Saturday, November 28, 2009

11/28/09 Gabriel's Thanksgiving letter

Amongst Gabriel's schoolwork, we found this letter he had to write to us on Thanksgiving.


Dear Mom and Dad,

Happy Thanksgiving! I am very thankful for you supporting me in many ways. First, you have been helping me for a long time. I appreciate when you take care of me when I'm hurt. Next, you cook meals for me every day. Mom prepares the best dishes in the world. Also, you do a lot of fun things with me. When we went to the aircraft carrier, I really liked it, didn't I? Clearly, I want to thank you very much. Love, Gabriel.

The paragraph structure taught in school comes out ("First," "Next," "Clearly,"), but the content is his. A nice insight into what flits through the mind of a 7-year-old!

And of course, I am so, so thankful for him.


Friday, November 27, 2009

11/27/09 Do-nothing day

I got up shamefully late today, feeling like I'd earned a serious sleep-in morning, and planning to do nothing today.

Well, almost nothing. When my body is allowed to get the sleep it needs, when it needs it, it is energized, and I felt the need to exercise. I was all set to take all three kids to the Y, since they needed to get out too, but the Y closed at noon today.

All dressed up with nowhere to go, three kids in desperate need of getting out of the house, and rain looming. At the last second, I decided to take them to a trail by the baylands. It's right by the city water treatment plant, so it's not exactly close to nature, but it does have some neat bird habitat and trails to get some energy out on. On the principle that any outing is better than none, we headed for the bay.

First the boys found a short trail going up...somewhere, but, nowhere.

Yep, get that energy out here!

We turned around at the hilltop and then went on to another hill I've run by before but never explored.

Gabriel brought along his little video camera that Uncle Ronan gave him, that also takes pictures. Suddenly he's turned into Mr. Photographer.

At the top of another hill, Katrina was finally persuaded to put a jacket on. On windy cold days I insist kids bring a jacket, but actually wearing it isn't a fight I pick. The temperature usually takes care of that on its own.

These levees are good running trails if you're looking for flat, though this area can be windy and sometimes not smell so great. But though I miss hills (the little ones we were on today are much too short to count as a running hill), I love the isolation and the views.

Today we saw a pelican landing in the water, and even dive it once. Pelicans are my favorite bird, they're fascinating to watch. I liked telling the boys about the flocks of pelicans I saw in Baja, and how big they are.

We also walked along part of the trail that heads to another park, and this trail had a lot of descriptive signs on it, showing the history of the water treatment plant, and also birds and plantlife along the way. I'm surprised how much the boys like looking at signs, but I run with it and we talk a lot about the information on them and try to relate it to what we see around us. I'm not deliberately looking for "teachable moments," but they sort of come up on their own. I take my cues from their own curiosity and questions, though -- sometimes all they want to talk about the color of poop. I'm still very put off by the idea that play and fun must have an educational element -- it often does, but geez, we're just out to get some fresh air. Let the fun -- and the education -- just happen. And it "just happens" a lot.

Given that I'd planned for today to be completely lazy, this was a rather ambitious outing. It was perfect: nearby, easy to get in and out of, outdoors, plenty of room to run and stretch, lots to see and talk about. Just what we all needed to do on a do-nothing day.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

11/26/09 Turkeys

Whew! We had such a great Thanksgiving!

Since we were expecting a total of 29 people, I switched to two 16-lb turkeys, to decrease cooking time and add options. I brined one of them and put aromatics in the cavity for roasting. The other one got sage butter under its skin, and some cornbread stuffing.

I got up at 6am to prepare the turkeys for oven entry at 7am, for a 5-1/2 hour roasting time to be pulled out at 12:30pm. The brined one is much lighter in color (on the right).

Two turkeys means two roasting pans and two ovens. (Or one huge 36" oven and two smaller roasting pans.)

After getting the turkeys in the oven, I went back to bed. Or tried. The kids woke me up every half hour, and Katrina kept me awake for quite a while with one of her half-hour-long bleating tantrums (where she wails rhythmically every 10-20 seconds).

But, only so much lounging. I got up, showered, and downstairs by 10am to check the turkeys. I was floored. They appeared very very done and their pop-up timers had popped. I tested internal temperature with a meat thermometer: 180 degrees. These suckers are cooked!.

The brined one (on the right) cooked even more -- the wingtips were even starting to burn. My friend Paul warned me that one time that happened to him when he hosted the Orphan's Thanksgiving -- the turkey appeared to be ready, but turned out to be bloody, gooey and very undercooked when he cut into it. I cut into both of them, and they seemed ready. What gives? Why were they cooked -- and so cooked -- so early? Time to verify oven temp with a thermometer!

