Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Menu Plan Monday (on Tuesday, but who's counting)

Maybe I should change the name of this little exercise to "Menu Plan Tuesday"? And then maybe I could get my own list of hundreds of followers who just can't get their acts together enough on Mondays to post their lists on their blogs. I'll just have to leave it to Laura, the MPM originator, to be all efficient at her fantastic blog, I'm an Organizing Junkie, while I dither around in confusion.

So anyway, we did actually eat dinner last night and everyone was very complimentary about it, although now that it's all digested and the dishes are washed and the leftovers covered and stowed away in the fridge, I don't know how I did it. Really, yesterday was such a whack day, my family is lucky they weren't required to dine upon a bowl of canned tomato soup and a handful of stale saltine crackers. But listen here, I'll tell you how I did it: I did it because of Menu Plan Monday. Yes, even though I'm not posting my plan until today, I still have it all written on on my clipboard. So when the time came to prepare dinner, I had every ingredient I needed, which is something that didn't always happen in my pre-MPM days.

So there you have it. Menu Plan Monday has changed my life, even on those weeks when it becomes Menu Plan Tuesday.

Menu Plan for the Week of March 29, 2010 (Holy Week)

Monday - Baked Steak with baked potatoes, green beans and croissants

Tuesday - Roasted Chicken with Dressing and Sweet Potatoes

Wednesday - Grade School Chili, served with peanut butter sandwich halves and lots of crispy saltine crackers

Holy Thursday (early dinner because of Mass at 7:00) - Royal Feast Poured Crust Pizza

Good Friday (fast day, with church services in the afternoon, so no interruption of the dinner schedule) - Fettucine Alfredo with crab

On Saturday (March 27) we had Queso Sauce with tortilla chips and on Sunday we had a new Chicken and Almond Casserole, a debut dish I was testing out on the fam, as I am hoping to serve it at Aisling's Confirmation party in early May. It looks like a winner!

Friday, March 26, 2010

An unwelcome surprise

I have a friend, Diana, who has been invited to a surprise birthday party for a friend of hers. Here's some info on the honoree:

1. She's turning fifty, a biggie as far as milestone birthdays go.

2. Her husband left her at the beginning of this month to run off with a twenty-something bimbo and she found he'd been planning his departure since last summer.

3. She and her husband have an eight-year-old son who has been devastated by his father's defection.

4. She is, according to Diana, a mess. As you might expect.

My take on these circumstances is, could there possibly be a worse time to spring a surprise birthday party on someone? Okay, worse is a relative term. Maybe, then, after she returns home from having major surgery? Or finds out that her house has an issue with pervasive mold and has to be razed to the ground? Or discovers that her third grader is actually a crime lord at the front of a major drug cartel operating out of his elementary school?

My firm belief is that surprise parties are only for the ten-and-under set. Children are the people who are best disposed, due to their innocent, eager, rambunctious natures, to the rigors of people jumping out from behind the furniture or out of the PlayPlace equipment at McDonald's, as it were . Mostly because they are the ones the least likely to be caught at the end of a difficult day, slogging home with hurty feet and faded makeup and a headache due to having nothing for lunch but a Little Debbie Nutty Bar out of the snack machine.

Here's a personal example: When my husband and I were engaged with our wedding only a few weeks distant, three people from the small private Christian school where I taught decided to give me a surprise bridal shower. One of them was a person who didn't like me very much -- the feeling was mutual, so one big surprise was that she had a hand in it -- another was a fellow teacher, Linda, who was a grand gal, but one who had the sensitivity of carrot, and the third was my friend Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen was the kindergarten teacher, and if there's ever been a tiny little woman with a wit that could cut through like a hot knife through soft butter, it was her. To her credit, she didn't give away the secret (she chalked this up to Christian integrity, which at times can be a burden to us all) but she collared me the next day and said sourly, "I hope you know that I had nothing to do with that mess other than ordering the cake. Those other two railroaded me into it because we're such good friends and they needed to use me as an excuse to pull off a party that I told them long and loud you'd hate."

The day of the surprise shower had been a hectic one. I am a very punctual person, so when my alarm clock failed to rouse me that morning, I woke up twenty minutes past my regular time and thus was a little skimpy on the hair and makeup so that I could get to school on time. The outfit I was wearing was utilitarian, to say the least: black pants, a white turtleneck and a pale pink Shaker knit sweater. Not my most attractive ensemble, but I was in a hurry. The only attractive thing about me that day was my engagement ring.

It had been an exhausting day and I was longing to get home by lunch time. The afternoon had never stretched out so slowly, and the students in my class all seemed to be particularly obtuse and ill-behaved. By the time three-thirty rolled around, I was not only ready to quit the day, but also my job and my entire career and go off to find work in a foundry. I gathered up my stuff and headed out to the parking lot, only to see my mother getting out of her car.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, amazed.

She looked shifty, as I recall, but I was tired and stressed out and not too swift on the uptake. "Oh," she hedged, "I wanted to come and borrow that book you were telling me about? The one about the....something? Remember when we were talking about the...something....the other day?"

I just stared at her. "No. I don't remember talking about the something, or owning a book about the something or telling you that I'd lend you my non-existent book about the something."

"Maybe I'll remember by the time we get upstairs to your room," she said hastily.

"Okay," I said unwillingly, and turned around to go back inside. Mom walked beside me, darting glances from side to side like Peter Lorre in some 1930s gangster movie. We got back upstairs to my classroom and wouldn't you know it? She couldn't remember the subject or the title of the book about something, this elusive, mysterious book on an elusive, mysterious subject that we'd apparently conversed about at length at some unspecified time in the past.

While we were walking back downstairs, she said in a voice bright with false enthusiasm, "Hey! Let's go see JoAnn and Fayrene! I think they're in the chapel!"

JoAnn and Fayrene were the secretary and bookkeeper who worked on the church side of the building and at 3:45 in the afternoon, the likeliest place to find them was at their desks, but whatever. We walked down the long hallway that separated the school from the church offices and I heard giggling in the distance. I shot my mother a suspicious glance, but she was making like Peter Lorre again and didn't catch my eye.

We walked into the chapel to squeals and shouts of "SURPRISE!" which caused me to recoil in shock and fleetingly decide to smite my mother for not directing me to the staff bathroom so that I could at least try to do something with my flat hair and shiny forehead.

"Oh, wow!" I said weakly. "Gosh! Gee! Haha ha ha, you all sure fooled me!" The three perpetrators were in the background, Linda jumping up and down and clapping with glee, the co-worker who disliked me standing with her arms crossed and a gloating smirk on her face, Mary Ellen glowering and looking like she'd like to kick everyone assembled in the groin.

There were lots of pictures, of course. They show me opening a display of naughty lingerie -- who knew that little evangelical church ladies could be such skanks? -- right there in front of my mother IN THE CHAPEL and thank heaven and all the angels we weren't Catholics in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament . Everyone else had had the opportunity to freshen up and a few even appeared to have changed clothes. In every picture, I look haggard and tired and even my deepening blushes at opening my third pair of crotchless panties didn't make much of a difference. The only picture I didn't put in my wedding scrapbook was the one snapped right after I opened the gift from the hostess/co-worker who didn't like me: in spite of the fact that I was a very average size 10 at the time, she got me a black lace teddy sized 2X.

"I just guessed on the size," she tittered and as the picture was snapped with me grimly stuffing the absurdly gigantic outfit back into the gift bag, my expression of utter loathing for her was captured forever, courtesy of Kodak.

