Friday, January 30, 2009

I take it back

After two hours of handling 80 lbs. of fresh chicken breasts (99 cents a lb. today only), cutting off fat and putting it in freezer bags, I'm not finding this whole "preserving food" thing so satisfying. It sure is nice to have a year's worth of chicken in the freezer, but the process is just disgusting.

But I did get another batch of apples done, and my house smells divine.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Apples to Apples

There's something so satisfying about preserving food for the future. When it's combined with getting a great bargain, so much the better. Last night, I headed to a new market's grand opening. Their produce specials included 7 lbs of onions for $1 and apples for 25 cents a pound. I brought home a cart full of produce for about $20. I chose fresh onions, pears, potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and huge, delicious apples.

This morning, I determined that my priorities, other than caring for my kids, would be to finish the yearbook pages (48 due tonight!) and dry the apples. I finished all but a few final edits by noon and after a busy afternoon and evening, I got my first set of apples cut, sliced, and into the dehydrating trays. Joey, Lillian, and I cleaned the kitchen after dinner, then Lillian helped by playing with Eliza, and Allison and Sarah parked themselves on the counter, ready to eat any slices that were odd-shaped or too thin. They loved helping me lay out the apples on the trays. Work just doesn't seem like work when it's done in a group.

Tomorrow, I'll do two or three more batches of apples, wash half a week's worth of laundry, and clean my house before my parents arrive to spend the night. I look forward to the work, especially free of yearbook-pressure. DH claims he might come home in time to help, but I'm skeptical.

Sometimes I dislike housework intensely, and other times I'm happy to do it. I'm not sure what the difference is, but it does seem, ironically, that the times when I put in more effort or do something extra, like drying apples or cleaning out a cupboard, I enjoy the regular work a bit more. It also helps when my children work alongside me. Remarkably, Allison and Sarah are finally understanding the joy of helping mom, and it's such a thrill. It started two weeks ago when I was cleaning out some kitchen cupboards. Allison spent an hour sorting lids by size, type, and color. I praised her so much and she was filled with glee, "Mommy, are you so so so happy I helped?" She still talks about how much she helped me that day.

Sarah cleaned her room alone a few days ago after I asked her to, and earned a bowl of ice cream for doing such a good job. Yesterday, when I finished folding clothes, Allison said, "hey, can I take my basket and put my clothes away?" She followed that by cleaning her room all by herself and then came running to show me what a good job she'd done. Sarah had a tantrum because Allison hadn't let her help. The last few weeks have been wonderful, with these two little spitfires using their energy for good instead of just destruction. I'm experienced enough to know that their enthusiasm and glee will likely wane, but their satisfaction in a job well done won't.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It's that time again . . .


I'm not a baby gate fan. Ditto on the playpens, superyards, and the like. There's something, I don't know, just confining about the whole thing. In fact, up until two years ago, we owned none of these items. We lived in a very open split-level house and when my babies started crawling, I'd just let them crawl around the family room a few steps down until they get up the guts to climb the stairs. Then I'd watch them like a hawk for a few months until they learned to crawl down the stairs.

At this house, I keep my babies on the main level, so I bought this gate two years ago for Eliza and now I put it up for Harmony. At 5.5 months old, she is now getting around fast enough and far enough that there's no more delaying the inevitable.



I don't like to put up barriers for my children. Oh, I'm all for structure and routines and such, but I've always believed that the best education for a baby is to explore their world and everything in it. We keep our eyes pealed for danger -- my kids know more about choking hazards than the average first-time mom! -- and I let my babies explore. If they find fun things along the way, all the better. In fact, as I'm writing this, Harmony just figured out the way into the office. Isn't she fun?

I'm so blessed.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Race for Number One

"Number One" was a phrase my father -- and for that matter, my mother -- repeated time and time again. It was a phrase spoken by my parents' friends and their friends' children . . . In the culture of my childhood, being best was everything. It was the goal that drove us, the motivation that gave life meaning. And if, by chance or fate or the blessings of a generous universe, you were a child in whom talent was evident, Number One became your mantra. It became mine.

