When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The things we say

I think most people, when they become parents, assume that their new role will involve teaching of many kinds. Children need guidance to develop into their best selves; they need positive role models they can learn from and caring, knowledgeable people who can explain to them the differences between good and bad, right and wrong. I willingly embraced this responsibility when the boys arrived in our world, but honestly, sometimes I cannot believe the things I hear myself saying to them, things that one would think are just common sense and really, shouldn't need saying at all.

Let's take a look at a few recently uttered favourites:

Don't sit on your brother. In a house full of available comfortable seating, why is it that the boys need to be told repeatedly that their brother's back/legs/head are not good choices for a parking location? You would think that after a couple of times of falling off of said brother (who reacts to being sat on like a bucking bronco), each boy would learn his lesson and choose somewhere else to sit, but no. "Don't sit on your brother" is still a very popular refrain around here.

Your fork is not a catapult/magic pen/conductor's baton (insert other bizarre uses for a fork here). The boys have been using forks for years (just not usually to eat). It would seem a simple association to learn: The fork is on the table with the food, therefore it should be used for consuming the food. My creative two would rather use forks to fling things (usually inadvertantly while devising big plans for things completely unrelated to food), to write secret messages in the air, or to gesticulate wildly while singing a favourite song. I'd give them a spoon instead, but I'm afraid to see what uses they'd come up with for that particular utensil!

Take off your wet socks. Never mind how the socks got wet in the first place when they were supposedly protected by rainboots all day (I don't want to know!), but if you came home with wet socks, wouldn't you want to take them off right away to rid yourself of the unpleasant sensation of damp, cold feet? Not my Will. He wanders around the house for hours with wet socks after school (leaving a nice trail of smudgy footprints all over the place) and then complains when it's time to put his pjs on that his feet are all wrinkled like raisins. This has happened several times in the past month. Pssst.... buddy, take off your wet socks next time.

The guinea pig does not want a ride on the ferris wheel you built out of K'Nex. I am not a pet psychologist, but I think it's perfectly clear that a large vegetable-loving rodent was never meant to sit in a carnival ride made out of plastic rods and gears. Call me crazy....

Leave your rocks outside. The last time I checked, nowhere in our house was there a sign that said, "Park your dirty rocks here." Yet somehow, rocks (and their counterparts, little piles of sand) keep finding their way indoors. There have been rocks in Will's backpack and pockets, rocks in his desk drawers and storage baskets, and several times, Noah has been caught emptying his sand-filled shoes onto the rug in the front hall when he takes them off. The thought, "I found this outside, therefore it should stay outside" doesn't ever seem to occur to them. So strange.

Telling your brother to run straight at you and tackle you so you can film a live action scene with your camera will likely not end well. Does this really require any further explanation? Apparently it does, because it has happened more than once. Good grief.

In my role as a mom, I find myself reiterating ridiculous sounding phrases over and over again, in the hopes that one day, common sense will prevail. When it's not frustrating, it's quite comical. Thankfully, I also have a recurring thought that keeps me sane. When I look at my two boys in less bizarre moments, Will with his gap-toothed mischeivous grin and his heart on his sleeve, and Noah with his confident smile and wise eyes, I find myself realizing again and again what incredible boys I have. I hope at least they're listening when I tell them over and over how much I love them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A good sport

I have never been very good at sports. Put me in a pair of tap or jazz shoes and I've got grace, coordination, and strength, but whenever I encounter physical activity that involves balls flying at me, I either close my eyes, duck, or run away. It's pathetic, really, but I've come to accept my athletic limitations and have spent much of my life simply avoiding activities that involve balls flying at me.

This tactic stopped working so well once I became a mom to two boys who enjoy sports, and who are really happy when their parents play baseball, soccer and the like with them. It wasn't hard for me when the boys were little (I didn't think spongey softballs or soccer kicks by two year olds were very intimidating), but now that Noah and Will are older and already more skilled than I am in these things, I find myself once again running for cover whenever a ball is headed my way. The boys are too nice to say anything to me, but I'm sure it's become quite obvious to them that their mom is a bit of a dud in this department.

I'm happy to say, though, that I have found a set of sports equipment that we all enjoy playing with, made by ogosport. The equipment consists of two large, foam-edged disks with springy fabric centres and a soft Koosh ball (one that I don't feel I have to duck from!). It's a simple concept that provides us with many play possibilities and hours of active fun. We use the disks to bounce the ball back and forth to each other across the yard, or play solo by trying to see how high or how many times we can repeatedly bounce the ball in the air off the disk without it falling to the ground.

We also use the disks as frisbees, trying to see how many different ways we can toss and catch them. (Catching one actually looks and feels a lot like catching a pizza if you let the soft centre land on your hand or your head!)

The equipment can be used in as many ways as our imaginations can think of, and playing with it gets all of us running, jumping, throwing, catching, improving coordination, climbing (fences to retrieve the ball) and laughing.