So I personally feel that surprise parties are the very divil, an opinion backed up by three surprise birthday parties I've been invited to as an adult, none of which went off quite as the jolly little party planner expected. One of them even featured the guest of honor bursting into tears and retreating from the restaurant to sit in her car in the parking lot so as to pull herself together. Surprised? Oh, yeah. We ALL were.

If you still aren't convinced, read this little blurb from a How-To website on throwing the "perfect" surprise party and imagine yourself as the lucky surprise-getter:

"Make sure you have a key so that you can handle last-minute preparations. Preparing for the party while the recipient is at work is a good idea, and then you can spring the surprise on the recipient when she gets home."

What right-minded person would ever feel that this would be a great plan to spring on a friend? You know it's going to happen on the very day when she started her period unexpectedly and had to walk around all day with a run in her hose and remembered after she got to work that she'd meant to put gas in the car, but left her debit card at home on her desk. And you know she's going to want to kill every single one of you and is thinking, even before the sounds of your joyful yodels have faded from the air, about her unmade bed, the dirty dishes in the sink from dinner last night, and the box of tampons sitting there on the bathroom counter.

So my feeling about a surprise birthday party for this woman whose husband just skipped out three weeks ago, who is turning fifty, whose son's life has been turned upside-down because of his stupid father's preference for sex with a chippie young enough to be his daughter, who is "a mess" of emotional pain and worry about her future and her son is that all the invitees should JUST SAY NO.

And then they should all quietly inform the birthday girl about the big, jolly surprise that's awaiting her on her birthday, to give her time to present herself as she'd like to be presented, to nail a smile on her un-shiny face, to give her an opportunity to mentally rehearse her reaction so that her first inclination to pull the hair right out of the head of her witless hostess and go with something a little more socially acceptable like, "Oh, wow! Gosh! Gee! Haha ha ha! You all sure fooled me!"

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"To your health!" -- An observation on U.S. health care in nine parts

I think everyone may have heard this quote by now, the one made by Durham, North Carolina resident DeCarlo Flythe about the bitterly contested health care legislation Barack Obama just signed in to law: "It's just going to be like Christmas," Flythe said to WRAL reporter Erin Hartness. "It's going to be great. You know, no worries [about] the bills. We are going to go ahead and pay our co-pay and be all right."

I have my reservations about that, but then my love-hate relationship with the American health care system goes back a long way, back to 1996. March, August and October of 1996, to be precise. Let me tell you why.

1. Galling behavior

In 1996, my husband worked for a small flooring company selling carpet, tile, hardwood and the like. The owner of the business decided to retire and made plans to sell the company; all the employees waited in trepidation to see who the buyer would be, and if you've ever been in this position, you know exactly what I'm talking about: depending on the integrity of the new owner, the grand promises of "We don't plan to change a thing; everything will continue just like it's always been" can mean either more or less, depending.

As it turned out, it meant less. The very first thing that happened was that the new owner dropped the group health insurance plan, the one that the former owner had paid the employees' premiums for, allowing them to sign up their family members at their own expense, which is a very standard deal. All of a sudden, the fifty-plus employees were insuranceless and we all started scrambling for private health care.

But guess what? Private health care is hard to get. To hear some conservative talk show hosts, you'd think that you can just walk into the office of an insurance broker and say, "I'd like some health insurance, please, not just major medical, but something with a prescription plan and a mid-range deductible and give me an order of fries with that."

First of all, private health insurance, we discovered, is expensive. And due to my handicap from the car accident I was in at age twenty-one, I was (and am) the personal anathema of the insurance industry with a list of pre-existing conditions as long as your arm. And while we were sadly reviewing this-bad-plan-with-a-huge-deductible and that-bad-plan-with-a-low-deductible-and-no-prescription-coverage, my gall bladder went out.

That was in March of 1996 and one moment I was just perfectly fine and the next moment, I was doubled over, wailing, and burning with fever. My husband drove me to the emergency room and I cried all the way there, not only because of the pain I was feeling, but also because of our lack of health insurance. The next day, I had the surgery and of course it couldn't be the easy-peasy laparoscopic kind; no, it had to be the full-bore cut 'er open and rummage around kind, which left me in the hospital for four days afterward.

I spent those four anxious days wishing that there was some kind of automatic pain-killing drip for the mind like the happy morphine button I was keeping my left thumb firmly planted on to ease the pain of the incision site. Because my right side? It was actually relatively okay. But my worried mind was a mess.

It was a state that didn't get any better as time went on.

2. A nickel for your thoughts

The bills had just started rolling in from my surgery when the next incident occurred: Meelyn, who was three at the time, swallowed a nickel. Now that doesn't sound so awful, does it? I mean, little kids swallow stuff all the time and you just bide your time and wait for it to come back out nature's way. But, no, no....not insurance-free us.

In our case, Meelyn's nickel lodged itself in the tiny opening between her trachea and her esophagus. The county hospital and their emergency room -- the same one that was badgering us daily to pay off my gall bladder surgery in full -- welcomed us with a tight smile when we revealed that we still didn't have health insurance three months later. The limited ER at the hospital didn't have instruments small enough to retrieve the nickel from Meelyn's little throat and the doctor told us that we'd have to take her to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

"And we suggest you drive her there yourselves instead of having her taken by ambulance," we were told. "The ambulance will cost you several thousand dollars to make that trip."

We felt so helpless. That was when it was beginning to dawn on me how bad this could actually get. Because yes, every American does have access to health care and hospitals do have to treat you regardless of your ability to pay, but that doesn't mean they have to be kind about it. Or concerned. Or helpful, compassionate or caring. They don't have to give you one iota more than the bare essentials, and other than that, it is a cold process. Probably not everywhere, don't get me wrong. The hospital in my home town had a certain reputation that I'm positive isn't shared by every medical facility out there, but let me just say that I'd been a patient there with health insurance and a patient there without health insurance and the difference in the way I was treated was measureable by miles and fathoms.

And if you can feel the difference in the ER, you can only imagine the atmosphere in the registration office. And the billing department.

And here's an added note of piquancy: When you have hospital bills rolling in from an unexpected surgery? It's really hard to afford the monthly premiums for that private health insurance you were hoping to buy.

The ER staff did give us a flannel blanket to wrap Meelyn in as we carried her out to the car and set off on that one hour drive, me sitting in the back seat clutching her and praying that the nickel wouldn't dislodge itself and block her trachea, my husband breaking every law of the road in his hurry to get Meelyn to safety. It was an utter nightmare and I'll never forget how frightened I was.

3. The third time's not charming

Back at home again with the offending nickel captured as a souvenir in a specimen cup, we all drew a deep breath and carried on. More bills rolled in; we were at the six-month mark without health insurance. And that's when the third incident happened.

Aisling, who was then fifteen months old, fell down in our living room and bonked her head on the stone fireplace hearth, rendering herself unconscious. I was in plain sight in the kitchen, cooking dinner, and one moment she was toddling around, babbling, and the next moment, she was on her back on the floor, as white as salt and rapidly turning blue because her tongue was trapped in the back of her throat.

I made that 911 call screaming in fear, trying to talk sense to the dispatcher while frantically groping for Aisling's slippery little tongue. She was rag-doll limp, and up until that point, I'd never known what a deep shade of blue the human face can turn when that human is deprived of oxygen. She had a seizure in my arms and I finally turned her upside-down, which allowed her tongue to fall forward and she finally sucked in a shuddering, life-giving breath. The ambulance arrived and the EMTs burst through the front door to find me, Aisling and Meelyn all on the floor, breathing, weeping and trembling. Bill, our lovely next door neighbor, came in and called my husband, who was thankfully only about five minutes away at work.

