Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bonding with Bree

It's three o'clock in the afternoon. The washing machine is whirring away the back-haul of laundry from our out-of-province holiday. Naptime has been re-established, and, with it, blogging hour. Proper eating habits, however, are still in flux, so I'm enjoying a post-brunch/pre-dinner snack of apples and fancy cheese. I'll figure out something for the children when they awake.

My choice of victuals may not appear overly festive, but in my household, nothing says "after-feast" like the presence of Bree in the cheese drawer. I'm the only one who eats it, and the good stuff is costly, both in terms of price and calorie count, so I indulge nigh but twice a year: Nativity and Pascha (i.e. Christmas and Easter). Thus, in the days following either great feast, I whittle away at my hoard of favoured dairy decadence, often accompanied by coffee and fruit, or some type of seasonal bread.

The current contents of my snack plate take me back to the season that started this culinary tradition: the few weeks that I "house-sat" for a friend of my mother-in-law-to-be prior to my wedding. Mostly it was a favour to keep my fiance and I from having to pay two rents after I moved out of residence, and an excuse to have someone to cook for between his travels.  It was a rather Edwardian arrangement (minus the scandal of a maiden staying alone with a divorced man more than twice her age), much like an extended visit at the home of an easy-going uncle. There was very little house-sitting to do - basically water the plants for a few days here and there - and while he was at work, or away, I had the house to myself.

Every morning I rose somewhat late, made myself some hot cereal and coffee, and then moved on to my most serious house-sitting task: consuming the large amount of Bree that lay abandoned in the fridge. Apparently there had been some mix-up as to who was buying his family's traditional Paschal cheese, and the excess had been left with him. And I, in turn, had been left with the pleading instruction not to let it go to waste. Fortunately, I was more than up to the task. Ending my breakfast every morning with my favourite cheese was a joy that carried me through all the phone calls and list-making that my long-distance wedding planning involved. It's probably the most poignant food-memory I have: sitting at that kitchen table, phone in on hand while the other roamed between my wedding notebook, coffee cup, and plate of green grapes with wedges of Bree, munching and sipping my way down my prenuptial to-do list.

Prior to this period, Bree and I had met cordially off and on, but my parents had similar sensibilities when it came to over-stocking the cheese drawer, so such an extensive engagement had never occurred, nor has it been repeated since. But I seasonally revisit my fromagial relationship, on a more modest scale, in memory of this time of concentrated cheese-consumption. For when one spends that much time with another, there develops either love or hate. In the case of Bree, it's always been love.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Why I love Jamie Oliver, reason #492

My husband and I recently received Jamie Oliver's second cook book, "The Naked Chef Takes Off", as an early Christmas gift. It somehow made its way to the bathroom, which means it is now slowly being read recipe by recipe, potentially from cover to cover. The porcelain throne is actually a pretty decent spot for reading recipes, once one gets over a Frasier-esque "food? in the bathroom?" moment, as they don't require a large time commitment, and you never know when you might stumble on a gem like this:

...the way I look at it is that chickpeas need a good kick up the backside to really get their flavors happening. So by smashing them up and adding a good pinch of cumin for a bit of spice, a little dried chili for a touch of heat, garlic for a bit of ooorrrggghhh, a good squeezing of lemon juice to give it a twang and seasoning to taste, you pretty much hit the nail on the head.
-Jamie Oliver, "smashed spiced chickpeas"

I do have a few posts on the backburner, in the slowcooker, and in the brine with the sauerkraut, but nothing more to bang out anytime soon. Preparations of heart & home call as the Yuletide approaches. Just thought your day might need a bit of "ooorrrggghhh". I know mine sure did.

Stayed tuned for a pickled post or two in the New Year. In the meantime, a blessed holiday season to you all, however you celebrate.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Scenes from the choir loft

As I've mentioned before, part of my busy pre-Christmas season involved singing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as a member of one of the choirs in their annual Pops Christmas Concert. And yes, that commitment can now thankfully be put in past tense. As anticipated, all the rushed preparation met its just reward, namely the pleasure of singing in Edmonton's fabulous Winspear Centre, (which sounds even better than it looks) and the bird-eye view of the whole spectacle from my perch in the choir loft.

It's hardly a replacement for a spot in the seats; I've now twice had the honour of hearing mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel, but I've only seen her face as she's entered or exited the stage. From the audience reception, I can only assume her facial expressions compliment the wondrous warmth of her voice during her performances. I only caught the public view of the tapdancers and handbell ringers by sneaking peaks at their solo rehersals; though the negatives of those particular photographs were still very worth watching.

There are however, little things that can be best seen from spots above and behind the orchestra. I've made myself a house-rule of not watching the same section of the orchestra in action at the same point of each performance. When there's so much to see, and you get to see it twice (three times, if you include the dress rehearsal), it's best to spread your focus around. The scramble of the percussionists in the sound-effect-happy rendering of "Nuttin' for Christmas" had me breaking that rule. So did the sight of the pianist switching between playing the grand and the celeste by rotating ninety degrees on a single bench. His head stayed facing his music on the piano the entire time.

The sight that had me reaching for my invisible camera, however - along with the skill set to do it justice - was a tableau from the dress rehearsal: the bass bassoonist slumped in his chair, instrument settled in its frame beside him, music open to a single sheet on his illumined stand. The sheet read out, in large block letters:


O HOLY NIGHT

TACET


'Twas, I suppose, a song too sacred for the likes of a bass bassoon. Garrison Keillor would understand. 

