A Natural Birth Story (and the Greatest Birthday Gift Ever)

In honor of my 40th birthday, I’d like to share the story of the birth of my first child, born 4 years ago today.

April 16, 2009.  1pm.  I was lying on the bed resting when a warm gush of liquid leaked from me.  A hundred thoughts ran through my head at that moment.  What the hell just happened?!  Did my water just break?!  This can’t be…my due date is April 30th!  I have 2 weeks to go!  Wasn’t the statistic like 80% have their first baby on or past their due date?  But wait, I was 2 cm dilated a few days ago, so could this be it?  Shoot, I shouldn’t have had sex this morning!

For the next hour, I scoured the internet looking for an answer on whether my water really broke or not.  I guess I was in denial about it because the fact was, I wasn’t ready.  We had just bought the bassinet last weekend and I had planned on doing more shopping for the baby that day.  Slowly, though, it dawned on me that this is it.  I called the nurse at the hospital who told me to come in right away.  Then I called my doula who told me NOT to go to the hospital yet and to labor at home as long as possible.  I called Don who told me he was on his way home.

2pm.  After discussing our options, Don and I decided to stay at home for a while instead of going to the hospital.  We lay together on the bed for a long time in silence and disbelief.  During my whole pregnancy, the due date always seemed a long way off.  Now the moment was upon us – and 2 weeks early!  We were totally and utterly unprepared, and probably also a little scared.  We tried to take a nap in anticipation of a long night, but only got a few minutes of sleep before my parents called (“Why aren’t you going to the hospital?!”).

4pm.  I continued to have trickling, and when I went to the bathroom, I saw that I had spotting as well.  I knew that this was “true labor”.  We packed for the hospital, ate a little, and rested.  I spoke to the doula and informed her that we were still at home and that my contractions haven’t started yet.

5pm.  Don went to Albertson’s to pick up a few snacks while I jumped in the shower.  The contractions started while I was in the shower.  They were mild, but I definitely felt them.

6pm.  When Don returned from the grocery store, we timed the contractions, but they weren’t consistent. The doula said I could probably wait a little longer at home.  I used the toilet A LOT during this time.

8pm.  Contractions were getting more intense and closer together.  I leaned on the bed and did a side-step while I breathed through the contractions.  I pictured the beach in Zanzibar to relax and get my mind off the pain.  Soon I was on all fours and could barely talk.  Don timed the contractions – I was consistently having 45-second contractions every 2 minutes.  He called the doula and told her that we were leaving for the hospital immediately.  On the car ride there, I was in the backseat, facing backwards and holding on to the head rest.  I don’t remember the ride there at all – I was too focused on my breathing and visualizing the beach.

9pm.  We arrived at the hospital and checked in at the front desk.  I had to stop and bend over as each contraction came.  The receptionist offered me a wheelchair to triage, but I knew that sitting down would hurt, so we walked (waddled) instead.  When I told the nurse that my water broke at 1pm and my contractions were now 45 seconds every 2 minutes, she skipped the exam and immediately escorted us to the labor and delivery ward.  They set us up in a room and the nurse checked my cervix.  I was 6 cm dilated and 100% effaced.

10pm.  The nurse hooked me up to an IV (mandatory at the hospital) and had me sign a bunch of papers while laboring on the bed.  Even though we informed them that I was going to have a natural birth, I still had to sign an epidural consent form “just in case.”  The doula, Cece, arrived shortly after and helped me breathe and pushed on my lower back where I felt intense pain at each contraction.  I felt rectal pressure and the urge to push, but Cece told me to “blow” through the pushes.  It was difficult to do this because the urge to push was overwhelming and holding it in felt unnatural.  She had me sit on the birthing ball, but that was extremely uncomfortable so I moved back onto the bed.  Cece suggested I lean up on the bed on my knees to help the baby move down.  I swayed my hips during the rest periods while Don fed me ice chips.  At this point, the visualization no longer worked – I just had to focus on slow breathing through the contractions.  The massage helped with the back pain and a lavender-scented sleep mask helped relax me.

11pm.  The nurse and Cece helped me out of bed to use the bathroom.  With every contraction, I felt intense pressure and the need to push.  The position of sitting on the toilet felt good and the nurse told me that during her labor she spent most of the time on the toilet.  I had a few contractions there by myself, and then the nurse wanted me to get back on the bed to check my blood pressure.

