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Friday, January 30, 2015

The Secret to Making Chicken-Pot-Pie Flavored Mush

Sometimes, you plan to make a nice meal and it ends up a big pile of mush.

I wish that was an analogy, or some sort of lame metaphor. But it’s actually a true story.

This past week I was wandering through the grocery store when I found a whole chicken for a pretty good price. I often buy whole chickens and give them my version of Thomas Keller’s roast chicken and vegetables. It’s a simple, sophisticated meal that both kids and parents enjoy.

Yet, for some reason, when I spied this particular chicken, I had a different idea entirely.  I decided this chicken wanted to be … no, needed to be … the star in another dish: Chicken Pot Pie.

When I say Chicken Pot Pie, I’m not talking about a flaky little pie with chicken in it, a la Stouffers or Chicken Run. I’m talking about Pennsylvania Dutch Chicken Pot Pie.


What a proper PA Dutch Chicken
Pot Pie looks like.
Note the lack of mush.
It’s an amazing stew with a savory broth, chunks of chicken and vegetables, and the trademark fluffy, yet firm noodles that remind every descendent of a Pennsylvania Dutch cook of cozy Sunday evenings surrounded family, sitting by a warm fire, and covered with blankets.

Those noodles. Oh, those noodles.

When I go on an extended low-carb kick, I dream of those noodles. Those fluffy clouds in your mouth, that happen to taste like chicken. ... Sorry. Too much? 

For those who don’t know, my mom is part Pennsylvania Dutch and makes a legendary Chicken Pot Pie. I’ve always thought that if I opened a food truck – which I have no immediate plans to do – I’d just sell her pot pie, and I’m sure the food network would broadcast live from our little culinary trailer.

There’s only one problem with the food truck idea and with my more immediate plans for this one well-priced whole chicken I brought home from the store on a recent Wednesday: I don’t know how to make Chicken Pot Pie.

Some of my other siblings have had the good sense to invite mom over specifically for a pot pie tutorial. Apparently, I lack good sense.

My wife and I have my parents over often. Yet despite my self-proclaimed abilities in the kitchen (I could have been a chef if things had worked out differently; or a pro running back, but that’s a different story), I have never learned the fine art of chicken pot pie making.

I know how to make a fair chicken noodle soup, of course, which is a start. And when I called my mom that night – first to invite her over, then, upon being refused, just to ask how to make the dish – she told me the a good broth was the key.

I can do a broth, I said to myself. So I decided, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead … on my pot pie meal plan” -- a quote that surely made the whole endeavor sound more important than it was. But heck, both the meal plan and this story left "good sense" in the dust two paragraphs ago.

Luckily, my sister, who lives nearby and has had the pot pie tutorial, called that same evening to inquire about dinner. Her husband was planning to work late, so her and her kid were looking for some company. The invite was extended.

She brought more potatoes, a pastry roller, and critical knowledge.

We were all set. 

So we thought.

Unfortunately, we made a few miscalculations. The first misstep being the amount of time it takes to make pot pie. There’s a reason Dutchie moms (and progressive Dutchie dads) make pot pie on Sundays. Because the darn thing takes a long time to make. Not to cook, but to make. No self-respecting Pennsylvania Dutch chef would make pot pie on a school night.

I’d started the broth earlier, so that was fine. But the noodles – those damn noodles. It took quite a while to get the noodle dough just right, with the rolling and the cutting and the fussing and the flouring.

Out next miscalculation also had to do with time: that being how long to cook the darn things. Not the broth or the vegetables, but the noodles – again with the noodles.

Once we got the noodle dough right (we thought), we added them one-by-one to the boiling broth, which was brimming deliciously with veggies, chicken and potatoes. 

“Let it go 20 minutes,” we were told over the phone by our remote Pennsylvania Dutch consultant, “or until the potatoes are done.” The potatoes were added right before the noodles, and were therefore a safe barometer of noodle doneness. In theory, anyway.

The only question we had was, do the noodles boil for 20 minutes or just simmer. Cooking potatoes in that time requires a boil, we thought. But we worried the delicate noodles couldn’t withstand the heat for that long.

We chose a full boil.

We should have called and asked yet another question. Damn, we should have asked!

Whenever you look back on something that ends up all wrong, there is usually one fatal error. There can be lots of smaller errors, and pre-errors. But there’s one fatal error. That was ours. We boiled the hell out of those noodles.

In the end our little family, and my sister and her child, gathered around the table to eat my first attempt -- solo or otherwise – at the family favorite: the well-revered, the often-exalted, the rarely-imitated Chicken Pot Pie of the Pennsylvania Dutch variety.

What I served them was a pile of mush.

I guess it's time for that tutorial.

Mom?






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Monday, January 5, 2015

Ending the Holidays With Style ... and a Splat.

Some kids are barfers. Let’s just get that out there.  

It seems every family has one. I remember growing up in our rather large family that my younger brother was our designated barfer. Whenever even the slightest cold would work its way through the gaggle of siblings, he’d end up hung over a bucket for a few hours or a few days.

In more recent years, my own kids have had a fairly open competition for who would carry the mantle in our family. They’ve all done their share of regurgitation.

But as I look back over the years, and read the related posts, I realize that one particular family member has dominated the competition of late. And if there was any doubt, the crown was officially won at a recent holiday gathering.

The Boy holding his new Paw
Patrol figures -- yet unable to
hold down his stomach contents. 
Let me briefly set the scene. For the past decade or so – roughly since my siblings and I began getting married and starting our own families – my parents have hosted a post-Christmas family gathering and gift-exchange known as Ruddy Christmas. It usually happens the first weekend after the actual Christmas. This year, however, due to the strange alignment of the holidays and weekends, and the various travel plans of those involved, the gathering did not take place until three days after the New Year. While other families were busy preparing for the return to school and stripping their houses of holiday décor, we were engaging in one last Christmas bash.