Dave was so-so this morning, though not 100%. Fortunately my planning well ahead paid off. I didn't have a lot of cooking to do today, mostly just heating or finalizing dishes, so I concentrated on table and place setting setup. Some friends arrived early to help, and we were ready for everyone in plenty of time.

And we had a terrific time! It was so nice to see our longtime friends -- many of whom we'd just seen last weekend at the Pancake Breakfast, but that made it even better. Since the Orphan's Thanksgiving has a long-standing tradition of being pretty freeform and casual, any mistakes made -- such as turkeys ready hours early and possibly completely devoid of moisture -- are accepted with a chuckle and a shrug. Once again, I wasn't ready with gravy, and two friends stepped in to make it.

I'd set up as many seats as possible in the family room, which included a little side table. This worked well; we ended up putting the kids there. One kid sat at the grownup table; I guess at age 9, the kids' table is just sooooo lame.

But I was very glad the kids were there. Katrina and 9-year-old Isabel really hit it off, and spent hours playing. Isabel led Katrina around holding her hand all over the house, for a really really long time. Katrina's clothes and hair changed a lot too; Isabel told me later she tried to braid Katrina's hair but it is too slippery. Meantime, Gabriel and Isabel's tomboy younger sister, Carmen, played with Snap Circuits. Julian moved between groups and spent a lot of time playing with both visiting girls.

With 29 people expected, there's bound to be some attrition. 5 people didn't make it: three from illness, but two because they didn't leave L.A. until 12:30pm. Desite the freeform nature of this event, it's these two that should never factor in -- we rent chairs and choose turkey sizes based on confirmed attendees; a little more commitment is called for. Even from people the group has never met.

This was the best all-group shot I got, and it's minus two more who arrived late.

This was overall so much fun. The kids had a fabulous time playing together, and didn't cause any problems. We barely saw them in fact; a testament to how well our odd house and all its spaces works for diverse groups. It was great seeing and catching up with our grownup friends, all from our motorcycling days -- many of us have known each other going on 20 years now and formed firm bonds on riding adventures. The food was great, everyone was very helpful in setting up, cleaning up, and putting away and taking away leftovers. (I'd bought a huge thing of storage containers at Smart'n'Final, and filled them with leftovers and insisted everyone take some home.)

Dave was feeling on and off today; but fortunately was able to help in the morning, and then with cleanup after some rest. Whatever he has is strange, it's resulted in a lot of back achiness that comes and then suddenly goes, like a fever. If it's not a lot better tomorrow, it's time for a trip to Urgent Care.

I like having one foot in my old life, with longtime friends, playing Orphans like we did 10 years ago before we all paired off and bought houses. The people we didn't know who joined today were very nice and I enjoyed talking to them. But I also like the other foot in my newer life: holidays being centered around family, spending the whole holiday weekend together, spending more time doing stuff with the kids. I'm not sure how to balance these lives for next year, but today, I'm thankful to have such a good problem.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

11/25/09 The sous-chef

Thank goodness I had some help today!

Julian meticulously florette'd 5 bunches of broccoli, and peeled 4 parsnips with impressive thoroughness for a 5-year-old.

Unfortunately, that was all the cooking I could do with him until well after all the kids were in bed tonight. The better part of the day was spent running around doing things I'd counted on Dave to do: dropping off children (Katrina had preschool and Gabriel wanted to attend PJ day at the CDC), picking up the turkeys and last-minute items, picking up and unloading rented tables and chairs, and a few other errands too.

Dave's really out of it, and is worse than ever tonight, though he was able to pick up kids and pizza. So I also put all the kids to bed and took care of the kitchen (even pizza needs some cleanup), then got back to work cooking.

I must point out that I brought some of this on myself: I can't just serve any old stuffing, I have to make two kinds of really really good stuffing
(including one vegetarian), that I'd planned to make before I knew Dave would be sick. I guess I could bail and make regular boxed stuffing, but I'm already committed. And if I have to do this all myself, darnit, at least I get to make the good stuff! The cooking is the fun part to me; I just wish I could enjoy it completely without the pressure of so many people forcing me to do so much ahead of time and alone; plus a sick husband.

I'm not sure how we're going to handle tomorrow; we have to set up tables and chairs for as many people as we can cram into our family room. I could do it all myself if I had enough time and focus, but I'll be tied up in the kitchen all morning -- and Katrina can easily suck away hours of energy with one of her impossible irrational tantrums. I've sent inquiries for help, and I'm sure someone will come through.

One thing for sure: future Thanksgivings will seem awfully easy!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

11/24/09 The meaning of Thanksgiving

After some late RSVPs today, we're up to 29 people expected for Thanksgiving!!

