Mow like a lady

Oh hey Millenial suburbia! Are you ready for this?
Oh hey Millenial suburbia! Are you ready for this?

I live in a neighborhood where people don’t mow their own lawns. I mean…a few of them do but most of them don’t. They work hard. Some of them travel a lot. Some of them probably grew up with “staff”. In my neighborhood, the sight of a woman mowing her lawn is so odd that people slow down, slack-jawed and stare as they drive past (I live on a busy street).

One day almost two years ago I slipped and rolled down a hill in my yard while mowing my lawn. It was the middle of the day, my 18 month old son was napping in his room, no one was around, and I was negotiating a particularly steep part of my yard when my foot slipped and I fell with a burning hot, gas filled, 60 lb, blade spinning, limb severing machine of death. We tumbled over each other like a pair of clumsy lovers and arrived at the bottom of the slope – me scream-breathing and the lawn mower sputtering and then still.  I picked myself up, brushed off the blades of grass, and hauled that hulk of metal and petrol back up the hill, all the while thinking about what could have happened if the mower blade had nicked an artery, or if I had broken a limb and my highly active toddler had woken up from his nap.  I did my mom-hysteria laugh for a few minutes, then I got serious. I fucking hated this lawn mower.

Thank God it hated me too.

Two months later it quit in protest. Perhaps it was tired of my lumpy, mossy, gigantic yard with multiple 90 degree slopes. Perhaps it didn’t like me on principle. One spring it decided to never start again. At the time my husband had just started a company with a few friends, and we couldn’t afford to buy a new lawn mower. Also at that time, I was incapable of thinking outside the gas powered lawn mower box. I decided to become an expert lawn mower mechanic. I watched YouTube videos on lawn mower repair. I would disappear into the garage and emerge days later with greasy hands, frizzy hair, and profane language spewing from my pores. I replaced the spark plugs, the air filter, I cleaned the carburetor, changed the oil, tried adding acetone to the gas tank…nothing worked. The last thing I tried was kicking my lawn mower and yelling at it. It still didn’t start.

Go to Hell, lawn mower. You are so terrible, you don’t even have a name.

Time passed. Winter happened. Grass stopped growing. I started working – a lot. The Lawn Boy languished in the garage like a 30 year old still living in his parents basement: watching daytime TV and eating stale marshmallows from the baking cupboard. In the mean time, I did some research and discovered The Push Mower. It’s name…is Walter. I envision my push mower as a male in his early 40s, with a high waisted pants and spindly arms, who wears thick-rimmed eye glasses and short-sleeved button downed shirts.  The uniform of the 50s dad.

According to The Art of Manliness: “the reel [push] mower isn’t just a viable option, but is in some instances superior to its gas-powered cousins.” To that I would like to add “it’s so easy, even a lady could use it”. Or any woman. In fact, if I pushed my gas-powered beast around while I was pregnant while my husband sat inside and complained of a “grass allergy” I think the whole lawn mowing as a manly art thingy needs to be reevaluated. But I don’t wish to rabbit trail this article. Here’s the meat of the matter: push mowers are so awesome, so much easier, greener, and sexier…I am still trying to figure out why everyone doesn’t do it.

Why everyone claims they can’t use a push mower

1) Space: In my neighborhood, the houses are built as large as possible, so most of the yards are only the size of a quilt square. There goes THAT argument. For those of you with bigger lawns…I mowed my 8025 square foot parcel in less time than my gas mower.

2) Energy: This is the thing that really made me think twice. Ultimately, I deciced to buy the mower because I am fighting a teensy bit of sedentary office worker weight gain (12 lbs since August 2014) and I thought that I would get a better workout with a push mower. Wrong. This mower is so light and airy that it took less energy and less time to finish my lawn. I felt kind of…cheated.

3) Maintenance: Yeah, you have to sharpen the blades of your push mower every year or two. You know what you don’t have to do? Shlepp to the gas station and fill up a can of incendiary liquid and then transport it and store it near or in your place of residence. You don’t have to change any oil, or filters, or carburetors.