How far would you push your child to be the best? I recently finished a book called Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles. I found it very moving and deeply disturbing. In it, Lang Lang, a gifted pianist from China, describes his childhood and the pressure on him to become number one, to be ranked first in every competition, to win, to be the best, not just in his city or in China, but in the whole world. His parents devote their whole lives to this pursuit. And Lang Lang, in the end, fulfills their dreams, winning a scholarship to study in the United States, playing in Carnegie Hall and with all the major orchestras. He even convinces a skeptical Chinese audience (who didn't understand why he hadn't been entering competitions since he went to the U.S.) that he was worthy of their adulation in a tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Reading the book made me feel the pressure on Lang Lang keenly. When he won, I felt excitement and relief. When he had setbacks, I worried for him and all his family had invested in his future. But mostly, I read in astonishment at the lengths his parents went to ensure his success. It wasn't enough that he practiced seven hours or more a day from the time he was four or five years old. Or that he was celebrated in his own city as a child prodigy. No, his father needed him to be the best in the whole world, so he quit his job, took Lang Lang away from his mother at the age of nine, and went to Beijing to live in a slum and try to secure entry into a prestigious school there. A few months later, Lang Lang's new Beijing teacher tells him she will no longer teach him, that he has no talent. The next day, Lang returns home from school to find his dad enraged.

His screaming only got louder, more hysterical. "I gave up my job for you! I gave up my life! Your mother works and starves for you, everyone depends on you, and you're late, you're fired by this teacher, you're not practicing, and you don't do what I tell you to do. There's no reason for you to live. Only death will solve this problem. Die now rather than live in shame! It will be better for both of us. First you die, then I die."

For the first time in my life, I felt a deep hatred for my father. I began cursing him.

"Take these pills!" he said, handing me a bottle of pills I later learned were strong antibiotics. "Swallow all thirty pills right now. Everything will be over and you will be dead."


I felt shocked, dismayed, flabbergasted -- how can winning mean so much to this family, this culture? Lang Lang mentions several times that it's partly the one-child policy in China. Everything -- all a family's hopes and dreams -- rests on the success or failure of their one and only child. The Cultural Revolution also shares some blame. Both of Lang Lang's parents had to give up their dreams in the chaos and shifting policies of the 1960s in China.

I'm grateful that our culture is not quite so intense. But still, I think we all struggle with the question of how much to push and how much to let go, how much to involve our children and how much to let them be. Free time or structured activities? Dance or gymnastics? Piano or violin? Karate or soccer? Obviously, none of us is a crazed lunatic pursuing single-mindedly our child's success at the expense of their stability, but I think we all sometimes buy into the notion that we need to make our children really good at something -- anything -- to make them important or great.

I would venture to guess that when asked, most parents would say that they want their kids to be happy, well-rounded, balanced individuals. But secretly, don't we all harbor great desires to see our children excel beyond our wildest dreams? Why couldn't OUR child be the next Michael Phelphs, the next Mozart, the next President? When our child shows an interest in music or sports or math or whatever, of course we involve our children in classes or programs designed to nurture that talent. But don't we also wonder if we're doing enough? Are we holding our children back from their brilliant future if we're not pushing them every moment? Did we miss some critical period by not teaching our two-year-old sign language, by not playing classical music in the womb, by not signing our baby up for swimming lessons? Have we destroyed their future as a concert pianist if our children don't learn the piano by the age of three?

The truth is, I don't want my children to be ordinary. I don't consider myself ordinary; why should they be? But ultimately, my real desires for them don't have anything to do with success the way the world measures it. The pursuit of power, wealth, position, or acclaim has little meaning for me. My deepest desire for my children is that they will grow up with faith in God. I want them to develop an understanding that God has a place and a purpose for them.

