Embracing the Robot Symphony

So, what’s in your robot fleet these days? For us, I’d count the bread machine, slow cooker, washer and dryer, dishwasher and now Roomba.*

Do we come out ahead with these innovations? Wendell Berry and co. would argue we lose skill and dignity in outsourcing these jobs, but I’m not sure I agree.

If you use these time savers judiciously, I think you can come out ahead. To be the conductor is not to be unskilled, and you can use that time in pursuing other skills (versus, say, zoning out on TV or Facebook). There is, after all, a place both for making and faking in most of our lives. If you use your robot symphony to free up time for your children or projects, sure (hey, blog). If you use them in ways that still allow for creativity, absolutely (bread machine recipes). If you use them wisely but won’t crowbar all jobs into their domain (as when, once a year, I handwash the wool things with much fear and trembling), then yeah, I think you’re coming out ahead.

The only real danger here, I think, is becoming a slave to privilege so that you find yourself complaining of injustice when your robot fleet is no longer at your disposal. I’ve hand washed my clothes, in Uganda and on a hiking trip and, perhaps insanely, as an adventure in frugality in grad school. I’ve lived without a microwave and understand an oven. I don’t tend to complain on vacation when I leave behind my favorite time savers. (Except a washing machine. I have two kids under five and I’m never going back.)

The other danger, then, is using these devices to ratchet up the pressure. Now that I have a robot vacuum cleaner, I have no excuse not to always have spotless floors! Now that I know my way around a bread machine, there’s no excuse not to have fresh bread all the time! No: there will definitely still be days and weeks when these jobs, even outsourced, fail to get done, sacrificed to more important tasks of the moment or season.

The robot symphony still requires time and effort and know how, even if it does mercifully save my third trimester back a lot of work. But bring on the robot revolution!

* PS- I am still afraid of the Amazon Echo and my Instant Pot. Help. 

Commonplace Book, 33 (Week 23)

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • My granny visited! And it was her birthday! And Pippin is obsessed with baking birthday cakes he refuses to eat! And Scout is obsessed with eating “party cake” she refuses to make! So we made a molasses spice cake with buttercream icing and it was pretty delicious, if unusual for a July birthday. It makes just one 9″ round — I just love small cakes, instead of leftovers lingering for days to reproach me (or be consumed in a fit of heartburn). Also, question for readers: do you think I could sub butter for shortening next time?
  • Almost not a recipe at all but in case you’re craving what I’m craving in large quantities with minimal work: pesto mozzarella chicken in the slow cooker.

Granny humors me and smiles with her (Pippin-decorated) cake

 What I’m reading:

When I come to town with my kids, the table is extended to its maximum size and my dad makes a quintuple batch of crepes before sitting down to drink a few cups of strong coffee with  splashes of cream. When he brings the mug to his mouth, he overlooks a table full of two generations of his making.

We only have a few pieces of really grownup furniture, but one of them is the dining room table J’s grandma bought us when the original homeowners were selling it along with the house, and we already have so many happy memories gathered around it.

  • Children of Godthe sequel to The Sparrowwhich is making me excited and full of dread at the same time because I’m so invested. Also, let’s talk about The Sparrow — this piece is a good starting point.
  • Middlemarch as an audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson and I’m actually enjoying it this time! Like, excited for dishes-washing and tooth-brushing, when normally I’m just counting down till I can flop over.
  • A Severe Mercy for a book club. I’ve read it before and enjoyed it back in college, but to look legit I should probably stop calling it A Separate Peace.

Commonplace Book 28 (ish)

So, my last Commonplace Book posted, but was backdated, and when I tried to fix it, I deleted it. It was all very livejournal circa 2004. So, picking up where we left off:

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Sausage barley spinach soup. (Slow cooker, obviously, or are you new here?) You can add the onions and garlic and sausage in raw, but I’ll warn you that the ground sausage will fuse into a strange puck you’ll have to chop haphazardly with a wooden spoon later on, so consider wisely…
  • Scallion pancakes. These are kind of a major pain, but not really hard: just labor-intensive. But the payoff! Almost exactly like the cheap Chinese dive version I love, but with a certain something reminiscent of the hot “chapat” we used to get at the hospital canteen for breakfast in Uganda, warm and wrapped in grease-spotted notebook paper. Is this not helping to sell them? Seriously. Delicious.

