Thursday, June 26, 2008


Today is Laura's last swim meet for the neighborhood swim team. Praise Jeebus! It has been really fun, but we are tired. Or I am tired. But no more 9am practice every day and no more five-hour meets on Thursday nights. The meets have been tricky for Matt and me, because usually I have to work as a "bullpen" helper, getting the 7-8 year-old girls lined up for their events and at the right end of the pool. All the swimmers have their event, heat, and lane numbers written on their arms in Sharpie, but there's still a lot of chaos and a lot of last-minute changes. Last week some woman was yelling in my face about how my swimmers were going to miss their relay (five events in the future) if I didn't GET GOING. Honey, chill. Also, who are you? Because no one has ever seen you before.

So when you add Hank to the swim meet equation, the whole thing is a major handful. Keeping him out of the pool and in sight while doing all the bullpen stuff is next to impossible, so Matt leaves work early and picks him up at from the meet, hopefully before I really need to get the girls organized. Then L and I are free to slap mosquitoes and cheer our lungs out until after dark.

This is somewhat off the topic of this blog, but I just wanted to note the end of swim season, which really shaped our whole routine for the last month, and to say how proud I am of Laura for sticking it out a second year. She competed in all four strokes--freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, and backstroke--and it was really fun to watch her do well at something that I just totally don't know how to do. (I sure never learned all those strokes.)

Last year, swimming with the 5 and 6 year-olds, she was one of the biggest and fastest. This year, though, some of the 7-8 year olds are really quite a bit bigger and more experienced. (A few girls in that group are 9 now and going into the 4th grade.) So Laura bounced back and forth between the 'A' and 'B' relay teams for her age group. Backstroke is her best event. In the County swim meet last Saturday, she placed 14th out of 63 swimmers in the 25m backstroke, with a time of 25 seconds. I was really proud of her, especially considering some of these kids swim competitively year-round. Being her mom and all, I may not be objective.

One of the highlights of the season was last Thursday, when we had a meet at our home pool. The 9-10 girls had a relay swimmer drop out suddenly, and Laura got asked to fill a spot in their freestyle relay. She was so nervous--a 7 year-old swimming with the big girls! The nine and ten year-olds waiting with her were very sweet and encouraging. She was the fourth swimmer, and as she swam to the end of the lane, she just barely beat the swimmer next to her who had managed to narrow the lead of L's team. A girl who had been the second swimmer in the relay, Abby, was waiting for Laura and cheering. When Laura pulled herself out of the pool, Abby said "Wow! You beat an older girl!" It was a sweet moment. Laura looked thrilled, and I could tell she was restraining herself from looking REALLY thrilled.

I do hope she'll stay interested in swimming and that she'll want to compete again next year. One day we were driving and I was talking about how much she's learned, and how much she's improved, and how much faster and stronger she can get if she keeps at it, and how it's great to have a sport you can do in addition to school, and on and on. Laura listened and then said, "Mom, you don't have to be good at everything."

That's my girl!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Home Noncooking

I get, like, 19 magazines sent to my house every month, including Hot Rod, for car enthusiasts. Warning: when you buy a really cheap magazine subscription off of Ebay, and you are trying to order House and Garden, and the stoned or trollish or honestly-mistaken seller stops at the magazine right before House and Garden in an alphabetical list, the magazine that starts coming to your house is Hot Rod. And you cannot get it to stop. And you cannot get your House and Garden because the seller goes NARU (Not A Registered User)—that’s Ebay-speak for your money is gone so enjoy your Hot Rod.

All of this is to say, now that it’s summer, every magazine I receive (except Hot Rod) is trumpeting the delights of “No-Cook Meals” and their power to help you “beat the heat!” Turns out they mean something like these recipes in which you combine ingredients that don’t need heating. Tuna and Chickpea Salad with Pesto? Sounds delicious. Ham and Pineapple Slaw Wraps, maybe. . .but for no-cook meals they sound like kind of a lot of work. To me, “cooking” is not heating things to certain temperatures. Cooking is anytime I am standing in the kitchen (or really anywhere) thinking about what to feed someone. And then making it happen. That is cooking. Therefore, there is no such thing as a no-cook meal, because believe me, you do not just accidentally cut half a pineapple into quarter-inch strips, and then thinly slice a head of Napa cabbage. This is not the no-cooking I am looking for.

