Why I’ve converted to the Aldi way of life

I used to be a grocery store snob.

Here in the suburbs, chain groceries are everywhere. Giant, Safeway, Weis, Food Lion — not to mention the expansive grocery areas of Target and Walmart, where I find myself at least once (OK, twice) a week.

I loved Giant best. It was close to our first apartment and, after I took over grocery duties early in our marriage, I felt grown-up and responsible inspecting apples for blemishes and acting like I knew the difference between different cuts of steak.

(Ha! I used to buy steak. That’s cute.)

Spencer and I shopped together, making it our Monday after-work ritual. My husband loves trying new things, so all sorts of international items would wind up with our order. We were impulsive. I didn’t make a list. Didn’t meal plan. We wandered freely like the newlyweds we were, looking at each other by the deli counter. “I don’t know,” we’d say. “What do you feel like?”

The variety was captivating. Standing in front of the dairy case, 50 — heck, 100? — varieties of yogurt were at our disposal. Did we want toasted coconut or Key lime? Greek or plain? Dannon or Oikos?

I’d stare at the flavors and brands and prices. I’d cross-reference which was cheapest with my personal preferences. I’d think about what we liked in the past. Was coffee-flavored yogurt actually … gross? Did Spencer hate the mango? Should I stock up now, or wait until it went on sale?

Decisions. So many decisions.

Grocery shopping today — with a 2-year-old and 6-week-old — is … well, it’s a production. One we don’t make, given I go alone. I typically run out on Sundays, known to be the worst day to hit the grocery store with the rest of town, with Spence holding down the fort. I’m always a woman on a mission.

And I never leave the house until I’ve created a plan for the week. That’s how you overspend, you know? Wind up with all sorts of stuff you forget about, forgotten on a dusty pantry shelf. I sit down with recipe books and jot down what I’ll need to pick up versus what we have already to use up. Once that list is done, I rewrite a new list organized by department: the meats together, the veggies together, etc. So I don’t forget anything.

Have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?

This takes a half hour. I often write all this down while hiding in the corner of the kitchen that Oliver can’t see from the living room, thus granting me time to sip my long-cold coffee and put two thoughts together without toddler interference.

Up until recently, I was still darkening Giant’s door. I love Giant. The store is new and clean and rarely crowded. The parking lot is a pleasure to get in and out of. The selection — oh, the selection! — of produce is awesome, and every aisle is well-stocked. I don’t have to worry about Giant being “out” of … well, anything. It’s reliable. Predictable. And 10 minutes away.

So why the heck am I now schlepping up to an Aldi?

And … liking it?

My sister told me about Aldi years ago. Newly opened in a neighboring town, it’s tucked off the highway in an inconvenient and insanely busy location. From our current house, it’s easily a 35-minute drive. Always in traffic.

But I go. Because it’s cheap. And with two working parents and two kiddos soon to be in day care (don’t end, maternity leave!), affordability is important.

But even more than that?

It’s simple.

My brain is fried. We get very little sleep. I make what feels like endless decisions a day for my children and my husband and myself. When I go back to work in two weeks, that stress will multiply tenfold. (I’m trying not to think about it, really.)

At Aldi, if you want chicken, here are breasts and tenderloins. If you want ground beef, you grab the 93/7 split — ’cause that’s what they have. If you want milk, here’s a gallon of milk. Apples? Take a bag. You have to buy the bag. No debating Gala versus Pink Lady, you know? And how many of each?

When I first went into Aldi with Spencer, I was … well, I was a snob. Seriously. Where were my 10 kinds of shredded cheese? My super-specific favorite coffee creamer? My whole wheat sandwich thins?

It’s true that Aldi does not have everything. But you know what? They have most things. Many things. Enough for us.

And something strange happened. The simplicity, the lack of variety …

It’s been a balm on my frazzled soul.

There is something very zen about Aldi. I think it stems from the relief of knowing I’m getting out of there with my weekly order for less than $80 — absolutely, totally impossible for my family at any other grocery chain. I don’t always come home with everything on my list (fresh ginger was a no-go yesterday), but you know what? I improvise. We can manage. Or occasionally stop by the other chains for those unique finds.

If you’d told me last year that I’d be dragging my behind all the way to Brandywine to go to Aldi, where the parking lot is always full and the carts must be unlocked with a quarter (and I never have a freakin’ quarter!), I would have sipped from an overpriced latte and sneered.

Sneered, I tell you.

But I get it now. Megan Johnson, mom of two (!), harried wife and employee and daughter and sister and friend with a thinning bank account … she’s a convert.

