Wednesday, July 26, 2017

skipping a step

We have lived in this new house for six months. There are two stories, so I spend plenty of time going up and down the stairs and I've noticed something interesting: I keep tripping when going up the staircase. I trip daily, sometimes every single time I go up. It's the fifth step usually that trips me, although sometimes it's the fourth and sometimes I make it higher up before tripping. The shoes that I am wearing, the slippers, the bare feet: none of these seem to make a difference. I have not done a full face plant yet, but I had to catch myself numerous times either by landing on my hands or grabbing the railing.

I asked my husband whether he shares a similar experience and he shrugged, saying that it does not happen to him, so there is most likely no inherent defect with the steps.

After reading "At Home" by Bill Bryson I appreciate a bit more what it takes to make a functional staircase. There are rules for making steps not too steep, not too high, not too shallow yet elevated enough to bring one up in elevation. I have no reason to suspect that I have an unusual staircase in my house. Stairs are made to be uniform so that one does not have to think about how to place one's feet going up. One is supposed to establish a rhythm and follow it and the steps are specifically uniform so that one does not trip and fall.

So what is going on?

The original steps, used by pilgrims
When we were in Israel, in Jerusalem, we were taken to the side area of the Kotel. (Forgive me for not recalling its proper name: I had a hot sleeping two year old on my back). There was an expanse of stone steps, most likely from the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash. The first and most noticeable fact is that they are not uniform: each one is different in size. The purpose of this was to grab attention of all those approaching and remind them: be mindful of where you place your feet, you are about to rendezvous with the Divine and that can only be done by making every step count.

Why can't I fall into an easy rhythm while going up a regular staircase in my house? Why are my feet not on autopilot? Why do they seek novelty around that fifth step? Am I subconsciously bored with the routine of climbing up and I make my own diversion? Or am I too mindless in climbing those stairs and I need to pay more attention where my feet land?

7 yo and 4 yo descending. The closer up steps are a recent renovation.
I keep thinking how so much of what brings pleasure in life is the balance between familiarity and novelty, between routine and excitement. Yet often I wish for normalcy when life hands me adventure and vice versa. I am not sure how much of this is my ingrained dissatisfaction with status quo, whatever it happens to be, and how much of it is not having control over which period of life I will be in.

In the meanwhile, I'll watch my step.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Getting the Nine Days wrong

I caught myself thinking today that maybe I am "doing" the Nine Days wrong. It is supposed to be a time of sadness and mourning. We are supposed to curtail activities that bring us joy and pleasure such as eating meat, drinking wine, listening to live music, enjoying water activities and prolonged baths, wearing freshly laundered clothes, making large purchases and participating in joyful gatherings. However, I found myself actually looking forward to many of these restrictions. No meat? No problem, I can finally make my beloved Indian food. I can make mac-n-cheese and pizza. In fact, I have so many dairy or meat-free meals that I can make that I do not have enough dinners during these Nine Days to make them all. No swimming? I can stop worrying about 2 yo trying to drown herself in the deeper end of the pool. I do not have to worry about moldering bathing suits and towels. Less laundry? Yes, please! Just wear what you have! And wear it again! Fewer fun outings? Less prep, less stuff to pack, fewer kids complaining that it is too hot, they are too tired, they cannot eat what I've packed, they didn't want to come in the first place. No large purchases? More money in the account, less looking around because I won't buy anyway, less decision making. No large gatherings? I'm an introvert.

So is that the attitude that I am supposed to be taking into Nine Days? Am I doing it wrong?

Then I thought: all of these restrictions were placed so people would have more time to look inward, spend with their immediate family, focus on the internal instead of being distracted (or entertained) by the external. There is a famous Gemara about not mourning excessively over the destruction of Beis Hamikdash, which is exactly why Chazal limited our mourning to these expressions.

I wonder whether not feeling repressed by them is a benefit that allows me to feel less emotional pain as I turn to look inward.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dinner in an hour

This is not a foodie blog and I do not have pictures to go with what I am about to post, but I figured it might be helpful to some mom out there.

We went to a lake to swim with some homeschool friends, so I did not get started on dinner till 4. I had it on the table at 5 (fine, 5:05 for transparency's sake). No, it was not take-out. No, it was not chicken nuggets or frozen pizza. It was a solid dinner: soup, main, starch, veggie. No, it was not a miracle.

This morning I pulled a bag of chicken cutlets from the freezer. Since I buy them at Costco, I usually divide the large family pack into two bags before freezing. This bag had breasts sliced in half, so it defrosted quickly.

