Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Price of Freedom: On Library Fines and Resiliency

I owe money. To the mortgage company, yes, but I have another debt.

Before I share my story, let me tell you that I hate debt. I really believe that financial freedom contributes to heart freedom. I believe that the borrower is the servant of the lender. I believe in promptly paying my debts, should I incur them (which I rarely do.)

But I keep forgetting to pay this one. And it's nagging at me.

Friends, I owe 60 cents to the local public library.

I usually return my books on time, really! Our library system sends out email reminders two days before books are due, and that saves my bacon most of the time. But on this occaision, (At Home by Bill Bryson, if you must know) I just didn't get my act together, and now I'm a deadbeat debtor. If this were 1845, Charles Dickens would be penning my sordid tale of penury.

But you know what? I'm not going to be brought down by this. Later on today, I'm going to put on my big girl knickers, scrape together two quarters and a dime and get myself back in the black. I will not be undone by a sixty cent library fine!

Apparently, the same could not have been said for Harvard University students. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Harvard library system will no longer levy fines for overdue books. The fifty-cent-per-day fee was just too much for these bright young things. Not financially too much, but emotionally.

Steven Beardsley, the associate director for access services administrative operations and special projects (say THAT ten times fast) said the goal of the new policy was to "improve the student experience and embrace a 'One Harvard' approach for borrowing material across Harvard Library."

Ummm.... how is eliminating the accountability of an overdue book fine going to accomplish this? Won't students just hang on to books indefinitely, thus depriving their fellow students the opportunity to  access to this material? I'm trying to figure out how Mr. Director of Access Services, etc. etc. thinks this is going to help with access...

The real corker, however, comes next. Mr. Beardsley adds, "We have witnessed firsthand the stress that overdue fines can cause for students."

NO. You didn't just say that. People, seriously, this is an elite university. Getting into Harvard is notoriously difficult, especially these days. Harvard students do crazy things, like invent Facebook. They can't handle the stress of overdue library fines?!?

A lot of people are using this as another platform to complain about millennials, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to weep for them.

As we all know, life can be hard. Even in the age of flushing toilets, antibiotics and Netflix. Hard things happen. I'm not even talking about wars or natural disasters, I'm talking about normal hard things, like losing a job or a loved one. Financial reversals (greater than sixty cents), sick children, a neighbor's tree falling on your house, infertility, divorce... these are all normal hard things. ALL OF US will have to deal with some combination of these things at points in our lives. If people can't handle library fines, how are they going to handle life?

So in my quest to always be practical and helpful, here are a few suggestions to this conundrum:

Return your books on time. I hate to point out the obvious, but the stress of fines can be avoided this way. Note due dates on your calendar and/or set an alarm on your phone. If your library offers alerts as mine does, sign up for them. (Without those alerts, I'd probably owe $7,000, for real.)

If you screw up and forget to return your books, just PAY THE FINE. It's ok! Once you pay the fine, it will all be fine. (Maybe that's why it's called a fine? I don't know. It's a theory.)

But PLEASE--in our zeal to make life comfortable and friendly, let us not eradicate a perfectly reasonable measure of accountability. We are not helping young adults when we pretend that there are not consequences for their actions. Your student loan servicer is not going to be so tender with your feelings, nor will your credit card company, mortgage lender or your future spouse. We don't help them when we basically say your inability to return your books on time does not have real repercussions on other people. Get over yourself, think of others. They might want (or in the case of students, NEED) to read that book. Return it.

So, my friends, with that I can tell you that Bill Bryson's fascinating book At Home has been safely returned to the Minuteman Library System and is available for your reading pleasure. And thanks to my temporary amnesia, the system is sixty cents richer.

Everyone wins!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

You Can't 'Cover Your Plate,' Thoughts on Wedding Etiquette and.... Lent?

Not long ago, I was discussing wedding gifts with a group of people. Someone was asking what would be an appropriate amount to spend on a gift. Most of us urged the giver to consider her level of closeness to the couple, paired with awareness of her own modest means. A few others, however, urged her to try to 'cover her plate.'

I had never heard of this custom, so I inquired further. What on earth does it mean to 'cover your plate?'

It seems that, in some pockets of the country (apparently, not mine), a wedding guest is supposed to give a gift commensurate to the costs incurred by the host to feed him or her at the wedding. If the wedding is an extravagant one at a posh hotel or historic mansion, for example, you give a nicer gift than one being held at the VFW. The idea is to be a 'good guest' by defraying the cost of the wedding.


Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked how is one to know what is being spent? I got married years ago, so I have no clue how much it costs to have a wedding anywhere these days. Some people said you can make discreet inquiries, but generally you just guestimate. One person told me the mother of the bride at one wedding to which she was invited loudly broadcasted the cost-per-head so people would know what to pay. That was generally frowned upon by the cover-your-platers as 'really rude.'


I tried to contain my shock and horror at this barbaric practice as I questioned further. What if your beloved sister is being married at the local Cracker Barrel? Do you get her a vegetable peeler, while giving a random colleague a KitchenAid mixer because her wedding is more expensive? I mean, really, I'm asking. Because this whole idea is, to me, abhorrent.

"Oh no, not necessarily. Cover your plate is a guideline. It's just good manners. It's, like, in Emily Post, you know."

No, I don't know, so I did some of my exhaustive internet research. As I expected, it is NOT a rule of etiquette. Emily Post (and her progeny who carry on her work) never advocated covering your plate. Neither does Miss Manners, who is quite adamant that a gift is freely given, never required. The whole idea that you are expected to effectively pay for your food at a wedding is awful. And, according to one wedding planner, it encourages brides and grooms to spend more on their weddings with the assumption that they'll recoup some of their losses in gifts.

My face is in my hands and I am weeping for the barbarism of humanity. Truly, this is so awful. Have we completely lost any sense of what it means to be a gracious host? If I am hosting a party, I do not charge my guests at the door. Do you know why? Because they are my GUESTS. Being a guest means you don't have to pay. (This is why I hate it when hotels and restaurants refer to paying customers as 'guests.' If you are going to hand me a bill when I leave, I am not a guest.)

Guests receive the hospitality of others. Typically, a guest will provide flowers or wine (or in one case, a melon) as a gesture of thanks, but even that is not required. I will think nothing less of anyone who comes empty handed, because it is my pleasure to have them. I don't expect them to do some back-of-the-napkin calculation on how much I'm spending to feed them.


Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season in the liturgical calendar called Lent. It is the forty days (minus Sundays) preceding the high holy day of Easter, at which we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Lent has traditionally been a solemn period of sacrifice and reflection. Historically, Christians engaged in the practice of fasting during this time. Many people give something up--TV, chocolate, wine, sacrificing some pleasure that makes them more mindful of the sacrifice of Christ.

Many protestant denominations do not observe Lent, and some people even denounce it as a works-based vestige of medieval Catholicism. That's not a completely unfair association--indeed, the middle ages saw practices like Lent sorely abused. The idea that we give something up, then God 'owes' us is an easy seed to sow in the human heart. When you think about it, the death of God's only son hardly competes with giving up Facebook for six weeks! That's about how absurd the idea of owing God is, but it's an easy place for the heart to go.

All that said, my Presbyterian self loves me some good Lent, and I commend other Christians to explore it. Your Easter celebration is immeasurably sweeter--literally--when it is preceded by a season of restraint. It is humbling. We can't bring anything to gates of heaven. We can't 'cover our plates' at the celestial banquet. We can't even try. The work was done on the cross, and not by us.

One cover-your-plate advocate said, 'it's just about being a good guest.' And I can appreciate how, on the surface, it might feel that way. I'm not being a bother. I'm not putting the hosts out too much by coming to the wedding if I pay up. But in so doing, we cease to be guests. Being a 'good guest' means, in a sense, to humble ourselves. We have to receive. The only thing required of a guest is to respond to the gift with thankfulness and rejoicing. Gifts, by definition, are freely given. Grace is a gift, we can't cover it.

During my plate-covering research, I happened upon a very entertaining blog called 'Hells Bells.' (It seems to be dormant, the most recent post is dated September 2014.) It's basically a catalog of wedding etiquette misdeeds. I guarantee it will make you feel better about loudly blowing your nose during a friend's wedding in 1997 (not saying I did that, just conjecturing, really...) It can also make you feel deliciously superior for never having transgressed quite as badly as some.

And if while reading it, you are troubled by a smug self-righteousness bubbling up in your soul, fear not--there's always Lent!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Making Myself Redundant: On Raising Free-Range Kids

I have long been a fan of journalist-turned-activist Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free-Range Kids. She advocates giving our kids more freedom to roam, try things out, and even screw up from time to time. Her book is a fascinating exploration of what has led to denying our children the very freedoms we 1970's kids were given, and took for granted. It's also laugh-out-loud funny.
Free-range in a cemetery!
We decided benefit of finding Easter eggs outweighed risk of zombies.