What I’m reading:

  • Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and MeThis one is doubly personal for me, because a.) I am an Anne devotee and b.) I married into a family that also includes an adopted mother and adopted Korean little sister. I had expected to love the reflections on Anne but often I find them prone to dull summary, which may just be loyalty or jealousy  — I can nearly quote the original. But parts of the personal storytelling ring like Shauna Niequist’s essays, which is never a bad thing: sensory details and bustling families and warm, intimate friendships.
  • Dumplin‘: I had read a recommendation for this from, I think, Annie of The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia (who I knew casually in high school, and who is now a real-like Kathleen Kelly), and audiobook is definitely the way to go on this. J doesn’t like the profanity emanating from my iPhone as I wash dishes in the evening, but the narrator, a prickly, overweight teenager from rural Texas named Willowdean Dixon reminds me of some of my favorite Southerner college friends.
  • Someone tell me if it’s worth reading all of The Well-Trained Mind right now all at once. I’ve made it to middle school and I’m losing steam because my oldest child is, in fact, four. But I’d like the big picture! Please advise.

Commonplace Book, 25

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Once I read a piece that talked about the culinary creativity that comes with “nap jail,” but I like “serendipity of the (pantry) shelf” — to modify a library term — better, as some of my innovations have to do with working around sleeping children, but a lot is just me being cheap and using what I’ve got. Anyway, earlier this week, the thing I was going to make ended up being impossible because I was completely out of soy sauce, but I had thawed chicken breasts, and this recipe — fragrant garam masala chicken stew with peas and potatoes — fit what I had on the pantry shelf without too many substitutions. And maybe it’s just that we ran out to the local ethnic deli for their lovely spiced rice to accompany it, but we ended up loving this dish probably better than what I’d intended to make.

What I’m reading:

  • At our Advent party, a friend and I got to talking about Children of Men when she saw it on my shelf and how it compared to the film. And I wish I could say the book is better but…it’s really not. I was reminded again reading this reflection on the movie, ten years after its debut.
  • This Christmas, I read In this House of Bredewhich I feel like has been recommended by every Catholic literary type ever, and it totally lived up to the hype — I think I’m still wandering the hushed and peaceful halls of the monastery now. There’s so much I’d like to excerpt, but I’ll stick to just one. A young nun reflects on Holy Saturday:

“As the candles caught their light one from another, Cecily had a vision of the flame running in the same way from one church to another throughout Christendom, far around the world: new light, new joy, fresh hope. Thousands of candles, pure wax, wax of bees, made through the year by the wings and work of infinitesimal creatures like us, thought Cecily, made for this night.”

I remember thinking something similar — though infinitely less lyrical — as a teenager in Mass, imagining the same feast being celebrated the world over, century upon century. And look! Dwija is reading it now, too!

  • My read-this-so-you-don’t-gasp-at-the-interstate-traffic book this year was Uprootedby Naomi Novik, which I doubt I would have picked up if it hadn’t come recommended by a friend. I’d describe it as a vaguely Polish fairy tale, but that would do it a disservice. It subverts all kinds of fairy tale tropes, self-consciously evaluating its own story in light of tradition. I especially like the way it doesn’t stoop to action movie scenes, as when the protagonist looks down from a high tower at warring soldiers:

That was a story, too; they all had stories. They had mothers or fathers, sisters or lovers. They weren’t alone in the world, mattering to no one but themselves. It seemed utterly wrong to treat them like pennies in a purse. I wanted to go and speak to that boy, to ask him his name, to find out what his story really was. But that would have been dishonest, a sop to my own feelings. I felt the soldiers understood perfectly well that we were making sums out of them—this many safe to spend, this number too high, as if each one wasn’t a whole man.

Don’t you just love that! I hate action movies and skim action sequences in books (also: Quidditch), but Uprooted highlights the humanity between warring sides, and its fantasy is truly innovative: spooky and unpredictable, deep and wide, like there’s a whole world just beyond the scope of the story. Anyway, highly recommend.

Profesh shot of me by the four year old in Cabbagetown, Atlanta, last week beside a mural made by an acquaintance

Commonplace Book, 15

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Orzo with tomatoes and feta. Pretty much doesn’t need a recipe, but I used one anyway, because that’s how I roll.
  • Super Fantastic Cinnamon Rolls in the Bread Machine. It’s in the title, right? Pippin requested cinnamon rolls and ACTUALLY ATE THEM. The first 2.5 were astonishingly delicious but now thinking about them makes me queasy. Beware the overdose, I guess.
  • In continuing my vaguely-ethnic-chicken-in-the-slow-cooker bonanza, Thai Peanut Chicken. (See vaguely Chinese, vaguely Indian, and vaguely Southern in previous commonplace entries.) It ended up rich and lovely, like a very lazy chicken satay — and I have such fond memories of eating that dish, once when a college friend made chicken peanut satay for me after she returned from a mission trip to Indonesia, again eating tofu peanut satay at the top of the Space Needle on our honeymoon.

