses at midnight while craning our necks trying to locate the new couple in the crowd and peek to see if they shared a kiss and if so, what kind. (Happy ending alert: After a few years they married.)

Another of our friends liked to share her own personal tradition with us. A small group gathered at her house to polish off her leftover Christmas cookies. Then we adjourned to her porch at midnight, where we serenaded the neighborhood with “Oh, Danny Boy.” I never did figure out what she had against “Auld Lang Syne.” Most likely, neither did the neighbors.

In the years that have gone by, my New Year’s Eves have gotten less and less festive. I just can’t stay awake that long. And my husband works third shift, so he’s not home at midnight. I generally sit at home, New Year’s Eve Grinch-like (or whatever the equivalent is), drinking champagne by myself and clinking the bottle with my glass, maybe listening to a little music, and going to bed at nine or ten. If that sounds pathetic, maybe it is. But it’s my tradition and I’m sticking to it.

My husband’s family has a New Year’s Eve tradition that to my knowledge he’s never missed. Every year he calls his mother at midnight (after sneaking away to the break room) and the two of them shake their wallets (or purses). This is meant to ensure prosperity in the coming year. Spoiler alert: It has never been known to work. Yet they persist. Since I don’t generally take my purse to bed with me, I miss out on the shake-your-money-maker fun.

The next day Dan insists we have pork and cabbage, but I participate only if there’s cole slaw involved.

I loathe even the smell of sauerkraut. I don’t care how traditional it is.

 

Kiffles and Kugel, Facebook and Google

Dan was trying to remember the name of the holiday cookies he and his mother liked so much, but neither of them could recall it. “We used to have them at Uncle Rudy’s house,” Dan said. But no bells rang. Uncle Rudy was no longer available to provide any suggestions.

“What were they like?” I asked.

“They were rolled up and had walnuts in them.”

“Sounds a lot like rugelach,” I said. Strictly speaking, rugelach don’t have to be made with walnuts. They can have jam or other fillings inside. Along with hamentaschen, they’re a staple of Jewish baked goods. Dan had some Jewish relatives, so it seemed a good place to start the search.

“I think it began with a ‘k,'” he said.  “Maybe kugels?”

“No,” I said. “Kugel is a baked noodle dish. It’s not remotely like a cookie.”

So, as with most modern problems, we turned to Google. (At least it rhymes with kugel.) In fairly short order we found that the cookies in question were kiffles, and their origin was Hungarian. We found a recipe that sounded reasonably simple on Allrecipes.com.

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/235921/hungarian-kiffles/

I decided to check it out with a Hungarian friend to see if the recipe was authentic.  He said he didn’t remember them from childhood, but he added, “You had me at ‘a pound of butter.'” (Actually, they had me at “a pound of cream cheese.” The recipe made 36 cookies. It was clear that this was not a heart-healthy recipe, but what holiday baked goods are, really?)

Well, I suppose you can write the ending to this one. There is now half a batch of kiffle dough resting overnight in our fridge. Tomorrow we bake! And evaluate. And tweak if necessary for a second batch.

But the kiffle saga had me thinking. What other cookies or treats did people have in their childhood or from their heritage that they could no longer get or could barely remember? Naturally, this time I turned to Facebook. A quick post brought some interesting answers. And a lot of warm memories.

Jean remembered a cookie called Springerlies and thought they were Italian. “Mom’s friend made them. They were a real treat when we got them.”  Gwen replied that Springerlies are German, though most likely multicultural. “A friend spends days making them and other German cookies every year,” she said. “Awesome cookies!”

So here for you, Jean and Gwen, is a recipe:

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/9922/springerle-i/

Trish voted for Spritz cookies. “My mom used to make them, I think my Nana did too. I don’t have a recipe….” Well Trish, now you do! The recipe comes straight from Gold Medal Flour, so it ought to be authentic.

http://www.goldmedalflour.com/recipes/classic-spritz-cookies/ccd9d7f3-6075-4593-be61-7b0aeb02bc88

Lisa remembered, “My mom used to make these cookies called Spice of Life. They were a soft, dark molasses cookie, rolled in sugar. She’s lost the recipe, unfortunately, and I haven’t been able to recreate it.” Here you go, Lisa. This recipe actually appeared in a murder mystery by Diane Mott Davidson. It sounds fantastic! You had me at molasses and spices.