I like easy and I cannot lie. It takes longer to get there, yes, and traffic is awful, but once I’m there? It’s easy, breezy, lemon-squeeze-y.

Now, if only I could find a quarter.


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Here comes Hadley Rose

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Spencer and I met seven years ago today.

As I type, our infant daughter — our sweet second child — is snoozing next to me, her tiny hands clasped beneath her chin.

Hadley Rose arrived on March 10 — 17 days before her due date. At nearly 38 weeks pregnant, I wasn’t technically full-term, but you know what? After our premature journey with her brother, it wasn’t even a blip on my radar. She arrived hollering and beautiful, 6 pounds and 12 ounces of joy.

It started that Thursday. I actually had my stuff together enough to throw steak and vegetable soup in the slow cooker that morning, chopping vegetables before Oliver woke up. I wore a cute tunic. I did my hair. As though I knew that would be my last “normal” morning, I enjoyed a cup of coffee over “Good Morning America” and rejoiced in the quiet before my toddler started calling from upstairs.

Dropped Ollie off at daycare. Drove north. When I ran into a Wawa before work, I noticed quite a few men tripping over themselves to help me as I dropped or reached for things. I’ve been visibly pregnant since the fall, but I can’t say I noticed much “special treatment.” Which, you know, is fine. I consider holding doors to be a basic human courtesy, you know?

But these guys were holding doors. Like, standing there and waiting for me because they were concerned such a super pregnant lady wouldn’t make it over the threshold unassisted.

I texted my husband about that afterward. “Guess I really look ready to pop,” I wrote.

My 37-week appointment with my doctor was just after noon. Her office is directly behind my own, so I usually walk, but something told me that extra exertion wasn’t a good idea! So I made the 60-second drive and headed in, taking in the curious glances of other patients. Seeing their tiny bellies for contrast, I definitely felt ready to explode.

My blood pressure was slightly elevated during my exam. After my experiences with preeclampsia, developing the severe complication at 32 weeks pregnant with my first child, we’ve been on red-alert for any anomalies since I learned I was expecting. But my blood pressure has been fine. It was still OK that Thursday — but had jumped 20 points from the previous week.

My OB initially ordered blood tests and said she’d call me the next day with the results. But after a third high-ish reading with a nurse, she met me in the hallway instead. I knew what she was going to say.

“Labor & Delivery?” I asked, already mentally running through who I needed to call (Spencer, namely). We’d been through this rodeo before.

“I would just feel better,” she said, noting that they could run tests and hook me up to monitors that would confirm everything was fine sooner than she could.

At the hospital where I’d once hoped to deliver Oliver, I hung out in a triage room in L&D listening to another woman in labor down the hall — just as I had two years ago, waiting to learn our fate as I got sicker. Honestly, I’m proud of myself. I did not panic. I had serious post-traumatic stress after Ollie was born and that moment — hearing another woman having a baby, while I desperately hoped to hold my own baby in — is very sharp in my mind.

Less than 12 hours later, I’d be the one with screams echoing down that hallway. But I didn’t know that yet.

My labs all came back clear: no preeclampsia, no issues. But while I was being monitored, the nurse kept hovering around a snake-like print-out, looking it over periodically. “So everything looks good,” she said, “but do you feel all those contractions?”

Apparently I was contracting every five minutes or so — a pressure I guess I’d noticed, but only in passing. I’d been experiencing uncomfortable Braxton-Hicks contractions for months. These weren’t painful or particularly noteworthy, though they were consistent.

As always, I kept thinking a doctor was going to come in and release me with instructions to “take it easy.” I kept in touch with Spencer as he got Oliver home, reminding him about the soup in the slow cooker. “I’ll probably be home soon,” I wrote.

When the nurse popped in to check on me an hour later, she was dressed in scrubs for another patient’s surgery. She checked the print-out of my contractions again.

“Do you think I’m heading out of here soon?” I asked. “I’m just trying to get my son situated, and wondering if I should call my family? I don’t want to alarm them, but . . .”

She gave me an incredulous — though not unkind — look. “I would call them,” she said. “You’re definitely in labor.”

My hands began to shake, but I called my husband and relayed all this information. I contacted my sister next, then my dad. Everyone answered the phone warily, as though they knew immediately what I was going to say: it’s time.

I finally had that moment. It was scary, but also felt good.

