The Summer Project


Originally published on May 13, 2015 over here

Introducing “The Summer Project.” It’s something I’d like to tackle myself this summer — hopefully someone who reads this will feel similarly compelled to feel productive in some personal way and will do the same. I’d love to have some cheerleaders for this. Especially since I’ll mostly be sunbathing in my Lilly Pulitzer cover-up while waiting for the ice cream truck to make the rounds.

The Summer Project

  1. Pick a subject or cause that means something to you.
  2. Spend time this summer researching and reading about that topic.
  3. Seek out experts on the subject to round out your knowledge.
  4. Use that new knowledge to produce something by September.

So, for instance, if you are socially conscious and brainy and not too swayed by mojitos on the beach, you could take this in a political direction and learn all about immigration reform. You’d collect and read articles, find and read a few books. Then, once you’ve identified a person who knows a lot about this subject (a political figure, an immigration lawyer), interview them. End the summer by doing something tangible and not insignificant with that knowledge. Organize an event, start a web site, write 20 letters to legislators, or commit to a related volunteer effort.

watercolor of beach porch

Maybe something a little more polished than this.

OR, if you are artistically inclined, spend the summer learning to sketch. Take an online course or attend a class, produce and share your work, find a mentor who knows what he/she is doing and can advise you. Toward the end of the summer, commit to a big project and work on several draft versions, then aim to create and frame a piece you are proud of.

A similarly artistic endeavor might be learning to make cheese or bread. Read up, watch videos. Get the right tools and ingredients. Then seek out someone or take a private lesson from an expert in the field. For the finale, make a batch large enough to feed a crowd at a party, or to give away to 20 friends.

Finally, there’s the family history option, which works especially well if you spend time with extended family relatives over the summer. Research your roots — beyond a simple exercise. Gather a file and be thorough, attempting to understand details of where you came from, occupations, and moves. Interview family members and consider seeking out someone in the field of genealogy to understand more. For your final project, write it up, organize a reunion, or publish a collection of photos and historical documents you’ve uncovered.

This shouldn’t feel like homework. Your primary concern SHOULD be sun, relaxation, swimming, and roughly keeping tabs on the children who have formed some sort of tribe in the woods while you’ve been drinking cocktails on the porch. But the reason I gave this thing a name is: It should be a serious, grown-up effort to engage in something new in a committed way. How else are we going to discover the finer things in life if we don’t give ourselves some homework?

For my part, I’m choosing Paid Family Leave. I want to research implementation, opponents, and overall societal impact. I want to understand how corporations could adopt something like this if legislators won’t. I want to understand how it works in the rest of the developed world. I’m not sure what the final project is yet — I don’t know enough about how this will come together. At this point, my hope is that by publishing this, I’m making a pact with myself (and you) to not forget about this come June.

Who else is with me?

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The Kind of Maternity Leave We ALL Should Have Access To

RemiWhen I had Remi, in 2009, I was lucky enough to be able to take six months off from by job at The New York Times. It wasn’t paid, but I knew I wanted at least that much time to focus on Remi, especially because that’s roughly how long he was exclusively breastfed. I wanted that time with him, too — it was clear that what he needed was time with me, especially because his needs for nourishment changed by the week — there were amazing growth spurts that made it seem like we were nursing all day at around six weeks and four months. I don’t think I could have accommodated that as well with pumping. Also, pumping never really tweaks your supply like on-demand nursing does.

At six months, I spent a wrenching week attempting to go back to work. My husband, using the FMLA and vacation, had taken off seven weeks of work to help out with Remi and adjust to our new family life. He knew our routines so he watched Remi while I tried to work, but Remi absolutely refused to take formula or breast milk or anything in a bottle. We tried and tried, but on the first day he just didn’t eat, then gorged himself on breasmilk and threw it up because it was too much. We had hired a wonderful babysitter, but seeing her with him just drove home the fact that no relationship would match the one I had with him. After four days, I called my manager and said I needed to resign.

What happened next is what should be offered to all new moms who have a job they love. My manager asked how much I thought I could work. I said, “well, the baby naps for a couple of hours at a time — I guess I could do two hours a day.” Graciously, the NYT found work I could do in that amount of time. It gradually increased over the months until I was working three full days, then four. The pay was much less than what I had before, but I eventually worked back up to my previous rate. Two years after Remi was born, I was able to work on some of the most rewarding projects I did at the NYT.

I nursed Remi through his toddler years this way — I visited the pumping room maybe once a day until Remi was a year old, but mainly focused on nursing Remi in the mornings and evenings and during the night. We stayed in sync, and I mostly avoided tearful separations in the mornings because I went in late — walking outside with Remi and his babysitter so they would be focused on something other than my leaving. I found ways to make the schedule work. It wasn’t without its problems — I took on a little bit too much at one point and found myself on a conference call with several major partners once, on mute, while Remi was screaming. That was on the one day per week that I was trying not to work.

