Here’s a nice recipe from Budget Bytes I make every six weeks or so. It’s easy and tasty and pretty cheap, and you can easily adjust how sweet or spicy it turns out.
Brussels sprouts were very cheap, so I got a ton and cut them in half and spread them on one of my fabulous new giant pans with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and just roasted ’em up under the broiler.
Corrie recoiled in horror and angrily refused . . . RUSTLE-BUTTS. So let it be written.
By the way, the best purchase I’ve made in a long time those two 15″ x 21″ baking sheets (affiliate link). I measured my oven and bought the biggest pans that would fit, and they make life so much easier. You can just cook everything up all at once, rather than trying to Tetris various small pans in there. They also double as serving trays for parties, and are useful for moving board games intact when we need the table.
MONDAY: Camping, day 1
We packed ever so slowly, and then had to go to urgent care for an ear infection, and had to stop to tighten the canoe that wanted very much to become a wild, wild canoe that hops on the nearest jet stream and resettles in Canada, so we didn’t get to the campgrounds until late, and then it turned out the lake was closed because of bacteria.
HOWEVER, the yurts were still airy and cool, and dinner was pork spiedies, watermelon, and Pringles, with S’mores for dessert. The spiedies were insanely delicious.
even though I forgot to pack tongs, and Mr. Husband had to make ridiculous BBQ chopsticks with a hair rubber band
I had made the meat at home the night before and packed it in ziplock bags along with the marinade, which leaked all over the inside of the cooler. I also forgot soap.
Faced with these realities, I decided pretty early on that I was going to take a three-day break from believing in cooties, and so what if the baby wanted to paddle around in the puddle under the spigot where I washed not only the pork juice with no soap but also her poopy bathing suit? I don’t want to hop on a jet stream and resettle in Canada! Not at all. Hey look, a yurt! So airy and cool.
I actually spent most of my time putting my feet up and complaining, while my husband made fires, told ghost stories, read Treasure Island to the kids, and grabbed flying children out of mid-air before they burned or impaled themselves.
Oh, and we took turns being fruit ninjas.
and I did get some rare photographic evidence that Corrie’s brain is, indeed, on fire.
TUESDAY: Camping, day 2
The kids had their hearts set on roasted apples for breakfast, but they ate most of the apples on day 1, so with a heavy heart I threw a box of Honey Buns at them while Damien went to Dunkin’ Donuts and got us coffees. Just kidding about the heavy heart part. Whatever it was in me that once relished the idea of waking up early and building a fire before breakfast, it’s dead now.
Lunch was sandwiches and cookies on the beach (a different beach, without water cooties), where we swam in the rain. Then the sun came out, so we bought a ton of candy and went to see Wonder Woman. Look, I never said we were good at camping.
Dinner was walking tacos, which taste so much better than is reasonable. I cooked ground beef and seasoned it at home, and we heated it up over our lovely propane stove. Each person got a personal little bag of Doritos, into which went meat, shredded cheese, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, and salsa.
We also had grilled corn on the cob. You cook it in the husk over the coals until the husks are blackened, and it comes out so sweet.
For dessert, I couldn’t resist these cute Little Debbie brownies with animal tracks in them.
WEDNESDAY: Camping, day 3
Breakfast: scrambled eggs, bagels, hot chocolate with rainbow marshmallows!!!!
Next time, I’ll remember to pack a real pan. And butter. And a decent cooking utensil. I did, however, remember the salt!
Never, ever forget the salt.
I would say we had something else, but really we basically had candy. And then we went home. Some more more pleased about this than others.
Supper (at home): Bagel, egg, ham and cheese sandwiches. I had to run to the convenience store for more eggs, and since I was already conveniently paying top dollar, I ponied up a little bit more for local eggs. This is one “fresh, local, organic” food that truly lives up to the hype. The yolks are darker and more flavorful, the whites are fluffier and lighter, and it’s very charming to see how many different egg sizes find themselves together in one box.
I feel like they could wash them.
We’re home again. Cooties are real.
THURSDAY Pork ramen, broccoli
On Thursday, my true love took the sledgehammer we found in the murderboat and smashed up my kitchen, just liked I’ve been asking him to do.
So I made dinner on a dining room chair.
I browned up some sliced garlic in olive oil using the saute function of the Instant Pot, then browned up a bunch of pork ribs. I took them out and sliced them, sauteed them some more, then took them out again. In the same pot, I hard boiled a bunch of eggs, then took them out, peeled and halved them. Then I added water and scraped up all the yumminess that was in the bottom of the pot, and cooked ramen noodles in it with the flavor packets, then added the pork and some chopped spinach. I served the noodles and pork with the eggs, some scallions, sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, and crunchy noodles on top.
Not an especially sophisticated or complex taste, but it was fine and filling. And I cooked it all on a chair! And that’s why people love the Instant Pot.
French toast casserole, I guess? I think Damien and I are going out for pizza. A full week of family togetherness is about enough for now.
Can we get some credit for how many stupid ideas we don’t act on?
We have a trampoline, but not an in-ground trampoline.
We have zero life-sized, purple hippopotamuses rescued from defunct mini golf places, despite a clear opportunity.