At the emergency room, we were treated with a subtle attitude of "Are you back here again?" and Aisling had a CAT scan. There was a great deal of worry because her head didn't have a goose-egg on it. She was conscious and feebly coming back to herself there in the emergency room and it was determined that she had a slight concussion and we were sent home with instructions on how to deal with a brain-bruised baby: they decided not to keep her in the pediatric ward for observation because -- you guessed it -- we didn't have health insurance.

My husband and I spent the night hanging over the rails of her crib in shifts, fearfully checking to make sure she was breathing, conscious and not comatose.

Aisling had a second CAT scan a few days later, just to make sure that the seizure had occurred because of oxygen deprivation and not because of some underlying neurological problem. It came back with no abnormalities, and Aisling was pronounced well and cured.

4. The deluge and then the war

When you have medical treatment with health insurance, you likely never see an itemized list of all the people who are paid by your provider. But when you don't have health insurance, the bills roll in from everywhere. For my surgery alone, we had a bill from our general practicitioner, the surgeon, the hospital, the lab, the imaging department, the anesthesiologist...it just went on and on. Every day was a new bill, none of them less, it seemed, than a thousand dollars, and all nudgingly marked TOTAL DUE UPON RECEIPT.

Any hope of getting affordable private health insurance completely died, right then and life became like the merry-go-round from hell as I talked to different billing offices and made arrangements to pay each one a monthly pittance. I filled out endless papers and made copies of tax returns and mailed documents here and there and even personally visited a couple of in-town offices with my babies in tow, trying to figure out how we were going to pay all these people the money we owed them. My husband sold flooring like a madman, working all the hours God sent in an attempt to gain some ground, and to our favor, the economy was bustling along and he had a lot of success.

This is what's wrong with that "everyone has health care available to them" argument. Yes, you do indeed have the health care. But afterwards? You have the absolutely staggering bills. Those bills are the things that keep people who desperately need health care from seeking health care: they know they can be treated, but can they pay later?

There were several places that were very nice to us as we worked out payment plans. Riley Hospital for Children earned my love forever by reducing our debt to them to zero. Their bill for Meelyn's two hours in their emergency room was $6,000+ and at the advice of one of their billing consultants, I filled out the paperwork they provided for people who didn't have health insurance and they had mercy on us. The day I got that letter in the mail, I sat at the kitchen table and cried with gratitude.

In spite of that enormous reduction of debt, we still owed around $32,000 for our three health incidents in 1996 and the beginning of 1997 saw the local hospital, the entity to whom we owed the most money, becoming increasingly hostile to our plight.

Agents from the billing department of the hospital took to calling me on a daily basis, sometimes being so warm and kind-hearted that I thought we'd reached an understanding of how much we could pay. I'd sigh in relief and hang up the phone, pleased that they finally understood that we simply could not pay them $150 a month because there were about ten other places that were also clamoring for their share of our income. But the next day, there would be another call and a different agent would berate me and shame me for not paying my bills, for being a deadbeat, for my dishonor in demanding medical services that I was "refusing" to pay for.

My husband and I were such pitiful little greenies, we didn't realize that this is the common practice of bill collectors, kind of a good-cop-bad-cop scenario. One agent would agree that one hundred dollars a month was a reasonable amount, considering that we had one hundred dollars a month promised to about fifteen other medical entities, but then a second agent would call on another day to coldly tell us that we were going to be sued and living on the streets in a cardboard box if we didn't pay the complete total by the end of the week, or at least five hundred dollars a month.

We didn't know that these tactics were illegal and I, raised by my parents to be honest and forthcoming, answered the telephone every single time it rang. It simply never occurred to me to just let it ring. I would protest to the agent of the day that I had just made an agreement on Tuesday with such-and-such agent to pay one hundred dollars a month and the inevitable response would be "I don't see that marked in your file, Misssssssssuz McKinnnnnnnney" as if it was some lie I'd come up with in order to....get myself into trouble? It made no sense at all, but then IT WASN'T SUPPOSED TO MAKE SENSE. The problem was, my husband and I thought that everyone, including billing agents at county hospitals, knew that we were anxious to pay our debts and were eager to do so in a timely and civilized manner.

They weren't. Oh, the hospital wanted us to pay the bill, all right, but they had absolutely no intention of being civilized about it. Harrassment was working just fine for them.

5. Off to the market

With chronic acid eating out the linings of our stomachs due to the increasingly belligerent antics of the hospital, my husband and I discussed selling our house and using the profits to partially pay off the hospital and get them off our backs.

"We don't have much equity," my husband said, worry lines creasing his forehead. "I mean, how much equity could we have built up? We've only lived here for two years."

"There's not been a chance to do much improvement to things," I sighed. We'd purchased our home as the shabbiest house on a nice street in a great school district: We had the location, location, location thing down. The house did need some work, mostly just in updating the 1970s decor, replacing the carpet, painting and the like. It didn't need anything major, except for maybe a second bathroom....

My husband called our real estate agent and told her that we wanted to put the house up for sale. She was horrified. "Oh, please don't do that!" she cried. "You're going to lose so much and gain so little. Let me help you get this mess figured out."

Her name was Susan and she was a truly lovely person. Real estate wasn't just her job, it was her calling. She was passionate about home ownership and she really took a great deal of her personal time to sort us out with the conventional wisdom of the industry. What my husband and I didn't perceive at the time was that the conventional wisdom of the real estate (and banking) industries was not the the same wisdom that a financial counselor would have offered us, but we didn't find that out for about seven more years.

Susan's advice was that we take out a home equity loan. At the time, my husband was in a profit-sharing program with General Motors (he'd moved over to car sales by then and we were all safely enrolled in his company's group health insurance plan, a huge relief) and was getting a lovely big check every February. Susan suggested that we use this check to remodel our one enormous bathroom into two nice-sized bathrooms: one accessed through the hallway, and the other would be an en suite attached to our master bedroom.

Once we'd done that remodeling, we could have the house re-assessed. As Susan pointed out, the comps for our neighborhood showed that every other house on our street had at least a bath and a half; most houses had two, and some had two and a half. We'd have a lot more equity at our fingertips if we made that improvement.

The second upgrade we made at Susan's suggestion was to have the driveway paved. All the other houses on the street had cement driveways, she pointed out, and our gravel driveway wasn't in keeping with the comps. We couldn't afford cement, but we did have asphalt put down and it made a huge difference in the curb appeal in our house.

Another change we'd made the previous year with my husband's profit-sharing check was to have a new gas furnace installed to replace the 1970s total-electric plan the house originally had. Along with that, we'd put in central air, which was another amenity all the other houses on the street had.

Susan felt that with those improvements -- new gas furnace, central air, paved driveway and extra bathroom -- we could get a very tidy sum if we applied for a home equity loan and refinanced the house to take advantage of the rates that were just beginning to drop. When we bought the house, we had signed on at a fixed nine percent, but we were able to refinance for seven percent and that made a huge difference in our monthly payment.

We felt we were seeing the light at the end of a dark and scary tunnel. The equity in our house had received a pleasing boost due to the improvements we'd made with cash, the refinancing had freed up more of our monthly income due to a lower payment and soon we'd be able to pay off all that medical debt in one fell swoop.

6. Blessed relief

The day I went to the hospital's billing department and wrote them a check for tens of thousands of dollars was one of the happiest days of my life. Seriously. The day I got my college diploma? Happy! My wedding day? Happy! The births of my beloved children? Happy!

