The Science of Dog Biscuits

My kid eats dog biscuits. I don’t encourage this. I’ve given up.

“It’s the only meat I eat, Mom, it’s good for me.” I can’t control it. He gets out of bed or sneaks around when I’m not looking, stealing them from the cookie jar like they were chocolate chip cookies.

The dog sighs. She doesn’t challenge him. She knows she’s going to snag the roast off the table anyway the moment I turn my head. I’m fighting on two fronts. I suppose Milk-Bones are healthy for boys if they’re good for dogs. Declan tells me they are.

dog biscuit

Look carefully. You are seeing a dog biscuit fragment sailing high above Kung Fu Panda.

Two things my boy loves–dog biscuits and science. On Thanksgiving, he managed to integrate the two. His goal was to determine the size a dog biscuit would have to be in order to float on a mylar balloon. My job was to tie and secure the slipknots around the biscuit, cheer if it flew and look disappointed if it did not.

First, we tried a full Milk-Bone, which securely anchored the balloon to the ground. Declan’s face scrunched, finger to his cheek.

“I guess it’s too big,” he said.

“Not necessarily too big, Buddy,” I hinted, “Too heavy.”

“I gotta fix it.” He broke the Milk-Bone in half. I started to tie the knot. He switched the halves, giving me the small piece. He knew it would weigh less. I put the slipknot around the smaller piece. Meanwhile, he ate the bigger one.

The balloon sank to the ground. Even the smaller part of the biscuit was too heavy.

“Can’t we just use pencils or crayons or something? I can weigh them on my bread scale. This is disgusting.” I try to be a good Mom.

“Nope.” His word was final. He took a bite off of the small biscuit piece and handed the remaining fragment to me. I tied the string around the slime. It sunk to the ground. But bounced once on the way up. 

“Look, we almost did it!” Science. It’s exciting when science goes right.

He looked at the biscuit. He poked it a bit. The biscuit very much wanted to soar free like the bird it once may have been. I’m not sure what “meat byproduct” actually means. It all tastes like chicken, I’m told.

He picked up the piece, nibbled a bit off of each end, held it back, examined it, and nodded his approval. Not only did he intuitively recognize the relationship between size and weight, he knew about balance, too. The string had to be centered.

He had also figured out a bit about efficiency by simply biting off the ends instead of untying and retying the string around the biscuit. Efficiency is big in science these days. It makes money in business, too, I’m told. Entrepreneurs read and write books about it, must be important.

He released the string and biscuit. It flew. It flew around the living room. The dog considered reclaiming it, but she was in her post “I begged for turkey” slumber. Every dog knows half a turkey is better than a Milk-Bone.

photo 1One Milk-Bone gone, several principles of science learned. Today, he is measuring things and making comparisons. He usually writes these things in his field journal, a spiral notebook filled with pictures of animals, dinos, and bugs. It’s the holiday weekend. He’s taking it easy.

But if I ask him about school, he says, “Boring.” Already. Despite his fantastic teacher who is the definition of awesome. So maybe it’s not about school but about the methods of inquiry and intrinsic learning. He wants to learn about dinos and write them in a field journal. And measure things. And learn about photo 2balance points, gravity’s relationship with dog biscuits. And entrepreneurship–because I had to pay a lollipop, again, to secure the rights to these photos.

I think school could be fun. Kids have the ability to knock things out of the park. We just have to let them.

Then someone has to let us do just that.

Screw Ups Are OK: Translate It into French (or Lie Like a Politician)

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 7.02.50 AMI made Thanksgiving dinner. Some of it, anyway. My mom made the desserts, except for the awesome gluten-free cookies contributed by my cousin, who dies if she eats certain ingredients. We try not to kill people on Thanksgiving. Then they can’t overshop for Christmas and the economy will be ruined.

I was skeptical of the cookies, which had an unnatural roundness to them as if they were pulling toward the center avoiding gluten with every core of their being. They were amazing, though. I apologized and ate two. I’m getting the recipe.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 7.20.26 AMI was responsible for creating all the side dishes. Rusty cooked the turkey on the beloved Big Green Egg. I mocked it at first but fell in love in the end. Taking on turkey duty meant he had one big thing to do and I had about fifty thousand little ones. Turkey duty carries more weight than side dishes, because dead bird, not turnips, is always the central focus of Thanksgiving. That gives him more pressure, being the headline act and all. I was supporting actress, running around having restaurant flashbacks. I never cooked in a restaurant, just brought the plates to the right people and smiled. I watched a lot of cooking and learned. Close enough.