We have many broken chairs and couches, but none of them has been packed with topsoil, covered with chicken wire, and planted with grass seed to make living lawn furniture.
We have a washing machine drum flower planter for our statue of Mary
but we do not have a permanent porch fixture made from the industrial-sized colander that wouldn’t fit through the door, much less in my sink.
And we still don’t have any damn ducks. Not a single khaki campbell duck, noted for its high egg production, paddling happily in an in-ground (free on Craigslist!) hot tub in harmony with a booming population of meat turtles.
We do have a beloved canoe
($100 on Craigslist! Billed as “The world’s ugliest canoe,” and so it is). But we do not have a large, ungainly, unrealistic project boat sitting stupidly in our yard as a testament to our inability to turn a thing down just because it’s free on Craigslist.
This fine vessel was free on Craigslist
and we’re fixing to drag it down to the stream, chain it to some trees on either side, and sit back while our kids enjoy the greatest childhood known to mankind since that kid got stuck on that island with that horse.
There are a few issues. One is that the boat is gutted
We are about 73% sure this happened because someone started renovating and then realized it was too much work, and not because it is a murderboat. (I’m sure that head-sized compartment I can’t bring myself to open is just full of maps and sunblock. I’m sure of it.)
So we need a floor. Gonna lay some slats across it, then fit a board over that, screw everything down, and voilà . It just needs to be sturdy and safe,
not seaworthy or lovely.
The second issue is that the boat is in the yard, but the stream is in the back back back backyard, over the grass, around the firepit, through some thorns, across the Dead Marshes, and on the other side of a sturdy bank of trees and rocks and maybe some barbed wire I’ve been meaning to take care of.
But the boat has already more than paid for itself, in two distinct ways.
One is that my husband and I both learned how to use a trailer hitch.
The Craigslist ad said “Dont want to answer questions just want it gone,” so no one (sober) was available to help us mount the boat trailer (free on Craigslist!) to the vehicle.
It seemed simple enough, though: You stand there shouting at your husband, “Back-back-back-back-back-back-back, keep going, keep going, a little this way, this way, this way, back-back-back-back-back, keep goNO STOP!!!!!” until the ball part is perfectly situated under the trailer thingy.
Then you shove it with your foot a little, wind the crank until it’s all lined up, clamp the clamp thingy, hook up the chains, remove the wheel blocks, and . . . you are good to go? I guess?
So off we crept, and O YE GODS AND O YE LITTLE FISHES, what a horrible noise it made. It was a noise to freeze the marrow in your bones, a grinding, scraping, clattering, screeching squeal that proclaimed to all ears within fifty miles, “Here indeed are people who should not have a boat!”
We just kept going. I asked my husband if he wanted me to look up the hand signals for right and left; but for some reason, traffic was doing a very good job of avoiding us all by itself.
We made the perilous turn off the dirt road onto the highway. Only another mile or two until we reached home. At this point (and this is the second benefit of boat ownership we’ve already enjoyed) we had each lost about fourteen pounds of weight through the sheer isometric exercise of clenching every muscle in our bodies in abject fear.
My husband fixated mainly on the boat breaking loose, roaring freely down the highway, and crushing an unsuspecting mailman flat. I, though, couldn’t stop thinking about how it would feel when we hit a downhill slope, the hitch snapped, and the boat came charging through the rear window to devour us like an avenging whale.
What happened instead was that the horrible sound got even more horrible, until we couldn’t stand it anymore. My husband pulled over to a shoulder, and gathered his courage to softly asked that fatal question: “Is it supposed to be making that noise, do you think?”
I muttered through aching teeth, “Well . . . I think that little wheel in the front . . . is not making contact with the ground the whole time . . . and the noise we’re hearing . . . is when it is making contact. So maybe if we turn the crank, we can make it move . . . .”
I was going to say “down,” so that the wheel would be on the ground the whole time we were driving.
And then it hit me: That little wheel is not supposed to be touching the ground. It’s just there to hold the trailer stable while you load your boat up, and then you’re supposed to crank it up out of the way. Our only clue that this was so: This wheel is about five inches across, and about as sturdy as your average rollerblade wheel, and is very clearly not intended for highway travel. I’m sorry, did you not get the word? We are people who should not have a boat.
So we skipped out of the car and cranked that sucker up as high as it would go, got back in, and cruised home as silently and smoothly as if the boat were already in water. Which it will be, as soon as we figure out how to get it across the yard.
Hey, we didn’t bring home any ducks. That has to count for something.
The scene: Bubbe’s tenement apartment on the lower east side.
The phone rings. A cultured voice whinnies, “Good afternoon, madam. This is Wilberforce, the butler. I’m terribly sorry to inform madam that Mrs. Rockefeller and Mrs. Vanderbilt cannot come today for tea.”
And the old lady yells out, “Oy, mister! Have you got the wrong number!”
That line goes through my head sometimes, especially as I shop. Here’s some products that turn me into incredulous Bubbe.
