Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Our good friend Brett joins us for breakfast every Tuesday morning. He was originally a college friend of mine who became a friend of my husband after we all moved to DC. Eric was his sponsor two Easters ago when Brett was received into the Church and our kids consider him a member of the family. I suppose I better not gush too much because I finally cracked and gave Brett the address of this blog. He lives a few blocks away and stops here for breakfast at 7:30 on his way to work for a member of Congress. I love hosting breakfast for friends and this morning we enjoyed overnight baked French toast and fresh fruit. I love that our friend can make it here on a weekday and still get to work at a responsible hour because he can commute on his bike.

After breakfast our family set off for a religious house in our neighborhood. There are at least two communities of consecrated women in our neighborhood and one of them hosts a regular "Mom's morning" for mothers of small children to come and relax with other adult women while the kids play. The women help out entertaining the kids and, in theory, we moms can slip off to the chapel for some quiet prayer. Margaret is finally getting independent enough for me to avail myself of that opportunity more often but I love just being with these holy women and it's always a relaxing time. Eric walked with us this morning and we both tried to answer Joseph's endless questions about the different trees, birds, and flowers he was seeing on our walk. I have always loved the gardens in our row house neighborhood. They average twenty-five square feet, I would guess and it's all the "yard" most people have. It's kind of silly to tend a plot of grass in that small a space so most everyone turns the whole space into a garden and since all these gardens are right up on the street we can examine them carefully without invading anyone's private property. It's all cultivated, so it's not quite like a nature walk but it's a darn good way to get all of us interested in species identification. We all felt triumphant the other day when, after noting a pretty bird on a walk, we found it in Audubon's and discovered that it was a Mockingbird.

Eric dropped us off at our destination and continued on to do a bit of work at the library and then attend noon Mass before picking us up again. We eat lunch together as part of our "Mom's morning" and normally the kids are so worn out that we head straight home for a nap. But today was Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry's. We are ice cream snobs and try to avoid brands that use things like carrageenan and we'd rather eat our candy bars and ice cream separately. And I have a friend who was treated very rudely by Ben of Ben & Jerry's at a political rally. I promised her I'd join in her small boycott of the brand. But I'm not one to turn down free ice cream so we go every year to get a free cone. There are two Ben & Jerry's shops in our neighborhood but we walked to the one more on the way home where we were very embarrassed to be ushered to the head of the line on account of Joseph's wheelchair.

It is nine blocks from that ice cream shop to our apartment and for the second time in three days Margaret decided that she wanted to walk every step of the way herself. We've got her pretty well trained to hang on to the stroller or someone's hand when we're out and about. It's a bit excruciating to traverse nine blocks at toddler speed--especially when your three-year old is wanting to wheel at breakneck speed over bumpy sidewalks--but I'd rather my kids walk than get chauffered everywhere in their strollers so we indulge Margaret when we're not in a hurry. We took a shortcut through an alley and explored an upset nest of very hungry caterpillars, one of which met a sad end underneath Margaret's shoe.

By the time we got home I had just enough time to get Margaret to sleep before going to my monthly co-op delivery. A bunch of moms in my neighborhood have worked together for a few years to get regular deliveries of bulk foods. It's sort of like Whole Foods meets Costco but it comes via semi-truck to someone's yard and we get good volume discounts if our group orders enough. It's mostly stay-at-home moms who are involved because the schedule requires flexible daytime availability. Today was my last delivery serving as a bookkeeper and it was fun visiting with my friends while Eric stayed home with the napping kids. The co-op site is walking distance but I always drive so that I'm able to bring home my sacks of oatmeal and flour.

I got home as the kids were waking and took care of odds and ends for a few minutes. Eric left to walk to his weekly Holy Hour at our parish and I made a pizza for dinner. I wanted to walk with the kids to meet Eric at the church but I haven't figured out how to push a wheelchair while carrying Margaret and a pizza so we decided to drive. There is a park next to our church and we all sat on a bench there and people watched while we ate our pizza. Lots of dog walkers were out and one dog owner and fellow wheelchair driver let Joseph feed treats to her cute dogs. We got back home a bit later than we normally start bedtime and the kids fell asleep quickly so I'm here, typing away, while Eric is out walking and praying a Rosary.

