News flash!

Have you heard that everything changes when you have a kid? Seriously, everything does.

Since my husband and I moved in together I’ve been making an annual photo book for his Christmas stocking (the most important part of my childhood Christmas, a tradition he has adopted wholeheartedly after a year or two of my direct instruction subtle encouragement), with pictures from our year.

My Christmas photo book isn’t the work of art that our wedding photo book or 75-page photo book memorializing our departed cat Sascha were. It’s usually last-minute and a bit sketchy as a record of the year, since we tend to take a lot more pictures when we go on an interesting trip than we do from day to day. But it is fun, and I think that as the years pass we’ll enjoy looking back at them.

I’m in the middle of making this year’s book and one difference is that I have approximately 3000 times the usual number of pictures to wade through, because Lulu was born in June.

And, halfway through making the book, I remembered that it’s not just the two of us any more. We’re three now! A family! What’s more, our baby will get older, will learn how to read, and will probably see my Christmas photo books in the future.

So I decided not to write anything too honest mean about the hard parts of getting used to life with a new baby, or anything about how it put an end to all the fun we used to have, as evidenced by the contents of said photo books up until June 2013 and after (just kidding, daughter reading this in the future! Life is much better now, of course!).

I’m also thinking about what she might like to see in 50 or 60 years when we’re old and decrepit or maybe even gone, and she has remained as fond of us as she seems to be now.

So, different, but in this case, maybe a little sweeter. Now, if only she will keep napping for 30 more minutes so I can finish this photo book.

Ups and downs.

About a month ago, we were really getting into a good daily routine. I never felt like taking a nap anymore; I was cooking and getting out for a walk almost daily; I was running several times a week; and it started to seem slightly less impossible to accomplish the simplest daily tasks.

And then—Lulu started sleeping horribly, we all got colds, and then I got a stomach bug, which Lulu also caught. Result: I spent the last few weeks feeling like I could never quite climb out of a hole of exhaustion. (On the bright side, after not eating for three days, my pre-pregnancy jeans are suddenly a lot more comfortable.)

It was a bummer to backslide so thoroughly just when it felt like we were approaching normal life. Especially this last week, when I was sick and then Lulu was sick and we hardly left the house or ate any real food. By the end of the week, I was pretty sure having a baby had been a grave mistake.

But, then I got two decent nights of sleep, and just like that, things are looking up. I’ve begun to rejoin life. We went to brunch with friends, I got a pedicure, we went to IKEA, and I cooked my first batch of baby food. We resumed watching Breaking Bad (everyone was not lying: it is awesome).

And we’re going on a mini-vacation to Vancouver later this week, and then we’re taking Lulu on her first flight to visit my parents, and then it’s time for cold weather and snow and all my favorite holiday events like dancing around the living room when the Nutcracker is on television and performing a private sing-it-yourself Messiah for any neighbors within earshot. My two new nieces will arrive. And, before the winter is over, Lulu will be crawling and eating real food and maybe even standing or saying her first words (or at least something that sounds like a word). It doesn’t sound terrible. I won’t go so far as to say having a baby was the best idea I’ve ever had, but I’m reconsidering my position.

Alchemy.

ImageI was going through some old files yesterday and found an ultrasound picture of my daughter from exactly a year ago today. I was 8 weeks pregnant. She was a blobby bundle of cells, 17 millimeters long, a quiet parasite in my abdominal cavity with a hummingbird heart beating away.

One year later, she is more than two feet long and weighs 13.5 pounds. By my rough calculation, that is 47,000 calories of toast, bananas, cookies, Mapo Tofu, and other delicious food I consumed over the last year that somehow turned into a yelling, grabbing, laughing, curious, energetic tiny person.

Here you go, Mom.

Lulu and I went for our first hike today. She’s finally big enough at 4 months to use the comfortable Ergo carrier and it was a brilliant fall day, sunny and clear and cool.

I realized there was nothing keeping us—now that she’s mostly over the phase in which she would only eat while lying on the floor next to me—from going out to enjoy the weather and get some exercise. So we drove to a local hill and went for a short hike.

Some stats on our little excursion:

  • Number of admiring comments on the trail: I’m not sure exactly, but a sufficiently gratifying amount. Yes, thank you, my baby is cute, and I am a can-do mom.
  • Number of alarmed looks: one or two. It was a bit slippery on the way down.
  • Number of ice-cold baby feet and hands: four. Sorry, my girl; lesson learned. Next time we’ll try something warmer than socks on your feet and nothing on your hands.
  • Number of elderly gentlemen and their small grandsons who witnessed me trying to breastfeed a crying baby in the front seat of my car in the trailhead parking lot: two.
  • Number of bloodcurdling screams from the backseat on the way home from the trail: approximately 700.
  • Number of Hello Kitty Jelly Bellies consumed in response to said screams: one small bag.

Overall, I’d call it a moderate success. It was nice to get out in the woods and get some exercise, and we both stayed relatively happy throughout (minus the screaming on the ride home). No one ended up covered in poop, starving, or even particularly cranky. But small successes like these sometime bring home how different my life has been since having a baby, and how life with her often feels like I’m learning how to do everything all over again.

The Best Mapo Tofu

I discovered Sichuan food a year and a half ago and, unexpectedly, gained a new hobby. Since then, I’ve cooked my way through much of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I’ve eaten Sichuan in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Shanghai, and Beijing. I’ve spent hours trying figure out which of the myriad mysterious Chinese-labeled ingredients on the shelves at Uwajimaya were the ones I was looking for, and trying to interpret the inconsistent and often non-descriptive translations on Chinese menus. (Recently, to aid in my Chinese restaurant ordering, I copied the Chinese characters and phonetic transcriptions for my favorite dishes and many basic food terms onto a card that I carry in my wallet. I really did this.)