When I returned to the bed, Cece could tell that I was having hard contractions, so she suggested that I get in the shower (!).  She told the nurse outside, who wanted to check my cervix first.  Well, when the nurse checked me, she informed us that I was fully dilated and that the head was “right there”!  Now they wanted me to push whenever I felt the urge, which was a tremendous relief.  Cece realized later that I was in transition that whole time, but didn’t realize I was progressing so fast which is why she advised me to blow through them.

A flurry of activity commenced.  At least 5 nurses and the doctor came into the room.  Everyone told me to push, so I hung onto to the rails of the bed, let out a scream, and pushed.  Everyone was very encouraging; they told me that was a good push and to do it again. I felt the “ring of fire” but it felt natural to push when my body (and the baby) told me to.  After a couple more pushes, the doctor told me to stop because the umbilical cord was wound around the baby’s head.  Then the doctor told me to “look down” but I couldn’t because I was in a daze from the pain and pushing and determination to get the baby out.  Finally I felt a big release, which I knew were the baby’s shoulders coming out.  I heard the nurses say to Don “Do you want to tell her what it is?”  Don announced, “It’s a boy!” (we waited to find out the sex of the baby, and it was so worth it.) They then placed the baby, covered in blood and fluid, on my chest.  Overwhelmed by emotion, I started to cry.

It was 12:15am on April 17th, 2009, my 36th birthday.  I had just received the greatest birthday gift of my life.  Happy Birthday to my darling little boy, who brings so much pride and joy and laughter to my life!

Spring Cleaning by a Messy Person

My idea of spring cleaning since moving into our house has been to put away winter clothes and take out the summer ones.  I vow to do things differently this time.  Purge will be the key word for spring cleaning this year.  Now that my youngest child is two and there are no more babies in the foreseeable future, I want to clear out the clutter that has accumulated in the past three years since we’ve lived in the house.  On top of that, I want to clean the house from top to bottom, just because that’s what spring cleaning is about, right?  Oh yeah, and because my husband stepped on a scorpion the other night (supposedly they like to lurk in cluttered areas).

This is no small feat for me, and it’ll probably take a good month (or two).  I have never been a neat and tidy person – a former boss once referred to my desk as “organized disorganization.” I have actually gotten better since marriage, as my husband’s cleanliness has rubbed off on me over the years.  He grew up with a military father, so he is pretty good about being neat and putting things away.  The problem is that his idea of clean is to stash everything away so that nothing is out in the open (as opposed to my family, who leaves EVERYTHING out).  The counters and floors may be cleared out, but when I open a closet or drawer or cupboard, it’s jam-packed with stuff and in complete disarray.  So actually he just has the illusion of being clean.  As for me, I’m actually quite organized under a messy cover. 🙂  I guess I should consider myself lucky to be married to a man who is cleaner than I am, according to a friend who constantly picks up after her slob-of-a-husband.  However, my husband seems to complain more than help me clean.

I do prefer to have a clean house, I just hate to do it myself.  I suppose I could hire people to clean the house, but somehow I feel wrong about it.  We had cleaning people in Thailand who came in to clean the house every week (and even washed our dishes!), and it was great, I’ll admit.  But over there we were giving the locals jobs.  Over here, it just feels so…elitist.  Why pay for something that I can and should do myself?  The problem is that I don’t, at least on a consistent basis, because cleaning the house just isn’t a priority for me.  I can see the urgency to doing the dishes or washing clothes regularly, but I don’t see the urgency to having a clean house unless my father-in-law comes over.

One of the tasks I do try to be on top of is keeping the floors clean.  With two kids, there seems to be debris (or toys) on the floor all the time, and I always seem to be stepping on something sticky or crunchy or hard.  I make an effort to sweep the floor twice a week and mop the floor every week or two.  I actually got a little obsessed with finding the perfect floor cleaners when we first moved into the house – spending hours online researching the top-rated vacuums, floor sweepers, and mops.  I may have inherited this from my father, who owns 8 (yes, EIGHT) vacuum cleaners.  At first I tried to make do with a Swiffer, but it just didn’t do the job (plus the smell was way too chemically).  I then moved onto two Sharks (floor sweeper and mop), and despite the very pretty color, were pieces of crap.  The Shark mop leaked water and the handle broke off.  The Shark floor cleaner lost a wheel at the bottom and the canister kept falling off.  I finally donated both after they sat in the garage for months. I have finally settled on a Hoover floor cleaner and Eureka Enviro steam mop.

