Secrets from the USPS

As most of you know, we traveled back to Pittsburgh for the holidays. That meant we had to figure out a way to get some presents home without the use of a car (because yes, driving across the country twice in one year was plenty).

No problem. I’ve shipped a box or seven in my day. We packed everything up into four well-taped packages and headed off to the post office. It was a Saturday. This will be important later.

On Tuesday the first box came. Followed on Wednesday by the next two. I thought it was a little weird that four boxes mailed together from the same place at the same wouldn’t arrive that way, but…I bet you see where this is heading.

The following Monday, a full week and two days from the original mail date, the fourth and final box arrived, sort of. It was dented and haphazardly wrapped in plastic, and when I got it inside, the bottom dropped out. Oh. Okay. So much for my spectacular taping job. Nothing seemed to be damaged, but hey…

Where was Avi’s video game? My new drawing pencils? The postcard kit? The sundial?!

All told there were about nine items missing. Not damaged, just…gone.

It gets better.

This note was inside:

USPS note

It’s possible that my favorite part is the fact that “San Francisco” is spelled wrong.

I spent several days trying to speak to someone at the bulk mail center and when I finally did, here’s what she said.

“What people don’t understand is, we have a lot of heavy machinery here. It doesn’t matter how well you wrap your boxes, they come in contact with very sharp metal that can just cut right through, even if you pack it real tight.”

And

“We have miles and miles and miles of conveyor belts. And a three story drop at the end. The boxes just fall right down. There are three drops, actually, so if items are separated from their boxes, they could go down different drops.”

And

“We have a policy about putting things back in boxes unless we know for sure they came from the box originally. Otherwise we have people ordering lingerie and getting car parts.”

I laughed a little at that.

“Don’t laugh! I took that phone call.”

Oh.

She told me that the best they could do was send me a form that I could fill out describing all of the lost items in detail. That form would be sent to Atlanta, where there is apparently a warehouse of everything anyone has ever lost through the USPS. I’m picturing an Amazon-like environment (the company, not the jungle. Although: that’s funny.) with USPS employees walking up and down aisles trying to match my random shit on the list with the random shit in the bins. This will only end poorly.

Except there is a promising epilogue.

On January 31, roughly three and a half weeks from that ill-fated Saturday, my sister-in-law texted me a photo of Avi’s Just Dance Kids Wii game. She had tucked the sticker receipt on the back of the game and it still had her own address visible. It was in her mailbox – no packaging, just like, here. Have this. Thanks?

She’s mailing it to us. Just watch out for that special sharp metal, package-cutting machinery the USPS uses, okay?

Coping Mechanism

My friend Adam posts these short lists on occasion, and the structure always makes me chuckle. I’ve had this one in my head since we arrived at the airport on Monday and I had to say goodbye to my parents again for what is probably quite a long time.

An Incomplete Lists of Things I Will Not Miss About Pittsburgh:

1) Snow.

2) Boots as a necessity (see item 1) rather than an accessory.

3) Single digit temperatures.

4) Winter coats (see item 3).

5) Dry skin (see item 3 again).

6) Living out of a suitcase.

Yup, this is a good list. It completely glosses over all the heavy stuff in favor of pithy climate commentary. Doesn’t at all touch on how much I will miss my family or friends, especially the ones I totally failed to meet up with when I was in town. Doesn’t cover how exciting it is to see big changes in little people – the unfortunate but joyous side effect of distance from two rapidly growing children.

But we’re home again on the west coast, and it’s good to be back. I told Avi that it’s okay to have two different feelings about one thing: in other words, we can feel pleased and relieved to be back home safe and sound while still being sad to leave Pittsburgh and the people we love.

It’s a complex way of thinking for a kid. For his adults, too.

Nothing says lovin’ like fried potatoes in the oven.

I’ve never really been in a position to establish new family traditions since I was always the one living close to Pittsburgh. But while going back east regularly is extremely important to us, it’s also pretty necessary that we have new plans in our new home. Luckily, April and I are very good at this, because we understand the essential component of a good tradition: food.

