Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah Motherlode

Those of you who know me or follow my blog know that I wasn't raised in a Jewish home. I grew up Methodist and converted shortly before the birth of my second child in 2007. So I'm still pretty new at this being Jewish thing.

Growing up, everything about being Jewish was a bit of a mystery to me. Especially Hanukkah. Robin was my first Jewish friend. I met her when I was six. I knew she was special because she had a swimming pool. With a slide. And she also told me that she got presents for 8 days in a row during a holiday I couldn't pronounce because she was Jewish. As far as I could tell she was living the dream.

I remember the day I learned about the whole Hanukkah motherlode. I marched home, hands on hips and demanded to know why we couldn't be Jewish so I could get presents for 8 days. My mother promptly told me that we couldn't be Jewish because we were Methodist and if I wanted presents for 8 days I could kiss Santa goodbye. (Not to mention a few other key figures in history, but I'm pretty certain she didn't get into all of that. She was never long on explanations.)
Our family moved out of the neighborhood and Robin and I lost touch, but the association of Hanukkah and presents stuck with me.

It's funny how life works out. I wished I was Jewish at age 6 for the wrong reasons and ended up becoming Jewish at 37 for the right ones. Yet somehow those 6-year old dreams made their way back into my first Hanukkah with Ben. Remembering what I had longed for as a child, I made that first holiday about the presents shopping and then wrapping eight little packages for Ben. More things he didn't need and I didn't want to pick up and put away. Even more, as each night passed, my efforts seemed to be more and more lost on the short attention span of a 3-year old who opened the gifts nearly as quickly as he tossed them aside to focus on the "fire" and our pleas that he not blow out the candles. We continued to light the candles each night, but by the end of the week I began to wonder whether I'd wasted my time getting all those gifts. And I began to wonder even more why I had done it in the first place. Why couldn't the storytelling, prayers and candlelighting have been enough? How had my selfish 6-year old priorities made their way into my 37-year old parenting paradigm?

Ben was too young to remember his first (and last) Hanukkah motherlode. These days he and Sarah spend the first night of Hanukkah with all of their cousins, eating latkes, lighting the Menorah, spinning dreidels, getting gelt and opening their special first night present. The rest of the nights we light the Menorah at home. And that's just enough for all of us.

I hope that doesn't make me a Hanukkah scrooge. But mostly I hope that if one of Ben's inquisitive 6-year old classmates asks him about the whole Hanukkah thing he remembers to say it's about the festival of lights ... and not about the presents.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"I Love You Too Much To Argue"

Shabbat #41

Guests: Grant and Chloe.

Menu: Italian Mini Meatloafs, Three Cheese Pasta, Chocolate and Vanilla Meringues

What I Learned:

Ben (with Dad's help) had the honor of drawing up this week's guest list and menu. He chose his partner in crime Grant and his girlfriend Chloe. (Steve chose meatloaf.) Add Sarah to the mix and Steve and I had plenty of opportunity to practice all of our best "Love and Logic"one- liners.

What? Haven't heard of "Love and Logic?" Don't worry, we hadn't either. It's a program that teaches parents to replace anger and lectures with empathy and consequences. How you ask? In part, through some famous (at least now in our house) one-liners delivered with "compassion and understanding." Things like "Bummer. How sad," "I love you too much to argue," and my favorite ... a long pause followed by "hhhhmmmm" and then silence.

Steve and I more or less parent from the hip, but we decided to give the class a try. Mostly because it was from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. and included free child care. Need I say more? After our first L&L class complete with AV and role playing, Steve and I were chomping at the bit to try out our new skills. Of course it didn't take long. As soon as we hit the front door, Ben headed straight for the fridge. "Sorry Bud, kitchen's closed. Upstairs for jammies." (Yes, my children actually think the kitchen closes after dinner ... a helpful one-liner from my Parent's as Teacher Educator to promote mealtime eating.) And then the meltdown began. So I went for it.

Me: "Ben, I love you to much to argue."

Ben stops dead. Turns and looks directly at me with a suspicious eye as his sister's mouth drops open.

Ben: "Did you you just learn that in class tonight?"

Cheese sticks and apples followed.

Fortunately, I didn't have to put any of the one-liners to use on Friday night. The kids were a dream and once again proved my belief that parenting four little people is actually easier than parenting two as long as half of them aren't yours.

But it was not the happy camaraderie that was the highlight of the evening, it was seeing the four of them together at the table. Both Grant and Chloe had been to Shabbat dinner at our house before and even though neither of them are Jewish, they remembered how we roll. Patiently they sat waiting for their candles to be lit (our custom is to give each child their own set), the blessings to be repeated and the bread to be shared. And that made me happy.

I'm proud that Sarah wants to light the candles and that Ben has nearly learned the blessing over the wine. But I'm even more proud that they are excited about sharing our traditions with their friends. But maybe, just maybe this is even a little bigger than our family.

I hope that Grant and Chloe remember their Friday nights at our house years from now. Not just the couch jumping and popsickle eating, but the candle lighting, friendship and gratitude that we shared. And I hope they remember that even though we did not all share the same religion, they were very much a part of our Jewish celebration. But mostly I hope when they think of their nights here, they'll remember this one-liner:

"Differences are good."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Out of Range

Shabbat #40

The Grand Canyon, Bright Angel Campground

Menu: Grilled Garlic Bread, Cheese Tortellini with Red Sauce (cooked on camp stove), Dark Chocolate Covered Caramels, Wine compliments of J.P. and the Phantom Ranch Canteen

What I Learned:

Every year more than five million people visit the Grand Canyon. Only one percent make it to the bottom. Last week Steve and I became members of this elusive club.

The view from the edge of the Grand Canyon is breathtaking. To climb down (and out) on your own two feet is life changing ... or at least a memory for a lifetime. For Steve and me, dressed in our tell-tale brand new REI gear, it was all of the above.

A trip down the South Kaibab trail is measured in milestones, not miles. Drop a few switchbacks off the edge and the brisk rim breeze subsides. A few more and the temperature begins to rise. The 360 view from the famous Kaibab Limestone -- dubbed the bathtub ring of the canyon -- can only be explained as otherworldly. And it nearly is with geologic exposures in the inner gorge nearly two billion years old. Skeleton Point provides the first view of the Colorado River and the utter disbelief that such a humble stream of water could have created such a majestic sight. The Tip Off Point literally tips you into the gorge and towards the Kaibab Suspension Bridge constructed from cables carried down on the backs of men when the mules could not manage. A pitch black tunnel leads to the bridge that is the gateway to the famous Phantom Ranch and our home for 3 days: Bright Angel Campground.

To say that less is more when it comes to camping in the Grand Canyon is an immense understatement. Whatever you carry in, you're carrying out and up 5000 feet. (Thankfully our travel companions from Montreal considered the two bottles of white wine a "necessity.") The best thing about camping at Bright Angel is the camaraderie. An instant connection that everyone has traveled under their own power and for their own very personal reasons into one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It's a place where respecting one's neighbors means not hanging dirty socks in trees to dry or banging the lid to the ammo box that holds your food in the early morning. Dimming one's headlamp on a dark trail is an expected courtesy. Campground "Quiet Hours" are from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. And it's actually quiet but for the sound of the river and the million twinkling stars in the sky.

Regardless of the hour there are noises that you will never hear in the canyon. No cars or sirens. No mindless television. No beeping and blaring video games. And, most notably, no cell phones. Or their companion one-sided cell phone conversations.

You see, there's no cell phone coverage in the canyon. Not because it's impossible. It is. But because some wise person has thankfully preserved a spot where it's still impossible to divide your attention between your phone and life.

And such was life for us ... at least for three days. Undivided attention for Steve. For me. And for the beautiful place we were blessed with the good health to climb down into and, eventually, out of. That alone was worth the miles of hiking and the 5000 vertical feet.

Our guide warned that real life returns quickly once you've hiked to Skeleton Point where spotty coverage resumes. Listen closely and you may even hear the tell tale "You've Got Mail." Steve and I did not succumb to temptation quite so soon. We held off to the top. Seated in the El Tovar Lounge, wine in hand, we hit "Power" and one by one the sea of emails rushed in along with the overwhelming feeling that we'd missed something. A deadline at work. Snack for preschool. The school nurse. A panicked (babysitting) grandparent. We were, after all, integral to the spinning of the world. Right? Well, apparently not. It kept right on spinning. Our colleagues worked on. The kids survived. And the grandparents managed. Perhaps the only thing missed was an extra cheap massage on Groupon ... which I could have used right about then.

So what did I learn? That the world does keeps spinning even if I'm not connected every moment. That if it's okay to sign off for three days in the wilderness, then it is certainly okay to sign off to give all of the things important to me in my life my undivided attention. Like my husband. And my children. And the joke that Ben has to tell me, again, on the way home. All of those precious moments in life that are far more important than whether I've immediately returned a message, mindlessly read Facebook status or otherwise used my phone for some purpose that Alexander Graham Bell surely never intended.

Last year we vowed to slow down on Shabbat. To take it in. And to turn the rest off. We've done a pretty good job in that respect, but there's room for improvement the other six days of the week. I'm ready.

