31 January 2012

Jury Duty

A couple of weeks ago, I got a summons in the mail for jury duty.  Contrary to popular belief, attorneys are not exempt from jury duty (at least not in my state).  I responded to the summons, filling out a fairly elaborate online form and marking in my calendar the date I was due to report.  I was warned several times of the dire consequences of ignoring the summons.

When I mentioned to people I knew that I had been called for jury duty, I was generally met with one of two responses.  The first response was surprise:  aren't attorneys exempt?  The second response was, "How are you going to get out of it?"  Sometimes people, trying to be helpful, suggested ways of getting out of serving.  The most common ploy, apparently, is to tell the judge or attorneys during jury selection that you are a racist.  Name the group of people you are biased against; it's helpful if that group includes the defendant in the case.  They'll send you right home.

I do not approve of people who try to avoid jury service.  The right to trial by jury is an important one guaranteed by both the state and the federal constitutions.  We live in a society where we are entitled to be judged by our peers, in a group representative of the community.  Legions of soldiers have lost their lives defending this and other rights.  Refusing to serve on a jury just because it's inconvenient is shortsighted.  Like voting, trial by jury is a right you might not use every day, but trust me, if you lost it and someday needed it, you'd miss it.

So, inconvenient as it was, I showed up yesterday at the county courthouse at 8:15 in the morning to fulfill my duty.  I had to park in a gated lot and take a ticket; when I got inside, the officials in Central Jury validated my ticket so that I would not have to pay upon my exit.  I was escorted into a big waiting room with chairs, tables, a coffee machine, and a big television set.  I sat with about 150 other potential jurors and watched a short video presentation about jury service and what it entails.  We were told that the Central Jury officials would not have an idea until later in the day how many jurors would be needed.  We were instructed to wait until we were called to a panel.

I pulled out my laptop, but the internet service in the jury waiting room did not work.  Fortunately, I had brought my knitting.  I knitted and sipped coffee all morning, chatting casually with the people sitting around me.  One of my neighbors was also a knitter, so I chatted mostly with her and admired the beautiful sweater she was making.  We agreed to watch each other's things when we got up for more coffee or to use the bathroom.  At 12:30, we got an hour-long lunch break.  I bought a sandwich in the court cafeteria and ate it while I continued to knit.  The day ticked away.

Around 2:30, about 20 people were randomly selected and called to be screened for a potential jury.  They got up and left the room; some time afterward, about half of them returned, apparently having been rejected for one reason or another from that particular jury.  The rest of us sat and waited.  The baby blanket I was knitting grew and grew.

And then, at about 3:45, we were told we could leave.  We would not be needed, and we were assured that, having fulfilled our duty by showing up, we would not be called for at least another three years.

All 150 jurors left at the same time and headed for the parking lot.  I sat in my car and waited in line patiently behind them and all the paying customers for about half an hour to exit through the manned gate.

My entire day had been lost.  I had had to drop my children off early at school, and someone else had had to pick them up.  I had not gotten to the supermarket, walked the dogs, made important calls.  Now, I am not complaining about jury service, because, as I pointed out, I consider it an important duty to fulfill.  However, I have some modest suggestions as to how it could have been improved.  I don't know whether anyone in northern New Jersey is listening, but just in case they are, here are three modest ideas:

1)  It amazes me that, in this day and age of advanced technology, jury service is handled the same way it was in 1970.  There is no need to hold 150 people hostage in a room for an entire day "just in case" a jury is needed.  Why not collect cell phone numbers, or distribute beepers, when jurors check in, and then instruct them that they must reappear within 30 minutes of being summoned by text message or page?  Everyone in that room lived within 30 minutes of the courthouse.  Errands could have been run, and children picked up, without jeopardizing availability.

2)  You cannot expect a room full of working people to survive an entire day as captives in a courthouse without fully functional internet access.  Had the internet connection worked, I could have gotten some work done while I was waiting.  I suspect the stress level and the complaining in the room would have decreased significantly if people had been able to work and take care of other obligations.  Also, if I had known that the internet connection was not reliable, I could have brought paper copies of my work with me.

