We bobbed in the water, heads peeking out expectantly as our swim coach walked the length of the pool casually tossing something to each swimmer.  I felt like a dolphin at Sea World waiting for a sardine to be dropped into my open, slightly smiling mouth.

Instead of sardines, we were given small beepers to tuck into our swim caps.  The beepers emitted an annoyingly cheerful chirp as we attempted to set a pace that matched our strokes to the beeps – kind of like a metronome for swimmers.

Beepers are awful.  But they’re also kind of awesome.  They make me work hard and pay attention.  I’m pretty sure that Michael Phelps’ mind doesn’t wander while in the middle of a workout, but it is amazing how many things I can think of during 25 short yards.  To wit:

Ow, that stroke kind of pinched my shoulder.
My son said his shoulder hurt last night.
Is it because he practiced pitching yesterday?
Maybe nine year olds shouldn’t be pitching yet.
Should I have given him Advil this morning?
I probably should make something anti-inflammatory for dinner.
Like a nice big salad.
Oh, wait, the NCAA basketball championship is on tonight. 
Everyone will want to eat dude food in front of the TV.
Ha ha, that’s funny: duuuuuuude foooooood.
Sounds like something Guy Fieri would eat.
I bet his car smells like stale farts and Axe body spray.
Ew.  Un-think!  Un-think!

I reach the wall, flip, and start the dialog all over again.  I don’t know what makes me more tired, swimming or the hamster wheel my mind runs on while I swim.

But the beeper changes all of that.  My mind can’t wander while I’m trying to keep pace with the nagging chirp in my ear so I end up focused and faster.  I left the pool today feeling like I accomplished something – and wishing that I could wear a beeper the rest of the day.  I certainly could stand to be focused and faster on land as well as in the pool.

Sadly, without the beeper, I’m a disaster.  I sit down to write but then jump up to put a hunk of meat in the Crock Pot as soon as I type “dude food.”  I Google Guy Fieri to see if he seems like the type to hold a grudge.  I write a paragraph but then notice a squirrel scaling our screen door. He looks like a tiny, furry flasher exposed against the glass, so obviously there’s only one thing I can do: grab my phone and attempt to snap a photo that could be used for next year’s Valentine’s Day card.  My husband is a lucky guy.

I try to summon the lesson from this morning’s workout, turning the cheerful beep into a scolding buzz with every wayward thought: dinner, buzz; Guy Fieri, buzz; squirrel junk, buzz.  Squirrel Junk.  That would make a great band name.  I wish I played guitar.  Am I too old for lessons?  I should take guitar lessons.  I wish Sting taught guitar lessons.  We could sing Roxanne.  Roxanne is a nice name.  I wonder whatever happened to that band Roxette…  Buzz.



It’s wrong to say that my daughter played baseball like a girl, mostly because girls are fully capable of excelling at baseball.  It’s more accurate to say that my daughter swung a bat like a stoned T-Rex: sloooow timing and short little arms.

I did not understand how a girl who was capable of serving a volleyball hard enough to tattoo “Mizuno” across an unsuspecting opponent’s forehead could not manage to connect bat and ball.  She could dance gracefully across a stage, swim athletically through the water and even hike to the top of a volcano.  The kid’s got game – with one glaring exception.  She simply could not hit a baseball.

It wasn’t for lack of trying.  She spent hours with her dad swinging wildly at gentle pitches.  She was told to keep her eye on the ball, to just let the ball hit the bat and to not give up.  For months, nothing worked.  But then, while goofing around outside with her brother, everything changed.

“Mom, mom, mom, mommmmmmm, come outside – she’s a lefty!”

I hurried out the door, only slightly worried that a freak accident had instantly earned her the nickname “lefty.”

Much to my relief I saw my daughter, digits intact, standing over the manhole cover that doubled as home plate, taking a left-handed batting stance.  My son pitched, she swung and sent the ball flying down the street.

Turns out, the kid who does everything right-handed (including swinging a golf club and a tennis racquet) is a lefty batter.  It makes no sense.  But it worked.  And it got me thinking.

How many parenting problems could be solved if I was open-minded enough to consider solutions that fall into the “it makes no sense” category?

It makes no sense to skip breakfast.  Unless the kid isn’t hungry when he first wakes up and can eat a big morning snack at school instead.