Spencer arrived with our hospital bag after getting Oliver settled with my sister and brother-in-law. My parents stopped by to see me at the hospital. My contractions were already picking up. By midnight, they were so intense that I was struggling to breathe through them — but I clutched the rail of my bed and just held on, riding the waves as long and calmly as I could.

It felt awful, all-consuming. But I was only 2 centimeters dilated.

So I never intended to have a “natural” birth. I wanted drugs. All the drugs. My labor with Oliver was long and traumatic and painful, capped off with a failed epidural. I didn’t want that again. I wanted to feel calm and in control — as much as one can, anyway — and had planned to try the epidural again.

Given I was already in the hospital, I never imagined that would be an issue. But things move fast.

After one of the longest nights of my life, I was checked about 6 a.m.: just 3 centimeters. The doctor said she would check again in an hour. If I didn’t progress more, they would start pitocin to move me along. I moaned and cried and clung to that rail, with Spencer next to me trying to provide comfort. I was back in Pain World, where nothing exists outside that pressure and hurting.

When the team came back in around 7 a.m., 7:30, the announcement was equivalent to getting struck by lightning: I was “complete” and ready to push. I’d somehow gone from 3 centimeters to 10, and now there was no time for the epidural.

If I thought I was scared before, now I was terrified.

After squeezing my eyes shut against all the lights and instruments that descended from the ceiling, I felt the calm presence of my husband and OB at my side and just did the darn thing. I pushed for a long time — long enough to feel totally exhausted, wanting to give up; long enough to pull my leg muscles — but eventually the pain gave way to relief, and she was here.

Hadley arrived at 8:16 a.m. with a head of dark hair. They put her on my chest immediately, both of us crying. That sweet weight is not something I’ll ever forget. I held her for a while — an opportunity I never had with her brother, who was whisked off immediately to the NICU. It was surreal.

And quick, I guess — in hindsight, anyway! I was so flooded with relief afterward: no longer anxiously running through possible labor scenarios in my mind; not obsessing about having to be transported to Baltimore again; not worrying about delivery complications. No more fears about preeclampsia and it coming back, being worse. Stealing one or both of us away.

It was over. We were fine. I’d done it!

We have a daughter.

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Hadley is a sweet, calm, quiet little baby — so quiet that I frequently stare at her chest to make sure she’s breathing, watching her snooze in a bassinet next to the couch. From the time Ollie came home, he would snuffle and coo and whimper and whine; you never doubted he was nearby. But Hadley? She’s so chill that it almost . . . makes me nervous.

And so far, none of Ollie’s antics seem to disturb her. Which is kind of a miracle. Our almost 2-year-old toddler has lately earned the nickname “the tornado,” ’cause this kid is sweet chaos in sneakers. He’s nonstop action and energy, a 30-pound tank of opinions, and we love him so very much — but he is exhausting.

Hadley, it seems, is his opposite.

Of course, she was born 11 days ago — hardly enough time to make sweeping judgments on her little personality. But given the Tornado really has been the Tornado since he left the NICU, perhaps we’ll get lucky with our second.

And if not? That’s OK, too.

Because we have a little more figured out this time. We are all adjusting. Having just found our footing as parents with Oliver, I knew the transition to mom-of-two would be easier in some ways and more complicated in others. The lack of sleep is less soul-destroying this go ’round, certainly, given Ollie is still up many nights and we’re used to existing in a zombie-like state. That’s what coffee is for.

Spencer and I have our “shift work” arranged pretty neatly: he takes the first one, staying up with the baby and sleeping intermittently until 2 a.m. or so, when I come downstairs and take over. So far we’ve avoided disturbing Ollie too much; though with as quiet as Hadley is, there isn’t much to disturb him. This process allows both of us to get a three- or four-hour chunk of sleep, as well as other cat-naps, and I actually . . . don’t feel that bad. All things considered.

It’s weird being home so much. I’ve been fighting some of the old anxiety that emerged after Ollie was born. But I know this is the only time in my adult life I’ll have this uninterrupted time with my newborn daughter and son; as hard as it is (and does often feel hard), I know I’m also fortunate. I’m trying to just take everything as it comes and not project too far ahead.

For the moment, my job is just to be their mom. No need to multitask, obsessively check email or hop on conference calls. Though my go-go-go personality has struggled a bit with this, I’m embracing the blessing of time. Of sitting. Of just . . . holding my baby.

Oh, how I know they don’t keep.

 

 

 

 

A room of her own

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When we moved into our house three years ago, I immediately marked one upstairs bedroom as “the nursery.”

