Hi everyone! Thus begins a new chapter for me. Please head over to petersoutowood.com for all new content. There will still be the same inane blog posts featuring frequent mistakes in parenting and life, unsatisfying bedtime stories, and things sure to embarass my children when they’re older. There will still be many bread and baked-good recipes, including the baffling popular rainbow unicorn cupcakes. To all those structural engineers around the world who come searching for “shear punch failure” will not be disappointed–the archived blog post is here. Everyone looking for gruesome crime scene photos will arrive at this post, get disappointed, then delighted when they move on to the rest of the site.
But there’s more! I will be promoting my first released book, “From Border to Border: Crossing the Continent by Land Rover” and the new website will have links, exclusive interviews with the author, and possibly some bonus content that didn’t make it into the book. I’ll also have previews of my upcoming books and other writing trifles.
I hope all my subscribers head on over and please tell your friends.
Every time I think Child Harbat might be not quite as extroverted as I observe, she does something that reinforces my beliefs. I’m used to being forced to be an audience member for tricks in the pool, shows in the living room, shows in the hallway, dance routines, puppet shows, the list is as manifold as layers in an onion. She will creep out of bed at night to come in the living room because she has to “tell me something” and gets furious if she is interrupted during one of her long rambling stories. This kid loves to talk and be around people. But she gets tired and cranky through overstimulation and I can tell when she needs a little break. Her quiet time doesn’t include naps any more, as much as she needs them, but she’ll instead fall asleep in the car in a matter of minutes, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. What happens during quiet time at home? Usually it involves some kind of project. And in case you had any doubt about who wants to be at the center of the social wheel, see the exhibit below. Who is in the center, the gravity well of all planetary bodies, the origin point, the aleph, the source? You guessed it.
Child Harbat: “Babbo, I want you to tell me a story tonight but not like you usually tell it.”
Me [acting innocent]: “Oh, like how?”
CH: “Okay, I’m going to tell you but this ISN’T the story for tonight. Okay?”
CH: “Once upon a time there was a banana. And its name was tomato. THE END!”
Me: “I liked that story! But okay, here’s a real story. Once upon a time, three animals decided to open a pet shop. There was a giraffe, who was good at getting things off the top shelf, a rat, who was good at burrowing through the garbage, and a polar bear, who was white and made things cold. But none of them had any business management or accounting skills and the shop shut down within a month. The end.
CH [scowling]: “Babbo, that was a banana story!”
Me: “Night night!”
Boredom liquefies the brain. We are not only social animals but working ones. Don’t let the stereotype of slack-jawed youth fill your head–today’s young ones are energetic and ready to do their part! Already at one and a half, Number Two sets himself to tasks with the steady gaze and seriousness of a young communist. Together forward to a greater good! After I pick him up from school and we enter the front yard, I shut the front gate and our little rusted Himalayan bells ring to signal the afternoon work shift. Number Two squirms to be let down so he can commence his job which, as far as I can tell because he can’t talk yet, consists of moving wheeled objects around the yard. That wagon there? It belongs over by the dirt pile, comrade. I will take this task on myself, he says with a dismissive wave, you fill out the paperwork for the High Committee.
Please note the feast-famine dividing line of our front walk. The herb bed on the left is irrigated so the mint is on a non-stop breathless growth spurt. The grass on the right died when the rains stopped a few months ago, sent up some seed pods that harpoon into every piece of fabric within ten feet, and even those were ground into dust. Life and death with a narrow DMZ between–there must be a story in that somewhere. But here I am telling stories during work time! Together we will sing inspirational songs for the fatherland while we labor! Number Two now must fill plastic tubs with gravel and dump them out, then push the wagon in worrying acceleration toward the gate like a battering ram. With a crash and reverberation of the entire gate and fence the time is announced to go on an afternoon wagon ride around the neighborhood. Labor is made refreshing by a tour of the countryside, no? Climb aboard, brother, we are spreading the message to the Proletariat!
There’s this saying, “If it tastes good on its own, it’ll taste good on a pizza”. I haven’t had an ice cream pizza yet, or a Cheerios pizza, but I have my doubts. If you reduce pizza to its basic elements–cheese, crust, tomatoes–you have surprising latitude for improvement. Maybe a different cheese? How about heirloom tomatoes, or a special crispy sourdough crust? There’s a reason the well-known Neapolitan pizza undergoes scrutiny to be labeled as Specialita Tradizionale Garantita Pizza Napoletana. Simple ingredients have to be prepared just so, and it is in the simplicity and attention to detail that the pizza is worthy of a special registration. Of course only in Italy or France can you see such religious devotion and legalization of things like the method of spreading sauce on a pizza crust but there’s no reason not to pay the same attention when you make your own food. When it’s time to make your pizza, instead of piling a mountain of toppings on it and a proprietary fifty-cheese blend, how about keeping it simple? Being able to taste every ingredient is a the hallmark of a well-balanced recipe, and teasing the most flavor out of simple ingredients is a skill that will be rewarded in your first bite. Buon appetito!
