Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bi-Coastal Playlist

On Friday morning my husband and I did something crazy for two sleep-deprived thirty-year-old parents: We flew to California for the weekend, sans children.  A good friend of mine from college was getting married, and when she announced that the wedding would be in Pasadena, there was no doubt in our minds that we'd attend, even though doing so meant leaving our three-year-old and three-month-old at home with my parents for two nights.

I have been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading this trip since before Peanut was born.  I mean, who wouldn't want to go to California, if only for a mere fifty hours?  Low humidity, incredible fast-food hamburgers, the way people's conversations revolve around the freeways: These are a few things I adore about Southern California.  But jetting off to the Golden State meant stocking the freezer with enough food for Peanut and fervently praying that this mommy-loving child would eventually break down and take a bottle.  My paralyzing fear that my baby might not eat in my absence almost persuaded me to cancel the trip.  But then I thought about how amazing it would be to wake up just one morning in a way that does not involve someone forcefully prying my eyelids open while shouting "It's breakfast time!  It's breakfast time!  I want oatmeal," and, well, flight on.

To maximize our stay out west, we took a 7 a.m. flight on Friday.  Most passengers were fast asleep before takeoff, but I chose to savor the six uninterrupted hours of me-time by sipping complimentary coffee, reading Traditional Home and Runners World, and jamming to my iPod.  I created two playlists for the trip: One consisting solely of songs that mention California to set the mood for our visit, and another with songs about New York and home to listen to on the way back to JFK.


1. Al Jolson, "California, Here I Come" (When I was a little girl, this unofficial state song used to play on the Disney channel, with a smiling sun bouncing up and down over the lyrics.  It made California seem like a happy, majestic place, and I promised myself I would visit there someday.  I finally did, for the first time, just after I turned 29-years-old. "Open up that golden gate, California, here I come!")

2. Delta Spirit, "California" (This song makes me want to up and move to California every time I hear it.)

3. 2Pac, "California Love"

4. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Californication"

5. Marlena Shaw, "California Soul" ("No matter what you do it's gonna get a hold on you...")

6. The Mamas and the Papas, "California Dreamin'" ("...on such a winter's day...")

7. The Eagles, "Hotel California" (Obviously)

8. Weezer, "Beverly Hills"

9. Bob Seger, "Hollywood Nights" ("She stood as bright as the sun on that California coast")

10. Phantom Planet, "California" (Feel the angst.  By the way, The O.C. first aired TEN YEARS ago.  As if having two children and a mommy tummy didn't make me feel old enough already.)

11. Vampire Weekend, "California English"

12. Kings of Leon, "California Waiting"

13. Dawes, "Time Spent in Los Angeles" (Minnow's favorite song of life.)

14. The Head and the Heart, "Down in the Valley" ("I know there's California, Oklahoma, and all of the places I ain't ever been to...")

15. Sheryl Crow, "All I Wanna Do (Is Have Some Fun) ("...until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard") (Oh, and if you really want to feel old, that song came out TWENTY YEARS ago.)

16. Katy Perry, "California Gurls"

17. Dante Thomas, "Miss California" (This song reminds me so much of my friend whose wedding we just attended because she used to play it on a loop freshman year, I think to make the points that a) she was from California; and b) she was hot.)

18. The Notorious B.I.G. "Going Back to Cali"

19. Counting Crows, "Long December" ("If you think you might come to California, I think you should...")

20. Joni Mitchell, "California"

21. Billy Bragg & Wilco, "California Stars" (No song makes me miss California as much after I leave.)


1. Dan Auerbach, "Goin' Home" (From the movie Up in the Air.  Personally, I like Dan Auerbach's solo stuff better than his Black Keys stuff; I also think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.)

2. Diddy Dirty Money, "Coming Home"

3. Vampire Weekend, "M79" (Because in New York, unlike in California, taking public transportation is not stigmatizing.)

4. Ryan Adams, "New York, New York"

5. Jay Z., "Empire State of Mind" (When I ran the ING New York City Marathon, I heard this song being played each time I crossed into a new borough.  For me, it is THE New York City anthem.)

6. Billy Joel, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" (Because, sadly, I don't live in New York City anymore; I live on Long Island.  This ditty about "Brender" and Eddie is THE Long Island anthem, written by the king of Long Island.)

7. Mason Jennings, "Be Here Now," ("...no other place to be...")

8. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, "Home"

9. Phosphorescent, "Mermaid Parade" (Phosphorescent is my new favorite band, although they have, apparently, been around for a good, long time.  This song, from their 2010 album Here's to Taking It Easy, is perfect because it's about life between NYC and LA.)

10. U2, "New York"

11. Alexi Murdoch, "Home"

12. Cat Power, "New York, New York" (An updated version of Frank Sinatra's classic tribute.)

13. Rosie Thomas, "Much Farther to Go" ("New York is lovely in the wintertime.  The sidewalks are white as snow...")

14. Phillip Phillips, "Home"

15. Simon & Garfunkle, "The Only Living Boy in New York" ("Hey, I've got nothing today but smile...")

16. Mumford & Sons, "The Boxer" (A cover of the Simon & Garfunkle original, about the boy who left home for a chance at glory in the City.)

17. The Head and the Heart, "Honey Come Home" (I do not exaggerate when I say it is impossible for me to listen to this song without bursting into tears.  I do not know why; I am not going through a separation.  But the lyrics are so raw, so emotionally true, and have little to do with New York but everything to do with the things we take for granted about home life.)

18. Eddie Money, "Take Me Home Tonight" (Because you'll need something to cheer you up after that previous song.)

19. Bonnie Somerville, "Winding Road" (Which, incidentally, mentions California, but is actually a song about home.)

20. Simon & Garfunkle, "Homeward Bound" (Wow, I didn't realize I was such a Simon & Garfunkle fan until just now.)

21. Ben Folds, "Landed" ("Come pick me up, I've landed...")

Our trip to California was amazing, and being away from the kids for two days was- I'll say it- good for the soul.  But when I caught a glimpse of Manhattan- all lit up at night- out my airplane window on our return trip Sunday, my heart fluttered.  There really is no place like home.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Come Inside, It's Fun Inside

Before Peanut was even born, I was asking Minnow what kind of party she wanted for her third birthday.