(For those who didn't get the reference, I tried, and failed, to find a link to his "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra". Find it. Listen to it. Love it.)

Friday, 2 December 2011

being present

 Words to apply as I dive into my "busy" season:

Time is a relentless river. It rages on, a respecter of no one. And this, this is the only way to slow time: When I fully enter time's swift current, enter into the current moment with the weight of all my attention, I slow the torrent with the weight of me all here. I can slow torrent by being all here. I only live the full life when I live fully in the moment. And when I'm always looking for the next glimpse of glory, I slow and enter. And time slows. Weigh down this moment in time with attention full, and the whole of time's river slows, slows, slows.
-Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

Often, someone else has said it best. I may not have all day, but I always have a moment, if only I stop worrying about what's to come and enter in.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

And now for something completely different: Pumpkin & Black Bean Chili

I hadn't really intended on using my blog as a medium for sharing recipes, but between the requests I got after mentioning this meal endeavor over facebook (which were plentiful if you interpret a "like" as "me too please!") and the fact that my method varies considerably from what my cookbook decrees, a blog post seemed like a better place than a facebook note to explain exactly how pumpkin puree can make a tasty vegetarian chili. And, since finding new ways to use up my copious cache of pumpkin does make me very happy, it kind of fits the theme.

I'll start with the recipe as written in my cookbook, "One-Dish Vegetarian Meals" by Robin Robertson. It may be very good this way (I haven't tried, so I wouldn't know), and the pumpkin-pot idea sounds delightful:

Pumpkin and Black Bean Chili

This vivid contrast of the black beans and bright orange pumpkin makes this chili a perfect party food at Halloween time. Make it the centerpiece of your table by serving it in a large, hollowed-out pumpkin or an old cast-iron "cauldron."

2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and seeded
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 jalapeno chili, minced
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
1 cup apple juice
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed and drained if canned

Cut the pumpkin into 1/2-inch chunks and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeno. Cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved pumpkin, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, water, apple juice, chili powder, salt, and cayenne, and stir well. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 30 minutes.

Add the beans, and more water if chili is too thick for your taste. Cover, and continue to simmer about 15 minutes to blend flavours. Serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6

Note: one 15 oz can yields 1.5 cups of cooked beans.

As all my pumpkin is roasted and pureed, I used this handy pumpkin equivalent page to deduce that I should use 2 cups of cooked pumpkin. I assume the diced way would increase the variety of textures in the chili, but I'm not sure it would be worth the extra prep time. My kids are getting much better at amusing themselves before supper, but they do have their limits and Mommy is no master at carving up squash.

I lacked a jalapeno (and blogger lacks a tilde; shame on them), but, given that my children have both inherited my English wimphood in terms of spice-tolerance, I was happy to leave it - and the cayenne - out. I substituted a thumb-sized piece of fresh minced gingeroot, which probably changed the flavour profile considerably, but it pares so nicely with pumpkin that I couldn't just leave it sitting on the counter. I also heeded the call from the Slavic part of my palette by tripling the garlic. Thankfully the Scots insistence on deepfrying was suppressed, and I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with stereotypical Irish or Dutch cuisine to reference the rest of my heritage in this paragraph.

The first time I attempted this recipe, I didn't have apple juice on hand either (I don't usually keep it around), so I used a green grape and peach cocktail my husband had bought on a whim. It made for a fruity aroma and went well with the ginger. The second time around, the impulse-juice was no more, so I went out on a limb and pulled 500ml of spiced crab-apple sauce out of my freezer along with 750ml of pumpkin, mostly because that much pumpkin would make far too many muffins and those containers weren't going to use up themselves. I doubled the tomatoes, added a third can of beans and another tablespoon of chili powder, and it worked out just fine. Not to mention making for copious leftovers. Unfortunately, I can't recall how much flavouring went into that applesauce back in September, but I know it involved butter, honey, and far more cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and clove than the recipe called for. Once again, an excellent partner for that serendipitously added ginger, wouldn't you say? 

The first time around, I skipped a large portion of the simmer stage, as the pumpkin was already cooked and supper was already late, but it made for rather crunchy onions and ginger. The second time I let it sit as long as was prescribed with improved results.

So there you have it: Rachel's take on Robin's pumpkin & black bean chili. Not company fare, but a comforting meal for a cold winter's evening. So far we've had it with bread, but whence I pull leftovers out of the freezer, we'll be trying it with wehani rice.

We will now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In which a small vocabulary makes for broad categories

On many a time throughout any given week, my son can be found in front of our picture window commenting on the traffic flowing by. Or rather, that's what I assume all his excited pointing is about; the only words he provides for the occasion are "puppy! puppy! puppy!" We are not anywhere near a dog park, nor are canines the most frequent pedestrians along our sidewalk. 'Puppy', however, does not just refer to juvenile dogs. As far as my toddler's concerned, the term also applies to birds, cats, and perhaps people. People may just be a synonym of 'animal-puppy' - it's hard to tell - but, as the vehicles zipping by all contain some number of persons, it's the explanation that makes the most sense, unless he's really just focused on the magpies occupying our pine.

This sort of macro-level thinking is hardly reserved for outside observations. All children his size or smaller are babies, all other children just happen to be named after his sister. Men are either Grandpa or Daddy, not always with flattering accuracy in terms of relative age; I cringe in the anticipation of the day some poor woman at the supermarket gets labelled with "Grandma". Everything soft that's made with flour fits under the umbrella of 'bread', with the exception of pasta, which goes under 'rice' along with grapes and raisins. Crackers and cookies, naturally, each get a category of their own. Most fruit is referred to only as 'nana', though, as mandarins now vie with bananas as the all-time fruit of choice, this may be subject to change. 