It’s always good to save the screwups for a big holiday meal. First I overcooked the yams. No problem. When I mess things up, I translate them into French and tell everyone I meant it. “Yams Trop Cuit.” (trop cuit: overcooked). Sounds pretty fancy to me. I’d have put toasted blanched almond crumbles on top to finish off the ruse, but my sister’s allergic to almonds. If my cousin gets to live till the end of the meal, my sister should too. It’s only fair.

Next, I neglected to put water in the green bean steamer while I was talking on the phone to my rabbit-serving brother. Since one of the main ingredients in steaming is, in fact, steam, which requires water, that’s an omission. I made a just-in-time save, as was happening in so many football games I wasn’t watching because I was in the kitchen. I decided to let the beans retain their natural state after picking out the few ones black ones from the bottom that sacrificed themselves so that others could live. Taking a left turn from the casserole route, I served “Smoked Green Beans.” Delicious.

I usually roast Brussels sprouts on my grandmother’s antique, perfectly-seasoned cast iron–the kind generations feud over in the South when the matriarch dies. I live in the North. When my grandmother passed, everyone thought they were junk. Not me. My cousin took them and shared. In return, I burned the Brussels sprouts, then finished them off by leaving them in an oven I forgot to turn down. Taste, great. Eyeball appeal, zero. We named them “Cajun Blackened Sprouts.”  I had three servings. Sounded like the makings of a $20/plate appetizer to me.

Screwups happen. They’re okay as long as I cover them up like a politician, bouncing back with confidence and feeling, indicting my diners as if it is they who don’t understand the true depths of my culinary genius. I practiced that stare studying staff in high-end establishments who give me The Look when I try to order vegetarian.

Confidence is the name of the game in the kitchen. And the more I think about it, not a bad strategy for life, either.

[images: Atomic Housewife and Sarah is a great friend and genius whose art always makes me laugh. Sometimes I have to be careful what I say around her because comics will appear in short order. I love that the best. Check out her blog here, and have her make something for you. She does that. Affordably, I might add.]


Sleeping with the (little) Devil

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 5.37.35 AMSomewhere in the middle of the night he comes to bed. Never quietly. Always in the same pattern, like a hurdler or high-jumper going for the record. Bounce, bounce, PLOP. Sometimes the plop lands over me successfully, gold medal achieved. Often it comes crashing down on a vital organ or two before he squiggles, claiming space. If I’m not already facing the wall, he turns me. He fits his pint-sized body in a jigsaw space. He puts his arm around me. I’m mostly asleep. Too tired to put him back to bed. I smile, even though I know the rest of the night of sleep is shot. Fluffy bashes me in the face.
Fluffy is the first “buddy” he got, a gift from Grandpa before he was born, a lamb with a nice pink bow. Fluffy is a boy, make no mistake about it. When Fluffy assaults me, I wake up. I fall back to sleep. Soon after, I hear hysterical laughter. A long, deep belly laugh. I am missing the joke, but lifts my heart to hear him so happy, even in his sleep. I smile, even though I am losing more sleep. I fall back to sleep. I wake up to a question. The type of question that friends carry deep into the night over tea or wine, knowing neither will want to get up in the morning, but the problems of the universe must be solved now.
“Mommy.” He’s not good a the nighttime whisper.
“Yes, Declan?” I would very much like just a little sleep…
“Do you think God can bring back the dinosaurs?”
“I don’t know.”
“But God can do anything.”
“Then he can help you sleep. It’s sleeping time.”
Pause….(It aint over till the fat lady sings. And I don’t hear music…)
“I’ll ask Santa.” It’s decided.
He’s already asking Santa for a cat and all the toys to which I said no. He’s bypassing me. Now he’s bypassing God.
“It’s sleep time, Declan.”
“YES?” The part of my brain that’s conscious gets ready to blast him.
“I love you.” I soften with guilt in the way a parent does when misjudging intent.
“I love you too, Declan.” Before I know it, I feel his body relax. His arm slips off my body, his hand out of mine. He and Fluffy roll over, giving me a square inch or two of bed real estate I’ve so richly earned but never seem to enjoy. He giggles. He has full sleeping
conversation about something he wouldn’t tell me in school. He giggles again. Before long, it’s 4AM. Late enough for me to get up, drink coffee, and write. I slip away, not unnoticed.
“Mommy! WHERE are you going?”
“To the bathroom,” I fib.
“DON’T go work. Come right back!”
“Okay.” I lie. I know he’ll be sleeping, laughing, and giggling before I reach the door.
He gets up two times and interrupts my writing. I send him to bed until six rolls around. Then I sit him on my lap and tell him how when I was little, Grandpa used to go to work very early, and we’d get up and drink tea together.
“I don’t like tea.”
“We also had Carnation Instant Breakfast.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s like a vanilla milkshake.” Good grief. Now he wants vanilla milkshakes for breakfast. I tell him no. He sits on my lap for a while and hugs me. Life stops. It’s quiet. The wood stove glows, the sunrise starts to peek through the window, and I think of all the work I planned to do….work that I am most decidedly not doing now, because I am sitting. My friend Claudia, yogini extraordinaire, told me to sit for an hour each day. Not meditate. Just sit. I laughed because even though she is right–she’s always right–I wanted to ask her if she remembered about Declan. But here we are, sitting. Together. In peace. Waiting to tackle the universe.
And then, it is over.
“Okay, Mom, please get me my show. I want Scooby Doo on Cartoon Network.” I put on Scooby Doo,  get him a snack, and I move over on the couch.
Night is officially over. Time to tackle the world…for real.