Since its inception, Ruddy Christmas has always been a bit of a show – if only due to the sheer number of people and gifts crammed into one modestly-sized home. We have a big family, which has only grown over the years. Two parents (now grandparents), seven adult siblings and their significant others, some seventeen grandchildren, and add in our uncle and/or aunt on occasion, and let’s just say we’re probably violating the local fire code.

To outsiders, our raucous little gift exchange can seem like quite an “ordeal” – as it was famously described by one former attendee. But it also has an order to it.

This year’s orderly ordeal seemed to be going as planned. Most of the adults were tightly packed in the kitchen and dining area, sharing stories, enjoying cocktails and some even playing cards.  The kids had just settled down to a movie after an initial hour-plus of rough housing and chocolate milk. A few of the parents – myself among them – found a spot on the couch, with our offspring draped over us, as we watched the latest Netflix offering.  My 4 year-old son settled onto my lap, and even started to fall asleep.

Dinner was about to be served, and the gifts waited in a hulking mass around the tree. That’s when the soon to be crowned barf champion slid off my lap and turned to me with tears in his eyes and a telltale ghost-white expression.

“My tummy hurts,” he whined.

I’ve learned the hard way to take him seriously when he says such a thing. When he’s not feeling well and tells me this, I know I have less than a minute before he’s going to hurl.

The weird thing, though, is that he’d been perfectly fine all day. In fact, he was rolling around with his cousins on the floor just moments before we decided to calm them with a movie.

Still, his look and whine level told me this was serious.

“Let’s get you to the bathroom,” I said as I leapt from the couch.

My parent's first-floor bathroom lies across the kitchen/dining area from the family room and down the hall. It was going to be long trip, especially navigating all the legs. So I hurriedly began the trek walking him in front of me across carpeted rugs toward the hardwood expanse crowded with adults.

We'd just crossed onto the hardwoods when I -- and everyone else at the gathering -- heard that special combination of sounds: a gag, a gush, and a splat. I froze, as I’m apt to do in these situations, as curdle chocolate milk and bile spread across the floor like a Rorschach on steroids.  

I saw sorrow in it.

I also saw splatter hitting a jacket that had unfortunately found its way to the floor and also the back of someone’s leather boots. A person was in the boots, too. Luckily it turned out the boots belonged to the up-chucker’s mother – my wife – who was standing at the island between the kitchen and dining room putting the final touches on a beautifully planned salad.


It was a Beautiful Salad.
Well, to say a pall fell on the festivities would be understatement. With all the hors d'oeuvres and beverages that filled our stomachs, and the acidy aroma that filled the air, I half expected my boy’s actions to kick off an epic Stand-By-Me style Barf-o-Rama. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Though it felt like it had.

Instead, the evening forged ahead. We cleaned up the vomit, washed the soiled clothing, and finished making the salad. My wife I considered leaving immediately, but the snow outside had just turned to freezing rain, and inside the consensus was that his voluminous vomit must have been caused by excessive amounts of chocolate and horse play. At least, that’s what we chose to believe.

Dinner and the gift exchange happened according to plan. Though neither the salad, nor anything else, was as beautiful as before.
 
Still, lots of toys, books and clothes were opened and enjoyed. And one less celebrated crown was bestowed, as the boy officially became our family’s Barf King and forever added his name to Ruddy Christmas lore.

Yuck.




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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Cat, a Pine Tree, and a Christmas Wish

Christmas miracles come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some quite small. Some are furry. And some involve men with bucket trucks.

Before we get to that, let’s just establish that I don’t consider myself a cat person. I’ve even been known to poke fun at friends who use Facebook as their cat’s personal online photo diary.

Growing up, my family always had cats and dogs, and I always leaned toward the barking variety – in part because I found them more manageable and thus more easily loved. Don’t get me wrong, I adore kittens, with their rambunctious playfulness. But the aloofness of older cats always struck me as a less than desirable trait for pets or companions -- though it’s a quality I can also admire.

So it was with great trepidation that my wife and I finally caved last fall and brought a kitten into our family’s world. Our four kids had been bugging us for a kitty for a while, to go along with the family dog and various fish.

We found one through the local cat rescue group, the CNY Cat Coalition, and their program at PetSmart. I was the one who wandered alone into the coalition’s corner of the store one fall day wondering if they had any kittens to adopt. I found mostly older cats and just one pair of older kittens – sisters Luna and Tic. They were a bit bigger than I’d envisioned, but a few moments in the “get to know a cat room” and I knew I had to bring the wife and kids to meet the cats.

With the family in tow, I returned to the cat adoption center later that day. As expected, the kids fell in love immediately. Luna, in particular, seemed such an affectionate little being. While Tic bounced around the little padded room, causing as much mischief as possible, Luna introduced herself to the kids, rubbing up against their legs and settling onto their laps.

There are few better examples of pure joy than that of a kid meeting a kitten. My kids all fawned over their potential pets, and my wife and I just watched them enjoy it.

Luna was the favorite, but Tic, too, earned some admirers. Suddenly, we had a new dilemma: do we get one cat, or two?

After much back and forth, we determined we could only handle one cat. So we applied to adopt Luna.

A few days later, she went home with us and joined our family. Though I continued to stop by the adoption center for the next few weeks to check on Tic, hoping she found a home. Eventually, she did. We still think of her.

Fast forward a year, and Luna is fully a part of our family. She’s grown up a bit, but she's still as affectionate as that first day we met her. She sleeps in our eldest daughter’s bed each night, play/attacks us through the banister at the top of the steps, and pushes the dog’s buttons.

She’s gotten in a bit of trouble at times, as family members do. She’s had to learn not to get on the counters – or more likely, not to do it when my wife or I are around. And we’ve had to learn to keep the doors to outside shut. We knew going into the cat thing that we wanted ours to be an indoor cat. It’s just safer that way.