"Why are we talking about her birthday right now?" my husband inquired.  "It's June."

"Because I want to make this birthday extra-special, and for that I will need time."

Minnow has experienced a lot of change since we moved from Bronxville in April: Potty training, moving to a new house, transitioning to a twin bed, welcoming a baby sister, starting a four-day-a-week nursery school program.  If anyone deserves the birthday party of her dreams, it's Minnow.

Since moving into the new house, Minnow has become engrossed in all things Disney.  This, of course, is all my fault.  In Bronxville the only show Minnow was allowed to watch was Sesame Street.  Now that Peanut has joined the party, Minnow has been watching more television, usually at the end of the day when my answers to the endless barrage of toddler inquiries come out all garbled and incoherent.  Disney is my reprieve.

I think toddlers are born programmed to recognize and idolize Mickey Mouse.  Within minutes of the first time she saw Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Minnow was referring to all of the characters by name and doing the "Hot Dog Dance."  It should have come as no surprise to me, then, that when I asked Minnow what kind of party she wanted for her third birthday, she answered:


Specifically, Minnow asked that I "turn our house into the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse."  After three months of turning our house into a livable home, I wasn't sure I was up to the challenge, but I did my best to capture the essence of the show for her dream party.


The first step was to create a festive invitation to set the tone for the party.  After googling images of Mickey Mouse party invitations, I came up with the concept of doing a folded card that when unfolded resembled the iconic Mickey Mouse ears.  I bought an inexpensive pack of folded cards made from black card stock with matching envelopes from the craft store.

Using a circle cutter, I created a template by tracing one large circle for the face and two smaller circles for the ears onto an unfolded card.  It took some trial and error to get the size of the head and ears just right; it's a good thing I had plenty of extra cards!

Using the template I created, I traced the Mickey Mouse image onto unfolded cards, then refolded them to cut out the shape.

I used the circle cutter to cut out similarly-sized circles from red and yellow card stock.  The red circles were cut in half to create Mickey's "pants," on which I glued two yellow buttons.  I wrote the details for the party on the yellow circles and glued them to the insides of the cards.

I hand wrote the invitations using colored fine-tip Sharpie markers.  The tag line read, "If you've got ears, say CHEERS!"

When the invitations were completely dry I refolded them so they would fit into their corresponding envelopes.  Using all this card stock made the invitations quite heavy, and they required extra postage to mail.  If I were doing this again, I'd probably use colored construction paper, rather than card stock, for the red pants and yellow interior.  


I created a birthday banner using the same Mickey Mouse head template I used to make the invitations.  I stenciled letters onto blue, green, and yellow card stock (the same colors as the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse sign on the show), cut them out, and glued them onto the Mickey Mouse heads.  I punched a hole in the center of each head and linked the banner together with red and white polka dot grosgrain ribbon.  In retrospect, I think I would have punched a hole in each ear instead; the sign would have laid better.  Even so, the banner turned out super-cute.  

We strung the banner across the back window in our dining room.  It was the perfect backdrop for the food table, which was flanked on either side by bunches of balloons in the same Mickey Mouse Clubhouse color scheme.


Minnow's birthday party started at 3 p.m., between lunch and dinner times, so rather than serve a meal I decided to serve finger foods, which are easier for three-year-olds, anyway.  For a thirty-year-old woman, I had way too much fun planning the Disney-themed snacks.  On the menu were:

Meeska Mooska Mickey Meatballs (Swedish meatballs served with Mickey Mouse picks)

Minnie's Fa-mouse Macaroni and Cheese (Baked macaroni and cheese that I served in individual red paper cups)

Goofy's Hot-diggity Dogs (Cocktail weiners)

Donald and Daisy's Cheese and "Quackers"

Pluto's Favorite Dog Biscuits (Sugar cookies shaped like dog bones)

Chip N' Dale's Chick N' Nuggets

Clarabelle's Chocolate Milk (Horizon Organic chocolate milk boxes)

And a vegetable tray to make me feel a little less guilty about serving all this junk food to children.

The real star of the party, besides Minnow, of course, was the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Cake, which I had custom made by A Cake In Time bakery located in Mt. Sinai, NY.

The baker, Sherry, created the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse using carved Rice Krispies treats covered in molding chocolate.  When Sherry delivered the cake, Minnow squealed with delight and spun around in circles.  That reaction was totally worth the price, which was in the ballpark of more than our wedding cake. ("But, hey, I made the invitations and the favors," I reminded my husband.)  It killed us to cut into this masterpiece after singing Happy Birthday, but the delicious layers of buttermilk vanilla and sour cream chocolate cake with Oreo cookie buttercream made destroying it slightly less painful.


The playlist for the party included some of Minnow's favorite artists, including Adele and Dawes, as well as perennial party favorites like "It's Your Birthday" by Justin Roberts, "Birthday" by the Beatles, as well as "Hot Dog" by They Might Be Giants.


Originally I wanted to make Mickey Mouse party hats for the kids by pasting a pair of black ears onto red party hats, but, amazingly, I couldn't find plain red party hats at the party store.  I did, however, find these plush Mickey Mouse ear headbands for $2.99 each, which were even more fun for the kids (and some of the adults.  I'm looking at you, Pop Pop).

For the favors I glued two yellow buttons onto the front of red paper sacks and attached white Mickey hand party tags that I drew free hand and personalized with black letter stickers.  Inside the sacks were crayons, notepads, playing cards, and bubbles, but no candy because I'm normally a stickler about limiting sugar for children. (Which is probably another reason why Minnow went bonkers for her cake.)

Minnow says, "Thanks for dropping by my Mickey Mouse Clubhouse party.  Oh, Toodles!"

Thursday, October 10, 2013


I am sitting in the new glider in the yellow nursery feeding Peanut when my phone lights up.  I desperately want to ignore the call, but I can't.  I know it's my doctor and I know he is going to ask if I took the medicine he prescribed last night.  The medicine that is supposed to help stop the heavy bleeding I'm still experiencing three weeks post-partum.  The medicine that carries a label advising against breastfeeding while taking it.  The medicine that I did not take last night.