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Marvel at Walter’s simplicity. There is a lawn-subduing warrior in there.

There is some weirdness with a push mower.

Oh yeah…fantastic weirdness.

1) The sound. It sounds weird. For people like me who have been conditioned to think that the smoky roar of a gas powered mower is a true sign of spring, the push mower will alarm you. It sounds like grass being cleanly and efficiently sliced. The mower makes a crisp, subtle whoosh as it cuts through grass. I felt conspicuous at first but once I got over it I enjoyed the metallic, sharp sound of my grass being subdued.

2) The Look. Oh…my Tesla/BMW/Lexus/Mercedes-driving neighbors were appalled at my gas powered mowing from last year, but the push mower was just.too.much. One woman even stopped her SUV in the middle of the intersection that I live at to swivel her head and stare. Although I was acutely self conscious the first time I mowed, after 10 minutes I decided to own it: I’m a woman, a working woman, I don’t wear Prada, I drive an old Jetta, and I mow my own damned lawn…on my own womanly power. Hear me roar!!

3) The mess. Walter (my push mower) has a mulch-catching basket. This time around I decided to let it mulch the lawn because it’s good for the grass, so I haven’t tested the basket yet. I prefer to toss the lawn clippings onto the compost heap (stinky black gold). So next time I’ll try the mulch basket out so I can compost some of those fantastic, nitrogen-rich greens.

4) The quality of lawn. I was satisfied with the quality of the clipping from my $80 push mower. The mower had the ability to very easily adjust the grass height, and I never had trouble getting through longer grass. There were a few parts of my lawn that I let go and they were over 6″ long – those parts had to be remowed. This wouldn’t have happened with a gas powered mower…but I wouldn’t trade the experience. Now that I actually own a functioning mower my grass won’t get that long again.

The verdict: Oh, I think you know where I stand here. The push mower is lighter, doesn’t require maintenance other than a yearly blade sharpening, it’s quiet, cute, better for the earth, and better for your lawn, and you can easily store it even if you don’t have a garage. I easily mowed my lumpy, sloping, mossy, 8000+ square feet in less effort than with a gas or electric mower. And I have smug-points for being energy neutral (I ran off of pure butt-cellulite power).

I think Walter and I are going to get along juuuuust fine.

Dinner zen: Beef and cilantro soup

Transcendent soup experience! Soup zen! Souper soup!
Transcendent soup experience! Soup zen! Souper soup!

When Huzzybee and I were hanging out in Shanghai a few years ago we set out one morning in search of breakfast. We crossed Nanjing Road and walked underneath Xizang Middle Road into a quiet neighborhood near People’s Park, where rows of middle-aged residents were gracefully doing some morning calisthenics, and the smog obscured the rest of the city, making us feel like we were walking in a crystal ball. We were in search of food, but we didn’t know what we would find, and the only words either of us could speak in Mandarin were “hello!”, “thank you!”, “I am an American”, “I like to drink coffee” and “hurry up”. After meandering like dumb tourists down some side streets we eventually found a long line of locals who were queued up to eat in a tiny soup dumpling shop. Naturally, we got in the line. When we reached the soup counter we found cooks ladling fragrant beef broth from several massive cauldrons into white ceramic bowls. Nearby, several men were busy roasting soup dumplings on a grill until their tender skins were toasted a dark brown. People sat quietly on wooden benches, opening the steaming dumplings and sipping spoonfuls of broth. The quietness was in stark contrast to the chaos of money-obsessed Shanghai outside. The diners were eating their food with reverence. Huzzybee and I knew we had struck soup dumpling gold.

Although there is no way I can truly replicate the soup nirvana that we entered after our first bite that morning, I have clumsily assembled an approximation of the beef and cilantro broth that was served to us. My recipe omits the overnight boiling of beef bones and cheats with ready-made broth or bouillon. There is no way I can figure out how to make BBQd soup dumplings on my own.

So, four years after our religious soup experience, this is my go-to meal when I am out of ideas, exhausted, want to appear impressive, and have a bunch of cilantro loafing around the house (those four conditions are present in my life more often than they should be because I have a busy toddler and wild cilantro growing all over my yard). This meal is fast, easy, and very tasty.