However, with all this research and trying out different cleaners, I’ve found that nothing works better than the way they clean floors in Kazakhstan: on your hands and knees with an old rag.  And I realize that sometimes the simple and minimalist approach is best, and perhaps that’s how I got into this mess in the first place.  I buy things hoping to make my life easier or better when instead I just end up gathering stuff that contributes to the clutter.  So this year in addition to purging our house of stuff, I’m going to be mindful of my purchases to avoid clutter in the first place.  That might mean to:

  1. Cancel some magazine subscriptions.  I have a huge stash of magazines dating back to 2009 on the floor next to my bed – can you say perfect scorpion hideout?!
  2. Get library books or e-books instead of buying paperbacks or hardcover books.
  3. Invest in higher-quality clothes (for me, not the kids :)) and kitchen appliances.  We got two Black & Decker kitchen appliances for our wedding (our choice so our mistake) and have already replaced the toaster oven and looking to replace the food processor.  They are pieces of crap!  I’d much rather pay a little extra for quality items that are better equipped to handle years of wear and tear.
  4. Prevent my husband from going to estate sales.  It’s his new hobby and I shouldn’t deprive him of that, right?  But we end up bringing home more junk we don’t need.
  5. Stop buying stuff for the sake of scoring freebies.  Sometimes when it’s Clinique Bonus Time, I’ll go and get the free pouch full of samples.  The problem is that the make-up comes in a horrible shade of pink and ends up languishing in my cabinet.
  6. Buy only things I can envision using a year from now.  The juicer I purchased a couple of months ago went from being used daily to now being used every other week or so.  In a year, I’m sure it’ll be stashed away in the cabinet of unused kitchen appliances.
  7. Avoid those kids’ meals!  I find that the fast food kids’ meals are a hefty price to pay when my kids don’t even eat the apple slices (which taste very chemically anyway), and the cheap plastic toy contributes to the clutter in the house (have you noticed that the small toys are more annoying than the big ones?) and breaks after 3 uses anyway.  Since my kids are still young and don’t know the difference anyway, I order a combo meal for myself and a sandwich a la carte for the kids, share my fries with them and bring juice boxes from home.

So hopefully following these rules, along with purging this year, will result in less clutter for next year’s spring cleaning.  Now what to do about all those toys that the grandparents buy for the kids…

Christmas in Mexico Part 2 – Traveling with Children

Before actually having children, I had envisioned myself one day to be one of those rare globetrotting moms, the type you would picture carrying a baby on her back while shopping at the local market in exotic locations around the world.

Yeah, right.  Although I wish that could be me, the reality now that I am a mom is that even the thought of international travel with my children intimidates me.  Whereas one time, I would jump on an airplane and fly around the world on a moment’s notice, now a trip abroad fills me with anxiety and stress. I can barely stomach a family trip to Mexico, let alone the other far-flung areas of the world that I still want to see.  Apparently my adventuresome spirit has left this building.

Even after my parents offered to pay for our trip to Mexico, my husband and I were still reluctant to go, mainly because traveling with kids is a real pain in the ass.  Perhaps if we traveled more often, we would be used to all the hassles and minor annoyances that accompany international travel, and a trip to Mexico wouldn’t be such a major ordeal.  Perhaps traveling with kids is a learned skill and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  However, this was our first trip abroad in two years.  We were rusty and out of practice.  And the bottom line is that traveling with kids is a lot of work for a vacation.

One thing I wish I had more foresight about before making an international trip was getting my children’s passports early!  (Unfortunately, I don’t have much foresight when it comes to my kids.  I’m more of a take each day as it comes, while some of my mom friends are already looking into Kindergartens for their toddlers.)  With both kids, I got the passports exactly one month before the trip.  Not recommended.  I spent two days frantically filling out passport applications, getting passport pictures at Walgreens (which my children were not very cooperative with, so both ended up with passports that look like they’re about to cry), and going to the passport office/post office with my husband and kid.  On top of the passport fee, I had to pay an extra $60 for rush delivery.  Three days before our trip, our daughter’s passport still hadn’t arrived.  My husband, the negative thinker in the family, kept going on about how I should’ve gotten her passport earlier and now we paid for the trip and we’re not able to go, blah, blah, blah.  We don’t fight much, but the stress from getting passports led to a couple of tiffs between us.  Luckily the passport came the following day (as I knew it would).