"Hi, doctor," I say into the phone.

"Good morning!  How are you feeling?  Crampy?"

I only met this doctor eight weeks ago, when I transferred to his Long Island office from Westchester at 35 weeks, but I really like him.  I don't want to disappoint him.

"No, not crampy..." I trail off.

"Why not?  You didn't take the medicine?"

"Well, I didn't think I could take it while breastfeeding, and I'm just starting to establish a good supply, so..."

There is dead silence on the other end of the line.  I feel like I'm back in the fifth grade, being reprimanded by my favorite teacher for rolling my knee socks down.

The doctor speaks slowly.  "I don't think you understand.  You need to take the medicine.  I know breastfeeding is important to you, but this is a matter of life and death."

My doctor isn't one to overstate the truth, so this grabs my attention.

"I don't think you realize how lucky you are," the doctor continues.  "We just got the placenta back from pathology, and that baby you're holding is a miracle."

I think to myself that after the pregnancy and delivery I just experienced, there is nothing that this man can tell me that will surprise me.  If my pregnancy with Minnow was textbook, my pregnancy with Peanut was a horror story that included four hospitalizations: Two for unexplained bleeding in the first and second trimesters, one for acute food poisoning and dehydration, and one after a low-impact car accident at 32 weeks.  In addition to all that, I was also diagnosed with a low-lying placenta at my twenty-week anatomical scan, and for most of the pregnancy we believed I would deliver Peanut by scheduled C-section.  The placenta finally moved far enough away from the birth canal at 37 weeks, and I was cleared for a natural delivery.  I was thrilled to deliver Peanut naturally four weeks later, but, unfortunately, after she came out things went very wrong.  The doctor could not control the bleeding after I delivered the placenta and I was rushed to the OR for emergency surgery to treat post-partum hemorrhage.  There was talk of a hysterectomy and I was scared out of my wits, but, thankfully, the doctors were able to stop the bleeding.  Sort of.  Three weeks after the surgery I am still experiencing heavy spotting, which is why my doctor has prescribed the medicine I refuse to take.

But all of this has little to do with what he tells me next, and it shakes me to the core.

"The pathology revealed that the baby had a velamentous cord insertion that ran for eight centimeters, resulting in a vasa previa."

I don't speak Latin, so I ask the doctor to explain.

In a normal pregnancy, the baby's veins run from the middle of the placenta to the baby through the umbilical cord.  The umbilical cord protects the veins from rupture.  In velamentous cord insertion, the baby's veins traverse the placental membrane unprotected before coming together in the umbilical cord.  Peanut's veins ran unprotected for eight centimeters and actually crossed the birth canal, which is what is meant by vasa previa.  If at 28 weeks during my food poisoning episode, at 32 weeks after the car accident, or at 41 weeks during labor and delivery these veins had torn as a result of contractions or membrane rupture, Peanut would have bled out in a matter of minutes.  She would have been stillborn.

In fact, when vasa previa goes undetected, as is it did in our case, the infant mortality rate is between 50-95%.  It is called the silent killer because it affects mothers and babies who enjoyed otherwise healthy, uneventful pregnancies.

When vasa previa is detected, usually by color Doppler, the survival rates jump to 50-95%.  That's because when vasa previa is detected, the baby will be delivered by C-section at about 35 weeks, before the mother goes into labor.  Vasa previa is so rare (1 in every 3000 pregnancies) that it is not screened for unless the mother exhibits warning signs.  I've learned that I exhibited many of the warning signs for vasa previa, including unexplained late-term bleeding, low-lying placenta, and a history of non-abortive uterine surgery, but my former doctor in Westchester did not screen me for the condition.

I don't know why my former doctor didn't test me for vasa previa.  I don't know why Peanut survived a natural delivery when the great majority of babies with her condition do not.  I've been taught not to question miracles.

I wasn't sure I'd ever share this story on the blog, but October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and I want to raise awareness.  One in 200 babies is stillborn and, sadly, some of those stillbirths cannot be prevented.  But some can be, if we inform ourselves about the causes of stillbirth.  If I had known about vasa previa, I would have asked to be tested for it after my first unexplained bleeding episode at 11 weeks.  I would have insisted on a scheduled C-section at 35 weeks.  I would not have put my baby, and myself, at risk.

To learn more about vasa previa, please visit The International Vasa Previa Foundation.  My story is not meant to scare, but to inform.  Vasa previa is rare, but if you or anyone you know is experiencing any of the warning signs listed on the website, insist on being screened.  It may seem like another unnecessary test during pregnancy, but it just may save your baby's life.

Before we hang up and after the doctor convinces me that taking my prescription is what's right for both me and the children I need to care for, he says one more thing that deeply impacts me:

"Do you believe in God?  Because I do."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ode to October and a Giveaway

You know what drives me bonkers? (I mean besides the careless misuse of homonyms such as "your" and "you're"?)  When people- other people- go on and on about how much they love October.  Listen up: No one loves October more than me.  I discovered October, just like I discovered Mumford and Sons.  October has been my favorite month since before Starbucks introduced the pumpkin spice latte and J.Crew declared tweed blazers fashionable.  So don't tell me all about the amazing time you just had at the Mumford and Sons concert at the Barclays Center, in your fedora hat and ironic overalls.  I saw them two years ago when they were a bunch of banjo-strumming nobodies playing Webster Hall.  I love October and I love Mumford and Sons more than anyone else.  Got it?

For me, October is a month-long festival that I observe with several hallowed rituals.  
Below are my 31 favorite.  All month on the blog I will be sharing pictures, stories, and recipes from our October celebration.