The end of the day is tough for everyone. Child Harbat is usually over-stimulated and tired, Number Two has had a full day of preschool and has no idea how to read his body’s own cues that he is accelerating toward the bedtime wall at dangerous speed. Now that it’s light out so late we are enjoying taking an afternoon stroll when we get home from work/school. Number Two will walk to the porch, wrestle down his stroller, climb into the seat, and look up with the exact same look that dogs give when they are holding their leash at the front door: “Could I be any more clear about this?” So we push Number Two in the stroller and he watches the world roll by, a pretty nice way to ease into the evening. CH will hop on her scooter and zoom around the neighborhood, then we all crash into the kitchen for dinner and everyone is: A)hot, B)tired, C)grumpy. Why grumpy? It has something to do with cleaning the kitchen, making a new meal, and providing relief for screaming and whining children who have transformed into cloven-footed horned demons who DEMAND FLESH NOW! How do they respond when given food?
You know, this picture is familiar. Let’s jump in the time warp blog-o-rewinder and see how Baby Harbat reacted when I tried to take away a piece of bread. See the same misery, the food ready to fall from the mouth during protest about not having enough food? Do we all see the irony here? What? WHAT? I can’t hear you over the crying.
Small children are like mice. They utilize at-hand materials to create little nests, cozy spots just big enough for a bed and a lookout. If left in the forest I think children would do better making shelter and staying dry and safe up in a tree than would adults. We recently got a new couch and Child Harbat immediately got to work, seeing the potential in large structural-slab cushions, roof-spanning pillows, and the possibility of knocking out a pillow wall and expanding over the coffee table. For a little girl she’s remarkably adept at handling massive cushions and muscling them all into place. Blankets are repurposed as curtains, shelves are made from corbelled pillows, table legs buttress soaring walls. For her the couch wasn’t just what it was, it was what it could become. And this Sunday it was built and rebuilt into habitable spaces with room for stuffies, book spaces, sleeping nooks, flashlight storage, roof access panels, and hidden doors. When the electronic apocalypse occurs and we’re back to eating with our hands and making stone tools, I know who I’m going to look to for home-building expertise. Not I, the architect, but my daughter, the couch-fort constructor.
Some say we’ve lost touch with the land. We whizz around in cars, staring at glowing rectangles all day, and the natural world is at best, a disturbance, at worst, invisible. Not so! Harvesting your own food is simple, rewarding, and feels too good to be true. Anybody, even the blackest thumb, can grow strawberries and you’ll get the quickest and most rewarding harvest of any fruit crop. Unless you’re allergic to strawberries in which case I recommend beekeeping.
As my high school history teacher used to say, “What’s so big deal about strawberries?” Well…without substitute “strawberries” with French revolution and I guarantee he said it. The big deal about strawberries? They are delicious straight off the plant, it’s easy to spot which ones are ripe to pick, they can be eaten whole, and they are good in just about everything. Pancakes? Yes. Smoothies? Yes. Garnish on a grownup drink that you’ll spill over your mauve pantsuit as you gesticulate while discussing “that woman who moved into apartment 4A and has men over at ALL HOURS OF THE NIGHT”? Definitely. [clears throat] Now then, who wants some strawberries?
Number Two child is working on his speaking skills. This involves yelling EVERYTHING AT MAXIMUM VOLUME. Requests for food are similar to that of a bull elephant trumpeting an immediate charge. Denials of questions about wanting more water/food/face-wiping are met with a drawn out “Nooooooooo” that leaves you with no questions and little functioning apparatus in your inner ear. All hopes my wife and I had for a quiet introverted second child are being trampled. But it still may come to pass. Now the important question that has been hovering on the lips of all you readers: what is it like to take Mr. Noisy to a smorgasbord at IKEA? Let’s start from the ground and work up.
Even though it looks like most of his food is on the floor I can assure you five times as much made it into his stomach, sometimes detouring across his face and through his hair. It was really a horrifying amount of food he consumed. Mr. Noisy yelled, smacked his hands on the table, rocked his high chair back and forth to the point of severe consternation of reasonable adults. MORE MORE MORE! We gave him smoked salmon, toast points, grapes, potatoes, meatballs, broiled salmon, blueberries, watermelon, pickled beets, lingonberry sauce, deviled eggs, and still he ate. My God, the consumption was something to behold. Did he enjoy his meal? The Social Smile says…yes!
Wait, I’ve seen that face somewhere before. I think he’s picking it up from his big sister. Now it all makes sense: the noise, the thousand-megawatt smile, it’s all trickling down in the household. Where is an introvert to hide? My wife has recently been buying grownup drink-making supplies, from rum to muddlers, mixers to jiggers. At first I made fun but now I see how a few hours with the mini-human noise machines will send even the calmest soul reaching for the bottle. YAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
One of the things I’ve learned about parenting from my step-mother, who is a wonderful parent and longtime journalist about family issues, is how to let it go. What fights are worth fighting? Does every moment need to be a teachable lesson? When is it okay to make a mess? I learned from her, as Child Harbat wanted to wear her vampire cape to the beach, to just let it go sometimes. It sounds ridiculously easy but as a parent you get stuck in a mode of protecting, nurturing, and educating your child and look in the mirror one day and realize you’ve turned into a joyless prude. LET IT GO.
So what do you do when your daughter has dressed up in her unicorn outfit right before dinner and made a unicorn nest for herself out of a sheepskin stuffed into a laundry basket? You LET IT GO. My wife prepared her a plate of food so she could eat under a chair and keep the magic alive. And we got to have a quiet meal as adults. Just kidding! We got to eat at the kitchen table with Mr. Noisy, but more about that tomorrow. In the meantime, please line up one at a time to pet the unicorn. Do not try to take its food away, however, unless you wanted to be gored with a horn.