30 September 2008

happy banned books week!

It is Banned Books Week once again, in which the American Library Association encourages people to Celebrate the Freedom to Read, and reminds America how important the right to free speech is. I'm personally a big supporter of free speech, and I like to use the lists of challenged books published by the ALA to find new books to read, because those which people seek to ban are often the most interesting and thought-provoking.

Here's the ALA's list of the most frequently challenged books of 2007, and the reasons why they were challenged:

1) “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

2) The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Violence

3) “Olive’s Ocean,” by Kevin Henkes
Reasons: Sexually Explicit and Offensive Language

4) “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman
Reasons: Religious Viewpoint

5) “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain
Reasons: Racism

6) “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language

7) "TTYL,” by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

8) "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou
Reasons: Sexually Explicit

9) “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris
Reasons: Sex Education, Sexually Explicit

10) "The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Sadly, I've only read half of these (1, 2, 4, 6, 8), and my kids have only read one (which I wrote about not too long ago). Looks like I have some reading to do! The link above also notes that Toni Morrison (one of my favorite contemporary authors) is off the list this year, after previously having two of her books featured. Too bad! Maybe she'd better write another controversial book.

Incidentally, it was very recently that I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time, and I found it to be a very moving and beautifully written book that I would recommend to anyone. The "sexually explicit content" (which, by the way, is not portrayed in a positive way) is one of the defining moments of Angelou's youth. Should she have ignored writing about something that affected her so deeply, that changed her in a very real way, that surely plenty of young girls can identify with, to avoid offending someone who's not satisfied to simply put down the book and walk away? That's what good literature is about in the first place: affecting the reader.

It really baffles me that some people decide that if they don't want to read a book, or want their children to read a book, that no one else should be allowed to read that book. I think literature is a great tool to use in learning to understand and process the world around us and the issues people face. It's hard for me to understand a point of view that would seek to prevent others from thinking and learning and challenging themselves.

Just for fun, here are some more links about challenged books from the ALA:
The Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century
The Top Ten Challenged Authors from 1990-2004
The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-2000

I'm pleasantly surprised to see a handful of books on that third list that were taught or read aloud in my elementary and high schools.

Some of my favorites on these lists I'd also count as some of my favorite books of all time. The Harry Potter series, Bridge to Terabithia, House of the Spirits, A Wrinkle in Time, The Handmaid's Tale, Julie of the Wolves, Roald Dahl's books, Toni Morrison's books, The Giver, and Slaughterhouse Five are all excellent books that I've enjoyed. Some of them I loved as a child, and have found as an adult that they're still just as good (for example, I re-read Bridge to Terabithia a few months ago after finding a copy at a used bookstore, and I sobbed every bit as much at 26 as I did at 11).

So what are your favorite challenged books?


23 September 2008

what's for lunch

Yesterday James had the best lunch he's had since the school year started. This is because the siren song of saturated fat and empty calories is so alluring to my son that I agreed to let him choose one or two lunches per month to buy in the cafeteria, and yesterday was his first school lunch.

"It was awesome! I had a cheeseburger -- with extra ketchup! -- and rice balls with bread on the outside,** and an apple and applesauce!"

I have had a fear of school lunches ever since I read Fast Food Nation several years ago. It's been too long for me to accurately remember all of the details, but the basic reason school lunches are so terrible is because government subsidies make meat and dairy the cheapest foods for schools to buy, so lunches are very heavy on meat and dairy (and, consequently, fat) and not so big on fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains. Looking at James' school's September lunch menu, I see entrees such as mozzarella sticks, nachos, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, several varieties of breaded and fried chicken, and pizza every Friday. Sure, they're serving canned fruit and vegetables every day, but somehow I doubt calling your sides "sunny corn" or "yummy carrots" adds much to their appeal.

On top of the questionable nutrition of school lunches, we also have a commitment to eating ethically-raised animal products on a very limited basis, so you can see why we're not keen on school lunches. We more than qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, but as cheap as I am I just can't bring myself to sacrifice my son's nutrition to save some money. So I've been trying to be creative with packing James' lunches so that he won't feel left out of the daily grease ingestion.