I've had friends say they don't feel like they can accomplish much in one day while living in the city. I've always found the opposite to be true and I thought today was illustrative. We got lots of exercise, spent lots of time outdoors, saw lots of friends, accomplished errands, spent good time with the kids, and kept on top of house work and prayer. It was a great day.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Summer wardrobe

Here it is. I meant to include Margaret's sandals in the picture, too. I've finally discovered something that makes girls easier to raise than boys: their wardrobes have fewer pieces. I know the possibilities for accessories are endless but those sorts of things are optional. I did not set out to outfit my daughter exclusively in dresses but this summer I found myself needing to buy her entire wardrobe myself whereas we have always relied mostly on hand-me-downs and gifts for the kids' clothes. I spent all winter griping about ill-fitting pants for little girls and I doubt that shorts are any better. Even if we didn't cloth diaper many of the styles for babies are ridiculously tight fitting. I kept reaching for dresses even in cold weather just so Margaret could move her legs freely. Then my radical clothing purge got me thinking in terms of simplicity. Each article of clothing needs to be folded individually, put away individually, and is a potential piece of clutter needing to be picked up individually. Eric always dresses the kids in the morning and struggles with needing to match tops and bottoms. Dresses are a single piece of clothing requiring nothing to match in the summertime. Summers last for about six months in DC so for half the year Margaret's entire wardrobe is five dresses and a pair of sandals. We reserve the nicest dress for Sunday. Easy, right?

It's not a perfect system. People do give us stuff sometimes. We have a sixth two-piece outfit that was a gift. We also have a formal dress that is too fancy to wear every Sunday--also a gift. There is also a cardigan for the occasional chill, two pairs of pajamas, and a bathing suit. And someone else just gave us a generous bequest of shoes so that Margaret now has regular sandals and snazzy, waterproof shoes as well. And Joseph's wardrobe is still a mess.

I don't know if dresses will work as well in the winter. Part of the attraction for me is that one dress costs less than a top and bottom separately. But the addition of tights in the winter might negate the cost savings and I'm not sure daily dresses are really practical in cold and snow. But I'm keeping my eye out this summer for sales on long-sleeve play dresses.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

English Muffin Challenge Day

Since Robyn beat me to the punch of making homemade bagels we decided to challenge each other to make something else on our baked breakfast list and yesterday was the day for English Muffins. Robyn even managed to make English Muffins and blog about them on the same day. I didn't even have time to make them and clean up afterwards on the same day.

I was pleased to discover that English Muffins actually do have English origins (at least, according to Wikipedia). I had sort of assumed that they were something akin to French Fries. In England, of course, they don't call them English Muffins and it sounds like this type of baked good was sort of on the decline until Americans started eating them like crazy but at least I can feel that I've made something marginally authentic. My recipe came from The Tassajara Bread Book which is one of my favorite cookbooks. It automatically falls open to the recipe for cream scones but almost everything I bake comes from this book: our Christmas pecan rolls, our Easter bread, our "company" coffee cake, our birthday chocolate cake, my favorite yogurt cake. I could go on and on and I haven't even mentioned the actual bread recipes in the first half of the book. This book is the reason I have never been able to cut wheat and sugar out of my diet.

The muffins were a huge hit and there are actually none left now. Between yesterday's breakfast, yesterday's lunch in the car, and today's breakfast we polished off a full dozen. I think I'm going to make them again for our friend Brett. Though the recipes don't call for overnight preparation I find that I can make yeasted breakfast doughs the night before, punch them down and refrigerate. I can then shape the dough and let it rise while the oven heats and I've turned a big breakfast project into something manageable for a normal morning.

We ate our lunchtime muffins in the car en route to a job interview for Eric. It went well on his end and my task while he was on campus was to poke around the area to try to generate some excitement about moving there in the event a job is actually offered. I was somewhat successful. We passed a lot of farms. Joseph votes for living on a farm and I didn't have the heart to tell him that wheelchairs and cow fields aren't that good a combination. We found a good-sized town not too far from the school so we'll just see what happens. Please keep us in your prayers these next couple of weeks as that school makes a decision and as we're hoping to hear from another.

Darn Blogger won't let me upload pictures but I'm going to post anyway and come back with pictures later.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


One of the easiest ways to declutter in the kitchen is to look for items that serve only one purpose. Some single purpose tools are valuable: I do own a garlic press because I often cook with large amounts of garlic and I find it more satisfying to press the garlic into the recipe. We have, on the other hand, survived without an ice cream scoop for several years and we eat a lot of ice cream in this house. The garlic press is a point of dispute because I could just chop the garlic with the same knife I'm using for everything else. Come to think of it, that garlic press might be toast next time I go through the kitchen. A better example in our house would probably be our ice cream maker. It only makes ice cream but there is no other way to make ice cream and given the amount of ice cream we consume I'd rather make it myself.