The day I finally pried that evil hospital off our backs and off our telephones by writing them a check covered by money based on the equity we'd built up in our home? HAPPY! HAPPY! HAPPY! My feeling of triumph was immeasurable as I handed the check to the cashier and swept out the office door in what I felt was a totally appropriate manner of haughty scorn.

We entered into a totally new phase of marriage, money and home ownership. My husband was selling cars like nobody's business. He had enjoyed selling flooring, but cars really resonate with him and he absolutely loved his job. We made a lot of money and for the most part, we spent it wisely. We set up a payment plan to get our house paid off in fifteen years (we had a thirty-year mortgage.) My husband, who is one of those strange people who prefers the saving of money to the spending of it, socked away three months' income in a savings account. We cut up our two credit cards and worked on a debt-reduction plan to get them paid off.

Our "big" splurges were things like eating in restaurants every weekend, something cheap like Arby's on Fridays and someplace nicer like Chili's or The Outback on Saturdays. It was fairly inexpensive to do that back then, with the girls being so small that they always shared one meal from the kids' menu.

Other than that, we we lived a very simple life although my husband trembled with fear every time I walked through the doors of Wal-Mart. Things were good. Meelyn went off to our lovely, highly-rated neighborhood school for kindergarten, first and second grades. After her second grade year, we decided to home school both of the girls and embarked on that new adventure with excitement.

7. And then....

September 11, 2001 happened. Car sales stopped like a faucet turned off in Detroit as the country sat poised in uncertainty, wondering if the immediate future would take us back to prosperity and peace, or if more terrorist attacks threatened us.

Then the economy fell apart and our income fell with it. Factories in the area, this area known for its production of car parts, began to fold one right after the other. If church bells had been rung to announce the death knell of the auto industry in the midwest, central Indiana would still be resounding with the echoes.

Our income went from $82,000 to $37,000 in the space of one year and the bell rang for us, too.

By January 2005, we were sunk. Our income was so low, it was impossible to carry on with our mortgage payments and the home equity loan and the this-and-that of monthly bills. It's not that we were bad at budgeting - quite the contrary, we were very good at it. But it's kind of hard to make a budget when you have no money to work it with. Slowly but surely, we were crushed under the weight of what we owed. The lawyer who handled our bankruptcy was compassionate as we sat in his office filled with Indiana University memorabilia and I cried, plucking tissues out of the box he'd thoughtfully placed on the corner of his desk.

A lot of people were going down with us, he said. In all his years in the legal profession, he'd never seen anything like the number of bankruptcies he was seeing in 2005. His great worry is that there were still many more to come.

I was somewhat relieved to know that it wasn't just us: We weren't filing for bankruptcy because we were shiftless losers who blew their money on lottery tickets, drugs and drink. We were just caught in the same vortex that was catching so many other people. In spite of that, however, there was a nagging feeling that dug at me constantly, driving sleep away from me and keeping my jaw permanently clenched.

The hospital, I felt, had won in the end after all. Indirectly, they got our house.

8. Five years on

As you know if you read this blog, we're still home schooling. We hung onto it with both hands white-knuckled for the girls and I often think that my husband and I and others like us are either the bravest and most stalwart of parents, or possibly the stupidest for voluntarily resigning ourselves to nearly constant financial struggles. Maybe both.

My husband is still selling cars. He has changed dealerships, and the one he works at now is a profitable one even though the economy is still so bad. The one he worked for when we had to file for bankruptcy? It is, as Margaret Mitchell would have it, gone with the wind that swept through Detroit. Our income has recovered somewhat, but not by much. We are at least making over $40,000, the national average, and I suppose in these tough times, that's not so bad.

The dealership he works at does offer a group insurance plan, but unlike the good old days when one's employer paid for the employee's share of the monthly premium, we now pick up the whole tab for ourselves. My husband and I are the only two people on this group insurance , which includes medical, dental and vision plans; we had to take the girls off the plan about eighteen months ago because the premiums went up to $1,200 a month for the four of us.

Removing them from our health insurance was one of the scariest, hardest things we've ever done, especially since about two weeks after we did it, Meelyn came down with an unwelcome strep throat/ear infection combo. It was a weekend, the prime time for kids to get sick, so we took her to the urgent care facility here in town since the doctor's office was closed. It cost about $120, but it was right after Christmas and we were flush with money.

The doctor wrote two prescriptions for her and we drove to a couple of different pharmacies to see which one had the cheaper prices. The costs at both of them were similar -- around $90 for the antibiotic and the stuff for her ear -- but guess which pharmacy we didn't spend our money at?

That would be the one where the pharmacist assistant, when he asked what prescription plan we were using, said in contemptuous disbelief, "YOU DON'T HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE FOR YOUR CHILDREN?"

My husband, already stressed out, invited him quietly to do something unnatural to himself and we drove quickly to the second pharmacy, where the money was paid and the medicine was handed over with no back-chat from the help.

I was relating this story to a gathering of my home schooling friends a few weeks after that and one of the mothers told me about a program called Hoosier Healthwise, a state government Medicaid program for -- *gulp* -- the indigent. She and her husband had applied for health insurance for their four children when her husband's hours were halved at his job, she told me. And it was such a relief to know that their kids were covered, especially since the insurance was affordable, with monthly premiums based on the family income.

Oh, please don't be mistaken. I have my pride. The idea of applying for government-subsidized health care was unpleasant, to say the least. I'd never applied for any government assistance before and I wasn't particularly anxious to start. But my worry over the girls trumped my outraged sensibilities -- it wasn't too hard to remember that trip to Riley Hospital with Meelyn cradled in my arms, a coin precariously balanced between air and suffocation. And the ambulance ride to the emergency room with my white, dozy Aisling strapped to the gurney while the paramedic tried his best to comfort us both. I was willing to sacrifice my pride and dignity to protect both their health and our precarious financial existence.

The girls were accepted into the Hoosier Healthwise plan, and we pay an affordable monthly premium. It is such a huge relief to be able to take them to the dentist every six months, to be able to take Aisling, whose vision is simply dreadful, to the optometrist for new glasses every year; to know that if they get sick, which they rarely do, I can whisk them to the doctor's office without worrying about a $90 office call, plus the charge for prescriptions. It is a blessing, and I mail off that check each month, sealed with a kiss.

My husband and I are still on the group plan through his employer. For the two of us, one hundred and twenty dollars PER WEEK is taken from his pay. Yes, you read that correctly: $120 per week.

9. Obamacare

While I would like to be as optimistic as DeCarlo Flythe, the man I quoted in the first paragraph, I can't bring myself to think that national health care is going to be anything like Christmas. Oh, trust me -- I'd like to believe it. It would make me happy to believe it, but I'm just not all that great at trusting the government to run programs. I mean, look at the post office. It costs more and more money every year and provides less and less service; as I type this, the postmaster general is considering halting Saturday delivery across the United States. Medicare and Medicaid are bankrupt and unsalvageable.

Cash for Clunkers, that bloated trade-in-the-old-car-get-yourself-a-new-car government-funded monstrosity of last summer was a wretched exercise in just how badly the government can screw things up in just a matter of weeks. Complete with a constantly crashing website, volumes of impossible paperwork, slow paybacks and other assorted idiocies, Cash for Clunkers, from the point of view of those in the car business, was an adventure of breathtaking stupidity that could have been better managed by a group of kindergarteners with an abacus.

How could any reasonable person suppose that government-run health care would be any different? Especially a program that was pushed through against the will of the majority of the citizens, one that seems to violate the Constitutional rights of the very voters who elected the people who stubbornly ran it through anyway; a health care plan that is so great, members of the United States Congress have exempted themselves from it?