Let me tell you, there are some good resources out there for school lunch ideas. I've been taking inspiration from the idea of bento boxes, which are Japanese home-packed meals featuring a wide variety of foods, and often some cool artistic designs made from food. There are many photo sets on Flickr showing ways in which people have adapted the bento idea for other types of foods and cuisines. I've also been checking out Vegan Lunch Box (not that we're vegan, but I got the corresponding cookbook from the library and it has a lot of great ideas as well as some tasty-looking recipes) and LunchNugget, two blogs in which mamas document the tasty lunches they make for their offspring.

Now, I'm not nearly ambitious (or awake) enough at 7:30am to use cookie cutters on vegetables, or fashion octopuses out of hot dogs, and we don't have a real bento box in which to artistically arrange lunch. But I do find it really useful to have so many ideas to consider, so that my kid is not just taking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple to school every day (which, incidentally, is Evan's lunch nearly every day, since he does not yet know what he's missing). And James, luckily, is willing to let me experiment and find out how well a burrito or a leftover chicken drumstick holds up in the lunchbox for three hours.

So far he seems to be satisfied with a once or twice a month special school lunch. Let's hope I'm good enough at this creative lunch-packing to make that last the whole year.
**Tater tots. How happy am I that my kid doesn't know what a tater tot is?


19 September 2008

friday photos: self-portrait edition



16 September 2008

operation good parenting

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I've never really spent very much time one-on-one with Evan. James and I had three and a half years to bond before his baby brother came along, but Evan has always had James around. For the brief periods when James wasn't around -- nursery school and half-day kindergarten -- Evan was usually napping. And truth be told, what with the terrible twos lasting the better part of two years, I spent a lot of Evan's toddlerhood trying to get away from him when I had the chance.

So it has been a process, re-learning how to spend entire days in the company of a three-year-old in general, and Evan in particular. He requires a lot more attention than I'm used to giving him, for one thing -- previously much of his need for attention and companionship was fulfilled by James. And I certainly knew that he was stubborn and single-minded, but I didn't expect that he'd reject most of my game or craft or reading ideas, instead demanding I do what he wants "or else I'll cry really loud!"

I often feel like a failure of a stay-at-home mom because I don't like to play with my children. I know that sounds awful, but it's slightly better with an explanation: I like playing board games, reading, doing puzzles, drawing -- quiet, mental things. I don't really like my children's two main play activities: bouncing off the walls, and inventing convoluted Lego/Star Wars/Indiana Jones/Pokemon/Ninja Turtles/Scooby Doo/Biker Mice From Mars* stories to act out with Lego people. My kids spend hours together playing these games, and Evan had a hard time realizing, once school started, that I just wasn't going to fill James' shoes in this regard. So we had to come up with something else.

Today I started Phase I of Operation Good Parenting: Munchkin Madness. Munchkin Madness is an arts and crafts program for preschoolers offered by the town recreational department, and it's so cheap it's almost free. Not only has Evan not spent much time with me, but he's also never really been around kids his own age, so I thought it would be a good experience for him.**

I'm not really used to other three-year-olds either, so it was kind of a surprise to me to find that Evan was the most outgoing and rambunctious of the 10 or 12 kids in attendance. He was the only munchkin who appeared remotely mad. But I was really pleased with the way he barreled into the room and immediately started playing, with no hint of shyness. He provided the soundtrack for the morning, too -- singing the Star Wars and Indiana Jones theme songs, of course, which drew a lot of laughter from the other mothers there.

He had a lot of fun drawing and painting ("Not just painting, but... finger painting!!") and playing with the other kids, and as young as he seems to me, my littlest baby, he has really turned into a little boy. A preschooler. And I'm starting to see an older, more mature personality develop -- a fearless, take-charge attitude.*** I have the same feeling now that I had when James started preschool: a sense of wonder and curiosity about the way in which my child is becoming a real individual person. I've never really taken the time to think about Evan's development without considering James' influence on him, so I'm interested to see how he changes this year without the constant presence of his brother.

Tomorrow, Phase II of Operation Good Parenting: Library Story Hour, in which we see whether my toddler preschooler can sit still for more than three minutes at a time.
*I don't even know what this one is.

**We've been putting off preschool for now, what with the uncertainty of when Greg will be finishing his program and getting a job.

***Last night at dinner we were talking about war, for some reason I can't recall right now, and I said that I thought I'd rather go to jail than fight in a war. Greg and James agreed with me but Evan set his face into a defiant little scowl and announced, "Not me! I want to fight in a war!" Let's hope the opportunity never comes up, because that's not something I can bear to think about at the moment.