Did you know that until recently I had never made latkes from scratch? True story. I finally have a kitchen with enough surface area to thoroughly trash while doing so, so I figured what the heck. Let’s grate the potatoes by hand, even!

Latkes

Yeah. So that was pretty successful, not going to lie.

Matzoh ball soup, check. April’s delicious brisket – whose one fatal flaw was not being bigger so there were more leftovers, check.

Hanukkah table

(This was about the point where I realized my casual plastic placemats and lack of tablecloth were, well, lacking. Next time I’ll work harder on the presentation. See also: not wearing my jammies to the dinner table.)

Candles were lit. Blessings were sung. Passive voice was written.

And then, dreidel. Popular among the under 8 crowd, especially. There is something intrinsically appealing about counting gold and silver coins.

Jonah with dreidel

Actual spinning is optional, however. (So is knowing the rules of the game.)

We ended the night with full bellies and happy hearts. Seriously. It would have been a Norman Rockwell-worthy evening if not for the soft pants.

decorations

Mussels: Achievement Unlocked

There’s a point when you’re making mussels for dinner where it becomes undeniably obvious that you are in fact preparing a live animal for consumption. That point most likely occurs during the “cleaning and de-bearding” stage – which, let’s be clear, is made worse by the use of the word “de-bearding” – when the mussels can get protective of their little beardy bits (seriously, what the hell are those, anyway?) and pull them back inside their shells.

Don’t freak out. This is perfectly normal self preservation behavior for a live animal about to become a tasty tasty snack. Says the former vegetarian.

I’d never prepared mussels at home, but our family’s love of all things mollusk is well documented (though we prefer them sans starfish, thank you very much). This weekend, inspired by San Francisco’s crab season (totally a thing) I went a little seafood crazy at the market. In addition to dungeness crabs, I also picked up 5 lbs of mussels.

Five pounds? you say. That sounds like a lot.

mussels

Oh yeah. It is.

I opted to go the traditional white wine route, adding tomatoes, onions, garlic, thyme, rosemary, sage and parsley, like you do. It made for a lovely presentation.

mussels with white wine sauce

Coupled with crusty bread for sauce sopping, I’d say this was a pretty successful first attempt at making mussels in the comfort of my own kitchen. We didn’t actually finish all 5 lbs, by the way. Not that you can tell from the carnage below.

shells

But now Avi has an enviable lunch of leftovers to take to school, and I have conquered one aspect of a previously intimidating cooking category.

What should be next?

Generations of Artists

The first *real* artist I met was my nana. She was a quilter. She was also a nurse, wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. But she earned a reputation for her quilting, one that I was aware of even as a child. I think I have a memory of visiting a fabric store with her as she gathered supplies for a quilting contest celebrating Grand Lake St. Mary’s, but it’s possible I’m remembering a different time. I’m pretty sure I can also picture us visiting where her winning quilt was on display, but again, I unfortunately can’t be sure if what I have is a true recollection.

What I do have are several of her quilts and wall hangings. We just returned from our first visit to Pittsburgh since we Moved Across The Country, and I brought back the very first quilt my nana made for me.

(Cat not included. Since we returned home, she is practically attached to my hip and wasn’t interested in my attempts to capture the quilt for posterity sans feline.)

This quilt was completed in 1981. I know that because my nana always signed her work. Avi would probably tell you that’s what made her an artist.

Two observations: this was clearly done before I was calling her “nana”, and I recognized her “handwriting” in the embroidery. Wow.

While we were in Pittsburgh, I also got to make some great art with my four year old niece. We did some simple printmaking together and I watched her draw. She is extraordinary. Her understanding of spatial relationships and composition and expression is years and years ahead of most children her age. I am consistently astounded by what she is capable of, and this is me as a parent and former art teacher saying that.