Sit and Eat Chicharones (Or Find Your Passion)

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 6.06.52 AM

“What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning and exercising?” 

“How do you write every day?” 

“Why do you teach even though the climate is so bad for teachers?”

These are three questions that crossed my feed this week. On the surface, they’re all unrelated, but in truth, it’s the same question.

“How do you….(insert habit here…)” There’s a one-word answer for every one of these. Passion. Stop reading. Continue drinking coffee. That’s really the essence of the solution.

Never having been one for brevity or one-word answers, I’ll elaborate.


I exercise because I love the feeling it gives my mind. Most view it as a chore. If you view it as a chore, you should sit on your couch and eat chicharones (fried up pork rinds…dead pig crisps apparently taste better than vegetarian things like carrots and chips). I love to run five, six, seven miles because it clears my spirit and gives me ideas.  I’m grateful when I can exercise–I remember being on crutches for months after a bad game of basketball wishing I could get off the couch and run. I try to see each opportunity to work out as a privilege. The feeling of freedom I get when I run, lift, do yoga, go kickboxing, or pick up a game of basketball makes my body and soul smile. Once, when my doctor grounded me, my friend said “Man you’re lucky. I’d love to have a doctor tell me I can’t exercise.”

If that’s the case, you’re viewing exercise incorrectly. See it as a privilege. Only then will passion develop. You will exercise. You will eat well. You will respect the limits of your body. And your body may decide to treat you well, too. Life’s too short. I try not to do much I don’t feel passionate about these days.

Write Every Day: 

Use the Nike method, “Just do it.” I write at the same time each day. 4AM. This means I don’t have to shove my family in a closet or ignore them to concentrate, and I can enjoy the most beautiful time of day, the sunrise. I sit with my cup of coffee and the glow of the wood stove. Because I carry a little notebook, I usually don’t run out of ideas. I scrawl them when they gift themselves to me, and I develop them when I have time–4AM. So many people want to write, but view it as a burden. It’s not. It’s a privilege. Think, “I want to do this every day…I’m grateful I can. I’m grateful to have something to say, and furthermore that someone out there might enjoy it or find it helpful.” I look forward to 4AM because I’m deeply honored by my readers–the friend’s I’ve made through my writing journey. I owe them my best. Life’s too short, I may have said, to do things about which I don’t feel passion. 


Sure, the climate’s bad. Awful. There are days I feel the press hates me, and times I’m convinced I should’ve majored in accounting or stat, because the pendulum has swung in that direction and–the kids say–away from all the things that made them love school. This breaks my heart. But to get in there, roll up my sleeves, and give them something to love anyway, even if I have to fall on the sword once or twice, gives me passion. To watch their eyes when I connect them with a noted scientist or author, or see them generate ideas about their future?  It’s worth chopping through all the vines in the jungle, I think, to give them that same passion. Remember, life’s too short to do things without passion.

Who knows, maybe the passion for these things will leave me. That’s okay. Then I’ll find something else to do every day. More art, more calligraphy, animal husbandry…rekindle old passions, and discover new…let a few present ones ebb away to make room for more. Nothing’s permanent, and there’s a ton out there to discover. To feel passionate about.

Exercise, writing, teaching–or anything else, really–it’s all the same. It all boils down to passion. Do the things you love. Because passion is what makes life so beautiful.



Yes, Starbucks Has Decaf

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 6.07.45 AMIt’s been about a month since they took my coffee away.

“Decaf. Drink decaf.” I’ve been in denial. I’m not old enough for decaf. I look in the mirror regularly to confirm this fact, noting that I do have four grey hairs hiding in my head. I can find them if I tousle my hair around a bit. I would have five, but when I showed off the first one–a marker of my age, wisdom, and experience, it got viciously plucked from my head as if the assailant was doing me a favor. Four more sprung up in its place. I should be glad. Four times the wisdom, I guess.