I don’t really enjoy meal planning, shopping for food, or cooking the food, but I do take some satisfaction in the sound home economics of the whole enterprise. (Also, I don’t want my people to be hungry or to eat Wendy’s every night.) So now, I cook. My friend Brenda has a blog that has been a big help. Besides showing the nuts-and-bolts of how to spend WAY less on groceries and household stuff, it appeals to the part of me that loves esoteric knowledge—the ins and outs of working the system and scoring free Charmin. (I feel like wearing a button that says, “Ask me how to get free Perrier!” Because I would love to tell you.) So the grocery store part of cooking much more fun now. And it’s resulted in our now having big stockpiles of food. When I can get a good price on something I know we’ll use, I buy a lot of it. So now I have a lot of it. And I can’t decide what to prepare on any given night.

Like today, in the afternoon, I was at the pool with the kids, packing up to come back home. We had Laura’s friend P (the Tic Tac kid) in tow. My thoughts turned to what to make for supper. (In the new world of stockpiling, I can have this thought in the afternoon. In the old days, I had to think about it in the morning and I really hated that.) I called Matt to see what he was doing, because if he wasn’t going to be home, I didn’t want to grill burgers, which is kind of what I’d been planning. I have a lot of buns and a lot of ground beef right now. He said he was probably working later. Hmmm. I drifted home thinking maybe tacos? It uses some of the beef and it involves lots of kid-friendly foods like refried beans, cheese, and tortillas. But then there’s like the chopping of the tomatoes, lettuce, and onion, and can I just lie down now? By now it was 7 o’clock and P’s mother, my Frenemy Neighbor, called and asked if it was okay if she went to the gym, and P’s daddy had “an appointment,” so could P stay here a while longer? Sure, I said.

I was still wearing my bathing suit, but now it was time to actually feed the three children, and I had a brainwave. When I make tacos, the kids don’t eat the meat anyway, so what if I had taco night without the meat or anything requiring chopping, which, who am I kidding, they won’t eat either? Newly empowered, I started making cheese quesadillas (which only involves toasting). I opened a can of refried beans (they have fiber!), microwaved it, and then microwaved one of those things of steam-in-the-bag green beans. Just so the whole plate wouldn’t be brown. I may have now horrified some of you, but it’s better you know the truth.

Suddenly someone was knocking at my garage door—the little door from the garage into the house. Nobody ever knocks at that door because the big garage door is never open. I was kind of freaked out, but it was Frenemy Neighbor holding a baggie with four barbecued chicken legs in it. She said, “Since you’re going to have to feed P, here’s something to add to the pot.” I thanked her, sent her on her way, and put the chicken in the microwave queue. I served it to the kids with the quesadillas, beans, and the other beans. They thought it was great.

I was thinking about how this meal was not a no-cook meal, but rather a sort of “noncooking” meal, in the sense that I didn’t plan it beforehand, it didn’t take a lot of work, and somebody brought part of it to my door. So, assuming I can’t count on garage chicken every night, how can I set things up or what can I plan so I never have to plan anything? But we still eat at home? That is what I want to figure out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Service Call

Yesterday Laura had a friend over to play, and I was going to bake cookies from that pre-made dough. All you have to do is break it into little squares along the pre-scored lines. (Yes, it's a lot of work, but I like to go the extra mile.) But the oven never got hot. It just sat there. No gas was coming out, and it wasn't making any little noises. Just nothing.

The girls ate a lot of the dough anyway, so they were happy. Then it occurred to me to use the toaster oven for the rest. (I’m sure going to do that again—those cookies were crispy and delicious.) But I was not happy even while eating those cookies because I was filled with dread. Now if you’re like me, you fear these moments when something is not working or going wrong with the house, and you don’t really know the right person to call, and you assume that it’s going to cost a lot of money, which you will pay without knowing whether it’s too much or not. If ignoring or denying the problem is not an option, my first impulse is usually to buy something new to replace the broken thing, because I feel much more comfortable navigating the world of retail than I do that parallel world of paying people to come to your house and tell you what’s wrong with your stuff. Shopping is like home to me. While shopping, you have choice, you have power, you get deference, you get guarantees, you get free delivery and installation.

So I briefly fantasized about buying a whole new range to match the fridge and the microwave, since this is the range that was probably put here when the house was built thirteen years ago, before stainless steel had been invented. I even went to and took a look at the options. The options all cost $2,000.

So I gritted my teeth and Googled “appliance repair” in our local area. Then I clicked on the first non-sponsored link and spent about thirty seconds looking at the website. (I’m sharing my research methods in case they may help anyone.) The website had testimonials from what I hoped were real actual people. I called the toll-free number and in no time I was talking to a dude named Chad. Chad assured me that they would send someone today between 10 and 1, and lo, they did.