3)  A separate parking lot, or a separate exit from the general lot, would have saved the jurors and the parking personnel a lot of time and aggravation.  When 150 already-grumbly people all leave a building at once, and are then forced to wait in line to exit, they get grumblier.  They vow they will never do this again.

The bottom line is that jury duty doesn't have to be an enormous inconvenience or an unpleasant experience.  We have the technology to make it, as they say in the medical field, minimally invasive and comfortable.  If the system were streamlined, and if technology were used optimally, I am absolutely certain that there'd be far fewer professed racists walking around in my county.

24 January 2012

Tips for the Work-at-Home Mom

At this point in my life, I have done it all ways: I have worked outside of the home, I have been a stay-at-home mother, and, most recently, I have worked from my home.  At the request of a few of my readers, I'd like to share a few things I have learned along the way about successfully working from home.  These tips are not just for at-home professionals like myself; many of them can be adapted for stay-at-home mothers (who, as we know, work just as hard as anyone else) and for work-outside-of-the-home moms (who often are in great need of organizational tips because of the stress of their lifestyles).

So here we go: some modest tips and suggestions for the work-at-home mother.  Whether you sell scarves on Etsy, unload clutter on Ebay, run a catering business, or write briefs for the Supreme Court, these tips are for you.

1.  Create your space.

The most important part of working at home, in my opinion, is having a viable and dedicated place to work.  If you work at the kitchen table, and you need to do the dishes and move everyone's stuff before you can settle in, you are adding unnecessary extra time and effort to your day, and you run the risk of your paperwork becoming marred by rings of orange juice and bagel crumbs.  Set up a corner, or a whole room if you can, and designate it as your work space.  Make sure there is room for all your equipment, like a computer and phone, as well as a place for your papers to live without being constantly shuffled around.  I have a desk in the basement with a computer, a printer, a phone, and a filing cabinet.  A friend who sells crafts on Etsy has an entire room dedicated to her craft, with not only a well-lit workspace, but also ample storage for her tools and completed projects.  If you can't have a whole room, have a corner of a room.  Make it a friendly space that you look forward to spending time in; your chair must be comfortable and your lighting must be good.

2.  Embrace technology.

This one seems obvious to me, but it's important.  You cannot expect to be successful in your work in this day and age if you are not keeping up with technology.  You must have a reliable internet connection in your home, but you must also have a smartphone that remains charged, on, and connected when you're not at your desk.  You must be reachable by your coworkers, clients, and/or customers.  If that means you have to splurge on an iPhone or a Blackberry, so be it.  Have the equipment you need, and learn to use it efficiently.  I took a free online legal research course offered by Westlaw when I started working at home, because it had been some time since I had practiced that skill, and times had changed.  Your business, whatever it is, surely also has free tutorials that will help you bring your skills into the 21st century.  Take advantage of everything that's out there - apps, videos, online courses, meetings with people who know how it's done.  Time spent learning is never wasted.

3.  Get organized.

I'm not just talking about your work-related paperwork here (time sheets, contracts, and orders); I'm talking about your whole life.  As you know if you are a mother, your kids' report cards, sports schedules, and vaccination records can take over your life if you are not careful.  It is absolutely essential that you become a master of organization.  Create a place for everything and put everything in its place.  Visit friends' home offices for ideas.  My friend Laura, a stay-at-home mom of five, is one of the most organized people I know, and she has given me many, many ideas.  As a result, I have a binder on my desk called "Mom's Master Binder."  It contains tabs labeled "Invitations," "Gift Cards," "Home Improvement," "Important Receipts," etc.  Each child has a tab too.  Everything worth saving goes into the binder.  I also have a file cabinet with a million folders - health care receipts, home improvement receipts, user manuals for various appliances, personal correspondence.  This is in addition to the file folders I maintain for each client and each case.