For right now, we all seem to be in a holding pattern. Conservative talk show hosts continue to spout off about how we have the best health care system in the world without government-funded health care, available to everyone who needs it, and I can't say I agree with that. I've been in the position of getting that emergency room care that has to be given, regardless of your ability to pay, and I know where it leads: to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in medical debt. Ours may be the best health care in the world, but it sure isn't perfect by any means. I feel that sting of that particular truth every time I drive past the house I used to own.

That's one point of view, which allies closely with the idea that everyone should be able to get health care when they're sick. I firmly believe that, but I also believe that it shouldn't bankrupt them to do it.

The other point of view? I've already expressed it. I don't think the government will do this well at all. I believe it will be a huge mess and it will bring on greater financial burdens for families as taxes are raised to pay for it. I think it will make the economy worse. I'm all for health care reform and I think that needs to be taken care of, like, yesterday. But not like this. Never like this.

Meanwhile, it's being said that the premiums for people with private health care insurance, the kind my husband and I have, are going to increase significantly in January 2011. That should tell us a lot about how things are going to go, but it's going to be some nervous waiting until then.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Menu Plan Monday (on Tuesday, but who's counting)

Well, we HAVE been having a time of it over here, which is what makes me appreciate Menu Plan Monday even more than I already do. Because even when things have been crazed enough that I can't blog-post the plan until Tuesday, well, I still do have my handy clipboard here with me with the menu planning template I downloaded and copied from Laura's site, I'm an Organizing Junkie, along with the grocery list template.

Now you might think that when life is in such an uproar that the only available moment you have to put on mascara is when you go to the bathroom to pee might not be the best time to start downloading and printing out grocery shopping lists and menu plan templates, much less take the time to fill them out. Actually, what I have found is that when that's when I need those things the most.

So here today, on Tuesday, the second day of the week which started out with my husband having a bad fall while on a seven-mile training run and doing great damage to his right knee -- I'm going to explain more about that later, because the poor thing has been through so much, he deserves his own post -- is my menu plan, the one stress-free thing I have going.

Menu Plan for the Week of March 22, 2010

Monday -- Old-Fashioned Chipped Beef Gravy, potato puffs and carrots

Tuesday --Baked Pork Chop and Cabbage with peas

Wednesday -- Breakfast for Dinner!!! Nanny's Breakfast Casserole (ssssh, don't tell her)

Thursday -- Beef roast in the slow-cooker with cauliflower au gratin and green beans

Friday -- Fettucine Alfredo with crab meat and garlic toast

On Saturday of this week, I served chili dogs with potato puffs and corn casserole, and for Sunday's dinner we had some baked potato soup garnished with chopped green onion and bacon crumbles. It turned out extra-good this time, which always bemuses me because I swear I use the same recipe every time I make it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Screaaaaaaaaaam

Here's the way I feel today, only I'm fatter than that guy.


1. High schooling at home is hard and irritating.

2. Other people are sometimes impossible to understand. And also irritating.

3. I'm tired of being a little bit sick. The antibiotics have done their job and I'm almost well, but not yet really well, which is irritating.

4. Why do I do some of the things I do and why do other people do some of the things they do? It's so irritating, I COULD JUST GO ALL EDVARD MUNCH ON PEOPLE.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

RECIPE: Irish Soda Bread with Caraway Seeds and Currants

I am SUPER-PREPPED for St. Patrick's Day tomorrow, I mean r-e-a-d-y. Corned beef brisket? Check! It's absolutely gorgeous and ready for the slow-cooker. Cabbage? You betcha, complete with butter, salt and pepper to adorn it. Baby carrots? Darn tootin'. I switched them out for the boiled potatoes because I felt like the meal needed a little color.

But the pièce de résistance? It would have to be the Irish soda bread I baked earlier today, which you can see in the picture undergoing some kind of sweating process: I read about fifty different recipes and nearly all of them urged me to wrap it up and let it sit overnight, hinting strongly that I'd be missing out of some kind of extra taste sensation if I served it hot from the oven.

So my two loaves of bread are having their spa treatment so we've not had the smallest taste. If I could go by the aroma they produced while baking, I'd say this recipe is a winner. Not to mention the fact that it was really very easy to prepare, one of those recipes you can throw together in a matter of minutes that still has you coming off looking like some kind of kitchen genius.

Irish Soda Bread with Caraway Seeds and Currants


6 cups of flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2/3 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups buttermilk

1 cup currants
2 teaspoons caraway seeds


Stir beaten eggs into the four cups of buttermilk in a small mixing bowl; set aside. Combine all dry ingredients (except for currants and caraway seeds); add buttermilk/egg mixture slowly, stirring only until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Stir in currants and caraway seeds.

Divide the dough in two and pour into two standard loaf pans that have been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. For a more traditional loaf, shape into two boules on two baking sheets lined with parchment. Allow to sit on the counter for half an hour to give the chemical leavening action of the baking soda and buttermilk to occur. At the end of that time, slash a cross in the dough and bake in pre-heated 325 degree oven for approximately fifty minutes. Bread is done when a cake tester inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean.


Two standard loaves or two rustic boules. You can try for one large boule, but you'll have to bake it longer and I'm not sure how much longer that would be.

Serve with melted butter and honey or jam for a teatime treat, or serve with dinner.

RECIPE: Honey-Oatmeal-Bread w/ Sunflower Seeds (in the bread machine)

I've been in a bread-making kind of mood lately; really, just a cooking kind of mood, trying out some new things here and there, but the thing I've had the most success with is the bread. Especially this recipe that I kind of put together myself, with the help of the little cookbook that came with my bread maker.

The bread, pictured on the left with that loaf of brioche I rescued last week, is made with white flour and includes oatmeal, honey and sunflower seeds, which makes it so delicious as a sandwich bread - I can highly recommend it with sliced turkey and mayo, although I really need a sliced ripe tomato to be completely certain.

This makes a nice little one-and-a-half pound loaf, so if you have a smaller bread machine that only makes one pound loaves, beware: you will have a dreadful mess to clean up. If you'd like more bread from the recipe and your machine can handle the volume, double the recipe and set your bread maker on the Dough option; take it out and put in in your own two bread pans and allow it to do its final proofing on your kitchen counter until the dough has doubled in size. Bake it at 350 degree for around forty minutes. Keep your eye and nose on it.

Honey-Oatmeal Bread with Sunflower Seeds (bread machine)


7 1/2 ounces milk (7 ounces + 1 tablespoon), warmed to 90o - 100o
3 tablespoons honey
2 cups bread flour
1 cup old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into four chunks
2 teaspoons active dry yeast OR 1 1/2 teaspoons fast rise yeast

1/4 cup sunflower seeds (salted or unsalted, your pref)*


Place ingredients in bread machine's baking pan in the order in which they're listed, placing the chunks of cold butter at each corner of the pan. Set the machine to your selected choices and go read your book. (Unless you're using the Dough setting, and then go do whatever you want to do until you need to deal with the dough.)

*My bread machine has a timer that lets me know when I can add things like sunflower seeds, nuts, raisins, etc. It comes after the first initial big stirring and this allows the added extras to not be ground up by the machine's strong kneading action. If your bread maker has such a setting, add the sunflower seeds. If it doesn't have this setting, just throw the sunflower seeds in with everything else.


One 1 1/2 pound loaf

Monday, March 15, 2010

RECIPE: Taco Seasoning

We really love spicy Mexican food around here and we eat all kinds of Mexamerican things: tacos, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas, not to mention the ever-popular nachos, queso sauce and bean dip. To season the meat and/or beans that go in these dishes, I've been accustomed to buying those little envelopes from the store, the ones that season one pound of ground beef (or one can of refried beans) and make them very tasty, although probably not even close to anything authentically Mexican.