Luna didn’t quite understand the need to stay indoors and has been darting out since early last Spring. The first few times she got out, we scrambled into full panic mode – DefCat 4. The entire family would put on shoes and go out to herd the cat back indoors. We got good at it.  “Luna’s out!” Would be sounded, and we’d all jump to our jobs.

Then, one time this summer, we couldn’t find her. We fretted and worried, and I paced the yard while my daughter watched the doors. Still no cat. We went inside to assess our options. A few hours later, into the evening, Luna came back. She meowed at the door and walked in like nothing had happened.

After that we continued working to keep her in, but when she got out we didn’t panic. She always came back. Sometimes she even did it when we called her name out the back door. And, as the snow fell this fall, she seemed less eager to escape.

Then, on Monday, she got out again. Being just a few days before Christmas, and the kids off of school for the break, we had a lot going on that day. After her escape, no one panicked. My wife and I kept on working, and the kids played and watched TV.  Once I had a break in the work action, I took them to the YMCA and then to the Library.

The day passed, as each tends to, and before long we were getting dinner ready when someone mentioned they hadn’t seen Luna lately.

“I think she got out earlier,” my wife said. “Has she come back?”

It was then that our eldest daughter, who has a special connection to Luna, started to panic.

“She’s still out?!”...

“It’s freezing out there!”...

“She’s been out all day!”

All those were from her.

“Calm down!” I yelled.

I’ve been trying to impress on our pre-teen the need to stay calm during times of crisis, as a clear head is essential. I teach her this by yelling at the top of my lungs things like Calm Down and Just Chill.

Still, I figured Luna was likely fine and needed to prevent my daughter from freaking out and putting the whole evening into a tailspin.

She gathered her thoughts a bit, and went to the door to call for her. When she opened it she could hear the distant yowl of a cat.

“I hear her!”

She started to panic again. I did not. A few months back, Luna had gotten herself stuck about 6 feet up a tree in our yard. She yowled then too, and we quickly retrieved her. It was comical.

This time my daughter and I got on boots and jackets and went out the back door into the darkness to find and retrieve our cat.

The yowls and meows were near constant, making it easy to track. First the sound drew us toward the trees between our house and the neighbors. I shone my iPhone flashlight while my daughter circled the grove of trees.

Another meow sounded out, and my daughter turned and looked even further into the neighbor’s yard.

“She’s over there,” she pointed in the general direction of the neighbor’s porch and the much taller grove of trees separating them from the next house.

We stealthily entered our neighbor’s backyard.

Another yowl came and I figured she must be stuck under their wooden deck, maybe unable to get out through the mesh under-fencing meant to keep skunks and raccoons away. But then another came, and my daughter started looking almost straight up and pointing through the darkness to the tall trees.

“She’s in those trees!” she whisper-screamed.

No way, I thought.

We hurried across the yard and found ourselves at the base of a 45 foot pine tree.

A “Meow!” came down through the branches.

“Luna?!” my daughter returned.

I shone my iPhone light up the trunk of the pine. Through branches and needles, it illuminated the first twenty feet or so. Yet, no visual sign of the cat. Still, we knew we had the right tree; It was just a matter of how high she was.


That white spot that looks like a star
is actually our cat atop a 45-foot tall pine.
We assessed our options. Could we climb? The tree was tall, but the first few feet seemed climbable. My daughter grabbed a lower branch and started. Like I said, she loves this cat.

I convinced her we needed to get a visual first, even though it was dark out. We hustled back to the house to get a proper flashlight and brief my wife on the situation.

“Luna’s up a tree!” our daughter informed the family. Cat up a tree? Big deal, right? Was the general reaction. Just get her down.

I got a better flashlight and returned with my daughter to the neighbor’s yard. From a distance away from the tree, I shone the light slowly up through its midsection as I called the cat, hoping she’d look my way and return the shine through her eyes. Up and up I scanned. Then, almost to the top, I saw the telltale reflection of cat’s eyes in the dark: she was way up a tree.

By my calculation, the tree was close to 45 feet tall. Luna’s eyes showed her to be about 5 feet from the top.

My daughter gasped when she saw, and started to freak out again. I didn’t stop her this time.

Back at home, I told the family that Luna was really up a tree. Like, we-can’t -get-her up. After coming to assess the situation and a debate about whether we could actually climb the tree – which we couldn’t, and even if we could, it wouldn’t be smart – my wife and I returned to the house to research what to do. My daughter stayed with the tree and her cat in the cold.

For research we turned to the usual source: the internet. My wife Googled “how to get cats out of trees,” and I posted a general request to Facebook. The internet/social media world responded and advice flooded in.

We soon discovered people are divided into two camp on this subject: The put-sardines-at-the-bottom-of-the-tree camp, and the I’ve-never-seen-a-cat-skeleton-in-a-tree camp.

Input and anecdotes came from both the “Coaxing” and the “Tough Love” world views. All of it came with genuine concern (well, most of it).

Put a bowl of food at the bottom, and she‘ll come down when she’s hungry. My friend’s cat was up a tree for three days before it decided to come down. Have you tried spraying her with a hose? Throw snowballs above her? A laser pointer? I have a 40 foot ladder you can borrow. Call the fire department. Give me a 12 gauge and I’ll get your cat down (No one really said this last one, but the sentiment was there).

Most of the advice from friends came without them fathoming exactly how frigging high the cat was. I couldn’t throw a snowball that high with accuracy. Even the tallest ladder was too short, taking into account the angles. Plus, there was nothing sturdy to lean it up against that high in the tree.

The main problem with most of the advice was that it also came with the assumption that the cat was just being stubborn. I knew from the yowls that she wasn’t stubborn, she was panicking too. Maybe even stuck somehow, with a leg between branches or something.