In a way, I'm not surprised; for a boy of very few words, he sure likes to talk, and such groupings facilitate his copious communications. What's curious, however, is how this type of categorization applies to the non-lingual aspects of his development. I can see it in the way he organizes his world.

While detailed sorting is still beyond him, for example, he understands quite well that containers are meant to hold things. What 'things' appears to rely solely on what's on hand. To him, it makes perfect sense to put towels in the oven drawer, toys in the recycling bin, or crackers in the (thankfully empty) washing machine. Comparably, observations both in the kitchen and at the table had led him to understand that food needs seasoning. Thus, he asks for salt and pepper on everything, and trembles with excitement at the sight of the shakers. So far, I have always refused to grind pepper over his breakfast cereal, but I am sorely tempted to let him see what it tastes like. He may very like it; after all, this is the son of the man who still salivates in remembrance of a certain cinnamon honey peppercorn biscotti (and yes, he's aware that he's weird).

It's a stage that's surely fading. New words expand his vocabulary daily, adding nuance and detail to his structured little world. Maybe someday I'll put those burgeoning organizational skills to work in my office; for now, we'll keep that door closed, lest my files find their way to the fridge.

Friday, 25 November 2011

A seasonal haiku



a wintry woodland
leaves stripped by lifeblood's retreat
sleeps in sepia



Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A light in the darkness

It is just after three in the afternoon. My laptop sits askew on my desktop, angled away from the precious shaft of sunlight beaming in my western office window. My chiropractor probably won't be happy with my choice, but I'd rather suffer this evening's stiff neck than sit aright with closed curtains, squandering this dwindling source of natural vitamin D lest I let in the glare. The winter solstice is fast approaching, and with it, my seasonal nemesis: twilight at 4 pm.

As I've mentioned before, I'm no stranger to daytime darkness. Being an Saskatchewan ex-pat, however, I am fairly new to the jarring leap of daylight savings stealing a whole hour of evening light in one foul crank of the clock. For the first twenty years of my life, I simply slipped into the Central Time Zone; standing still while others jumped to join us. Daylight still dwindled, but at a smooth and steady pace. Daylight savings remained a theoretical concept, and, in my humble opinion, a faulty one at that. My seven years of practical experience has only strengthened that notion.

The extra hour of morning light has mostly been lost on this chronically late riser, so most of my Albertan experience of daylight "savings" has left me feeling robbed. Yes, I slept an extra hour, but I probably have anyways. Now that I am up early on a regular basis, I have begun to appreciate the quickening dawn, but not nearly as much as I loathe the ever-lengthening evenings. Pre-dawn darkness holds a considerable amount of hope. Bidding farewell to the sun before supper is just downright depressing. Unfortunately, short of starting a petition, or stubbornly refusing to set back my clocks, there isn't much I can do about the current state affairs. So as the view outside my window deepens to indigo, I close my curtains against the gloaming, crank up the Christmas music, and light every candle I can get my hands on.

And there is the hidden pleasure of late November: an ever-extending opportunity for candlelight. Candles in the early bright can be lovely too, but there's some magical about a flickering flame that fights the blackness of night. Thus I greet the early nightfall, rude as I find its entry. Dusk descends, and votives create little havens of amber scattered atop my piano, along my shelves, about my kitchen counter; tealights illumine icons, calling the observer to participate in the mystery they depict. My table is laden with tapers, at present mostly unlit, but as the fast approaches the feast so grows the glow from our advent wreath. For now, a single candle holds faith of beginning an arc that each week will come closer to completing a circle of flame to honour of the Light of the World.

It is in battling these gloomy hours that I see the wisdom in celebrating the Nativity of our Lord in the dead of winter. For it is those in darkness who most need a great light. And candles will forever grace my Christmas list, wherever I reside.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Dreaming of a slow Christmas

A few weeks back, my daughter and I came across a troup of tree-trimmers working their autumnal trade on the stately elms that line our street. I took it as an opportunity to explain, as best I could, how the tree's lifeblood retreats to the trunk in the autumn, making this a safe time to prune some branches without doing undo damage to the tree. As a new convert to the joy of fall foliage, I hoped she might get the connection. Or at least enjoy hearing Mommy talk.

Listening to myself, I was struck by the wisdom of the trees. How they abandon their frills for the sake of the heart, choosing preservation over beauty during these cold months of want. I followed that concept of slowing down for winter survival to the animal kingdom: those who do not vacate or hibernate at least take a leisurely pace in the coldest extent of the year - the conservation of calories is crucial to all. It's quite the juxtaposition from the hustle and bustle into which we humans throw ourselves in preparation of the holidays; as nature slows to a hush, stores are open extended hours, advertisers do their utmost to crank our anxieties into high gear, and a whirl of parties and shopping and concerts takes hold. It is any wonder we're all ready collapse by the time we've rung in the New Year?

I wasn't left long to muse about the prospect of taking this season at a slower pace. Once my church commitments were added to those of my choir, I was left looking at the busiest early December I've encountered since I was student. And while (I hope) I've gained some insight into time management since then, I also have small children to throw in the mix. And small children don't do well with concepts like "Mommy's busy", let alone "Mommy's getting really stressed out". I may have to reintroduce my daughter to the concept of television. In the very least, I can focus on the boost of being a hero just by opening a can kidney beans (what is it with my kids and beans?).