Alisa the handywoman arrived a while ago. She had a real tool belt and a flashlight and sturdy socks on. While I was standing in the kitchen telling her about the problem, I thought, “This woman is totally checking me out. I still got it!” Then she got down on the floor and went to work dissecting the oven. She explained everything she was doing to me. Turns out that, just like the internets, a gas range is a series of tubes. It’s not that complicated. These machines don't have pilot lights anymore, so they use igniters. In my oven there is one on top for the broiler and one on the bottom for baking. The bottom one was busted. While Alisa was working she mentioned her husband several times, so I thought, “Maybe she wasn’t checking me out? Or maybe she just likes my outfit?”

She didn’t have the right igniter in her truck, so she’s gonna go get one and bring it back, maybe this afternoon. She said, “There’s a woman who works at the parts warehouse who really wants me to come down there and see her, and I might as well go today.” Then she winked at me.

An honest-to-God wink! I didn’t think people even did that anymore.

The upshot is that replacing the igniter will cost $278 for parts and labor.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


My personal housekeeping struggle is with laundry. It tends to pile. Dirty piles upstairs in my bathroom and in L’s hamper, and clean piles downstairs, after I’ve dumped it in the sunroom to fold. Once folded and transported back upstairs, it piles in my bedroom because putting it all away requires a measure of devotion that is sometimes hard to muster.

For a long, long time, I never had all our laundry clean at one time. The laundry room floor was usually ankle deep with clothes, and we tolerated it. Then a couple of months ago my wonderful mother-in-law washed every stitch of it while we were out of town, and my wonderful mother helped me put it all away. I’ve stayed on top of it pretty well since then. I’ve been thinking about laundry today, and I realized I wanted to recommend a couple of books:

One that’s been a huge help and influence to me is the excellent Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, by Cheryl Mendelson. She is a true philosopher of the house, and a lot of the book is about the meaning and psychological stakes of housekeeping, along with a totally encyclopedic how-to approach. I highly recommend this, whether you have a lot of chores to do, or just like to read about them, especially chapters 1 and 2, “My Secret Life” and “Easing into a Routine.” Her chapter on bedrooms is called “The Cave of Nakedness.” It will change the way you think about the place you sleep. It will also give you a horror of dust. Seriously, this woman hates dust.

To find another book like this, you have to go back to the great domestic manuals of the 18th and 19th centuries, like Mrs. Beeton’s. In this period, Mendelson says, people knew without question that “happiness depends on good housekeeping,” an idea that seems “quaint or odd” to the contemporary mind. Consider, she says, all of the people in Dickens whose faults and virtues are indexed through the appearance of their homes. (Here is this blog’s second shout out to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House.)

Some things this book says have become part of my internal dialogue, like, “Living in your home constantly uses up its good things—food, clean clothes, linens, shiny floors. Housekeeping routines provide for their constant renewal” (20). I often think of this, ruefully, when I’m cleaning. I guess the defining nature of a chore is that even while you’re doing it, you know it will have to be done again, usually soon. But when the going gets tough, I think of another of the book’s declarations: if people in your house have clean clothes, clean beds, and a clean place to prepare food, you’re doing well enough.

Mendelson has now written a book called Laundry. It too is very good. I haven’t read the whole thing, but one big take-away for me is that I am much more militant about sorting the clothes into loads by color. I always did darks and lights, of course. Now I have:
Whites (can be bleached and washed in hot water)
Mixed whites (includes patterns or stripes)
Pinks (my eyes have been opened about separate loads for reds and pinks!)

The upshot of all of this is that I sometimes find myself obsessing about the exact composition of a load. When the dryer lint is a clear, true color, like pink, instead of a nasty gray, I feel happy. I do know this is crazy.

Right now I am building a small load of reds, and I don’t have quite enough to run the machine. Hank is wearing a red panda shirt that Betty brought him from China. That thing has enough dye to turn a river red. I am eyeing it and wishing he would get it dirty. Maybe if I give him PB&J for lunch? Because I’ve decided when he takes off the shirt, the red load is a go. I'm kind of excited.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In Which My True Nature is Revealed

Our neighborhood is next to a ritzier neighborhood. The place we live is nice, to be sure, but this place is truly Fancy Land. For two years, I've driven by it everyday, without ever going inside. It's gated, for one thing, so I couldn't just cruise through on a whim. Several of Laura's school friends live there, and though she's been to their houses a time or two, events had transpired so that I had never taken her or picked her up. I assumed that Fancy Land was like the other developments with huge houses that are springing up around here--enormous "homes" on tiny lots, mostly devoid of taste, and oozing pretense. Corinthian columns, anyone? Well.