I'm so glad to have discovered this ogosport game; it's allowed me to really have fun being active outside with Noah and Will, minus the worry of personal injury (to me, not the boys!) that traditional sports seem to carry with them. You can imagine how relieved I am now that I can leave baseball for Matt to play with our sons....

If ogosport looks like your kind of thing, I've seen this particular set, or a version of it with smaller disks, at places like Mastermind Toys, Chapters and Amazon. Believe me, if I can have fun with it, everybody can!

Hooray for spring and summer, and for the opportunities they provide for physical activity in the grass and the sunshine! What are your favourite ways to get active outdoors?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A fond holiday memory

Whenever I celebrate holidays with my lovely little family, my heart fondly recalls the many special times spent with my extended family when I was growing up. Sharing my old favourite traditions with my boys makes me feel close to the many wonderful relatives whose love helped me grow into who I am today, some of whom are no longer with us and whom I miss dearly.

Two nights ago, I had a dream about my mom's dad, my Grandpa Sweet, who passed away almost five years ago. In life, he was a kind, gentle, wonderful man with a warm smile and a giving heart, and in my dream, he had somehow called me on the phone and I had the good fortune of talking with him once again. I woke up feeling calm and happy, like he had really been with me somehow, and with my grandpa in my thoughts throughout the day, I remembered a favourite Easter story about him from when I was young.

My Grandpa Sweet often came to visit us on special days, and one Easter he showed up at our house carrying a large cardboard box. My young mind was racing with possibilities as I considered what could be inside it. I'm sure my mind wasn't the only thing racing, though; my mom's heart must have almost leapt out of her chest when she realized that the box had holes poked in it and my grandpa was handing her a head of lettuce to go with it. "You didn't!", she exclaimed several times in a shocked voice as she stared, wide-eyed at the box. My grandpa just smiled quietly and offered up the box for us to open. When we carefully lifted the flaps to take a peek, inside we found.... chocolate bunnies! It was a wonderful joke, one we all still laugh warmly about today, and one I think I'll always remember when Eastertime comes around.

Each holiday, as I look at the smiling faces of my two boys, I hope that they, too, feel loved and happy, that they'll grow up with hearts full of joyful memories and realize the importance of family in their lives. I sure know how much all my family means to me and how very blessed I am (and have always been) to have them.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter sundae

Long holiday weekends are glorious things, especially when the weather cooperates and the days are sunny and warm like it is outside here today. With three or four days off together as a family, it always seems that we have enough time for lots of fun as well as for getting some things accomplished around home. Matt, the boys and I enjoyed a wonderful day yesterday visiting and sharing a couple of meals with my aunt Christina, her husband James, and their two sweet little girls. The kids had a great time playing together all afternoon and searching for the multi-coloured eggs I had hidden for them, while the adults had a chance to talk and catch up on what's new in all of our lives. I'm always so thankful for opportunities to share holiday time with family; it's really what makes the occasion special for all of us.

Today Matt and the boys and I have been colouring eggs, playing outside, and getting some foods ready in advance of our Easter celebrations tomorrow. I'd been debating what to make for dessert all week, but seeing as how it will just be the four of us for dinner, I ended up deciding to keep it very simple. We'll be enjoying this little treat once we've had our fill of glazed ham, sweet potato casserole, and roasted veggies: Easter sundaes for Easter Sunday!

Our sundaes will be made using Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss (for Will and I -- it's a dairy- and gluten-free, relatively healthy and completely delicious frozen treat made from coconut milk), and real ice cream (for Noah and Matt). I'm going to offer a word of caution to those of you who might also enjoy ice cream sundaes: if the container of the frosty stuff you buy at the grocery store is labelled as a "frozen dessert" rather than "ice cream", then it's not ice cream. Sadly, many of the offerings in the "ice cream" section now fall under this category; they are made from edible oil products and modified milk ingredients mixed with sugar rather than actual milk or cream. (Read here for an enlightening look at what you're getting when you purchase "frozen desserts" instead of "ice cream".)

I'll complete each of our sundaes with some spring coloured sprinkles (I use gluten-free, naturally coloured ones) and a cute little chocolate bunny. I made the bunnies myself today using Easter candy molds and a bar of fairly traded dark chocolate (72% cocoa). To make your own bunnies, simply chop and then melt chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring often. Once the chocolate is melted, pour it into molds. Lightly tap the molds on a flat surface to get rid of any air bubbles. Refrigerate molds until chocolates are firm (about 20 minutes). To release chocolates, turn molds over onto a flat surface and gently tap them. These antioxidant-rich dark chocolate bunnies are lower in sugar and better for you than many of the chocolate bunnies you'll find in stores this time of year!

