Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Earlier this week, Jon gave Alice her first lesson in the holiday spirit of giving. They went to Pet Plaza, a locally owned pet supply store, and bought a variety of pet food from the Burbank Animal Shelter's wishlist. Then, they toddled on down to the shelter to deliver their donations. 

We know first-hand how wonderful and loving shelter cats can be, and how feral cats can turn into the best companions ever when they have the right love and care. The Burbank Animal Shelter runs a kitten foster program and a shelter dog training program, both funded completely by monetary and in-kind donations. Jon was glad to see lots of other donations when he delivered his, but remembered that the shelter and these animals have the same needs all year, as do most of the organizations asking for support during the holiday season. We're going to try to be more mindful of that next year, as we try to establish habits and traditions of giving our time as a family. 

Here are some photos of Alice, helping out some kitties and doggies (that would be her cue to adorably pant like a dog). I hope this will become an annual Thanksgiving tradition, in addition to other efforts throughout the year.

Also, if you have an American Express card, sign up to "shop small" on "Small Business Saturday." When you shop at a participating small business on Saturday, American Express will credit you $25 back toward your purchase (on each American Express card you carry!). Just register on the site and find a list of participating businesses in your area. Shopping locally this weekend can make a huge impact on the small, local businesses and people in your community. If millions of Americans shop small, it will be huge.

I hope that you're all spending today in ways that make you happy, and that your families (and kitties and puppies) have everything you need. May you have every reason to be thankful this holiday season.  

Friday, November 18, 2011

[Jon] Changes

Before Alice was born, my dad shared a little gem that proves more true every day. He told me, “Being someone’s parent will change you in ways you can never imagine.” And it has. But not just in the ways that directly relate to being a parent. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed how comfortable I would become with diapers and breastfeeding. But I probably could have imagined it if I tried, that's not so far outside the realm of probability for a dad.

I am a homebody. I like to be very near those I love, and I like the comfort of my own home. So naturally, I love being able to work from home. My life’s radius has shrunk down to just a mile or two from our house. My surroundings, small and familiar. A byproduct of this is acute awareness of it all. I was talking about this with Erin and compared it to a prisoner knowing every inch in his cell, every sound and routine. When someone spends all his time in the same, small space, they become intimately familiar with every minute detail. Every day I pay closer attention to nearly imperceptible changes in the length of the day, the weather, how this sunrise compares to the others this week, et cetera. I feel like a farmer in the early mornings when I research the exact weather and the sunrise/sunset times for the day; I’ve even started looking at moonrise/set times.

Alice plays, Dad ponders.

Also, like a prisoner, I have plenty of time to contemplate. If you’ve spent considerable amount of daily time with a baby or toddler, I think we can agree that much of the time is pretty boring. I mean that in the nicest way, I’m just not quite as stimulated as Alice is by reading the same book over and over again, or playing with the same toys. So in between our active communication and playtime, during her more independent, exploratory times, I’m kind of left alone with my thoughts while I watch over her. It’s nice, and I’m never bored with them.*

The cats and I, working hard.
Alongside Alice, our two cats are my other faithful companions in this stay-at-home adventure. Spending all day, every day with those little characters, surrounded by their unique personalities, their antics and affection, they’ve affected the way I feel about animal rights, cruelty, and consumption. I love to eat meat. It's one of my favorite culinary experiences. But I’ve come to believe, at least for myself, that my nourishment should not be dependent on another creature’s life. One of my 2011 New Year’s resolutions was to lessen this dependency by eating half as much meat as I was before, and twice as many vegetables. I think I’ve been more than successful and while I’m not completely vegetarian, I am in spirit.

With Erin’s help in the kitchen, I’m trying to utilize all other forms of nutrition, which when done creatively and adventurously, all but make up for the comfort of the old meat-centric recipes we love so much. When we do eat meat, we try to make the best choices and make extra effort to support farmers who provide the animal with the best quality of life possible. And I try to honor that animal’s gift to me by not taking more than I need to sustain, and acknowledging that a life was lost for me to have dinner. With that perspective I want to exhaust every other outlet of more sustainable nutrition before asking for a life.