12 September 2008

friday photos: the evan is funny edition

Let me tell you, when you go shopping at Target with a superhero in tow, you get a lot of attention.

And when that little superhero stops in the Lego aisle, he is so overcome with excitement that he is unable to speak the words "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" but instead fills the air with what would sound, to an uneducated observer, like a series of high-pitched tuneless wails, but is actually the respective theme songs for these two movies with which our little superhero is obsessed.

Here is a characteristic photo of Evan reading his favorite book, otherwise known as the Lego catalog. Every little superhero-in-training needs a thorough knowledge of current Lego sets.

You're lucky he's wearing pants in that photo. Evan's always scheming ways to avoid wearing pants. I may have mentioned his recent refusal to wear a pair of shorts on the grounds that they were too distinguished, and a couple of days ago he tried to convince me he couldn't wear pants because he would look too adorable in them. Kid needs to learn a thing or two about effective persuasion.


10 September 2008

the tale of the twenty-five dollar zucchini

You may remember that I was attempting to grow zucchini in a container on my back step this summer. Let me tell you the story of my zucchini plant and why my ambition to be a gardener will be a long, hard, uphill battle.

First I should explain that I come from a family of farmers. Well, okay, one farmer, my grandfather, and he had a dairy farm, but I do have many relatives who are good with plants, including my sisters and my mother. When I was young, after my grandfather retired from dairy farming, he kept a small garden in the front yard. I vividly remember eating carrots pulled straight from the ground with dirt still clinging to them, and gobbling garden-fresh green beans.* But the zucchini -- it was my grandfather's zucchinis that were truly spectacular. My sister would collect zucchinis as long as our forearms and twice as thick around, and bake loaves of her famous zucchini bread.

So I've been a big zucchini fan since childhood. For the last several years I've loaded up on the cheap, abundant, enormous zucchinis from the farmer's market and made zucchini bread, zucchini brownies, zucchini cupcakes, zucchini stir-fries, zucchini fritters, zucchini lasagna, and so on and so forth. I have, over the years, collected an impressive number of recipes in which zucchini is the featured ingredient. So imagine my happiness when a friend of mine called early in the summer and offered me some zucchini seedlings.

He brought over three little seedlings for me one night, and I went to the local gardening store a couple of days later to buy a gigantic planter and pounds and pounds of dirt in which to plant my little seedlings.

"Do you think this is going to be worth it?" Greg asked when I came home, my wallet twenty-five dollars lighter.

"Sure!" I said. "Zucchini plants produce ridiculous amounts of zucchini. They're unstoppable!" I had big plans, big hopes and dreams for these little seedlings. No more supporting the local farmers for me -- I was going to be a local farmer!

So I planted my three tiny little seedling, and one died almost instantly. That's okay, I thought, there are two more. That's more than enough. And my two remaining seedlings began to flourish. I was excited, watching the leaves grow bigger and broader, watching the big yellow flowers begin to develop. Then my first little zucchini fruit began to appear, and I took photos and posted about it on my blog, because, look! I'm growing food!

And that first little zucchini, once it got to be about four inches long, inexplicably began to rot and die. I scoured the internet for advice, and then, before I could self-diagnose and treat my plant, it grew another zucchini. This one grew into a beautiful shiny ten-inch vegetable before I plucked it and turned it into soup. Now there was no stopping my zucchini plant.

Perhaps I should stop here for a moment to note that part of the reason I was so excited to grow my own zucchini is because all those green-thumb genes I mentioned above are apparently recessive in me. I like plants, but really only do well with those that tolerate neglect. I might describe my thumb as a sort of sickly yellowish color with accents of brown on the edges -- which, incidentally, is the color the leaves of my zucchini plant began to turn shortly after I harvested that first perfect fruit.

I plucked off the dead leaves, I treated my plant for powdery mildew, I moved it to the front of the house where it could get more sunlight, and my efforts almost worked. The plant produced a few more zucchini, but every one rotted and died on the vine. The leaves recovered and are again a healthy, happy green, and there are still a couple of flowers, cheerful and sunshine-colored, but there are no more little zucchinis beginning to grow, and I suspect there will be no more this season.

So my first food-gardening experiment yielded one zucchini. One twenty-five dollar zucchini. Meanwhile, over the course of the summer when I was too impatient to wait for my own plant to mature, I continued buying zucchini from the market. Four for a dollar, for zucchinis as long as my children's limbs and twice as fat around.