It’s bright and sunny, getting the best light in the house, and also the one closest to our bedroom. I was pregnant by the fall, and the nursery transformed from a Pepto Bismol-pink monstrosity to the pale blue little guy’s room that Oliver enjoys today.

Down the hall was another room: lime-green walls, purple carpet. Dark purple. A third bedroom above the garage was set up for guests while the middle bedroom — now affectionately dubbed “The Hulk Room” — became a storage space. A very cluttered, nonsensical storage space.

When we learned we were expecting our second child, one of my early thoughts — aside from, you know, oh my God — was the need to transform this dumping ground of childhood memorabilia and outgrown baby equipment into a haven for Baby No. 2. Until we learned she is, in fact, a she, we were toying with the expense of replacing the grape purple carpet — but given a little lady is less likely to find it bothersome, we decided to keep it and save the money.

It’s a bold decorating choice, for sure.

“Preparing the nursery” is a rite of passage for expectant parents — even if “the nursery” is nothing more than a corner of their current bedroom or family room. No matter. Babies need love, nourishment and a safe place to sleep. Truth be told, Baby Girl will likely be sleeping in a bassinet in our room for the first six-ish months of her life, just as Oliver did. Still, I feel this pressing weight — this nesting need, I guess — to get her bedroom ready.

valspar-comet-dust-5006-1aSpencer painted the walls last week, instantly transforming the space from eye-assaulting Hulk chic to calm, placid gray. We chose a color called “Comet Dust,” which seemed just right for encouraging this girl to dream big dreams.

I have no problem with pink. I grew up in a bright-pink bedroom with bright pink accessories, bedding and feminine touches, and I think pink is upbeat and fun.

But I wanted something else. Taking the walls down to that subtle gray has completely transformed the space — just as we hoped it would (no carpet replacement necessary). My husband was up late painting, so I didn’t see the final results until the next morning — and in that weak light, standing there before Oliver called out in the room beside this one, I thought, Yes. This will work.

I’ve spent hours browsing for artwork for these fresh, neutral walls. I want to adorn this space with hope and love and optimism, just as I did with Ollie’s. Oliver’s room was completed during the month he spent in the NICU — a welcome distraction and a focus for my anxious energy. But this time? Well, I’ve seen what can happen if you wait too long. I feel better have items checked off the ol’ to-do list as soon as possible.

HomeGoods is a good place to kill time and paychecks, and I ran there last week on a lunch break to “look around.” I was there for a curtain rod, actually, but it’s impossible to leave with just a curtain rod in a place like that.

In the children’s decor section, the blue/pink contrast is stark. Boys’ items on one side; girls’ on the other. For boys, of course, are step stools covered in footballs, “Travel the world!”-style posters, ceramic trains and robots. And for the girls? Ballerinas and princesses, pink fur-lined lamps and handheld mirrors.

To be honest, I was there to inspect a castle. My mom texted me a photo of a canvas print featuring an ornate princess castle the day before, and the bright purple was similar to our carpet color.

I found the castle. It was pretty. And big. Large enough to fill half of one of those blank, blank walls.

But then I saw the map.

I’ve always been fascinated by geography — other places, other cultures, other lives. I won a globe in elementary school and used to spin it as hard as I could, letting my finger fall on some far-flung place I’d then look up in my world atlas. What and who would I find in Korea or Cambodia, Jamaica or Portugal?

Maps hold a strange fascination for me — and this one is bright. Bold. It’s playful and unique — unlike any I’ve seen before.

At $40, it was a little more than what I’d wanted to spend; I’ve been doing pretty well finding items at thrift stores and on clearance at Michael’s. But I fell in love with it. This map spoke to me. I knew that if I left it there, I wouldn’t stop thinking about it until I’d returned . . . and would probably find it gone. So that was it.

I hadn’t bothered to take a cart at HomeGoods, so I shouldered it all the way to check-out: a very pregnant lady on a mission, waddling with the world in her arms.

I don’t know if baby will care about geography, or world history, or physics, or Jane Austen. But I want to believe she and her brother will find more inspiration in a world map than they would in a princess castle.

Dream big, my babies.

Comet Dust, indeed.

Creamy bacon bow-tie pasta with Brussels sprouts

You know what’s weird? My lack of bizarre pregnancy cravings.

Where I spent last time constantly fantasizing about Coke Slurpees, chips and spicy salsa, frosted lemonades from Chick-Fil-A and jalapeno poppers (something I rarely eat in “real” life, by the way), this pregnancy has been strangely devoid of oddball snacks.