So if you email me and I take a few days to answer, now you know why.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bringing Back The Block Party

Shabbat #39

Guests: The Schoemehls

Menu: Manicotti, Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, Meringues, Chocolate Truffles

What I Learned:


Friday, October 29, 2010


Shabbat #38

Guests: The Steinbecks

Menu: Filets, Roasted Butternut Squash Over Greens, Garlic Mashed Potatos, Mice Cookies

What I Learned:


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

50 Before 50

1. Sleep in the Grand Canyon.
2. Climb a mountain.
3. Take ballroom dancing lessons.
4. Race NASTAR with my father, Ben, Sarah and Steve.
5. Go back to Israel.
6. Ride my bike across a state.
7. Learn Hebrew (again) with Ben.
8. Stay on an ashram.
9. Finish a marathon in 15 more states.
10. Run an ultra-marathon.
11. Go sailing with my Dad.
12. Start a foundation that serves kids and the outdoors.
13. Lead a fundraising effort that raises in excess of $50k.
14. Master a headstand.
15. Run a 5K with both my children.
16. Be a spectator at the Olympics.
17. Ride part of the Tour de France course.
18. Audition for a play.
19. Eat vegetables from my own garden.
20. Learn to bake the perfect challah.
21. Write a book.
22. Finish the kids’ baby books.
23. Go to survival school.
24. Visit at least 10 more National Parks.
25. Complete an adventure race.
26. Paint my face for a football game.
27. Tailgate with the kids at Purdue.
28. Plan a reunion.
29. Organize the Berkeley genealogy records.
30. Help build a house with Habitat for Humanity.
31. Go on an overnight train trip with a sleeper car.
32. Read the Torah.
33. Take the kids to a dude ranch.
34. Buy a fuel efficient American car.
35. Help start a family business that turns a profit.
36. Ride a camel.
37. Build a sukkah.
38. Handwrite 50 letters to impactful people.
39. Get certified in CPR.
40. Ski hut to hut in the Rockies.
41. Rescue an animal.
42. Swing on a trapeze.
43. Renew my vows.
44. Add “dean” to my job title.
45. Speak as an “expert” at a conference.
46. Line dance at a country western bar.
47. Drive cross country in an RV.
48. Spend the night in a lighthouse.
49. Trek to Machu Picchu.
50. Skydive.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Retirement Fund

Shabbat #35:

Guests: Our next door neighbor Kenny

Menu: Israeli Spiced Grilled Chicken, Tomato & Cucumber Salad with Lime Vinegarette, Sweet Potato Stuffed Kreplach, Sorbet

What I Learned:


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yom Kippur: Fish Eyes

I think pretty much everyone has heard of Jonah and the Whale. You know ... the guy who gets himself thrown into the ocean while trying to weasel out of some serious work and ends up in the belly of a whale. There's a lot more to the story, but it was the belly of the whale part that always hung me up. Hearing the story as a child, I wondered whether someone could actually live inside a whale. Could it happen to me? And then there was the whole "gross" factor on the whale puking Jonah onto the shore. Followed by the chorus of "eews" from the Sunday School story circle.

Even today it still hangs me up. What exactly was Jonah doing in that whale the whole time? I'm guessing he was praying, giving thanks for being alive (albeit in a belly) and making amends with G-d. But seriously folks, three days is a long time. There must have been more.

If I were stuck in a whale for three days (and believe me ... some days I actually wish for three days alone ... anywhere) what would I be doing? Besides praying. If it's like anytime else I've felt trapped in a place I didn't want to be, I'd probably obsess about not being able to run. And then I'd obsess about all the things I could be doing ... like billing time, running errands, planning dinner and finally remembering to not send the kids to school in their grubbiest t-shirts for picture day.

And then I'd settle in. Right in front of those two big fish eyes that would be my windows to the world and make a decision.

Would I look out those windows wishing I were someone else, namely someone not trapped in the belly of a fish? Someone else that I imagined was luckier, had better judgment and surely would have not gotten herself into a pickle like me.

Or would I look into the window at my own reflection. Not at the wrinkles and the scar beneath my left eye that I'm still trying to embrace, but inside myself ... the woman who landed herself smack dab in the belly of a whale.

Having spent a good number of my nearly 40 years looking out, I've pretty much concluded that wishing I was someone else does not make it so. If it did I would have been prom queen or "that mom" whose life seems to spin in perfect order. I've let go of my ballot in the box, prom queen validation and am finally beginning to understand that "that mom" who appears to be floating through life is probably paddling like hell underneath just like the rest of us. Wishing for those things now only makes me, well, less hopeful.

I've also spent a good amount of time, particularly lately, looking in. Looking within myself for the reason why I'm sometimes the one stuck in the belly of a whale and making changes to insure I don't end up there again anytime soon. And I can tell you sometimes it's pretty darn hard. Like "throw me overboard so I can wait for someone else to save me" hard. But most the time its been worth the effort with each effort building upon the last. And that's what makes me, well, more hopeful. Not to mention stronger, more honest and more certain.

So if I ever find myself in the belly of a whale like Jonah, I'm planning to use those three days and those two big fish eyes to look in.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Family Camp

Shabbat #32

Camp Manitowa Family Camp


To One Sweet New Year ... And One Sweet Kugel

Rosh Hashanah is my favorite Jewish holiday. For all of the obvious reasons. And for one not so obvious reason.

Mah's Sweet Kugel.

Deb Z. -- affectionately known as "Mah" to an endless stream of daughters and grandchildren -- is my sister-in-law's mom.

It's hands down the best kugel ever. But that's not why I love it so. I love it because it reminds me of, well, everything else I love. Like pasta. And dessert. All rolled into one. Like the first Jewish holiday that I spent with Steve's extended family when I first tasted it. Exactly one year after Steve asked me out on our first date. It reminds me of a house bursting with family. And of my oldest niece Dylan who requests that "Mah" make it for every birthday. And it especially reminds me of Rosh Hashanah, particularly last year's when Rabbi Talve gave me the opportunity to share my own experience with the congregation during the high holiday service. An opportunity that made my family and me stronger. And ultimately led to this Year of Shabbats.

Years ago I asked Deb for her sweet kugel recipe. It went something like "a dash of this, a dab of that" as she rattled it off the top of her head. I gave it a try, but my rendition didn't hold a candle to hers. Just as well. I'd much prefer her original, the anticipation of whether I'll find it on the table at the next holiday event and all of the sweet memories that will follow.

Happy New Year!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Life Lessons and a Side of Fried Butter

Shabbat #30

Guests: Suzanne and Neil and son A. Suzanne went to elementary school with Steve and I know Neil from cycling. Our sons are close in age and had a near miss last fall at the Meramec School carnival ... but things went swimmingly on Friday.

Menu: Sweet Potato Chips and Mango Salsa, Grilled Salmon with Citrus Salsa Verde, Watermelon Salad, Garlic Couscous, Toby's Challah, Cheesecake with Hand Picked Michigan Blueberry Sauce

What I Learned:

Truth be told, we're more country than country club. Especially now.

Suzanne's known Steve since the second grade. She can attest. Attest to the plaid shirts with the mother of pearl snaps and Wrangler jeans that were Steve's uniform before a certain high school girlfriend (we'll call her Ann) convinced him that penny loafers and pink polos were more fitting for a Ladue Ram football player. Next time you catch me in blue jeans check out my belt. It'll probably be a leather one with a silver sundial buckle and S-T-E-V-E etched across the back - a precious relic from Steve's cowboy days.

While the plaid shirts may be long gone, Steve's love (and mine) of the slower life, the outdoors and the simple things isn't. A reminder of years of sweet childhood memories made in Innsbrook, Wickenberg and Colorado. Of western saddles, barrel racing and campfires. And a chance for us to make new memories with our children.

Our Friday shabbat dinner was followed by an overnight trip to Sedalia, Missouri for the Missouri State Fair. It's one of several trips we've made as a family to various fairs, rodeos, tractor pulls, monster truck shows, and ... yes, now even a demolition derby. I love it because it's impossibly low key. My $3 straw cowboy is the only accessory I need. Blending in beats standing out.

But maybe even more important is the opportunity it gives us to teach our children things they might not otherwise learn ... or a least learn as easily ... at home.

I feel enormously lucky to be able to raise my children in a neighborhood where I can walk them to one of the best public schools in the country; and I value the importance that the school and our broader community and congregation places upon diversity and sensitivity on everything from peanuts to birthday parties, but sometimes I wonder whether it paints a realistic expectation for my kids. Is this teaching them about the world outside of our sometimes hyper-sensitive bubble?

Sometimes I need to be reminded that the energy I put into teaching Ben and Sarah about being sensitive to differences is equal to the energy I need to put into teaching them about how to sensitively respond to situations that are not so diverse. Life outside the bubble. To embrace and share those aspects of themselves that make them different. And to respect the differences in others.

The state fair is a great place to teach those lessons and gorge ourselves on all things fried.

Take the Dairy Barn -- more than a place to teach the difference between dairy cows and beef cows. Ben met a boy not much older than himself that had dedicated hours upon hours to raising the cow he so proudly led into Coliseum for the Youth Guernsey Cow Judging. Wearing pristine white jeans, a button up shirt and a look of determination. A little bit different from the select baseball league he's watched cousin Jake play in all summer, but no less impressive.

And then there was the quest for the "Rodeo" ball cap from a kiosk of cowboy hats adorned with crosses prompting Ben's question: Why are there X's on all of those hats? An opportunity to teach him that just how sometimes we, as Jews, identify ourselves with the Star of David, Christians identify themselves with a cross ... saving (but perhaps teeing up) the more complicated explanations of what those symbols signify.

Or the demolition derby ... which by the way is NOT like Wresting At the Chase; these guys in these cars are for real. When the announcer takes to the microphone to bless the drivers and leads the fans in the Lord's prayer it is a moment to coach Ben on paying respect to a different kind of prayer. Just as all of his non-Jewish friends that have shared Shabbat dinner with us this year have paid respect to his prayers over the bread and wine.

Yeah ... gotta love the State Fair. Fried butter. Funnel cakes. Meat on a stick. And a few life lessons thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Judgment Day

Shabbat #29

Guests: The Garveys

Menu: Liberty Chips and Salsa, Tequila Lime Chicken, Sagaponack Corn Pudding, Deconstucted Guacamole Salad, Key Lime Pie Bars

What I Learned:

I've "appeared" before a judge three times. The first time was a proud moment. Judge Dowd swore me into the Eastern District of Missouri shortly after I passed the bar. The second time was the scariest of my life. Sandwiched between my father-in-law and my husband's best friend, I sat frozen waiting for Judge Jackson to announce whether Steve's sentence would involve a separation from our family. And the third was last Friday when Judge Garvey found me "guilty" of cooking up a killer Tequila Lime Chicken and Corn Pudding.