So now just in the last week I've been over there twice. Friday Laura was invited to a swim and slumber party at Fancy Land's neighborhood pool, and the hostess (my double G&T playdate pal) invited me to stay and let Hank swim. Then Tuesday, one of the moms I chatted with at that party asked L to come for a playdate at their house. Both times, after I dropped Laura off, I drove around like a tourist and looked at the place.

So, um, Fancy Land is really really nice. Beautiful, even. For starters, their neighborhood pool is way bigger and better than ours. We have one pool and a little kiddie fountain. They have two pools (one is heated), a baby pool, and a waterslide. Not the vulgar kind of fiberglass waterslide that is up on poles. Please! Fancy Land's waterslide meanders down a hill through natural landscaping. Laura said she ran into some pampas grass. But anyway. Also, our playground is serviceable, but theirs is better. You get the picture.

And the houses in Fancy Land. Well, they ain't tacky, that's for sure. They're big, but not McMansionish. The architectural styles are nicely varied, and they're not totally jammed up against each other. This is due I think to the fact that Fancy Land is an older (like mid-to-late nineties) established neighborhood that predates a lot of the crazy Atlanta boom. The houses range from just barely nicer versions of our house to straight-up baronial splendor. Turns out that even in Fancy Land there is a Super Fancypants Enclave. It's on the golf course.

The other thing that sets FL apart from our humble 'hood is the landscaping. I really noticed it (in part because of the armies of laborers tending to it); every house had a beautiful and immaculately maintained landscape with varied plantings, flowers, the whole deal. I was also struck by how empty the roads were--there were people out walking, people at the pool, and people playing golf, but there weren't any cars on the road, except the landscaper crews. It was just very quiet. I guess the Jehovah's Witnesses can't get through the gates. This seems to me like a true advantage. I know there are some reasons that "gated communities" are thought of with disdain, and supposedly they have some soul-deadening properties, but right now I can't remember what they are. Maybe y'all could remind me.

Mostly what I was feeling as I drove around Fancy Land was pure desire. Like, wow, this would be the life. Twinned with that feeling was the knowledge of the enormous cost of living there--not the price of the houses but everything else, from the utilities, to the maintenance, to just the huge consumption footprint of it all. And how people are doing all that on one income ('cause many of them are) is beyond me. But still. . .

The other night I was describing the place to Matt, and I guess I must have looked a little down-in-the-mouth. He said, "Aww! Are you suffering from the knowledge that there are richer people living very nearby?"

Damn it! I hate it when he nails me like that.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Secret Rules in Oz

So, we live in Australia. Which the 7 people who read this blog already know. Anyway, I realized something the other day. We've been here nearly three years, as you also know--and a couple weeks ago were granted our Permanent Residency Visa.** (Never take your citizenship for granted, by the way! Cause it sure is a pain to gain legitimacy in a country you weren't born in!)

Having our PR means that we can now access Medicare (the public health care system), eventually receive benefit payments from Centrelink, and if we have another baby, receive the $6000 baby bonus. (Woo hoo!) Gotta love the nanny state! Okay, so that's just background, it isn't what I realized the other day. (By the way, when I spell "realize", I have to make a conscious choice to spell it with a 'z' and not 's'. Dear God, what's happening to me?)

In the next week or so, we'll go to the equivalent of the DMV here and get our New South Wales driver's licenses. You can drive on your home country's license till you get your PR. It occurred to me the other day that for the last three years, I have had a continual low level of anxiety whenever I drive. Not because I'm driving on the "wrong" side--I got used to that a long time ago. It's because if something were to go wrong--a fender bender or speeding ticket or whatever, I'd have to show the police my Texas driver's license. I have this weird thing about being "caught"--that someone will say, "Wait a minute, you're not supposed to be here!" It's like I'm back in middle school and don't have the right jeans on. The funny thing is, I'm not actually breaking a law or anything by driving with my TX license. But I still worry that I'll be, like, found out or something!

I guess I also get tired of explaining, no, we don't have a Medicare card so we'll need to pay cash at the doctor's office, or yes, Ava has been immunised*, but she doesn't have the "blue book" that all Aussie kids have. Or no, I have no idea how to properly spread Vegemite on toast!

Isn't that dorky? It goes back to my whole "secret rule" thing in kindergarten! Even as an almost-5 year old, I worried about breaking some rule that I didn't even know was a rule. At 31, I still worry about getting caught--when I didn't even do anything! :) Craziness.

Anyway, just some random musings from the bottom of the earth. I think walking around upside down all the time has done some funny things to my brain.

*Spelled with an"s". Good Lord!

**I feel the need to also add that having our PR doesn't mean we'll be here permanently, it just makes life here easier. So, don't freak out or anything, ok?