Skenazy became somewhat famous about ten years ago when she allowed her 9-year-old to ride the NYC subway by himself. Before you freak out and call her 'America's Worst Mom,' as others have, know that Skenazy and her family live in NYC, ride the subway all the time, and the 9-year-old in question was itching to ride it all by himself. So Skenazy discussed it with her husband, and they decided to let him give it a try. Armed with a transit map, quarters for a pay phone and some extra money in case he needed it, the young man departed from Bloomingdale's in Mid-town and an hour later, arrived back at their home in Queens, feeling quite pleased with himself.

She wrote about the event a month later in her column in the New York Post, and a firestorm ensued. People were OUTRAGED and called her all kinds of terrible things, like 'worst mom in America.' (If only Skenazy were the worst mom in America.... Wouldn't that be great?)

So shocked was she by the outrage that she started a movement. She's on talk shows now and even had her own TV show (which I have not seen) in which she encourages helicopter parents to let their kids do crazy stuff like cut their own food (because if mom doesn't cut it for them, they might choke!)

One of the things I like about the book is, despite Skenazy's biting humor, she doesn't shame parents for their fears and worries. She explains how we got to where we feel like a 10-year-old can't cross the street by himself. She cites the media (of course), parenting books (while noting the irony that hers is, in fact, a parenting book) and lawyers (double of course) as just a few of the culprits who fill us with anxiety about the safety of our kids. 


It's an interesting thing, this idea of turning our kids loose. In our Boston suburb, the vast majority of parents are unwilling to do it. Supervision, playdates and scheduled activities are the name of the game in this town, which, by the way, has been consistently named one of the best places to live in America. Great schools, close to the city with decent public transportation, and.... wait for it... very, very safe. The crime rate in our town (especially violent crime) is, mercifully, extremely low. We feel really blessed to have moved here during the recession, thus making it affordable for us. (That's the only negative--it's expensive. Great schools, the T and low crime doesn't come cheap.)

Yet rather than all the neighborhood kids taking advantage of this safety and filling the streets with games of kickball, our neighborhood is usually crickets in the afternoon. Practically no one is out playing, if they are, there is almost always a parent or babysitter close at hand. (That is, except for my child, who is running around in camo pretending to shoot imaginary Nazis with a hockey stick.)

My firstborn, also aged 9, is a very independent, adventurous sort of person. He likes freedom. And really, he's quite responsible, so I've been turning him loose for a while. When he was five, I let him scamper off ahead of me to the local park while I strapped his brother into the stroller and searched the house for my shoes. He'd typically arrive 5 to as late as 20 minutes ahead of me, playing with the kids at the school's aftercare program (where there was adult supervision.) A kind elderly neighbor once followed him there, sure that he had run away without my knowledge. When he saw me following behind, I assured him that the bigger little was rogue with my blessing.

Last year, he walked home from the barber shop alone. It's a good 15 minute walk from our house. He had gone with my husband on a Saturday morning, and after his haircut didn't want to wait for his father's, so my husband texted me that he was heading home on his own and to text back when he arrived. So off trotted our boy. A few minutes later, I got a call from his former preschool teacher, who lives on the barber shop route. "I saw your big little out walking by himself!," said she, in anxious tones. "He looks like he knows where he's going, and is crossing the street safely, but I wanted to make sure you knew he was out on his own!"

I thanked her kindly for her concern and assured her that he was, indeed, out with the blessing of both his parents. In fact, as we were talking, he arrived on the doorstep, still slurping on the lollipop he'd received from barber. (He was probably at the greatest risk of falling and impaling the roof of his mouth with the lollipop stick, but that's another story.)

I am very thankful for kindly neighbors and former preschool teachers. (I'm also thankful they talk to me directly rather than call the cops, as other parents of free-range kids have experienced.) That's the kind of nice community I live in, and I thank God for it. But I do think it's interesting that we're so afraid of letting our kids walk around in broad daylight by themselves. Is there risk involved? Could they be hit by a car or snatched by a nefarious stranger? Yes, they could, though Skenazy makes a strong case for the gross exaggeration of the latter.

Truly, bad things can happen. Very bad things, but here's the rub: do we not see that NOT letting our kids spread their wings a little is, in itself, a bad thing? 

When we had kids, my husband and I decided that our job, in a practical sense, was to make our children independent of us. 
To make ourselves redundant. 

Yes, walking around alone is taking a risk--for all of us, child or adult. But we take risks all the time. We make risk assessments quite literally all the time. We decide the benefits of car transport are worth the risk of an accident, that the health benefits of exercise are worth the risk of an injury, that the pleasure of eating a donut is worth the risk of... well, eating a donut.