Beef and Cilantro Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lb of cubed stew beef
4 cups beef broth or 4 cups water plus 2 tablespoons beef bouillon
2 cloves of diced garlic
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, washed and removed from stems
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 packet dried rice noodles or 1 cup of white rice (optional)

Method:
Have all of your ingredients ready ahead of time. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until the oil starts to shimmer but not smoke. Add the stew meat and sear, turning the meat so all sides are cooked. After about 3 minutes add the diced onion and cook onion until slightly translucent and fragrant. Pour in the beef  broth and add the 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low and simmer for at least 2 hours. I like to let mine cook for 3 or 4 hours on very low heat. Toss in the cilantro just prior to serving. For a healthier meal, eat the soup as-is. To bulk it up a bit, pour over fresh, steaming white rice or freshly prepared rice noodles.

This can also be made in a crock pot. Just add about 1 cup of additional broth to the recipe and cook on low for 6 hours. As above, add the cilantro and rice/noodles just prior to serving.

Best Refrigerator Non-Essential: Ready-to-eat salad

Lettuce, kale, thinly sliced zucchini, carrots and tomatoes - all came from my garden last year.
Lettuce, kale, thinly sliced zucchini, carrots and tomatoes – all came from my garden last year.

It’s tempting to call this a refrigerator essential instead of a non-essential.  Ready-to-eat salad is a tired, chubby, overworked momma’s salvation.

This Matron is a bit of a rabbit.  I grew up with a very large garden, which my parents tended to with incredible dedication.  They spent the winter nurturing their steaming compost pile with yard waste.  In the spring they tilled the soil and then unleashed their small flock of chickens into the garden patch to feast on worms and bugs (while simultaneously fertilizing the soil with their droppings).  They planted spring crops of radishes, carrots, peas, and rhubarb, summer crops of corn, peppers, tomatoes, broad beans, beets, lettuce, and cucumbers, and fall crops of squashes, cabbages, grapes, and potatoes.  Vegetables, and especially salad, were a way of life.

Last summer I gardened like a mad woman, but now that we’re in the dead of winter I have one droopy basil plant in my window that has been begging me for a merciful death, and the antiseptic bounty of my closest supermarket to quench my thirst for veggies.  As often as possible I try to keep a big bowl of salad in my refrigerator so that if I need a snack I can have one already made.  It’s a good thing to keep around, simple to make, and relatively inexpensive.

You will need:

A cutting board
1 large chef’s knife
1 small paring knife
A large, non-metal bowl
Whatever vegetables you can find in your fridge, but the standards are lettuce, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and carrots
Veggie add-ons: canned garbanzo beans, black beans, artichoke hearts, avocado, etc. (optional)
Non-vegetarian protein: Tuna, cooked chicken, hardboiled egg, sliced deli turkey, etc (Optional)
Vegetarian protein: A piece of hard parmesan, crumbled blue cheese, feta, cottage cheese, tofu, cooked quinoa, etc. (optional)

Wash and spin your lettuce (if using any).  Chop your veggies relatively small. Do NOT add the following until you are ready to eat: salad dressing, cheese, croutons, tomatoes.  Why?  Well, cheese makes everything a little funky.  Croutons will get soggy.  Salad dressing makes your salad limp and watery. Tomatoes lose their flavor in the fridge, but they can be especially unappealing if they have been chopped up and left to take on a mealy and bland texture in a salad for three days.  I make my salad on Sunday nights and it usually lasts through the week.  Whenever I am feeling peckish I always head to the salad bowl first.  Generally I am too busy to make elaborate meals, and I am always more inclined to grab the quickest, easiest thing.  If there is a ready to eat salad in my fridge I will eat that instead of cold pizza slices or sugary cereal.