The thing is, there isn't one appointment on my calendar that I wish I could erase; it's a pleasure to hear all the music we've been hammering out these past few weeks finally come together, and while working with the Symphony means potentially learning a large amount of music very quickly, it ends in a bird's eye view of the orchestra from the choir loft - can't get better seats than that! As for my church commitments, this year's a unique case: a chance to meet our Metropolitan, celebrations for our 35th parish anniversary, and the honour of witnessing the ordination of two very worthy, and very dear, friends. I wouldn't miss it for the world. But if I could get a hold of a time-turner, I'd rejig things so that not everything was happening all.at.once. I wonder if Hermione ever used hers to catch a nap? I bet Rowling would have loved to.

There are a few things I'm doing to try to keep from flying off the handle. For the first time in my - somewhat - short holiday shopping history, I'm starting in on Christmas gifts now. It's been surprisingly rewarding to keep my eyes peeled for things I think my family might like while I shop around for everyday items like eggs and milk. I feel more involved in the process than if I'd rushed out on the twentieth of December on the intent of doing all my Christmas shopping in the course of an afternoon, detailed lists in hand. I've nixed the Christmas cards (if I see you, I'll give you a seasonal greeting and a hug), and family photos, though neither of those activities have become exactly traditional for my small crew. I intend to cut back on the amount of baking that I usually put on my roster - or at least leave the bulk of it until January. I have been coming around to the sorry conclusion that the number of sweets we like to have around at Christmas far exceeds our ability to eat them. It's a real shame to dump a tin's worth of once treasured treats due to mid-January staleness. If I find myself coping through kitchen therapy, however, I may have to indulge in some random acts of baking. There's a comfort in knowing that even if my schedule is skewed, I can still make shortbread. Mmmmm, shortbread.

The one get-ahead item that hasn't happened, unfortunately, is storing up a back-log of blog posts, ready for slow-release publishing until the insanity subsides. In all honesty, I've been suffering from a bought of performance anxiety; while all your lovely compliments have left me randomly grinning for days (thank you all, really - it means a lot), they have the unfortunate side-effect of reminding me that people actually read my blog. And not just faceless people out there on the internet, but people I know, people whose opinions I value (which, paradoxically, is what makes the compliments so meaningful), people with whom I interact on a regular basis. It's hardly a newsflash, but it's enough to make this girl a little gun-shy. As my unused supply of pre-blog ideas dwindles, doubts creep in. It's silly, I know - it isn't like anyone paying to read this, and yet I write myself into corners, or decide that naptime would be better used to make muffins (in my defense, they're really good muffins). The less said about time dithered away on facebook, the better.

So if space gets quiet here for the next few weeks, that's what's going on: a lack of confidence meeting a lack of time. Even as real life continues to run off-kilter, it looks like my blog may get a chance to hibernate, or at least a chance to slow down.  But who knows, 'fessing up might be enough to open the floodgates, turning a stress-point into stress-relief once again.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ode to the stillness of snow

I knew the snow fell before I saw it. I recognized the quiet in my upstairs bedroom - a remembrance of being under a roof muffled by that seasonal blanket. And I sigh, still snug in my bed. It's mid-November, and there's finally snow. All is right with the world.

It's a presentiment borne of prairie life, this expectation of snow. A sense evolved from a world where Halloween costumes are altered to accommodate snowsuits, where snow days are only called in the movies (the closest I've ever come is being banned from the playground at 40 below), and the term "White Christmas" seems rather redundant. Much as I've loved these weeks of unseasonable weather, this gift of warm sunshine, my enjoyment has been underlined with the feeling of existing on borrowed time. The leaves have fallen. There ought to be snow. And now there is.

Snow.

Snow that illuminates, a bright blessing in ever dimming days and lengthening darkness. Snow that insulates, muting the roar of traffic, stilling motorcycles and lawn-mowers alike, turning houses into silent, cozy cocoons. Snow that cleanses, clearing the air, covering dead vegetation in a blanket of white, like a baptismal pall on a Catholic casket, to await the resurrection of spring.

Snow.

Snow and I will not always be on such good terms. I must confess I enjoy the overture of any season over any of its other movements, and winter is tryingly long. Come March, winter and I will have words about overstaying one's welcome. Words that will, naturally, be ignored, for the only power I hold over the weather is how I perceive it. It's a power I will most likely forget as I face the challenges of windchill and winter driving, of looking for ways to do less because everything simply takes more time. But here in my office, cup of steaming tea in hand and this morning's walks in sparkling snow still fresh in my memory, I'm ready for winter. Let it snow.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Northern exposure

Between approximately ten & eleven o'clock in the morning, and again in the late afternoon, I have recently been fasting from my favourite chair. It's a forced fast, brought on by shafts of blinding sunlight that simply weren't there when said seat was so positioned last April. The direct morning light that had me closing my east-facing windows all summer has vanished, but my south-facing dining room basks in something similar come noon. Sunbeams illuminate the tile back-splash next to my north-facing stove while I prepare supper, and washing dishes in front of the kitchen's west window is no longer a problem in the evening (drat).

It's hardly a new phenomenon, this tightening arc of the sun. I'm sure it has happened before every winter solstice these past six years, and for eons prior to any human observation. Given the slight difference in latitude between Edmonton and my native Saskatoon, I've very likely been exposed to something similar my entire life. What's somewhat unique (if such a concept exists) is the combination of factors it took to make me take notice; my first year in a house whose windows mirror the points of the compass, an unusual number of sunny days throughout late October and early November, and, of course, the novelty of my now-regular early morning walks have opened my eyes. Despite my storybook assumptions, the sun is not journeying from due east to due west at this time of year in this part of the world; southeast to southwest would be more accurate. High noon is no longer particularly "high". And it took getting pushed out of my comfort zone for me to be present to it.