This annual event started out as an "Orphan's" Thanksgiving, put on by our longtime friend Jim Franklin. He provided the turkey and the house; everyone else brought everything else. At the time, most of us were single, far away from origin family, young and unencumbered by habit or high standards of food quality. One year, Jim hosted about 30 people in his living room, with only a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling for light. We all had a great time, happy to be among our motorcycling friends for Thanksgiving.

The tradition continues, after more years than I can count. But we've changed. Most of us are paired off now, homeowners, settled. Some of us don't even count as orphans anymore, as we're now parents (though Dave and I are in a tiny minority among our old friends). Most of us drive cars to Thanksgiving now. And we're all a lot older.

Still, the come-as-you-may potluck approach persists, bringing with it the same friendly chaos and unpredictability. But now, for the first time, I'm finding that conflicts with my mature planning habits. Family life -- similarly chaotic and unpredictable -- develops ones' planning and structure, as coping mechanisms. Jim dealt with 30 people for Thanksgiving, no doubt many of them last-minute, but I'm finding that goes against my new ways of coping with excessive logistics, honed by being a mother and household air traffic controller.

Last year, we did a very un-Orphan thing for Thanksgiving: we drove to L.A. to be with family. We stayed for 3 days in Laura and Ryan's charming 2BR/1BA apartment with no doors on the bedrooms, no yard, no dishwasher, and a lot of rain -- and it worked out great. We had such a good time.

This year is a lot different from 2001 when Dave and I hosted the Orphan's Thanksgiving. No kids yet (I was pregnant with Gabriel). I'd never made a turkey before. Our oven undercooked by 50 degrees. Gravy hadn't even occurred to me. We had 18 people and two dogs, and it worked out great.

Since then, our friend Paul has hosted at his house, and the event started to move upscale. But he and his wife were ready for a break, and we'd promised to host it after our remodel was done. And it's turned into 29 people, including 6 we don't know at all -- very much in the spirit of the traditional Orphan's Thanksgiving.

But, I'm not using Pepperidge Farm stuffing -- I'm cutting ciabatta and herb bread myself. I'm not forgetting gravy -- I've made turkey stock already from wings and vegetables and herbs and plan to make the gravy a few hours before it's time to serve. I won't send Dave out in a desperate quest for an oven thermometer to verify the cooking temperature. I'm making sure there's salad, bread, appetizers, desserts.

But what really strikes me is not so much the contrast between the two times we've hosted this, but rather, the contrast between this year and last. Last year, Laura did most of the cooking, but I spent as much time in the kitchen with her as I could. Ryan made a fabulous green bean dish, and a few other things I forget now, and cleaned everything up. We all spent the whole day together, some of it outside, some of it in varying groups, but overall, together.

This year, I'm having fun prepping the cooking -- but I'm by myself.

At the Y this morning, running on the treadmill, I watched my second-least-favorite Food Network chef, Paula Deen (Emeril Lagasse is my least favorite). She was doing her usual overbuttered syrupy show with her two grown sons. One of her sons commented that it takes all day to prepare Thanksgiving food, but 10 minutes to eat it -- so the real fun was right now, spending time with your family preparing in the kitchen.

Boom. He hit that just right. Last year, I had so much fun cooking with Laura, and being together with the people closest to me all day. Today and yesterday, I've had a great time exercising my grand new kitchen, but I've been alone in it. My sous-chef sons, unlike Paula Deen's sons, bailed on me.

And perhaps that's the biggest difference between being an Orphan and being a family. It's not the fact that we have to rent tables, cook two turkeys, shrug our shoulders if three people bring one dish and no one brings salad, or that strangers represent one-fifth of our guests -- it's that while I'm chopping garlic, dicing onions, reducing maple syrup, infusing butter with sage and peeling parsnips, I'm by myself. And doing it across several nights, ahead of time, because I'll have so much to do on Thanksgiving Day with so many people that I won't be able to do much cooking. Paula Deen's son had it right; it's getting everything ready -- together -- Thanksgiving morning that really makes it Thanksgiving.

I'm still going to have a great time, and love seeing our longtime friends -- many of whom Dave and rode motorcycles and had many adventures with long before we had any idea we'd someday be together -- but still, the contrast between last year and this one has me thinking. We're not Orphans, not just by condition of life, but by state of mind. Maybe for us, it's time Thanksgiving is returned to the family.

(Or maybe we should go completely the other way, and invite genuine Orphans, such as active-duty military servicemen and women who can't be with their own families on Thanksgiving.)