What I’m reading:

  • You know the little bunny icon on the Librivox app where you can speed up the reading? The other day I did that for Brothers Karamazov after realizing I’d been on three runs (/shuffle-wheezes) still listening to the dang initial interrogation. FINISH, FYODOR.
  • In other finishing news, I finished Book 2 in the Throne of Glass series and am no longer bound by the laws of sisterhood (or sister-in-lawhood) to continue, but I probably will. It’s pure escapism and I’ve enjoyed texting my teenager sister-in-law to discuss them. Long live the SMS Bowers Book Club, I guess.
  • Did I say last week that I’d wanted to read The Dog Stars one summer but it was high school assigned summer reading? Um, pretty sure I’m misremembering, because it’s a fair bit past PG-13 and reminds me more of The Road than anything else that comes to mind. Not sure yet if I’ll finish it, because whoa. I’m pretty sure someone’s going to get eaten.
  • Did y’all see the post this week over at Mama Needs Coffee? I’m always gobsmacked by Jenny Uebbing’s ability to start off apparently just giving a general, casual family update and sneak amazing insights there into the middle:

But that morning I just stayed where I was, physically and mentally content to remain at home.

I am sorry for the months and years I wasn’t able to be in this place with my kids, but I have no guilt.

I don’t think I was ready for full contact motherhood until recently. I think it was essential to my mental and physical health that I have some degree of separation from my kids, and I think it helped me to survive a demanding season of life.

But my parenting muscles are growing. I’m getting stronger and more able to withstand long stretches of time without the relief of going off duty, even if only mentally. And I’m so glad. Because I love my children, but also because for a while there was a sneaking suspicion, never voiced but ever present, that maybe I didn’t pick the right life, so to speak. That I should be doing motherhood better, stronger, more joyfully.

Now I can see a little more clearly that as they have grown and changed and matured, so have I.

I kind of need that reminder sometimes. That it’s a process to learn how to manage it all, to grow into being a mama, and that it’s ok to need space and breaks. Evidence below:

Bad parenting day = sitting in the grocery parking lot after a solo grocery run, eating a {tragically stale} doughnut and reading teen fantasy because sometimes you just need a break

Learning to Love Housekeeping

It’s an ongoing thing for me. It helps that I was raised in a family that values housework, in which both parents adopted and enjoyed certain tasks. (Except ironing, which nobody claimed.) It helps that I’m an introvert who also enjoys structuring her own time. But beyond this foundation, I’ve had a lot to learn — I was a pretty useless kid, and until I was about 25, I moved often enough that I never had to clean baseboards or ovens. (Though I really probably should have.)

Still, here are some of my professional (homemaker) interests at the moment:

  • Roasting vegetables: For the first five years of our marriage, there were only two varieties of vegetables J and I prepared at home: green salad and jarred pasta sauce. We aren’t a lot better now, but I’m trying, honest. Lately, I’ve been moseying over to our local Sharp Shopper (which really deserves its own post on its manifold attractions), where I snag a bunch of vegetables that look attractive (HA, says 15-year-old Katherine), and then one day when the babes are sleeping or playing independently, I prep and roast them all on one pan, then divide them up and use them in stuff. I get to feel smug about serving crispity roast brussel sprouts, and roast broccoli in my pasta sauce and mushrooms and asparagus in my quiche. It reminds me of the line in Sisterland — “I heard myself say to Ben, ‘I’m going to compost the rest of the bok choy,’ and pretty much everything I was smug about then was encapsulated in that single sentence.
  • Hampers for the kids: I asked my parents to get Pippin a truck hamper for Christmas, and they did, even though now they think I’m even lamer than the year I asked for a vacuum for my birthday. (It’s a really great vacuum.) So now we have a hamper for Pippin’s room and I appropriated a toy bin for Scout’s room to use as a hamper there, and WHO KNEW, Pippin actually loves to put dirty clothes in the hamper. So each weekday morning the three of us straighten up the kids’ rooms. It takes about ten minutes and then their rooms don’t look like crap. Please note: our room still looks like crap, because ten minutes won’t begin to put a dent in it.
  • Evening audiobooks: I’ve mentioned them before, but seriously, one of my favorite parts of the day is now cleaning up after dinner. J takes the kids downstairs to “bond” with them (wrestle and watch David Attenborough documentaries, as far as I can tell), and until Scout starts up her dinosaur chorus of shrieks summoning her personal milk truck, I wash dishes and straighten up and fold and put away laundry. And all the while I listen to Librivox recordings of classics, or, more recently, digital audiobooks from the library. Free hands, clear head, can’t lose, or something like that.
  • Slow cooker batch prep: On the days when I’m not using the slow cooker to make the meal itself, I try to put it to work for something else. Great things I’ve found to make in there: caramelized onions; roasted garlic; and even my arch nemesis, dried beans. Having these pre-prepared ingredients makes it easier to make meals special, and if I never have to sauté another onion at dinnertime as the baby bounces frantically in her exersaucer and the toddler hurtles trucks under my feet, it will be too soon.