Our tiny trashcans: we downgraded to the smallest size.
Related to responsible eating, I now see my footprint on the planet. I pay attention to how many lights are on in the house, how much water is being used. I’m aware of how much trash we throw away every week. If you just look and listen, you notice where you need to make a change. I recently tried to imagine a life without convenient weekly trash pickups. Say I had to pile up an entire year’s worth of garbage in our yard. What would that look like? I truly cannot imagine the size of it. Because our excess in packaging is whisked away every week, it’s out of sight out of mind. But it’s not. When I see plastic containers, I like to think, “great, that can be recycled.” Which is great, but what about all of the effort and fuel that is required to produce and then recycle something that wasn’t truly necessary in the first place? I’m learning that the outlying Rs in the three Rs of recycling are the biggest of the three—reduce and reuse. We’re on a non-crazy-person’s goal to reduce our lives down to what matters and to cut out the waste. We’re trying to make careful decisions that give us the greatest reward for the investment. I promise to not become actually crazy about this, I just want to be more intentional and responsible. 

reusing paper and jars.
I’m also developing an ever-increasing appreciation for well-executed ideas. Good design, beautiful typography, innovative ways of solving problems all appeal to me more than ever. I’ve set a challenge for myself that when I work on something, I want to do work that I’m proud of and make the process enriching and enjoyable. I want to solve problems with innovation, thoughtful design, and proper technique. Whether I’m designing our yard’s new irrigation system, or searching out an elegant solution to our leaky diaper sprayer, or laying out music on a page, I want to know that I didn’t just do it, but I did it well, and beautifully, and the right person will admire it.**

irrigation design.
I suppose the common thread through all of this is self-awareness. My small, quiet island-living is turning my thoughts inward, forcing me to examine my choices and more importantly, who I am entirely. I can say that becoming a father (and by extension, working from home), has indeed changed me in ways I never imagined. The amazing thing about it? This is only the beginning.

* I am not a prisoner, and almost never feel trapped. I know you’re thinking that was an unfortunate metaphor, but it was the most accurate I could think of.
** Blogger baffles me in how and where it decides it will insert double hard returns. I try and I try to fix this, even modifying the line breaks in the HTML, but alas, my paragraph breaks are uneven and are not the way they should be.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fall has fallen.

Fall has fallen. We've turned the clocks back (almost all of them) and I'm slipping into the mild melancholia that always accompanies this ritual. I am not surprised and only slightly disconcerted by it this year; I embrace it and pull it up around my ears like a cozy blanket. It wards off the chill from the sudden drop in temperatures after our Halloween heatwave that flushed Alice's cheeks inside her plush giraffe costume.

I baked my first batch of pumpkin bread over the weekend, tucked up warm inside on a rainy Sunday after making hay while the sun shone the day before. Actually, on Saturday, Jon busted up one of the free hay straw bales that has been decaying in our backyard since Alice's birthday party. He spread the straw across the newly seeded expanse of dirt that we hope will soon sprout and grow into a thick carpet of grass where Alice can play. While he worked, Alice and I took an usually painless trip to the fabric store and bought a yard of purple corduroy and one and a half yards of denim. I wore her in the Ergo on my back, the first time I'd ever attempted it out alone. Later, while Alice slept, I stitched the denim into a pair of little jeans for her winter wardrobe. I was finally trying my hand at Made By Rae's Big Butt Baby Pants pattern. I was impressed with the pattern, with my success, and the speed and ease at which I was able to comprehend crotch geometry and whip up a pair of actual pants.
Eli supervises everything.
please ignore my sewing imperfections, if you can notice. this was a trial run.
It's dark when I ride my bike home from work now, and cold. I use my head and tail lights. I wear gloves (to keep my wedding ring from falling off) and a pink beanie under my helmet (to keep my ears warm). I pedal fast and try to work up a sweat, and think of making legwarmers from the sleeves of sweaters I don't wear anymore (because my cats ate holes in them - I knew I saved them for a reason). I ordered a puffy coat in white so that I'm not just a shadow in a black jacket (and I got it at an awesome price, thanks to the sale Jon caught with a Google search, just in time). While I ride, I decide to finally buy myself a nice pair of boots; they'll keep my legs warm and will go with my new goal weight wardrobe, when I get there. I shop online, my credit card ready, looking for the perfect combination of shaft height (tall, for warmth and glamour) and heel height (low, for pedaling and standing all day); of slouch and polish; of price and quality. I look at more than one thousand boots - literally - and cannot find ones I want. I resign myself to a trip to the mall to see if it helps to see anything in person. Maybe this weekend? There is ice cream there.