I know a lot of *real* artists now. Masters of media of all types. Sometimes I even play that role myself. It’s such a part of my life that I often take it for granted. It was nurtured in me by family and teachers…it is who I am, no matter what I do.

And I would be honored to be a link between the artist my nana was and the artist my niece may become.

Pants on Fire

(My mom is going to have a field day with this one.)

So Avi has been fibbing. A lot. Almost always to cover up for something that he didn’t do (getting dressed for school, putting away his hockey equipment, finishing his homework) because instead he was doing something he’d rather do (mostly, read for fun).

I get it. I really do. I get lost in books all the time, and have for as long as I can remember. There is almost nothing negative I can say about that trait- except for the time management component, and it took me years to find a balance for it myself. (Some would argue I still haven’t.) He’s reading- and comprehending- almost four grade levels ahead, and consuming books at a voracious pace.* There is nothing cooler than watching your 7 year old fall in love with a book you remember reading at his age AND THEN TALKING WITH HIM ABOUT IT. I made my own private book club, you guys.

That being said, the fibbing thing? Opposite of cool. And he’s SO BAD AT IT. Not that I want him to be a good liar, but whoa. (Was I that bad at lying as a kid, mom? Probably. I always got caught.) He has like six definite physical tells, ranging from the way his eyes move to how he juts out his chin to the insistent tone of voice he uses. And then the things he says! For a kid with a super imagination, he really doesn’t put a lot of effort into creative explanations.

Last week he had a “book report” worksheet for school. We have a deal that he doesn’t have to use one of his regular chapter books for these worksheets, since they’re designed to be used with second grade level books. He basically has to write a sentence or two describing the beginning, middle and end of the story, so rather than trying to summarize Harriet The Spy in six sentences he uses something like Lyle, Lyle Crocodile.

I walked past his room and he was sitting on the floor reading a different book. I reminded him that he needed to finish his homework and that dinner would be ready in half an hour. Plenty of time. When I walked back to check on him right before dinner, he was still on the floor reading the same book. Okay. Not catastrophic, although kind of a bummer that he’d have to go back to working after dinner. But here’s where everything went sideways. When I said, “Avi, you were supposed to be finishing your homework,” he fake-startled, looked at me, looked at the book in his hands and said, “Oh! I must have picked up the wrong book by accident!”

Uh, what?

He then spent the entire dinner arguing that he had in fact gotten the wrong book accidentally and just hadn’t noticed, despite the fact that that didn’t make any sense whatsoever in this particular configuration of time and space. By the time he finished eating, he was finally able to acknowledge that he had just gotten caught up in the book he wanted to read and then was frustrated and embarrassed that he’d missed the chance to complete his homework as planned. Also annoyed that he’d gotten caught. Seriously, he said that. “It’s annoying to me that you noticed.” Sorry, buddy.

I’m torn about how to handle this. I don’t want the fibbing to continue or get worse, and I don’t want to discourage the reading. I want him to take care of the things he needs to take care of, and I want to give him the supervised autonomy to do them without me hucking him every five minutes. Is it impossible to have it both ways?

That Thing You Do

Is navel gazing strictly reserved for those with child? Or is my association of the two based on the book of photographs by Charlee Brodsky that my friend Alisa sent me when I was pregnant?

(Because I’m not. Pregnant.)

But I have been almost embarrassingly introspective these past few months year.

Strike that. It’s not (that) embarrassing. It’s actually understandable and appropriate and I guess I just needed time to reconcile all of those FEELINGS before trying to WRITE about them.

We made A Big Decision ten months (!!) ago and Moved Across The Country over the summer. (Anyone who doesn’t think selective capitalization [or parentheses] is effective should try their own Move for comparison.) It probably goes without saying that in order to do that I had to quit my job. It was (is) still weird not to be working full time. Hold that thought.

Two (!!!) cross-country drives and several hundred boxes later, California (and the Kralls) welcomed us.

It’s criminally beautiful here. I could gush about the produce all day. Avi has piles of new friends and we love his new school. Being less than a mile away from our closest friends is a perk I can’t even put into words most days.