Every ten days or so, I have to go shopping for a birthday party. Balloons, okay. Streamers, sometimes. Candles, fine. But then I keep coming across little sparkly packets of something called “table scatter.” My kids asked what it is, and I don’t know what to say. I channel Amelia Bedelia. Table scatter? To scatter on the table, so there are more things scattered on your table, to make the table look better? At our house, when we’re really puttin’ on the dog, we de-scatter the table.
Who am I fooling? Half the time, we have to de-scat the table.
You may consider it revolting, and you may be very right, but this is a small house and there are not a lot of flat surfaces to work on. Crafts? Dining room table. Rolling out cookies? Dining room table again. Homework? Dining room table it is. Changing hamster litter? Oh yes, you bet that would be dining room table. When I say de-scat, I mean de-scat. Now just direct me toward the undusting powder is, and I’ll make you a lemon meringue pie to knock your socks off.
100% organic anything
The other week, we bought a sectional off Craigslist. $100, great deal. Of course that meant that the next six hours were utterly consumed by a horrible, cuteness-free reenactment of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
If you find a sectional at a good price, you’re going to want to save even more money on truck rental, so you’re going to have to take the seats out of the van.
If you take the seats out of the van, you’re going to face up to the thing you’ve been pretending you don’t know: namely, that you have children who think they are too good to throw away their old lunches, when in fact, far from being too good, they are very, very bad children indeed.
Reaming out the trash-strewn van with a rake until you can see the floor again like fancy people will make you reluctant to put those hideous old, crusty seats back in, so you’re going to clean them off, too.
Cleaning off the van seats, which you accomplish with a trowel, a wire brush, and a heart full of rage, will remind you that the car seat straps are getting tighter and tighter, not because the kids are growing, but because they’re sitting atop a steadily growing heap of relentlessly organic cement-like compote formed from beleaguered french fries, fossilized string cheese, denaturized candy corn, compressed pear and apple cores, pulverized goldfish and fig newtons, and about eleven quarts of graham cracker crumbs, garnished with a chiffonade of flossers from our tragically optimistic dentist.
This kind is only driven out with a metal spatula.
Three hours into this 100% organic project, you turn around to discover that your husband has already attempted to cram the sectional in through all possible doors of the house, and the only option left is to take the back door off the hinges, remove the washing machine outlet pipe that sticks out a fraction of an inch too far, shift a file cabinet or two, disassemble the shelves that hold your world class collection of water bottles with no tops, and of course move the computer desk. And guess what turns out to be under that?
Another cubic yard of graham cracker crumbs mixed into the tangled nest of electrical cords, plus every styrofoam meat tray you threw away over the last six months and the dog dragged out of the garbage and lavished with his sweet, sweet loving, and then hid under the computer desk. And candy corn. And some used baby wipes that the dog also thought were worth retrieving and then filing away from later. And CORN ON THE COB.
But gosh, here I am shopping for school lunches, and for only a extra three dollars, I can choose these fruit snacks that are made of 100% organic ingredients? Oh, may I???
And finally, a slightly more complicated issue, having to do with FDA regulations and off-market adaptations. Behold, the top shelf in my very own bathroom:
It’s . . . it’s not what it sounds like! It’s not what you think! It’s on my list of things to put away before guests come! But does that always get done? No, it does not.
Well, let ’em think what they want to think. Maybe the Rockefellers live here after all.
When I was little, my mother would send us upstairs to clean our room. After several hours had gone by, she would call up, “Girrrls? Is your room done yet?” And we would shout, “It’s about halfway clean!”
And it would be . . . THE TOP HALF. Ho ho! We certainly pulled one over on her. The floor and beds and dressers were as cluttered and sloppy as ever, but the ceiling was nice and clean, bare and tidy, as neat as a pin.
I miss those days, when the ceiling was clean.
Now that I have my own house, nobody shouts up the stairs at me. Nobody sends me off to tidy up regularly. Instead, they encourage me in my filthy eastern ways, by saying things like, “Ha ha, you are keeping it real!” or “Wow, you make me feel so much better about my own house!” or “Mrs. Fisher, you have ten days to remediate this issue before a legal process is automatically triggered.”
Wanna see? Of course you do. It’ll make you feel better. Unless you’re my mother.
ABANDON ALL MICE, YE WHO ENTER HERE
We live close enough to the woods that there will always, always, always be mice in our house; but we live close enough to the highway that any cats we own will always get hit by cars. So we poison the little bastards. They make mouse poison that desiccates the corpse, so there is no stink. Our walls are now cozily insulated with a thick layers of mouse mummies, and that’s how we like it.
The trick is to find a spot to slip the poison where the mice will find it, but the kids and dog won’t. So what you do, see, is — well, first you lose many, many nights of sleep to a maddening scrabbling, gnawing noise, and then, in that mental state, you decide it’s a good idea to just bash a hole in the ceiling, stuff some poison in, and then cover the hole with a piece of paper and tape
because things being what they are, you know you’re gonna need to get in there again.
Every once in a while I consider using something fancier to cover up the hole, like a cub scout kerchief, or maybe a piece of colored paper, but I don’t want to appear pretentious.
SOMETIMES A POOH IS JUST A POOH
Here’s something I like to ponder every once in a while: a stain on the ceiling that has the habit / of sometimes looking like a . . . pooping wildebeest.