Last time we did a major kitchen purge I did get rid of our hot-air popper. We like popcorn but I knew that I could make it in a pan and that darned popper took up a lot of space. I tried making popcorn in my dutch oven several times but the results were less than satisfactory. The pan is pretty heavy with a lid on and the metal handles were too hot to hold without pot holders. And there were always lots of unpopped seeds left in the pan (this always happened with the hot air popper, too).

I recently had the idea to try making popcorn in my wok and I'm no longer tempted to buy a hot air popper. The wok is lighter than my dutch oven and has two wooden handles that stay cool to the touch. The large, domed lid keeps in all the popped corn and the heat distribution allows for all the seeds to pop. I often get every single seed popped and I've never had more than five left in the pan. I pop four or five tablespoons of seeds in two tablespoons of oil on medium heat for the whole family. It takes about five minutes to pop the whole pan once the popping starts and the pan must be gently shaken while the corn is popping. When we are feeling especially piggy I dump the corn into the serving bowl and cook four tablespoons of butter, four tablespoons of brown sugar, four tablespoons of maple syrup, and a few dashes of salt together. Stir the mixture constantly until it boils and then continue cooking and stirring for 2-3 minutes. Remove the pan from the flame and stir the popcorn back in. We enjoyed a large bowl of caramel popcorn and a movie last night after the kids went to bed unexpectedly early.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Two spots of loveliness

Our Lord's Day dinners are going really well. We love the simple liturgy that we devised the first week and we've really stuck to it. We've often tried to include friends in our Saturday evening meals and we've been happy to show them our new tradition. I haven't always come up with an extra-special meal to serve. Last night was refried beans with fixin's. I make this sort of meal all the time but something about all those bowls on the table makes things feel festive.

I also recently put my domed cake plate to daily use. We almost always have some baked goods around and I've always put them in a ziploc bag on the counter. It doesn't look very nice and things get crumbled when stored that way. And the mice are happy to chew through the plastic bag if there is anything sweet inside. I brought down the cake plate and I now have a beautiful, mouse-proof way to store our food and preserve its structural integrity all at once.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Suburban Shopping Adventure

I had a couple of Big Box Store errands to run yesterday. Two items I'd ordered online needed returning and it was cheaper to bring them back to the store than to ship them. I also had a gift card from Christmas to a store I never shop at because there aren't any in DC or in the close suburbs. I decided to combine the two errands figuring that surely in the vast suburban expanse that surrounds Washington I'd find a town that had both of these stores. And I did. While I'm at it, I thought, in a deluded moment of pre-coffee inspiration, I'll finish off Margaret's summer wardrobe (Joseph never seems to need clothes--why is that?).
So we set off. If I could have done these errands in my city I would have, especially if I could have done them on foot. But two of the stores were determined for me. I had some discretion on where to shop for Margaret (though I hoped to use my gift card for her) but there are, sadly, few realistic options in town. Our neighborhood--defined broadly--has exactly one store that sells children's clothing. The clothes there cost more than I care to spend on myself at my most extravagant. If I were an entrepreneur I would open a consignment shop here for children's clothing. My neighbors have bags of clothes to spare. Some just give them away for free on our neighborhood e-mail list but even the prospect of free clothes is not enough to entice me to spend time on another list serve. Plenty of families have "yard" sales and I did score four sweaters for a dollar once last year but that was one lucky day out of a whole season of yard saling. I don't have that kind of time. So I couldn't shop locally but, how hard could it be? She only needed a few things.
City driving no longer bothers me. I think what gets to a lot of people is that there are so many option--so many ways you could turn. My extended family really don't like to come see us. They like us just fine but they always get lost here and they have trouble parking. I wrote a post once addressing this topic and it was well-liked. Growing up I seldom went into cities but we drove through them all the time. The freeway systems through East Coast cities are fast-moving and complicated. There are lots of merges and splits and exits on both sides of the road. I don't blame people for not liking to drive in that setting but I really don't think you can blame cities for that. Cities--many of them--are designed on a grid. New England cities aren't (so what does my family have to complain about!) and, yes, Washington has those pesky avenues that do not follow any system. But, for heaven's sake, just go to the next intersection--a mere one block away--and look at the number and/or letter signs to get your bearings. Or ask directions because there is almost certainly someone else out in a city. The suburbs, in my experience, are a different story. You can go for miles in the wrong direction --first because there aren't enough cross streets to alert you and second because there is no place to turn around. I know there are exceptions but this has happened to me more than once. I know, too, that I'm really complaining, again, about the highways and not the neighborhoods but the highways exist to get suburbanites into the cities for work. The highway system and suburban development do feed into one another but if there were no suburbs there would be a heck of a lot fewer highways.