If this place weren’t so far away from Pittsburgh it would truly be perfect. And by “Pittsburgh” I mean “the people we love and miss very dearly”. I said something today about “going home” – meaning Pittsburgh – and immediately felt guilty. I don’t know why. We’ve only been here five months. I lived there for most of 32 years.

I love the freedom and flexibility here. I love the time (and produce. Have I mentioned the produce?!) I have to cook healthy foods. I get to hang out with Avi more now than any other time since he was 9 months old. Awesome.

I’ve also been writing. And drawing. And writing and drawing. Apparently years of stifled creative energy can explode all at once if you’re not careful about how you release it when you finally have the time.

I have a lot of options, and that’s probably why I’ve been feeling so unmoored. And excited. And scared. Way back when we started talking about Moving Across The Country, the theme song (or lyric of choice, I guess) was usually Little Red’s “excited AND scared” from INTO THE WOODS. I think it’s taken me this long to realize that it wasn’t just the Move that had me feeling that way.

This is why we can’t have nice things, Pittsburgh.

As you may have guessed, it’s been A Month. You’ll find no apologies here for my absence, just acknowledgement that it’s my busiest time of the semester. So I was looking forward to a well-deserved night out with friends last evening.

We joked about me blogging the night; I’m not going to do that. It was a fun, successful blending of groups, even. But I’d like to talk about what happened afterwards.

Pittsburgh, grow up. If you see two men in a car together, they may be friends, they may be lovers, they may be coworkers, they may be partners. They may even be married. GET OVER IT. This is now, this is life. And last night, those were my friends. My friends who had a brick thrown at their car simply because they were two men together inside.

Excuse me? I thought we had worked past this little issue. I thought all of the strides made on the national front regarding DADT, Prop 8 and (hopefully) DOMA were trickling downward. The little things were improving. The majority of people in this country now support gay marriage for the first time ever. But this isn’t about marriage equity, this is about TWO GUYS SITTING IN A CAR!

I’m so angry right now. And a little scared, honestly. It happened in my neighborhood, down the street from my house. That’s not the kind of neighborhood I thought I lived in. It’s not the kind of neighborhood I want to live in. It’s certainly not the kind of neighborhood I want my son to grow up in.

So now, as I head into my big event week on campus, I won’t think about last night as a lovely (and hilarious) evening with friends, a nice reprieve from work and stress, a wonderful visit. I’ll think about it as the night that I was reminded that my hometown can still be quite small-town. And I don’t like that at all.

I expect better, Pittsburgh.

#lobsterbake2011

Last weekend was the annual lobster bake at the mountain house, a tradition started years ago by a group of work friends, which we were not, that grew to include families of those friends, which we are, and for which we are now tremendously grateful to be a part of.

The weather was practically perfect, unlike past years when the event was held later in the fall – yielding gorgeous photos of snow dusted foliage,

almost the same view of the woods from yesterday, with snow

but shivering lobster eaters huddled inside. (That photo is from #lobsterbake2009)

Avi is a big lobster fan, and much like we’ve had to start getting him his own mussels at restaurants (or be very careful with the rationing lest he eat our entire order), he had his own lobster this year.

He did a pretty solid number on the thing, gamely cracking and twisting to get to the meat and asking for help with the really tricky parts.

He almost gave away his entire tail, deeming the meat “too tough”, but we realized he had some thicker bits from the edge of the body in his mouth and convinced him to give the lusciously sweet tail a second try. Remind me again why we did that?

One of the best things about the lobster bake is the rest of the non-lobster food, a delicious smorgasbord of homemade delights and awesome store-bought crap food (Doritos!) that I don’t normally get to eat. In case I didn’t make it abundantly clear, lobster bakes are solidly in the cheat day category, i.e. 100% NOT x diet friendly!