Don't get me started on what's technically happening - my one attempt at explaining how the relationship between the tilt of the earth and its elliptical orbit around the sun results in seasons left me downright confuzzled. It probably doesn't help that the closest I've come to the earth sciences since elementary school was first-year Biology. I do much better with the fairy tales. My daughter seemed to take it all in stride, however, which makes me wonder how much of the "knowledge" I spout off just flies over her head unnoticed. But her teachers can worry about that in a couple years.

For now, I think I'll just focus on lengthening shadows, reminisce about those amber mornings that snowfall has turned icy blue, and look forward to witnessing the daylight wax to summer even as it continues to wane.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Blissed out

It's nearly three o'clock in the afternoon. Naps have just started. My office curtain is hiding a spectacular sun fighting for one last ray before what looks like rain. Raking the leaves appears to be falling off the roster once again. And I'm pausing between sentences (okay, halfway through sentences) to enjoy yet another bite of Eleazar's latest decadent creation. My baker's wife says he came up with it in his sleep - the man should write a book: "I Dream of Pastries". Mmmmm.

Sorry. My brain just got inundated with blueberry filling. Sooo good. If you live in Edmonton, go to Bliss Baked Goods and ask for a Beehive. Both the blueberry and the peach are to die for. Actually, the cherry probably just as good. I'll let you know once I've tried one ;)

It's been awhile since we've made the trek across the two neighbourhoods to my favourite land of sweets and other yeasty goodness. Actually, I don't think I've managed it since it inspired this blog. I'd blame karma, but I'm pretty sure it was preschool. Squeezing in a forty minute baking adventure between picking up the girly and lunch time has seemed rather daunting. Add appointments booking up our one "free" morning, house guests, Thanksgiving, Halloween, several Jewish holidays (calling for the closure of said kosher bakery), and a mother-in-law who's only too happy to pick something up for us from her favourite baker and you've got a Bliss-less October. Or, at least, the goods without the benefit of the walk.

And I've missed the walk. So, with preschool off for the long weekend, and a forecast claiming unseasonably warm weather, I pegged this morning for a Bliss walk.

It wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. A certain short and snuffly someone decided to practice his chiropractic skills at random intervals from five to eight this morning. In actuality, he was using my ribcage as a pillow, but the results were about the same. At least with the chiropractor theory this sore and grumpy Mommy can dream of being sent to Paris on her professional son's salary to gorge on pastries and get lost in the Louvre. And hopefully his sister's fashion conundrum, which turned the simple act of dressing for this morning's weather into an hour long process, is a sign that a design career awaits her that will fund her father's future Porche (that was one was probably my fault - one has got to be careful about using phrases like "such a warm day" around four-year-olds. She was thinking a sundress and nylons would suffice).

The silver lining in all this sleep-deprived fumbling was that by the time we actually got out the door, the sun had broke through the clouds and the very grey morning had turned to a warm yellow noon. This time, the front gardens we passed by were tucked in for the winter, and, while most of the trees had lost the brilliant leaves that had me longing for a walk all through October, both my daughter and I were enchanted by a lawn covered in silvery-green. It was amusing to see frost-bitten jack-o-lanterns next door to early-bird Christmas decor. And all the curbs were blessedly blockade-free.

I'm still not sure where I'll find the time/energy today to run out for milk, bananas, and other unbaked necessities, but I'm glad I didn't exchange our walk for a drive down to the grocery store. There's something about fresh air and exercise that makes even the simplest food taste fabulous. Like pastrami on fresh-baked marble rye. And the chances of getting to play dessert-guru guinea pig at Safeway is pretty much next to none.

Speaking of which, my pastry's gone. Think my husband will mind if I eat his share?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Happy house

There's a little house for sale about a block and a half away from my own. At least, I think it's still for sale - the sign came down, but without the requisite "SOLD" sticker, and the telltale realtor key box is still attached to the railing. These are the kind of details that would be lost to me had we not just been on the market ourselves, and if I didn't wistfully walk by it four times a day.

If it has sold, I hope the new owner has a cat or two - it would mesh so well with the gingerbread lattice guarding the crawlspace underneath the front deck. I hope they put lacy curtains in the windows and keep the brick red shutters that flank the front door. If they're not too elderly (I did have this house in mind for retirement), I hope they put a stone facade over the tapered stucco chimney, rescue the backyard gazebo, and build a window seat in the bay window. If they are too elderly, I hope they're brave/deaf enough to sit on the deck watching the traffic in carved wooden rockers, preferably whitewashed to match the ornate wooden railing. Above all, I hope they keep it painted the same delicate yellow that has always made me smile.

It takes me back nearly a decade to another daily walk, not to my daughter's preschool, but to my university classes. Back then, the thirty-plus pounds I carried on my back consisted of binders, books, and bagged lunches instead of a bundled baby, and the trek took me past a wending row of stately houses - the kind whose age and elegance implies tenants with tenure - instead of the slightly derelict collection of war-time treasures that grace my present route.

It took me forty-five minutes to trudge from my parents' home to the edge of campus (those of you familiar with the route can feel free to deride my slow pace), versus twelve minutes by bicycle or, inexplicably, half an hour by bus, but by the time the frigid temperature of ambient air sent my bike into storage for the season (this was around the beginning of November - yes, I'm a total wimp), I had fallen in love with the architectural scenery and chose to try the slower stroll instead of the bustle of mass motor transit. I soon came to appreciate the solitude. I outlined essays, said prayers, composed emails to far-away friends, or simply let my mind wander wherever it willed. It was a gift to think without interruption, even if it added ninety minutes to my day.