I still struggle to find the right balance, but I’ve had opportunities many lack. The Family and Medical Insurance Act would provide families with a portion of their pay during their FMLA time off, making it possible for more moms to stay with their babies longer. Those early months are so incredibly crucial to brain development and a mom and baby’s bond. We should all support it as a basic right. I hope to see the length of the FMLA increase for new moms one day to match Canada or France’s year, but for now, I’m going to support this Act. Let’s all contact our legislative reps to get this pushed through.

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Excellent Daycare? No, THIS is What New Moms Really Need

I still remember where I was when I heard about the Family and Medical Leave Act that became law in 1993. I was in my early twenties, in my first apartment in Brooklyn, listening to the radio. The throughout of having children, or even getting married, was something abstract — so far in my future that it didn’t have immediate relevance. Still, I felt a jolt of hope at hearing that women, finally, would have a legal right to stay at home with their newborns. It was a victory for families, and even then I knew it was a step toward equality in the workplace, a step toward letting me be the mom I knew I would want to be. I’ve always loved babies and children and while I was determined to find a successful career, I knew at some point that children would come first. When that happened, I wanted to be able to pick up my career again when I was ready.

In the mobyFast forward to today. Other developed countries offer new moms a whole year to get adjusted — we still have a measly three months, unpaid. There’s a lively conversation in the media about how women are doing it all — somehow managing to be successful at work in demanding positions while managing to be attentive mothers at home. It’s reminiscent of the same conversations that happened in the 70s about flexible schedules, except now there are a few more stay-at-home dads in the equation, and women have taken on increasingly challenging roles.

To me, the whole conversation is grossly inadequate — there has been a lack of focus on legislation. Lawmakers talk about increased access to daycare, as if that is what babies and new moms really need to be successful. It isn’t — babies need their moms, and moms need to be saved from cuddling a breast pump three times a day and weathering wrenching separation scenes in the mornings. Giving a new mom and baby more time to adjust, and allowing moms to gradually scale up to a schedule they feel comfortable with, will help everyone.

So I really want to hear more discussion about THIS: The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. It proposes an insurance plan to help moms get paid while they take their 12 week leave. It’s a step in the right direction, and a smart way to help corporations promote the health of the families of their employees. Women shouldn’t have to choose between a family and career — there is a healthy way to balance both if they want to. It’s a little different for each family, but none of us can find it if we’re forced to go back to work immediately because we need the paycheck.

So contact your legislators, use your favorite social media platform — start talking about it. My own maternity leave story involved a decision to resign rather than work while Remi was still so little. Many women don’t have that option, though. And many more feel that they can’t take the time because they’ll lose their career momentum — no one should feel that way. Six months or a year shouldn’t have an impact on a fifty-year career. We’ll need to work toward changing that perception, but for now, this is steering the larger conversation in the right direction and giving those tiny babies something they desperately need.

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Supermarket Tourism

For the second year in a row, we skipped the snow at home in favor of a week in the sun in Puerto Rico. Derek found a lovely little house in Luquillo. It’s near the beach in a sleepy gated area. We eat outside, spend our days at the beach, and have figs and grapefruit growing in the backyard.

Our routine consists of taking it easy in the mornings and then packing a lunch and heading to the beach, where Remi covers every inch of his body with sand. I mean that literally — he shoves his face in the sand and rubs sand all over his arms and legs. Maybe this is some innate prehistoric version of covering oneself with sunscreeen?


One of our favorite vacation activities has been to browse the supermarket aisles. Last year, we bought blood sausage and empanadillas. This year, I picked up something that looked like a potato but was darker and looked closer to yuca. I chopped it and boiled it before I looked it up — it was yautia, and it was wonderful mashed with a little butter and milk. The flavor was a little bit richer than a potato’s, but not as starchy as yucca.

We’ve also been enjoying tiny bananas, queso blanco, local avocados, and coconuts poked with a straw at the beach. Rows of fried things greet us at the string of beach kiosks nearby — fried discs of dough with bacalao; pastelillos de crab, chicken, pizza (cheese and sauce — a favorite of mine and Remi’s), lobster, beef, or cheese. Plantains wrapped around ground beef. Mofongo. Little coconut fried dumpling things. And piña coladas.

Last night, in honor of Valentine’s Day, Derek and I went in search of a romantic dinner (Grammy Day kindly babysat). The plan was to order a few things at the bar at the tony Fern restaurant at the St. Regis Resort. We were on the late side, though, and were greeted by a very large, looming, rust-colored gate. A closed gate. After some discussion, it became clear that the gate wouldn’t open for commoners like us, so we headed back to our familiar beach kiosks and had ceviche instead. The service was friendly, the dishes we ordered eventually arrived (with some reminding) and we had a wonderful time. And honestly, some of the nicest dinners here have been the ones at home, made from whatever interesting local thing we picked up a the Amigo supermarket. Fish tacos, pineapple and plantains on the grill, cheap flan for dessert. Give me a foreign supermarket over a swanky restaurant any day, and a kitchen, and I’m happy.