Literary, ain’t it? Or maybe it’s Winnie the Pooh, or possibly a toxodon. I wanted to say “tapir,” but I couldn’t think of the word, and then I got bogged down in “aardvark vs. anteater” like I always do, so I just said “wildebeest.”
The real question is, what the heck kind of stain is that, and why is it over the couch? The real answer is, “There is no answer that will make you glad you asked.”
I WILL LIFT UP MINE EYES UNTO THE MOLD
Here’s one I may have shared before. Our exquisite bathroom is spacious, bright, prettily tiled, and as well-stocked with water guns, tea sets, broken humidifiers, peri bottles, ratty towels, and twenty-three bottles of almost-empty shampoo as you could hope, so that’s nice. But it does have a bit of a ventilation problem
Naturally, someone who was not made of stone just had to etch “DOOM ON YOU” into the mildew. Just in case you were having your morning shower and thinking that the day might go well.
THE GHOST OF PASTA PAST
Not only do they throw spaghetti at the ceiling, but
no one even thinks to pull it off the ceiling until it’s become one with the ceiling, and takes a little bit of the ceiling with it when it goes. Brought to you by the same kids who will tell you with a straight face that they did sweep, and they didn’t realize you meant also sweep up all those chicken bones, gosh.
THE JOKE GETS OLD
Now you’re starting to get really disgusted with us. These people live like animals! you are thinking. How hard is it to buy a gallon or two of Killz and brighten those ceilings right up again? An hour or so of work ,and your outlook is so much brighter.
You’re right! It’s easy! All you have to do is lay down plastic, clear your schedule, throw on some old clothes, get one of those long-handled rollers, and away you go. Put on the first coat of white paint, and then
wait six years for it to dry. Is it time to put the second coat on? NO, NOT YET. It just isn’t, okay?
WHERE HOOPY FROODS FEAR TO TREAD
If you’re feeling bold, you can even venture into the boys’ room, where you will find . . .
Yeah, no, actually, I would actually like to panic now, please, thanks. Is . . is that a tick trapped under some packing tape? Is that blood spatter? Is it terrible that I find myself hoping it’s blood, and not anything else? Never mind, I’ll just flee.
PREMISES ARE ALARMED, AND FOR GOOD REASON
Back to the adult world, where people are responsible and sensible and do things the right way. For instance, it’s extremely important to have working smoke alarms throughout the house.
It’s important to regularly change the batteries in your smoke alarm.
It’s important to put the smoke alarms back in after you change the batteries.
It’s important to remember where you put the smoke alarms while you were searching for the batteries you bought yesterday.
It’s . . .
It’s important to have a working smoke alarm. Do what you gotta do.
And here, the little jerks were just deliberately marking up the ceiling with the syrup that secrete in their horrible little pores
I could take prints and find out who it was, but does it really matter? Let’s just call it a precious memento and draw a curtain. Yes, over the ceiling. It’s either that or burn the whole thing down.
Behold, our traditional observation of this wonderful solemnity:
Husband wakes up early, brings two of three high school kids to school A in town B, where they can’t come in late because they have a morning concert in school D and the bus leaving School A won’t wait. He comes home, calls schools A, B, and C about lateness of Kids 1, 5, 6,7, and takes them to early Mass at Church 1 in town B. Also takes baby, because he is superman. Comes home, drops off kids, goes to work in town D. I pack up Kids 1, 9, and 10 and bring them to town B to drop off Kid 1 at work, then take the other two to lunch at Wendy’s because it is Kid 9’s birthday, and then we go to Mass at Church 2 in town B, and then go home. We all go to the bathroom. Then we pack up Kids 9 and 10 and go to School C in Town C, where we pick up Kids 6, 7, and 8, then swing by the library in Town B to pick up Kid 5 who goes to School B, and then pick up Kid 2 who has walked from the bus stop to her doctor appointment in Town B. Then we go back home (Town A), wolf down some hot dogs (leaving kid 4 at home since he already went to Mass and doesn’t sing), scramble into our pretty dresses, hoping kids 2 and 3 have made it home on the bus, and swing by Kid 1’s work in Town B (hoping she has eaten at some point) and bring her with us (not forgetting the cookies which Kid 3 baked last night!) to the Unitarian Church where Kids 5, 6, 7, and 8 have their concert and bake sale; and drop off Kids 2 and 3 so they can walk across town in the dark and the cold to late Mass at Catholic Church 1. After the concert, we drive home, drop off Kids 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 in town A and pick up Kids 2 and 3 in Town B. AND THEN WE ALL GO HOME. And then my husband comes home from Town 4, and we open birthday presents for Kid 9, assuming we’re still able to make our muscles function enough to sit up.
(And no, there was no way of just prudently planning ahead to make things simpler. This was planning ahead. We couldn’t go to a Vigil Mass yesterday, because yesterday looked a lot like today, except with a different kid going to work, my husband having to travel to Town E for work, and one kid going to Roller Derby.)
So when someone asks how we are observing this important feast day, I give a little shudder and say, “Oh, we’re just going to get to Mass.”
And that is pretty good.