I think next year I'll stick with the farmer's market.
*Every grandchild was affixed with an identifying label, growing up. My sisters were saddled with animals: one was known to love butterflies, and the other, elephants. Not that they actually loved these animals, but that was my grandmother's pronouncement, and once decided, these preferences were all but carved into stone. Christmas presents were very predictable. Me, I was known for loving green beans. Since green beans don't translate well into Christmas gifts, I ended up with random unpredictable items, such as dolphin figurines. I think I'd have liked the green beans better, personally.


08 September 2008

the problem of memory

A few days ago I bought blackberries at the market. Every time we've had blackberries this summer, Greg and I have lamented the fact that we weren't able to visit his family in Washington this summer because of how badly the blackberries in NY pale in comparison to their west coast counterparts. (There are, of course, a million other [more important] reasons we're sad about not having a summer vacation in WA this year, but we do miss those blackberries.)

"Man," one of us will say, "I wish we were in Washington; then we could have buckets of blackberries for free, instead of $3 a pint, and those would all be ripe!"

"Yeah," the other will say, "these aren't nearly as sweet, and they're so small! You can't even do anything with so few blackberries!"

And so forth.

A couple of days ago, though, Greg chimed in with, "Remember the blackberry french toast we had at Tom's one summer?" When he saw the blank look on my face, he continued, "Remember? We picked a whole bunch of blackberries at my grandparents' house, and brought them to Tom's, and we made french toast and put all the blackberries on top? That was the most amazing french toast!"

I managed something like, "Well, I've had a lot of good french toast in my life."

"Come on," Greg pressed, "remember, we got to Tom's apartment -- not the one he's in now, not the last one, but the one before that -- and no one was home, so I broke in through the bathroom window and landed in the bathtub? Remember that time? We had that blackberry french toast on the same trip."

"Oh, yeah," I said weakly, "I think I remember that."

Readers, I was lying. I didn't remember it, I don't remember it, and doesn't that sound like something one should remember? Blackberry french toast can conceivably be forgotten, but I feel like I ought to remember my boyfriend breaking into someone's house through the bathroom window and landing in the bathtub. But it's a big blank instead.

Ten years ago, I had an amazing memory. I was an excellent student who hardly needed to study because I remembered almost everything from my classes and textbooks. I could have told you the middle names and birthdays and phone numbers and addresses of every single one of my friends, and a bunch of people I wasn't friends with too. My best friend and I had an intricate system of code names for practically everyone we knew and there was no need to write it down because there was endless space in my head for this sort of knowledge.

Today I have no memory to speak of. (I attribute this change directly to parenthood, by the way, and the lack of sleep that comes with it.) I see movies and can barely remember the plots a day later. I have trouble returning phone calls and emails because I forget that people have called or written me. Every single time one of my best friends from high school calls me, I fail to recognize her voice even though I've known her for fifteen years.

So I keep endless lists of everything, from grocery lists and library books to daily to-do lists and lists of upcoming events. I keep a list of possible menu items for dinners and school lunches. I leave myself written reminders to answer emails or schedule appointments or pay bills. If it's not written down, I will forget it.

That's part of the reason I started a blog. To chronicle and to remember all of my experiences in raising two very interesting children. I read back through my blog archives recently and was surprised by how difficult some parts of my life were, and how funny other parts were. Time has dulled my memory to a vague series of highlights, and it's so easy to forget the details. I don't want to forget.

I don't want to forget the hilarious lullaby James composed for Evan, telling him to go to sleep because his shirt was so beautiful. I don't want to forget the time that Evan refused to put on his shorts because they were too distinguished. I don't want to forget the way that James picks up and pockets every interesting rock he comes across, "interesting" being a very subjective term.

I don't want to forget Evan asking me to pick him up this morning. "What for?" I asked. He smiled and said, "For everything! For hugs and kisses!" And then I picked him up and he snuggled into my chest and it instantly became one of those moments I never want to forget.

I can't trust my human memory that much anymore. But I can trust what I write here. So this post is a reminder to myself to write more, to capture these moments, these swiftly fleeting childhood days, and through recording and remembering, to appreciate them more.


07 September 2008

weekend recipe: zucchini chowder

The weekend recipes are back! You know, until I forget about them again. But I've got a fabulous recipe to share tonight, posting it with just a couple of hours left in the weekend, so it still counts as an official weekend recipe.