1. Go to a local apple orchard and pick apples;

2. Make homemade apple sauce.  (Minnow's nursery school class recently made apple sauce, and each child brought some home in a baby food jar.  Minnow and I ate it after dinner one night for dessert and it was delicious.  Minnow wanted to know why Daddy wasn't having any, and I didn't have the heart to tell her that Daddy doesn't care for boogers in his apple sauce.);

3. Bring home a jug of apple cider;

4. Warm the cider in a saucepan with one or two cinnamon sticks and enjoy on a chilly fall evening;

5. Throw in some bourbon and make it a hot toddy;

6. I like my cider or toddy with some Sweetzel's spice wafers.  If you're from Philly you know exactly what I'm talking about;

7. Go pumpkin picking at a local farm;

8. Take a hay ride and enjoy the sensation of straw poking your body through layers of flannel, corduroy and tweed;

9. Carve pumpkins and put them on your doorstep for the squirrels to get to;

10. Toast the pumpkin seeds and make pumpkin seed granola because, sadly for your children, you're that kind of mom, and not the kind that makes pumpkin muffins;

11. Feel bad about the pumpkin muffins and make it up to your kids by making yummy squash muffins.  They taste just as good, I swear;

12. Speaking of squash, make homemade butternut squash soup;

13. Decorate your home with plenty of gourds and mums;

14. Build a bonfire and toast some marshmallows for s'mores.  Or toast them over your gas burner in the kitchen, either way;

15. Drink a pumpkin spice latte.  I really try to hold out for October for this, but Starbucks makes it increasingly difficult each year.  This year pumpkin spice was available the day after Labor Day.  There is something inherently wrong with an iced pumpkin spice latte;

16. Drink a Sam Adam's Octoberfest.  Even though I grew up on Yuengling and it feels like cheating, I allow myself one Sam Adams Octoberfest each fall;

17. Drink pumpkin ale.  Pumking by Southern Tier Brewing Company, NY is my favorite;

18.  What are you drinking to?  Minnow's birthday is in October and this year we are celebrating with a  Mickey Mouse Clubhouse themed birthday bonanza.  Mama will definitely be tossing down the toddies that day;

19. Look, the trees are changing colors!  Load the kids in the car and take a Sunday drive to marvel at the radiant reds, fiery oranges, and vibrant yellows;

20. Collect leaves and make leaf prints by placing them under white paper and rubbing the flat end of a crayon over them;

21. Rake leaves into a large neat pile, then jump in and destroy it;

22. Okay, now rake them up again and stuff them into oversize pumpkin trash bags to decorate your lawn for Halloween;

23. Speaking of Halloween, it is never too early to start thinking about costumes.  Minnow will likely be trick-or-treating in her Minnie Mouse costume from last year because a) it still fits;  b) she is currently going through a Disney phase; and c) we didn't get to use it last year because of Super Storm Sandy. Peanut, like most babies her age, will be going as a pumpkin;

24. It is also never too early to start thinking about Halloween candy.  Don't be that house handing out Tootsie Rolls.  Tootsie Rolls automatically get tossed in the trash, along with every other piece of candy your mom suspects may have been poisoned, drugged, or inserted with tiny razor blades;

25. Don't forget to get an extra-large bag of candy corn for yourself;

26. And to burn off all that sugar, you may want to consider going for a long, brisk run at dusk;

27. Or run a marathon!  My husband and I are hoping to run the Chicago Marathon together next October;

28. Or if you're not the running type, you could do a scary movie marathon.  My scary movie pick is It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  That's as much scary as I can handle;

29. Watch fall sports.  October is the only month I actually care about baseball.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy attending the occasional baseball game in the summer (mostly for the ice cream served in tiny batter helmets) but what's the point in fretting over standings in June or July?  It's a long season (and it seems to get longer every year, sort of like summer itself);

30. Go to a college football game.  Even though I'm several years out of college, I still enjoy going to homecoming on the years I don't happen to have a wedding, which has been most years now that wedding season, like baseball, stretches into late fall;

31. Paint your nails pink and observe Breast Cancer Awareness month by making a donation to a reputable breast-cancer research foundation, like Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  

If you're like me and you love October (although, clearly, not with the same intensity), I have a giveaway for you.  All month long I invite you to share your favorite October rituals on Instagram with hashtag #athloctober.  Each tagged photo will be entered to win a $25 iTunes gift card. (Perfect for discovering the next Mumford and Sons!)  I will draw the winner at random on November 1, 2013.  I can't wait to see how you're celebrating the best month of the year.  Good luck!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Recipes from My Ugly Blue Kitchen: Garlic Roasted Chicken and French Beans

You don't need me to devote an entire paragraph to describe how hectic the dinner hour is in a household with two children under the age of three.  Add to the chaos a husband who gets home from work at 6:30 and then goes on a training run because he is running the New York City Marathon two years after you did and is hellbent on beating your time, and you have yourself a recipe for daily dinner takeout.

But who are you kidding?  You have a mortgage.

Enter quick and dirty recipes that require very little preparation and few ingredients.  Bonus if they're for food your toddler will eat, thus eliminating the extra step of having to heat up chicken nuggets in the toaster oven.

This recipe is adapted from Everyday Food: Great Food Fast From the Kitchen of Martha Stewart Living.  It is one of the first dishes I taught myself to make after I was married, and, four years later, it is still my husband's favorite dinner.  When he limps in from his run and smells the garlic roasting, it puts a smile on his exhausted face.  The best part is this meal requires exactly five ingredients to prepare, not including olive oil, salt, and pepper, which I don't count because I use them in almost everything I cook.

Of course I'm going to get on my soapbox and tell you that yes, the chicken you use matters a great deal in this recipe.  With hardly anything to mask the flavor, you have to use the highest quality poultry available.  It should be raised locally, without hormones and antibiotics.  Bonus points if it's free-range and/or organic.  Believe me, I am no vegan, but I do care about the quality of life my chicken enjoyed before it became my supper.  The brands I like are Murray's or Bell and Evans, or if you're fortunate enough to live near a Stew Leonard's, Stew's Naked Chicken brand.

This is what the chicken looks like going into the oven:

And this is what it looks like when it comes out:

Serve this dish with lots of crusty whole wheat bread (it's one of the five ingredients!) so you have something on which to spread the roasted garlic cloves, which become soft and buttery while roasting.