I mean, I’m eating fish. And vegetables. And salad. With the help of my anti-nausea medication (which I’m still taking at 30 weeks), nothing feels disgusting or off-limits.

Even Brussels sprouts.

I love these leafy greens when I’m not expecting, and they’re something Spencer and I have in weekly meal rotation. But vegetables while I was pregnant with Oliver were . . . a no-go. Like, at all. I think I subsisted on processed carbs the whole nine months, favoring bagels and potato chips over anything that could be even vaguely considered healthy.

I mean, I’m not complaining. By keeping these cravings in check, I’ve only gained half the weight so far that I did with Oliver. Though I started 30 pounds heavier, so . . . I’m pretty much breaking even?

Still.

weeknightI haven’t been the best about making home-cooked meals lately, but I requested a new cookbook for Christmas and Santa obliged. The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin (of BarefeetInTheKitchen.com) is inspiring, and each of the five meals I’ve made so far have been big hits. I love that it features easy-to-find, familiar ingredients used in new ways, and it is — true to its title — all about quick, from-scratching cooking on busy nights.

That’s what we need. Desperately.

Meals are categorized according to how long you’ll need before having them ready: 15 to 25-minute meals; 30 to 45-minute meals; 5 to 10-minute prep (slow cooker meals, for example, or meals you just throw in the oven); plus quick desserts, simple sides and condiments/spices. I’ve found Younkin’s timing to be very accurate, unlike the “30 minutes to the table!” nonsense recipes that don’t account for the hour it takes you to slice, dice and prep everything. Big pet peeve.

The variety of meals is pretty awesome. There are plenty of Mexican-inspired dishes (Younkin lives in Arizona), complete with green chiles, but Italian, Asian and good ol’ American meals pop in there, too. The offerings are a good mix of seafood, pork, chicken and beef, as well as vegetarian sides and pastas. A little something for everyone.

The Bow-tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts is easy and awesome. You could throw in some onions and mushrooms, too, but we made this one as instructed and loved it. The caramelized Brussels sprouts — cooked down with the bacon fat — made my mouth water. The author notes that you could substitute asparagus for the sprouts, if your family favors one over the other.

Full disclosure? I used an entire pack of bacon here (about 12 strips), double what the recipe calls for. But I think this is acceptable because the leftovers were amazing and protein-packed, especially since I went ahead and boiled the entire box of pasta. So did I double this recipe? Informally, yes. But you’ll want to double it. Trust me.

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Creamy Bow-Tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts

Recipe from The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin

 

6 strips bacon, cut in 1/2-inch-wide strips, about 1/3 lb
1 lb Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and halved
8 oz bow-tie pasta
1/2 cup cream (or half-and-half)
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water is heating, prep the bacon and Brussels sprouts. Cook the pasta until it is tender but still a bit firm, about 12 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and let it cook for 2 minutes, then add the Brussels sprouts. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and the Brussels sprouts have browned. Transfer the bacon and Brussels sprouts to a plate. Drain the grease, leaving a teaspoon or so of grease in the skillet.

Place the skillet back over medium-high heat. Scoop 1/2 cup of pasta water out of the boiling pasta pot and carefully pour into the hot skillet. Use a flat spatula to scrape up the brown bits and deglaze the pan. Add the cream, salt and pepper to the skillet and stir to combine. Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer for 1-2 minutes, until it thickens slightly. If the pasta hasn’t finished cooking yet, move the sauce off the heat until the pasta finishes.

Drain pasta well and add it to the skillet with the sauce, stirring to coat well. Add the Brussels sprouts and bacon to the skillet with pasta and stir to combine. Taste and adjust salt, if needed. Sprinkle with cheese before serving, if desired. Enjoy!

 

 

The third stretch

28 weeks

Despite being terrible at math, I tend to find patterns in numbers and place (too much?) stock in their importance . . . almost to a superstitious degree. Even when I know being order No. 18 — my lucky number — in a restaurant is just a coincidence, I can’t shake this feeling that it “means something.” Though the something? As yet to be determined.

As of Monday, I am 28 weeks pregnant. With Oliver, I gave birth at 32. So if I were to follow that same pattern, I would be giving birth to my daughter in less than a month.

I am not ready.

When we initially considered a second child after Ollie’s early birth and my long recovery from preeclampsia, I assumed I’d be too anxious and worried to possibly try again. But then I was pregnant, and there was no debating — I had to surge forward, stay calm and be informed without troubling myself with endless “what ifs.”