Then there’s the packing.  Packing becomes a huge project before a vacation with kids.  I used to be the quintessential last-minute packer.  The night before one of my international stints, I would pack 6 to 12 months’ worth of my stuff into one large backpack and a carry-on.  Now, packing for me and two kids requires preparing days in advance.  I make lists so I don’t forget anything, buy things from the store that might come in handy during the trip, and pack a lot of extraneous supplies for “just-in-case”-moments.  My husband and I packed our clothes and toiletries into one suitcase, while the kids got their own big suitcase.  Soon enough their suitcase was full, and then their clothes (although smaller, I packed a lot more of them – 12 outfits for them vs. 6 for myself), diapers, beach toys, books, swim gear, and separate toiletries started to spill over into our suitcase and carry-on luggage.

The actual travel to Cancun required a 1.5-hour drive to Phoenix, two 2-hour flights and a one-hour layover in Dallas.  That was the easy part.  Fortunately for us, our kids are phenomenal travelers on airplanes.  They love the adventure of flying on an airplane, and when that novelty wears off (after take-off), they have their v-readers, coloring books, DVD players and snacks to keep them sufficiently entertained. Of course the trade-off is that I don’t have the chance to relax. I’m always making sure they’re sitting down and buckled in, fetching their entertainment and snacks, telling them not to kick the seat in front of them or catching them from spilling juice.  I can never relax enough to nap, let alone read a book or magazine, because I’m constantly in serving mode in order for my kids to raise the least amount of fuss possible. It pays off, though – on every single airplane ride, they have been complimented by a fellow passenger for their good behavior.

We opted for what we thought would be the easiest way to travel with the kids – the all-inclusive resort.  We didn’t even have to leave the resort grounds because everything was provided for us – the beach, swimming pools, entertainment, shopping, food and drink.  In a sense, it was nice that we didn’t have to worry where our next meal or snack will come from and that everything was a 5-minute walk or shuttle ride away.  However, it was still work bringing the little ones everywhere, and as kid-friendly as the resort claims they are, there are still some things that just aren’t suitable for young kids, i.e. the hard floors in our room (both kids fell off the bed during their sleep).  The buffet wasn’t easy either since the kids aren’t old or tall enough to get their own food.  And when my daughter got Montezuma’s Revenge in her swim diaper by the kiddie pool, the only place I wanted to be was back home.

Back in the day, the way I used to travel was with a Lonely Planet guide book in hand, hopping around the country to different hostels or guest houses while learning about the culture of the country and trying out the cuisine at food stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.  I had the independence, freedom, and adventurous spirit to travel in that way. Not so now.  There would be no adventures or learning about the culture or trying new foods or attempting to speak Spanish in our trip to Mexico.  I didn’t even get to go snorkeling in the ocean, my favorite outdoor activity.  Every day we carried three enormous bags of toys, clothes, towels, water, etc. out to the beach or kiddie pool, where we spent most of our day watching the kids have fun.  We might as well have been on a beach resort in the U.S. (although it wouldn’t have been as warm, which was my parents’ beef about traveling within the U.S.).

Perhaps when the children are old enough we’ll be able to travel the way I enjoyed at one time in my life.  We could be one of those rare families that travel around the world, exposing their kids to different cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles.  But first, my adventuresome spirit needs to come back!

A Healthy (and Happy) Thanksgiving Menu

Thanksgiving is upon us – the only holiday of the year in which the primary focus is on food and overindulgence among friends and family. (Okay, maybe the primary focus of Thanksgiving is being thankful, but that quickly becomes an afterthought as soon as we dig into our heaping plates of turkey and its fixings.)  It’s no wonder Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays!

Growing up in my family, Thanksgiving usually involved a typical feast of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and of course, being a Korean household, a side of kimchee (believe me, turkey tastes infinitely better with kimchee). After my mom slaved away in the kitchen all day while we kids watched the Star Wars marathon on tv, we proceeded to sit at the dinner table for all of 15 minutes, quickly devouring what it took my mom all day to cook.  After several Thanksgivings like this and my dad finally declaring that turkey is “the worst meat ever”, my mom changed up the menu to ignore tradition and serve our family favorites of filet mignon and lobster.  However, after a couple of Thanksgivings, my brother and I wanted to go back to the American tradition of turkey and casseroles, so from that point, we volunteered to make Thanksgiving dinner.  (My mom was happy to oblige.)  We did our part to make Thanksgiving decadent by having a massive bird, several side dishes (all of which contained heavy cream and butter) and two options for dessert, one of which was always a French silk pie ordered from Bakers Square Restaurant.

