Notes From a Polar Vortex

I saw it coming late last week when I looked at my weather app. Wednesday loomed large, -16 for the high. Yikes. School would certainly be cancelled since the windchills were predicted to be more than 50 below. Yuck, I thought, I guess winter is finally here.

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The last time we left the house was Sunday afternoon. We saw The Little Mermaid, went out for dinner. There was a winter storm warning, we were supposed to get a snowstorm before the deep freeze hit, though the sky was still sunny and clear when we drove to the movie theater. By the time we left dinner it was dark, about 6:00.

“Let’s swing by Target,” I told Tyson, “I’ll just run in quick. We could use some things to get through the next few days if it’s really going to be as bad as they say it is.”

I ran into Target, threw some necessities in the cart: bread, eggs, marshmallows for hot chocolate, stickers from the dollar section, a rotisserie chicken for soup.

By the time I walked out 15 minutes later, it had started snowing.

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Monday would have been the day to leave the house. It wasn’t that cold yet. The 6-10 inches of snow predicted petered out to a measly 4-5. But school was cancelled. I’d been prepping for Wednesday in my head, but Monday was called off already by late Sunday evening. I heard it was because the Department of Transportation wanted the roads as clear as possible - the more traffic the more the fresh snow would get packed down on the roads, making it impossible for the plows to clear, and impossibly slippery as it got colder. Salt wouldn’t work to melt the ice with the subzero temperatures headed our way.

Because of that, we stayed home, off the roads. We had a couple of playdates, went outside three separate times to play in the snow, drank our hot chocolate. Let the adventure begin.

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That was my first thought: this was all some big, grand adventure. Except instead of being really exciting, the adventure was survive being trapped inside your house for a bunch of days with three kids under five.

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My next thought was to wonder about the homeless. Where would people go? There’s no way to survive this, not without shelter. My heart and mind kept turning back to them. I did hear that shelter workers were out, full-force, to help and encourage people to find shelter. And that city buses and other public transportation would be running all night as a place for people to find refuge from the cold. It made me feel a little better. But only a little.

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I raided my drawers for my coziest sweaters. If we were going to be trapped inside, I was at least going to look the part. Maybe this wasn’t an adventure so much as the ultimate hygge challenge. I made plans to hygge the shit out of this thing: I pulled out our warmest blankets, drank hot tea and coffee, sat in front of the fireplace, planned my baking schedule.

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Tuesday we walked over to a neighbor’s house for a change of scenery. We bundled up: inner fleece jackets zipped into the outer waterproof ones, snowpants, boots, our warmest hats and mittens. All for the 2-minute walk four houses down and across the street. I warned the kids that we couldn’t stop to play; we just had to walk straight over and go inside. I told them how dangerous this cold was, tried to explain frostbite.

“Do bugs give you the bites?” Brooklyn wanted to know.

“No,” I told her, “The cold does.” It was very confusing.

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It was weird that we couldn’t leave the house, a sort of forced confinement. I mean, we could have - and eventually did - but we were strongly advised not to. And with all the reports of cars not starting I didn’t exactly want to successfully leave the comfort of our home only to risk the car not starting to return, leaving me stranded with three kids. Not to mention the cold just plain hurt your face.

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It felt sort of like a holiday, except not. Everyone was pretty cocooned up in their own houses. And Tyson still had to work (maybe a downside to working from home?). My motivation went to nil, just like it does between Christmas and New Year’s. I could’ve/should’ve written more, prepped more for the kids’ upcoming birthday party, maybe even cleaned my house. Instead I embraced my cocoon, more often opting for books and blankets than not.

(I finished this book in just a couple of days, and made some decent headway into both this one and this one.)

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Besides the homeless, I wondered about employees missing work because their businesses were closed, or parents who still had to work but suddenly had children to take care of for four straight days. So many businesses were (justifiably) closed, but what if their employees couldn’t afford to miss work, even for a day? I viewed this all as a lark, my grand hygge adventure. I winged up prayers for those who thought this was anything but.

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By Wednesday I was over it. We all were. Wednesday was the worst day of all. We’d already been through two days of this and then Wednesday rolled around. I mean, the entire state was shut down. Schools, restaurants, stores. Even mail delivery was suspended.

In my own house, there were more tears, yelling, and tantrums than the previous two days combined.

“DON’T PLAY WITH A TOY BY YOUR BROTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT HIM TO TOUCH IT!”
“HE WILL STOP CHASING YOU IF YOU STOP RUNNING.”
“RESPECT YOUR SISTER!”

Angry mom came out on Wednesday. She enforced an unprecedented 11:00 am quiet time because we could no longer all be in the same room together. She shook her fist at the heavens for allowing such a thing as a polar vortex to exist. She self-medicated with strong coffee and cookies.