I want them to realize that lives of service and love will bring them more happiness and joy than any trophy or award or ranking. I want my children to be light-bringers, to lift and brighten others by their actions and words. I want them to experience the feeling of helping someone who's in despair. I want them to cry with a friend who's had a disappointing day. I want them to be a friend to someone who's lonely. I want them to use their talents to bless others, not to seek glory or fame for themselves. If glory and fame come, fine, but I don't want my children to ever measure their success based on its presence or absence.

There is something quite evil in the idea that we are only good enough when we are better than someone else, in the pursuit of ranking and basing our worth on how we compare to others. I'm not saying we shouldn't excel, or that we shouldn't aim high and develop our talents; on the contrary, our talents can bless the lives of others. Who among us hasn't been touched by a great piece of music, performed by masters? Or been inspired by the performance of a great athlete?

What is evil is not the desire to become great at something, it's the desire to be better than everyone else. It's the constant comparison, the ranking, and the pride. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. . . It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” (Mere Christianity). In the words of Ezra Taft Benson, "the proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not. Their self-esteem is determined by where they are judged to be on the ladders of worldly success. They feel worthwhile as individuals if the numbers beneath them in achievement, talent, beauty, or intellect are large enough. Pride is ugly. It says, 'If you succeed, I am a failure.' "

The problem with basing our worth on being better than someone else is that we buy into a lie. I taught special education students for over a year before my first child was born. In the contests of life, my students would never be ranked among the best or the brightest. Most of them were dismal athletes, poor musicians, and limited scholars. And yet, in their presence, I was humbled. I always felt as if I was in the presence of some of God's greatest children. Their smiles and triumphs brought joy; some of their challenges and obsessions brought humor. You don't have to be the best at anything to bring light into the world.

So ultimately, while I want my children to enjoy sports, play an instrument, and be intelligent scholars, to reach for their dreams and achieve wonderful things, I want them most of all to see other people as precious children of God. I want them to rejoice when others succeed and to celebrate the reality that God has given all of us talents and abilities and when we use them on behalf of others, then we are truly great.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I'm sorry, but I wasn't invited to your party.

My husband and I teach the four-year-old primary class in our Church (which includes these adorable twins named Sarah & Allison, but that's another story). We've been amused, confused, stunned, and amazed by what these little people tell us sometimes.

Today, I asked Drew, whose mother is expecting her third boy any day now, if he's excited about their new baby. "Yes," he said. "We're having a party when the baby's born and I'm inviting all my friends. But I asked my mom and dad, and you're not invited. You can't come watch when my mom has the baby."

So, I'm a little bit bummed that I'm missing out on all the fun. It sounds like all of Drew's friends are going to be there, but not us. Should I take offense?

Riding the Beast

Every Sunday we play a game around here. It's called, "Do you think the van will start today?" Most weeks it does, but there's some it doesn't. Then we check the clock, see if we have time to charge the 15-passenger beast, and decide whether to take two cars to Church instead.

Don't blame the van. Sure it's old and a bit battered, but you can't blame it for being temperamental. After all, we use it only once a week to get to Church and neglect it most of the rest of the time. Like a toddler wanting attention, it's entitled to a few tantrums, especially when we don't run it often enough to charge the battery.

And when we really need it, like when we're on vacation together, it runs like a champ. Sure, we had that door-won't-close incident last October and that time when we ran out of gas while going up a hill in California, pulling to the side of the road at the top of the hill as the van sputtered and (almost) died. As we said a prayer and then sat there wondering what to do next, we realized the van was sputtering back to life and figured out that we were only out of gas when we had to go uphill. Luckily -- or providentially -- it was downhill the next two miles to the gas station.