I've always thought that being a judge had to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. Making decisions that forever change a person's life. (Not to mention all of the people associated with that person.) Basing a conclusion on precedent and argument, even when that conclusion does not reflect your personal convictions. Forever being held to a higher standard in the communty. By my assessment, the only consolation was the black robe that all but eliminated those ill-conceived fashion days.

But now I'm not so sure whether judging is the hardest job. Maybe not judging is even harder.

Having been on the "judged" side of judgment, both formally in a court of law and informally in the court of public opinion I can report that it's not a fun place to be. A federal sentence brings a slew of complications that most people don't plan for. At least we didn't. And while the court of public opinion (and all of its anonymous bloggers) don't quite have the same lifelong impact, their punches still sting.

Prior to 2009, I was guilty of passing my own judgments. I'm not particularly proud of it, though I do think its probably part of human nature. Something about assessing someone else -- judging them as a worse mother, wife, employee, friend -- somehow made me feel a little bit better in all of those departments. Temporarily anyway until I inevitably ended up feeling worse for judging. And making no progress in becoming better in any of the aforementioned departments.

Since 2009 I've change my tune and tried to focus on taking something positive from the situation, because, really, what else can you do when life serves up a crappy hand. I've tried to judge less and improve more. When I feel judgment creeping up, I step back and search for it's source. If the source is a desire to find a weakness in someone else I consider whether I might really be the one with the weakness. And then I spend my energy trying to be a little better. If the judgment is motivated by "sport" or gossip, I hold my tongue and try to redirect my energy to my long (and growing) "to do" list. And if I conclude that my judgment is fair I try my best to share it fairly and offer support and solutions rather than idle criticism. And I own it.

That takes a lot of energy. Which most days I'm short on. Fortunately, it's proving to be productive. And contagious. And generally makes me feel like the road to wherever we are going is somehow a little more tolerable. And less scary.

I hope that my children will learn from me by example and try to do the same. I plan to teach them to leave the judging of others for the folks in black robes. I've already started telling Ben that the only judgment he needs to be worrying about is his own ... good judgment.

Because last Friday's "guilty" ruling on my Tequelia Chicken is the last time I ever want to find myself (or anyone in this family) waiting for a judge's ruling.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Steve's Debut - Guest Blog

Shabbat #28

Guests: Don and Sarah Jane and son Cal Jr. and Jason and Becca. Hosted by Steve and Sarah while Ben and Rebecca were traveling.

Menu: Flank Steak, Roasted Potatoes, Strawberry Poppy Seed Salad, Toby's Whole Wheat Challah, Angel Food Cake ... all prepared by Steve

What I Learned:


Share and Share Alike

Shabbat #27

Guests: Stacy, Greg and children Molly, Sam and Ben. They live down the block and around the corner. Our girls go to preschool together. Our boys will start kindergarten together. And we belong to the same congregation. Now that's a lot of togetherness.

Menu: Black & Blue Sliders, Confetti Couscous, Peach & Blueberry Spinach Salad, Sliced Watermelon, Princess Cupcakes

What I Learned:

Stacy and I have more than a few things in common. We both have boys. Named Ben. Born on the same day.

I remember when Steve told me this. I had a stomach full of stitches, itching so badly from the morphine that I wanted to peel myself like an orange, but out of my mind happy to be holding my brand new baby boy. Stacy was laying in a hospital bed down the hall probably doing the same. My reaction to Steve's announcement? Blissful indifference. I was in the midst of those precious newborn days, not thinking about the experiences my Ben would share with the boy down the hall with whom he already shared a name.

Turns out they will he sharing more than just a name. And a birthday.

They'll be sharing a school. And Mrs. Fallstrom, the kindergarten teacher. And all of the firsts that kindergarten, elementary and high school will bring. Reading. Writing. Swapping lunches. Playing sports. Dances. Chasing girls -- though hopefully not one another's sisters.

And a neighborhood. Where they'll walk to school. Ride bikes. Play baseball in the Glenridge field. And (sooner than I can bare) be a part of that mob of highschoolers meandering down the street at 3:15 to hang out at Starbucks.

And a synagogue. Where they'll go (and sometimes complain about going) to Shabbat School. And Hebrew School. Study for their bar mitzvahs. And celebrate the coming of age of all of their Jewish friends.

And a friendship that will start with kindergarten and potentially last a lifetime.

Who knows what the future holds. Whether they will be lifelong friends. Confidants. Partners in crime.

But one thing is certain. They'll always share a name. And they'll never forget each other's birthday.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Never Met A Stranger

Shabbat #26

Guests: Dan and his wife Dana, daughter R. and son I. Dan I and sit on the Joe's Place board together. Joe's Place is a residential home for boys located in the Maplewood Richmond Heights school district. Joe's Place offers a small group of teenage boys what every kid should be able to expect from life: a warm place to sleep, regular meals, and someone to provide guidance and affection.

Menu: Baumann's Smoked Beef Tenderloin, Pasta Ponza, Roasted Asparagus, Icecream with Brown Sugar Bourbon Peach Sauce, Toby's Whole Wheat Challah

What I Learned:

The only thing more unnerving than having an event planner (we'll just call her Susan) and her award-winning BBQ king of a husband to dinner is having a child psychiatrist. Meet Dan. I half expected some kind of parenting intervention. Or at least a make shift Rosrschah inkblot test fashioned out of the grease stained tablecloth. Fortunately neither proved true.

Sitting around the table Dan and his wife did have one rather pointed question: Have any of your dinners totally bombed? The short answer is "No" ... except for maybe the one with my in-laws, but that had more to do with the offending golden raisins in the challah than the company.

And here's the reason.

Steve's never met a stranger. He'll find something to talk about with anyone. Which is fortunate for his sake since I'm the one that makes the guest list.

He's also had a lot of practice at making conversation.

When he ran for office he knocked on every door in the district repeatedly. (If you live in the 73rd you've probably met him.) Undeterred by dogs, drawn blinds or the creepy array of "stuff" that accumulates on some porches, he trudged tirelessly for months leading up to the election. He tells me that this is the reason he won, but I wonder. If it were me opening the door, I would've been questioning the judgment of a 200+ man sweating in the St. Louis summer heat standing on my porch. (I voted for him anyway.)

Sometimes I was a party to this madness, knowing that it was a rare opportunity to squeeze in some "family time" in the thick of the campaign. So I'd schlep Sarah and Ben up and down street after street mostly wondering (while sweating) how I had gotten myself into the whole mess to begin with. Truth is, Ben loved it as much as Steve did, running from one portch to the next.

Never meeting a stranger.

Steve talked about how much it meant to him to have Ben learn about the process. I think he meant the political process and public service. And not the unsolicited door to door visits.

Which apparently was what left a bigger impression on Ben.

The night after dinner with Dan, Ben and a partner in crime (who shall remain unnamed) engaged in their own little door to door campaign. Filling their water guns in the backyard (after attempting to do so in my bathtub), slipping out the backyard cut through, ringing the neighbors doorbell and then giving the resident a big dose of the super soaker. The less than amused homeowner (who of course knew Steve because he knocked on his door) along with his wife marched the offenders by their collars back to whence they came promptly delivering a stern message about safety and respect to the ever so slightly amused adults.

Not my proudest parenting moment. And I am sure a real case study for Dan.

Sunday afternoon Steve marched Ben back to the scene of the crime where Ben delivered a "respectful" apology and offered to pick up the leaves in said homeowners yard for a week.

But the gauntlet really feel when Ben got home.

I took away his T.V.

Now before you go all P.T.A. on me, let me tell you a little bit about this television. I bought it in 1993. It is a 15 inch with a built in VCR. It's not cable ready so pretty much the only thing you can do with it is watch VCR tapes ... which are about as scarce as a full night's sleep when you have two kids. A few months ago my tech-savvy brother-in-law got a load of the T.V. He immediately wanted to know when I was going to purchase Ben an IPad (umm...never) and I think even may have argued that making Ben watch a VCR was in fact punishment.

Then he asked me where our 8-track player was.

Nonetheless, Ben loved that T.V. and the VCR tapes with blockbuster titles like I Love Toy Trains and Big Diggers. Purchased resale of course.

My only mistake in my haste of discipline was telling Ben that he'd lost the T.V. for a week. And not forever. Turns out that things are going so swimmingly without it (which was secretly more of a crutch for me anyway), that I have no intention of returning it and am cracking a plan to tell him that kindergarten does not allow T.V.s in bedrooms. Maybe I'll get his kindergarten teacher (and new best pen pal) to send him a letter backing me up.

But back to Dan's question .... none of the dinners have been a bomb. Not just because Steve is an expert at making conversation, but because we have gone in with an open mind and an eagerness to learn something new about our guests and ourselves. For Steve it has been easy. For me, a person who was content to operate within my safe little circle of friends, it has been a very new experience. And an amazing one. I've met new people (who shockingly are neither runners nor politicians), found a way to connect with the parents of my children's playmates, and created a place in my own home where once a week we can slow down, have gratitude and make new friends.

In the words Martha Stewart, infamous for her entertaining prowess (and other things)...

it's a good thing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

More Time, Less Stuff

Shabbat #25

Guests: Katie, Aron and their 3 year old son. Katie and I went to high school together. Yet another witness to my "big" hair.