It makes no sense to do homework the morning it’s due.  Unless the kid can happily pop out of bed early, alert and ready to focus.  A morning person?  In our family?  I have no idea how that gene snuck into our pool.  But instead of fretting, I’m starting to shrug and declare, “It works for us.”

My kids are much better than I am at considering all options, both traditional and unconventional.   They skip breakfast, confident they won’t be hungry until later.  They sleep peacefully, knowing homework will be finished in the morning.  And occasionally, a kid will step up to the plate as a lefty, surprising us all as she hits a home run.  Sometimes, we don’t need to force everything to make sense.  Sometimes, all we need to do is get out of the way and cheer.

Gingerbread What?



Hey you – the crazy lady in the mirror with bags under her eyes and a sizable zit from stress-eating too much chocolate.

Did I really just hear you refer to gingerbread men as “little fuckers?”  As in, “how am I ever going to find time to bake those little fuckers?”

You’re missing the whole point and you know it.  Christmas could be tomorrow and it would be perfect.  The magic has already happened.

The kids are more excited about picking out gifts for each other than they are about their own Christmas loot.  Everyone worked together to decorate the house.  It looks like it’s been styled by Martha Stewart’s quirky, possibly drunk sister – and it’s awesome.  Putting the kids in charge of Elf on a Shelf on weekends so mom and dad could be surprised was a brilliant move.  Soak this in.

You know that the only thing you want everyone to remember about Christmas this year was how much they laughed and how much they loved.  Nothing that can be wrapped will ever do that.

So stop this nonsense.  Get some sleep.  Go for a swim.  Enjoy your friends and family.  And by all means, knock off the frenzied shopping and use the extra time to bake those little gingerbread fuckers – they’re one of the best parts of Christmas.



If you’re reading this story, it means I’ve mustered up enough courage to hit the “publish” button.  It also means that if you’ve ever suspected  I’m a big awkward dork, you’re about to learn you’re an excellent judge of character.

OK, here’s the first odd thing: I have a culinary bucket list.  Some people want to travel the world or skydive before they die, I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and roast a whole fish.

This bucket list is why I found myself in the kitchen on a sunny afternoon, attempting to make pretzels and subsequently cross one more item off my list.  Things were going smoothly — the dough had risen and it was time to twist the pretzels.

Shaping pretzel after pretzel is kind of Zen but there’s only so much quiet reflection a girl can handle.  To help quell the monotony, I pulled up my favorite Pandora channel, hit play and settled back into my groove, quietly humming along with Michael Hutchence.

After a few more minutes, I did what any emotionally healthy, totally sane person would do: I picked a fight with myself.

Oh my God, could you be any more uptight?  You’re home alone.  Humming.  Nobody hums when they’re alone.  And nobody hums INXS.  Ever.  Live a little.

Damn, I sure told me.  Shamed into action, I start to sing along.

The next song brought about some toe tapping and head bobbing, followed by hip swaying and even louder singing.

By the fifth song, I was feeling it — music cranked as loud as it would go, I belted out Roxanne as if I was the one painfully in love with the beguiling streetwalker.  Sting tried to sing along with me but I told him to sit down and relax with the rest of The Police, ‘cuz I totally got this:

Roxanne (Put on the red light)
Roxanne (Put on the red light)

I was going for the awesome finish with an air drum solo when a flash of movement caught my eye.  I look up, expecting to see a squirrel on my deck.  Sadly, it was not a squirrel.  It was so not a squirrel.

It was a man I’d never seen before standing in my backyard, looking horrified.

I had forgotten that I made an appointment to get an estimate for a few home repairs.  I quickly weighed my options and realized that I couldn’t drop to the floor and crawl away, so I dusted the flour off my hands, turned down the music and stepped outside for what will go down as one of the most awkward conversations of my life.

“I, uh, rang the doorbell several times but I think your music was too loud.”

“Oh, ha ha.  Yeah.  I’m making pretzels.”

As if that explained everything.

Somehow Baby can get away with, “I carried a watermelon,” but “I’m making pretzels” just doesn’t cut it.

We stumbled through a conversation, he gave me a price quote and I sent him on his way, probably scarred for life.  Neither of us spoke of Roxanne.


I may have been crushed, but the pretzels were pretty awesome.  Here’s the recipe if you’d like to make them.  It’s not hard to do and it’s even kind of fun — just be sure to keep the music at a respectable volume.