4.  Communicate with the boss and/or the support staff.

I work for a small law office.  I am in daily touch not only with the partner for whom I work, but also with the office manager, who is an invaluable resource for me.  She e-mails me faxes that come in on the office machine, collects my time sheets and organizes them, and prints out my work and places it on the boss's desk for his review.  In this day and age of telecommuting and working at home, the people in the office who were once considered "underlings" have become invaluable resources for everyone.  Never before has support been so crucial to success.  It is absolutely essential to make friends with the people in the office, as well as any other at-home workers or telecommuters, and to work with them as a team.  Doing so will make life infinitely easier.

5.  Scout out your alternate space.

There will be times when you will need to get something done, and doing it in your home will not be practical.  For example, I recently had some work done on my house, and I could not concentrate with the banging and yelling that were going on.  For those times, you need to have a secondary workspace.  Where this workspace is will depend on your needs and the amenities available at your location.  If moderate noise is okay, maybe a local coffeeshop will work.  Stop by and see whether there's a comfortable table in the corner with an electrical outlet for your laptop.  Check out the crowds; what time do you have to arrive to get your choice space?  I need quiet, so I usually use a carrel in the local public library as my secondary space.  The light is good, the noise level is (usually) within my limits, and the electricity and internet connection are reliable.  When school lets out around 3 P.M., the library becomes a noisy zoo, but that's okay for me because I am usually wrapping up my workday at that point.  Assess your individual needs and find a place that works.  Then, little inconveniences will not throw you for a loop.

6.  Turn off the phone.

A lot of people don't understand that working at home is working.  People who would never keep you chatting on the phone for an hour when you were in the office think nothing of doing so when you're in the basement.  To avoid having valuable billable time sucked away from you, you need to set limits.  Do not answer personal calls when you are working.  Let your voice mail pick them up, and then set aside some time later to check the messages and call people back.  I use e-mail far more than I use the phone, because I can e-mail people at my own convenience.  While my phone is always on (see #2 above), it is on for business purposes.

7.  Confront the food monster.

If you're like me, constantly battling weight gain, one of the biggest pitfalls of working at home is the presence of the refrigerator within arm's reach of the workspace.  Snacks are available at all hours, and it's hard to resist the temptation to munch while working.  There are several ways to deal with this.  First, I eat breakfast every morning, clean up the kitchen, and close it down until lunchtime.  Sometimes I make a cup of tea and take it downstairs to my desk, but I never, ever work in the kitchen, and I never, ever eat solid food at my desk.  At lunchtime, I either meet a friend for lunch outside of the house or warm up some soup and eat it in the kitchen, and then return to my desk.  If I am working at the library, I pack a lunch just as I would if I were going to school or to the office.  I eat it somewhere other than in my carrel (the library's no-food rules support this plan), and then I return to work.  Keeping a bright line between food and work also avoids another problem I have: my constant, clumsy, and expensive habit of spilling food and drink on my laptop.

8.  Put your blinders on.

There is always something that needs to be done around the house.  The rug needs vacuuming.  There's a pile of dishes in the sink.  The paint on the wall of the bathroom needs to be touched up.  It is important that you be able to turn off your critical housekeeper's eye and focus instead on the fact that you are working.  The dishes will still be there at break time, and you can take care of them then.  During your working hours, you must turn a blind eye to all the other things you could be doing, even if their not-having-been-done drives you nuts, and remain faithful to the task at hand.  This is extremely difficult for me, as I am not only obsessive about my house but also easily distracted.  But it is essential to success.

9.  Get help if you can afford it.

There is no such thing as Wonder Woman.  All the perfect housekeepers you know either spend all their time tweaking their homes or have significant help.  If your children are young, your house will be a mess. No one expects it to be otherwise.  If you have young children and you work all day, God bless you.  You are entitled to all the help you can afford.  If you're rolling in money, by all means hire someone to clean, cook, and cater to the children's and Fido's needs while you are working.  However, most of us are not rolling in money but still need help.  Be creative.  Make a neighborhood friend and take turns doing the shopping and the dog-walking.  Carpool.  Share a cleaning lady or a babysitter.  Do whatever you need to do to get it all done, and do not feel guilty about it.  If you pretend you can do it all without help, you are perpetuating the myth that such a thing is possible, and you are doing your daughters a disservice.  Maintaining a home and a job and a family are team efforts.  Identify your team and work with them.  Use the resources available and do the best you can.  That's the best lesson you can teach a young woman.