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Monday we baked chocolate chip cookies. Wednesday we made compost cookies. Today we made granola muffins.

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Generally speaking, I noticed a pretty clear divide in the emotions of parents whose kids were home all day every day for four straight (week)days.

The parents whose kids were usually at school (and could easily be home to accommodate this change in schedule) seemed thrilled.

Those of us who are usually with our kids for the bulk of the day anyway: not so much.

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Wednesday afternoon some neighbors came over.

“I hope they don’t get any of those bites!” Brooklyn said when I told her they were on the way.

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Thursday, we left the house.

We had to. We were desperate for groceries and a change of scenery. There was the sense that the worst was over. I loaded everyone up in the car (noting the -26 degree temperature displayed on the dash) and just prayed we would make it back home. (Spoiler alert: we did.)

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More polar vortex recipes: chicken and dumpling soup. Swedish meatballs. Pasta alla vodka.

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Well, that’s one way to close out January.

Godspeed tomorrow, preschool teachers. They’ve been home with us all week. TGIF indeed.

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Lemon and Ricotta Pound Cake

Being that it’s my birthday week (I get to take over the whole week, right?) it’s only fitting to share one of my favorite sweet recipes. Not exactly a birthday cake, though I wouldn’t complain if you showed up at my house with a few candles stuck in one of these, freshly baked. It’s more of an everyday sweet cake. One that goes with everything from coffee in the morning to tea in the afternoon. (Or half-slices snuck from the pantry at any time of the day while your kids run around like crazy people.) And, really, isn’t that the best kind of recipe of all?

Every year when the calendar switches over, my mind immediately turns toward spring. So do the stores, it seems, since everywhere seems to be exploding with pastels and florals. It’s actually depressing to walk through the Target aisles since here in Minnesota we’re still very much in the depths of winter. I grasp what springiness I can in the produce department, through citrus. It’s brightness reminds of what’s to come, hopefully sooner than later, unlike some years when the snow doesn’t melt until nearly May. I’M LOOKING AT YOU 2018.

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Brooklyn and Nolan helped me make this cake one afternoon while Caden was otherwise engrossed in some LEGO creation or other. They helped me measure the flour. (I swatted Nolan’s hand away from eating the flour plain as he’s been known to attempt. Blech.) They tried to guess what each ingredient was. “Now it’s time for sugar?” No this is baking powder. “That’s sugar?” This is salt. “Is that whipped cream?” No this is ricotta cheese. I scattered granules of sugar on the counter once it was actually time for that beloved ingredient, for them to dab up with their fingers.

I showed them how I zested and then squeezed out the lemons into a sieve, quizzed them on why you couldn’t just squirt the lemon juice straight into the bowl. I wonder if they’ll remember these baking lessons when they’re older, the same way I remember my mom showing me how to scoop and then level off cups of flour and sugar. (Even if I rarely take the time to tap and level off the cup now. Whoops.) Maybe they’ll remember how I showed them to scoop out a stray piece of eggshell from the batter, by using another piece of shell to break through the gooey white and remove the offending chunk.

I don’t know. Tyson told me the other day that he realized he has memories from preschool. “They could be creating memories right now!” he told me excitedly. I laughed; it’s true. I remember, vaguely, a few of my own preschool experiences. A warm spring day spent picking dandelions outside, sitting on the rug at circle time, a sheet printed with four bears to dress any way we desired, how I vividly remember using shiny foil to make one bear into an astronaut.

Maybe they’ll remember these baking sessions. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll remember, more tangibly, the way the cake comes out of the oven, it’s golden brown top crunchy and sweet. How excruciating it is to wait until the cake is cool enough to cut. And the way a slice of lemon-y pound cake tastes in the middle of a winter afternoon.

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Lemon and Ricotta Pound Cake
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Every time I make this cake for someone they ask for the recipe. It stays magically moist if kept stored tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. I’m not sure for exactly how long, though, since it’s never lasted more than two or three days in our house. Modified slightly from here.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

  • 1 tsp. Kosher salt

  • 1 1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese (do NOT use the low-fat stuff!)

  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

  • 3 large eggs

  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • zest of 2 lemons

  • juice of 1 lemon

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan well with butter.

  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

  • With a mixer, cream the butter, ricotta, and sugar on medium speed for 2-3 minutes. At this point the batter may be lumpy; don’t worry, it will bake up fine in the end. Add eggs one at a time, beating until combined and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla, zest, and lemon juice and beat until combined. Add the flour mixture, beating on low speed until incorporated.

  • Pour the batter into prepared loaf pan. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. (See note below.) If the top seems to brown too quickly, cover loosely with foil while the rest of the cake continues to bake. Let cool about 15 minutes in pan before removing to cool completely on a cooling rack. (Or just forget about it entirely like I do and let it cool in the pan. Your choice.)