Allow me to introduce the Zucchini Garden Chowder. This recipe, like all of my recipes, originated somewhere else, somewhere I can no longer remember, and though I've personalized it a little, credit should be given to some genius cook out there. Not me. This has become my new favorite recipe for cool or rainy summer days. Most of these ingredients are still available at my farmer's market, so if you're as lucky as I am you may be able to try this out before summer officially comes to a close. It's pretty quick to throw together, it's healthy and filling and, of course, delicious.

2 medium zucchini, chopped (give or take -- the zucchinis at our market are so enormous that I've successfully used wildly differing amounts of zucchini in this recipe; I'd say typically 3-4 cups)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dried basil (or chop up a bunch of fresh basil)
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock (or water)
1 teaspoon lemon juice (or a nice big squeeze from half a lemon, or leave it out, it's not crucial)
2-3 cups diced tomatoes (canned or fresh)
1/2 cup milk
2 cups corn kernels
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

In a stock pot over medium heat, melt butter, and saute zucchini, onion and basil until vegetables are tender. Stir in flour; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Stir in stock and lemon juice. Bring soup to a boil; reduce heat and cook for a couple of minutes while it thickens up a bit. Add tomatoes, milk and corn. Return soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes or until corn is tender. I usually stir a couple of times to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom.

At this point you can let it sit and keep warm for a while if you need to. Just before you're ready to eat, stir in the cheese until it's all melty and delicious-smelling.

This makes a huge batch of soup, and with some bread for dipping it makes a solid meal. My entire family actually eats this -- this is the meal that made Evan decide, very deliberately, to start liking tomatoes -- and even after a couple of us have had seconds, we have enough left over to throw in the freezer and save for another cool or rainy day. We have some in the freezer right now and I think I'm going to wait until the farmer's market starts to dry up for the winter and then break out this soup to bring back the tastes of summer.


05 September 2008

friday photos: first grade edition

This year I actually remembered to take the obligatory first day of school photo.

So far first grade is a success. We have not missed the bus yet, despite it coming 6-7 minutes earlier than scheduled (we had to run for it this morning, but we made it), James' lunch box is coming home nearly empty every day (so far no begging for cafeteria chicken nuggets or pizza), and James is in the same class as both his kindergarten best friend and his kindergarten girlfriend. This girlfriend, by the way (to tell an anecdote I could have blogged about in my missing month but didn't) is the girl he told over the phone a couple of weeks ago that he doesn't want to marry her, he just wants to have babies with her. Let's hope she didn't repeat that to her parents.

As always, James tells me virtually nothing about school, and the thousand questions I ask in the brief period between him getting off the bus and going outside to play are answered in monosyllables around mouthfuls of snack. Full-day school is a tiring adjustment for him, I think; at least, that's the excuse I'm giving him for his cranky attitude toward me when he gets home every day.

But we are all adjusting. Evan and I are learning how to fill our days without James around. I'm slowly remembering what it's like to hang out with one child at a time. We're all getting used to getting up and getting ready much earlier than usual. I think it's going to be a good year.


03 September 2008

the end of summer

It seems like just yesterday that I was food blogging about summer produce and banana cakes. Suddenly I look at the calendar and six weeks have flown by and my oldest child is a first-grader. Where does the time go?

To be honest, though, part of the reason I wasn't blogging is because we deliberately had a pretty slow summer. We stayed home a lot, played in the backyard, with weekly trips to our local library and occasional day trips to a beach or a park. We had a nice visit with my family, but sadly we were unable to visit Greg's family this summer. We played a lot of frisbee, went swimming a couple of times, went hiking only once, went camping not at all. There was very little that seemed worth posting on the blog, and we barely took any photos during the second half of summer anyway. Here are a couple of exceptions:

There have been some milestones, some personal accomplishments. Evan is in the beginning stages of learning to read, and he is potty trained! Surprisingly, with how difficult he's been about practically everything, his entire life, potty training turned out to be easy. Much easier than with James, even, and I think that's the first time I've been able to say that about the two of them. Once Evan decided to do it, he did it 100% and never looked back.

James started school today. First grade! For the first time, he will be gone all day long. He stepped onto the bus today -- in typical James fashion -- without a backwards glance, not even when his brother burst into tears because he couldn't get on the bus with the other neighborhood kids.

We had a happy summer -- a relaxed, laid-back, happy summer. But I'm starting to look forward to fall. And now that I'm actually writing again, I'm looking forward to a return to blogging as well.