Garlic Roasted Chicken with French Beans (Feeds 2 adults and 1 toddler)


1) 1 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast, halved.  (If you can't find chicken breast halves, find a whole chicken breast in the poultry case and have the butcher halve it for you.  This may sound obvious, but I didn't know you could do this until my husband told me so.  I lived a very sheltered existence before I got married.)
2) 2 heads of garlic
3) 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
4) 1/2 lb. French beans
5) 1 whole wheat baguette
Plus olive oil, salt, pepper


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Slice the tops off two garlic heads (reserve the bottoms) and place them cut sides down on the bottom of a square baking dish.  Place one sprig of fresh rosemary on each garlic top.  Arrange the chicken breast halves over the garlic tops.  Sandwich the two reserved garlic bottoms, cut side up, between the chicken breast halves.  Place the remaining two rosemary sprigs on top of the chicken.  Drizzle the chicken and garlic with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast the chicken for a half hour, then turn the garlic bottoms cut side down and rotate the pan.  Continue roasting the chicken for another half hour, or until the skin is brown and the juices run clear. 

While the chicken is roasting, bathe the children. Clean the bathrooms. Do a load of laundry.

About ten minutes before the chicken is done, trim and cook the French beans.

Did you know that when you trim French beans, you're only supposed to cut off one end, leaving on the stringy, elf-shoe looking end?  Well, I didn't, but that's because growing up the beans I ate came out of a can.  Thanks, Ina Garten, for teaching me this important lesson.

The way I cook my beans is I fill a shallow frying pan with about a half inch of water and bring it to a boil over medium heat.  Then I toss all the beans in the pan and allow them to steam for 3-4 minutes.  This method is a bit unorthodox, but I guarantee you will get perfect, crisp-tender beans every time.  

Serve the chicken with the whole garlic bottoms, the pan juices, the French beans, the bread, and a sweet, juicy red wine like Rex Goliath Free Range Red.  It's got a big rooster on the label; you can't miss it!

Enjoy!  Let me know in the comments if you try this recipe and what, if anything, you did to tweak it for your family.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Before and After: The Family Room

In honor of the weekly social media holiday Throwback Thursday, today I'm going back... way back... to May of this year, when our family room looked like this:

Back then this room was not a family room; in the real estate listing it was identified as the "fifth bedroom," located just off the dining room on the main floor of the house.  The previous owners' grown son and his cat lived here.  There is also evidence that the son was operating a shell corporation out of this room, but we won't get into that.  The "before" pictures really do not do justice to how bad this room was, mostly because you can't smell pictures.  

Despite the odor and its small size, we knew we wanted to turn the fifth bedroom into a family room because, with only four of us, five bedrooms seemed excessive.  Also, we do not have a finished (by modern standards) basement, so unless we wanted to put our television in the formal living room, we had to create a comfortable space on the main level where our family could kick back, relax, and watch whatever Minnow dictates we watch.

It's amazing how transformative new carpet, fresh paint, and some handsome furniture can be.  Although it is the smallest room on the main floor, the family room is where we spend the majority of our time together.

Originally, we wanted to tear down the ugly wood paneling and hang sheet rock, but our budget didn't allow for it.  Instead, we had our painters prepare the walls with a special primer and then paint it a soft sunny shade (Benjamin Moore, Filtered Sunlight).  We replaced the old carpeting with an inexpensive, neutral wool/nylon sisal.  The light paint and carpet help the space feel larger than it is.  

Because of the dimensions of the room (approximately 12 x 12), we needed a slim, low-profile couch that could comfortably sit at least two adults.  We found this one at- wait for it- Bob's Discount Furniture!  Also, it's a queen-size sleeper-sofa, which means we can use the family room as an extra guest bedroom when the need arises.  But that's not the best part.  The best part is that the man who sold us this amazing piece of furniture is none other than Richard Dreyfus.  Don't believe me?

As my husband observed, all the good roles must have dried up after "Mr. Holland's Opus."

Our modular entertainment center and bookcases, from Pottery Barn, are some of the first furniture pieces my husband and I bought together after we were married.  The bookcases house all sorts of personal affects, from my dormant law school textbooks, to family photos and mementos from our travels.  The bookcases also house our combined libraries, which serve as a lesson on how opposites attract.  For example, the John McCain biography in the upper left corner is his.  The Marx-Engels Reader in the lower right corner is mine.  

Also displayed on the entertainment center is my matchbook collection, which contains a matchbook from almost every restaurant or bar my husband and I have visited together since we started dating eight years ago.  I love the story each matchbook tells, and I also love seeing all the pretty colors through the glass cylinder vase.  Fortunately, Minnow has never shown an interest in dumping the matches on the floor and lighting a fire, but who's to say I will be so lucky with the next child?  The matchbook collection will likely be put away when Peanut goes mobile.      

Say hello to Geoffrey Giraffe from New York City.  We picked him up at a flea market on the Upper West Side in 2009, and he has been with us ever since.  He is one of my favorite things so, although space is at a premium in the family room, I insisted we squeeze him in there in the corner.

We bought this double-decker cast iron and glass coffee table from Pottery Barn back when we were childless and reckless.  I liked it because it has space for our many coffee table books, including our wedding album and my Audrey Hepburn book collection.  Sadly, after Minnow was born we realized what a death-trap this table is, and removed it from our Upper West Side apartment.  When we moved to Bronxville, I insisted we bring it back, with modifications.  You can hardly tell, but running along the cast iron edges on both levels of the table is a black foam bumper, which has saved Minnow's noggin on more than one occasion.

Another one of my favorite things, displayed on the coffee table, is this decoupage tray by John Derian Company, which was a bridal shower gift from my aunt.  The tray depicts a whimsical essay about Central Park written by a young New York City student in 1869.  Our first apartment in Manhattan was a block from Central Park, and this tray serves as a reminder of how lucky we were to live steps away from such an enchanted place.

Behind one white door is a spacious closet, in which we store extra pillows and sheets for the sleeper-sofa.  Behind the other white door is our secret third bathroom.  Not only do we not need a third bathroom, but this bathroom is revolting.  Like all of our bathrooms, it had wall-to-wall carpeting when we moved in but, unlike our other bathrooms, that carpeting was saturated with urine of either the human or feline variety. Although my husband tore out the carpeting, the stench remains.  I have been in that bathroom exactly once, to clean it.  I do, however, have my husband check periodically to make sure that a family of raccoons has not moved into the tub.   