It has been three years since I last cooked Thanksgiving dinner, but this year is going to be different from the past dinners I’ve cooked in that it’ll be….healthy.  Why, you ask?  After all, I love butter as much as Paula Deen (okay, not THAT much).  The main reason is that my father-in-law suffered two heart attacks this year, in which he had stents put into his arteries.  Since then he has completely revamped his diet.  In addition, my husband has high cholesterol and switched to a mainly plant-based diet this year to improve his health. As for me, I want to look good in my bathing suit for a family trip to Mexico over Christmas (not quite as important :)).  I know that Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that overindulgence is allowed, but the health of the men in my life is more important than food that tastes really, really good (butter, butter, and more butter).

So how am I going to do this?  Well, I’m going to focus on vegetables, forgo the side dishes that require two sticks of butter like stuffing (which my husband and I don’t like much anyway), and make healthy alternatives to some of the dishes (I got half of the recipes from Eating Well magazine).  Here’s our menu for Thanksgiving:

Herb-Roasted Turkey
Smoked Turkey Breast (My husband wants to try out the new smoker/grill)
Layered mashed potato/mushroom casserole
Roasted Harvest Vegetables
Steamed Broccoli (my father-in-law’s favorite vegetable)
Cranberry with Orange Sauce
Dinner Rolls
Pumpkin Chocolate Torte

I look forward to cooking and eating this meal, and I hope my family members enjoy it as well.  I really don’t think we will be missing out on anything when we have our feast on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, and I can’t forget the side of kimchee.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Be Gone, Baby Weight!

It has been almost 22 months since I had my last baby and 4 months since I stopped breastfeeding.  I’ve finally accepted the fact that the excess baggage that I’ve been carrying is sticking around, and that I actually have to work to get this baby weight off.  Dammit!

During my first pregnancy, I gained a whopping 45 lbs.  They say it’s normal to gain 25-30 lbs. during pregnancy, and that the smaller you are to begin with, the more you gain.  Well, I wasn’t that small to begin with.  I’m 5’5 with a pre-pregnancy weight of 137 lbs., have broad shoulders and size 9 feet…not the typical petite Asian (a friend once called me a “mutant Asian”).  However, I was in pretty good shape back then.  When I was one month pregnant (and unaware of the fact), I was running 3.5 miles around my parents’ neighborhood and “shredding” to Jillian Michaels’ DVD.  I pounded the pavement so hard it’s a wonder the baby stayed in my womb.

I continued working out through my pregnancy (though not as hard-core), but I also ate for two with a diet consisting mostly of Frosted Flakes and fried chicken.  By the time the baby was born, I was as big as a house (topping out at 183 lbs).  Within a year, though, I magically lost all 45 lbs. without even trying (don’t hate me).  Seriously, I exercised maybe once or twice a week, still stuffed my face, and one day nine months later, miracle of all miracles, I was able to fit into my size 6 pre-pregnancy jeans again.

I wore those jeans for about a year and then got pregnant with Baby #2.  I haven’t been able to fit into those jeans since.  I seem to have a 10-pound band of fat around my midsection (and hips and thighs) that has become a permanent fixture on my body.  I know 10 lbs. isn’t that bad and not nearly as daunting as wanting to lose, say, 50 lbs.  But on my frame, an extra 10 lbs. is obvious and most importantly, I just don’t feel good about it.  I can feel the roll of fat spilling over my waistband, and body parts jiggling when I take the kids out on the jogging stroller.  Sometimes after a big meal, my tummy protrudes so much I look like I’m 5 months pregnant (luckily no one has asked me if I am – that’s a good sign, at least).  The times I feel the worst is when I’m getting dressed to go out for moms’ nights out.  I pull those skinny jeans from my closet, hoping that they will glide back on with ease like they did after my first baby.  It’s just not happening.  I can barely get them over my thighs let alone zipper and button them.  In fact, most of my clothes are from my skinnier days and I don’t look good in 90% of them.  (What’s up with all those short-cropped t-shirts I used to wear?!  I must have been small enough back then for them to cover my gut…definitely not the case now).  I refuse to buy new clothes in a bigger size and I’m sick of wearing maternity clothes! (Yes, I still do sometimes.)  I feel that I have to lose this baby weight before turning the big 4-0 next year, otherwise it all goes downhill and I succumb to frumpy mom-dom for the rest of my life.