In keeping our kids indoors and/or constantly supervised, the risks include, but are not limited to, a profound lack of confidence in their own abilities, compromised health and motor skills from lack of outdoor play, and a want of general life skills they need to survive and thrive on their own. I have read copious articles about today's college kids hovered over by overprotective parents. I thought it was exaggeration, but many of my friends with children that age tell me otherwise. Crazy stories of legal adults who cannot function without the most basic aid from their parents. They can speak two foreign languages and milked a yak on an educational trip to Nepal, but they can't pick their own courses or cook a meal. 

So I think there is a strong argument for being a little more free-range. Does this mean you need to send your 9-year-old on the subway? Or even on his own to the barber shop? Of course not. What level of independence your children have should take into consideration the many factors of your situation, but let's not let our own fear be the driving factor. Let's consider the whole picture--risks AND benefits, not just the imaginary child-snatcher around the corner.

I really don't want to be insensitive to fear--I have a couple of friends who have lost children to accidents, and it's awful. But I don't think we should allow fear to override rational assessment of risk to benefit. Fear shouldn't rule us, or our kids.

Recently, I decided to redouble my efforts to make myself redundant. Maybe I'll blog about that some more, but in the meantime, what do you think? Am I cray cray? The worst mom in Massachusetts? Let's discuss!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ready, Steady, Cook! Using a Cook Up to Simplify Meal Planning

I've long been committed to avoiding processed food, making things from scratch and buying local. But by the time I prepped three meals a day for my family of four and the odd snack here and there, I felt like I was spending half my day in the kitchen. It was ridiculous.

Something had to change.

Lack of time is often a reason cited for not cooking at home, and I can appreciate why. It is time consuming to shop, chop and cook. And then there's the clean up... oy. But peeps, it's worth it! You can cook a great dinner for a fraction of what it would cost in a restaurant, and you know what's in it. You can control what goes into the pot and how much. Yes, it takes time, but there are ways to cook at home that won't require you chained to the sink well into the evening. One way is...

The cook up! Also called 'batch cooking,' and maybe a few other words I can't mention on my family blog, the cook up will take you some time, but only on the front end. It involves making different things all at once, then mixing and matching those foods to create a variety of meals you can have throughout the week.

Here's how it works in my house:

  • Plan to make a soup or salad, at least two vegetables, and at least two protein sources. 
  • Clean out the fridge and determine what needs to be used up, then shop for whatever else is needed.
  • Block off about two to three hours when you won't be distracted and gather all your ingredients and equipment (pots, pans, etc.) Try to reuse as many items as possible to make clean up easier.
  • Make sure you have plenty of leftover dishes for all your yummies.
  • Cook the items that need the longest cook time first, then work down from there. 
Last Monday morning I did a cook up for the week. I planned to roast several different root vegetables, saute onions, peppers and broccoli, prep carrots and broccoli for a stir fry, cook chicken breast and ground beef, make a pot of rice and and a stir fry sauce. I budgeted two hours and targeted using only one cutting board, a knife, vegetable peeler, large saute pan and a roasting pan.

(I posted this on Instagram (@momsatthebarre) and most people were interested in whether or not I actually only used one cutting board, a knife, vegetable peeler, large saute pan and a roasting pan. Stay tuned for THAT...)

Here's how it went:

I started by preheating the oven for roasting. I washed four small sweet potatoes, pricked them with a fork and put them in the oven to bake whole on the roasting pan, which I had covered in aluminum foil.

While the potatoes were baking, I peeled a butternut squash and chopped it into cubes. I tossed the cubes in olive oil and sprinkled them with salt. I pushed the sweet potatoes to one side of the roasting pan and tossed the squash on the pan. 

Then I peeled the parsnips, another sweet potato and the beets, and halved the acorn squash and scooped out the seeds. I chopped each vegetable separately, tossed them in oil and sprinkled with salt and roasted them--again, separately so I can use them how I want later. I did use another roasting pan here, but I covered it in foil, so clean up was easy.

Next, I chopped up a few onions and some garlic and sauteed them in oil. I took out about half the onions and set them aside, then I added a bell pepper to the pan. While those were cooking, I chopped the broccoli stalks and added those to the pan. Finally, I added the florets and cooked them until they were just barely done. (This way, when I reheat the vegetables later, the broccoli won't be overdone.) 

I also chopped up some carrots and broccoli and left them raw. 