When we were figuring out the logistics, I honestly considered skipping Mass. It’s a war of obligations, and the kids truly couldn’t back out of their concerts or be late; but since we’re all healthy and able-bodied and no one is pregnant and the van is running, and my husband was ready and willing to make it happen, I realized that we could do it, and so we should.
We may not be wearing Marian colors or lighting special candles at our charming home altar, or making flower crowns or crafting special crafts; but we are putting forth a huge effort to get to Mass. And this tells our kids (and ourselves!), “THIS IS IMPORTANT.”
So if you had a hard time getting to Mass but you did it anyway, you honored Our Lady. If it was a tight squeeze and maybe you stumbled in late and breathless, with hungry, overtired, confused kids, you showed them, “THIS IS IMPORTANT. This is worth doing. This is The Thing You Make Time For.” And you honored Our Lady! Mass is where Mary wants you to be. Anything else is just icing on the cake.
“Well, I did change the lightbulb,” my husband, gathering up the last bits of my underwear out of the milkweed.
“That’s awesome,” I said. “I’m sorry I crushed the picnic table.”
“No problem,” he says. “At least we made it to the swamp first.”
So what happened, see, was my husband asked me if there was anything he could do for me. He is a wonderful man, and asks me this question often. The catch is, I find it so deliriously romantic that this big, tall, handsome man with smoldering eyes and a cleft chin wants to do things for me that my answer tends to be, “Ohhh, no-o-o-, I’m fine!” and then later, when I get out of his beautiful eye tractor beam, I remember, “Dammit, I should have said shovel dog poop! Or at least do something about all those bean cans full of meat grease on the stove!”
But this time I was ready, and I said, “YES, can you change the lightbulbs in our room?” Our room is pretty small, and you have to stand on the bed to reach the light fixture, and I have such a poor sense of balance that the torquing motion involved in unscrewing the little knob tends to make me fall over, and then I’m sprawled out on the bed and the whole “Mr. Brown Eyes” thing comes into play again; and the problem is that you can unscrew a little knob, but you can’t unscrew . . . well, anyway, now we have ten kids.
So this time, I wanted him to change the lightbulb.
Which he did, while I worked on my shopping list in the next room. And I heard a popping sound, followed by a tinkling sound, and then some cussing. With some reluctance, I strolled in to investigate, and found him standing on the bed looking sadly at his feet, which were generously dusted with bits of light bulb. “You should be able to toss a light bulb onto a soft bed!” he said, and I agreed. But I guess if it lands just right — for instance, if you toss it right onto the glass light fixture you just removed — then it will cetainly explode.
The part that was my fault was that I am a huge slob, and I leave my dirty clothes all over the bed and floor. And also one pair of pants that isn’t dirty, because I’ve never actually worn them out of the bedroom. Every few weeks, I like to put them on, feel sad about how fat I of course still am, and then pull them off and drop them on the floor. All, all were covered with little bits of broken glass.
We picked out all the big, easy bits of glass and then gathered up the bedsheets like a giant bag, bundling in blankets and towels and a week’s worth of laundry, and my husband lugged it out the front door (we couldn’t go out the back door because it was full of dog). I held my breath, waiting for some unfortunate child to say something about how Daddy looks like Santa, but for once they all shut up, so no one had to die. Then we lugged the bundle into the back yard and my husband said to put it on the picnic table, so we could carry it more easily.
It wasn’t a bad idea, but it was a bad table. I got it from the side of the road, and it makes my kids unhappy because (1) it reminds them of the time I embarrassed them by picking up rotten old tables, and one kid had to ride in the back of the Blazer with the door open so the table didn’t fall out, which was scary; and (2) when you touch it, the legs fall off. But it was free!
We did make it to the swamp, set the table down, and started picking out various sheets and pants and bras and shaking them vigorously into the “Dead Marshes” part of the yard, where we throw things we don’t want to deal with (rotten jack-o’-lanterns; dog poop; meat grease in bean cans; bedding from dead pets; dead pets).
I thought we were doing pretty well, and working our way through the heap pretty briskly. I didn’t start laughing until I heard my husband go, “Shit. shit. shit. oh, shit.” It wasn’t even a big deal. He was just trying to pick my striped sweater off a small blackberry bush that it had gotten heavily involved with, and I suddenly realized that the neighbors , with their bird’s eye view of our back yard, must be wondering for the millionth time, “What in the hell are those people doing?”
It brought to mind the time we were renting a house that was in rather poor repair, and one day the toilet just started angrily spouting stenchy water, which rushed downhill from the bathroom, down the stairs and out the door in an endless river of things that reminded me of why I didn’t want to live in that town anymore. I couldn’t figure out how to turn the water off, and while I was waiting for someone competent to come help, I decided, with the crystalline clarity so typical of these moments, that it would be best to gather up all the towels and blankets in the house and try to sop up the river before it warped the floors.
Then, crystalline, I would gather up the bundle — and why didn’t anyone warn me that such a large part of adult life would include gathering up bundles of things you are ashamed of? — and drag them out to the curb, wring them into the sewer, and bring them back inside for more sopping. And sobbing.