Noah and Will are really looking forward to enjoying these sundaes tomorrow evening. Tonight, they will be dreaming sweet dreams while the real Easter Bunny pays a visit to our house. Here's hoping your Easter "Sunday" is just as delightful as an ice cream one!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Easter eggs, naturally

When I was a child, colouring Easter eggs with my family was always one of the highlights of the holiday weekend. My mom and dad, my two brothers and I would sit around the covered dining room table, surrounded by cups full of dye, crayons and markers, tiny bottles of food colouring and Q-tips, stickers and egg cups, and we would all work our creative magic, transforming ordinary white eggs into colourful little pieces of art. It was always a great hour or two of family fun, and afterwards, I know I really enjoyed eating our special eggs for breakfast on Easter morning.

The egg colouring tradition is one I still love, now that I have my own two boys, and over the years we've experimented with many dyeing methods, all of which have involved some kind of artificial food colouring. Curious this year as to whether I could avoid the semi-permanent smurf-blue fingers and the chemicals that come with such dyes, I started investigating whether there was a good way to colour Easter eggs naturally. Happily, I discovered the internet is full of suggestions for ways to make your own dyes using readily available fruits, vegetables, and spices.

Feeling excited and intrigued by my findings, I started experimenting like a mad kitchen scientist with some of the ingredients suggested in the chart below (courtesy of About.com,Chemistry):

Natural Easter Egg Dyes

Small Quantity of Purple Grape Juice
Violet Blossoms plus 2 tsp Lemon Juice
Red Zinger Tea

Violet Blue
Violet Blossoms
Small Quantity of Red Onions Skins (boiled)
Hibiscus Tea
Red Wine

Canned Blueberries
Red Cabbage Leaves (boiled)
Purple Grape Juice

Spinach Leaves (boiled)
Liquid Chlorophyll

Greenish Yellow
Yellow Delicious Apple Peels (boiled)

Orange or Lemon Peels (boiled)
Carrot Tops (boiled)
Celery Seed (boiled)
Ground Cumin (boiled)
Ground Turmeric (boiled)
Chamomile Tea
Green Tea

Strong Coffee
Instant Coffee
Black Walnut Shells (boiled)
Black Tea

Yellow Onion Skins (boiled)
Cooked Carrots
Chili Powder

Cranberries or Juice
Red Grape Juice
Juice from Pickled Beets

Lots of Red Onions Skins (boiled)
Canned Cherries with Juice
Pomegranate Juice

You would laugh if I told you how many pots of boiling vegetables I've had going on the stove over the past 48 hours, trying to determine which food ingredients would result in the nicest egg colours, but it was actually a lot of fun! (I guess the boys and I are similar in that when we're curious about something, we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into a project!) The boys also thought this was a great chemistry lesson, and frequently came to check on the progress of the experimental eggs as they steeped away in their little mugs in the fridge.

If you are interested in colouring eggs the natural way, you, too, can experiment with the foods in the chart and see what you end up with. In the interest of saving you some time, though, I thought I'd share the ingredients and methods I tried that worked best for me.

To dye your own eggs naturally, you will need:

hard-boiled white eggs (cooled)
red wine
frozen blueberries
orange peel and cumin
chili powder
several saucepans, bowls and/or mugs, spoons

The first stage of this egg-colouring process involves preparing the dyes. Some ingredients require boiling to produce their colours; others can simply be used cold.

To make violet dye: Simply pour red wine into a bowl or mug. Add 2-3 tsp of vinegar.

To make blue dye: Add a handful or two of thawed and crushed frozen blueberries to a bowl or mug of water. Add 2-3 tsp of vinegar.

To make yellow dye: Add a few cups of water and a few handfuls of orange peel to a saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes or until it reaches a desired colour. Strain liquid into a bowl or mug; add 2-3 tsp of vinegar. (To make the colour deeper, I also stirred a few shakes of cumin into my yellow dye while it was still hot.)

To make pink dye: Add a few cups of water and a few handfuls of chopped beets to a saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes or until it reaches a desired colour. Strain liquid into a bowl or mug; add 2-3 tsp of vinegar.

To make orange dye: Add a few spoonfuls of chili powder to a bowl or mug of boiling water and stir. Add 2-3 tsp of vinegar.

*Note: Despite several attempts with different vegetables, I was unable to get a shade of green dye that was anywhere close to pleasant. If you try and have success, please let me know your secret!

Once your dyes are prepared and cool, add previously hard-boiled eggs to bowls and/or mugs and let them stand. I found I achieved the best results when I let the eggs soak in the dyes for several hours, and sometimes, even overnight. *Be sure to do this step in the refrigerator if you plan to eat the eggs afterwards.

If you wish to add some more creative elements to your eggs, try drawing designs on them with a white crayon, or wrapping rubber bands around them in an interesting pattern, or adding little circle or star stickers to them before submerging them in the dye. Remove the elastic bands and stickers once your eggs are coloured and your artwork will stand out beautifully.

Colouring eggs the natural way takes more time and effort than using artificial dyes, but the benefits are many. It's a fascinating educational experience and fun project for the whole family, it's healthier for you and for the environment, and the end result is beautiful eggs that reflect the lovely colours found in nature. Happy Easter!