I count the cars that go my way, it's never more than a handful and they are surprisingly considerate. I almost prefer riding in the dark because the headlights announce the cars before I would hear them otherwise, and then my shadow leaps out long in front of me and skews sideways as they pass. I ride through pools of light and pockets of air scented with fireplace smoke, warm laundry, and dinner. I try to deduce each dish by smell but my nose is too cold to work properly and I ride too fast, and it all bleeds together into an olfactory buffet. The exercise and the aromas whet my appetite for the meal I will cook when I get home, and I wonder if my cooking will entice any passersby.

And I have been cooking. I always cook but lately, the flavors are new. We try to eat less meat. Rather, Jon tries and because I do the cooking, I try too. But he knows this means he must learn to appreciate and enjoy new vegetables, new tastes, new cuisines; to expand his palate further than he already has since I've been cooking for him. And so, I get to be more adventurous in the kitchen. I collect recipes via Pinterest and tell Jon he should follow my pinboard and let me know what sounds delicious. We both step outside of our comfort zones. Most attempts are successful, some more than others. We've never had to order a pizza in defeat. Here is what we've been eating. (Note, none of these photos are mine as I do not have the energy or the light to style my food, nor the restraint to delay my dinner.)
orzo with caramelized fall veggies. recipe & photo: Faith Durand
Orzo is Jon's new favorite pasta. I wasn't sure how the flavors of these caramelized veggies would meld but the whole was certainly greater than the sum of the parts, finished perfectly with grated parmesan. Jon hasn't cared for sweet potatoes in the past and had never willingly/knowingly eaten a mushroom but I think this dish may have been a turning point. He has since expressed desire to try a portobello mushroom burger.
(left) cannellini bean "no meat" balls. recipe & photo: Cookin' Canuck. (right) spaghetti squash lasagna. recipe & photos: Skinny Taste
Jon had also never eaten a spaghetti squash. My mother always served them like spaghetti but I thought this lasagna dish might be an even more accessible introduction to the vegetable. Jon proclaimed it to be delicious and suggested that spaghetti squash would be a fine substitute for pasta. We both agreed that the extra effort to layer the vegetable into a lasagna wasn't necessary. We had it again last Sunday night with these cannellini bean "no meat" balls. They tasted great but I think I was overzealous with the food processor and nearly pureed the bean mixture into a hummus. Thus, the meatballs were creamier than I would have liked as I was hoping they would have a texture closer to actual meatballs. We saved the leftovers for the next night and after a day in the fridge, bathing in sauce, and a turn in the microwave, they had a nicer, chewier texture. So maybe make them in advance if you want a firmer "no meat" ball with a better bite.
roasted tomato soup with broiled cheddar tops. recipe & photo: Smitten Kitchen
We like exactly one kind of packaged, processed tomato soup (I guess that's kind of a lie, as Jon likes the Campbell's condensed version, but I refuse to eat it). The soup we like is not available at the new market we're shopping at and we're too lazy to experiment - and too wary of disappointment - to try any of the brands they carry. I had a total "aha!" moment when I saw Smitten Kitchen's recipe for roasted tomato soup with broiled cheddar tops. Of COURSE you should combine tomato soup and grilled cheese a la French onion soup! Of COURSE I can (and should) make my own tomato soup! So we did. And it's delicious. We had the soup once with the grilled cheese tops (like with French onion, toast the bread in the oven first - I forgot that step) and once without. It takes only slightly more effort to slice open three pounds of tomatoes than to open a can of soup, and obviously a little more time to roast said tomatoes than to heat up soup in the microwave or stove, but you just have to plan ahead a little more. The investment of effort pales next to the reward of this fresh, homemade soup. And if you put in a little extra investment up front and roast double the tomatoes, you can freeze the tomato puree to use as a base the next time you need some quick soup.