At 4 I turned the oven up to 400, rinsed the breasts and put them in the pan. I sprinkled them with sesame oil, soy sauce, onion flakes, garlic powder, ginger and a drizzle of honey. Then I mixed them in the pan so the breasts were well-coated, covered them with foil and stuck them in the oven. Next, I rinsed one cup of rice in another pan, added 1 3/4 cups of water, a drizzle of olive oil, covered that pan, and stuck it in the oven with the chicken.

I usually make this quick zucchini soup. two onions, chopped, 4-6 zucchini, chopped into chunks, vegetable broth to cover, 1/4 cup of rice, bring to a boil, add seasoning, simmer for 20 minutes, puree with immersion blender straight in the pot, voila! Except that I like to doctor it up: add quinoa instead of rice, or throw in extra veggies. Today, as I was reaching for a bag of quinoa, I found a package of edamame noodles from Costco. They were brittle, they were green, and they had zero appeal of the noodles, so they were sitting in the pantry. An evil genius idea of a substitution: why don't I crumble them in instead of quinoa, then puree and nobody will know? Look at all the extra protein! Look at me salvaging what I'm sure were expensive noodles, languishing here! Hehe! So in they went. I made a mental note to remove any traces of what I did before the kids who will come to set the table express their opinion on my substitution without a taste test.

While the soup was simmering, I pulled out a bag of string beans and another pan. I trimmed the ends, tossed them with a bit of olive oil, spread them in a pan and sprinkled with salt. Then they went in the oven together with the chicken and rice.

I checked my phone. I stretched. This dinner was practically cooking itself. I uncovered the chicken so it could get dry in its sauce. I threw a bunch of parsley from my garden into the soup (it's about the only thing that grew in the garden, but it sounds very foodie of me now: freshly snipped parsley! In reality, I was too lazy to go and get scissors, so I twisted and yanked). I pureed the soup while adding cumin and curry and called the kids to set the table.

They fought. Just because I had dinner under control did not mean that they turn into angels. One child provoked another. By the time, I took a bathroom break, a steady wail in stereo leaked under the door. One child touched another. One child lost dessert.

It was dinnertime. Dinner was served.

They ate the soup with the green edamame noodles incorporated into it. Hint: soup croutons make all soup taste better. Some asked for seconds. They discussed how much fun they had playing with their friends, making elaborate sand dams.

Save this post for the next time dinner prep gets in the way of getting together with some friends and spending the day at the beach.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

To each their own

Twice a year Artscroll holds a large book sale: they give you 20% off everything. I try to time my book browsing to this time period. It is accompanied by numerous email reminders and a glossy catalog that arrives in the mail. I do not always buy, but I do browse heavily.

Since I will be homeschooling 11 yo next year, I asked him for his input in what kinds of books he was interested in. He opened the catalog, got fixated on the cookbooks, then told me he does not want anything. Except he did want one thing. It was an oversized illustrated coffee table book of the Beit Hamikdash. I was eyeing that book myself for years, but its price was making it into an unjustified purchase. We have so many resources available online, for free. We have other books with the Beit Hamikdash payout. Our money would be better spent on other causes. So every time I longingly looked at that page, I said: not now.

11 yo might have known exactly what I was thinking (or possibly even saying out loud in the past), so he immediately took his request back by saying that he does not expect us to spend that kind of money on a book. I stopped him: do you really want it? He said, yes, but it's too much. I went on Amazon to see if it can be bought used for less. No. I checked whether it is available in a smaller size. No. I resolved to buy the book. Then I added a few other titles to the mix: historical narratives, biographies, a book on Shmirat HaLashon (The laws of speech), halacha pocket guides, and a small group of inspirational quotes and stories.

The packages arrived today. When it was brought in after Shabbos was over, 11 yo ripped the whole package apart to get to his Beit Hamikdash book. He oohed and aahed over the spread. He asked me whether he can bring it into his room, a code expression for reading it in bed.I asked him to leave it on the coffee table till the morning. His excitement over this book was so genuine, so palpable.

Yet my heart is heavy.This is the same kid that failed Judaics this year, that thinks that he can't learn, that is burned out on Hebrew and Gemara and halacha. This same child miserably told me on Friday night that there is no purpose in Shabbos now because when he was in school he looked forward to Shabbos as a two-day break before he had to go back to school and start all over again. Mind you, he was not horribly miserable the whole year, and he had a very decent Shabbos once he lifted himself from the funk. But I keep on thinking how he needs such an untraditional approach to his education that none of the standard rules apply.

For now, I am recording it that he is ecstatic to receive a Beit Hamikdash book, so he is willing and eager to engage with Judaism on his terms. Now, please G-d, give me the courage to guide him so his spark of desire to learn grows and does not diminish.