Monday, April 18, 2011

A bookworm's breakfast - 6

When I was young, comic books were definitely among the many different materials I loved to read. I remember poring over Archie comics and books about the Smurfs, both appealing to me in that their bright and sequential illustrations added another element of interest to the characters and their stories. Many children I know today (including my own two boys) also find joy in reading this genre, and there are many excellent graphic novels and storybooks on library and bookstore shelves for them to choose from. In today's edition of A bookworm's breakfast, I'll share a few with you that we especially enjoy.

3-6 year olds: Bob and Otto by Robert O. Bruel

This is a lovely springtime book for young children, one that highlights the special qualities of the lives of both an earthworm and a caterpillar. While the two creatures have different purposes in nature, the story shows that each one is valuable, and the heartwarming conclusion demonstrates that friendship can endure even the most magnificent of changes. Children will delight in the vibrant illustrations that are often divided into panels or squares on the page and allow them to see character contrasts and follow unfolding conversations. Bob and Otto is a perfect book for children who are fascinated with the incredible workings of nature.

6-8 year olds: Sticky Burr: The Prickly Peril by John Lechner

"He's small! He's prickly! HE'S A HERO!" School-age children everywhere will be captivated by the adventures of the sticky, prickly characters in Burr Village, an assortment of burrs whose regular activities include jabbing squirrels and chasing small animals. When the unnaturally cheerful Sticky Burr suggests the burrs plan a fun fair for a change, a series of thorny developments involving spiders, beetles, and unsavoury villains ensues. Luckily, most of the burrs come to realize that being prickly on the outside doesn't have to mean they're prickly on the inside, too. Clever humour, engaging dialogue, and exciting action combine with wonderful comic book style illustrations to create an excellent read for 6-8 year olds.

9-12 year olds: Amulet, Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

(My 9 year old son Noah, who devours graphic novels as well as all other kinds, has written this week's book recommendation for 9-12 year olds.)

When Emily and Navin's family get into a car crash, their car and their dad (who is trapped in the car) fall off a cliff. Emily, Navin, and their mom must find a new home and settle down. However, when Emily finds a magic stone, and her mom is captured by an arachnopod, she and Navin must journey to the Charnon house to seek advice from their great-great-grandfather (and his robots) before he dies. This epic starting book in a series is the beginning of a quest taken by Emily, Navin (commander of the resistance), and Leon (a talented fox-man) to defeat the Elf King. The pictures in this graphic novel are well drawn. They are detailed and they help the reader to see what the author wants them to. Kazu's imagination pays off in this book. Because of it, he was able to create many robots, walking houses, mystical creatures, and more! I like how at certain parts there seems to be a glowing effect in the illustrations. It makes the images seem far more magical. If you like the Bone series of books, then this book will be perfect. (Thanks, Noah.)

I hope your family will enjoy one or more of these wonderful books that combine excellent storytelling with imaginative visual art. (Oh, and I think books make excellent gifts for Easter! Perhaps you might want to read some of the earlier editions of A bookworm's breakfast if you're looking for ideas....)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday morning

For many people, Saturday morning is a welcome reprieve from the mad dash undertaken every one of the previous five mornings of the week. There might be time on Saturday for sleeping in, for a leisurely cup of tea or coffee enjoyed while poring over the newspaper, for some puttering about in the kitchen in pyjamas late morning to make a decadent breakfast to savour. That is not at all what Saturday mornings are like in our house.

This morning's wake up call came at 5:30am, when a bright-eyed Will appeared in our room asking for someone to get him a drink. He went back to bed afterwards, but not to sleep, and by 6:30 Noah was awake too. Being up that early on a Saturday gives the boys' vivid imaginations plenty of time to devise a "plan" to execute; by 7:00am they were busy gathering supplies and making preparations to stage a dramatic re-enactment of Disney's Fastasmic! using toys, laser lights, and craft supplies.

It's pointless to continue trying to sleep while a production of this scale is being undertaken in your house, so Matt and I were also up early and able to watch the boys' creation unfold. First Will showed up in the kitchen looking like an odd sort of ninja, dressed head to toe in dark colours so he wouldn't be visible as he made various objects move in the show.

Then I heard Noah thinking aloud about needing more darkness in his room; when I went upstairs, he proudly showed me what he had rigged up using a blanket and his and Will's housecoats to block out as much light from the window as possible.

(Yes, those are the boys' housecoats hanging from the blinds.)

After that, the boys closed themselves behind the door to Noah's bedroom, and the top secret staging of the entire grand production began. Realizing we had an entire gloomy, rainy Saturday morning with the boys likely being occupied for hours, Matt and I took advantage of a good opportunity to do some much-needed and long-put-off painting in the basement. When we were finally allowed to witness the boys' finished project, it was quite a sight to behold. The forces of Good (green army men, knights, and robots) were poised to defeat Evil (dragons and snakes) in an epic battle dramatically lit by multicoloured lasers.

Noah and Will had also created an impressive five minute video of the scene, complete with sound effects from Will's electronic keyboard and a soundtrack of Europe's The Final Countdown from Noah's MP3 player. It was certainly a lot of activity and excitement for a Saturday morning.