The picture on the back wall is a framed message from GE that my husband clipped out of The Wall Street Journal ten days after September 11, 2001.  It reads:

We will roll up our sleeves
We will move forward together
We will overcome
We will never forget

Of all the things in the family room, this framed sheet of newsprint means the most to my husband, a native New-Yorker.

With the autumnal dip in temperatures, the blossoms on my hydrangea bush are starting to change colors.  I love how these blossoms, displayed in a Tiffany vase we received as a wedding gift, add color and warmth to our tiny space.

Minnow, of course, has her own seat in the family room: A chocolate and white polka-dot arm chair from- where else?- Pottery Barn Kids.    

The bay window is bordered by botanical print curtain panels I bought on clearance from the Pottery Barn website.  If you can't tell, I sort of have a thing for Pottery Barn. 

Our long-range plan for the family room is to expand it by moving the front wall with the bay window up several feet toward the front of the house.  In the back of the room we will eliminate the closet and creepy bathroom and conjoin the family room to a breakfast room we are building off the back of the kitchen.  Because this will be an expensive undertaking, we didn't want to spend a lot of money upfront.  We had a strict budget for turning the fifth bedroom/ home business headquarters/ cat habitat into a comfortable family room, and I am so pleased with the result.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I've Got 99 Problems But a Lead Pan Ain't One

If you had asked me before I became a homeowner what a lead pan is, I would have guessed a toxic cooking implement.  Now I know that it is absolutely the last thing you want to replace in your house.

At least that's what my in-laws tell me. Thirty years ago, when they bought their first home (in the same village in which we now live), the lead pan in their only full bathroom was the first thing to go.  As the story goes, my father-in-law was standing in the shower when the floor beneath him gave way and he almost fell through the living room ceiling.  The lead pan supporting the tub was completely rotted and needed to be replaced.  This repair reportedly cost thousands of dollars and took two weeks to complete.

So when, in May, the wall in the living room of the house we had just spent five figures to paint started to show signs of water damage, I assumed the worst: I assumed it was the lead pan.  Directly above the leak in the living room is our master bathroom.  It didn't matter that we hadn't showered in the master bathroom, or even moved in yet.  When our painter walked me through the house the day before our move and pointed out the quarter-sized bubbles forming under my Navajo White walls, I panicked.

"I fix this three times," our painter explained in broken English.  "But it come back."

"It's the lead pan!" I exclaimed.  "I know it."

Days after our move I called the plumber my in-laws had used thirty years ago, and he came to survey the leak.  After taking a walk through the master bathroom and the living room, he determined that the leak was not due to a crumbling lead pan because, as he astutely observed, the leak was not directly below where the shower is located upstairs.  He did, however, discover that the shower in the master bathroom had been built over an existing shower (which makes total sense because the previous homeowners had a penchant for layering; see post on wallpaper ), and, therefore the distance between the floor of the shower and the threshold is almost two inches shorter than what is permitted by code.  (Yawn, I know.  It's all so technical.  Skip ahead if I'm losing you.)  Because we also had a clog in the shower, the plumber concluded that the water damage to the living room wall was being caused by water spilling over the threshold and leaking through the bathroom floor.  He cleared the drain and told us it was safe to use the shower again. 

So we paid to have the wall repainted and resumed using the shower.   

You know that moment when your house is utterly placid because your toddler is finally napping, you've just settled onto the living room sofa with a two-month-old issue of The New Yorker,  and you happen to glance up and see an unmistakeable bubble forming on the wall you just had repainted? Yeah, so that happened ten days after the plumber left and, I'll admit it, at first I was in denial.  I told myself that my pregnant eyes were deceiving me.  I didn't tell my husband, who gets home from work too late at night to notice such things in an unlit room.

But the bubble spread like an ominous finger.  And then more fingers formed, until a gnarled witch's hand was raking across the paint.  My husband noticed, and he was miffed.

I called the plumber.  He did not return my calls.  For eight weeks I called the plumber.  I had a baby.  That baby grew.  The leak grew.  The plumber did not return my calls.

I later learned that the plumber my in-laws had recommended had spoken with my mother-in-law after working on our house and remarked, "I hope your son got a good deal on that house."

These are not comforting words to hear second-hand from the plumber who won't call you back.

Luckily, there is no shortage of plumbers in our village (an omen?) so I called a new plumber who came by the house the very next day.  After viewing the wall, touring the master bathroom, and tinkering in the basement, he found several pinhole leaks in the water line feeding from the basement to the master bathroom.  His plan was to open up the damaged wall and replace the entire length of old copper pipe with PVC.  This seemed logical, so I consented.  The next morning he arrived on my doorstep with two other men and a sledge hammer.  

Unfortunately, our home, as we've come to learn, is not logical.  So when the plumber opened up the water-damaged wall and found nothing but wood studs, I shouldn't have been surprised.  

"Where's the leaking pipe?" I asked.

The plumber swung the sledge hammer in the direction of the wall perpendicular to it- the one with the original bead board and dentil moldings.  "I think the leak is spraying from a pipe behind that wall," he said.

"You do?" I cried.  "Then why did we just open this wall?"

"Investigation," he replied.

"Well you can't open that wall," I said.  "That bead board is what sold me on this house."

The three men looked at me quizzically.  I knew I was being irrational.  Fixing the leaking pipe was imperative to prevent further damage and the growth of mold, but if we had to open up that wall, I wanted to do it with a pen knife, not a sledge hammer.  I called our painter, who agreed to come the next morning and slice, from the bottom of the dentil molding to the top of the baseboard, only the section of bead board concealing the leaking pipe.  The plumber would then break through the plaster, locate the copper pipe, and replace it with hardier PVC.  When the repair was complete the painter would return and fit the cut bead board back into the wall, like a puzzle piece.

In the meantime, the plumber decided to install an emergency shut-off valve to the water pipe leading to the master bath, to block more water from leaking into the wall.  To do so, he first had to locate the water main in the basement.

"Here it is," I said, pointing to a pipe in our basement with a rusted wrench attached to it in lieu of a shut-off valve.  The plumber laughed out loud.