Menu: Chicken and Pineapple Skewers with Mango Salsa, Grilled Plantains with Spicy Brown Sugar Glaze, Coconut Rice, Mango Sorbet with Toasted Coconut

What I Learned:

I met Katie in eighth grade. My parents moved uprooting me from my drama-filled pre-teen existence at one school to another (rival) school down the road where Katie went. Distressing because I'd just made the "Poms" squad and scored Larry Fairchild as a lab partner. The move proved devastating to my future in science and pom-pomming.

This was also right about the time I (along with every other 14 year old girl) began to compare myself to others, keeping a mental checklist of those "must haves." Those things that would most certainly complete my high school experience. Like Guess Jeans. The coveted logo purse. Student council. Senior superlatives. And the almighty "good" hair ... which incidentally did happen to be "big" back in the 80's.

Katie had a lot of the things on the list. She was a cheerleader with the perfectly perky hair to match. Smart. I think she was even on the Homecoming court. And adored because she was impossibly nice. Still is. I lucked into or otherwise earned a number of things on the list as well. Like the lavender Izod sweater from Grandma B. who knew how to spoil me. And the overpriced purse that my Dad made me save for myself. (A lesson I tend to repeat with Sarah.)

I think my high school experience was fairly typical. A dose of teen angst, tossed with a growing desire for what was "in" and a huge helping of "hurry up." Always wanting time to pass faster so I could move up to the high school. Be a sophomore. And a junior. Drive. Vote. Graduate. Move out. Move on.

This pattern continued into college. Chasing grades, internships, boys. All while sporting those horribly unflattering Laura Ashley jumpers. And rolled right into law school, clerkships and eventually the almighty billable hour at the fancy law firm where (with eager greed ) I willed each hour to pass more quickly so I could get to the next.

In that decade I acquired two degrees, a husband, a lot of stuff and a lot less time.

And then I acquired my two kids ... and motherhood changed everything.

These days I'm much happier writing memoirs than memos. And I'll gladly trade more stuff and less time for ... less stuff and more time.

Less house to clean and yard to weed. Less clothes to wash and fold. Less stress and worry that comes with keeping up with too much stuff.

More hours to write, run, cook and travel. More time to spend with my kids. My husband.

More time with my family.

Katie's dad passed away a few months ago. I went to the funeral. He'd been on the board of the Metro West Fire Protection District and the visitation was filled with people, many in uniform. But as I approached Katie it may have well have been just the two of us. Exchanging a hug that silently said "I'm so, so sorry ... I wish there was more time."

That day reminded me again that time is precious. As precious as healthy parents. And that neither should be taken for granted.

So I plan to take the time to squeeze in as many Sunday dinners, Colorado ski slopes, San Diego sunsets and whatever we can dream up boondoggles while the gettin' is good.

Yes ... More time. Less stuff. That's really what I want.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kindergarten Drop Out

Shabbat #24

Guests: Us. At Granny and Grandaddy's in sunny San Diego.

Menu: Grilled flank steaks, salad and challah a la Granny.

I was off the hook again this week thanks to our annual summer trip with the kids to visit my mother and father-in-law, affectionately known as Granny and Granddaddy.

My mother in law is one-in-a-million. Beautiful and stylish to boot, she introduced me (for better or worse) to my first real hairdresser and my first (and former) personal shopper. She taught me to love a fine five-course dinner ... and a greasy bag of Crunchers potato chips. Just not at the same time. And she taught me that being strong not only means knowing how to grin and bare it in public, but also knowing how to fall apart behind closed doors and accept the support of family.

All lessons I have tested repeatedly.

Granny and Granddaddy's house in San Diego is designed for, well, Granny and Granddaddy. Not Ben and Sarah. And arguably not even Steve and Rebecca. Which gave me plenty of opportunity to break out all of my "Love and Logic" dialogue to the point where I sounded like a broken record. Praising "good decisions," diffusing melt downs and trying to curtail massive property damage. I even worked in a lesson on respecting the body that G-d gave you right after Granddaddy suggested Ben get a tattoo. Really? What's next? A belly ring for Sarah? He was joking. I think. (And incidentally, as I quickly approach 40 I plan to adamantly argue that Botox does not, in fact, qualify as defacing one's body.)

But when all of my Parents As Teachers tricks fall flat, I reach for my trump card. The threat that always works.

Keep doing that and you won't get into kindergarten!

I'll be the first to admit that this phrase is enormously self-serving. Not just because it (usually) stops the behavior. But because I am secretly hoping, no praying, that somehow, someway the first day of kindergarten never comes.

Of course it's coming anyway. August 17th. Mrs. Follstrom just sent Ben a postcard letting him know.

Dear Ben, Looking forward to seeing you. You can bring your supplies on August 17th. See you soon! Mrs. Fallstrom

And just like that Ben went from being my precious baby boy to a school kid who gets his own mail and schleps his own supplies. Next week I suspect he'll be sneaking out the car and begging for a later curfew.

I remember my first day of kindergarten. We have a picture. Me dressed in my green jeans shorts and patchwork blouse. (How could you not love the 70's?) Pigtails. Lunch box in hand. I was stepping onto the school bus at the top of Cool Meadows. But from the photo you can't even tell if I was upset, scared or the least bit nervous about the milestone because I DIDN'T EVEN LOOK BACK.

Thankfully Ben will not be taking the bus. I'll walk him. And cling to his leg sobbing like a mad woman as he crosses the threshold into independence. Which will likely make it nearly impossible for him to move on without looking back since he'll need to shake me from his leg. Small blessings.

But inside I know that regardless of whether he looks back on August 17th, he will be moving on. And that's scary. A little bit for Ben who has told me he's "nervous," but excited to meet new friends. Particularly big kids. And really scary for me. Not to be too melodramatic ... okay, I'm sobbing like, well, a mother of an almost kindergartner ... but it seems a little bit like the beginning of the end. Each time I think about it I wonder ...

Did I hug him enough? Hold his hand enough? Should I have called in sick more for "Mommy/Ben dates?" Did I teach him everything he needs to know?

Is he ready?

Am I ready?

On August 17th I fully expect to institute, yet again, the lesson of Granny: grin and bare it in public and then come home and fall apart with family. And from experience, I know that each day will get a little bit easier. And I trust I'll find away to support Ben as he grows, so that we grow together instead of apart. But just in case, I'll be sending Ben with his own letter ... to Mrs. Follstrum:

Dear Mrs. Fallstrom:

Please take care of the best thing that has ever happened to me. The person who changed my life. Who gives me strength everyday simply by existing.

And who I promise you in no uncertain terms is cute for a reason! Good luck.

Your friend, Rebecca

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You Don't Have to Challah!

Shabbat #23

Guests: Amy, Jeff and their two sons D. and L. Amy and I worked together in television ... she had a real job and I was just slave labor. Either way, it sounds much more exciting than it actually was.

Menu: Gluten Free! Grilled Flank Steak with Balsamic BBQ Sauce, Grilled Corn, Grilled Peach and Spinach Salad, Brownies with Icecream ... and challah

What I Learned:

On Friday a bit of challah chaos ensued. Toby -- of the one and only Toby's Challah House -- was on vacation. So I sent Steve speeding over to CRC. Stike two. The volunteer CRC bakers were, you guessed it, on vacation. Was there some kind of challah baking convention that no one bothered to tell me about? After conducting a very scientific survey ... on Facebook ... I resorted to picking up a loaf from Whole Foods along with a $4 Stevia-sweetened root beer.

And it was good. The challah that is ... not the root beer. It tasted like crap.

But not so good that I would even consider giving up Toby's.

I first discovered Toby's Challah in 2005 at a Nishmah event on Jewish cooking. Secretly, the real reason I love being Jewish is the food. It is a carb-loving comfort food paradise. Kugels, kashi, blintzes and, last but certainly not least, challah. Especially Toby's whole wheat challah. Yes. You heard me. Whole wheat. Practically a health food.

A few weeks later I ventured out to the source of this heavenly challah just north of Delmar in University City -- my old stomping ground.

Steve and I bought our first house together in University City back in 1995. It's a diverse neighborhood. Lots of DINKs (did that really used to be us???) are drawn there because the houses are cheap(er), but still within walking distance of Clayton. Lots of Jewish families -- particularly Orthodox -- live there because it is within walking distance of a number of synagogues. Back in 95, those tidy houses filled with Jewish families held a certain mystique for me. The way they dutifully walked to services each week. Built sukkahs each fall. Lit candles in their windows. Thing I had never seen growing up Methodist in a less than diverse west county suburb.

And things I expected to only observe from the comfort of my front porch.

Not Toby's.

But that's where I found myself in 2005. On her front porch. Buying a loaf of bread.

The first Friday I arrived I literally thought alarms and lights would start going off as knocked on the door. Alerting her (and everyone else in the neighborhood) that there was an impostor in their midst. Kind of like when Steve first brought me to his (former) Jewish country club. But that didn't happen. (At the country club or Toby's.) And as far as I could tell Toby didn't blink an eye.

Week after week, I showed up for my order and a few minutes of casual conversation. Mostly about motherhood. In 2007 we both had daughters. As I bemoaned childbirth and breastfeeding, I suspect she bellied up to her commercial-sized oven, child slung to her chest and hummed a happy (Jewish) tune as she continued to pump out challahs and other sweet treats without missing a beat. Because, at least from my view, that's the type of woman Toby seems to be. Diminutive in size, but not in strength.

Oh. And did I mention she has a lot of kids of all ages. Obedient ones. Seems like every time I visit they're either studying in the family room or helping their mother. HELPING THEIR MOTHER. Yes folks you heard me. Not watching Wonder Pets or wreaking havoc on one another.

Kind of like my house. Except EXACTLY OPPOSITE.

These days the challah gathering is Steve's responsibility. I'm the chef. He is my Sherpa.

A few weeks ago he called me after his visit.

I don't know whether to be proud or petrified?