You can make your salad out of anything.  Sick of lettuce?  Garbanzo bean, green onions, tomato, and purple cabbage make a great, hearty salad with some olive oil and red wine vinegar.  Try water packed tuna with hearts of palm, tomato, green onion, and a splash of lemon juice and olive oil for a protein packed salad.  In the summer time I love to eat fresh sliced cucumbers and ripe tomatoes with some cilantro and a small dollop of sour cream mixed in instead of a vinaigrette.  Just remember – go easy on the cheese, never add dressing until just before you eat your salad, and don’t be afraid to get creative!

Want to stick to your resolutions in 2015? Make 12 goals instead of 1.

What kind of dysfunctional weirdo eats ice cream for lunch?
What kind of dysfunctional weirdo eats ice cream for lunch?

Last year I resolved to use up all of the free samples in my medicine cabinet because I thought it would be an attainable goal and it would make me look younger. Well, my medicine cabinet is as cluttered as ever and I look like I’ve aged 5 years instead of 1 since January, so let’s just write that off as a totally predictable failure.

By February, Huzzybee and I decided to start making monthly resolutions, reasoning that we were too tired to remember what our yearly resolution was, much less stick to it.  We each chose a resolution for the short month of February, wrote them out on a piece of paper, and taped it to the fridge: Huzzybee resolved to turn off computer/laptop screens by 9:30 p.m. every night. I resolved to stop snacking after dinner – a habit that I picked up from pregnancy that I’ve never been able to kick. Jointly, we promised to be nicer to each other. As it turns out, knowing that you only have to do something for a month is a lot less annoying, but it’s just enough time to form a habit. February was a success: we stuck to our promises, and had no trouble continuing to stick to it later in the year. We made new resolutions in March: Huzzybee did pushups in the morning, and I decided to wear something other than yoga pants every day. After a month, Huzzybee was completely uninterested in doing more pushups, and I decided that I wasn’t emotionally prepared to give up yoga pants for the rest of the year. In April I resolved to go running 3 times a week with the warming weather – and so it continued. Some of those resolutions I have kept (the running), and some I dropped (giving up sugar entirely, which is completely insane).

Starting January 1, I am resolving to be in bed with the lights out by 9:45 because I can’t drag myself out of bed in the mornings, no matter how well I sleep. If by February 1 I find that this earlier bed time has no effect on my ability to get out of bed in the morning, then I’ll drop it and try something else for a month – and I won’t beat myself up about it.

What monthly resolutions will you make this year?

 

Storm-proof your fridge (and stockpile batteries and wine)

We have a big windstorm rolling in tonight and although we rarely lose power any more it doesn’t hurt to do a little prep ahead of time: wash and dry laundry, make sure dishes are clean, charge all of the chargy thingies with batteries, stockpile flashlights, candles, and wine.  Oh, and prep the fridge.

Everyone likes snuggles, even dairy products.

I like to take potential power outages as a nice opportunity to defrost a chicken for the soup pot when the power returns. I double bag a chicken (or pot roast, or something that takes at least 2 or 3 days to defrost), sometimes even wrap it in a towel to hold in the cold, and then snuggle all of my extremely perishables around it.  General rule of thumb: the warmest part of the fridge is at the top and the coolest is at the bottom, so move anything that could spoil to the bottom shelf. Same goes for your freezer: keep all of your frozen items close to each other, and if you’re really prepared you can freeze some water bottles a day in advance to help everything stay cold. It may be necessary, in the event of an emergency, to eat all of the ice cream. Be prepared.

 

 

 

The not-so-glamorous art of hand bleaching

Bleachyhands
Once you get pas the fact that bleaching your hands is terrible, your hands will start to feel wonderful.

 

Here’s the thing: not everyone who has eczema needs to do this or should do this. I have to soak my hands in bleach water because I experienced back-to-back staph infections that required weeks of antibiotics to cure. The bleaching was a way to keep the staph at bay. I’m not a dermatologist, and bleaching my hands didn’t cure my eczema – it just made it so that I could hold and play with my small son without worrying that I could accidentally kill him.