Now that I realize I need to work at losing these last 10 lbs., I am going to employ weight-loss tactics that have worked for me in the past (I read somewhere that this is a good way for permanent weight loss).  Although, I had never gained and lost 45 pounds before my first pregnancy, I’ve had my chunky days.  In the Peace Corps, I gained 10 pounds the first year (it was a mystery in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan that male Peace Corps volunteers lost weight while female volunteers gained weight.  It didn’t have to do so much with the fatty meaty greasy food as it did with emotional and stress eating), and lost it the second year by running and eating lots of beans.  In my freshman year of college, I lost 10 pounds from eliminating red meat and fried foods from my diet and taking advantage of my university’s recreational facilities.  After grad school, I was the smallest I had ever been as an adult at 132 pounds.  At the time, I was dating a superficial Ukrainian dork who encouraged me to lose 10 pounds.  I did, but then he wanted to me to lose another 10 pounds.  I thought, Screw him!  I gained back 5 pounds and dumped him (not only did he want me to lose weight all the time, he would also wear his shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest to show off his chest hair.  Ick.).

Anyway, here are the weight-loss methods that have worked for me:

1)      Running.  There is no quicker way to lose weight than to run (or in my case, jog) even though I hate every minute of it.  Back in the day (before having babies), I was able to run 3.5 miles pretty effortlessly.  These days, and I don’t know if it’s my age or having children, but my knees, lower back, and ankles scream for mercy every time I run.  Listening to an iPod makes it slightly more bearable.  This will not be my primary form of exercise in my quest to lose weight – just a couple of times a week at the most.

2)      Turbo Jam.  One time while living in New Orleans, I came home at 1am after a night of drinking and turned on the t.v. to find this infomercial on.  Yes, it’s worthy of an infomercial (a cheesy martial arts and dance workout), but it’s fun, has good music, a charismatic instructor, and it works.  I can’t help it – I love Turbo Jam!

3)      Meal planning/keeping a food journal.  Okay, writing down everything you eat and counting calories is super-tedious, but it makes you mindful of what you are putting into your mouth.  Eating the kids’ leftover mac n’ cheese and Halloween candy is not helping me magically lose the baby weight.  Neither is the glass of wine I have almost every night.  I need to plan my meals ahead of time and stick to them instead of munching on whatever’s around when I’m hungry (usually chicken nuggets and Goldfish crackers).

4)      Eliminate bad foods.  This is a given, but for me, it works better to eliminate fried foods, junk foods, and sugar entirely.  I don’t believe in everything in moderation.  After all, everyone’s interpretation of moderation is different (is small fries in moderation?) plus just a taste of cheese can lead to a whole block, or a small piece of chocolate can lead to the whole bar.  Of course these bad foods are hard to resist, especially with the holidays coming up.  I just need to realize it’s not a free-for-all.

5)      Have a goal, timeframe, mantra, or inspiration.  In my freshman year of college, I had a picture of Linda Hamilton (of Terminator 2 fame) hanging on my mirror to inspire me.  Nowadays moms who are fit and healthy inspire me, whether it’s a celebrity mom* like Gwen Stefani or Jessica Alba or my mom friends who teach Zumba and yoga.  I also have the goal of fitting into my skinny jeans again.  I plan to run a 5K with some of my mom friends in a month to help me along.  It’s easy to fall back to old habits (like this past Monday when I ate a bacon cheeseburger from Wendy’s) once I slack on diet or exercise, but an end goal always helps me look ahead instead of giving up.

I think being accountable also helps, which is why I’m laying it all out there, here on my blog.  I am starting out at 146 lbs. and want to get down to 137 lbs. so I can fit into my size-6 pre-pregnancy jeans again.  I WILL NOT BUY NEW JEANS (my new mantra)!  Okay, I’ll keep you posted!

*Recommended Reading: I’m currently reading a book I picked up from the library called “How to Look Hot in a Minivan” by Janice Min, who is the former Editor-in-Chief of US Weekly.  She gives great tips on diet, exercise, makeup, hair, and style for new moms, and features a lot of celebrity moms for inspiration.  It’s a fun read and very helpful for those moms who don’t want to look like they’ve given up!

It’s (Orange) Pumpkin Season!

The other day the family went to the pumpkin farm to pick our own pumpkins for Halloween.  As the sun went down over the farm fields, we took a hayride to the pumpkin patch, where my son picked a perfectly shaped little pumpkin while I picked a larger, somewhat deformed pumpkin.

Pumpkins…iconic of October, the fall and cooler temperatures (mid-80’s in Tucson), and the best holidays of the year around the corner.  Pumpkins never played a huge role in my fall festivities; in fact, I had never been to a pumpkin patch before having kids.  I only remember carving one pumpkin in my youth.  I didn’t enjoy “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” as much as the Christmas special.  And I thought it strange when my friend Melissa, who was obsessed with pumpkins (her favorite holiday is Halloween and favorite color is orange), would send me a card every year in our 20s with a picture of a pumpkin patch, or of her holding a pumpkin, or a jack o’ lantern.