Once upon a time, long ago, Matt and I used to sleep in until 9am on Saturday mornings. We'd have a leisurely cup of something warm while reading the paper, and we'd linger over a breakfast of pancakes or french toast before heading out for an afternoon of unhurried Saturday shopping. You know what, though? Once you've had a few weekend mornings filled with ninjas, dragons, and housecoats hanging from the blinds, sleeping in seems overrated.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Organized chaos

People who know me will likely agree that I've always been very organized, tidy, and efficient in life. The little perfectionist inside me works hard at and gets great satisfaction from keeping everything nicely under control. I'm forever a woman of lists and calendars that help me make sure everything gets done when it should. I accomplish dozens of things in a day, having mastered the fine art of baking muffins while simultaneously shopping, dusting, and writing a blog post. Everything in my home has a place of its own; even the three colours of dishes currently in the kitchen cupboards are stacked in a particular pattern (and I get all twitchy if a rogue plate ends up out of order). I've gone through four Swiffer Sweep'n'Vacs in as many years, because crumbs left on the floor put me in an unpleasant state of agitation. That's neurotic, you say? Definitely. But creating a sense that life is structured and orderly is what feels comfortable, safe, and right to me.

Having children, however, has forced to me to realize that there are simply some things that are beyond my control. I now share a life with two boys who, in some ways, are the antithesis to organized, tidy, and efficient. Whereas I prefer a pristine and uncluttered desk as an optimal workspace, Noah prefers a desk that looks like this:

Though I feel best when everyone is wearing freshly laundered and ironed jeans, Will is much happier in pants that look like this:

I often feel pressure to get the boys to "hurry up" so we're not late for something; they like to take their time, stopping to sing crazy songs in their underwear instead of getting dressed in the morning, or collecting and studying things along the road instead of walking purposefully to their destination.

The boys baffle me with the ever-growing pile of random Lego parts that they have going beside the family room couch, even though I've provided them with storage boxes to keep it all in. I scratch my head when a child who can explain how a rainbow is made repeatedly demonstrates a brain blip about colour sorting, throwing his white t-shirts into the laundry basket for dark clothes (if his clothes make it to the laundry basket at all). Admittedly, the path of clutter and chaos the boys continuously leave in their wake has left me hyperventilating or fuming on more than one occasion. I've often wondered where I've gone wrong in communicating to them the bliss that an ordered life brings.

Over the past several years, I have come to the realization that the nicely organized, tidy, scheduled life is my idea of perfect, not theirs. I try sometimes now to relax a little when I see the haphazard piles of books scattered about their rooms, or the mountains of "treasures" they've accumulated in their closets, because I've seen that our world doesn't actually fall apart when some part of it is disordered.

I'm not kidding myself: I still prefer most of life to fall neatly into place at my coaxing, and I continue to believe that planning, organizing, and tidying are important skills for the boys to learn. But in their sometimes scattered, silly, spontaneous ways, they've shown me that there can be joy in messes, too. My latest Swiffer vacuum has lasted much longer than my previous ones because it doesn't get used quite so much, and I've traded some of my schedules in for fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants family adventures. I'll also admit something shocking: the other night after dinner I got muddy jeans playing soccer with the boys... and I liked it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring greens

I washed all the winter snowsuits, hats, and mittens this weekend and put them away -- hooray! While I realize I'm probably asking Mother Nature for a spring snowstorm with that fact, the glorious sunshine and warm temperatures we've been enjoying the past couple of days, plus the happy little green shoots emerging everywhere around our yard, make me hopeful that spring has arrived for good. The weather has inspired me to think green in the kitchen as well, and while we still have a couple of months before fresh local produce is available, I've been incorporating the tastes of spring into our family meals wherever I can.

This delicious green salad is crisp and satisfying, with tart green apples, crunchy carrots and celery, and a hint of maple syrup's sweetness in the dressing. It matches nicely with ham or turkey and would be lovely with Easter brunch or dinner.

For the salad:

romaine lettuce, washed and torn
red leaf lettuce, washed and torn
celery, thinly sliced
carrot, grated
Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced then diced
toasted walnut pieces

Add desired quantities of lettuce, celery, carrot, and apple to a salad bowl.

For the dressing:

1 tbsp real maple syrup
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard

Whisk all dressing ingredients together and drizzle over salad. Toss gently. Sprinkle walnuts over top and serve. Enjoy!

One of my other favourite spring "greens" is asparagus, and Matt and I think that the best way to prepare it is by grilling the spears on the barbecue. If you get it just right, the asparagus comes out tender crisp and deliciously flavourful.

To grill this green vegetable:

Preheat the barbecue at a medium heat. Wash asparagus spears and remove the woody ends of the stems.
In a shallow dish, toss asparagus with a small amount of olive oil, and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Cook spears directly on the hot grill for 4-6 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stems), turning once halfway through cooking time.
Remove asparagus from the grill onto a serving dish, then drizzle a mixture of freshly squeezed orange and lemon juices over top. Sprinkle a bit of orange and lemon zest over asparagus and serve.

