22 June 2010

Flotsam and jetsam

Gabriel's second grade teacher, Mrs McChesney, runs the most effective behavior modification system I've encountered. She prints her own money, McChesney dollars, which is earned out in exchange for desired behaviors: turning in assignments on time, completing extra work, sitting quietly, random acts of kindness.

One of her classroom rules is that all correspondence from home must be penned by the student and signed by a parent, if necessary. Gabriel will write her a note about anything, which has resulted in a string of highly amusing, if somewhat tautological correspondence.

Dear Mrs McChesney
I'm sorry I couldn't get a white shirt. So my mom is going to get one. I don't know when she is going to bring it in. Mabey around 10:00-1:00. 
From Gabriel

Dear Mrs McChesney  
Gabriel has permission to walk home from school by himself with Sarah. She can come over and get me. Or I can go over to her when I see her come out. Either way is ok, really. So Sarah can get Gabriel, or Gabriel can get Sarah. And they can walk home together by themselves now. 
From Gabriel

When I mentioned to Mrs McChesney how amusing I found Gabriel's notes, and his zeal for correspondence, she smiled and told me they receive McChesney dollars for writing notes. I thought requiring students to write their own notes was clever, but paying them to do so elevates it to brilliant.

The highlight of the week is a shopping expedition to the McChesney store. So sweet is the experience that more than one of Sarah's fifth grade classmates cited the McChesney store as their fondest elementary school memory on their yearbook page. The children can choose to save up for big ticket items, such as lunch with Mrs McChesney or the principal. More often, they buy from the store's inventory of the usual tchotchkes that middle-class children have in spades yet covet nonetheless, and enjoy for roughly twenty-four hours — pencils, erasers, stickers, notepads, whistles, yo-yos, plastic rings and Mardi Gras beads — before being consigned to the metaphorical slagheap for parents to manage.

At this time of the year, Mrs McChesney holds the equivalent of a reverse fire sale, and this is where she really shines. First, a a note came home soliciting donations: do you have half a box of granola bars your kids hated? Old forgotten pez dispensers? More unsharpened pencils than you'll go through before they leave for college? All your flotsam and jetsam is welcome in the McChesney store.

But instead of selling these items for a song, they go for prices that could only be considered extortionist. In the past week, Gabriel bought a black synthetic leather checkbook cover, two silly bands for $200 apiece, an empty slot-machine shaped candy container, a composition notebook decorated with pink and purple flowers, and my favorite, a DIY balsa-wood star ornament bearing a symbol of unknown origins that resembles a double chai or an unwound caduceus. When I noted it's obvious handmade character, it's fine color scheme and superior draftsmanship, and asked when Gabriel had made it, he replied that he bought it. My son happily spent $300 for an anonymous child's discarded craft project.

That the children use their money to purchase the sorts of things they already own, and at obscene prices, does nothing to diminish their zeal to accumulate and spend their cash. She really has their number, because the fact that the McChesney store is nothing more than a pint-sized Ponzi-scheme does nothing to dimish it's appeal.

When school is over, I am contemplating hiring her to see what she can do with some of my own less desirable behaviors.

16 June 2010

slinging hash: walnut pesto

When planning menus for dinner parties, I tend to avoid serving the same old thing, and I'm somewhat cavalier about violating that rule about not serving anything you've never made before. 

But when it comes to something to put out with drinks, before dinner, I serve up the equivalent of the missionary position — not bold or inventive, but delicious and eminently satisfying.

For years now, my standard spread includes cornichon, the Union Square Cafe's bar nuts, and olives marinated with lemon and herbs. All are easy, and never disappoint. Until recently, I've never deviated from this roster. A few weeks ago, though, I threw caution to the wind, and made walnut pesto.

Although they're not my favorite nuts to eat out of hand, I really like walnuts in sauces; they add body, and have a pleasantly astringent bitterness. This walnut pesto is composed of nothing more than nuts flavored with garlic, sun-dried tomato and thyme and bound together by oil and sherry vinegar. The sun-dried tomato struck me as perhaps a mistake; I wondered if they would be too sweet, and throw off the balance of flavors. But as this was the first time I was making the recipe, I left them in, and it turns out, they are exactly right; punctuating the soft, sweet nutmeats with a little toothsomeness.

I hadn't eaten any lunch on the day I first made this. As a result I found myself making a second batch before I'd even cleaned the food processor. Which brings me to another good point about walnut pesto; it comes together in a trice. When I served this to guests that evening, we could have happily spent the evening eating this with drinks. 

So far, I've only served this on toasted baguette, but I imagine it making a nice sandwich spread, a sauce for whole wheat pasta, or dressing for green beans or broccoli. 