(Words that I would prefer not to hear my husband utter after last year's debacle.)

What happened?

Toby invited us for shabbos.

Sure. I was proud. A shabbos invitation from Toby seemed to signify that we were indeed regulars. And certified Jews. Like some sort of stamp of approval.

But equally petrified. Like pee my pants petrified.

My first thought? What if Ben asked for spray butter for the challah? Surely not a kosher product ... and arguably not a food substance at all. What if she discovered that those challahs I'd been buying all those years were only getting a half-baked (though well-intentioned) blessing, me fumbling over the transliteration of the prayer for so long until I finally had it memorized? And forget about my kids doing something inappropriate at the table ... which I would reason excusable by the old adage "kids will be kids." What if I did or said something inappropriate ... because really this is all pretty new to me?

And then I paused.

If I, host of 25+ shabbos dinners in 2010, opener of my not so perfectly tidy home and thoroughly practiced in the art of getting my kids to sit through (at least a portion) of a meal that did not come in a box with a toy was petrified .... how had everyone that we had been inviting these last 6 months been feeling?

Were they nervous too? Apprehensive about bringing small kids to a new place where they would hopefully share? And use utensils? And the potty? All in one night. Apprehensive about doing something that could be categorized as, well, religious? And in some cases, apprehensive about spending an evening in the home of a family they barely knew?

Truth is that even if they were, they came anyway. And they keep coming.

So cheers to all of you who wikipedia-ed shabbat before you came. Who curiously asked if we kept Kosher. Who confirmed, dog-fearing children in tow, that there were no D-O-Gs on premises. Who were delighted to find that we also consider ketschup a food group. Who discovered some new foods with otherwise picky eaters -- kids and husbands included. Who did not fear the lit candles in front of every child. And to all who breathed an audible sign of relief when the children were excused and the bottle of wine was passed.

For you I will go forth to Toby's shabbos dinner proud ... and slightly less petrified.

I promise to write about it. Even the part (which is inevitable) when Ben asks for spray butter and I stick my foot in my mouth.

And maybe I'll make out with an extra loaf or two of challah.

P.S. Hilary (my favorite gardener). If you are reading, I must take you up on the challah baking lesson so that I will be better prepared next time Toby skips town. I'll bring the wine. You knead the bread. Seriously, thanks for your thoughtful, thoughtful offer. I can't wait.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oh Schvitz

Shabbat #22: Shabbat Potluck in the Park

Guests: 50 friends and family

Menu: BBQ Burgers, Chicken and Hebrew Nationals and lots of sides compliments of our friends. Check out the Recipe section for new additions

What I Learned:

If friendship were measured in schvitz I'd be one lucky girl. Friday was hot. Africa hot. Actually, on that particular day it was hotter than Africa. I checked. As I prepped for the party, hair frizzing, sundress sticking, I was convinced that we were about to spend our first Shabbat of 2010 alone.

But you came despite the heat and schvitzed right along with us. For that I thank you from the very bottom of my (de-hydrated) heart.

Friday's Shabbat in the Park was the celebration of the half-way point of our one-year resolution. A six month birthday if you will ... with challah instead of cake. The wine flowed (along with lots of water and Capri Sun). The kids ran circles around the baseball diamond, adorned with glowstick necklaces and bracelets. And we shared the blessing of lots of good food and friends.

But for all of the joy that the night held, it was still bittersweet.

Deer Creek Park, the location of Shabbat in the Park, was also the locale of Steve's campaign picnic in the summer of 2008. This isn't why I chose it. In fact, this is why I almost didn't choose it; eventually deciding that any of the memories in might bring back were far outweighed by the convenient amenities for entertaining kids.

But there were memories.

When it came to politics, one of the things I liked least about the process was the campaign. But one of the things I loved most was the campaign staff. All of the college students whose enthusiasm and energy sometimes made me wonder whether they were clear that Steve was running form state rep and not governor. Or president. I think about how they trudged night after night knocking on doors alongside my sweaty husband. Something I never did. Made endless calls. Stood on street corners waving signs. And celebrated his victory at their favorite watering hole the night of the primary.

And I think about how they treated us - me. With a maturity beyond their years they each recognized the boundaries of our family. Intuitively knowing when I needed distance from the chaos of the campaign in order to keep a solid ground under my family and when I needed support. How they adored Ben, who affectionately referred to them as the "running for office guys" even though half of them were women. And how they tossed baseballs endlessly with him in the backyard and put up with the antics (and meltdowns) of a three-year old -- responsibilities that were certainly not part of the job description.

But most of all I think about what those "running for office guys" meant to Steve, each of whom I am certain he would have done anything for.

Oh what a difference a year (or two) makes.

So Friday was a bit bittersweet. Bitter in its reminder of what could have been.

But sweet in memories of the summer of 2008.

And the summer of 2010.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mascoutah: The Midwest's Magical Kingdom

Shabbat #21

Guests: Kati, Adam and their three sons.

Menu: Sliced Parmesan and Rosemary Bread with Date Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Olive Oil for Dipping, Penne with Sun Dried Tomato Pesto, Pomodoro Siciliano, Watermelon Salad with Mint and Feta ... never got around to the Strawberries with Limoncello

What I Learned:

Theoretically, cooking for a vegetarian should be easy. Boil some water for pasta, toss a salad and call it dinner. But for some reason it makes me anxious. A mix of wanting to satisfy the carnivores and feeling like boiling and tossing is just not enough "work" for me. That somehow it has to be complicated and time consuming to be good.

But on Friday I kept it simple.

I boiled and I tossed. I skipped the flower arranging, opting for a potted lavender that I planted out front the next day. I didn't even make my blue cheese crackers. Just a plate of bread and cheese with my new favorite date vinegar and oil.

But as the clock ticked towards six o'clock I started to get a little nervous. I'd barely dirtied a pot in the preparation. Flour didn't dust the floor. No grease on the stove top. My food processor was the only appliance that got any action and I didn't even wash it by hand.

Had I done enough? It was company after all.

Looking back on the recipes of the past six months, I can assure you that there were several that required a fair amount of time. Like shopping for the meal made with all Missouri products. The crack pie with it's two-plus pages of directions requiring each pie to be baked individually. (A directive that I ignored.) The baklavas made with phyllo -- a dough that didn't take well to my meditative cooking approach. And all of the potato peeling.

And, yes, all of those complicated meals and the conversations that ensued around the table were fantastic.

But so was Friday. And all I did was boil and toss.

Turns out there is absolutely no correlation between time in preparation to enjoyment around the table. We all talked until our kids begged to be put to bed. Ben found (another) new best friend. All of the indoor toys migrated out. And the candles had nearly burned completely down by the time the last dish dropped into the dishwasher.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this -- the notion that more is not always, well, more. That sometimes the best things in life are really actually pretty simple.

My children teach me this all the time.

Last year smack dab in the middle of the storm that was our life we decided to take the kids to Disneyland. (Proof that I had indeed lost my mind.) Having heard of friends talk about planning trips to Disney parks -- character breakfasts, fast passes, tram rides, meal plans, crowds, heat -- I knew it was not for the faint of heart. Or wallet. But I bought into it ... the idea of Sarah's eyes turning into saucers at the sight of the Princesses. Ben grinning ear to ear next to Mickey. We loaded up the suitcases, flew across the country and bought four very expensive keys to the magical kingdom ... plus one large stuffed Mouse, two sets of ears, a spinning Buzz Light Year and a princess costume. And at the end of the day there were some "magical" moments.

Was it worth it? I suppose.

Would I do it again? Doubtful.

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure my kids even ever asked to go to Disneyland. Or recognized half the Disney characters when they got there. I think the whole thing had more to do with me believing that if I could plan the most perfect, over the top trip that somehow we would all magically be ... happy.

On Saturday we took the kids to the 18th Annual Optimist Rodeo in Mascoutah, Il. No high-priced tickets, fast passes or flashing lights. Just a makeshift ring constructed in an open field. And, still, Sarah was saucer-eyed and Ben grinned ear to ear. Riveted by the roping and bull-riding with their 10-gallon hats perched upon their 2-gallon heads. Chasing dogs and fireflies. Climbing fences. Eating roasted corn. Watching the kids have the time of their lives, sun setting behind them, I couldn't help thinking that it was nothing short of, well, magical. For all of us.

Proof to me that parenting is a little bit like cooking. Sometimes there's no correlation between preparation and enjoyment.

And that every once in a while simple is good and less is more.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Y'All Come Back Now, Ya Hear?

Were you worried that I gave up the resolution? Threw in the towel? Succumbed to take out?

Don't be.

It was just a temporary reprieve for birthday celebrations. With a modified Shabbat observance of course.

And two weeks of a cooking reprieve as well.

I guess I ought to be thankful for that. After all, the weekly cooking responsibility, not to mention the shopping, cleaning, chopping, prepping, broiling, basting, baking, wining, dining, candle lighting that has been my life for nearly half a year can be a wee bit arduous.

But truth be told ... I missed it.

And now, I'm a tad bit petrified of having to jump back in again this week. Particularly after reading Julie and Julia on a (way) too long flight back from the south. For months people have been telling me to read this book. (Apparently I'm the only one who hadn't.) And it's a good thing that was the case because I'm pretty sure I would've thought a little longer about the prospect of cooking and writing about each meal. But now that I'm on the hook, I can all but assure you that I will NOT be cooking anything French for the next six months.

Especially not aspic.

I missed the structure of planning and preparing our weekly meal. The way the shopping, table setting and cooking neatly tied down each day of my life all but eliminating the feeling that things could spin out of control.

I missed seeing the table set for company Thursday night. The chairs filled with friends on Friday. The empty candlesticks, weepy flowers and wayward serving pieces that still needed to be put away on Saturday. And Sunday.