The other day, however, I was surfing around on the internet and came across a recipe for homemade taco seasoning, and since I was intrigued by the idea of making it myself and since all the ingredients were readily available, I gave it a go and used it to season the meat we were going to be eating for dinner that evening.

I have to say, it was good. Really good. Everyone complimented the taste of the nachos and my husband even said, "There's something different about the taste, and it is soo good."

That sealed it for me: a new recipe for my blog file!

Homemade Taco Seasoning

Note: I doubled the recipe below and put it in one of those plastic canisters that grated Parmesan cheese comes in; you know, the kind with the green lid. I tried storing it at first in a heavy-duty plastic bag, but it was even more irritating than all those little envelopes I used to buy that kept falling out of the cabinet every time I opened the door.


1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/4 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/4 teaspoons onion powder
1 1/4 teaspoons oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper (I doubled this amount because we like it spicy)
2 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

Directions: Mix all ingredients together in a small mixing bowl. Be very careful not to be all inhale-y right over the bowl because you will cough and cough and cough. And then you'll sneeze. A thousand times. God bless you.

Yield: Use three tablespoons per one pound of meat, slightly less for a can of refried beans

We think that this is just simply better than any little seasoning packet you could buy at the grocery. Plus, since you put it together with your own sweet hands, you know what goes in it. You can control the salt, and there's no MSG. You can make it as mild or as my-nose-hairs-just-caught-on-fire-hot as you'd like.

Whoa! Back up the Menu Plan Monday bus!

What am I thinking? This Wednesday is St. Patrick's Day! And I think I heard somewhere that it is illegal to be an American of Irish descent and not have corned beef brisket, buttery cabbage, boiled potatoes (also with the butter) and soda bread for dinner.

Police officers dressed in green uniforms with badges shaped like shamrocks march up to your door around dinner time, and if they see you all sitting there in front of, say, steaming bowls of baked potato soup garnished deliciously with bits of crispy bacon and chopped green onions, they'll haul you all away and make you listen to "Danny Boy" until you're sobbing, which for me would be once.

My husband never makes it past the first line without a quivering lip. He could get back to his soup before it cooled.

So I am changing my menu plan for Wednesday, March 17. Instead of Baked Potato Soup, it should read:

Wednesday -- Corned beef brisket, buttered cabbage, potatoes and soda bread

I wonder what actual Irish folks eat for dinner on St. Patrick's Day? I somehow think that the whole "traditional Irish dinner" thing is a happy figment of the American imagination, nurtured by too many sentimental viewings of The Quiet Man and Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Maybe someone will be having baked potato soup.

Menu Plan Monday

It's Monday again already, and a fun week it's shaping up to be, too, what with St. Patrick's Day and all. Plus, we've been experiencing some very mild weather, which had my husband out back yesterday, eyeing the barbecue grill with pleased expectation. I definitely have thoughts of marinated chicken breasts and grilled burgers with pepper-jack cheese dancing through my head, but until my husband installs that full tank of propane and it stops raining, it's kitchen-cooked meals for me and the gang.

However! This week's dinners sound pretty good, if I do say so myself. If you feel inspired to participate in Menu Plan Mondays, click on over to Laura's blog, I'm an Organizing Junkie, and check things out there. You'll be in good company with several hundred other menu-planners.

Menu Plan for the week of March 15, 2010

Monday - Oven-fried chicken, baked potatoes, green beans and croissant rolls

Tuesday - Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas

Wednesday - Baked Potato Soup

Thursday - Poured-Crust Pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms and onions

Friday - Refried Bean Quesadillas with tortilla chips and salsa

On Saturday, we had Spicy Beef Quesadillas for dinner after Mass and on Sunday, we had french toast sticks and sausage patties for brunch (totally from the freezer section of ALDI, I admit), with leftover Spaghetti with Meat Sauce and garlic toast for dinner.

Sign o' the times

I was up in my bedroom this morning, stripping the sheets off the bed, when I heard a familiar yet too-long-unheard sound coming from outside. Incredulous with delight, I bounced across my room to the window and looked out to behold....THE STREET SWEEPER!!!!

My dears, spring has sprung, at least here in north central Indiana. It doesn't matter what you see first -- a fat, red-breasted robin, a jaunty daffodil, or a noisy, fossil fuel-powered street-sweeper trundling around the block -- any of those three is a true harbinger of le printemps and I've never been so glad to clap eyes on that particular piece of machinery.

I might be singing a different tune three months from now when summer vacation has started and it's still cool enough to sleep at night with the windows thrown open and the street sweeper goes chugging by at the unsprightly hour of seven o'clock a.m., but right now I'm so grateful winter's over that I'd go out and drive the thing myself if I had to. Which would be, you know, kind of fun. Not as thrilling as driving a zamboni, which is one of my life's goals, but still...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fashionably framed

Aisling and I have appointments with the optometrist this coming Tuesday; she is getting fitted for contact lenses and I am having an exam and choosing new eyeglass frames.

I wear my glasses for everything except reading and I've had these particular frames for, oh, I'm thinking FIVE YEARS. Happy was the day when I realized that they were kind of broken. Not cataclysmically broken, as in sat upon or perhaps ground underfoot, but more like bent. Bent enough that I no longer felt compelled to un-bend them, especially since our vision insurance pays for new frames every two years, which kind of begs the question: WHY HAVEN'T I HAD NEW ONES BEFORE NOW?

The answer to that question is, I have no clue. I mean, we do pay for that vision insurance. It is part of the $500+ monthly premium we part with as part of my husband's employers' group insurance plan. When you pay that much, it is kind of stupid not to avail yourself of every benefit you can claim.

Other than that, I am rocky excited to get some new glasses. What will I choose? What will I choose? And will I be able to trust Aisling and Meelyn to guide my selection so that I won't end up with some frames that will scare the birds out of the trees?

Maybe I should call my mother....

The loveliness of Sunday afternoon

There is nothing quite as nice as a chilly afternoon in mid-March when the rain is pattering down on the sidewalks and the tires of the cars going past make splashy sounds on the pavement, while indoors, the aromas of homemade spaghetti sauce and baking bread permeate the air.

It provides a perfect atmosphere, I find, to grab a fleecy blanket and take a nap on the couch for a half-hour or so while other family members read their books or watch a little television. It is all very cozy and companionable, and sometimes you can talk someone into giving you a foot rub.

But I already did that, so now I have to get off the computer and go start the water for the pasta. Duty calls!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fun facts about Zuzu

I took Zuzu to the vet yesterday to get her shots and have a general check-up and I learned some very interesting things about her that I wanted to share for all of you who have been kind enough to express interest in our little foundling, who has now been with us for two months, a refugee from the cold, cruel January world.

Here's what I asked:

What kind of dog is this, exactly?

The vet believes that Zuzu is part miniature schnauzer and part poodle, which makes her a Schnaudle? Or maybe a Schnoodle?

How old is she?

The vet thinks that Zuzu is actually not a puppy at all. The tartar formed on her back teeth leads the doctor to surmise that she is two years old. We've decided to make her official birthday March 12, the day she went to the vet for the first time.

Is she healthy? Because we suspect that she was neglected by her previous owners.

She is very healthy, alert and bright. Good heartbeat, good digestive sounds, hearing checks out okay, can obviously see; friendly girl and full of energy. And, er....nothing wrong with her lungs or vocal cords, either. Our mail carrier can attest to this.

How much does she weigh?

Ten pounds, right on the dot!

How big will she get?