I have never been terribly good at identifying when I have a staph infection from my hand eczema, but here are a few of the signs that I did recognize somewhat regularly:

– Redness, soreness, and “warmth” in the affected area

– Extreme fatigue

– General feeling of malaise

This, of course, could describe a lot of things. For a while I would dash off to the doctor every time I suspected an infection, until finally I was given an open prescription and permission to diagnose and treat myself. Antibiotic use is hard on the gut, and messing around with antibiotics and staph infections is part of what gave the world MRSA today. I opted for bleach instead of drugs. It took me a while to get used to the idea of soaking my hands in bleach water, and I made some messy mistakes the first few times.  Here’s what I recommend:

1. If you have a child or a pet who could potentially distract you, do this when they are asleep or contained somewhere else for at least 10 minutes.

2. Have everything you need assembled ahead of time.

3. Don’t add more bleach to the water than the recommended amount (I tried. It burns. Don’t do it).

4. Use tepid water: not too warm, not too cold.

5. Don’t do this every day. At most I will bleach my hands 3 times a week, but only if I have a lot of open sores that could potentially become infected.

6. I find that it is easiest to do this with the bowl of water on my coffee table while I kneel on the floor in front of it (TV on, of course, because this task is very dull).

In a very large mixing bowl add 1/8 tsp of bleach to 16 cups of tepid water. Seems minute, but trust me, if you increase the amount your hands will itch and burn in the water. I think this goes without saying, but since there are so many fancy and over-marketed bleaches out there: use Chlorinated bleach, unscented, not the color-shield kind, and not the “splashless” kind. Just plain ol’, cheap, nasty, stinky bleach.

Make sure you have within reach:

– A timer (I use my cell phone)

– A hand towel that you don’t mind destroying

– Cotton liner gloves

– Your medicated creams if you use any (I have Mupirocin and Triamcinolone nearby)

– A tube of Vaseline  or some other unscented hand cream right next to you

Settle in, put your hands in the water for 8 to 10 minutes, watch some bad TV. When the timer goes off pat your hands dry, put on your medicated creams and wait a few minutes for them to soak in. Then put on your moisturizing cream/ointment (for me it’s Vaseline), put your cotton liner gloves on over everything and keep them on for another hour. Empty the bleach-water immediately.

 

 

How to dress for work when you’re broke

Not only are you broke, but if you’re a Reluctant Matron of one or several toddlers you also have to navigate a maze of yogurt-covered hands, spilled orange juice, and mysterious brown stains every morning when you get ready for work.

That’s right, I said “work”. I started working again almost a month ago, and two things occurred to me straight away.  First, unlike my previous experience reentering the workplace, this time I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from me. I practically skip off to work in the morning and reluctantly drag myself home in the afternoons. I love talking to people every day. Big, adult people with large vocabularies who are completely uninterested in potty training techniques.  Second, as I mentioned in a previous post, my entire wardrobe (the stuff that isn’t tattered yoga pants) is ill fitting and out of date. Having my own personal little money vacuum (baby) and my big money black hole (weird old house) means skipping off to the mall or spending hours online shopping with a glass of wine is no longer as gratifying as it used to be.  Here are some essentials for Matrons who head back to work on a skimpy budget.

Assess the situation

Ok, you still haven’t lost that last 7 pounds, and the last time you shopped for business clothes Barak Obama was in his first term…or perhaps Dubya was in his second term. It doesn’t matter – the point is, you just noticed that your closet is mostly full of grass-stained jeans and maternity clothes with a spattering of very dated trousers and sweater sets. Take a deep breath, put the kids in bed, pour a glass of wine and empty your entire closet. Pull out all of your jewelry and your shoes. Sort through the items that absolutely will never fit again or those that are extremely outdated. Set aside things that you cannot wear to work (tattered yoga pants). Now start trying on combinations of your clothing and rediscover what you own. Put together at least 3 outfits if you can. Don’t get rid of things that are slightly outdated – the key is to disguise them into you daily outfit for a while until you can afford to replace them one at a time.