Asparagus with citrus seems just right for an Easter meal; we also enjoy it frequently this time of year with grilled chicken or pork tenderloin.

The fact that in the next couple of months I'll be out planting my own veggies again makes me incredibly happy. Until then, I'll keep thinking green and brightening up our meals with all the fresh spring flavours I can find.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The birds and the bees

I told the boys yesterday where babies come from. Not a version of the story that involves a stork, or a series of mumbled half-truths that skirt around the uncomfortable bits, but the real, honest facts. I'm feeling good that we've had the first of these big "talks", and really, it went very well considering the awkwardness often associated with the subject!

The boys have been asking questions about their bodies and babies for years, and I've always answered them honestly. They have inquiring minds like scientists, and have always been fascinated to know exactly how all of their bodies' systems work. They've long known the proper names for all of the male and female parts, understood that you need a fertilized egg to grow a baby, and could tell you exactly how a baby is born. Still, I wasn't quite prepared when, several weeks ago, Noah said out of the blue at the dinner table, "So, when a man and a woman decide they want to have a baby, what exactly happens? I'm really interested in finding out how it works." I knew if he was asking these kinds of questions, he was ready to know, but neither Matt nor I felt ready to explain it all to him in detail over dinner. Matt artfully dodged the subject, but I knew we couldn't just leave it at that indefinitely, so I bought some books that week, read up on what I felt I needed to know to be able to explain it well, and then told him and Will yesterday that I was ready to answer The Question.

The boys were quiet and respectful as I shared the wonders of procreation with them, but each of them reacted very differently to what they heard, and not in the ways I expected. Will sat listening intently, gazing thoughtfully at the pictures in the book I was using, and accepted it all very matter-of-factly, as if I had just explained to him how to make a peanut butter sandwich. He asked several good questions in the hours afterwards (and I'm sure many more will come as he continues to process the information). I think he thought the act of baby-making was quite an ordeal, and seemed to be reassuring himself that people would come out of it alright when he said, "Auntie * had a baby in her, and she seemed fine. And Uncle * seemed fine, too!" To him, the whole subject was fascinating, something to keep thinking about, something to marvel at.

Poor Noah, on the other hand, was traumatized. He looked like he wanted to crawl under a rock throughout our discussion, and when I finished explaining things, he simply said, "Interesting," and disappeared upstairs. After moping around for an hour and snapping at Will and I whenever we tried to talk to him, he finally admitted that he thought the whole thing was "disgusting", that the details were burned into his brain and he wished he could get rid of them. I felt bad for him, and tried to reassure him that from a science perspective, it really wasn't much different than understanding how the brain or the heart works. I'm still glad I told him; we all know that at his age, it won't be long before some kid spills the beans in the schoolyard, and who knows what kind of information he might get from that source? I would much rather he learn about sex from his parents, in a safe, loving, and knowledgeable environment. I think he'll be okay once the shock factor wears off (and Will tried all day to make Noah feel better by saying cheerfully, "Don't worry, Noah, I think it's disgusting too!").

As for me, I was surprised and pleased at how calm, matter-of-fact, and unembarrassed I was while talking with my two boys. I think it was because I was well-prepared. If you see this kind of talk coming to a family room near you soon, I would recommend the books Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle and The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It by Meg Hickling, R.N. The first book is wonderful for reading with your children; it explains things simply, honestly, with gentle humour and with illustrations. The second book is a valuable parent resource that outlines how to calmly answer your children's questions with age-appropriate information. (The author makes some compelling arguments for why it's important to talk to your children sooner rather than later, too. Based on Noah's reaction compared to Will's yesterday, I'm thinking it would have been better to explain it all to Noah when he was younger.)

As the boys get older, there will likely be many subjects that arise that will be difficult but necessary to discuss with them. I hope that by showing them an open, honest, and non-judgemental attitude in our early conversations, I've let the boys know that I'm someone they can always talk to about anything.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The unbreakable balloon

When Will celebrated his birthday with a party at our house almost a month ago, one of his little friends brought him a helium-filled foil balloon brightly decorated with the words "Happy Birthday". It was a very thoughtful gesture, and one that put a big grin on Will's face. For several days afterwards, Will could often be seen in the company of this balloon. He carried it with him from room to room, invented games he could use it in, and even parked it by his bed to sleep, where it hovered quietly next to him like a faithful friend, waiting patiently for him to wake up and play again the next morning. It was sweet to see how much joy this simple object brought him.

A week or so into the life of this balloon, however, it began to cause some problems. One night Will woke me at around 2 a.m. to tell me he heard a scratching noise in his room. He said it appeared to be coming from behind his nighttable, and he was worried that the cat might be doing something back there (which was impossible, since Will sleeps with his door closed specifically to keep the cat out). When I went to investigate, I found the balloon bobbing up and down near the heating vent. The warm air blowing up from the register was causing the balloon to scrape gently against the wall. I moved the balloon out of his room, and with the strange sound mystery solved, Will settled back to sleep. Shortly after that, the balloon seemed to disappear for awhile, and I forgot all about it.