10.  Take scheduled breaks.

Everyone needs a social life and ample exercise.  It is completely okay to have a lunch break and to spend it chatting with someone you like.  It is also okay to take an exercise class, or to spin your bike around the local park now and then, or to walk downtown for a cup of coffee.  It is also okay to spend some time alone doing something you enjoy.  For your own sanity, do not treat yourself like a prisoner in your home office.  Working at home is a great luxury, and it's not an option available to everyone.  Take advantage of the fact that you have more flexibility than most workers.  If it's a nice day, go outside.  Meet a friend.  Do some yoga.  When you get back to work after a good break, you'll have more energy to apply to the task at hand, and you won't resent the workload as much, knowing your day is within your own control.

11.  Have realistic expectations and goals.

To meet my financial goals, I'm supposed to bill 20 hours a week to paying clients.  I am still struggling with whether that's realistic, given the millions of other things I do (free legal work for friends, administrative stuff, knitting, blogging, practicing my guitar, and tending to my kids).  I think it may be more reasonable for me to work a project-based schedule.  When something needs to be done, I do it well by a defined deadline.  Depending on deadlines, some weeks will be busier than others.  The key is to assess what needs to be done and to be realistic about how much time I can spend on it, and when.  Cash flow is a big consideration, too; can I live with having "dry" weeks and "liquid" weeks, based on my work hours?

Working at home is always a work in progress and a learning experience.  I think of new tips and coping strategies every day, and as I do so, life gets easier.  I hope that by sharing my thoughts, I have made a little difference in the life of another mom out there.  Have a great week!

19 January 2012

Full Days

(Thank you all, dear readers, for being patient with me as I disappeared from blogland for a little over a week. I have been battling pneumonia, complicated by a couple of successive colds.  A full recovery is still in the works, but I am starting to feel a little better, so I have a moment to take to the keyboard once again.)

"Have a good day," I told my son this morning.  "Good luck on your test."

"Thanks!  Have fun knitting by yourself all day," he responded.

And that's when it occurred to me that my kids think I sit around all day.

I do not just sit around all day.  First of all, I am a practicing lawyer.  I spend a fair amount of time every day chasing down legal issues.  I recently completed a first draft of an appellate brief that will be due at the beginning of February.  The boss is reviewing it, and it's going to need a pretty good rework before it sees its second draft form.  (That's because I rushed at the end to finish the draft.  Nothing unusual.)  Legal work at home involves e-mails and phone calls, as well as a fair amount of research.  Just because I do these things in jeans and a college sweatshirt in my basement doesn't mean they're not real work.

And in between the legal work I do a variety of other things.  For example, this morning, I went to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store and had a techie untangle my iTunes account for me.  (I now have music on my laptop and phone.  Hooray!)  When I got home, I registered my oldest daughter to take the SAT in March.  This second task involved a fair amount of digging around and tearing my house apart, looking for an important piece of paper that I had put in an extremely safe place.  The safe place was so safe that I couldn't remember where it was.  When I found it, I had to create a better filing system for that particular piece of paper and all the other things that were piling up on my desk.  In the course of doing so, I found a missing passport that I had had to replace this past fall.  I also found a necklace I had been looking for for approximately a year.  (Had had.  For for.  Yes, I noticed that.)  I also had to respond to an e-mail from a former boss who has been unable to locate anything in his office since I left his employ last year.  He e-mails me occasionally, asking me to remind him where things are.  I try to be terse but not snarky, which, as you can imagine, is sort of difficult for me.

All this took a lot of time and involved absolutely no knitting.

I'm not sure why I am vaguely insulted that my son thinks I spend all my time knitting.  After all, I love to knit, and a lot of the things I make end up in his sock drawer.  That makes him pretty happy.  I do, however, want him to know that the life of a work-at-home mom is not all leisure.  There are things about it that are great:  the dog napping at my feet, the trip downtown at lunchtime to meet my friend for a bowl of soup, the shoes I am not wearing at the moment.  But there are also things about it that are tricky:  keeping track of my billable hours over the course of a very chopped-up day, avoiding personal phone calls that can eat up big chunks of time, trying to sound professional on a business call while the dryer is whirring in the background, trying to get the absolute basics covered before everyone gets home from school.  Sometimes, as happened yesterday, I realize suddenly that my husband will be home in an hour and I have not given a single thought to dinner.