I’ve done a good job of not losing my mind during the last six months, but approaching that number — 32 — is making my palms sweat. Flashbacks of the last few weeks I was hospitalized while expecting Oliver keep flying back, and all those old memories — our corner room in Baltimore; the doctor finally telling me we couldn’t go home; getting steroid shots to help his lungs — bring the panic back anew.

But this time is not that time. My blood pressure has been fine . . . low for me, even. I have no symptoms, no other issues that could be attributed to anything other than just feeling big and tired and worn down, partially from the pregnancy but also from chasing Oliver — now 20 months — around the house.

I’ve started nesting. Post-Christmas clean-up combined with this almost physical urge to work on the new baby’s nursery has me whirling around the house like a tornado. According to ye ol’ Fitbit, I logged more than 5,000 steps on Monday and barely left the house. On a regular work day, I’m lucky if I hit half of that.

I am on the move.

Moving helps me stay out of my own head, for one. More than once lately I’ve snapped awake from a nightmare about pre-term birth, about being back in the NICU. I’ve blocked so much about those early days with Ollie out, but it filters back at strange moments. Being in my third trimester with this little one is definitely whipping memories up from the murky waters into which they’d sunk.

But I’m trying to be OK with that, too. I’ve done a lot of emotional work to move forward from April 2015. I’m trying to focus on what is going right this pregnancy — everything, so far — instead of went so wrong the last time.

And anyway, more than anything, we do have a healthy son. And I am here. And we are here. And our family is strong.

This is a ramble. But it’s 2017, a fresh year, and I’m as big as a house (and getting bigger) and my brain is … well, it’s hard to form coherent thoughts these days. Last night I fell asleep at 8 p.m. and I can’t get out of bed without a tuck-and-roll technique I’m still mastering, so everything feels weird right now.

Before I had Oliver, I was terrified of childbirth. We took classes and I read books and countless blogs and thought I was “prepared,” but then I was induced at sunrise on an April Sunday two months early and I was … well, I was not prepared.

But it didn’t matter. In the end, is anyone prepared? Can anything really prepare you for parenthood — how it will build you up and break you down and sneak up on you with its moments of pure joy and pure exhaustion, fear and beauty all centered on one tiny little body?

I’m not ready to give birth again, but I will soon be ready to meet our daughter.

I have some things to tell her. And I can’t wait.


Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration


Don’t give up

We watch a lot of children’s programming. And by “a lot,” I mean a lot. When you have a baby, no one tells you that in addition to sacrificing relaxed meals out, using the bathroom alone and getting out the door in 30 seconds, you will also be giving up your television.

Want to watch “This is Us” with a glass of red in a dim, peaceful living room? Or catch up on the morning news will sipping your first cup o’ joe? Forget it. Like: just get that image out of your head now — for a few years, at least.

For us, Oliver rotates between a steady diet of “The Muppets,” “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” PC (pre-children), I didn’t know “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” even existed . . . and as the story involves time travel and encounters with famous historical figures, let’s just say I’ve also learned quite a few things about history myself.

Watching a movie 1,376 times will do that to you.

Every now and then, however, kids’ shows really come through for you. The lessons we learned as children can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of daily life: advice to love others, be kind, do unto them as you would have done unto you. Be neighborly. Be compassionate. Extend a hand.

It’s been a long week. Regardless of your political leanings, I think it’s fair to say this presidential election has been exhausting for all of us. Waiting for the returns on Tuesday night, I nodded off for an hour and woke to the news that Donald Trump was close to clinching victory. For president. Of the United States of America.

I’ve been grappling with feelings of sadness and anger and confusion all week. I barely slept on Wednesday, and hardly at all on Thursday. But today is Saturday. The sun is shining. Spencer and I just learned that our second child is a girl — we’re going to have a daughter, and Ollie will have a little sister.

We owe it to them and ourselves to push forward, stand tall and reach out to one another. No one and nothing can make us hate one another — not unless we allow those seeds of hostility and hatred to plant and grow between us. I don’t walk around in a state of suspicion and judgment, and I want to believe my neighbors do not, either.

Not in our America. And it is ours — all of ours.

Spencer and I will be raising our daughter to walk alongside her brother. We will be there to nudge her forward when she feels weak, and to remind her that a chair always waits for her at the table.

Ollie and I watch “Sesame Street” videos when I’m trying to write and he wants nothing more than to paw at my laptop. As I was trying to answer emails this morning, our background video with Bruno Mars kicked on.

Sometimes the universe delivers just what you need . . . in the form of talking monsters.

I won’t question it. I’ll just embrace it, lace up my sneakers and get going.