To accompany the toast-less soup, I decided to try my hand at socca, a chickpea crepe or flatbread traditionally enjoyed as street food in Nice, France. I was tempted when I first saw the recipe in The Sweet Life in Paris and was tempted again when it popped up on The Kitchn recently. And I was in luck because while our market does not carry our preferred tomato soup, they do carry Bob's Red Mill chickpea flour. The recipe is pretty foolproof; flour, water, a tablespoon of oil, a dash of salt and cumin, and hot cast iron in the oven. Believe me, I tried pretty hard to fool it. My batter wasn't room temp and my pan wasn't hot enough and the first round still came out delicious. If you over salt it, like I did, you may even find, like we did, that it tastes like the best parts of fried chicken without the grease and guilt. I'll have to make my way to Nice someday to try the real deal but I'm sure this is a decent facsimile, and a quick and reliable trick to have up one's sleeve.
socca. recipe: David Lebovitz, photos: Faith Durand
That's how we've welcomed fall at our house, how about yours? Are you enjoying any new or favorite fall flavors? Confused, depressed, or delighted by the end of Daylight Savings? Are the long, dark hours making you cozy and lazy or are you knitting and sewing and generally preparing for winter?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

One Car/Two Bike Family

One Christmas when I was about seven or eight, Santa brought me a bike. I woke up to find my gift dramatically displayed beneath the tree. In pieces. It was an enormous two-wheeler, which I didn't yet know how to ride, in a dreary shade of olive green. Santa must have known that my next door neighbor worked for the city's parks & rec department and was constantly collecting abandoned bikes and parts and repairing and restoring them in his garage. I wonder what he did with all of those...? Clearly, he was in business with Santa. I wasn't sure whether this bike was something I was supposed to like and just didn't know it yet, or whether Santa had made a huge miscalculation as he sorted gifts for the good boys and girls on his list. Or maybe I'd been worse that year than I realized.

I'm sure I woke my parents and I'm sure they asked what Santa left under the tree for me. I'm sure I remember putting on a brave face and trying to muster excitement about the ugly, disassembled beast of a bike in the living room. Once everyone was up and ready to open presents, my dad suggested that we move the bike parts into the garage where our neighbor could help us put them together later. I helped him gather wheels and pedals and handlebars. The feeling in the pit of my stomach made it even more surprising when someone opened the door to the garage and revealed a glorious, shiny new Huffy Sea Princess two-wheeler with training wheels! It was just my size, in the most beautiful shades of pink and sea-foam green. I was overjoyed and wasn't even suspicious that Santa had a sense of humor remarkably similar to my dad. 

I don't remember when I outgrew that Huffy but at some point in middle school, I started borrowing my dad's ten-speed mountain bike to ride to swim practice and friends' houses. He was just telling me that it was his first big purchase after an important promotion, and how he agonized all day about spending that much on something for himself - especially a bike, when he was used to spending $20, $30, $40... I stopped riding his bike in high school, once everyone I knew had a drivers license. I don't think I remember riding a bike again until my sister lent me her beach cruiser. She asked me to take good care of it when she moved away from her small college town to spend a year as an au pair in Amsterdam. Jon bought himself a nice beach cruiser and we spent some nice weekend afternoons cruising around town.

Alas, my sister reclaimed her bike when she moved back to California and Jon lost his weekend biking partner. That Huffy Sea Princess was the last bike that properly belonged to me - until last weekend!

Part of our one-car family plan was for both of us to have a bike to use if the other person needs the car at any given time. If Jon needs to go into his office, or needs the car at home for any appointments or errands, I wanted to be able to get myself to and from work without needing him to drop me off or pick me up. If I need the car at work, Jon didn't want to be limited just to stroller radius. Two things needed to happen to make this plan work. Number one happened for Jon's birthday a few weeks ago:

one baby bike seat & bunny helmet.
Jon got a WeeRide Kangaroo bike seat for his cruiser so he and Alice can hit the town on two wheels instead of three or four! These photos are from their inaugural ride a few weekends ago. Alice totally enjoyed it, despite her ambivalent looks here. She doesn't even mind wearing her helmet, though sometimes she cries about having to put it back on to go home, and is usually ready to take it off as soon as she's on the ground again. Jon's been testing their bike-accessible range with trips to the park and a few errands.