"Yeah, I'm going to have to replace that, too."

The day the painter removed the bead board, another surprise awaited us: Horsehair plaster walls.  Basically, it's plaster mixed with horsehair (I cannot make this stuff up- Google it) that was often used in the construction of pre-war homes.  Not only is it creepy; it's also super-absorbant.  The entire plaster wall behind the bead board was soaked.

"This pipe has been leaking for a long time," the plumber observed.

"Like months?" I asked.

"No.  Years.  Many years."

I never wanted more to shake those previous homeowners, though doing so would likely cause harm to their fragile eighty-year-old bodies.  Seriously?  How do you allow a leak to continue for years?

Thankfully, and here is the silver lining folks, by the grace of God there was no mold in the wall.  Just lengths of corroded piping, lots of water, and damp horse hair.  The plumber replaced the leaking pipe and our painter installed new insulation and dry wall before fitting the bead board into place and closing up the wall.  Our painter is a magician.  


And after:

It's like the leak never happened, and we're back to using our master bathroom.  We've adverted disaster for now, but I just know it: The lead pan is the next thing to go.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Unwinding with a Catalogue

It's Monday night.

After a half dozen escape attempts, your toddler is finally sleeping soundly (albeit upside-down) in her bed. Your seven-week-old has just nodded off in her swing.  You've survived another day that included a tantrum in the cracker aisle at the supermarket, sore arms from rocking a fussy baby for four continuous hours, and a leaky pipe that required your plumber to take a sledge-hammer to the living room wall you recently spent thousands of dollars to paint.  And despite all that, you were still able to prepare a nutritious dinner for your family, even if the salmon was a tad charred and the quinoa a bit soggy.  You kick up your feet eager to indulge in the treat that arrived in the mail this afternoon: The Williams-Sonoma catalogue.

Pictured on the cover is the latest iteration of the iconic Kitchen-Aid mixer.  Like a Louis Vuitton bag it is something you must own eventually, even if you don't bake and wouldn't know the first thing to do with a dough hook.  The mixer comes in French blue and looks good on a counter; that's really all that matters.

On page 11 there is a suggested menu for a wine-tasting party.  You turn to your husband.  "We should host a wine-tasting party," you say.  "Sounds expensive," he replies.

Page 35 features several font options from which to choose for sets of monogrammed linen napkins.  You wish you had the disposable income for monogrammed linen napkins.  For now, it's paper napkins bought in bulk from BJ's for you.

On page 48 a picture-perfect stack of skull-shaped pancakes dressed in maple syrup and walnuts seems to mock you.  You do not have room in your ugly blue kitchen to store skull-shaped pancake molds and, therefore, will almost certainly never make skull-shaped pancakes for your children on Halloween morning.  You're starting to feel pretty crumby about that.

Before long you are accelerating down the self-deprecating spiral.  Two smiling girls on the following page are eating homemade organic whole wheat waffles off immaculate white plates resting on a reclaimed-wood kitchen table that also contains bowls of plump mixed berries, sliced apples, and a vase of fresh-cut flowers.  Breakfast at your house is cereal eaten out of (BPA-free) plastic bowls off an Ikea table that also contains a weeks' worth of mail and last weekend's New York Times.  On page 55 a child using a citrus press to make a single glass of orange juice makes you feel guilty for not serving fresh-squeezed juice to your children, even though you don't allow your children to drink juice because of the sugar content.  The gleaming espresso machines on pages 64-67 make you wish you knew how to make your own lattes, instead of spending $50 a month (according to your last credit card statement) at Starbucks.  Perhaps this is why you can't afford sets of monogrammed linen napkins.

Because of the braised ribs simmering in a slow-cooker pictured on page 70, you experience pangs of remorse that, due to its inconvenient location at the back of the cabinet above the refrigerator, you've hardly used the Crock-Pot you registered for when you got married.  The pictures of autumn wreathes on pages 98-99 remind you that fall is coming and you should probably think about how you're going to decorate the house, because you can already tell that this is the type of neighborhood where neighbors compete to have the best-looking seasonal house on the block.  The picture of the Miele rotary iron on page 104 reminds you that you should probably iron the stack of khakis in the laundry room so that your husband has more than one pair to choose from this Labor Day weekend.

And you're spent.  You decide to leave the Pottery Barn catalogue, waiting on the coffee table, for another night.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Before and After: Princess Palace

For the next installment of "Before and After," I'd like to treat you to a tour of Minnow's room, a.k.a., "Princess Palace."  Only, it's not just Minnow's room; you'll see we've already put two beds in the room because Minnow and Peanut will eventually share this space.  We want Minnow to know from the very beginning that this is their room, not just her room.  For now, we bring Peanut in for story time or to let her hang out on her bed, so Minnow can get used to the idea of a roommate.  It will be quite some time before Peanut is occupying a big girl bed like her sister, but it's never too early to teach the importance of sharing.

First, a refresher of what the room used to look like:

What could be more appropriate for a little girls' room than flowers and bows?  If only the wallpaper and carpet weren't from the year 1971...

Here is a picture of the room once we replaced the wallpaper with pretty pink paint (Benjamin Moore, Unspoken Love) and the carpet with the same ivory wool carpet we laid in the nursery:

And here is the completed room:

There are so many things I love about this room, but my absolute favorite is the beds, because they are my and my sister's oak beds from childhood.  These started as bunk beds and when my sister and I separated into our own rooms, our parents "de-bunked" them and had the bed knobs put on them.  Now that I have two girls of my own, I am so happy to pass down these heirlooms.  Having my bed from home (I slept in my twin bed until I went off to college, and even after, when I would visit during college and law school) in our new house is very meaningful to me.  

In my search for bedding I wanted something playful, in shades of pink, green, and brown, and evocative of nature, because my oldest daughter loves to play outdoors and could spend hours studying a single flower or bird.  This sweet quilt and pillow sham from Pottery Barn Kids, with its depictions of trees, owls, and butterflies, fit the bill.  

With two girls eventually sharing a room and a single closet, we needed a dresser with lots of storage.  The drawers of this chest, from Country Willow Furniture in Bedford, NY, are so deep, I've been able to unpack all of Minnow's clothes from birth to present, with room to spare.  I love that the dresser is two-toned; the body is antique white and the top is stained a honey-oak.