Life wasn't all leisure when I was a stay-at-home mom, either.  In my first year of stay-at-homehood, my kids were three, five, and seven years old.  No, I did not work outside of the house, but I ran from dawn till dusk, transporting children to their various schools and appointments and trying to keep the house from falling down around me.  By comparison, my life today is pretty quiet.  I guess that's why I've found the time to knit at all.  It never would have been possible to knit when the children were small, because knitting requires sitting down and focusing for more than three minutes at a time.

What I am trying to say is that perceptions of the stay-at-home or work-at-home lifestyle - whether held by children or by other adults - are often quite inaccurate.  I don't commute into the city anymore, and I am grateful for that perk, especially now that the weather is cold and the afternoons are dark.  But the days at home are full, and I like them that way.

I only wish they were a little less full sometimes so that I could get a little more knitting done.  But that's what weekends are for.

10 January 2012

Nuggets for Dollars

Read all about it here:  in 2010, Weight Watchers and McDonald's partnered up in New Zealand to market several McDonald's products, including Chicken McNuggets and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, to dieters, as a healthy choice.

It's a smart marketing move.  If you're paying attention, you know that I have been donating my hard-earned money to Weight Watchers for years now.  In return, I have the privilege of tallying up my bad eating habits each day in a diary.  Everything I eat is assigned a "Points Plus" value, and I'm allowed to have a certain number of Points Plus each day.  If I stay within that range, I am supposed to lose weight.  (I almost never stay in my range, and as a result, I haven't lost an ounce.  But that's a story for another post, I guess.)

Weight Watchers products, and products endorsed by Weight Watchers, sell to dieters - whether or not they are paying members of the program - like, well, hotcakes.  They are perceived to be healthy, pre-portion-controlled, and conducive to weight loss.  When I shop in the supermarket, and cook from scratch, I have to go through a relatively complicated calculation process to figure out how many Points Plus there are in whatever I am buying and eating.  But on Weight Watchers-endorsed foods, the "Points Plus" value of each portion is predetermined, which cuts back on the mental math.  (Believe me, if I were any good at mental math, I'd be stick-thin by now.)

So if the company pre-assigns an official value to a convenience food, I am more likely to grab that food on the run, since I already know how to fit it into my plan.  But the food doesn't have to be healthy for me to choose it.  If I know, for example, that a Wendy's hamburger is going to set me back nine points exactly, I am more likely to choose that option than a supermarket salad with some undetermined amount of cheese in it.  I don't know what kind of cheese it is, or exactly how much is in there, so I'll need to pull out my Weight Watchers calculator and make a guess.  This is a pain, and I am impatient and hungry.  So I opt for the easier - and obviously less healthy - choice.

In this way, the endorsement of convenience foods actually achieves the opposite of what Weight Watchers purports to be trying to teach me:  how to change my lifestyle habits and make smarter choices each and every time, to promote lasting weight loss and maintenance.  Sure, a 10-piece serving of McNuggets might be 6.5 Points Plus, and maybe it's even a reasonable amount for a woman of my size and age to consume for lunch.  But is it the best thing I could eat for lunch?  For the same number of Points Plus, I could have a huge heaping plate of salad, along with an individual can of tuna and some fresh fruit for dessert.  But that would require work - the not-insignificant effort and time necessary to assemble such a lunch.

By endorsing fast food, Weight Watchers is waving a red flag in the face of an angry bull.  Okay, I'm not an angry bull - just a hungry working mom.  But when you tempt me with an easy, tasty option that's simply not the best choice, you are teaching me something you don't want me to learn.

Unless - and I can't imagine this is true - Weight Watchers is trying to encourage me to eat the McNuggets. The less successful I am on their program, the more my money will go into their pockets.