NOTE

  • I’ve noticed this pound cake bakes very differently for me depending on the type of pan I use. For a metal pan, plan on the 50-60 minutes noted and maybe needing to use the foil. For a glass pan (like Pyrex, which I prefer), plan on 60-75 minutes. I always check it at the 50-minute mark to gauge where it’s at, then set the timer at 5-minute increments so as not to over bake. Once the toothpick emerges cleanly and the loaf appears to pull away slightly from the edges of the pan, it’s good to go.

Read, Watched, Listened

I love reading just about everything (okay, you won't see any mystery or sci-fi picks on here), watching things that make me think and especially if they make me laugh, and wholeheartedly embrace the podcast. I also enjoy hearing about what other people are reading, watching, and listening. Here's my two cents worth.

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READ

Rising Strong
This was my first Brene Brown book and it definitely lived up to the hype. (I KNOW, OKAY. Listen, I tried a few years ago but my holds for her books all came up like IMMEDIATELY after Nolan was born. I tried, but my brain just couldn’t hold on to any of Brene’s goodness while in a newborn fog.) I’m fairly familiar with her work, but this one really dug into the specifics of rising from a professional or personal hurt. I’m still thinking about the idea of rumbling with my own stories on an almost daily basis. She’s brilliant.

Braving the Wilderness
Of course, when one of my holds comes up they all seem to, so onto another Brene book it was! This time she dove into the idea of true belonging, which she defines as “...the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world…True belonging doesn't require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Essentially it’s about braving our own vulnerability - our own wilderness - to emerge on the other side even more whole and connected than before. It’s beautiful and so very relevant to the current social climate we’re living in.

Still
SO GOOD. I think I’m reading Lauren Winner’s books out of order (I’m still on hold for her first - Girl Meets God) but that didn’t matter. This book was just lovely, Anyone who has gone through any sort of spiritual wrestle will appreciate this one. Anyone who love writing will appreciate her beautiful prose, too.

The Ministry of Ordinary Places
This book took me a little while to get into, but I loved it in the end. I can’t argue with Shannan’s main idea - to embody love right exactly where we have been placed in the world. Her entire premise reminds me so strongly of Bob Goff’s books - he writes all the time about “becoming love”. And that is exactly what Shannan calls us to do, to develop meaningful relationships right in the community around us. Reading her book made me want to jump right in to help in every organization in my community - though I’m going to pace myself and pick just one to start with. :)

The Best American Food Writing of 2018
The title isn’t lying. Seriously the BEST food writing. I adored each and every piece in this book. The topics range from the soybean harvest to the NBA’s sandwich addiction to oranges to science and political issues surrounding food. I mean, I love food and I love reading about food, so I wasn’t exactly a hard sell. Ha!

Becoming
Believe the hype. This is an intimate, powerful, gorgeous read. I especially appreciated reading so much about Michelle Obama’s own backstory since I didn’t know much going into it. I can’t add much more to this book than what’s already been said. Just read it.

WATCHED

Son of Patricia
Tyson and I love us some Trevor Noah and this comedy special delivered. (We watched it not long before Christmas, and little did Tyson know that his present was tickets to Trevor Noah’s live show when he comes here in February. I giggled a little every time he said, “He’s so funny! This is so good!” And was also proud of myself for keeping my mouth shut!) Anyway, Trevor Noah is hilarious, and for us this special was the perfect date night in.

Top Chef
IT’S BACK! Top Chef is the only “reality” show Tyson and I can stand. (Okay, I will also take some Real Housewives, though Tyson draws a hard line there.) This year’s contestants are phenomenal, as always, and I’m enjoying the Kentucky location more than I thought I would. Bring on the Southern food!

LISTENED

The Axe Files
I know I’ve linked to David Axelrod’s show before, but I had to give it a shout-out again for his live show with Barack Obama (episode 288). It was the perfect reminder of all that a president is supposed to embody: leadership, class, intelligence, and a clear vision for the future. All topped off with Obama’s own signature brand of wry humor.

Note: any links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links.

(Not) Just Another New Year's Post

I’m feeling reflective in a way I don’t usually at this time of year. Looking back on the past year might be a habit for other people, but for me the transition from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day is more or less like any other day of the year. But this year I feel different. I feel a compulsion to go back through photos from the past year, to read back over some of my writing, to really take in and savor the idea that an entire year has passed and we won’t ever get it back.

Maybe it was the video recapping 2018 we watched from Vox. By the end I had tears streaming down my face. (People who know me IRL know just how rare a phenomenon this is.) I couldn’t help it as I sat and watched the news highlights from the past year - from the good to the bad, from the natural disasters to the shootings (so many shootings) from the royal wedding to the #metoo movement to the historic midterm election. Tyson asked when it was over what it was that made me so sad. Or maybe I was happy? “It’s BOTH!” I cried, “It’s all of the emotions. It’s all the feelings from the past year.” And also the idea that 2018 felt like an actual eternity. Was the shooting in Parkland really only last February? It feels like three years ago. Surely the Kavanaugh hearings were at least that long ago. Or more. It seems like an eternity.