I actually didn't get lost on yesterday's foray into suburbia. I stopped for coffee at a nice Starbucks. It lacked the atmosphere of the ones in town but at least it was easy to find a seat. I returned my online purchases without incident and moved on to the gift card store. This store was on Cherry Hill Drive or something. It was hilly, but the cherries were scarce. This annoys me about suburbs. I see developments with names like "Quail Run" or "Babbling Brook Village" and it's cute but, let's be honest, the quail left when the bulldozers arrived, and if the brook is still babbling the sound is drowned out by the roar of the traffic on the six-lane road required to get all those development-dwellers to work.
By the time I arrive at the gift card store I'm feeling a little on edge and a bit depressed by my surroundings. The kids are bored and its hot and there are too many rules and the stores are HUGE so if Joseph takes off he can really get far and I'm not even going to think about letting Margaret out of the shopping cart. She is not impressed with this arrangement and I was forced to camp out in the shoe department for awhile nursing my huge toddler in an attempt to avoid complete meltdown. I did manage to spend the gift card on sandals for Margaret and sunglasses for me. The sandals are pushing it for me in the cute department and they light up but at least Dora wasn't on them. But I'd still failed to complete Margaret's summer clothing supply and another, cheaper department store beckoned from the other end of the strip mall. Some of the newer suburban shopping centers are doing a decent job with a design that encourages customers to walk between even the big stores. This typically requires underground parking. I was not, however, at one of these centers so we got back in the car to get through the maze of parking lots. This is what really puts the kids over the edge on these trips. If we're on foot I can often do a couple errands in one shot or, if I only can fit in one because of the slower pace, it doesn't feel like time and energy wasted because we've at least gotten out doors and had a good walk. But gas prices being what they are and traffic being what it is I can't bear to get all the way to outer suburbia and come home with items left on my list. These big department stores try to have it all but you can't have it all.

So we're in and out of the car, in and out of shopping carts, loading and unloading a heavy wheelchair, going from cool store to hot car over and over. We were cranky but, darn it, Margaret needed those clothes. I threw (well, not really) both kids in the back of the shopping cart at the our last destination and zoomed to the toddler clothes section. I was optimistic because when I'd last been in this store they'd had several racks of just what I was looking for. I guess they had just what everyone was looking for because they were sold out. Okay. Fine. Margaret was attempting to dive onto the floor, taking Joseph's head with her, anyway. Back out to the car. Back onto the freeway. I put both kids down for a nap as soon as we got home. Then I went on to Amazon and completed Margaret's summer wardrobe in about ten minutes for less than I'd probably spent on gas that morning.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Thursday Afternoon

Just to be fair, because I know I'm usually sort of a zealot in this area, I'll start with one of our less-enjoyable experiences of city life.

Eric was out on a college visit with his little brother Thursday afternoon when I noticed a police car pull up in front of our apartment. There is nothing unusual about a police visit in our neighborhood. We are, rather, quite excited whenever we see that MPD logo, ever hoping that the drug dealers are finally going to get busted. Two bored-looking women emerged from the car and wandered off down the block. A bit later I noticed that the car had been joined by an ambulance. That piqued my interest just a bit more and when the fire lieutenant arrived I had a really hard time focusing on dinner preparation and began to hover in my front window. A few women arrived who looked like social workers--no uniforms, but professional dress. By this time I'd figured out that the excitement, such as it was, was focused in my building. My building is fifteen units divided among three sections. The cops were busy in a section that does not communicate with mine. One of the social workers came back out, retrieved a few hospital face masks from her car, and went back in. Hmmm. Several minutes later the entire party--cops, fire lieutenant, and social workers came out to the sidewalk and milled around.

Then the real excitement began. Over the next ten minutes we were joined by two more ambulances, two more police cars, two bike patrol cops, a couple more social services types and at least three fire trucks. This is only what I could see from my window. Our street was closed. The young, burly-looking firemen climbed out of their trucks and started donning white haz-mat suits, complete with those masks that make you look like a giant bug.

This is where I started to get a bit nervous. Criminals I already know about, heart attacks are sad but pretty self-contained, it seemed clear that there was no fire burning next door, but why the need for haz-mat suits? We mostly know, at least by sight, everyone who lives in our building. There are a few residents we know well enough to wave hello and comment on the weather when we pass in the street. The other residents we know the best (and that not very well) are a young, newlywed couple who live in the section the police were busy in. At the height of all the chaos out on the street Thursday the wife of that couple came home from work. They tried to stop her from getting home but she managed to get through just as I went out to the street to invite her in.