Dave was home sick today, and Julian also home from school, though after 4 days he's finally seeming much better. Poor kid's been cooped up for days, so this is a welcome sight: Julian outdoors, out of the house, running happily. Today I took Julian, picked up Gabriel right after school, then took them to the library (Dave was home with Katrina, of whom I'd had enough after shopping with her this morning and she launched into another interminable tantrum.)

Though Julian can't reach everything on the book checkout machine, he can almost check books out entirely himself (Gabriel can).

These borrowed Magic Tree House books kept Julian busy -- motionless, even -- the remainder of the afternoon until dinner!

Then he was back to pestering, resisting, answering obnoxiously, ignoring, throwing himself on the floor when asked to put his shoes away. Definitely better.

Now I just hope he's going to sous-chef for me tomorrow. I need the help. Well really, I need him.


11/23/09 "In advance"

My favorite Food Network chef, Ina Garten, often talks about preparing food "in advance" so that you can be part of the party and not in the kitchen ignoring your guests the whole time.

Boy, will I be learning about that, because today we had two more RSVPs for the potluck Thanksgiving we're hosting. That bring us up to 26 people. I'm going to have to call to reserve a larger turkey, or cook two, though I don't want to tie up both ovens all day.

Dave stayed home with a sick Julian today, but now he's in bed with a slight temperature too. This we so don't need right now!

I've worked all night starting to prepare things. Even though this is a potluck, not all groups are bringing an even amount of food, and some things everyone will want. For instance, only one person is bringing pie so far, but she can't be expected to bring pie for 26 people. Some people will bring wine and not food, and one group of 4 hasn't told me what they're bringing yet. So I'll be backfilling under-represented items.

But let's get real. This is really an excuse for me to cook. I don't need to make as many things as I'm going to, but I like to, and if we're going to invite the whole Bay Area over for Thanksgiving, then darnit, we're not running out of stuffing!

So tonight I made a pecan pie (Dave's favorite), and started little tasks like chopping figs for a vegetarian stuffing (three of our men guests are vegetarians), in addition to the non-vegetarian stuffing. I've already made 4 cups of turkey stock for gravy so I can make it ahead of time.

I'm going to do as much prep and cooking as possible tomorrow and Wednesday, because if there's one thing I've learned from Ina, it's to enjoy the party!


p.s. this just in -- our friend Linda borrowed our friend Paul's camera at the pancake breakfast yesterday:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

11/22/09 Dogs

Today was an annual event I've attended almost every year since 1993, a pancake breakfast our friends put on before the motorcycle show. I love this event; the host and hostess are longtime friends and it's such a relaxed fun way to catch up with our old moto-friends.

Dave and Julian had to stay at home though. Julian had a temperature yesterday, and I thought he was over it last night. But he woke up in the middle of the night and cried out for me. He had a very strange-sounding cough and a temperature again. After some attention he went back to sleep, but we decided against bringing him to someone's home with a roomful of people.

So I took just Gabriel and Katrina to the pancake breakfast.

The instant we walked in the door, even before saying hellos, two friendly little daschund mix dogs trotted happily up to us....SHRIEK!!! Katrina was terrified and screamed in a panic. Unfortunately, that meant right away that those dogs had to go outside.

It took a long time, but I finally got her settled down and eating a pancake, until another couple arrived with their boisterous standard poodle dog -- much larger. FREAKOUT again. Another 20 minutes of close holding and comforting before Katrina would let me put her down.

I came prepared with crayons and some pages to color, and was able to get Katrina settled drawing so I could socialize and maybe have a pancake or two.

But one of the little dogs got back inside, and as soon as Katrina spotted the dog from across the room, she froze the room with her screams of terror. Sorry dog, gotta go -- there was just no question at all, they could not coexist for even a second. I felt bad for the couples who'd brought the dogs, but unfortunately, a panicking toddler can't be shooed into the backyard. The couple hosting this event also have a dog, a mellow 13-year-old, but that dog was already outside.

Fortunately, our dear friend Linda took pity on me and helped get Katrina settled with the drawing.

Katrina even let Linda hold her, which she rarely does for anyone she doesn't know. Katrina is a very good judge of character; Linda is a very cool lady. A talented photographer, a levelheaded kind person. (Standing next to her in this photo is our longtime friend Kevin, whose new wife Angela was a fixup by Linda -- and then Linda was the officiant at their wedding!)

There was more sporadic contact with the dogs, each incident of which was met with increasing fear and screaming from Katrina. If a dog was even standing at the back door, I couldn't put her down. I don't know what her deal was; she was never afraid of dogs before.

Meantime, where was Gabriel? He spent almost the entire pancake breakfast outside in the backyard, playing happily with four banished dogs.