We kept reading and researching.

It turns out – based on what we read-- that cats don’t always come down. Their claws are great at climbing up, and not so good at climbing down. If you’ve ever seen a cat try to shimmy down a tree backwards, you know it isn’t pretty. Could she do that from 40 feet up? Not likely.

Fear, immaturity, and old age can all contribute to a cat getting literally stuck high up in a tree. If the cat can’t figure out how to get down, the elements, other animals, hunger and thirst are all threats. The internet holds a number of examples of cats atop tall pines in particular that didn’t end well. Then I began to panic.

At some point, my wife called the local fire department, which seems kind of cliché, but was clearly worth a try. They said they were on a real call, but we could call back later. Then they said they’d most likely spray her with water. I knew the temps were supposed to hover around freezing that night, and figured spraying her now was not the best option. Plus, one anecdote mentioned a cat jumping from a tall pine to avoid being sprayed and dying from the fall. It seemed we weren’t there yet.

Meanwhile, I found a story in the local paper from a few years back that said another family got their cat down from a tree with the help of an unemployed arborist. These are expert tree climbers, among other things. And it just so happens that the local college – SUNY ESF – has the best arborist program around. I found a list of New York State arborist and sent a longshot e-mail to one listed as living nearby.

Willing to try some of the other advice found and received, I went to the store to buy wet food (which has a more pungent smell), a laser pointer, and a better flashlight.

The better flashlight gave us a solid visual on the cat. She was moving around a bit, even seemed to climb up higher from when we first found her. At least she wasn’t physically stuck, I thought. The laser pointer was cool, but failed to draw her attention. So, we set the wet food at the bottom of the tree and then gathered on the sidewalk with a few neighbors who’d come to inquire about the drama – the cat’s meows transmitted throughout the block.

We learned from neighbors that she’d been crying like that since at least 2 p.m. It was getting close to 9:00 p.m., by this point, which meant she’d been up the tree almost 7 hours already.

We talked again about the fire company. And the water spraying thing. Then another neighbor mentioned the local utility company, National Grid. They have tree trimming crews. And I remembered seeing a few Grid personnel on the list of arborist. Sounded like a good next option. I stepped inside and sent another kindly worded, but desperate, e-mail to an arborist.

It kept getting later and we exhausted the options we could reasonably pursue that night without potentially causing more harm than good.

After some more tears, and threats of sleeping outside by my daughter, we left the food at the foot of the tree and shut the rescue operation down for the night.

My daughter was distraught. I wasn’t particularly optimistic either. It was going to be a cold night and, by the time I went to bed, I’d determined in my mind that Luna wasn’t going to come down without help. If she made it through the night, we’d need either the fire company to send a ladder truck or an arborist to get our cat back alive.

That night, my daughter cried herself to sleep while my wife assured her we’d solve this. I slept on the couch by the French doors, hoping to let her in should she find her way down. Eventually, we all fell asleep.

At about 1 a.m., I woke with a start and heard the rain pouring through the gutters. Crap. I checked the temperature, 32 degrees. Well, at least maybe this would force her down – like the fire company’s hose. I put on boots and a jacket and went into the back yard, shining my new flashlight to the tall grove of trees across the neighbor’s yard. Luna’s eyes shone back. And then she let out a yowl. She hadn’t succumbed to the elements yet. But she hadn’t budged either.

I went back to the couch. And I worried that if we didn’t solve this, we may have seen the end of our wee kitty.

The next morning, as the sky was just starting to lighten with the soon-rising sun, I returned to the tree. It was silent.

“Luna?” I called up.

Nothing.

“Luna?"

Then she meowed back. She was still there.

The light of day made things seem better, but not much. I still knew we’d need some help to get this cat down. We had to find someone with the means to get her down and some Christmas spirit to spare. And, frankly, I didn’t know if it would happen. To top it off, Christmas was just two days away. Would this be known as the Christmas the cat died? Thoughts like that had been creeping into my head since I first saw her 40 feet up a pine. But I’d kept them at bay. Now those thoughts were winning.

I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes things don’t work out. That sometimes that glimmer of hope isn’t a glimmer at all. But, I also know that sometimes it is.

About 7 a.m., I checked my e-mail. And I found a glimmer.

A National Grid arborist had written me back:

“Good Morning Mr. Ruddy.  Did your cat come down?”

I wrote back:

“No, sir.  She has not budged.  I just checked on her and she's still up there crying. We tried can food at the bottom of the tree, a laser pointer, waiting and it rained. I've believed for a while we have to find a way to get to her. Thanks for getting back to me.”

A few minutes later, this came:

“This is well outside our service mandates but call my cell …”

I woke the family and within half an hour a service truck from National Grid was parked in my neighbor’s driveway as a crew of three men used a bucket truck with 70 foot reach to retrieve our little Luna.

While they were working I asked the arborist if people were calling them all the time with this sort of thing. He said that in 20 years, this was just his 5th cat rescue. 

In all it took them about fifteen minutes, but it meant everything to our family. We cannot thank them enough.

Christmas miracles do come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some quite small. Our was furry. And it involved men with a bucket truck.

Merry Christmas.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Canceling Christmas (Cards)

This is exceptionally lame. But, then again, it’s been that kind of year.

First, we’d like to thank all the family and friends who had the decency, organizational skills, and mastery of time to send us holiday cards. We truly appreciate each and every one.

Appreciate may be an understatement; We celebrate each one. Cards arrive each day and the kids line up at the kitchen counter next to the fresh pile of mail for the chance to open one. They revel in it. After all, it’s not often that we get mail addressed to the whole family.

“Is this for me?” They say with excitement.

“Yes. … It’s for all of us,” is our standard reply.
 