I missed picking up all of the inside toys that migrated outside and the outside toys that got in. Returning the dress-up clothes to the trunk. And the sidewalk chalk to the tattered box. Tucking in two tired little people who now assume that every Friday includes candle lighting, challah and lots of playmates.

I missed running with no other purpose than to contemplate the Friday gathering. What we had learned. What I would write. Miles where the worries that still weigh heavy did not slow me down.

And I missed writing. Putting to paper a feeling. And then moving on to deal with the next. Reminding myself and the people I love that this too shall pass. That good far outweighs bad.

And I really missed sharing it on this blog.

Julie and Julia was originally a blog. It was called The Julie/Julia Project. A true story. But as I read it I wasn't thinking about Julie Powell -- the person who was actually living through a year of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was swept into the story she told. In my mind's eye I imagined her in vintage blouses and comfortable shoes. A tired looking kitchen in her small New York apartment. And her husband who had to eat aspic, maim lobsters and otherwise support his wife as she plodded through 500+ French recipes with emotion ranging from vigor to defeat.

Is my perception of Julie Powell remotely accurate? Who knows. It is primarily a function of my own imagination and experience. My interpretation of her words.

I won't be so presumptive to believe that anyone who reads this blog spends much time conjuring up images of me plodding through a Year of Shabbats. And, frankly, after last year I don't spend much time worrying about my image either.

But I think about you. Of course I have no idea who you are. Sometimes I can see what time you visit. Or where you (or maybe your server) is located. (Who are you in Uruguay?)

But you are more than just numbers to me. You are people from all over the country. And the world. Places that I have never been. And may never go. And I wonder how you found me. And whether something that I wrote sounded familiar. Or made you laugh.

But mostly I just like that you visited. Even if only for the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce recipe. Because somehow it makes me feel like you are rooting for us.

And that feels good.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grace Period

Shabbat #20 - Holy Cow!

Guests: Jen and Matt and daughters H. and G., Jodi and Trevor, son B. and daughter T. All preschool parents. Ben was smitten (again) with a fair-haired six-year old guest.

Menu: Blue Cheese-Encrusted Filets with Port Wine Sauce, Spicy Creamed Spinach, Herb Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Blueberry Cheesecake with Lemon Curd

What I Learned:

On Thursday I got a one-line email from an old law firm colleague.

Think about you and glad you are doing well.

My first thought?


That if I responded to this message every person I had ever emailed -- regardless of their "state of being" -- would automatically receive this odd congratulatory note of sorts.

After all, had she not read the paper? While I had moved from a complete mess to relatively high functioning, the adjective "well" struck me as a bit, um, premature.

Or was it.

I know I've written a lot about my running. Marathons in particular. And yes. I watch enough Oprah and, more recently, Dr. Oz to know that it's a bit of a control issue. But there are also upsides apart from the physical benefits. Like the post-marathon grace period.

I'll explain.

When a runner meets another runner one question nearly always ensues. Are you training for anything? In St. Louis terms it's equivalent to Where'd you go to highschool? Not meant to be a means of sizing up your new acquaintance, but rather a way to gain a quick perspective. Do they race? What distance? Are they doing a race you've done? But just like the high school question, it's also one that can invoke anxiety? What if there's nothing on the race calendar? Then more questions ensue. Did you just finish a race? Still recovering? Or the really loaded one ... what's next? A sign that what you've done is not nearly as significant as what you plan to do.

Also a sign that your grace period is up and it's time to set a new goal.

Which brings me to the benefit of running marathons. Some view the completion of a marathon as a formidable exertion worthy of a month or two of recovery. An obligatory grace period to the question Are you training for anything? Running a marathon every six months or so means that I am nearly always within this grace period. If I am feeling slow and sluggish, I can respond that I've just run "X Marathon" (which is also a handy cover to my slow(ing) pace). If I'm feeling spry (and speedier) I'll share my future race plan. Either way, my anxiety over the question is all but eliminated. I perpetually straddle the "what I've done" and the "what I'm planning to do" answering as my mood suits.

But life's not always that easy.

On Friday the chatter around the table turned to how we met our spouses. Steve recounted (for the umpteenth time) how we had met as I dropped (for the umpteenth time) clarification.

Him: I asked her to go see Phantom of the Opera - box seats.

Me (yelling from the kitchen): Box seats, SIX WEEKS, from the date he was asking.

Him: I knew she couldn't say no.

Me (still yelling): I had him confused with another guy. An Italian.

And so proceeded the 411 around the table.

Then the conversation turned. To occupations. In talking to Jodi earlier in the evening, I knew that she and her husband had not followed Steve's story. So I braced myself. For the practiced answer that Steve would give. Having watched the answer unfold in company without a background on our situation I knew what was next. The awkward silence. Sometimes followed by the "oh you're the guy" light bulb moment. And nearly always a few questions ranging from the perfunctory to the pointed.

But that's not what happened.

For the first time, finally, someone (other than me) said it.

So what are you doing next?

And just like that our life -- or at least to the extent that it existed around that table -- moved from what he did to what he would do.

His answer? While not nearly as practiced, it was the makings of a new goal.

And an end to the grace period.


As for that congratulatory email .... whether I was "well?" Maybe it wasn't so premature after all.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do Over

Shabbat #19

Guests: On the eve of my sister-in-law Tami's bat mitvzah, the family ... Tami, Brian, Alan, Carol, Pam, Mel, Melissa, Mark, David, Amy, Phil

Menu: a la French bistro en Glencoe, Il, c'est magnifique!

What I Learned:

Why? Why? Why?

The three opening words of Cal, a 76-year old bar mitzvah.

Why would a 76-year old guy decide to go back and do over what had been done some 63 years ago?

And for that matter, what would drive five other women -- all in various stages of motherhood -- to become bat mitzvahs?

They are the Am Shalom 2010 B'Nai Mitzvah class ... affectionately dubbed "Cal and His Gals."

And as I settled into my front row seat in the Am Shalom sanctuary last Saturday I thought I knew. A 37-year old bat mitzvah myself, I had stood where they were about to stand nearly three years ago. Motivated by motherhood. Inspired by children of friends I had watched experience the rite of passage. Eager for a new intellectual challenge. I expected to feel nostalgic as the women recounted the difficult balance of weekly Torah study and child care. The recorded prayers played endlessly in cars in the hope that the Hebrew would magically be ironed into memory. And I would share a connection with my sister-in-law and the other four women in the b'not whom I had never met. A commitment to something greater than ourselves to guide us through the perils of parenting and beyond.

And I did.

What I wasn't expecting was a 76-year old bar mitzvah. A man. Twice my age.

My first thought?


As I thought back to my b'not and our study with our rabbi - Rabbi Susan - I had a hard time imagining a man in this very female mix. What similarities would we have shared in our discussion of Vayetze, Jacob's Ladder? And what about the discussion in the temple lobby before our weekly meetings? Surely this man, with his mop of white hair, would not have been interested in the banter of thirty-something females ... chasing kids, celebrity botox,the tastiest frozen foods at Trader Joe's.

But from the moment Cal took to the dias I knew I was wrong.

They were lucky.

And so was I.

My words cannot begin to do justice to Cal's story or his delivery that day. But I will do my best to recount. Cal became a bar mitzvah at 13. His most vivid memory? The blue and white bar mitzvah cocktail napkins. No epiphany of manhood. Or added weight of responsibility that came with an independent Jewish identity. In fact, he didn't even have a service. Or read from the Torah. (Neither are required by Jewish law to attain the status of bar mitzvah.)

In 1960 Cal became the custodian of a Torah. A Torah from Russia passed down through the generations of his family. And he treasured it. But at some point he concluded the only way he could truly honor his legacy would be to read from the Torah as a true bar mitzvah.

And read he did.

From that very Torah that he inherited fifty years ago.

His voice ringing out in the sanctuary with the enthusiasm of a 13-year old and the insight of his 76 years.

After the service my sister-in-law told me that Cal had not originally planned to participate in a group service. And that only days before the b'nai mitzvah he had a devastating loss in his family which, perhaps, may have made him reconsider moving forward on that day at all. But on both counts, I feel blessed that he did.

I didn't get to talk with Cal about his experience. Or his study. So I don't know for sure the message he intended his story to convey.

But this is the message I took from it.

In life we don't always get it right the first time. Whether it's because the time isn't right or we have simply fallen short. But if we are vigilant and look for opportunities, sometimes life gives us a do over.

Like a bar mitzvah 63 years later.

And for someone like me looking through the lens of a life sprinkled with more than a few broken promises, shortcomings and regrets, that's a pretty hopeful message.

Mazel Tov to my beautiful sister-in-law Tami, Laura, Yumi, Beth, Jill


... Cal.

Kavanot - 11/10/07

My kavanot from my own bat mitzvah on 11/10/2007 - Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis, MO:

In our Torah portion Va-Yetze, Jacob left Beer-Sheba and set out for Haran. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, he was not searching for God or traveling in response to G-d’s request. In Jacob’s case, G-d was silent. Jacob left Beer-Sheba for reasons that we can all probably relate to … his family relationships were the pits, he was looking for love, and he needed a job.

On the first night of his journey Jacob lays down to sleep and has a dream that a ladder drops down from the heavens. And then G-d stands beside him and makes him great promises about all the lands that will be his. And G-d promises Jacob that he will be with him. And Jacob responds like many of us might have. With skepticism. So much so that he makes a deal with G-d. “G-d, if you remain with me through my travels and I return home safely then you will be my G-d.”

Like Jacob, my motivations for traveling on an AJC trip to Israel in the Spring of 2004 were far from spiritual. My son was 1 ½ and I wanted to get away with my husband. A 10-day trip to far off places was just the ticket. Sleeping in with Steve, lingering over exotic meals, having a few too many glasses of wine and not having to worry about taking care of a toddler in the morning. Heaven. Oh … And somewhere in between I would fit in a few visits to the requisite holy sites.