http://recipecircus.com/recipes/Stella/COOKIES/Spice-of-Life_Cookies.html

Jane’s favorite was date nut cookies.  They involved sweet dough, covered with dates and nuts, rolled like a jelly roll, sliced, and baked. “People are not into dates anymore, although about five years ago I saw the very same recipe in a magazine, and couldn’t believe it.” She also mentioned pizelles, very thin butter cookies, covered in powdered sugar. “They sell them in fancy shops, but you can make them pretty easily,” she added. They do require a special machine to make, which I’m guessing costs a packet at Williams Sonoma.

Melissa, whose background is Swiss-German, mentioned Mailänderli, Spitzbuebe, Basler Läckerli, and Züri Tirggel. “No one is ever going to make them like my grandmother did, and no place is ever going to be as comfortable as the chair in the tiny spot between the radiator and the kitchen table.” She’s been experimenting with recreating two of the cookies, but says she hasn’t got the texture quite right yet. Here’s a recipe for the Basler Läckerli:

https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/basler-leckerli-566387f7424bb12207dbef07

Gwen also told about a holiday cake – makowiac, or poppyseed roll, with filling 1/2″ thick. She says she has her grandmom’s recipe, but that it’s labor intensive. (I looked at a recipe and is she ever right!) Gwen ordered one from a specialty bakery and is hoping it lives up to the legendary dessert of memory.

Peggy said that her mom didn’t make cookies, instead making fudge and peanut butter balls for teacher gifts. Robbin makes rum balls that can knock you on your ass.

Other friends fondly remembered treats that are not uncommon nowadays but don’t always live up to memories. Michael mentioned Toll House cookies – the chewy kind. (I’m with him on that.) And Wendy was fond of Scooter Pies – Moon Pies, readily available, just aren’t the same, she says.

It was fun hearing the stories and chasing down recipes. To all my friends I wish fond memories and a lovely, treat-filled holiday! You’ve made mine a little bit sweeter.

What I Learned in Ballet Class

Back in the days before self-esteem was a Thing, my childhood nickname was “SuperKlutz.” I came by this honestly, I must admit. One of my more notable achievements was falling out of the car, sideways, landing on the pavement – with both feet still in the car.

Another was the time when I was hanging upside down on the monkey bars by my feet (I know, bad idea). My weak little ankles let go and I fell to the pavement (this was when playgrounds were still built over asphalt) and landed on my head, which some people say explains lots. I still remember the feeling of falling and the fleeting thought, “This isn’t so bad.” Then I hit the ground and changed my mind.

After a number of years of such escapades, my parents thought a ballet class might be good for me. After all, ballerinas developed swan-like grace and poise, another quality I was severely lacking. Mom and Dad thought that the terpsichorean art might be an antidote to my rampant accident-prone-ness. So I was enrolled in Norma Noble’s School of Dance. It sounded classy and was within a mile of our house.

It turned out that I loved ballet. Although tots nowadays wear tutus with any outfit including wee motorcycle jackets, our spangled costumes were reserved for actual recitals, which took place at a local grade school auditorium. My mother lovingly sewed my costumes from satiny synthetics and scratchy netting, with judicious accents of sequins and spangles and sweetheart necklines intended to simulate nonexistent physical attributes.

I remember the years by the costumes – the blue year, the lilac year, and most thrillingly the yellow year when we had the long sweeping net skirts of yellow and green that billowed past our knobby knees and seemed more grown-up and elegant than the frilly puffs that usually graced our nonexistent hips. (My sister took hula and was forever doomed to wear unnaturally colored plastic grass skirts and tropical flowers covering her nonexistent bosom.)

I also remember the first year we were allowed to have toe shoes, though my weak ankles did not thank me for them, nor did my toes which, despite wads of lamb’s wool, really took a beating. Criss-crossing those satin straps was a mesmerizing ritual, though. This was the stuff of real ballerinas.