It wasn’t until I was in the Peace Corps that I began to appreciate pumpkins (when I started appreciate a lot of things) – specifically orange pumpkins.  During my second year, I organized my site’s annual Halloween party.  I really wanted to bring the Halloween spirit to my students since they don’t celebrate Halloween in Kazakhstan.  I even went so far as asking my friends in the U.S. to send me Halloween care packages (shout out to those friends and my sister who spent the money to send a package to Kazakhstan. I still remember who you are!).  I went to the market to look for orange pumpkins and whatever else we could find that resembled the fall, Halloween, or something scary (aside from the sheep’s heads) to decorate for the party.

When I arrived at the “squash” section of the market, however, all I saw were green and white pumpkins.  As I scoured stand after stand for the elusive orange pumpkin, I found one green pumpkin with a few orange markings on it.  I immediately snatched it up, and my local friend who was shopping with me asked the vendor if he had any other orange-y pumpkins.  Magically, the guy at the stand next to him pulled out an orange pumpkin from under his table.  As we looked around the squash section, more and more vendors were pulling orange pumpkins from under their tables and trying to get our attention so we would buy from them (we ended up buying ALL the orange pumpkins).  Apparently Kazakhstanis preferred their squash green or white, and the orange pumpkins were considered freakish, which was why they were stashed under the table, hidden from the shoppers’ view.  I guess they would compare to the heirloom tomatoes, purple carrots, or golden raspberries that you can find here in the U.S. but are not nearly as popular as the traditional variety.

I enjoy pumpkin season now, not only for the joy it brings to my kids, but because you can find an assortment of delicious pumpkin-flavored treats (of course it involves food and drink).  Every October in the U.S., you can find several establishments selling a variety of pumpkin baked goods, from pumpkin pie to pumpkin bread to pumpkin cream-cheese muffins, as well as pumpkin-flavored beverages.  Is there any vegetable as versatile in its flavor as the pumpkin?!  You can even buy canned pumpkin so you can bake your own pumpkin desserts.  I can’t tell you how awesomely convenient canned pumpkin is.  All the pumpkin goodness without the messy work.  When I lived abroad, there was no such thing as canned pumpkin.  I bought pumpkins at the market, lugged them home (not only were they heavy, they were awkward to carry), almost landed in the ER cutting them open with dull knives, seeded them, cooked them, and then used the flesh to make pumpkin muffins in Kazakhstan and pumpkin pie in Thailand.  Perhaps it was the effort I put into making them or the novelty of baked pumpkin goods in these countries, but they were damn good!  Better than any of the premade pumpkin desserts I’ve tasted here.

I also appreciate the orange pumpkin now because it is one of the few vegetables my kids will eat.  Pumpkins are very nutritious – packed with vitamins and antioxidants.  Not only will my kids will eat pumpkin desserts, they will also eat other pumpkin-y foods as well, including pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin ravioli, and pumpkin empanadas.  As for me, there’s nothing better than a pumpkin spice latte or a pumpkin ale.

Whether it’s the picking, carving, decorating, smashing, the seeds, the pie, the baked goods, the coffee, or the beer, enjoy it while you can!

Happy Halloween and Happy (Orange) Pumpkin Season!

Adventures in Cooking

I didn’t start cooking until I was 30 years old.  For some reason, I never cooked with my mom growing up (I guess she wanted me to concentrate on my studies so I wouldn’t end up being a stay-at-home mom…go figure), and all throughout college I lived in dorms or other housing where meals were provided for me.  I remember the first time I cut up a chicken breast – it was after I graduated from college, when I lived in an apartment in Brighton, MA (outside of Boston) with three roommates.  I was totally grossed out as I handled the raw flesh, trying to cut away the fat and skin.  I kept muttering “gross” “yuck” and “what the …?” My roommate Risha looked on, completely amused (and trying not to laugh, I’m sure).  Then she said “Oh Linda, you’re so cute.”

A few years later, I lived alone in a 1-bedroom apartment in Chicago.  My kitchen, though relatively big, had approximately 1 square foot of counter space.  I didn’t have any interest in cooking, and with a full-time job, I was too tired to do anything after work except zone out in front of the t.v.  My typical dinner was a piece of salmon I cooked on the George Forman grill, frozen brussel sprouts I steamed in an electronic steamer, and rice that I made in a rice cooker. (Suffice it to say, I’m a slave to my kitchen appliances.  This started freshman year when I illegally had a hot pot and toaster oven in my dorm room.  Never started any fires but it did make me pretty popular on my floor.)  I went out to dinner with friends 2-3 times a week, and every other weekend I went to my parents’ house to get free meals there.