So, I feel a bit sorry for the van's neglect. But not enough to give up driving my comfortable, 25 mpg, 8-passenger Toyota Sienna most of the week.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nesting

A good friend of mine is expecting her sixth child any day now. Her due date is February 2nd, but since all but one of her kids thus far has been two weeks early, we're all anxiously waiting for the phone call telling us little Charlie has been born. On Friday, she was invited to a sister-in-law's house for a few hours. When she returned home, the house had been cleaned, down to the fingerprints wiped off the walls and the microwave cleaned out. The sweet elves left this note:

We heard that you’d been nesting
When you were supposed to be resting

We didn’t think it would be fair
For you to do more than your share

So we brought over our cleaners and brooms
Broke in and polished your rooms!

We hope you’ll forgive our invasion
But we wanted this occasion

To be just right for you,
Charlie, and all of us too!

Just in case you're wondering what to get that frazzled mom-of-many when her new baby comes, this made my friend's day.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fitting it all in . . .

Sometimes there seems like more things to be done than there is day to do them in, and lately, I've felt stretched a lot and frustrated trying to do it all. Of particular concern for me has been fitting in time to exercise and watching what I eat better. We got a treadmill for Christmas, and I'm determined to get back to my ideal weight before August, when I'll probably quit nursing and become pregnant again (at least that's been the pattern!). So far, it's been working, and I've slowly but surely lost 4 pounds the last two and a half weeks. However, it's been at great cost to my calm, organized days. Finding time to exercise and resisting the urge to snack at my most exhausted moments has taken a ton of effort, and it's cost me a lot of sleep.

Finding the right time to exercise has been one the hardest challenges. Our family wakes up at 6:45 for scriptures, and I just plain don't have the willpower to wake up any earlier than that, especially when I've already been forced into wakefulness several times during the night to feed a baby.

At this point in my life, I need all the sleep I can get. Up until the beginning of December, I was blessed to get a nap many weekdays. Eliza and Harmony would go down for naps at the same time in the afternoon and I'd have quiet time for the twins, where I'd turn on a video for them (their only TV during the day) and lie down in the next room. It was heaven. I hadn't felt so rested during the early baby stages since my first baby!

I'm not sure what's changed, but now it seems that every day something interferes with my nap. If I've exercised in the morning, my body is usually too keyed up at naptime to rest. Other days, Eliza will go down wonderfully, but Harmony will sleep a mere forty minutes, and by the time I get lunch cleaned up and the twins settled, she'll wake up. I'm an incredibly light sleeper, so other days it's been the twins opening a door to let a kitty in or sneaking into the pantry for a snack that's woken me (they've yet to remember I have superhearing!).

In any case, my final exercise time only compounded my sleeplessness. I would hop on the treadmill at 8:00 after the kids were settled in bed. It worked great, except then I was too keyed up to fall asleep before 11:00 or midnight, making that 6:45 a.m. wake-up time seem like the hardest thing in the world.

But the last two days, I've discovered a great new time for exercise -- 2:00 in the afternoon. Sure, I have to change and shower in the middle of the day, but so far, the kids have been rested and have played happily nearby while I worked out. By then, I've gotten a nap if I'm going to get one, and I've found that the extra adrenaline boost at that time has gotten me through the tough after school and dinner hour.

In fact, today I pretty nearly had a perfect day. I was able to talk to my mom on the phone, plan visiting teaching, play with my kids, clean my kitchen, run to the store, take the twins to preschool, take Eliza to storytime at the library, get a nap (hooray!), exercise for forty minutes, take four kids to gymnastics at two different times, plan two service projects for tomorrow, and all with (almost) perfect patience. I LIVE for days like today, when everything goes smoothly and I feel like I'm fitting it all in. Of course, tomorrow may not go so well and life wouldn't be life if there weren't challenges and problems, but days like today fill me with joy and excitement. I just want to pause and savor it and say, "What a great day."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Feeding the One

Since the last title was feeding the five thousand, what better title for this post? We started Harmony on solids yesterday, and it was so fun. I know all too soon this spoon-feeding every bite will become a bit of a chore, but let me, just for today, relish this adorable little girl. She's growing up way too fast.





Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Feeding the Five Thousand

Lately I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the tasks that rest squarely on my shoulders -- important things like setting the tone for kindness in our home, preparing healthy meals, and teaching our children to become responsible with their chores, as well as small things like reminding my four-year-olds to use the potty before they have an accident, cleaning up after said accidents, making sure we don't run out of diapers or fruit, re-organizing every room in this house, picking up after all but one of my kids (we have one child who is just naturally neat. Weird, I know), hounding my kids to pick up after themselves, finding time to exercise daily, remembering not to bark at my husband when he doesn't appreciate me enough, and so on.

I've been reading a book called Celebration. I was touched last night by this story:

"My daughter Julia, who is expecting her tenth child, makes seven school lunches every morning. It is a job she has disliked so much it was hard for her to get out of bed, because the chore of making sack lunches is the first chore she faces every day. . . .

"Lunches were a chore for Julia that made every morning less than joyful until the Sunday that her eight-year-old son came home from church and had the following conversation with his mother.

"'What was your Primary lesson about today?' his mother asked.

"'Oh, you know,' young Weston said in an offhand way. 'It was that story that everybody knows. You know. The one about the time Jesus was walking around the Sea of Galilee and all these thousands of people came walking after him, and they listened to him for most of the day, and then it got hot and late and they were all tired and hungry and there wasn't any food at all.

"'Except, you know, for this one little boy, and his mother had remembered to pack his lunch, and so he had some loaves and fishes, and Jesus took them and fed all those people.'

"My daughter told me this incident, and there were tears in our eyes. 'His mother had packed his lunch.'

"'So you see, Mother,'Julia said, 'I have learned to like making lunches now, because I realize that when I'm feeding my children, I am feeding the five thousand—-and more. It makes me think of all the hundreds of people my children's lives will touch through the years, and I am making that possible by nourishing them as they grow up.'

"'Lunches are a whole new experience since I have thought of that unknown mother in Galilee who made a lunch for her little boy, and her son gave it to the Savior, and the Savior fed five thousand people with it.'"

Any good family movies out there?

We don't have television at our house. Oh, we have a TV and a DVD player and even one of those things, oh, what are they called, VCRs? But we don't get any channels. Every other year, we get television service for the month of the Olympics, and we gorge ourselves on shows.

We do watch movies around here, and it seems like lately, the kids are watching the same ones and are tired of them. We got a few new ones for Christmas, like Kung-Fu Panda and Alvin & the Chipmunks, but neither has the staying power of, say, Enchanted or The Incredibles.

So I'm looking around for some good family shows for my kids. Seen anything good lately?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Time for a new menu plan

(Note: this is also posted over at Full House)

It's the first of the year, and for me, that means making goals, revising chore charts, cleaning out junk, organizing, and in general, hoping that somehow, this year I can keep the chaos to a minimum. This is the year I plan on being the perfect wife, homemaker, mother, and friend. I'm going to exercise, stick to my own cleaning schedule, lose weight, serve healthy meals, keep a clean house, read scriptures daily, serve others, speak kindly, read with my kids more, and bring about world peace.

Of course, I won't actually be perfect at any of those things, but one can always try, right? My first plan of attack is revising my basic menu plan. I've used a system for several years now that I was introduced to by Marie Ricks. I've tried regular scheduled menus in the past, but her system was simpler and easier. As she put it at the beginning of the class, "Today I'm going to teach you how to know what to cook every day for the rest of your life." It was what I needed. Cooking is my least-favorite chore, but there's just no avoiding it when you're the mom of a big family -- unless, of course, you have a husband who likes to cook. Mine does, so he cooks on the weekends, leaving me just four or five days a week. He used to cook during the week more, way back when he had a low-stress job and we just had a couple of kids. But his job now is pretty intense and so it's best for me to do the weekly cooking.

My hardest problem used to be the panicked, crazy dinner hour, when I'd lean on the cupboard door wondering what in the world I should cook. Inevitably, I'd go back to one of my old stand-bys, something I'd made way too often. So this concept of knowing in advance and sticking to my plan worked wonders for me.