As the time for the annual recital rolled around, we young divas got more and more excited. There were fittings for the costumes.  There was extra practice. There were posed pictures like the one above, awkward yet endearing souvenirs of a more hopeful time. (That’s me in the above picture, back row, second from the left, in the year of the blue costume. You’ll have to trust me on that, but I recognize the pattern of sequins.)

Perhaps most exciting of all, for our debut – and only – performance, we were to wear makeup. Bright red lipstick, which could be seen from the cheap seats. Never mind that it clashed horribly with the blue, lilac, and yellow costumes. Red it would be.

The only thing was, the day before the recital, I was cutting climbing roses from a very tall bush, standing on a chair. And naturally, that being the way of things, as I was carrying the chair and the flowers back into the house, I bumped the chair on the door frame. Bam! I hit myself in the face with the back of the chair.

My lip swelled up and bruised, but what could I do? Red lipstick was mandated. Hence the audience saw at the recital one ballerina, decades ahead of her time, apparently wearing purple lipstick.

Evidently, ballet did not improve my grace or erase my clumsiness. I went through the rest of childhood with an assortment of bruises, scrapes, scratches, fat lips, and scars. I gave up on ever shaking the nickname.

It’s still appropriate, even today.  Just the other night I was opening a bottle of wine and managed to pull too hard on the corkscrew. Needless to say, it hit me right in the face. But I had learned at least one lesson from my ballet experience.

I no longer wear red lipstick.

 

 

Off-Duty Santa

My husband looks a lot like Jerry Garcia, at least in his “Touch of Grey” phase. Someone once said that if he were darker, he would look like Frederick Douglass. But most of the time, he gets mistaken for Santa Claus – even if it’s summer and he’s wearing his tie-dye shirt. Kids these days don’t know from Jerry Garcia.

Even without the red suit, Dan is perfectly Claus-esque. He has the white hair and beard, the red cheeks, the girth. I won’t compare it to a bowl of jelly, but it would shake when he laughs if he weren’t holding in his stomach.

Children recognize him everywhere he goes and react accordingly. Just yesterday we were sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and were facing the glass-paneled door to the hallway. Suddenly a little boy’s face with saucer-sized eyes appeared in one of the panes. He darted away and came back with his older brother. While they were staring and ducking, a younger sister appeared. Brave and uninhibited, she waved and blew kisses and tried to work the latch that opened the door. She banged on the glass panel and waved for all she was worth, while her brothers were content to play peek-and-hide. Everyone in the waiting room was enchanted, including us.

However, with great power comes great responsibility and Dan always uses his Santa powers for good. Once at a highway rest stop, he saw – and heard – a toddler screaming incessantly at the top of his small but surprisingly energetic lungs. He walked over to the child and said, “If you don’t calm down, I’ll have to put you on the naughty list.” The screaming stopped immediately and the mother silently mouthed “Thank you.” A job well done.

Although when it first happened Dan was annoyed, he has since become used to and often enjoys his year-round Christmas magic. Upon meeting two young boys in a restaurant (their mother asked permission first) the kids came up to him to verify that he was, indeed, Mr. Claus, who was apparently slumming at a diner during his off hours.

The boys asserted that they had been very good all year. Dan turned a stern if twinkling eye on them. “You could be a bit nicer to your little brother,” he told the elder. “And you could try a little harder in school,” he advised the younger. “We will, Santa! We will,” they promised. “Okay,” he said. “Now both of you do what your mother says!” as he strolled out of sight.

Being a random Santa actually suits Dan better than being a professional Santa. I understand that the gig pays well, but you can’t get one at a large store or mall without the proper credentials. Those red velvet suits are expensive. And so is professional Santa school, if you can find one in your area. Besides, all the fun might be taken out of it if it were a regular though seasonal job. There would be tragic kids – bring my father back, make my mother well. Dan’s an old softie, but there isn’t much to say to that. And there’d still be the everyday difficulties of dealing with terrified children, peeing children, and children who ask for a Lamborghini. A real one, not a model.

Besides, I’d make a terrible Mrs. Claus. I look ghastly in red.

 

The Tender-Hearted Carnivore

gray steel cooking pan near orange lobster
Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca on Pexels.com

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.

Lies We Tell About Bullying

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
Photo by Zun Zun on Pexels.com

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?

brown fish fillet on white ceramic plate
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

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.