All in all, I’ve aged very well, I think to myself. People are generally surprised to discover I’m entering the realm of middle-aged or ancient, depending on whether they hold the perspective of a normal person or one of my students for whom anything after 30 is as dead as it would have been in the Middle Ages. I’m still in denial. I’m certainly not old enough for decaf. 

At any rate, I went to Starbucks for the first time since they stripped me of my caffeine. I always get beverages that are dark roasted, full of caffeine, and inspiring. I was paralyzed. But that, I thought, is why the world gives us baristas–to help guide us on our way.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 6.01.34 AM“Can you make me something that doesn’t suck in decaf?” Not a classy order by any stretch. She looked at me. She blinked. Here it comes, I thought. This is where I get kicked out of line. But she had a look of kindness. She was simply waiting for me to finish my order. “…Oh, grande.” She nodded. She unfroze, looking for a solution to my #firstworldproblem.

“Sure,” she said. “I can do that.” She began to throw lots of words at me I barely understood because I generally get the same thing over and over again. It has pretty small words, like “big-ass” and “coffee.” Not too complex. I don’t want to subcontract a Ph.D to order for me. I know there’s a system. My friend Stephanie worked her way through college as a barista and can shoot off a forty-two word coffee order in order. It has to be in order. I just want to say “a lot of caffeine,” and “Sure, I’ll mortgage my house for this.”

Ordering decaf in public is embarrassing–like when I had to go into the liquor store and buy cheap beer in a can for a friend. I feel like I have to offer up a reason. “It’s not for me.” Sure, it’s not for you. That’s what they all say.

I tell her it’s my doctor, he ordered the decaf. He just makes me drink it, that’s all. She looks at me compassionately. She makes me a drink. It’s a decaf cafe mocha with more sugar than I’ve had in the past month, but I appreciate it. She smiles with a unique combination of customer service and pity, as if I might collapse at any minute–like I am on my way from bingo or knitting to the great beyond, and if I don’t have much time left on this planet, she wants this to be the best coffee I’ve ever had.

I thank her, hand her my phone. It contains an app which automatically taps into the equity in my house to pay for the drink, and walk away, trusting her expertise.

Truthfully, it tastes like what I imagine a cafe mocha would taste like after I just brushed my teeth. But I’m grateful. She put a lot of thought and effort into this, and was just the type of smiling person I love to see when I go out. She made my day brighter. I sip through the extra whipped cream and send her good wishes, because Black Friday is coming, and her little Starbucks is located in the corner of a major store.

Don’t worry, I think in her direction, I won’t bother you on Black Friday. I won’t be the cause of you missing sleep, or your turkey or family. I will be grateful at home. For people like you who smile in the face of customers with odd requests, and who take extra time to make someone’s day as good as you can. For my friends and family, for the wood stove in the corner of the room casting a beautiful glow on my writing, and for all the blessings in my life. Including the little cup of coffee on the table to my right. Which is, again, decaf. 


[images: and “Japanese Barista Makes 3D Latte Art”]

What Do Vegetarian (Freaks) Eat for Thanksgiving?

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 9.23.05 PMIt’s the number one question I get. Never mind that I never eat dead animals, but, “What do you eat for Thanksgiving?” Being a vegetarian that one day is nearly sacrilege. I’ll break it gently–I eat the same types of things that I eat every other day of the year.

“How do you not eat turkey?” 

Simple. The pilgrims didn’t center their meal around Butterball, either. Sure, they might have had wild turkey on the table–they were tough to catch and not yet genetically modified for tenderness and extra white meat–but they were more likely to have other fowl, such as duck, goose, and pheasant. They also had five deer. There was no pumpkin pie (sugar was for rich people and the Wampanoags failed to use their corn to produce corn syrup) so they subbed in an amazing prune tart with rosemary for dessert. Sounds like a paleo cookbook.

They ate shellfish, notably muscles and lobster. Lobster was considered poor man’s food, not something you’d get for someone you wanted to impress. I wouldn’t be impressed by lobster. Something about the poor creature staring at me before it died–even if I ate meat you wouldn’t get points with me for that. It’s my Dad’s doing. I was five. He got two lobsters. We played with them and raced them. I was very happy. I thought he got them for me as pets. And then…

Needless to say I never ate lobster again. So, if I were a Pilgrim, I wouldn’t have enjoyed lobster. Even if Squanto did the executions.