The kids consider it an honor to open the envelope and be the first to hold the card, often pictures of other families, or joyous Christmas scenes, or ornate designs sent from relatives in Scotland. Then we take the card and display it in a special place – the mantle, or the decorative basket (that's not a euphemism). One year we used the cards to make the shape of a tree on the “school art” wall.
 
We love getting holiday cards.

So, here comes the lame part. I don’t even want to say it. Honestly, I feel like I’m a failure as a parent and a person, but here goes … We didn’t do a card this year.
 
I know, I know. The shame! Trust me, we’re feeling it.
 
What can we say? It’s been a tough year. We meant to do it. We started talking about it in November, fretting that we didn’t have one good family photo for this year’s card. Then time kept slipping away, and with just a few days to go till the big day, we did the math on how long it would take for Snapfish to produce the thing, then send it to us, and for us to turn it around and get it out the door.  We figured most people would get the card by Presidents’ Day. So, we've pulled the plug on the 2014 holiday mailing.
 
It just wasn’t in the cards this year. (Sorry for the bad pun, too)
 
We got close, though. I even stayed up late one night designing a potential card. 
 
In PA, there's a section of US 222 that was only partially constructed
for many years, earning the nickname "The Road to Nowhere."
Likewise, this is "The Card to No One."
The whole episode got me thinking that the holiday cards thing -- as nice as it is -- can really be a hassle. Sure, it’s a great tradition. But it’s a hard one. Think of all the hours we each spend keeping lists up to date, worrying about photos throughout the year, designing cards, addressing envelopes and licking stamps. It also brings with it a lot of pressure, and has become a form of artistic competition among friends.

Rather than societal guilt for not doing cards, we really should give special recognition to the people who actually get them done.
 
So here's to everyone who got their cards done this year. Most of you, anyway. I hear that a lot of famous people and big-time elected officials, who often have thousands on their card lists, hire companies to do the whole holiday card design, mail merge and distribution.
 
If we ever get ridiculously wealthy, that’s what I’m gonna push for: outsourcing our Christmas card duties.

Then again, as long as we’re ridiculously wealthy, I’d also get someone to come in each night to do the dishes. Because who really wants to do dishes after a big meal when you’ve got four kids to put to bed.  … Oh, and laundry. We’d definitely get a laundry service. Heck, someone could actually move into our basement and do that full time. We could just send food down in a basket every so often.
 
But that’s it: just laundry service, dishes after a big meal, and the whole Christmas card thing.
 
And maybe someone to assist with bedtime occasionally -- our kids are awful at going to sleep.
 
Anyway, back to reality. As it stands we are not ridiculously wealthy this year, nor are we terribly organized. And for that reason, we didn’t do Christmas cards.
 
We’re very sorry. We don’t think less of any of you. Hopefully, you don’t think too much less of us. But when you don’t get a card from us this year, know that it’s not you, it’s us.

Happy Holidays?




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Monday, December 8, 2014

Kid Writings #1: The Rooster and the Royal Chores

So, my kids are writers.

Their school makes them write stuff all the time, obviously. But they also do it when they’re not required to, just when a story moves them or they grow bored with sneaking an iPhone to build a new Minecraft world.

They write just for fun. That makes them writers in my view.

With all these little authors running around I thought, “Why not share some of their work with the world.” (Quote marks to indicate me talking to myself). To which I responded, “Yes. Why not?” So that’s what I’m doing. As said before, it’s my blog and I’ll do what the heck I want.

So, here’s the first installment of Kid Writings, this short one scrawled on a few pages of a random notepad, written by my 3rd grade daughter:

Once Upon a time there was a king. 

 

He lived in a happy village in a happy state in a happy country in a happy continent in a not so happy world. There were fights and wars, but that wasn’t a problem for him to worrie about.

 

His problem was that his Rooster was so tired that it couldn’t skwak to wake the king up.  So every day the princess, the king’s daughter, had to jump on him to wake him up.

 

And there were even bigger problems when the princess had school. Plus he couldn’t do any of his royal chores!

 

Then one day the king bought an alarm clock and the whole kingdom was jolly again!

 

THE END


“Beep, Beep, Beep.”
Time to do the royal chores.  

 

 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Did I Find My Parenting Mojo? Or Just Lose My Mind?

I can’t decide if I’m getting better at this whole parenting gig, or if I’ve officially lost my mind.

Compare a scenario from a few years ago to a similar one recently. About two years back, as part of an ill-conceived Mother’s Day bonus gift, I took all four kids with me to Wegman’s for our weekly supply run.

I don’t recall much because most of the actual memories are suppressed, but it was mayhem. You’ve surely heard the expression herding cats. Now imagine herding cats in a crowded grocery store while trying to get enough food to last a family of six for a week. The kids were everywhere. And I was an anxious and jerky mess, spending the whole time trying to keep my little monsters from destroying first the produce section, then the meat section, then the dairy, then the cereal aisle. You get the picture. Many a “stop,” “please” and don’ts” were uttered through clenched teeth, followed by stern instructions that were summarily ignored. I couldn’t tell if the people who witnessed our little traveling show were expressing empathy or annoyance.   

Somehow, we survived the trip, and I subsequently started taking blood pressure medicine.

If you see this with my mug under it
at Wegmans, don't even tell me about it.
Wegmans survived too – though it seemed touch and go for a spell there. I kept waiting for surveillance video to surface on “America’s Funniest Videos: Overwhelmed Parents” edition, or for the store to post a photo with my mug shot covered by the “no sign” – red circle with bar across it -- banishing me to shop at Topps for the rest of my life. But nothing like that happened. (Heck, they didn’t even ban us after Vomitgate 2013).     

Flashforward to a few days ago. Again, I found myself at a crowded Wegmans with all four children – all slightly older but equally mischievous. This time they were there with me because they had to be. Mom’s been out of town a lot lately attending to family health matters. Her sister just had a baby, and her mom just had a bone marrow transplant. (Thanks for all the support and prayers). Needless to say, it's been a tough row of late for all involved.