Walnut Pesto
adapted from smitten kitchen

1 cup shelled walnuts, toasted and cooled
2 tablespoons minced sun-dried tomatoes, oil or dry-packed. (If using dry-packed, soak in boiling water for 5-10 minutes prior to use.) 
1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed
plucked leaves from 3 sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper 
small splash of sherry vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup parmesan cheese


Coarsely grind walnuts, tomatoes, garlic, and thyme in food processor. Remove to a bowl, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add a small splash of vinegar. Stir in cheese and oil. 

Slice baguette, and grill or toast under broiler. Top toasts with a spoonful of pesto. 

08 June 2010

Adventures in eyewear

Last month Sacha began wearing glasses. Apparently, he has been farsighted since birth; who knew? Such glibness can only come from a woman of remarkably laid back temperament or several years of mothering under her belt. Because had this been my first child, I would have spent weeks bemoaning my poor mothering skills to anyone who would listen for having thought my son merely clumsy when in fact he was NEARLY BLIND.

I brought him to the eye doctor for what I expected was a routine, $20 co-pay exam, and left $400 poorer, having purchased one, dare I say sexy, set of frames.

As soon as he put them on he exclaimed, "I can see better," and between that, and all the complements he's been receiving from adoring classmates, teachers, and mothers, he wears them happily. Apparently, girls do make passes at boys who wear glasses.

And thus, our adventures began.

The glasses went missing, but were quickly found.

The glasses went missing again, and David and I spent a frustrating hour searching the house, causing us to almost cancel plans to meet friends for dinner in Brooklyn, because the thought of having to replace Sacha's very expensive glasses so soon would have dampened my fun.

David and I take very different approaches to looking for lost objects. As a far more organized person, I will methodically comb an area, taking it apart and putting it back together bit by bit. Because I am a bit compulsive, I cannot resist the urge to sneak in a little cleaning as I go.

David is more a locating whisper; a modern-day Jewish St. Anthony. Once he found a coveted three volume set of Romance of the Three Kingdoms at the Strand, which a clerk had failed to find, by standing in the correct section, closing his eyes, and repeating come to me, to himself. He subsequently opened his eyes, strode confidently across the room and picked up the book.

David was annoyed to find me emptying the boys' bookshelves and toy bins — and because I am a model of efficiency, dusting as I went — because my moving of things interfered with his room scanning abilities.

This is especially uncanny when you consider the assortment of papers, ticket stubs, lottery tickets, receipts, change, pebbles, clothing tags, collar stays, orphan game pieces, figurines, screws, drill bits, and guitar picks corralled in the tray on his dresser.

When Sarah went to his office this spring, she took an admiring look at his nest desk, nodded and conspiratorially declared they must never speak of this to Mama.

Shortly thereafter, the glasses found David, luring him to their resting spot in the dining room, under the china cabinet.

Defying all odds, Sacha broke what were widely considered the toughest, most indestructible frames available for preschool boys. We spent a week waiting for a new hinge, during which time Sacha was once again blind, albeit temporarily. Suspecting this was not to be an isolated incident, we went to Costco and ordered a considerably less expensive, but only slightly less devastatingly handsome, back-up pair of glasses.

While demonstrating the impressive flexibility of my eyeglasses as an alternative to Sacha's tough yet sexy-preschool frames, the nose piece snapped in two. The optometrist declared my frames DOA, thereby earning me the distinction of besting my son by needing to replace, rather than repair my frames.

Thus concluded a good month for the optometry industry, and a bad one for family finances.

07 June 2010

Where I've been

I've been a negligent blogger lately, but I have an excellent reason; I am writing a book.

In March, I enrolled in a memoir writing workshop with Laurie Lico Albanese, a writer whose work I greatly admire. Her memoir Blue Suburbia made a great impression on me; while the particulars of her story are different, the emotional terrain was very familiar. And so when the opportunity to study with her arose, it was not hard to say yes. It was most worthwhile experience, and one of the best things I've done for my writing.

For a time, I was able to make blogging and memoir writing dovetail. But for me, blogging is about the present, whereas for memoir, I must revisit the past. The more I immersed myself in memoir, the more the paths diverged. With about 90 minutes a day for writing, I reached a point where I could not give both the attention they deserved, and so I decided to take a break from blogging for the duration of the class.

And while I missed blogging, I also dreaded my return. In my imagination, there is a blogging muscle, and the more time elapsed, the more I let that muscle atrophy. To be sure, strange, funny, wildly amusing things are happening every day, but my worry is what if I have forgotten how to find the creative hook, and mine their storytelling potential. As with any creative endeavor, the more you blog, the more ideas you have. There was a time when I had such a lengthy list of ideas for posts that I couldn't keep up with them. For me, blogging is very timely, and when I look at that list of ideas now, they no longer seem relevant. And enough time has elapsed that the new ideas aren't coming as easily. 

In my absence my readership may have dropped into negative numbers, but if you are out there, I hope you will bear with me as I try to get my rhythm back.