On my fourth trip out to the sewer, I realized that a little girl and her mother were sitting on the opposite curb, watching my frantic and wretched efforts with wide eyes. The little girl said softly to her mother, “Mommy, what is that lady doing?” And the woman answered just as softly, “Sweetie, I don’t know.”
The memory of this made me laugh so hard that I fell onto the picnic table, crunching it completely flat into the ground. But, my husband wisely pointed out, at least we were pretty much done shaking the glass out of stuff.
But he did change the light bulb! And what’s what we were doing, neighbors. It’s our love language, okay?
We have ten kids, ages eighteen to almost two. We buy . . . . a lot . . . .of gifts. Here’s a list of fifty that our kids tried and liked this past year. They’re mostly under $50, and are in order from cheapest to most expensive, so it’s a little book-heavy in the beginning.
I’d also like to apologize for the graphic.
Most of these items are from Amazon. I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and all of the Amazon links in this post have my code embedded, so I earn a small percentage of the sale price, which is how we buy more presents for ten kids next year, and on and on it goes.
“I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” Possibly specific to the needs of my family. For the right person, it could be the best $4 you ever spent. When people ask how my kids deal with being one of the few Catholics in a giant public school, this sums it up pretty well.
This book came highly recommended by trusted friends for kids grade four and up, and it lived up to the hype. Original, exciting, and the author actually wrote it with care and wit, rather than just assembling a plot with the right keywords. Kids and I both enjoyed it. It’s part one of a series of four.
Another book my friends have been lauding forever. My first-grader just adores this series, which has ten books total. I admit I haven’t read it yet, but my daughter doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, so I respect her opinion.
This is the one of two items on this list that I haven’t actually bought yet, but it’s on my list — in this case, on my wish list. If someone gets it for me, I plan to grow ivy in it. Ivy will grow easily in water. I need green in the house to tide me over until spring!
This was a gift for the six-year-old, but everyone loves it, from the baby on up. Those orderly little drops, marching up and down the steps, hurrying or strolling, as you choose. Endlessly fascinating, miraculously never mixing. (There are any number of liquid motion toys to choose from. Great for babies, older kids who need calming down, or adults who need calming down. I once spotted a few of these toys in the waiting room at the washing machine repair shop, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t mind waiting.)
Matthew Alderman’s new offerings this year. Alderman’s style is so fresh and inviting, reminiscent of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in. Great stuff. Kids (and others) soak in knowledge as they color.
Corrie got this last Christmas, when she was teething hard, so it became known as the Corrie-o. The little ridges are perfect for sore gums. It’s bigger than a real Oreo, so not a choking hazard. Super cute, still a favorite after a year of gnawing.
How I adore this movie. It shows, without comment, everyday scenes from the lives of four babies, from just before they’re born until they’re learning how to stand. The families live in San Francisco, Tokyo, the Mongolian steppe, and Namibia, and their lives vary widely, but some things are always the same. Sweetness and a little melancholy, but mostly sweetness. I always feel restored after watching this short, gentle, agenda-free movie, and the kids love it.
Ben Hatke’s first installment in a new graphic novel series. It’s a reimagining of Jack and the Beanstalk, and it’s wonderful. You care about the main character right away; Hatke is generous with understated details that tell you what you need to know about the world they live in; and I have no idea what is going to happen next. Some serious themes — serious money troubles, danger, a younger sister who is autistic, and a difficult friendship — but suitable for kids age 7 and up, if they’re not highly sensitive.
We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.
My fashion-minded ten-year old would wear this every day if we let her (which we do). Pair it with the TARDIS hat (which she does) and and maybe the TARDIS dress, and you have a themed ensemble. The scarf is a stretchy rayon, machine washable.
This toy distracts the baby from your actual smartphone for maybe ten minutes. Worth every second. I like B. Toys because they make sounds, but they are intentionally soft; and they have an off switch. This one has held up well, and doesn’t gobble batteries too badly. Also records your voice, so the older kids are always pranking each other.
The large wooden balls are linked with elastic, so you can wear it like a bracelet, or you can roll and twist them to make all kinds of lovely clusters of color. Each ball is painted a slightly different shade, it’s pleasantly heavy, and it makes a soft clacking sound. Fine, I bought it for myself, and sometimes I let the baby play with it. We’ve had good luck with this brand, Manhattan Toy.
Whenever my kids put Calico Critters on the list, I grumble and complain about how stupid and pointless and expensive they are; and then I start shopping, and then I go, “AWWWWWWW.” They really are adorable. These are very small toys, so not great for kids who lose stuff; but they are sturdy and sweet, and come in dozens of different species. We also have the pool and sandbox set.
I actually resisted buying this kit, because it seemed dumb (ALEX toys are hit or miss) but one kid desired it greatly. It turned out to be quite good. The headbands haven’t broken after a year of use, which is almost a miracle; and she had a surprising amount of fun making different combinations.
My current favorite read-aloud. This book has an unusual focus for a children’s book: a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden — or so they think. A simple and hilarious story of unexplained magic, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life. The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.