Around the halfway point of my trek of yesteryear was a dwelling of a similar yellow to the one I now covet; much larger than my current darling but constructed in such a manner to imply a cottage rather than a sprawling estate. Its entrance faced the corner diagonally, rather than choosing which intersecting street to face, and the front walk wound its way down to the curb through English-garden-inspired shrubbery. To one side lay what I suspect was a sunroom with large French windows lined with trim of bright white, and an archway attached to the other beckoned one to the backyard.

I called it my happy house. I wouldn't want to have owned it (I would have needed six children to justify the space - not to mention becoming independently wealthy), but just seeing it made my day, even when I passed it ten times a week. So now, as my walking thoughts are accompanied by soft strings of singing - anything from nursery rhymes to folk songs to Christmas carols - compliments of the curly head doll who's holding my hand, my new happy house echoes the old, smaller, simpler, but just as sweet.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Taking it easy

A couple of days ago, around 4pm, I found myself in front of a bowl of lentil soup, watching tendrils of steam dance lazily in a shaft of autumnal sunlight. They were rising - not from my very late lunch - but from an enormous stainless steel bowl heaped with chunks of freshly roasted pumpkin. Bemused, I followed the light across the dining room table, taking in the curved orange slabs cooling on a baking sheet and the stacks of paler slices awaiting their turn in the oven, and wondered how I came to be in the middle of an indeterminately large task on what was supposed to be a slow day.

The strange thing was, it still felt like a slow day. My convalescing husband had called in sick before we decided not to take our son to the doctor. Though not quite up for tackling computer development, he had recovered enough energy and brain power to meander through the supermarket in search of storage solutions for our anticipated mounds of pumpkin puree. The kids were both sick, but needed only rest and fluids, and were feeling just crummy enough to take them without a fight. Once I'd called in my preschooler's absence, the whole day stretched ahead of me, without the usual scaffolding of school, meals, naps, and bedtime defining what else I could accomplish. So as the feverish toddler snoozed the day away, his nauseous sister was content to recline on the couch with a ready supply of gingerale and jello, leaving Mommy free to tackle the two-day-old jack-o-lanterns.

Processing pumpkins isn't the kind of task I would have thought up on my own (I usually just open a can), but our house guests had picked up these gigantic gourds for a song, transformed them into beautiful lanterns for their kids, and preserved them uncharred through Halloween night by using battery operated candles. They intended to cook them down and had offered to split the spoils. Given that my freezer space is plentiful (thanks to my in-laws' garage) and my fridge space is not, I figured I could pick up the process they'd begun the night before and, between the four of us, the job could be done before nightfall...or at least before midnight.

I don't know if it was due to ignorance, or the novelty of focusing on a single task, but the amount of time and effort involved in turning squash into mush didn't faze me at all. I didn't even blink when my husband came home with chickens to roast for supper, seeing as the oven was going to be on all day anyhow. Once I finished with the adventure of carving it up, thankfully with all my digits - and my table top - intact, the easy rhythm of roasting all that pumpkin was actually relaxing. Not a lot of thought involved, just pan in, pan out, with the occasional poke of a fork.

I get far more stressed about our mountains of laundry, or trying to squeeze in a trip to the grocery store between naptime and supper prep. Perhaps I've become so accustomed to budgeting for the frequent random interference of small children that doing anything without them seems simple by comparison. Perhaps I was unconsciously banking on someone taking over, even if I didn't know when. Or, perhaps, I just tend to make mountains out of molehills. Action without excessive thought might be good for me once in a while.

In the meantime, I would really appreciate some pumpkin recipes. My current repertoire consist solely of pumpkin pie.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Let's pretend

Last summer, a river ran through my living room. Its source was an oscillating fan. I suspect it had something to do with the furniture turning into submarines, but all I knew for sure was that if I wanted to sit in them, I had to be sure to tuck in my legs so that we could shut the door. This rule was null, of course, when said furnishings were acting as school buses, or sleeping cars attached to the dining car (i.e. the dining room), traveling through the woods of the kitchen.

Upstairs, across the hall from Rapunzel's tower (or is it Tinkerbell's room?), the master bedroom plays double duty as a ballroom and a church, and my walk-in-closet houses a dragon. Fairies live in the willow in our backyard, though they're thinking of moving to Pixie Hollow, which is conveniently located on the deck behind Grandma & Grandpa's house.

Everyday, there's a whirlwind of weddings, balls, and anniversary parties. Any container that can fit a baby doll is routinely transformed into a bathtub, a bed, or a baptismal font. A costume gown may have Disney's Cinderella displayed on its skirt, but that doesn't deter my preschool princess from using it for Sleeping Beauty, the fairest queen from the uncommercialized "Queen and the Frog" (it's kind of like the Frog Prince, only better), or whichever other character could be imagined in a lovely blue dress. Playdates consist of running back and forth from whichever rooms currently house a school, a park, or a castle. And I'm loving being along for the ride.

It's not as if it doesn't try my patience, especially when real life must intrude on play so that someone can get to bed on time. I've let out many an exasperated sigh when informed that the mermaid cannot leave the bathtub or Cinderella shouldn't be expected to exchange glass slippers for winter boots when leaving the house. There's been a time or two that she's refused to leave our bed because our burgundy duvet was her Blue Fairy dress. The colour disparity alone was enough to drive me up the wall. Nevermind the countless tasks that had come to a halt mid-way because Mommy forgot that she's no longer Snow White, she's the nameless girl from Puff the Magic Dragon. We're both still learning the balance between playing along and towing the line.