This lack of cooking skills kind of screwed me by the time I joined the Peace Corps.  It wasn’t a problem the first year that I lived with a host family, but when I lived alone in an apartment in my 2nd year, it was just me against frying pan (and a pressure cooker I acquired from another PC volunteer.  Again with me and the appliances).  It was quite a challenge for me to make rice without a rice cooker, cook beans that weren’t from a can, and prepare chicken that wasn’t cut up cleanly and pre-packaged.  There were no frozen convenience foods available, plus my freezer was the same temperature as my refrigerator, which wasn’t very cold in the first place.  The only thing that saved me from having to cook all my meals was the plethora of cafes in my town.  For about $1, I could get laghman (Kazakh noodles), plov (Uzbek fried rice), or a variety of Russian dishes (all with sour cream and dill on top).  However, the food in Kazakhstan wasn’t very healthy (I gained 10 lbs. my first year) – it was heavy on meat and all the dishes seemed to have a layer of orange oil floating on top.  I decided to cook in my apartment more to change up my diet.  Thus my adventures in cooking began.

I went to the open market a few times a week to get produce, grains, meat, and cheese to cook with.  I guess I wasn’t too adventurous at first, because starting from that year in Peace Corps and continuing on for the next 5 or so years, I had to follow a recipe exactly.  I had a Peace Corps cookbook that became my bible (by the end of my service, it became so beat up with food and water stains that I couldn’t bring it back with me  to the U.S.  I still regret that now).  I was so stringent in following the recipes that if I couldn’t find even one ingredient at the market, I wouldn’t cook the dish.  That’s how inexperienced and unknowledgeable I was about cooking.

When I returned from the Peace Corps, my college friends from Boston introduced me to the Food Network.  I started watching it a lot (along with Fear Factor and other “reality” shows that ruled the networks when I came back to the U.S. in 2004).  I began to gain some knowledge about cooking as I cooked more and more.  By the time I moved to Thailand two and a half years later, I had a bit more confidence so that I didn’t have to follow a recipe exactly every time.  I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai which taught me about a critical cooking device that I had never used until then and is now always by my side in the kitchen – “the tasting spoon.”  You taste your food and add what’s needed, whether it’s salt, sugar, fish sauce, lime, etc.  Seriously, before then I never thought to taste the food before sitting down and eating it.

Cooking became an adventure I started to enjoy, and my fellow colleagues enjoyed my dishes as a change-up to their usual Thai fare (which is delicious, but gets monotonous after a while).  Sometimes my colleagues in would bring me back ingredients they picked up on their vacations (like vanilla beans from Bali) or in Bangkok so I could drum up a dish.  I would scour the markets for familiar ingredients and try to whip something up, whether it was a Thai dish or an American one.  I still ate at cafes a lot, but I also had more practice in the kitchen (and sometimes with very little to work with – not many appliances available to me there).

I knew that cooking officially became a hobby for me when I moved next to South Sudan.  We had cooks who prepared our meals three times a day.  Although it was nice not having to worry about food, I sometimes felt the urge to cook or bake, because it was a good way for me to relieve stress.  It was impossible, though, because I didn’t have any ingredients, couldn’t find anything to cook with in the kitchen (which was even more barebones than in Thailand), and didn’t have electricity.  I looked forward to going back to the U.S. so I could cook again.

Now cooking is still an adventure for me, but more of a tedious and time-consuming one.  I have to prepare meals to accommodate four people in the family, including a vegan-ish husband and a picky preschooler with food allergies (on the other hand, my toddler eats almost everything. Like mother, like daughter).  We eat out at restaurants twice a week at most, but for health and money reasons, we have most of our meals at home.  And with a husband with zero cooking skills (unless you count pushing buttons on a microwave), all of the cooking falls to me.  I still enjoy it, but I would more if I cooked occasionally rather than ALL THE TIME.

At least I’m better off now than before I left for the Peace Corps.  I can’t imagine having children with the cooking skills I had back then.  I would probably be serving my kids Kraft mac n cheese, Chef Boyardee, or McDonald’s everyday (I still do occasionally).  I look forward to the day when my kids are a little bit older (and their palates a little more refined) so I can introduce them to dishes from around the world.  But for now I look forward to Mother’s Day, because that is my self-proclaimed no-cook day.

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