Shortly after that at least one person was brought out and taken away by ambulance and Eric came home just as the haz-mat guys were getting sprayed down with a fire hose. Then they all went home. Eric had tried, on his way in, to get one of the firemen to divulge some information but they weren't forthcoming. I wondered a few times as I craned my neck out the bay windows trying to take in the street or listened hard trying to catch some of the conversation if it wasn't a bit perverse to take such a lively interest in what appeared to be some kind of crisis. I used to get really mad at "rubber-necking" at freeway accidents. Eric pointed out once that it's a bit callous to just drive by a horrific traffic accident as if you don't care. It's annoying to get stuck in traffic but all that traffic slow-down is probably a fitting show of respect in the case of a car accident. I felt the same way about what happened on my street. Every door on my block was filled with someone watching our building to see what was happening. I might even have gone outside if not for the kids. The haz-mat suits gave me concern for my own well-being but, before that, I was wondering about the other residents of that part of the building. Had something happened to the young couple? Maybe the reclusive old woman on the first floor had died and finally been discovered? These people aren't friends of mine but we live in close proximity and share the same frustrations about the mice in our building, and the loud rap music in the summer, and the Maryland drivers who take our parking spaces.

We called the young couple in our building later to get the scoop. We aren't really friends with this couple but we know them well enough that we can call when a haz-mat team has invaded our building. They only knew what had happened because they'd badgered the fire department over the phone for awhile. The condo association is evicting a resident (not the young couple or the recluse) and the police, I think, had gone to serve notice. Upon arrival they found four people living in squalor. We only know a few of the ways in which the apartment was "squalid" and I'll let your imagination fill in what kinds of conditions required six firemen in haz-mat suits. Our neighbor was pretty shaken to realize that such a close neighbor had been living this way--though he hadn't been entirely ignorant of the problem. The residents will be finally evicted within the month, we hear. This particular tenant likes to sit on the corner of our back patio, drunk, and talk loudly to his buddy while smoking at exactly the time I'm putting Margaret to bed so part of me is glad to be rid of that problem. But it is sobering, in a healthy sort of way, to have some exposure to the sadness and poverty of the human condition.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

City Life

I have a lot of conversations about living in the city. There was the recent thread at 4Real which I finally quit because it was taking up way too much of my time, but I also get into this topic with a lot of friends in real life or via e-mail. Robyn asked me once why I feel so passionately about convincing people about city living. A lot feeds my desire to share this life with others.

I've found that people make a lot of assumptions about city life. I'm sure that many of these assumptions are based on actual observations about some cities. I think a lot of the assumptions are based on television and movies as well. I'm not a big consumer of television or movies but, from what I've seen, these media tend to portray extremes of city life. A few assumptions I have heard over the years that are not true of me or my neighborhood:
I am extroverted.
I love to shop.
My neighborhood is dangerous and I am, therefore, exceptionally brave.
I have a large wardrobe.
I am politically liberal.
I feel called to minister in an exceptional way to the poor.
I don't know my neighbors and they don't know each other.
I don't like nature.

And so on. Some assumptions about city living are true of my neighborhood and they just don't bother me. It is noisy here--our front window is about six feet from the street. It is "dirty" in the city, I guess. Our neighborhood is particularly bad with litter but this is not the norm. Country living seems dirtier to me. That might be just a personality thing. It is crowded. Houses in my neighborhood are attached together and there are plenty of apartment buildings and condominiums. We are the only renters in a condo building and our apartment is basically the first floor of a row-house. There are drug dealers in front of my building, people do get mugged in my neighborhood and there are even shootings not too far from me. I have never been asked to buy drugs, I have never been mugged, and I have never heard gun shots. We would not live here if we felt that our family was in danger.

I think cities are misunderstood and have thus been largely abandoned and neglected by those most able to effect change: families. I've decided to start an occasional series of posts aiming to simply show you city life. Maybe I'll include commentary on why something seems good or bad to me or why something about my city is succeeding or failing, but mostly I just want to show you our urban way of living. I'll try to share honestly. I'll try to share things that seem to particularly illustrate what is urban about our life. I will certainly be glad to share about a topic of particular interest to readers if you leave me a comment. There will not be any particular schedule for these posts because I can't commit to blogging in that way but I'll try to be regular--I have a lot to share.

And with that I'll close. I had intended to post my first installment now but I've been interrupted many times by a little girl who has now fallen asleep. I need to start dinner, among other things, but I may be back later.