Roxanne’s Soft Pretzels
A modified recipe from the King Arthur Flour web site.

pretzel dough
2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
7/8 to 1 cup warm water*

pretzel bath
6 cups boiling water mixed with
2 tablespoons baking soda

Place all of the dough ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer, and beat until well-combined. Knead the dough (by hand or with a dough hook) for about 5 minutes, until it’s soft and smooth.

Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly coated with olive oil, cover with a clean kitchen towel  and allow it to rest for 30 minutes

Preheat oven to 475°F. Line a baking sheet with a silpat mat.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and divide it into eight equal pieces.

Allow the pieces to rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes.  Bring 6 cups of water to boil and add 2 tablespoons baking soda.  Stand back, the mix will bubble big time.  Leave the mix simmering on the stove.

Roll each piece of dough into a long, thin rope (about 28″ to 30″ long), and twist each rope into a pretzel shape.

Working with 4 pretzels at a time, place them in the pan with the simmering baking soda/water mix, spooning the water over their tops.  Cook for 1 minute, then place pretzels on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle pretzels with coarse kosher salt.

Bake the pretzels for 8 to 9 minutes, or until they’re a deep golden brown color.

Columbus Day


What’s your favorite holiday?  Christmas?  Aw, how nice.  Thanksgiving?  Lovely.  Halloween?  Spooky.  Oh, and you’re wrong.  Around here, Columbus Day reigns supreme for one simple reason: my husband has the day off work but the kids don’t have the day off school.  Once a year, we are granted six kid-free hours to run amok like sailors in the New World.

Past Columbus Days have been marked by sporty endeavors involving hiking trails or mountain bikes.  Last year was embarrassingly practical – we spent the day shopping for dishwashers.  This year threatened to be another snooze fest as we discussed things like going to the auto body shop (sadly, not a euphemism) and buying a nice ficus for the corner of our family room.

A ficus?  Columbus didn’t traipse around the globe claiming land and spreading disease so we could take a day off to buy a ficus.  Thankfully, we realized the lameness of our ways and went with Plan B: a quick road trip to wine country for lunch at one of our favorite spots that we haven’t been to in years.

We ate.  We drank.  We photo bombed tourists’ vacation snapshots.  We went deep and tackled tough topics such as our entrance songs — music we would want played to announce our arrival at a party, WWE smackdown or beer pong tournament.  It was perfect.

The success of our Columbus Day adventures hinges on playing it cool around the kids to minimize their complaints that it’s not fair – boring Monday morning for them, best day ever for us.  We were able to hold it together long enough to maturely wipe the shit-eating grins off our faces, get the kids ready for school, and feed them cake for breakfast as a peace offering.

Not just any cake, but a plum cake that has achieved cult status since appearing in the New York Times way back in 1983.  It only takes a few ingredients and a few minutes to put together.  It has as much fruit as it does batter, so it totally counts as a healthy breakfast (consult your doctor about which healthy breakfast is right for you).  And it’s best  served on the second day, meaning an enterprising cook could bake it on Sunday afternoon so it’s ready Monday morning in honor of, uh I don’t know, Columbus Day maybe?

But do yourself a favor and don’t wait a full year to try this cake.  Chores and ficus shopping can wait, some days need to be celebrated with breakfast cake.

Marian Burros’ Famous Purple Plum Torte
I got this recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who got it from Amanda Hesser’s  Essential New York Times Cookbook, who got it from Elegant But Easy, etc. etc. 

1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
large pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar plus additional 2 teaspoons
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
6-12 purple Italian plums, halved and pitted (I used plums labeled “sweet plums” at the farmers’ market and it turned out great)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Heat oven to 350°F. Sift flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in color. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl, then the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into a buttered 9-inch springform pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle remaining 2 teaspoons of sugar and the cinnamon over the top.

Bake until cake is golden (about 40 to 50 minutes). Cool on rack.

Once cool, let cake stand covered, at room temperature, overnight.  Delight kids by shouting, “surprise, it’s Columbus Day and we’re having cake for breakfast!”


Ten years ago, when my daughter was drooling on books instead of reading them, I scoured eBay for an ancient collection of Disney stories for young readers.  I had to buy several lots to ensure that I ended up with all my obscure favorites, including Goofy and the Miller, The Princess Who Never Laughed, and of course, Dumbo.