Some days later, I was putting some clean clothes away in Will's room, and I was completely startled when I absent-mindedly opened his closet door and the balloon sprung out at me! I'm not sure how it got there (Will claims he had nothing to do with it!?) but it was starting to seem to me that this balloon had a life of its own.

Several weeks have passed since then, and while the balloon is beginning to look like a limp, wet noodle, sagging forlornly as it hovers close to the ground, it still has an unnerving way of showing up almost everywhere I go. When I look behind me after coming upstairs from the basement, the balloon is there, bobbing slowly and silently at the top of the landing.

When I walk past the family room, there is the balloon, half peering out at me from behind the bookshelves.

When I head upstairs to turn in at the end of the day, the balloon floats eerily beside my bed, unsettling me with its shiny quietness.

(I'm pretty sure there are two mischievous, grinning boys behind the balloon's location in this case, but who knows for certain?)

I don't have the heart to dispose of the balloon as long as it's still showing signs of life, but I'm starting to wonder how much longer I'm going to have to endure its moping, pervasive presence. I never guessed when Will received a nice balloon for his birthday that it would become the gift that keeps on giving (me the creeps)!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A bookworm's breakfast - 5

From the time Noah and Will could talk (and believe me, sometimes it seems like they were born talking and haven't stopped since!), both of the boys have been like roving sponges, seeking out and soaking up every interesting bit of information they can find. They love to ask questions (so many questions!) and truthfully, I just don't have all of the answers they're looking for. When we're all stumped, we like to head to our bookshelves, or to those in the library or a bookstore, to find out something new and fascinating to us. There is a wonderful world of non-fiction books available out there (thank goodness!), and this week in A bookworm's breakfast I'd like to share some excellent, informative reads with you.

3-5 year olds: Exploring Space by Marie Kolaczek (a Firefly Explore Your World Book)

This intriguing book explains some of the vast complexities of outer space in a way that is manageable and highly appealing to younger readers. Children are able to become engaged in learning about planets, space shuttles, satellites and more by opening flaps, spinning discs, pulling tabs, and even peering through a paper telescope as they read. The vivid comic book style illustrations paired with realistic ones provide readers with an effective visual connection to the many facts presented in the text. Exploring Space is a wonderful introduction to our solar system, a subject that is often highly fascinating to young ones.

6-8 year olds: National Geographic Kids weird but true! 2

Were you aware that some worms can grow to 100 feet long, or that a line of all the Harry Potter books sold could circle the earth twice? Discover these and more than 300 other wacky facts in this very informative and engrossing book! Newly independent readers will appreciate the short snippets of text on each page, and the combination of bright illustrations and gorgeous National Geographic photography makes every fact come alive for them. This is a perfect book for all children who like to discover what is astonishing, wild, or just plain weird in the world (and then amaze their family and friends with their incredible knowledge!)

9-12 year olds: The Dangerous Book for Boys, Canadian Edition by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

(This week's 9-12 year old book recommendation was written by my 9 year old son, Noah, who is a walking encyclopedia and a very fine paper hat maker!)

For the Canadian boy who is 7 years old and up, this book is perfect. Learn how to make a battery, tripwire, pocketlight, go-kart, and the fastest paper airplane ever. Learn about and make secret inks, codes, and much more! Read the rules of soccer and lacrosse, countless hockey facts, and check out the pawprints of different animals. Believe it or not, that's just the beginning! Once you think you've done it all, take the challenge at the end of the book. Then, when you can check off everything, there you have it: you're now a Dangerous Boy. This non-fiction book is excellent for when you're bored-down-to-your-skull-absolutely-nothing-to-do-bored, and I have spent countless hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings reading this book, and on every night of the week. I had a blast making the paper hats in this book for Mom, Dad, Will and I. For any boys reading this, The Dangerous Book for Boys is your chance to become nearly legendary. (Thanks, Noah!)

The world is bursting with fascinating things to learn, and I'm very glad for these and many other wonderful non-fiction books that allow us to constantly fuel the boys' curiosity. I'd love to hear about the exciting discoveries your family has made lately!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The juggling act of parenthood

When you're a parent, there are days when everything feels just right: your children are healthy, your home is full of laughter, life is running smoothly, and you bask in the glow of the wonderful world you've created for yourself. Inevitably, though, there are also days when the juggling act you were so wonderfully managing is suddenly halted by the dropping of a ball or two, and it takes real effort to get things moving in sync again. Today was one of the latter kinds of days in our house.