We spent 4 days in Israel. I saw the sites, ate falafel and generally continued to feel the same way that I had felt about the importance of religion in my life for the last 30+ years. I hadn’t set foot in a church by choice since the mid-70s. When I had to go I watched the clock – even during weddings. My great miracle of Christmas had more to do with vacation days and holiday parties. My religion – to the extent it existed – was a bit more personal. I prayed to myself at night. My Christian friends will know it … “Now I lay me down to sleep” followed by my list of people I wanted to bless … including “Brownie” the neighborhood stray dog and “Chip” my first boyfriend in preschool. Some habits are hard to break.

Our next stop on the AJC trip was Morocco. We arrived on a Friday night. I was exhausted and nauseous from the sweaty van trip into Casablanca. An avid fitness freak in need of a fix, I was also enormously disappointed by the state of the hotel gym which held one decrepit stationary bike. We were scheduled to attend a Shabbat dinner at the home of a local Jewish family. I didn’t want to go. Steve convinced me that I should by promising that they would probably have all of my favorite foods … couscous, olives, cheese. So I rallied and went.

What I saw when we arrived was truly something out of a movie. Women dressed in sparkling robes, food for as far as the eye could see, the finest linens. These were some folks ready for a party. As we sat down to dinner, the men toasted one another with glasses of whiskey as their wives rolled their eyes and kibitzed with one another. But something happened that night. Sometime between the fish course and dessert a ladder dropped from the heavens. I listened to the stories of the slow death that Judaism was suffering in Morocco. Jewish graveyards being relocated to make way for Muslim monuments, synagogues closing one by one, and Jewish children leaving the country for a better life in Europe. I was sitting among, perhaps, one of the last generations of Jews in Morocco and they were doing everything they could go keep the religion alive.

That night Steve and I returned to our hotel and made a promise. If the Jews of Casablanca could go to such great lengths to preserve their religion, we could surely manage to have Shabbat dinner once a week as our little effort. But like Jacob, I was skeptical. Dinner at home every Friday night? What about happy hour? I’m not even Jewish! But Steve was. I had seen the way that he had been moved during our trip. I saw a deeper side of him than I had not known before. So I committed.

We went home and had our first Shabbat dinner. I think I even made a brisket. And slowly a richer life began to unfold for us.

We hung the mezuzah we purchased while we were in Israel. I lit the candles each week and read the prayers. Ben became the official Shabbat match extinguisher. Then I started to study. On my own at first and then with Rabbi Susan and the B'not. I converted. I even moved the date of my visit to the mikvah up before my due date so Sarah would have a Jewish mother. And the day of my conversion, I took Ben into the bath with me and we dunked together as I said the prayers with Steve as my witness.

While my journey may have started because Steve is Jewish, this is not why I am here today. This is why. When we hung the mezuzah, G-d got his foot in my door figuratively and literally. I felt G-d as we sat as a family each Friday night -- talking about the good things in our life and watching Ben take joy in his little victory of getting the match blown out. I knew G-d was with me each time I walked into the temple for a meeting with Rabbi Susan and my five new friends and finally did not feel uncomfortable in a spiritual place. And I saw G-d in the soft golden glow that surrounded Ben as I lifted him from the water that day in the mikvah. I will never forget that moment.

My teaching today is for everyone, not just our Jewish guests. And it is this. Keep an eye out for dropping ladders. Avoid the urge to be skeptical. Crack the door open for G-d or whatever higher power or thought moves you. My wish for you is that in doing so your life will be a little richer too.

I would be remiss without making a few personal mentions. I want to thank Rabbi Susan and the B'not for all that they have taught me … particularly Kara who openly shared her experiences with me. Kara – I think a ladder may have dropped down on the kibbutz that day in Israel.

To all my guests today - particularly my non-Jewish friends many of which have never been to a synagogue including one who affectionately referred to this night at my baklava. It means the world to me that you are here tonight.

Finally, to my husband of 11 years as of yesterday. My service is dedicated to you. Thank you for your support and love everyday and for my two miracles – Ben and Sarah. I love you with all my heart.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crib Note: Bar/Bat Mitvahs ... Not Just for 13-Year Olds Anymore

Bar and bat mitzvahs are the coming of age ceremonies traditionally reserved for 13-year old boys and 12-year old girls respectively. (Though girls in the U.S. were not traditionally encouraged or permitted in some cases to have a bat mitzvah until the early 70's.) These events, often the capstone to years of study, mark the moment when young men and women formally accept responsibility for their own Jewish identity. The transition includes the young person being called to read from the Torah during a synagogue service. A celebration with family and friends often follows.

A bat/bar mitzvah service is open to all members of the congregation. But, if you're not Jewish and are lucky enough to receive an invitation to attend it's something you won't want to miss. Each bar/bat mitzvah is assigned a portion of the Torah and shares their own teaching on that portion with the congregation. A teaching that never fails to inspire. But it's the parents' blessing at the end of a service that nearly always brings me to tears. Listening to a parent describe a lifetime of memories at the very moment that their child is literally walking into adulthood -- especially when you have watched that child grow up yourself -- is precious.

These days the transition is no longer reserved for boys. Or 13-year olds.

The b'nai mitzvah I attended this past weekend for five 30-something mothers and one strapping 76-year old fellow -- affectionately dubbed "Cal and His Gals" -- was proof.

Proof that it's never too late to mark a moment ... even when it may be a smidgen too late for a rollerskating party.

*Props to Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL for its ongoing Adult B'Nai Mitzvah classes (See Not in Chicago? Ask your rabbi where you can find an adult b'nai mitzvah class in your community.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Shabbat #18:

Guests: Megan and her 4-year old son L. And Dane. Megan and I practiced law together at a large firm after we graduated law school. She wised up more quickly than I did following her passions instead of the mighty dollar. But I got there eventually too.

Menu: Roasted Corn & Lentil Salsa, Grilled Steak & Portabella Fajitas with Chimichurri Sauce, Drunken Peppers, Fiesta Salad, Polvorones de Canela (Cinnamon Cookies) with Coconut Sorbet

What I Learned:

On Friday night I was sitting out on my patio turned preschool parking lot when Batman crept around the corner. Okay. So it wasn't exactly Batman. It was L. Dressed as Batman. Full-length cape and all.

In tow? Megan and Dane. It didn't take more than five minutes of casual introductions before Dane began singing Megan's (well-deserved) praises. That L. had wished for a Batman cape. That Batman capes aren't so easy to find in months that don't start with "O." And that Megan had in fact stitched up the very cape that Batman -- I mean L. -- was sporting.

I'll be the first to admit that the cape demonstrated a fair bit of seamstressing prowess -- from the bright yellow felt bat emblem stitched on the back to the drawstring around the collar. (My rendition would have most certainly been fastened with a safety pin. Or duct tape.)

But Dane sang on. Even though Megan and I both knew. There was nothing particularly heroic about cape-making. Moms make things work. That's our job. And when we can't buy capes, we make them.

So our children can be superheroes.

And the irony of it all? This is what our children teach us to do.

Take Ben. In those late night feedings -- just as he dozed back to sleep -- I would whisper to him. You saved me. Not that I thought I was destined for a miserable existence ... though given my sleep deprivation, mean case of "you can look but don't touch" engorgement, and a belly full of staples it was in fact a bit miserable. Rather, I meant that by his birth alone he had managed to deliver a life time's worth of lessons to me. About the strength of my body. And my heart. Big lessons from such a tiny little person.

Had he really saved me? Or was it just mother's intuition? Only time would tell.

A few weeks ago I received a hand-written note in the mail. (Note to self: Bring back the handwritten letter.) It was from Mary Ann. She lives down the street from us (which made U.S. Post delivery even more notable) and she's also our Parents As Teachers educator. She knows a lot about our family. She wrote that she had been following the blog and was enjoying the anecdotes about the children. But it was the closing that got me. She wrote that she hoped things in our home were as positive as I painted them to be.

Well. They're not -- a least not all of the time. Who's life is?

But it's all relative. It's what I've chosen to make of it that's (perhaps) noteworthy. And positive.

By my calculation I get about 18 years with each of my children. At least with them at home. Ben is almost six. Which means I am almost a third of the way through. And you better believe that I am not going to be wasting one moment of that time being negative.

I'm planning to spend it being happy. I'll make every moment count. I'll be forgiving. I'll stand steadfast behind the decisions that best suit my family, even when they are unpopular. I'll be grateful. When things are broken, I'll fix them. I'll take care of myself so I can take care of them. Sometimes I'll choose to be here, even when you want me there. And I will try to be the person I want my children to become. Even when it's tiring. And I think they aren't watching. And when I fail, I will get up the next day and start again.

Ben taught me to do all of these things by his arrival alone.

And maybe that's how he saved me. And us.

So to all of those mothers out there who fix things, forgive, sacrifice, are there when someone else wants them to be here, who stand steadfast - even when it's tiring. And who make capes. So their children can be superheroes.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Independence Day

Shabbat #17

Guests: Shelly, Don, son A. and baby brother R. Catherine and son C. We all know one another from preschool, though up until recently most of our conversations occurred at drop off and pick up. Not around the table. Which turned out to be much more fun. Don, a man of few (albeit brilliant) words, periodically dropping lines like I play in a band. Who knew?

Menu: Antipasto Platter, Chicken Spedini, Roasted Vegetable Pasta Primavera, Mixed Greens, Toby's Whole Wheat Challah, Noci Croccante (Hazelnut Brittle) with Gelatto.

What I Learned:

Ben has known A. and C. just about as long as he has known me. At the ripe old age of five, the three have grown up together. Ben affectionately refers to them as his "best buddies" - so diplomatic in not choosing a favorite. Like a politician.