There was a time - a brief, shining moment of time in my childhood - when I loved Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and consumed them every chance I got.  But then I learned that a big chunk of batter-dipped, fried fish, coated in mayonnaise and ketchup and slapped onto a corn-syrupy bun, was not the kind of food that would help me live to be a great-grandma.  So I gave those delicious things up, figuring it was a fair trade.

I won't let myself now be convinced that they are actually okay for me to eat on a weight-loss diet.  How about you?

Privacy

Yesterday, I read a story that has been all over the New York newspapers, about the birth of the daughter of pop stars Beyoncé and Jay-Z at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.  The story (you can read the New York Times version here) is that the rock stars paid an undisclosed amount of money to build themselves a private birth suite in the neonatal unit at the hospital.  In order to insure privacy for the famous new parents and their daughter, private security guards were hired to roam the halls, darkened glass was installed in the nursery, and, in a development that seems to me to be the most alarming, the hospital's regular security cameras were covered with paper to prevent curiosity seekers from glimpsing the new baby.  Other parents with children in the neonatal intensive care unit were allegedly prevented from visiting their own babies, lied to, denied access to the hallways, and told that the additional measures had been taken because of a "special event" that had taken place.

I'm not going to talk here and now about the horrible inconvenience (and possible danger) to other parents and children caused by Beyoncé's special arrangements.  Nor will I mention the public-relations disaster that this might become for Lenox Hill in a time of tight finances, hard-to-come-by health care, and class warfare.  I am not even going to delve into my personal belief that all births are "special events," whether or not they take place in million-dollar private birthing suites.  (Which, according to the Times, are routinely available to anyone, at an undisclosed price.)

What I want to touch on, lightly (because this space is limited), is the issue of entitlement to privacy in our celebrity-obsessed society.  Volumes could be said about this, but I'll just keep it to a few brief, superficial observations.

There are many, many people in our society who make a living - and a good one, at that - by exposing their private matters to public view.  These include, of course, memoirists, some of the more successful bloggers, sports idols, and performers.  It is a profitable business to drum up interest in one's personal life, because it beefs up the revenues from one's professional life.  Some famous performers try valiantly to shield their children from public view, because they have legitimate safety concerns.  (Julia Roberts comes to mind.)  Others milk their family life for all it's worth, encouraging their fans to follow their personal news as closely as they follow their professional news.

I'm thinking specifically of actors and actresses who pose with their new spouses and babies for the covers of tabloid magazines and who sell first rights to their family images for lucrative sums.  Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who revealed Beyoncé's pregnancy in spectacular fashion at the MTV Video Music Awards in November, have encouraged fans to take an interest in their personal life.  It's good business to have people following you on Facebook and Twitter and reading about you in Rolling Stone.  It makes sense for a pop star to release a new song at just about the moment of his daughter's birth.  (Read about that in Parade Magazine, in an article which interestingly describes Jay-Z as a "notoriously private rapper.")  But, having purposely drummed up such an interest, can one then complain about the mob scenes at the hospital by fans and paparazzi desperate for a glimpse?

It seems to me that the Z family (nah, just kidding, their real surname is apparently Carter) could have afforded to build their private birth suite just about anywhere, including at a well-fortressed home, with all the medical equipment and expertise necessary for safety, and all the privacy they wanted, without inconveniencing others.  But they chose to welcome their highly-heralded daughter at a large metropolitan hospital, renowned for its expertise in neonatal care, and to attempt to transform the NICU into their own private space.

I don't think they can have it both ways.  What do you think?

04 January 2012

Baby Shower

A dear friend of mine was recently invited to a baby shower.  It seems her nephew and his wife are expecting their first child in the spring.  Baby showers are fun, so my friend (I'll call her Patty, because that's her name) was excited.  At first.

Then she read the fine print on the invitation.

The invitation specified that each guest was to bring three things to the shower:  a main gift, something smaller for the "wishing well," and, in lieu of a card, a favorite children's book.  The invitation also specified that all gifts were to be presented to the expectant mother unwrapped and accompanied by a gift receipt, which should be taped to the present.