Meanwhile, our kids gotta eat. So, off to Wegmans we went on a recent Sunday as an unruly, ravenous pack.   

Was it mayhem? Maybe. Truthfully, I didn’t notice or really care.
 
Instead of herding cats, I took the less utilized "mother duck" approach. I just went about my shopping business and let them follow in the wake. Rather than “Stop,” “Please,” and “Don’t,” I just announced the occasional “C’mon.”


Notice the cavalier over-the-shoulder glance by
this Ruddy Duck. That's me at the Grocery store.
I had the 4-year-old boy in the cart with me, so that helped matters. But I just went down my shopping list, and the other three ran behind. I even lost them for a bit, as the girls wandered into the flower section as I tried to decide which type of coconut milk to get for my Panang curry. (I went with the lower fat … we’ll see).

But I didn’t panic, and they found me again two aisles later.

Maybe it’s because they are a little bit older, or maybe I’m a little bit wiser, but the no-stress approach worked out just fine.

As for the people who witnessed our adventure, their looks of expression were either awe or disgust, I can’t decide. But you know what, I don’t really care. Like I said, I may have completely lost it -- or found it -- I don’t actually know.

Either way, I do know we survived Wegmans again … and the store survived too. Which is a good thing, because it’s almost time for another run. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lessons from Boston: Something Bold, Something New

It’s Saturday night in downtown Boston. I’m pacing the sidewalk in front of a gastropub, outside with the smokers. I’m not smoking. Instead I’m canceling a 9 p.m. dinner reservation across town at a restaurant I’ve never been to, and making a 9:30 reservation at another I'd never heard of until ten minutes before, all on the advice of a stranger.
 
Guide books be damned. The decision is made. Now let’s hope it's the right one.
 
There are lessons in travel, if you’re open to them. More so than just in the discovery of new places or the facts behind a historic sight, but actual instructions for life. A weekend trip my wife and I took to Boston recently contained one lesson that repeated itself to the point of being unavoidable.
 
We went to Boston to celebrate my wife’s birthday. It was a round-numbered one, so important. She dreamed of going to Italy for this milestone, but with four kids and all the bills that come with that, Boston was the best we could afford -- and we could barely afford that. Still, she was born in Massachusetts, so it kind of made sense to visit the City on a Hill in celebration of her existence. Plus, I’d never been there, despite the wanderlust of my youth. So, to Boston it was.
 
When it comes to things like vacations, I’m usually a bit of a planner. Before a trip I’ll grab tour books and surf the web for weeks in advance to find out everything I can: Places to eat, colorful markets, sections of town that just shouldn’t be missed. I find it and put it on a list. Then I map out the days of the trip. We’ll wake early, walk here, eat there, shop here, drink this, have lunch at that place, watch this show, dine here, nightcap there, and then back to the hotel. Every day I’ve got a schedule in my head, even if I don’t always share it.
 
Before this trip, however, things were different.
 
For starters, we’d both been so busy with work and kids and whatnot that I didn’t do one-tenth the usual research. Second, it was her birthday and her town -- and no place for my annoying vacation control issues -- so I figured I’d just do whatever she wanted. Other than booking hotels, I didn’t make a single list of sights we had to see, places we had to go, or things we had to do.
 
Of course, once the vacation started so did my obsession with order.
 
Redefining “Old’ In the Mountains
 
Getting older is never easy. Luckily, what counts as old is a relative term.
 
The first night of our weekend we spent at a sleepy inn in the Berkshires, as planned. We figured it nearly impossible to work all day Friday then drive the five hours to Boston and still get there at a decent hour. So we broke it up with a stop at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, a little village immortalized in a painting by Norman Rockwell. The innkeepers also own County Curtains, and my wife had always been curious about the inn, so it was an easy choice. 

Red Lion Inn -- Stockbridge, Mass.
When we told my mother-in-law we were planning to stay at the Red Lion, she replied, “That place is old.” And that pretty much sums it up.
 
The Red Lion began as a general store in 1773, becoming an inn in the decades after – one of just a few continuously operating inns from that era in New England. It is old, literally. I’d describe it as closer to charming than worn on the spectrum, but it’s definitely on that spectrum. The wood plank floors, bent from centuries of settling, creak with each step. Doorways lean one way, stair cases the other. I kept telling my wife, the old inn’s been around for generations and would certainly stand through one more night. It did. It was also clean, and the canopy bed proved surprisingly comfortable – an important matter, because when the parents of four kids get away for a weekend, all they really want is uninterrupted sleep.
 
We’d gotten to town too late to eat that first night, winding up in the old tavern in the old basement just after the kitchen and everything else in Stockbridge closed for the evening. So our hunger woke us early the next day. As my wife readied herself, I inquired with the Innkeepers about a good place for breakfast.
 
For those who don’t know, I take food seriously. I not only eat it every day, but I also like to cook it, and love to find places that cook it well. We’re not talking fine dining here, necessarily – though I’m okay with that on occasion. I’m more into cool, interesting places with well-prepared food, whether it's a four star restaurant or a street vendor makes no difference.
 
Finding food is how I like to explore a place and get to know it. That’s why I’m such a fan of Anthony Bourdain. He does it for a living.
 
Whenever I go someplace new these days, I ask myself “Where Would Tony Eat?” WWTE? If we can find a place worthy of Tony (which is what us friends call him) then it’s a good day. Again, that’s the kind of thing I usually seek out in the research phase of the trip. This time, we had to just ask the innkeepers, who pointed us to the Elm StreetMarket.
 
I wasn’t at all worried when we had to pass two other places capable of serving breakfast to get to the market, though my wife grew skeptical.