But x diet influenced our day regardless, as I discovered that it’s difficult to go from one extreme to another, though maybe not how you’re thinking. I made chocolate chip cookies to add to the supplemental food extravaganza. Unfortunately, the thing about baking for real after baking like this is that you may not have all the ingredients in the house that ordinarily you’d take for granted. Like, uh, flour. And sugar. Oops.

My adaptation was a roaring success, however. Enough that I promised the recipe (!) to not one but three different people. Here goes nothing.

(Sort of) Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups coconut flour
3/4 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup coconut oil
2 cups dark brown sugar (I may have had to stop midway through mixing to acquire this.)
1 cup sugar (This one, too.)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbs vanilla extract
4 large (good) eggs
1 bar of decent semisweet baking chocolate
oil, spray or butter for coating the glassware

Right off the bat I should note that this makes a lot of cookies. A LOT. But they are done blondie style, so you can control the size of your cuts. They also freeze beautifully.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. I was able to do all three of my dishes of cookies together (more on that in a bit), but you may have to stagger your baking depending on your oven.

Mix dry ingredients (not sugars) really well  in one bowl and set aside. Melt butter then coconut oil into the butter (it helps them combine) and set aside to cool. Stir in brown sugar, sugar, vanilla to the  butter/oil combo. While it continues to cool (seriously, you don’t want your eggs to get funky, do you?) chip apart the chocolate bar. Add the eggs to the wet ingredients, then the dry to the wet. It’s going to be crumblier than your typical cookie dough, but that’s why we do them as blondies. Stir in the chocolate shavings/chips/whatever you managed to do with the bar.

For baking, I used 2 9 inch Pyrex pie plates and 2 small 5×5 glass dishes from Ikea. I baked one of the Ikea dishes at home, then chilled the rest of the dough and took it up to the mountains for the lobster bake. I could have easily fit all four dishes on two racks in my oven, though. There seemed to be no major baking-uniformity issue, either.

Spray or coat the glass dishes with whatever stick-free method you prefer. Press the dough in until the bottom is completely covered – I think most of my cookies were about 1 inch thick.

The coconut taste is so subtle that several coconut-haters were fooled. And the fine texture of the dough due to the coconut flour goes nicely with the irregular chocolate chunky slivers. Seriously, it does!

I recommend East End Fat Gary as the perfect accompaniment to these cookies, but then again, I recommend Fat Gary to go along with pretty much anything. I do not, however, recommend anyone try this at home:

Or else you will be mocked. And subject to inside jokes on The Internet.

What I Love vs. What I Eat, vol. 6.1: MOAR BISCUITS

Wheeee! I made more biscuits! And I totally confirmed my suspicion that the coconut flour (and prevalent coconut flavor) can be pushed in one direction (sweet and delicious!) or another (coconut, what?!) depending on the additional ingredient combinations.

Here’s your starting point.

For savory biscuits, I swapped out the coconut oil for unsalted butter, removed the stevia and doubled the kosher salt. I added a CSA jalapeno pepper (very finely chopped) and some fresh CSA parsley, and baked for 17 minutes.

I also got 13 biscuits out of the batter, and they’re only 45 calories a piece. “Coconut, what?!”, indeed.

Nutritional information for one biscuit, approximate: 45 calories, 4.1 grams fat, 9.4 mg cholesterol, 1.9 grams carbohydrates, 1.3 grams fiber, .2 grams sugar. .5 grams protein.

For sweeter, coconuttier biscuits, I added finely shredded unsweetened coconut to the batter (made with coconut oil) and tiny bit of vanilla. I also topped the biscuits with larger pieces of unsweetened shredded coconut.

Next time I’ll probably use vanilla flavored liquid stevia for the whole batch so I can calculate the nutritional information and ingredient amounts. This was part of a larger experiment (you’re not seeing the complete failure of forgetting to sweeten unsweetened cocoa before mixing it in….right) so I can’t quite do the math with this tiny batch of four. It was just enough to whet my appetite to make some more this evening.

MOAR BISCUITS.