And then last weekend, after a bit of web-based research, we hit up the super legit Flying Pigeon bike shop to see if we couldn't get thing number two squared away. 

I had ridden my sister's bike to work one summer afternoon and learned there is just enough incline between my office and my house to necessitate a few gears. So that was definitely my top priority as I started considering the options. I didn't want (or need) a mountain or road bike, and I'm not indy enough for a fixed-gear (or "fixie"), or urban enough for a folding bike so I always sort of assumed that beach cruisers were the only other alternative. And then I rode an omafiets when we visited my sister in Amsterdam.

"Dutch-style" bikes, also known as "city" bikes, are becoming quite trendy here and I've been seeing all kinds of pretty styles on the pretty blogs I follow. It wasn't long before the omafiets replaced the beach cruiser in my bike fantasies. Unfortunately, these pretty bikes all seem to come at a pretty price. The lovely models below, available from Adeline, Adeline, are all $1,200 or more.
top row: Pashley Britannia ($1,295), Gazelle Toer Populair ($1,359) bottom row: Workcycles Omafiets ($1,599), Retrovelo Klara ($1,450)
Fortunately, there are a few more affordable options ranging anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of those fancy prices. I narrowed my sights onto the Schwinn Jenny, the Public C-7, and the Linus Dutchi 3. I called all the local retailers to find out what I could try out in person. The websites suggested that Flying Pigeon carried both Public and Linus bikes, so I called to see what they had in stock. The girl I spoke with said they didn't have any Public bikes in their shop, but they did have one Linus Dutchi 3-Speed. She also mentioned that the handlebars were a big difference between the Linus and the Public models, with Publics having straighter bars more like a mountain bike and the Linus having curved handles more like a Dutch bike. I decided to head down to their shop to check out the Linus, figuring I could start there and track down a Public or a Schwinn if I needed to keep shopping.

Well, it was love at first sight. I took it for a test drive up and down the block, and tested out the fancy twist-shift gears. Just for comparison, I also tested out the AM★DAM  2-speed:

AM★DAM  2-speed

which was a bit too bare bones and a bit too legit (too legit to quit) for me. I wasn't sold on the kick shift, and I liked that the Linus had hand brakes. So I bought the Linus. And then they told me it was like, the very last red Dutchi ever, until they make the new models. Behold, my shiny, new red bike.

so shiny and pretty!
The shop installed a sweet headlight and tail light (which I'll really get to test after Daylight Savings ends this weekend), and I got a saddle bag so I can carry my lunch, purse, and gym bag on my commute. I was also super excited that the bike came with a vial of touch up paint. The girl said you could also use nail polish, in a pinch, and now I'm kind of obsessed about finding the exact perfect shade of OPI nail lacquer that will do double duty on my fingers and toes and on any nicks or scratches in my pretty bike.

As soon as we brought it home on Saturday, we loaded Alice in her new bike seat and took our first family bike ride. I loved pulling up alongside Jon's bike and seeing Alice grin! We rode down to the park for a little picnic, play time, and a stop by the Lake Street Creamery truck for a little taste of my current obsession, Don Draper-flavored ice cream (whiskey, smoke, and caramel - just what I imagine licking Don Draper tastes like).

Then the weekend ended, and after three years of talking about it, I finally made my first bike commute on Monday morning. It was so glorious, I did it again on Tuesday. I would have ridden today as well, but Jon dropped me off so we can go to an appointment this afternoon. My company will reward me $2 for every day that I commute by bike to work, so it's great incentive to do it every day! My company also offers reward incentives for participating in a health and wellness program. I qualified for the full reward amount this year, now that my weight is within the healthy BMI range. With the wellness rewards and the commuter incentives (not to mention the savings in gas costs), my bike should pay for itself in two years. Not a bad deal, and I get to burn some extra calories to boot! 

say it like Ace Ventura: "saddle bags!"

I was reading a bunch of articles about biking and read a quote from someone (maybe the founder of Public Bikes, who also founded Design Within Reach) saying that biking makes cities more civilized. After only two bike commutes, I'm inclined to agree. Who knows, maybe this is just the start of a new era. Maybe someday, you'll see me chauffeuring two kids around in this "mommy bike!"

Gazelle Bloom "mommy bike"