Elm Street Market
On appearances alone, the Elm Street Market seemed my kind of place for breakfast, if only for the questionable atmosphere. It’s a grocery store, butcher shop, deli and breakfast place all crammed into a tiny, little storefront market. Along one side of the store stands a wall of coolers holding milk and eggs. Across from it, separated by an aisle of groceries, sits a five-seat breakfast counter, propping up locals as they hovered over plates of pancakes, eggs and corned-beef hash. Behind the counter, a hulking short-order cook worked the grill, while a frail, older gentleman doubled as server and cashier. We ordered at the counter and sat at one of a handful of tables squeezed up against the storefront windows.
 
As we sat there, we began to wonder if it was actually the best place in town for breakfast or just the one in the good graces of the innkeepers.

We were starving, so the food did the job just fine. Yet it also answered our question. We later learned the inn actually owns the market and there are better breakfast places – which we passed on our walk there. That morning we learned a general lesson about advice from unknown innkeepers. But that’s hardly the grand lesson of this trip.
 
After breakfast, we strolled through the village of Stockbridge, self-described as “America’s most famous main street.” Nothing was open yet. A cute town, but if you’ve seen the painting that made Stockbridge famous than you’ve also seen the whole of this quaint little place. Our stroll took less than ten minutes. We checked out of the Inn and headed for Boston.
 
Along the way, we took a detour through the village of Lenox, another Berkshire mainstay. It had a bit more going on than the more famous one. And, though we thoroughly enjoyed our night in the mountains, we decided that if we ever stayed in the Berkshires again, we’d skip Stockbridge and go to Lenox.
 
Still, on this trip, we had a grander destination in mind.

Finding Food and Trusting Fate in Boston
 
I’m not a big believer in fate. People who’ve been through some crap and seen random badness in their lives generally have one of two reactions: either it was meant to be, or there’s no way it was meant to be. I fall in the second category.
 
I also don’t believe “things will always work out,” as many are apt to comment when things aren’t working out. Maybe that’s why I try to plan things. To give fate a hand, and to make things work out.
 
But, there’s no denying that sometimes it seems the universe conspires to make things go a certain way, despite our best efforts to push in another direction.  And that brings us to Boston.
 
We began in Boston as America began -- at Faneuil Hall in downtown. After strolling the shops, the outdoor produce market and the indoor food hall, which was more like a food court than a true market, we were hungry again and ended up in the waiting area of the Union Oyster House, which has the distinction of America’s oldest restaurant. There’s that theme again.
 
Standing there, convincing ourselves to wait forty minutes for our turn to eat, my wife expressed her concern that we were in a possible tourist trap. I looked around, and low and behold she was right. We also remembered that we don’t like oysters that much. So we left.
 
Once on the street we wandered in the direction of a few restaurants that were showing up on the Urban Spoon app. That random choice led us to the heart of Little Italy. We’d been told by pre-trip advisors to go there, and I had planned in my head to do that for dinner. Now we were there for lunch.
 
Boston’s Little Italy, also called the North End, bursts with restaurants, bakeries and bars, and bustles with trendy locals and tourists alike. We were overwhelmed with choices. I was extra overwhelmed because I never expected to find so much of Italy in a town I always thought of as Irish.
 
We first looked for a place a friend from home told us about, but couldn’t find it. We wandered some more, got hungrier. We settled on a seemingly trendy place, where Tony would likely have eaten, joining a line of urban hipsters that stretched down the block. We stood there, not moving, for too long. Then we jumped out of line and wandered to a fine little Italian place called Gennero’s, with fresh pasta and room enough to feed two hungry travelers right then and there. It was delicious.  

Café Victoria-- Little Italy, Boston
After our late lunch, we joined the masses for an Italian style coffee and cake at Cafe Victoria. It wasn’t Italy, but it was as close as we could get. Full and groggy from the meal and cake, we checked into our hotel to get settled and rest up before dinner.

Our choice of accommodations in downtown Boston was one thing we had little say in. By the time I booked the place, every other hotel nearby was full or way out of our price range. The Mandarin Oriental, for example, wanted over $1000 bucks for their last available rooms -- I'm guessing a suite. So we stayed at the Omni Parker House, which turns out to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in America. Go figure.
 
I swear I didn’t pick all these old places to make my wife feel young (or old); it just happened.
 
As it turns out, the Omni Parker House has quite a history, particularly with Boston’s literary elite. As for me – an upstate New York literary underling – I was struck most by how damn small the room was for the price. And they didn’t even have free WiFi. Other than that, there was little to complain about. We could see the Charles River from the window and the bed was comfortable (though a bit small).
 
One thing I knew about our plan for the rest of the evening, I wanted to have a plan. We spent part of our time at the hotel that afternoon researching restaurants for dinner. After all, this was to be the climactic meal of the trip -- Saturday night dinner, right? I figured, since we’d had Italian for lunch, we should have seafood for dinner. With that, I searched a bit and picked Boston Sail Loft, and then made a reservation. My wife was skeptical of the choice because one review put it on the list of Boston’s “douchiest” restaurants, saying it “is well-stocked with the finest assholes of New England’s famous prep schools.” As assholes go, prep school ones are a special breed. Despite concerns, I needed to have a plan and worried we wouldn’t eat if we didn’t have a reservation. So I booked it.
 
My wife also picked a gastropub called Stoddard’s near our hotel for a cocktail before dinner. Our plan set, we got ready, primped and headed out for the evening.

We arrived at the gastropub to find a relatively young crowd gathered in the cavernous, rectangular dark wood room, complete with old-fashioned street lamps as light posts and a thirty-foot bar adorned with a long line of taps. When two seats opened at the bar, we sat. What can you say, we're old.


Stoddard's -- Boston
It was at Stoddard's that the stars aligned in our favor and fate, or more likely luck, took over. When our luck arrived, it didn’t come in the package you’d expect, unless a lonely, older woman sitting alone at a bar, surrounded by 30-something hipsters was expected.
 