Marie's Menu Plan introduces a rotating four-week menu of meals. I'd done that before, but I found the key to success was that Marie suggests you have a one-week rotation of side dishes and that you have a consistent theme for each weekday. She does Mexican on Tuesdays, Quick Meals on Mondays, and then she suggests a fruit and a veggie for Tuesdays that goes with Mexican food, etc. I took that idea and ran with it, though I don't have a nightly theme for my menus. Mine, instead, are divided by how much time it takes to cook. In my old menu plan, I had 40-60 minute (from start to finish, including cooking time) meals on Mondays, 20-30 minute meals on Tuesdays, crockpot meals on Wednesdays, and so on. I chose the fruits and vegetables my family eats the most, though we do substitute other things now and then. It has been wonderful to have the side dishes planned, particularly as the two older kids (ages 9 and 8) are now old enough to help with meals. It's easy when you're working so hard on the main dish to forget about fruits and vegetables, but this introduces the concept to the kids that the meal isn't complete without a fruit and a vegetable. We also have a type of bread on the menu, but we usually only put that out once or twice a week (another thing to work on this year, right?).

I don't stick to the schedule rigorously -- if I know we'll be out all afternoon on Tuesday, for example, I might switch the Wednesday crockpot meal with the Tuesday meal. And every so often, I'll go to make the scheduled dinner and realize that we're out of sour cream or peppers and I need to make another change. Usually, I choose another meal from the four meals for that day.

I've used basically the same menu plan for the last two years, with some minor modifications. I'm finding lately, though, that several of the meals are just not getting made, whether because I get to that day and don't feel like making it, the ingredients are too expensive to keep on hand, or too many members of my family dislike it. So a few days ago, I tackled the menu plan, dropping some meals and adding some others, and changing crockpot day to Tuesdays.

Another thing that's made this system work for me is my recipe card file. I find there's no better way to keep my recipes organized. I have all the regular categories (Cookies, Cakes, Playdough, etc.), but I added 7 dividers at the beginning of the card file, one for each day of the week. In Monday's, I put the four cards for my Monday meals, Tuesdays hold my four Tuesday meals, and so on. When it's time to make dinner, I can either consult my calendar posted in the pantry or I can just grab the first card for that day's meals. When I'm done making the meal, I put the card to the back so the next week's meal is first in rotation.

So here's my new schedule. I ended up adding an extra week of meals because as I discussed the plan with DH, we kept coming up with meals we just couldn't do without. So later this week, I will be writing down a few new recipes and re-arranging my card files.

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Salad

Seasonal Fruit

Bread

Green Beans

Peaches

Rolls

Corn

Seasonal Fruit

Bread

Carrots

Pears

Bread

Pizza

1 Hour

Sweet & Sour Chicken

Crockpot/1 Hour

Mexican Salad

30 Minutes

Spaghetti & Sausages

25 Minutes

Herbed Chicken & Potatoes

50 Minutes

Tater Tot Casserole

Crockpot

Fettuccine Alfredo

25 Minutes

Tortilla Soup

25 Minutes

Lasagna

1 Hour 15 Minutes

Taco Soup

Crockpot

Company Chicken

60 minutes

Stroganoff

30 Minutes

Porcupine Balls

1 Hour

Creamy Cooker Chicken

Crockpot

Rice & Sausage Casserole

1 hour 30 minutes

Enchiladas or Tacos

30-60 Minutes

Chicken Curry with Rice

45 Minutes

Cowboy Casserole

Crockpot

Baked Potato Bar

60 minutes

Grilled Cheese & Soup

30 minutes


What have you found to make menu planning easier?

Edited to Add: Friday night is (*supposed to be*) date night, so either we have leftovers or something simple the babysitter can feed the kids. When DH & I don't go out, we'll either do leftovers, or DH will cook. I'll try to post my recipes later.

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