I've written before about Will's unique personality; there are times when he needs help coping with ordinary situations that cause him an extraordinary amount of stress. This afternoon was supposed to be his first lesson in a new swimming session, and because most new experiences make Will anxious, he was ornery and teary, nervous and obnoxious in the hours leading up to his lesson time. I put a lot of effort into working through the coping techniques we've been taught to use with him, and finally managed to get him to agree that it was highly unlikely that he would drown during his class, and probable that he would actually have a good time. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when he went willingly out the door with Matt to drive to the pool, and then felt a sudden dread when I saw the two of them back in the driveway less than thirty minutes later. Will was grinning from ear to ear; apparently the lesson had been cancelled, and he was thrilled that he had got out of going. I couldn't believe it, and knew that we would be right back in the same position next Sunday when it came time for swimming again. Luck was definitely not on my side in the early part of the day. But no matter, we thought. We would carry on, and find something else active and hopefully fun to do with Will.

We decided to get a head start on teaching him to ride his bike without training wheels, a feat we'd attempted several times last summer without success, because our little perfectionist isn't interested in learning a new skill; he just wants to be able to do it (and do it well) right off the bat. (I have no idea where he gets this from!) After convincing Will that he wanted to try two-wheeling today, and not next week (read "next year" in Will's mind), Matt got him set up nicely on his bike and headed off down the sidewalk with him. A few short, wobbly rides later, a frustrated Will decided he had had enough of that, and so the bike riding adventure ended about as well as the swimming adventure had. We decided we would go inside and try once again to turn the mood of the day around.

When Will came inside, I realized with an impending sense of doom that I needed to do another saline sinus rinse on him. (His nose has been horribly congested lately due to alternating colds and allergies.) If you had been here for the first time I tried this procedure, you would have run for cover knowing I had to attempt it again. I understand that it's not a very comfortable feeling to have water shot up your nose, and I'm very aware that Will is more sensitive than some other children, but the unbearable sound of his screams (multiplied by a thousand in the bathroom because of the ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall ceramic tile that the previous owner installed) was more than enough to scar me permanently. I took a deep breath and managed to get it done, even with a hysterical Will screaming at me that HE WAS CERTAINLY GOING TO DIE FROM THIS!!! and by the end, both of us were exhausted and fed up with the day so far.

When we sat down to have a snack together, Will, who was much calmer by this point, put his hand on my arm, looked at me warmly and said, "You know, I love you Mom." I knew he meant it. And that's why I've got to keep juggling those balls, even on a day like today, when I'd like to throw them all as hard as I can out the window. He appreciates when I help him to keep it all together; he needs me to show him that when the balls drop, you can just pick them up again and keep going, even when it seems like you have more balls than you can possibly manage. Today was a tough day, but if my experience as a parent has taught me anything, there will be many more days to come when everything feels just right once again.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Easter weekend recipes: Take a peep!

After a morning of laughter between the boys and I over some silly jokes and tricks celebrating the first day of April, I've turned my thoughts to Easter, and to what delicious foods we might enjoy together over the upcoming holiday weekend. The nice part about Easter being so late this year is that it might actually feel like spring here by then. I'm very happy about the likelihood of being able to hide eggs in the grass instead of the snow, as we've had to do some Easter weekends past. I'm also looking forward to an Easter holiday menu that highlights some of our favourite spring flavours!

Kelly over at The Spunky Coconut will be posting an exciting roundup of gluten-free Easter recipes on her site the week before the holiday arrives, and she has asked her readers to share their favourites for this purpose. I automatically thought of one of our family's best-loved holiday dishes: the sweet potato casserole. Some of you may remember me posting this recipe back at Thanksgiving, but I think it's worth repeating here now so it can be shared with others. The casserole contains one of nature's best sweet treats of springtime (maple syrup!) and it makes a lovely accompaniment to roast turkey or ham.

Sweet Potato Casserole

For years, my mom has been practically world famous for an amazing sweet potato casserole that she makes for most holiday dinners. Even the pickiest child at the table (usually one of my boys!) gobbles up his or her orange veggies when they are prepared this way. Because some of our family members need to avoid gluten, dairy, eggs, and/or cane sugar, I have modified the original recipe quite a bit, but I am happy to report that my version is still a favourite with old and young alike.

For the casserole:

3 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
1/3 cup unsweetened almond milk
1/4 cup real maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla

Stir these four ingredients together until well combined and place in a casserole dish that has been lightly greased with canola oil.

For the topping:

1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice

In a small bowl, toss pecans with spices and then sprinkle them evenly on top of the sweet potato mixture. Bake sweet potato casserole in a 350 F oven for 30 minutes.

Note: You will want to double the recipe if you're having a large Easter gathering.

This dish can be made ahead and then reheated in time for Easter dinner, thus saving you from having too many things to do on the day of your big meal. (Warning: You may have to restrain yourself if you hope to have any sweet potato leftovers for the day after Easter!)

Over the next few weeks, I'll post other recipes that you might enjoy for your Easter weekend celebrations. If you're looking for something new to try, be sure to check out Kelly's roundup at The Spunky Coconut as Easter approaches -- she's certain to have an inspiring collection of dishes and desserts!