One of my favorite dishes is Mapo Tofu. When done well, it’s so delicious and comforting: warm, salty, spicy, and tingly with Sichuan peppercorn. I’ve tried it at many different restaurants and had some versions that were instantly forgettable and some that I still think about months later.

It’s also incredibly easy to make at home, once you have a few basic ingredients in the pantry. The recipe below–in which I combined elements of several different recipes I tried–is my current favorite. Since I first started cooking Chinese, for better or worse, I’ve become more comfortable using lashings of oil, so these days, I’m more apt to make this version–which is still less oily than many restaurant versions–than the modified version I was making last year. (Disclaimer: I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert, and I make no claims about what is authentic. This is just what I like the best, after a fair amount of sampling and experimentation.)

Ingredients

Peanut or vegetable oil

Block of tofu, cut into bite-size squares (I like fresh, silken tofu the best, but firm will also do just fine)

About 6 oz. of ground pork

2-3 tablespoons Sichuan spicy bean paste

2-3 tablespoons chili oil

1-2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorn powder (Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground to a powder)

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon fermented black beans, chopped

3 green onions, chopped

2 gloves garlic, chopped

1 cup chicken stock

1.5 teaspoons cornstarch, mixed with a little water

Directions

Heat a little oil in a wok or skillet and add pork. Cook pork until almost done. Add Sichuan bean paste, chili oil, and garlic, and cook for a minute or two. Add soy sauce and fermented black beans and cook for another minute or two. When pork is cooked through, add stock and tofu. Stir gently to mix everything well, and bring to a simmer. Add cornstarch/water mixture and stir until glossy and thickened. Add green onions and Sichuan peppercorn and remove from heat. Serve with rice.

An Easy Photo Project for a New Home

Two of my favorite things about living in my old apartment in Seattle were the view (Elliott Bay and the Pike Place Market sign) and runs along the waterfront (most often, north through the Olympic Sculpture Park, Myrtle Edwards Park, and Elliott Bay Park until I reached the grain elevator and turned around).

Those two things made me feel lucky all the time. I loved watching the ferries glide by outside our window, and I loved noting where the ship at the grain elevator was from each time I ran by–Peru, Greece, Russia–and trying to imagine life on board, full of sad men and foreign sounds.

So when we realized we might move, we started taking photos of the view and of the grain elevator from roughly the same position on different days, thinking we could come up with some kind of fun project for the photos.

What I ended up doing was simple: I chose seven photos from each series, ordered 4×6 prints, and put them into simple glass “clip” frames.

I hung them in two rows in the entry way to our apartment.

To hang them evenly, I taped two threads horizontally to the wall to use as guides, which worked pretty well. I used 3M Picture Hanging Strips to hang the pictures, which also helped, because I didn’t have to worry about positioning nails perfectly (or putting a bunch of holes in the wall).

Here’s the result:

And, in context:

Simple, but I think it looks nice. Even better, it’s a nice way to bring a favorite part of our old home into our new one, and I’ve been enjoying it every time I walk by.

I’m turning into a food hoarder.

One of the things I’m adjusting to, moving to the country, is buying groceries ahead of time.

Before we moved, I bought every dinner just before we ate it. I tried to keep breakfast and lunch on hand (at least when I was working at home) but I never bought groceries for making dinner before the day I needed them. Everything was within easy walking distance, and I’d decide what to cook for dinner according to my daily whim.

Now, there’s a grocery store across the street from our new place, but the selection is limited. I need to plan ahead if I’m going to be able to make whatever I want for dinner, or face a 40-minute round trip drive to reach other stores with a bigger selection. (Or a 2-hour bike ride, probably in the rain, since we only have one car.)

I’ve been out driving around and shopping a lot — doing a lot of moving-related errands which are thankfully almost done — and so I’ve been trying to stock our pantry and refrigerator by picking up food whenever I’m near a grocery store. Snacks, in case people stop by. Cookie-baking supplies. A chicken for roasting in the near future. Ingredients to go with the chorizo I picked up in Seattle the other day.

It feels unnatural. My default position on buying stuff is to not buy it. This is obviously a good habit in some ways: it probably saves money, and it keeps us from collecting too many things and creating clutter.

Image

revenge

It can also be bad, or at least inefficient, like when I refuse to buy more than four rolls of toilet paper at the same time. (When I lived by myself, I bought them one at a time, so the four-pack is a concession.) This drives my husband crazy, and he responds by buying ever-larger bulk packs of toilet paper and paper towels. He outdid himself when we moved; we now own a truly outlandish stock of paper goods.

My reluctance to acquire things is also a negative in the case of elastic hairbands, which I search for beneath beds and behind couches and treasure like family heirlooms, even when they’ve lost all elasticity and are coated in spidery tangles of hair that make my husband shy away in horror. I should clearly just buy new ones, but it rarely feels necessary enough to compel action on my part.

So haphazardly buying all this food we don’t technically need at the moment I’m buying it and aren’t going to immediately consume goes against years of habit. It raises a faint warning bell in my head that  I’m turning into a food hoarder and that it won’t stop until we’re sleeping on the floor amid piles of stale rice crackers, rotting feta cheese, and aging chorizo from DeLaurenti in Seattle. It probably won’t turn out that way, but for now, it is a genuine adjustment.