My ten-year-old daughter worked to earn her very own ice cream and candy dress, but maybe you’d prefer beetles, constellations, or cute ghosties. More varieties, some of them truly bizarre, than you can shake a stick at. These dresses are on the short side for adults of average height, but work fine for shorter folks. They come with or without sleeves, and are made of a stretchy rayon material.
Oh, I lied, this is another thing I haven’t bought yet, but friends say it’s lovely. I’m a sucker for little worlds under a dome, and I love how this comes with a hanging hook. Friends say it’s brighter than you might expect. We recently redid the little girls’ room with two sets of bunk beds, so we may be investing in individual lighting for individual preferences.These come in three different colors, and you can get either the rabbit thing, or a plump little bird.
By far the nicest instructional ballet video I’ve ever seen. The music is pleasant, there are no bizarre mascots or intrusive animation, the teacher seems to actually like kids, and you will learn some true, basic ballet. We put a broomstick between two chair backs to make the required barre.
The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.
Quilling is making a comeback! A lovely, old-fashioned craft where you roll up thin strips of paper, loosely or tightly, then pinch them into various shapes. No end of possibilities here. You can make free-standing 3-D ornaments, glue the paper to eggs, make cards, or even jewelry. A very pleasant way to spend time. My nine-year-old needed a little help to get started, but she caught on fast.
With eight daughters, we’ve tried a number of jewelry boxes. A number. This one is by far the sturdiest, but it still looks delicate and dainty. The ballerina still pops up, the music still plays, the hinges still function, and the box is still a box. Pretty, silver-satin quilted design. Plays “Fur Elise.”
Probably the most-used piece of furniture in our entire house. This lived in our living room for at least five months, and saved my sanity while Miss Insano clambered up and threw herself down hundreds and hundreds of times. Folds for storage.
This is the absolute last untested item on this list! We’ve bought many items from The Little Dress-Up Shop, and have always been completely delighted, so I’m confident that this sweet, poofy ballerina skirt with rosebuds will be well-received.
42.Portable Bluetooth speaker, about $37
Exactly what we needed. It works with my kid’s phones, and lets them blast music while slaving away in the dirty dish mines or cleaning up the yard after the last raccoon garbage party. Easy to use, and a good value for the price.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one sword. This one is long, shiny and seriously heavy. Not sharp, but you definitely could kill someone if you tried. Not meant for heavy fighting, but good for stage or costumes or just swaggering around with a big-ass sword.
Greatest inspiration I’ve had all year. We now have two sets (they come rated for different weights), and they are adjustable. First kid went from zero skill to wobbling across the floor in a few minutes, and now she can jump, run backwards, spin, and do all kinds of terrifying stunts. Good exercise, good for improving balance, and great for building confidence. Excelsior!
Yes, this is the second trampoline we’ve bought. We finally destroyed the mat of the first one, and after several unsuccesful attempts to replace it (we kept buying the wrong size, the wrong spring size, etc. etc.) we just threw in the towel and bought a new one, upgrading to fifteen feet. I know all about the horrible stories of mangled faces and splintered tibias, but we are still a trampoline family all the way.
Baby loves it. Kids love playing with the baby on it. It’s instant entertainment at birthday parties, with or without water balloons and a sprinkler or Easter dresses.
Grouchy or sullen teens discover that life is worth living after taking out their troubles on the trampoline. And it’s a perfect spot for stargazing or sunbathing or lying down while the kids run around you, blissfully under the illusion that you are playing with them.
You really need a trampoline. (And if you happen to have a spare trampoline frame, you can wrap some chicken wire around it and make a garden fence, or maybe a chicken coop.)
Okay! That’s it for this year. Happy shopping! Thanks again for using my link when you shop on Amazon.
By Screenshot from “Internet Archive” of the movie Dracula (1958) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Because we are integrated Catholics, we observe All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and Halloween — the latter, by trick-or-treating, putting the little guys stickily to bed, and showing the older kids a scarier movie than we normally allow. And because I’m still in denial about just how many outrageous promises I carelessly made about costumes I’d be happy to whip up, I’m thinking hard about what movie we’ll show this year.
There are a bunch of mildly scary movies we can show the little guys: Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a favorite; and it’s fun to watch Abbot and Costello meet various creatures. And there’s always The Munsters, which is a truly terrible show, but the little guys love it.
What to show the middle kids and older kids? It needs to be scary, but not too scary. There are plenty of flat-out terrifying movies out there, but we’re looking for one that don’t introduce any themes or images that kids aren’t ready to deal with. Pure slasher movies, I oppose for people of any age, as I can’t imagine how you can learn to enjoy watching them without disastrously deadening some part of your soul. I’m also not a fan of supernatural horror movies, which give people the impression that religion is part dopey, part freaky.
The year I wrote this post, we went with Arachnophobia(1990). It was weird and funny, a well done, edge-of-the-seat creature feature. It’s classified as a comedy/thriller, which hits the sweet spot for me: The comedy makes us more vulnerable when the shocks come, but it also reminds us that it’s just a movie. John Goodman as the exterminator is hilarious.
Much gorier and much funnier, and also very moving in places, is Shaun of the Dead(2004), one of my favorite movies in any genre. It’s about a zombie near-apocalypse, but is just as much about friendship and love, and it convincingly shows the main character move from failure-to-launch slobhood to heroic manhood. But it totally earns the R rating, mostly because of the truly horrifying gore. We did let our 11-year-old watch this one.