The foundation

 

Slide1

Your foundation pieces need to be classic and solid colored. Yes, this means boring old black slacks, skirt, dress, and shoes. Choose items that fit and flatter you. If you have to spend a little more on these pieces in order to get a really good fit, then splurge. I have one pair of black trousers, a black pencil skirt, and a black button-down shirt dress, and black patent leather pumps and I have owned all of them for at least 7 years. Now that I can fit into them all again they hold up to the test of time. I also invested in a black blazer, which is perfect for disguising slightly out of date shirts underneath.

Add (cheap) accessories

Slide2

 

My favorite place to buy costume jewelry: World Market. I can find unique statement pieces in that store that add personality to an otherwise uninteresting outfit. I rarely pay more than $10 for any one piece of jewelry at WM.  Some other good places for accessories are thrift stores (you can find unique items that no one else will own), garage sales, your mother’s attic, or discount department stores (T.J Maxx, Marshalls, Winners, or if you’re feeling like a big spender, Nordstrom’s Rack). Experiment with scarves – tie them around you head, around your waist, around your neck.  My lovely friend Xiaoqi taught me to tie a little silk scarf onto my purse so I can coordinate my purse with my outfit, and have an emergency accessory if I need it. With the right accessories you can re-wear your classic items several times without drawing too much notice (actually, no one notices but you).

Trendy items

Slide3

Personally, I am not a trendy dresser. I like classic cuts and materials, and the only print I wear is stripes. Call me boring if you want, but I prefer to be called “cheap” because when I buy something classic I can wear it for a decade.  However, if you like to be wearing the latest trends, this is the time to swallow your pride and head to what my mom would call a “teeny-bob shop” like Forever 21 or the Jr.s department at Target. Pay as little as possible for these items because trust me, you’ll only wear that neon pink and gray-printed blouse with the sheer cutouts for two years at the most before you realize that fashion has moved on.

Listen to your body and your bank account

At the end of the day, we are all shaped differently, and the best thing we can do is find fit, colors, and pattern that work the best for our own unique body type and complexion. If an item really, truly fits you well but is a few years out of date chances are it still looks fantastic on you. This is something that gets lost in our fast-pasted and consumer-oriented culture. Wear what looks nice on your and wear what you like. If you accessorize with self-confidence you will always look fashionable. Your bank account agrees with me.

Fast, fresh, healthy: Cucumber, mint, and yogurt salad

Summertiiiime, and the cooking is easy...
Summertiiiime, and the cooking is easy…

Summer. Warmth and BBQ smells envelop my neighborhood in muggy, mesquite hug. The tomatoes in the grocery stores go from mealy and bland to red savory fruits of the gods. Søren gets to run around free and diaperless, furtively stealing peas and beans from the vegetable garden and tinkling in the flower beds.  Summer is also the season when I can look like a good cook with almost no effort because I have a few tricks up my (short) sleeve: want your salad to look artisan? Go find a few nasturtiums in your yard (the cheapest and easiest flower to grow) and throw them into the salad bowl. Artisan.  Want your hamburgers to look and smell like they were made by hipster foodies who wear wool caps and beards in the summertime? Chop up a red onion and soak it in some apple cider vinegar for a few hours. Dump in the remnants of your sugar bowl and tell everyone that you used small batch turbinado (or whatever). Bam! Hipster burger condiment.

I’m feeling a little weary of hipsters these days.

This is the time of year when I make Cucumber, Mint, and Yogurt salad, because it must only be made when tomatoes and cucumbers are in season and at their peak flavor. I grew up eating this refreshing snack, and while I know that it is inexpensive and easy, to the uninitiated the flavors can be impressive.

Cucumber, Mint, and Yogurt Salad

Ingredients:
1 medium cucumber, chopped into large pieces
2 roma tomatoes, diced and seeds removed
1 clove garlic, diced
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
pinch kosher sea salt
1/2 cup plain, whole greek yogurt
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

Method:
Put the yogurt in a medium mixing bowl and add the salt, cumin, mint, and garlic. Mix until everything is incorporated, then add the cucumber and tomato. Stir gently and serve immediately.  This salad doesn’t like to sit for long in the refrigerator, so it needs to be eaten within the hour. It can also be jazzed up with some chopped italian parsley or some finely diced preserved lemon.