Maybe it was the mistake I made of looking through some old photos. Because I saw Nolan in his diaper at the beginning of last year. 2019 dawns as the first year that hasn’t begun with a child (or two or three) in diapers in a long time. It seems like we’ve turned a page, or a chapter, like it’s some sort of dramatic leap forward. And to look at Nolan, how far he’s come since last January. Physically he looks so much the same, but how much he’s added to his extensive vocabulary. How much more daring he’s become. How much more of a person he is.

Maybe it’s the idea, as I continue to look through those old photos, at how much will stay the same this year. The yearly routine. My birthday in January followed by the three kid’s birthdays to celebrate and plan for in February. Easter sometime in the spring, with all its egg dying and pastel-colored clothing glory. The end of preschool (forever, this time, for two of them) and a dance recital. Summer activities and a perpetual backyard pool and the Fourth of July and hanging out with our neighbors and a trip up to the lake. School shopping and the beginning of another new year of the September variety. The rest of our year really amps up then, as we celebrate and plan for one thing after another: Tyson’s birthday turns quickly into our anniversary which turns into Halloween and then Thanksgiving and then Christmas, all over again. More presents under the same tree, tucked into the same stockings, surrounded by the same decorations and people, now a year older.

Maybe it’s that people really amp up at this time of year, ready to set new goals and intentions and proclaim new words for the year. I’m not much of a goals person. I’m reluctant to set them. I think it has to do with my perfectionism streak: setting a goal means I may not achieve it, and I prefer to avoid failure at all costs. (Healthy, I know.) Then there’s the part where I hate being boxed in - I’d rather let things flow a little bit easier. Whatever it is, I tried last year. I jumped on the bandwagon and set a word and mapped out some goals and then set that expensive workbook aside...and never picked it up again. I have a few goals in mind for this year, but it’s not because of the date on the calendar. They’re already things I’ve been mulling over in my head. And I still like my word from last year: enjoy. I’m not ready to let go of it just yet. I still have lots of enjoyment left in me. I spent a lot of 2018 thinking over that word, what it meant to me. It wasn’t such a bad way to spend the year. I’m not ready to flip over to a new page just because the calendar is.

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It’s a *balmy* 10 degrees outside right now as I write this. Part of me is loathe to leave behind the holiday cocoon, the cozy time from Christmas to New Year’s where we’re all cuddled up and don’t mind if we get snowed in because our only plans are to play with new toys and color pictures and read books and watch movies and cook comfort food. When Tyson is off work more than he’s working and we don’t have to know or care much what day of the week it is.

Today Caden and Brooklyn went back to preschool; it was nice, they were ready. When they came home, after lunch and quiet time, I let them watch a Batman movie, by request. It was sort of a special treat. A nod to the fact that I still have one foot in the coziness of the holiday season. We had a snack afterwards, smoothies, made with the blender I got for Christmas because I’m not a complete Grinch about new things in the new year. (Until Nolan spilled a green smoothie meant for Tyson all over the upstairs carpet. *all the facepalms*) Maybe I’ll keep inching forward this way, one foot forward, the other planted a little further back, bringing along the best things of the past year into this new one and hoping for the best.

Favorites of 2018

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These high-rise underwear.

This swimsuit.

These earrings.

This face cream. (I mostly use it as a night/eye cream and wake up in the morning with the softest skin.)

These joggers. (They’re lightweight and also have NO DRAWSTRING, which I prefer but is almost impossible to find.)

This variety pack of herbal teas. (Along with most of their products- use this referral link to try it for yourself!)

I read so many great novels this year, but these are the ones that will stick with me: This satirical-yet-serious one. The one that broke me. This brilliant one. ALSO THIS ONE AND THIS ONE. *cue all the emojis*

And for nonfiction: I keep thinking about this memoir. Also this one. This one which spoke so much to my own heart (curse words and all). Also this one and this one which I should read a little of each day because they’re packed full of simple truth.

These slippers.

The best high-rise jeans.

The shows I can’t stop talking about: this comedy special. We were obsessed with this series. But this one most of all.

This hair tool.

This stew. This bread. This pasta (I sub chicken-apple sausage for the shrimp). These kabobs (I add mushrooms and they are YUM.)

Things I wrote this year: The one that still makes me tear up when I read it (that’s normal with your own writing, right?). The one where I bared my soul. This little ditty I wrote in an hour one morning. The one about our household obsession this year. The one where I went back to my design roots. This one might be my favorite of all.