We recently saw The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002). It beats me why The Sixth Sense is the more celebrated. It’s very good, but Signs is fantastic, and has so much more depth. It’s one of my favorite movies in general, and it will make you feel better whenever you start feeling down about Mel Gibson. The Village (2004) is pretty scary, but relies way too heavily on the plot twist; and, as I mentioned on the radio with Mark the other day, I had a hard time getting past the idea that the villagers would have bothered to pack things like decorative door hinges. I don’t pack like that.Unbreakable (2000) is tremendously underrated, so carefully crafted — Shyamalan’s best, I think.
Some darker choices: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I always feel defensive when my kids watch a Hitchcock movie — the man was so hard on his viewers. I still haven’t forgiven him for Vertigo. The nerve, confusing me that way, and making me upset about those awful people with their plastic hair! The Birds has a weird structure that makes it feel very dated. Vertigo is just nasty, but worth getting under your belt so you can enjoy High Anxiety.
Gaslight (1944). You think you know about this movie because you’re familiar with the term “gaslighting.” So watch it and find out why it’s a classic. So incredibly tense, so gorgeously black-and-white. The acting is subtle and superb and the pacing is exquisite. I’m adding it to my Netflix queue right now.
Diabolique (1954, not the apparently highly stinky 1996 remake). ONE OF THE SCARIEST MOVIES I HAVE EVER SEEN. You feel like you can’t even breathe for a good part of this movie. Very tricky plot, very nasty direction, and horribly, horribly French. Entirely effective if you feel like getting grabbed by the brain and shaken around for a while.
Lightening things up again: Tremors (1990). Okay, technically more of an action/adventure flick, but it will keep you on your toes. This is how our Halloween movie tradition got started: my son was so excited to be trick-or-treating, he bolted down the sidewalk, slipped on some dry leaves, and spent the rest of Halloween in the ER with a sprained wrist. So we showed him Tremors as compensation. It’s another combo of suspense, action and gore, with a satisfying and wholesome resolution. Very likeable heroes, and the paranoid survivalist couple is a scream.
Army of Darkness (1992) Just tons of fun. The fact that the diabolical villains are called “Deadites” — because they’re dead – will give you an idea of the tone of this movie. Brilliant slapstick, but scary enough that it’s not for anyone under the age of ten. (Also a sexy scene or two, which we handle, if littler kids are watching, by putting a pillow over the screen.)
Rear Window(1954) Another of my all-time favorites in any genre. I have something of a Cary Grant problem — have a real hard time getting past his blue hair — which means I often have a Hitchcock problem. But this movie features Jimmy Stewart instead, flexing his acting muscles on a character which is not as repellent as some Hitchcock heroes — but still, somethin’ ain’t right with that guy. Love it. And Grace Kelly and her astonishing dresses are so lovely, you don’t care that she’s kind of a dish of lukewarm pudding, actingwise. Oh, and yes, it’s scary! Suspenseful as all get out, and howlingly original in scope.
Island of Lost Souls is also on my to-watch list. Reliable sources have assured me it’s super creepy. It’s from 1932 with Charles Laughton, and is based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. IMDb’s plot summary:
An obsessed scientist conducts profane experiments in evolution, eventually establishing himself as the self-styled demigod to a race of mutated, half-human abominations.
Sigh. I dunno, are we sure this same story isn’t featured in the latest issue of JAMA? Anyway, Charles Laughton is always fun to watch. Also stars Bela Lugosi.
Speaking of Bela Lugosi, how about Dracula? 1931, the one and only year that saw the production of a genuinely scary vampire movie. Unless you include The Lost Boys (1987), assuming you can’t think of anything scarier than rice that turns into maggots — SCARY MAGGOTS, WHICH IS SO MEAN, YOU AWFUL VAMPIRES, YOU! Although Corey Haim bopping in the bathtub is genuinely horrifying. That recent Nosferatu movie stank on ice, in the way that only John Malkovich can make something stink on ice (that is, pretentiosly). I have heard that 30 Days of Night (2007) is terrifying — so much so that I don’t even think I can acknowledge that it exists.
Addendum: Okay, fine, I guess Dracula (1958) with Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, is a good one, too. We’ll probably watch that one this year.
This has nothing to do with anything; I just think it’s funny.
The older ones (we have three in high school this year) may go with The Silence of the Lambs(1991). I may be too chicken to join them.
Shaun of the Dead? Really? This movie has the following in it, and this is just the language! (from Screenit.com) At least 46 “f” words (1 used with “mother”), 2 “s” words, 4 slang terms using female genitals (“tw*t” and a possible “c*nt”), 4 using male ones (“pr*ck” and “c*ck”), 5 hells, 2 bollocks, 4 uses of “Oh my God,” 3 of “For Christ’s sakes,” 2 of “For God’s sakes” and 1 use each of “Christ,” “Jesus” and “Oh God.”
As evidence of my personal spiritual growth, I’d like to point out that I did not title this post “Tw*t” and a Possible “C*nt.”