Yet, for as close as they are they only recently started having "playdates."

This is my fault.

The mere mention of a playdate used to send me into a self-reflective panic.

My initial reaction? Wow. I must really look like I am losing it if someone else is offering to take care of their children ... and mine. Quickly followed by -- Wow. If I let them, then maybe I am really losing it.

Then there was the whole issue of giving the rest of the world a peak behind the curtain.

Was I ready for someone to discover that I was not the put together mom they saw at drop off and pick up? That my day job was primarily a means of promoting personal hygiene and that without it I would nearly always be in sweaty running clothes. If the playdate included lunch, would Ben ask why his did not come in a box with a cheap toy? (Because lots of them did.) Or request ketchup. On everything. A condiment I considered both a fruit and a vegetable, depending on the day. And what about all of the other complications and struggles I carefully kept wrapped up and tucked aside.

And so our "playdates" were mostly at Nana and Papa's. And Judy's. My confidants who knew that "playdate" was code for "I need help."

Until last winter.

Over the school break Shelly called. For a playdate. And I obliged. Not because I had complete confidence that she could care for three kids at once (she is after all a graduate of MIT and Cal Tech), but because I knew it was finally time. Time for Ben's discovery of his own independence to win out over my insecurities.

So I sent him. And he came home beaming. (And if he covered his lunch in ketchup Shelly did not let on.) The next weekend I took Ben and A. to the train show. (Which I worried may have been slightly ambitious on the way there as my car filled with 5-year old animals noises - but turned out to be a breeze.) And then Ben went to C.'s house. And C came to ours.

And I was beaming too. Because I discovered (though it defies all mathematical logic) that sometimes it's actually easier to take care of three kids, rather than two ... as long as one of them is not yours. Maybe because Ben thinks it's uncool to have a meltdown in front of his best buddy. Or because his "old" toys are suddenly cool again if his best buddy deems them so.

These days it's hard to stop Ben from running next door to Keaton's or cutting through the back to Grant's. And when he's not, chances are there's one (or more) additional little people at our house.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Over Ben's fire engine bed hangs a giant bulletin board. Filled with years of artwork, ticket stubs, baseball cards, the trapping of all things boy. And a photo of the four of us at the beach. Ben clutching Steve's leg. Sarah in a sling around my chest. Just weeks old and so small only I know she's there.

On Sunday night I went to tuck Ben into the fire engine. And there he sat. A construction paper heart with a photo pasted to the middle dangled from his finger by a strand of yarn. A picture of Ben hugging A. "I love this kid," he said through his impossibly long eyelashes. And then turned to hang it on his bulletin board. From the same thumbtack that secured our snapshot. His paper heart leaving only my head peaking out from behind.

And that night as I left the room I realized that letting go of my own insecurities would not be my greatest hardship. Not even close. My greatest hardship would be letting go of him.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

PSA: The Good China is Dishwasher Safe

Last week I was asked what was the most surprising thing about our Friday night dinners. My answer? How healing it has been for our family.

But frankly, if you would have told me ten months ago that I would be entertaining in my home. Every Friday. And then writing about it. I would have told you you were out of your blessed mind. (Expletives deleted). I'll spare you the details of my vision. But trust me. It had more to do with bolting the door than setting the table.

Which got me to thinking.

Maybe there was something to this weekly family dinner. Something bigger than our family. It was such a simple, universal concept. Yet so profoundly impactful. At least for us.

So I did a bit of research. Turned out I was right.

As far as I can tell, family dinners (at least according to the research) are practically saving the world. Wanna stop your kid from smoking, drinking and abusing drugs? Serve up a brisket. Improve reading and test scores and even build larger vocabularies? Bring on the beef. One study even credits dinner at home with a feeling of greater personal success and success in relationships -- not only with your children, but your spouse.

Still skeptical?

I don't blame you.

I'm a little suspicious too. Plus, with my kids at only two and five, I'm going to need a good ten years to find out if they were actually right.

So I'm giving you a few more practical reasons ... that won't require you to wait until your kids are 15 to confirm.

Here's what's happening at our house.

1. Entertaining every week has motivated me to do things like clean that dried up spaghetti sauce off the couch.

2. Entertaining every week has also made me realize that no one really cares (or notices) the sauce. And now I care less too.

3. I learned (and confirmed) that the peels of eight potatoes cannot be digested by my garbage disposal.

4. Steve learned (and confirmed) that he can dismantle the kitchen sink, clear a clog, and reassemble pipes. (It only leaks a little).

5. I unpacked and fired up my Cuisinart food processor, Kitchen Aide standing mixer and thirty dollar digital oven thermometer. All for one meal.

6. I started using the good china. And putting it in the dishwasher. Without ruining it.

7. Ben now assumes that he gets to have a friend at dinner every Friday night. Here's to hoping he feels that same way when he is 15.

8. I have recorded almost 6 great months of family memories for my kids. Which is good since I haven't snapped a single photo since Halloween.

9. We always have good left overs on Saturday.

10. I have made new friends, reconnected with old friends. Including my best friend -- my husband.

Still skeptical?

Monday, April 26, 2010

We Will Listen

Shabbat #16 - Havdalah

Guests: Just us. And cousin L.

Menu: Easy Grill: Steak, Mixed Peppers & Portabellas, Mache with Fennel & Parmesan, Toby's Challah, Chill Frozen Yogurt

What I Learned:

I'm attempting to run a marathon in every state. Saturday I crossed off Tennessee. I'm well beyond believing that anyone actually cares. I'm not even sure I do. I see the members of this elusive club at races. They're easy to spot. Even without their signature red, white and blue "50 State Marathon" singlets. Limping. Listing to one side. White hair. Is this what I'm headed for?


I hope.

I signed up for Nashville last year. Before the Shabbat resolution. Steve had originally planned to join me. But he was at home. Collecting a squash tournament award instead.

And that was okay.

I didn't have to lay awake listening to him snore the night before the race. And he didn't have to worry whether I was throwing up in my mouth when they dropped the prime rib in front of me at the tournament banquet.

So I ran the marathon. And then out ran a tornado to make havdalah with the family on Saturday.

And the Nishmah Women's Conference at the J on Sunday.

Nishmah is a non-profit organization with a mission to enrich the lives of girls and women in the St. Louis Jewish community through educational, spiritual and social programming. Ronit Sherwin and Karen Sher founded it in 2005. They're also both mothers. They get it.

Nishmah translates to "we will listen."

We will listen.

Are there three more important words?

I started writing this blog for me. Mostly because I'm not good at organizing pictures. Or recipes. I'm only slightly better at writing. So I figured I would write about our journey back -- for my children. And organize the pictures later when they were gone. It'd also be a handy way to file my recipes.

I showed the blog to Steve. Then I started sharing the blog with our guests. They sent it to friends. People wanted the recipes. And the menu for the upcoming week. One thing led to another. Hits across the country. And few other countries. Emails. Handwritten notes. Hugs. And some tears.

Apparently people were listening. Or at least reading.

Yet, not a single week goes by when I don't think ...

Why am I writing this?

Peggy Orenstein was the keynote speaker and a workshop presenter at the Nishmah conference. Remember Jon Lovitz as the Pathological Liar from the old SNL? (When SNL was actually funny). That's how her bio reads.

My memoir Waiting for Daisy is a New York Times best-seller. And I write ... for the LA Times. And Vogue. And The New Yorker. Yeahhh. That's the ticket! Did you see me on The Today Show? And GMA? Oh ... and I'm married to a film maker.

Except it's true.

Her workshop was entitled Princesses, "Perfect" Girls and Pop Tarts: What the New Culture of Girlhood Means for Our Girls. The title alone made me shake in my knock-off Tory Burch flats.

Sure. I knew that I should encourage imaginary play. With dolls. And trucks. That I should shun Palm Beach Barbie. And push Astronaut Barbie. And beware of all Disney-made child stars. Who will inevitably turn out like Britney. And Lindsay.

But when Peggy, dressed west-coast cool, perched on the corner of a table in my midwest J launched into her case, I got a little scared. No. A lot scared. Who knew that the Disney Princesses were created to take my money? And her innocence? That "toddler" and "tween" were terms coined by marketers. Not my pediatrician. Or that American Girl had released Gwen - the homeless doll- for $95. Was it true that now not only did I have to worry whether Sarah was wearing her bike helmet? But also whether it was a red and green one with a dragon on it. And not her pink Hello Kitty helmet. That went with her pink Hello Kitty tutu. And necklace. And singing microphone.

And so I approached Peggy after. Nervously.


(Shuffle knock-off shoes).

I'm not sure I can do this. I don't know where to start. How can I say do as I say ... when I'm not even sure I'm doing what I'm saying?

And this is what she said. Without hesitation. And complete confidence.

You don't have to be perfect.

I took a breath. Maybe she was right? She had, after all, been on NPR. And she was a mother who had gotten a daughter to age seven. So by my standard she was the expert.

An hour or so later we all filed in for lunch. And the keynote address. By Peggy. I started to sweat again. Would I spend the lunch feverishly taking notes on more things to worry about?

But it was different. She was different. Or maybe I saw her differently.

This time she told a very personal story. One that was printed in the The New York Times Magazine eight years ago. I'm certain she must have read it to herself thousands of times. Aloud nearly just as many. But as she stood before us, reading her work, she was real. Speaking with a practiced cadence, but at times pausing. As she swayed -- consciously or not -- behind the podium. Differently than I had seen her in the workshop perched upon the table. She was a woman. And a mother. Who despite (or inspite of) her success had her own struggles.

She told her story. And in the room you could have heard a pin drop. As other women watched. And related. And were validated. That someone had said out loud what they had been thinking. And that felt good. For us. And probably for her.

We were listening.

And that is why I write each week.

Because I have a story. That I am telling.

Because maybe something about it is like yours.