Patty's first reaction was worry:  she lives on a very tight budget, and she wasn't sure she could afford three gifts.  Then puzzlement set in.  Why couldn't the gifts be wrapped?  Wasn't that half the fun of giving someone a gift - watching them open it?  Finally, she was upset about the requirement of a gift receipt.  Several months ago, when she first heard about the impending arrival of this baby, she asked me to knit a baby blanket for her to give to her nephew and his wife.  I did so, and that's what Patty had been planning to give as her shower present.  But it would not come with a receipt.

She called the woman who was throwing the shower and asked about the no-wrapping requirement.  Maybe the new mom was an environmentalist and opposed to wasting paper?  No, she was told; not wrapping the gifts, and including receipts, made it easier for the recipient to determine who had brought what, and to return gifts if necessary.  Patty mentioned that she had planned to bring a custom hand-knitted blanket.  "Oh," said the hostess.  "We're requesting that people not bring homemade gifts, please."

Are you horrified yet?

In the olden days, when someone was expecting a baby, a friend, neighbor, or relative would throw a shower for the new mom in order to provide her with the essentials of motherhood that she probably didn't already own.  New parents need all kinds of stuff not otherwise considered standard household equipment:  crib sheets (and cribs), baby clothes, diapers, bottles, blankets, pacifiers, burp cloths ... you get the idea.  This stuff can get expensive, so the community would chip in and spread out the cost.  Someone handy with a hammer would make a cradle.  Someone with a new sewing machine would make some baby clothes.  A few people would knit blankets, and a few more might fill the new parents' freezer with casseroles or other easy meals.  The idea was to help them be ready for the big, joyful, life-bending event.

Nowadays, showers are celebratory just as much as they are practical.  They often include a nice buffet lunch, a fun baby-themed parlor game, and plenty of advice from older female relatives.  Grandmas often splurge on expensive strollers.  Moms register for gifts they need and want, and sometimes they spread the word about the little one's gender or name, so people can bring more personalized gifts.  People throw themed showers sometimes, such as a book shower (to build the little one's library) or a linen shower (for a mom who needs or wants sheets and blankets).  Gift showers were traditionally only held for a first-time mother (it was presumed that she already had the basics by the time the second baby came along), but increasingly, people have been celebrating the advent of the second baby just as enthusiastically.

A shower can be a lot of things.  But there's one thing a shower should never, ever be.  It should never be a fishing expedition for money.

And it sounds to me like that's what Patty has been invited to.  Her niece-in-law is not going to waste any time being surprised and delighted while she opens gifts.  There will be no need for a special friend to keep track with pen and paper of who gave each gift (so that the new mom can write thank-you notes to the guests after the shower).  This shower has not been thrown to furnish a bride with the equipment she will need as she becomes a mother.  This shower has been thrown so that she can shop without leaving her chair.  She will be able to keep the gifts she wants and return the ones she doesn't.  The whole thing reeks of greed.

And I - a total stranger to this new mom - am hurt that she doesn't want the blanket that I spent weeks knitting for her baby.  That's a real trick, hurting the feelings of someone you don't know who wasn't even invited to the party.

Patty is planning to decline the invitation.  She asked me whether I thought she should send a gift, even though she couldn't make it to the actual party.  I initially thought that she should send something modest - for example, just a book, or a small-denomination savings bond.  But then I had a better idea.  My idea is that she should make a donation to a worthy charity that helps needy mothers, and then send her niece-in-law a card with a note that a donation has been made in her honor.

This is a gift that can't be returned, but the returns on it will be great.  What do you think?

Beef Stew Recipe

I got a fancy new Crock-Pot for Christmas.  It's a cool new 6-1/2-quart programmable edition, and it replaces my old cranky analog pot, which was stained, chipped, and generally in need of replacement.  Here's what the new one looks like:


Cool touch screen, huh?  It's going to be perfect for cooking nice, hot meals for my family all through the winter.  In addition, my husband gave me a copy of America's Test Kitchen's Slow Cooker Revolution, and he let me know that anything I made from that book would be fine with him.

I resolved to cook my way through the book.