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 9.31.34 PMToday, Thanksgiving has plenty of options for vegetarians. We have a world of ingredients that don’t include dead things, and since I can cook a ton of stuff from scratch, the sky’s the limit. I was thinking of a curry, but that’s not allowed. Last year I was told, “You will not make whatever smells like that near my turkey again.” I thought it smelled awesome. I figured Ethiopian food might get the same reaction. So, this year, I’m going Dominican.

You might say, “But there’s no Spanish food that’s vegetarian!” You’d be right. One year, I had one single Dominican student (ever) who was a vegetarian, and he had a host of dishes that were recreated without dead things. Tasty. He taught me some. So, I’m making something I can’t really translate correctly that’s supposed to have pork in it. I substituted chick peas. Fair trade.

For dessert, I’m wondering if I can feign historical accuracy by bringing back the prune tart without anyone noticing. Not really sure…

In case you are wondering, I will eat on Thanksgiving. Probably better than people sucking down wings in front of a football game. If you want some vegetarian food, I can save you a sampler plate–some of which I even grew myself, and none of which was killed by me. That makes it a tasty, good karma Thanksgiving, where the turkeys who taunt me in my road get to live just a little bit longer, and I like my food just fine.

[image: and The Happy Raw Kitchen

Never Waste Good Cheese on Children–Feed them Processed Food

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 5.48.14 AM“Mommy!” Declan stood in front of me with a Lindt truffle. “Please don’t put these in my lunchbox anymore. They’re yucky.”

I’ve been sick, and I haven’t been fun. I feel guilty. So, I put some extra treats in the lunchbox. The Halloween candy went missing, so I put a single milk chocolate truffle in his box. The kind that I save for adults and dignitaries. Sharing that’s a big deal. I was being extra nice…like when I give up my seat for an old person or lay out the best spread for company.

“They’re yucky. They’re caramel.”

“They’re not caramel, they’re truffles. Really good chocolate. They melt in your mouth and make you happy.”

“Well, I’m not happy. They’re yucky.” I remembered a lesson my brother taught me. You don’t waste good food on children. I went downstairs and found the bag of Halloween candy so I can chuck in a little Kit Kat tomorrow.

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 5.44.06 AM

Cato Corner Farm, where Elizabeth MacAlister and her son, Mark Gillman have been making some of the world’s best cheese since 1997.

Kids don’t appreciate good food, so they haven’t earned the right to get any. Nothing that costs over three dollars a pound should be given to kids in the single digits. Cheese comes to mind. My brother,  has worked with some pretty impressive foods and chefs. One day he taught me this lesson I hold dear to this day, “Never waste good cheese on children.” I buy Declan cheap American cheese. In this way, I am able to afford the best cheeses for myself, and not feel like I am breaking the bank. I can get the best chèvre, Manchego, brie, Stilton, camembert, Roquefort, and even try something new whenever I want. I love cheese, but it’s not cheap. Turns out, one of the nation’s renown cheesemaking operations has popped up in my hometown of Colchester, Connecticut, in a little farm called Cato Corner Farm. I’m proud to have some awesome cheese near where I grew up, but when it’s $10-$30 a pound, nothing would strike terror in my heart more than, “Mommy, can I have another hunk of that Drunken Hooligan?” It’s an amazing cheese even at $30/pound. I’m surely not going to waste so much as a sniff on Declan. He can sniff the cows while I sample the cheeses.

Declan hates the cheese aisle, too. He tries to escape by saying, “Uncle Dan said you should never waste good cheese on children. Get away from here!” It’s amazing that the boy can overhear a conversation three rooms away but can’t follow a simple direction when I’m staring right in his face.

Along these lines, I’ve started keeping a few inferior ingredients in the house. The emergency box of mac and cheese for lowbrow kid company, and a couple burgers in the freezer. I hate that Thomas Jefferson’s beloved mac and cheese has been bastardized and put in a yellow and blue boxes. I make it from scratch every time.

The last straw was brownie mix. Declan had his first boxed brownie at an event.

“Mommy, can you get boxed brownies?” My heart died a little bit. I make brownies from the highest quality fair-trade cocoa or melted chocolate with farm-fresh eggs from down the street and local butter. Mea culpa. It’s time to stop wasting good ingredients on children. He’s in school now, he sees the tasty processed food everyone eats. He feels left out. He needs to feel like an all-American boy. So, instead of making cheese pizza by hand with homemade dough, sauce and home-grown basil, he can have school lunch cheese pizza today. He’ll be happy as a clam, and I’ll save money for things that really matter–getting good food for the adults around here who appreciate it.

Maybe, just maybe, he can taste my brownies and the Drunken Hooligan in a decade or two. For now, I’ll keep my grocery bill down.


[images: and]