Finally, I cut up the chicken. I did this last so I wouldn't have to wash the cutting board before using it on the vegetables. I cooked the chicken in the saute pan, then I browned the ground beef. I made a gravy of sorts with the pan juices, which took all of two minutes. 

While the meats were cooking, I mixed up the stir fry sauce, started some rice in the rice cooker and put the soup together in the slow cooker. I made the soup with the butternut squash. I put the roasted squash, the onions/garlic I had set aside, and some chicken broth I had made yesterday. I'll add cream later and puree with a stick blender later. (I LOVE my stick blender, by the way. I have a Cuisinart model. The blade detaches and can go in the dishwasher! Score!)

So how did I to use these delights?

I made a stir fry, a shepherd's pie, a lentil stew, quesadillas, and a frittata. We had the soup as a side dish a few times. Last night I made some fish and we had what vegetables remained. 

This cook up took about two and a half hours, including clean up. That's longer than I had planned, but I decided to assemble the soup. I also made a little mini pie with an apple that one of the little darlings had bitten into and left to die. Clean up took maybe ten minutes, tops. I planned this one pretty well so I was able to reuse the same equipment. Yay!

I can't take credit for this idea--I've read about it in a few different places. For me, it's been great, especially when my husband is traveling for work, which is often. My early attempts were not great successes (translation: HUGE mess at the end), but after a few tries, I've gotten more efficient. Each time, I learn something new. This time I wish I had made more of some of the vegetables. I used up most of them early in the week and had to make more, which was a pain.

Ah well, live and learn.

If you're a fan of the cook up, or want to be, give me a shout! I'd love to hear what works and what doesn't. Happy cooking!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

If Step and Barre had a Love Child: Pure Barre Platform!

Goodness gracious, so many months since I posted last. My computer died. I know, you were all hanging on by a thread, roaming through your lives bereft... well, I'm back. On the darling's computer. I'm wearing horse blinders to block out the mess that is his desk.

Anyway, I've missed sharing my spicy thoughts and opinions with you all. And believe me, I have a lot to say. Today, instead of prepping the overwhelming talk I'm supposed to give to my son's third grade class tomorrow, I'm going to talk with you about....

Pure Barre PLATFORM!

Barre classes typically follow the same basic format--warm-up/arms, thighs, seat, abs, and stretch. It's a formula that works, but if you're a barre junkie like me, sometimes you want to... well, step it up.

Which is why I was delighted to see that Pure Barre, the nation's most prolific barre brand, offer up something a little different from their usual fare.

Pure Barre's typical class is not boring. They tend to go out of their way to make the exercises interesting, almost to the point (I find) some are a little awkward, but I appreciate the effort. There is a nice variety of movements in a typical PB class, but sometimes you want a change, so PB launched Platform a few months ago.

What to expect:
It's basically step meets barre. Platform uses what I'm guessing is about a 6-inch high, square step, along with the usual PB props of light weights, and maybe a tube and/or small ball.

The class starts out with a fast-paced warm-up using the step. You move on to combo work with the weights and step. Typical barre moves are interspersed with cardio bursts on the platform. You still work thighs, seat and abs, but the pace is FAST. Not a lot of breaks. A lot of sweat. Yay!

What I like about Platform:
Everything. Seriously, I love Platform. The class flies by. It is SO FUN! There are fewer reps than you do in a regular PB class, and the exercises change more frequently, so you're never bored.

You also sweat, sweat, sweat. I was definitely anaerobic at times, but there were sufficient intervals that I didn't find it overkill. You'll also clock some steps on the Fitbit, and that's always nice.

You also don't have any flat- or round-back abs. I hate those.

What I didn't like about Platform:
Ummm.... not much. There really isn't much I didn't like about Platform, and I've taken it quite a few times from several different instructors. There are a couple of funky moves that feel a little awkward to me. For example, we tend to bounce up and down on one leg with the other leg up around my head. I mean, it's not exactly functional fitness, that one. But it got my heart rate up so hey, not complaining.

Also, it's not offered that often at my local studios. I mean, just a couple times a week that I can actually make, but that's ok. I'll clear the calendar because....


Check out your closest local Pure Barre (or 'Pure Barry', as the guy on Google Maps likes to call it) at

Next up on the blog--I'll review Bar Method Bar Move, and I'm going to talk about doing a weekly cook up! I posted about that on Instagram and Facebook the other day, so stay tuned! (and follow on IG @momsatthebarre). I'm lonely out here in blogger land after all this time, so talk to me. I'm back, peeps!