Unless she gets fatter, which she shouldn't do because she is at a good weight right now, in spite of her fondess for yogurt and that Kong brand pâté, she probably won't get any bigger. Zuzu is an adult, a grown-up lady.

Isn't she the cutest dog ever in the world?

Oh, most definitely. Without question.

In which I receive hate mail from a Twi-hard

The other day I checked my InsomniMom email and was (sort of) surprised to see that a fangirl -- and not a fangirl of mine, let me assure you -- read my review of Breaking Dawn and took umbrage. Great umbrage.

She did a not-very-good job of defending Bella -- Bella!! -- as the smartest, most courageous and independent heroine in modern literature and then told me that I was the biggest, dumbest, meanest, dumbest, stupidest, meanest butt-headed-est mean person of dumbness in, like, the whole world for not thinking that Stephenie Meyer should be elected president of the United States and Canada.

The way she wrote -- the grammar, the punctuation, the excessive use of exclamation points -- and the way she set up her arguments pro-Bella 'n' Edward and her total lack of understanding of the purpose of a book review ("If you dont' [sic] like it, than [sic] just dont' [sic] read it!!!!!!! [sic]" perfectly illustrated every reason why I think these books are absolutely horrible things for girls to read.

It made me really sad.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A very sad case of B12 deficiency

I read a news report this morning that struck me as being one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen.

There is a piece of legislation in New York, bill A. 10129 sponsored by Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), which proposes to fine any restaurant and/or chef in the entire state for using salt "in any form" in the preparation of food.


First of all, allow me to heave a hugh sigh of relief that I am not a resident of a place that would do something as cruel as knowingly electing a mentally ill person to such a post. Where I live, we're nicer than that. Second of all, people of New York, you ARE going to do something about this, aren't you? Because, no salt? In any restaurant? On any food? Eeeeeyiikes..... I forgot to put the salt in a loaf of bread I made recently, and it was so flat-tasting, so utterly bland, we ended up feeding it to the ducks.

For those of you in New York who love the crispy golden french fries found beneath those golden arches, you should start being thankful that McDonald's doesn't prepare their ketchup on site, because at least you'll be able to get a little salt on those things that way. For those fond of French cuisine, it looks as if that classic dish from le Cordon Bleu, loup de mer cuit en croûte de sel (salt-crusted sea bass), is going to be permanently off the menu if Felix has his way.

But listen. Let's not be mad at Felix. Shhh, he can't help himself. He obviously doesn't eat any salt: salt supplies us with iodine, an element which is a crucial part of our diets in that it helps us absorb vitamin B12. Without sufficient quantities of B12 in our systems, we can fall prey to a host of ills, one of the most tragic of which is dementia.

I think that explains perfectly where the idea for this piece of legislation came from.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bread-making crisis narrowly averted

I decided to make a loaf of "middle-class brioche," as designated by Peter Reinhold, in my bread maker today. The little cookbook that came with my machine simply calls this recipe "Egg Bread," which does NOT do justice to the taste, believe me. It is a good, rich recipe for a one-and-a-half pound loaf made with milk, two eggs and butter: I add two extra tablespoons of butter in order to make it extra brioche-y.

Anyway, the bread had just started on its first proofing as I was kind of dragging myself around the kitchen, tidying things up. The breakfast dishes were already loaded into the dishwasher, and I went over to unplug the toaster and put it away, the same toaster that was plugged into the same outlet as the bread maker. The same toaster that has a white electrical cord that is the exact same color as the one that connects the bread machine to the blessed current that prepares nice loaves of bread with so little effort on my part.

You know what happened, right? Even as my brain was yelping "NO! NO! DO NOT UNPLUG!" my impulsive hand reached forth and, without checking to see which appliance I was disengaging, yanked the plug out of the wall. Sure enough, the bread machine's timer gave its running-down "wheeee-e-e-e---e-----e------e" while the toaster squatted there on the counter, smirking at me.

But you know, I haven't been doing all this reading of bread-making techniques and practicing what I've learned and drooling over Kayte's pictures on her blog for nothing, no I have not. I immediately sprang into action with more energy than I've had in the past two weeks.

"Quick! The Bread-Maker's Apprentice!" I said, and sprinted over to the bookcase where my cookbooks sit, yanking Peter's volume off the shelf, noting as I did so that a small cloud of flour poofed out of the pages, some of which were a little gritty. I feverishly thumbed through the pages and found the section about proofing bread, and in less than five minutes, the brioche dough had been whisked out of the bread machine's interior, brushed with a light coating of oil, and slung into a bread pan, which I placed inside my oven with the light on and covered with a clean kitchen towel for its first proofing.

I read that Peter recommends only about fifteen minutes of proofing inside an oven that has a pilot light, which mine does, so at the end of that time I retrieved the pan from the oven and placed it atop the stove to complete its doubling process. At the end of the two hours, the dough looked perfect, so I followed Peter's further directions and put it in the fridge covered with plastic wrap: I can allow it to do its final proofing tomorrow and bake it then.

Now, this might not sound like much to an experienced home baker, but for me, well, this was a major endeavor. There was a time not so very long ago when I would have just assumed that the bread dough was ruined because of my untimely act of unpluggage and I would have just chucked the lump of dough in the wastebasket and started over. But I've learned a lot. Not so much that I'll ever be some kind of bread-making whiz, but enough that I now have a fairly clear idea of the different stages of breadishness and what it's supposed to be doing an each stage and why.

That, I find, is a very nice feeling indeed.

At the ready

What you're seeing there, high atop my kitchen cabinets, up near the TOTALLY COBWEB FREE ceiling, is our family Easter basket, patiently awaiting Holy Saturday and our parish's Easter Basket Blessing, when Aisling, as the tallest of our group of McKinney females, will climb on a chair and lift it down with a carefully wielded broom handle. Last year, the broom handle wasn't weilded carefully enough by Meelyn, and the basket plunged straight down and whacked her right in the head, which did not make her feel very blessed.

Here's a link to the instructions for assembling a traditional Easter basket that I posted a couple of years back. This is actually a custom of the Catholic and Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe, but it is such a lovely and meaningful practice -- or maybe I should say devotion? -- that we were more than pleased to adopt it for use in this American home.

This year, I have something new for our Easter basket, and that is a hand-embroidered cover for it -- also part of the traditional basket assembly -- and you cannot believe how beautiful and inexpensive it was. When it comes in the mail, I'll be sure to take a picture of it.

Also this year, we'll probably go in the same direction we've gone in other years, stuffing a small ham, a bottle of wine, some salt, a loaf of bread, some decorated eggs and a holy candle inside; you can click on that link above to read about the significance of those things. That all makes for a heavy Easter basket, burgeoning with Easter joy. And this year, I'll actually be able to take a picture at the church of everyone's Easter basket - in the past few years, there have been about six or seven families who have participated, and I hope even more will be there this year.

Anyway, with the weather so soft and spring-like these past few days, I can't help but keep glancing up there at that basket in anticipation of the happiness to come, which is part of what Lent is all about.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Off the rails

See these foil-wrapped serving dishes in my oven -- and yes, I know, there are charred crumbs from a frozen pizza in there, but I have not been well, remember? And shouldn't be required to clean out the oven when feeling feverish -- heating themselves up at three hundred fifty degrees?