The constant pretend, however, can work in a parent's favour. I got her to open up for the dentist on the promise of sparkly princess teeth, and taught her to wash herself in the bath by creating her own soap-bubble outfit, from soapy pearl necklace to soapy glass slippers...and everything in between (including soapy unmentionables - she can be thorough when she wants to).  After being asked on a few occasions to let Mommy finish her chapter before attending to post naptime activities, she announced she really needed to work on her Tinkerbell chapter and pulled out a colouring book. I now have a child's desk set up in my office, and the end of naptime no longer signals the end of productive research work.

I try to remind myself that it's a privilege to be privy to her pretending. To see that big ole' brain she hides behind those big blue eyes weaving all her experiences into an elaborate tapestry of play. Everything she's seen, everything she's read, everything she's done is right there, often in amusing combinations. Someday all too soon, she'll save all this imaginative processing for her dreams. These filters are good, for they soon will be necessary. But Mommy will miss being allowed behind the curtain. Maybe I'll have to encourage her to start a blog. ;)

Saturday, 22 October 2011

This post was sponsored by the 24-hour 'flu

Last night on "Sibling Rivalry - Poop Edition":

Contestant #2 has claimed the coveted top spot in the Most Traumatic Excrement Clean-up event, ousting Contestant #1's longstanding Poo River of '07 with his stunning Diuretic Cascade. He beat his sister's top scores in the categories of quantity, consistency, and number of parents present for cleanup.

The judges were not overly impressed with the area his mess covered, given the little use he made of his mobility advantage over his sister, who had only been an infant at the time she set the bar. It appears the contestant had underestimated the trauma pulling this stunt would have on his post-pooping performance - he only took a few short steps once the trail began to leak from the bottom of his pants and proceeded to stand still while howling for assistance. This shortcoming,  however, showed little in the score. Given that the judge present was also the cleanup crew, her high scoring in this area may have been a bit biased.

The judges were also undecided when comparing difficulty of cleaning the soiled surfaces.  Seeing as they were comparing upholstery and carpet to laminate and lino, there should have been no contest, but the faux-grout in the kitchen linoleum tile proved surprisingly difficult to scour. Regardless, the clincher was the judges' inability to recall who had done clean-up on the '07 occasion, let-alone any details of how long the process took.

In the final moments of the show, once clean-up and baths had been completed, the judge present moved that this particular contest be closed. Tune in next time to see how our contestants compare in the judges' favourite event, Potty-training Milestones.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

So THIS is what it's like to get up in the morning

In terms of typical mornings of motherhood, I have been very spoiled. My daughter inherited both my love of sleeping in and spending mornings in solitude; she'd wake up long past the crack of dawn, and then entertain herself for hours while Mommy kept snoozing away. Once the tumultuous newborn days had settled out, we were often just starting breakfast by the time many of my mom friends were putting their little ones down for mid-morning naps. Once breakfast cleanup was over, it was a scramble to get out the door before noon. Often my planned morning errands were pushed off until after lunch and nap, if they happened at all.

Having another baby certainly messed with my night schedule, but my newest munchkin was content to go back to sleep, feeding after feeding, as long as he was snuggled into bed with Mommy. The not-so-wee hours of the morning were a time for catching up on slumber while Big Siser enjoyed a quiet morning playing without interference.

With the advent of preschool this fall, I was finally forced to dig out my alarm clock and face the dreaded hour of 7 am, with no hope of rolling over again once the baby's been fed.  By 7:30, I'm downstairs putting breakfast together, and we're out the door by 8:45 - previously my pillow has only missed me that early on Sundays. It has been quite the adjustment - both in terms of getting  everyone to bed on time the night before, and planning ahead to stream-line the morning process. Some mornings there's breakfast for three, other days I sneak away from the toddler only to wake him in time to strap him on my back and go.

Surprisingly enough, this early morning stuff is not half-bad once you get over the shock. I see sunrises as well as sunsets. My day begins with a short, slow-paced walk and a breath of fresh air. With only a two-hour window before preschool ends, there's little rushing about I can manage, so babe and I just meander on home for coffee and second breakfast. Even if nothing happens beyond breakfast clean-up before we head back out to pick up my preschooler at 11, I'm still no worse off, chore-wise, than if I'd stayed in bed all morning. Granted, I've had less sleep, but, oddly enough, my longer, yet slower, morning routine leaves me feeling more rested. The rush has diminished. The guilt of creating a panic through my own laziness is abated. And I can justify drinking more coffee.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

"Conjured up by wind and sunlight..."

It happened again yesterday. During a drive through the city, the mundane task of getting from point A to point B was transformed - I followed a curve and found myself with my back to the sun and my face to the most glorious skyscape. Edmonton's distracted driving laws forgotten, I basked in the view, admiring the sculpted clouds, their crevices a myriad of subtle hues, regretting, once again, that I am in no way a photographer.  But the impossibility of capturing the moment didn't darken it; if anything, it made the fleeting beauty all the more precious.