On top of the dresser, these charming owl bookends, from Pottery Barn Kids, support some of Minnow's favorite Dr. Seuss volumes.  

More reading favorites, and some cherished literary characters, are displayed in this adorable Land of Nod dollhouse bookcase, which Minnow received on her second birthday.  I like the dual functionality of this piece, and look forward to the day when the girls kneel beside it and play together.  

Perhaps the biggest splurge in the Princess Palace is the bejeweled chandelier.  My husband saw it hanging in the showroom at Country Willow Furniture and said, "We have to have that!"  It was amazing, because it was exactly what I was thining, but didn't dare say.  It was a splurge because not only did we have to purchase the chandelier and the lampshades (sold separately), but our electricians also had to install a light box in the ceiling and a dimmer switch by the door so that this very necessary lighting fixture could function.  

The wall hangings above Peanut's (top) and Minnow's (bottom) beds are original photographs taken by their grandmother and presented to each girl on the day of her birth.  I love that the photographs are very different, but complementary, as we hope our daughters will be.  

As in the nursery, we opted to do quasi-custom cordless accordion shades, rather than drapes, in the pink room because I'm a freak when it comes to baby-proofing.  On top of the nightstand, which matches the dresser, is a ceramic Blessed Mother nightlight- another relic from my childhood.  I'll tell you one thing I hate about this room: the AC unit in the window.  Unfortunately, installing central air in the house is a project for many years in the future.  Until then, we'll have to sweat it out.  

Besides the nursery, the girls' room is probably my favorite redesign in the house.  Isn't it good to be Princess?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Things I Don't Want You to Know But My Toddler Will Tell You Anyway

We are crowded into the examination room- Minnow, Peanut, Peanut's stroller, the nurse, and I- for Peanut's one-month well-baby visit.  I am holding Peanut as the nurse wraps a tape measure around her head.  Minnow is humming the "Sofia the First" theme to herself.

"What's new with you, Minnow?" the nurse asks cheerfully.

"Peanut pooped in her car seat yesterday and Mommy still hasn't cleaned it up," Minnow replies.

The nurse's eyes dart to the car seat attached to the stroller and- sure enough- a dried stain the size of a silver dollar, which until then could have passed as mustard, boldly beams up at her.

"That must have just happened," I lie.  Inside I am dying.  Did my toddler really just rat me out?

"Here," the nurse says, holding out a pair of latex gloves and a sanitary wipe. "Do you want to clean it up now?"

Well, of course I do!  I rub at the stain with the wipe while Minnow, with arms crossed, oversees.  Do I detect disdain in her blueberry-blue eyes?

Later that day when my husband comes home from work he comments on how nice the house looks.

"Thanks," I say proudly.  "I swept and vacuumed all the floors today."

Minnow, standing nearby in a tiara and pink plastic shoes, corrects me.

"But you forgot to do the stairs and the hallway, Mommy."

No, you little twerp.  I didn't "forget" to do anything.  It's just that Mommy isn't a work horse and between feeding you, nursing your sister, going to the doctor's office, swim class and the post office, doing two loads of laundry, and playing 'princess tea party' for the billionth time this week, there was no time to vacuum the stairs and the hallway.  Jeez!

"Haha, Minnow," I say.  "You sure are observant!"

The next day after we get to Minnow's soccer clinic I realize that I've left Minnow's Minnie Mouse thermos on the table in the foyer at home.  I am hoping we can go an hour without hydration, but 15 minutes into practice the coach yells out "water break!" and all the kids run off the field and toward their mommies.  Minnow reaches into the pocket of the diaper bag where Minnie Mouse usually resides and comes up empty.

"Mommy, can me have my Minnie Mouse cup?"

"Oh, I'm so sorry, sweetheart.  Mommy forgot Minnie Mouse at home.  But you can have a big hug instead!"

Minnow glares at me, then saunters back onto the field and approaches her coach.

"I didn't have any water because Mommy left my Minnie Mouse cup at home."

"Haha... tattler!" I laugh, although I'm starting to see that in Minnow's eyes I am failing miserably at this mother-of-two gig.

The coach laughs, too, and says to me, "That's nothing.  You should hear what the older ones tell us."

And that's when I realize that motherhood is one big Orwellian trial that we are all evidently losing.  Our children are meticulously monitoring and logging our every step- and misstep- so that they can testify against us at their whim.  I used to congratulate myself for being a stellar parent in public, and when I slipped up in private I'd think, "It's okay.  Nobody saw that."  Wrong!  My toddler saw it and stored it in her airtight memory, probably forever.

If you're curious about how you're doing as a parent, pay attention to how your toddler treats her toys.  One afternoon while washing dishes in the kitchen I heard Minnow give all her blocks a timeout.  "That's it!" she yelled.  "Five minute timeout for not listening!  I'm tired of it!"  Then she stomped out of her playroom angrily while I looked on in alarm.

Be mindful: Big Brother is watching.  And imitating.

I may have been embarrassed that Minnow told the nurse about the old poop or her coach about the forgotten water bottle, but how much more embarrassed would I have been if, instead, Minnow shared that on the way to soccer practice, Mommy called the driver in front of her a "jerk-face" for cutting her off.

"Mommy, I need you to stop yelling," Minnow had said.

"Yeah?  Well I need this guy to stop being a jerk-face!" I replied.

I am certain that I am destined for "unpersonhood"- or at least "unmommyhood"- in Minnow's world when we meet up with her former babysitter for brunch in Bronxville last Saturday.  Somehow we get on the topic of ice cream and Minnow's babysitter asks her, "Does your mommy let you eat ice cream?"

"Not really," I say.  "I'm a mean mommy."

"You're not a mean mommy!" Minnow retorts.  "You're the best mommy."

I am astonished, mainly because her words are so... unrehearsed!  I feel redeemed.  It is clear that Minnow is aware that I am flawed, but at only two years and nine months old, she seems to understand that I am doing my best to be a good mommy to both her and Peanut, every day.

And that is the truth.