Those are leftovers from last night and they're heating up because I feel like poo on a cracker and I just couldn't bring myself to put together the chicken pot pie that was slated for today's Menu Plan Monday entrée. So! I am reheating the Baked Steak and the cauliflower casserole I made, plus I carelessly peeled a few potatoes because if anything can reconcile my husband to the unwelcome notion of "leftovers," it is the common Idaho potato in its mashed form. Plus I just had Meelyn throw a sheet of store-bought croissants in there and if everybody's not okay with that, I guess there's always cereal and milk.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Menu Plan Monday

Oh, 'tis Monday again and I woke up this morning to beautiful blue skies and sunshine and bird song. BIRD SONG! After the winter we've all had, the sound of birds singing in the trees made me want to fall prostrate to the floor and just stay there for awhile, sobbing in relief. I thought I'd never hear any other sound from outside my window than the snowplow trundling by at six o'clock in the morning. I hope you all woke up to the same thing I did.

Here's the week at our house, thanks to Laura, whose own Menu Plan for this week can be found at her blog, I'm an Organizing Junkie. Thanks, Laura, for being such an inspiration for so many.

Menu Plan for the week of Monday, March 8 2010

Monday - Baked Steak, served with cheesy cauliflower casserole (I prefer it in French, it sounds so much more interesting: casserole de choux-fleur au gratin) and green beans

Tuesday - Chicken Pot Pie, much appreciated for its entire-meal-in-one-dish qualities, but since it is technically a pie, I feel like I can get away with not serving "casserole, again?"

Wednesday - Breakfast for Dinner! Pancakes and sausage, mmmm....

Thursday - Crispy Oven Chicken, broccoli/rice casserole, baked potatoes, croissants (I was supposed to serve this yesterday for Sunday dinner, but I felt too yucky to make it)

Friday - Going out for dinner, yippee!!!

On Saturday, I was supposed to make Spaghetti with Meat Sauce with garlic toast for dinner, but there wasn't enough time to thaw out the hamburger, so I did a quick changeroo and made Beanie Weenies with Velveeta Shells & Cheese instead; that was supposed to be Thursday's meal. On Sunday, I was so headachy from this dumb sinus infection that my husband took pity on me and brought us home some take-out. What a sweetheart!

Because of Saturday's switch-up and Sunday's take-out, I'm left with all the ingredients for the pasta meal, which is a little bonus for next week's adventure at the grocery -- one meal already taken care of.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Where I have been

I have been gone for a few days, and if the picture at the right gives you any indication of what I've been doing, you would be right to surmise that when I say "gone," I do not mean "gone on a four-day trip to Orlando." Oh, I've been gone all right, but I only went as far as the doctor's office and then to the pharmacy, and then back home to bewail my infected ears, tonsils, sinuses and right lung to anyone in my family willing to listen to me, or to put a finer point of it, willing to come near me.

They keep their distance, venturing close to me and my box of tissues only to say things like "So! What's for dinner?" and "Will you take my coat to the dry cleaner's when you go out to pay the cable bill?"

I try as hard as I can to drown them out with my coughing. And if they still keep asking me stuff, I stop covering my mouth. Heh.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The ball pit from hell

I've mentioned before the babysitting gig Meelyn, Aisling and I have at a local church's mother's group, right? And I've mentioned about the ball pit in the room Aisling and I are assigned to, the one no doubt put in that playroom by some SADIST who set it all up and then left, never having to lift a single brightly-colored ball up off the floor and if I knew who that person was, I would go up to him and slap him repeatedly until he fell unconscious to the floor.

I took this picture early on, before any children were even in the room. As soon as they burst through the door, they barely took the time to hang their coats up on the little pegs before shrieking, "YAY!! BALL PIT!!!" and flinging themselves in there. Whereupon, as you can imagine, the balls fall out.

Boy, do they ever fall out. They fall out everywhere. They fall out in places that you wouldn't really have expected them to fall, such as by the toilet in the little bathroom that is a good twenty feet across the huge playroom. It could just break your heart, the way those things fall out.

But it could break your back, putting them all back in again. Because, you know two and three year olds? They are not really much on helping pick toys up. I mean, they can pick up one ball at a time and throw it back into the little car and half the time they'll miss and it will roll under the snack table in just the place that will require you to practically have to stand on your head in order to fish it back out.

"Uh-oh!!!" says the child, pointing.

"#$%&!!!" you think, bending over and feeling your middle-aged muscles and spine strike a chord of misery.

Then the child loses interest and goes off to play with something while you're occupied with retrieving the ball and then standing upright again in stages, so you're left there with a ball in your hand and one hand on the small of your back, calling feebly, "Hey! Come back here and help pick up the balls!"

"DON'T WANNA PICK UP BALLS!!! WAAAHHHHHH!!!!" they scream. Like, you know, they're being disemboweled by a rhinoceros. Which, come to think of it, might be an apt punishment for the person WHO THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA.

RECIPE: Homemade slow-cooker yogurt

#1 - Ingredients on the counter: To make your own yogurt, you'll need a large slow-cooker, half a gallon of milk (I used 2%), half a cup of plain yogurt and a beach towel. Maybe a microwave heating bag, if your slow-cooker loses heat quickly like mine does.

#2 Milk in the slow-cooker: When making homemade yogurt, the first task is to empty the half gallon of milk into your crock-pot, put the lid on, put in on the low setting, and let it "cook" for two and a half hours. That's it!

#3 - The next step couldn't be easier. Just unplug your slow-cooker and allow the milk to sit undisturbed for three hours. At the end of that three hour period, take the lid off the slow-cooker and scoop two cups of the warmish milk out into a mixing bowl. Add one-half cup of the plain yogurt (you need those live cultures in there!) and whisk it into the two cups of milk. Pour this mixture back into the slow-cooker.

#4 - All bundled up! Wrap your slow-cooker in a thick bath or beach towel and allow it to sit for the next eight hours undisturbed.

#5 - I stuck my hands under the bath towel to see if my slow-cooker was holding its heat, and it wasn't. This is a chemical reaction taking place, so if the heat falls too low, the reaction will stop and the milk will spoil. If you get it too hot, however, the temperature will kill the live cultures. The solution to this, I found, was to heat up my handy microwave heating bag (I imagine you could also judiciously apply an electric heating pad set on low) and put it on the glass lid. I heated up the microwave heating bag three times during this incubation process.

#6 - At the end of the eight hours, voilà! It's yogurt! If what you have in the slow-cooker is unthickened, something went wrong, but if you come out with an end product that is thickish and slightly lumpy, you had success. You can stir this up and eat it immediately, although it will be runny. We prefer our yogurt to have a more pudding-like consistency, so I elected to strain ours overnight.
#7 - To strain the yogurt, I lined my colander with doubled coffee filters and then balanced the colander carefully inside a large mixing bowl. This allows the whey to run off and how long you strain the yogurt depends on how thick you want it to be. For a consistency similar to store-bought yogurt, you can strain it for around two hours.

#8 - Since I wanted this yogurt to be very thick, I put it in the fridge so that it could strain overnight. In the morning, approximately five cups of whey had drained off and we were left with the most beautiful, smooth, pure white yogurt in the world. And the smell? Heavenly! Creamy, tart and luscious.

#9 - I know this looks like cottage cheese, so I wish I'd given it a stir before I took the picture. This does not have curds; this was just the initial lumpiness that resulted when I scooped the yogurt out of the colander into the bowl. But one stir was all it took and we had velvety smoothness.
I added Splenda to mine; the girls added half Splenda, half sugar. We put berries in some servings, vanilla in others. I found that I greatly like a combination of pure vanilla extract, Splenda and sliced bananas. Plain, this yogurt could easily substitute as sour cream; just add a pinch of sugar to the amount you'd like to add to your baked potato. I've read that the Greek people like their thick yogurt with honey drizzled over it. Whatever way you choose to eat it, I think you'll find it very delicious.