I didn’t see her at first, but then she started talking. In the first words I heard she cursed, “Kids these days and all their politically correct crap.” My initial thought was, are speaking to me?  She was the oldest person in the bar by decades not years. And she was dressed for going out on a Saturday, her hair in a neat bun. Despite looking worn and tired, she had fight in her voice.
 
“When I was young comedians would tell offensive jokes, and nobody cared,” she said to me as a more formal introduction. I assumed then I was in for a tough night at Stoddard’s.
 
Over the next hour or so, this life-long Bostonian shared tidbits with us about her life as a nurse, and how she’d seen it all, and several more things that began with “Kids these days...” I wondered if  she thought we were kids too, or her compatriots.
 
Eventually, talk turned to our kids, and our lives, and then our plans for dinner.  "The Sail Loft?" she said as she shrugged her shoulders, added a “Meh.”
 
So, I asked where we should go, and she said told us, “Mare.”  She’d never been there, but she’d always wanted to. It was a date place and for special occasions. She hadn’t had either lately.

At the next lull in her soliloquy on life, I ducked outside and called for a late reservation at a restaurant recommended by a perfect stranger who’d never been there -- and I cancelled our other reservation at the so-called douchy place. An hour later, after our new friend left with half her meal in a bag for her dog at home, we hopped a cab and found our way to Mare – an Italian-style seafood restaurant on Boston’s North End.
 
To keep this long story short enough that I don't have to get it bound and numbered, lets just say that our meal at Mare was one of the best and most memorable we’ve ever had, second only in my opinion to a Friday night BBQ at Foxy's on Jost Van Dyke during our honeymoon.
 
Despite changing my sacred plans, we ate well that night in Boston.
 
I was beginning to see a pattern in our trip, that we had our best luck when our plans didn’t work out, our whims took over, and life and luck led us in another direction. The next day the pattern repeated.
 
We woke early again, long before 10 a.m. Sunday brunch service. To pass the time, we took a walk through Boston Common – a smaller version of Central Park – headed in the direction of a brunch place on the list supplied by the hotel. After a leisurely stroll, we arrive at the restaurant 5 minutes before it opened. There was only one problem; Nobody else was waiting to go in. After some consternation on my part, and some coaxing by my now wiser wife, we left to find someplace else, anyplace else.
 
Forty minutes later, we found a much better breakfast option on Newbury Street, Boston's version of Rodeo Drive. Our next few hours were spent perusing the shops -- exactly the way my wife should spend her birthday. The  trip felt complete. And when the early afternoon arrived, I was ready to go home. But my wife had other plans.
 
She thought we should have one last meal before we left. It was 2 p.m. I wanted to get on the road, sticking to the plan I'd hatched in my head. If we left at 2 p.m., we’d get home at about 7 p.m., I said. But we needed to eat, she said. We needed to go, I said. We hadn’t had chowder, she said. Fine, I said.
 
Our final quest, in search of chowder, took us to Boston’s Seaport District. Again, I had no idea about the place. But just a short jaunt from downtown we were surrounded by concrete docks and warehouses on one side and new hotels on the other. Interspersed between the docks and warehouses were recognizable restaurants like Legal Sea Foods and Rosa Mexicana. It was industrial longshoreman meets modern development.
 
I figured we could find chowder at any number of places, if we could only find a parking spot. As a newly burgeoning section of Boston, there seemed a severe shortage of places to leave the car. We drove around for too long, circling the blocks like I used to when we’d go to Adams Morgan for dinner. It sucked. I was ready to go home.
 
Then we took a wrong turn and ended up next to another old warehouse. We looked up and saw a sign that said, “Parking for Yankee Lobster Customer’s Only.” That was the name of the tiny store front with the red awning we’d just passed while attempting a three-point turn.
 
“Look up Yankee Lobster,” I said to my wife, who had been Googling chowder places on her iPhone. 
 
“On it,” she said. Seconds later, Google and other sites reported that the Yankee Lobster was a perfectly fine place for a cup of Chowder. So we parked, and went in.
 
Thank god we didn’t find a spot earlier and wind up at Legal Seafoods, or some other Godforsaken chain.

Yankee Lobster Co. -- Boston
Once inside the little storefront, we knew we’d arrived at fresh seafood Nirvana. A crowded room greeted us with sideways glances, as people refused to take their faces away from their soup. Fresh fish and lobster crammed the cooler, colorful specials were drawn on the chalk board. Hipsters? There were hipsters. Not just eating there, but working there too.  Hipsters were running the joint.
 
We waited in a short line and ordered our food at the counter, as was the design of the place. I got the chowder and fresh fish fry. My wife got grilled lobster tail – lobster on her birthday. 

I always ask, Where Would Tony Eat? He’d eat at Yankee Lobster.
 
We sat outside in the courtyard next to the dining room, because it was too full inside and the sun was shining on us on a warm November day. Then the food arrived.
 
YankeeLobster Co. is not only cramped, dingy, fresh and beautiful, the food is damn good too.

Thanks, Boston. 
It was fun.
I don’t believe in fate. But sometimes the universe does conspire in your favor. And boy did it. So, on this trip to Boston, I learned a something about plans. I learned that we can make all the plans we want. Plans are good, after all; They give us structure, and help us achieve goals. But sometimes the real beauty happens when we go off the plan and improvise.
 
It makes me think about the life my wife and I have built. It pains me that I couldn’t take her to the actual Italy for her birthday. And that so many of our plans haven’t worked out like we wanted or hoped.
 
But I look around at our home and our lives and all the little people in it, and I know that many wonderful things have happened that we never imagined, despite all our plans.
 
So. That’s it.
 
I'm going to keep planning things, because that’s what I do. But I'll always be ready to improvise. Because, sometimes luck and fate do take over. And sometimes, things do work out.