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A Plate of Spaghetti

A few years ago, someone gave me a copy of Marcella Hazan’s classic Italian cookbook. It’s a treasure trove of Italian recipes. I’ve yet to try many of the classics, but the bolognese sauce recipe has been in constant use. Adding the milk to the meat tenderizes it. Adding carrots bumps up the sweetness, and skipping onions helps the tomatoes keep their flavor. If you have time to let it simmer for multiple hours, as the recipe calls for, it caramelizes just enough and has a rich flavor. If you’re like me, though, you’ll cook it for 20-30 minutes and add a little brown sugar instead. The result is a hearty sauce that feels decadent. I’m careful not to mix in too much pasta because the sauce needs to be abundant — the dish is more about the sauce than the spaghetti (or linguine or whatever pasta you decide to use). Crusty bread is nice to have on hand.

Linguine with Bolognese Sauce

Olive oil for the pan
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
2-3 peeled, diced carrots
1/2 cup whole milk
1 12oz can of crushed tomatoes
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp basil (if dried — a handful of chopped leaves if fresh)
(optional) tbsp brown sugar
1 lb pasta (or 3/4 lb)
Salt and pepper

Heat garlic in a pan with two or three peeled, diced carrots for a few minutes. Add a pound of ground beef. Cook until no longer raw, but not entirely brown, then add 1/2 cup of whole milk. Stir and continue to cook until milk is absorbed. Add a few pinches salt. Add a container of crushed tomatoes and a tsp. of oregano and chopped or dried basil. Simmer for a good long time. If you don’t have an hour or two on your
hands, cook for 20-30 minutes and then add a tbsp or so of brown sugar to sweeten it up. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with linguine or other pasta (just make sure you have more sauce than pasta).

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I know it’s Fall, and no longer blueberry season, but I’ve only just gotten around to downloading summer photos from my phone, so here’s a blueberry post.

The wild blueberry crop upstate was impressive this year, so we made blueberry ice cream two times and it was a hit. Basic idea: cook the blueberries with some sugar, let it cool, and mix it into your basic cream+sugar+vanilla ice cream recipe. Add any other fruit puree you care to make. Delish.

Second, there is a time-honored recipe in our family for blueberries. This one is not to be missed.

– Stir together some dollops of sour cream with some brown sugar
– Add blueberries
– Eat

I’ve been making this since I was a child. I can remember making it with a friend in the Poconos during the summer, and that same friend — now Remi’s godmother — still makes it herself. It’s a summer treat that I have forgotten about for years and then ecstatically rediscovered. Remi was duly initiated into the ritual this summer.

Blueberries, sour cream, brown sugar

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Sort-Of Sushi (for the Kids!)

A few weeks ago, while standing at the bulk bins at the co-op, I spotted sushi rice and decided that its presence there must mean that homemade sushi can’t be that hard. I bought some along with the rice vinegar Google told me was needed and watched a few Youtube videos about making sushi (some after the first attempt, which seems to be my usual cooking approach: make it up, then look up a recipe when it falls all to pieces). Due to recent snacking trends involving seaweed, I had some sushi-appropriate Nori sheets, too (Remi quite likes them).

For the filling, I made some tamago-like egg (again, totally winging it based on a recipe I saw ages ago — egg, soy sauce, sugar cooked in a thin layer, then rolled up) and sliced up some avocado and cucumber.

In my head, I imagined a few weeks of sushi obsession in the household, with Remi and neighbor Bella spending hours of quality time helping me make different kinds of California rolls, perfecting their technique, eating wholesome, bunny-cracker-free meals, etc.

In reality, Remi humored me for about 10 minutes and ate the rice off on one piece of sushi, and Bella — usually a dedicated sous chef — decided she wasn’t interested. She proudly carried the result over to show her mom, but deigned to participate in the construction of the thing.

We don’t have the little bamboo roller thing (I hesitate to introduce more stuff to the house), so I used my fingers. I can’t say the result was fantastic, either — I ate my fair share, as I will do with just about any food set in front of me, but sushi-restaurant fare is definintely superior. Mine was pretty bland and definitely needed some wasabi or wasabi mayo (as one YouTube video recommended). This is one type of food it makes sense to pay a professional to make. (I suppose buying the roller thing would help, too, but I fear it will share the fate of the pasta drying rack, juicer, etc., in the bottom drawer.)

It occurs to me now that my cooking style is anathema to the precise, measured style of Japanese sushi-making, and this is perhaps not the best use of my free-wheeling culinary talents. Still, it’s something to try with preschoolers once, just so you can brag at the playground about the enriching project you did int he morning.

Homemade sushi!

Lazy-Person’s Sushi Recipe:

Sushi rice
Rice vinegar
Nori seaweed sheets
Veggies or tamago for stuffing (avocado, carrot, crab stick, cucumber)
Wasabi mayo or wasabi
Soy sauce for dipping

Fill a small bowl with water. Sprinkle rice vinegar (about a tablespoon for each cup of rice) over the rice and mix gently. Then dip your fingers in water and use them to spread rice over the seaweed, leaving a space at the top for sealing your roll. Add your veggies/filling (and wasabi mayo or other flavoring) in a line about a third of the way up from the top, then use your hands to roll from the top to the bottom. Wet the top edge with water to seal it. Then use a very sharp knife, moistened with water, to cut your roll.

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