But first, I thought I'd share with you my very favorite old standby slow-cooker method for making beef stew.  This is a recipe that I made up entirely by myself and that I have perfected over the years.  It makes the house smell great all day long.  I disclaim any liability if your family hates it or if it doesn't come out perfectly.  (As my Weight Watchers leader is constantly saying, "individual results will vary.")

Here's what you'll need:

Two pounds beef chuck, cut into cubes for stew
1/2 cup or so of flour
One pound carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces (or use a bag of baby-cut carrots if you're lazy like me)
Six or so stalks of celery, chopped roughly
Two medium onions, peeled and chopped roughly
One clove of garlic, peeled and minced
Two 12-oz. bottles of beer (any kind will do)
Two tablespoons powdered beef bouillon
Two bay leaves
Optional:  whatever other root vegetables you have lying around (parsnips, potatoes, turnips, etc., cut into bite-size pieces
Generous shakings of salt and pepper

Here's how you do it:

Put the beef and the flour into a large plastic bag and shake until the beef is completely covered.  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Line the bottom of the crock-pot with your carrots:


Add the onions, celery, and root vegetables (if using).  Sprinkle bouillon over the top, add the garlic and bay leaves, and then add the floured meat.


Pour the beer over the top of the meat, cover, and cook on low setting anywhere from 8 to 12 hours.

One of the things I like most about this recipe is that it's nearly impossible to overcook it.  Just start it in the morning, before you head off to wherever you're going, and let it simmer until everyone gets home from school and work and is ready to eat.  No less than an hour before you're ready to sit down, lift the lid and give it a good stir, to introduce the floury meat to the simmering beer.  This will cause the sauce to thicken.  While that's going on, make a pot of rice and a salad, and you are good to go.  (Don't forget to remove the bay leaves before serving.)  Yield:  enough for a hungry family of five (one of whom picks the meat out because she's a vegetarian and another of whom eats only the meat), with plenty of leftovers.

Happy stewing!

02 January 2012

Goals for the New Year

1.  Finally kick that bottle of calcium supplements that's been sitting on my kitchen windowsill for longer than I'd like to admit.  I've taken a couple of serious falls in the past year, one of which involved a broken shoulder.  The broken bone itself wasn't that big of a deal - it was the nine months of physical therapy that followed to regain use of my right arm.  I don't feel like doing that again.

2.  It appears that my fourth child is going to be a novel.  I'd like my manuscript to be well underway by the end of March, when my other fourth child would have been born.

3.  Less Facebook, more face-to-face time.  If I have time to Facebook, I have time to meet my friend for coffee or lunch, or just pick up the phone.

4.  This is a repeat from last year, but it's become more urgent.  I am going to lose those extra pounds.  (My husband:  "Don't feel bad about repeating this one.  All the best resolutions come up year after year.")

5.  Live more leanly.  I seem to go through periods where I am hemorrhaging money, for no good reason.  It's not like I earn tons of money, so this is something I need to keep a close eye on.  One of the things I can do to make this happen is a lot more cooking at home and a lot less stumbling into the diner at 8 P.M.  Watch this space for recipes.  The blog, after all, is called "Still Life With Crockpot."

6.  Stop picking fights with people who are less, um, intellectually gifted than I am.  I am not going to change them, so it's wasted effort and it just annoys them.  And me.  And it probably generates a whole metric ton of bad karma every time I do it.  Related goal:  unload the bad karma.

7.  Try to yell at my kids less and hug them more.  I'm actually not a big yeller, and I think I'm pretty patient most of the time.  But there is always room for improvement in this area.  My oldest will be off to college in less than two years, and I'd like to have lots of hugs to remember.  They are spectacular kids, and they deserve to know how much I love them.

8.  Spend more time with Sparky the Wonder Dog.  He too is at the halfway point of his life, and he too needs plenty of attention to get him through the coming years.

9.  Find more writers whose work I admire, and emulate them.  Pester them for assistance, if necessary.

10.  Remind my husband how much I appreciate him.  This is another one that comes up every year, as it should.  He's a good and patient guy, and I'm lucky to have him around.