Methinks my fascination with skyscapes is a culmination of having grown up in the prairies. While I do have a deep appreciation for the topographical subtleties of rollings fields broken only by copses of birch and windbreak rows of aspen ('flat' is an adjective reserved for parking lots - and only before their first round of frost heaves), I only ever focus on the landscape on days of empty sky. When it's perfectly clear or totally overcast, I treasure the hues and dips and divots as we drive by. Otherwise, I see them only as foils for the main attraction - a lovely footer for the ever changing canvas of sun, wind, and sky.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Look, Teddy, a social life!

Don't get me wrong, being in a dual-introvert marriage is a wonderful thing. There are as many quiet evenings and sleepy Sunday afternoons as our children will allow. Neither of us is overly perturbed if the other picks up a book or a magazine (or even a laptop), and no one feels like a party pooper for using a Friday night to work late, catch up on laundry in front of the TV, or take a bath with a novel. On the other hand, we often have to count the months since our last date and catch ourselves saying, "Remember those friends of ours? We should, like, see them or something." So, a couple weeks ago, as Murphy would have it, we did it all: about a month's worth of an average couple's social life crammed into a mere seven days, with a long-term commitment to follow.

It started out innocently enough; we'd gone to a children's birthday party a few weeks back, one of those lovely ones where the birthday child is still young enough that their parents can get away with inviting their own friends and serving beer along with the hotdogs. We have a neat little community of friends our own age with kids around our kids' ages, and it had been too long since we'd last gotten together. The afternoon had ran into the evening as we snacked and chatted while the kids ran around outside. It was such a good time that my melancholic husband was inspired to suggest having such a gathering ourselves in honour of his own birthday - not because it was a milestone occasion, but just the nearest excuse to visit with some of those friends we so enjoy. After a bit of thought, we settled on a Sunday afternoon the weekend following his birthday, along with a midweek dinner date to celebrate closer to the day, and looked forward to the break from our pedantic routine.

Enter Rachel's impulsive billeting: we are blessed with a couple of extra bedrooms and beds, and, no, we do not plan to fill them all with children. I have, however, been itching to fill them with company.
Back when I was young and collecting a student debt, I had the pleasure of billeting my way through northern BC, from Edmonton up to Prince Rupert as part of a university choir tour. Despite the early mornings our grueling ten-day schedule required, my billet partner and I found ourselves talking late into the night with those who'd opened their homes to us each evening, just for the sheer pleasure of meeting so many interesting people. The stories that came out of these one-night encounters displayed an amazing variety of life experience from town to town, mountain to valley, household to household. No two lives are alike, and we all have stories worth hearing. I have such fond memories of that trip that I wanted to be on the other end: offering a meal and a bed to other travelers in exchange for scintillating conversation. No plans of opening a bed and breakfast (see first paragraph), but I did acquire an aspiration for a the type of Old World hospitality where a friend of friend's distant relative can be a back-packer's next stop. So when I heard of a couple of people that needed a place to crash, we offered...and then it happened again.

Long story short, I'm temporarily living in a two-family household: two stay-at-home moms, to working dads, two preschool girls, and two toddler boys. Twice the fun, twice the help, twice the noise,  and twice the mess. And the arrangement began, naturally, the day after our last set of house guest left, which was the same day we had planned for Micah's birthday date, and the same week as the party. Oh, and James Ehnes came to town that Saturday so we decided to squeeze in a concert as well.

Definitely all worth it, but by the time Monday came around, I was holed up in my office, hiding from my longer-term company, writing about how nice it is to have company. Oh, the irony. And then, naturally, life intervened again and my half-finished blog post was set aside for the rest of the week. Now that my family and I are settled at my parents' for the weekend (for more socializing), I have a moment to write - and a stolen one at that (technically, my daughter's naps are set aside for research work, but there's only so much Schopenhauer this mommy's brain can take in one sitting). And here I was worried that my blog might take over my life. Clearly, my life has taken over my blog.

But it's all good. The sun has returned, the leaves are ablaze, and a certain timer has just signaled the end of the "nap". Which means it's time to make pumpkin pie. :)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

To blog or not to blog?

That was the question.

I've had a blog before, back in my limbo period between studenthood and motherhood, but let it lapse a few months into my daughter's ex-uterine life. I found myself using my blog as a private journal, so I figured leaving my musings unpublished might be wise. But journaling as an adult, much like when I was a teen, led to lists of complaints and morbid introspection which was neither healthy nor true to how I thought or felt when I wasn't sitting in front of an empty word doc.  So that lapsed too.

Two moves and another child later, I found myself musing about blogging again. I missed the discipline of writing something meatier than a Facebook post. I was spending an inordinate amount of time distilling my thoughts and experiences down into short and hopefully witty status updates, thinking, more often than not, that I had enough content for a great blog post or two.

The most poignant of these would-love-to-blog experiences was a walk I took this summer through my neighbourhood to a bakery aptly named "Bliss". Construction forced me to stray from my usual route, bringing, instead of the expected annoyance, a delightful surprise: my altered stroll took me past an array of sunflowers, hollyhocks, even a pumpkin-sized zucchini, smiling out from front yards as I passed by.  It totally made my day, not to mention giving my preschooler plenty to chat about from her spot in the double stroller. 

These unexpected treasures made me wish I'd planted something in my own front yard; not out of some spirit of competition, but for the potential of brightening someone's day. To bless as I had been blessed, just by passing by.

So here it is: my own little front yard garden. A project in cultivating joy. I make no promises as to style or content, other than a theme of things that made me happy. Like, say, chocolate. Or sunflowers.

I'll try not to write too much, or too often. I have hopes that I'll get loads of housework done while procrastinating from blogging, but it may very well work the other way around. And that could get hazardous to my health. ;)

Hope you enjoy!