My kids eventually loved the books as much as I did, especially Dumbo.  There’s a point in the story where Dumbo is at the top of a (fake) burning building as part of a circus act.  The clowns and the crowd start yelling, “Jump!” but Dumbo’s friend Timothy – the only one who knows about Dumbo’s hidden talent – tells his pal it’s time to fly.

I’m finding that as my kids get older, I’m playing the role of Timothy more than any other.  Without shoelaces to tie and bottoms to wipe, most of what’s left to do is simply encourage them to fly while providing a soft place to land.

As kids grow up, focus shifts to the less tangible but still critical life skills: the confidence that we can do hard things; the knowledge that compassion is crucial in this world; and the realization that the effort of doing something can be more satisfying than the end result.

I’m also learning that you never reach a stage in parenting where you simply exhale, relax and put it in cruise control.  Having kids, no matter their ages, means that there’s always something pinging on your mom radar.

This week, the mom radar was lit up with the school’s student council election.  My daughter wanted to run for vice president.  Fighting that twinge of “what if things don’t go her way,” we told her to go for it.

She came up with her campaign slogan, designed the posters and wrote a speech – ignoring about 98% of the (brilliant) suggestions from her wise parents.  But this was her race to run, and she was doing it on her terms.  Just as it should be.

Today was speech day.  She woke up nervous and with a sore throat.  I did what little I could to help her feel supported.  I tucked my lucky charm in her pocket, loaning her my prized possession for the day.  I made hot water with lemon and honey to soothe her throat and then scrounged up a handful of cough drops to stash in her backpack in case of a vocal emergency.  I sent her off to school with an, “I love you, good luck, and I think it is so awesome that you’re trying this.”

Parents were invited to watch the speeches, and despite feeling slightly helicopter-y, this opportunity was too good to pass up.

The fourth and fifth grade classes filed in to the amphitheater and one by one, the candidates gave their speeches.  My daughter was the very last to go.  She walked to the podium, fumbled with her papers, cleared her scratchy throat and began to speak into the microphone, timid at first but quickly finding her voice.

She finished her speech, locked eyes with me across the crowd and flashed a huge grin.  I gave her a thumbs up, thinking of that one simple word: fly.  

Bird Brain

This just in: having your midlife crisis while at the zoo with your family can be a little awkward.

It started as an ordinary day at the San Diego Safari Park where our biggest challenge was deflecting our kids’ rapid-fire requests for souvenirs, snacks and 80 dollars for a zip line ride over a valley filled with lions.

Declaring we were there to see animals, not to buy a plastic gorilla head filled with 48 ounces of soda, I led everyone towards a zoo employee who was discussing the owl perched on his arm.  A good-sized crowd gathered around to hear the lesson.

It was going smoothly for a while as we tackled the topics of wingspan and night vision.  But then he asked the kids in the crowd to describe the owl’s head.

“It’s so small,” an adorable moppet called out, unaware this would be the undoing of the nice lady standing next to her.

“Yes, its head is small,” said the zoo guy.  “Not much room for a brain in there.  Owls are not very smart.  But you know what?  They’re as smart as they need to be – they can find food, they can build shelter, and that’s really all that’s required of them.”

And then it hit me.  It hit me hard: Oh my God, I am the owl.  

As smart as I need to be — quick, somebody ask me what’s for dinner or how we should decorate the family room.  Food and shelter.  I groaned as this concept sunk in and took over my thoughts for the rest of the day.

Never one for moderation, I recognize that I am both oversimplifying and overdramatizing my kinship with the owl.  But still, the idea that our brains develop only to the level of what is required of them is a compelling one.

This holds true not just for those of us who are old(ish) and set in our ways.  Kids can easily fall into the pattern of learning just enough to get through the next test or homework assignment – as smart as they need to be.

So now the owl and I are at war.  Kind of like Bill Murray and the gopher in Caddyshack except without all the rump shaking to Kenny Loggins music.

This means we’re swinging for the intellectual fences here at Casa Perfectionist: reading the entire newspaper instead of only the Food and Wine section; applying for writing gigs; registering for lectures at the library; and refraining from automatically correcting every homework problem so the kids have a chance to delve into the topic with their teachers until it’s fully understood.

Nothing earth shattering, but it’s a start.  Hopefully, by being aware of the complacent owl and his tiny brain, we’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ours.  Although I have to admit, the next time we’re at the zoo, I’m heading straight for souvenir cart selling plastic gorilla heads and skipping the animal lecture – I’d hate to see what kind of crisis a lesson on lemmings would bring.