Never say never

Fashion-wise, my life is an interesting synthesis. Clothes were not very important to me growing up. In fact, I recall distinctly that being enormously unstylish was a great way to drive my sister nuts. There was one particular hideous orange shirt I wore for years because she couldn’t stand it. In junior high one of my favorite outfits was an ankle length black skirt (with black keds from Payless — I don’t remember the sock color and blanche at the thought because I don’t think I owned black socks), a white turtle neck and my volleyball windbreaker (black, with white and green writing) over it. Stylin’. Through high school I regularly wore the light blue sweatshirt with puff paint displaying a winter scene with a dominant element being St. Bernards rescuing skiing penguins. It had a little plastic penguin charm, if memory serves. Towards the end of high school I started getting fancy with black slacks and jewel-colored silk shirts, and began to wear jewelry like a trumpet pendant. And, well, the trumpet pendant. (Oh Lord, let me have had black socks! Tell me I didn’t wear all this black with white socks!)

Fashion was never very important to me. I liked to dress up and look pretty, but invested hardly any effort or money in doing so, most of the time. I had rather baroque ideas of what pretty was. I generally wore very long skirts, not feeling comfortable that I could pull off/knew how to wear short skirts. I never wore heels or makeup. Anything I did wear, barring outside examples, was liable to be put to the same rigorous use (see also: hiking, tree climbing, river fording) that was my normal activity during those days. Yes, even (or especially?) on dates.

Me in the middle - probably my nicest outfit at the time
Me in the middle - probably my nicest outfit at the time

So through the most socially insecure times of life I generally dressed entirely pragmatically, with an emphasis on St. Bernards.

Then I went to college. I met this GUY. Eventually, I figured out this GUY had parents, who lived very far away and therefore weren’t particularly relevant. However, as we got seriouser and seriouser I began to realize that when you get married you get these things called in-laws. Finally, I met my mother-in-law.

Fashion-wise, she was diametrically opposed to where I was. Here I was in baggy jeans and a t-shirt. She was wearing more jewelry than I’d ever owned and was immaculately dressed in something extremely stylish. I seem to recall leopard print. Gradually, oh so gradually, she got to work on me. First it was a few summery dresses from Thailand. Who can say no to summery dresses from Thailand? Then it was some sweaters. They were nice sweaters! Then she helped me out when I needed to clean my closets. Closet cleaning is always easier with someone else.

Easter - apparently the camera adds wrinkles. I don't have those!
Easter - apparently the camera adds wrinkles. I don't have those!

By the time Grey was born, when she came to visit we were having regular sessions of “What Not To Wear”. She’d bring me an item of clothes that pushed my boundaries a bit. Maybe it hugged where I was used to baggy. Perhaps there were colors that weren’t in my standard palette. Possibly it was a little more stylish than I was used to. And of course, every time she came to visit there was a new piece of jewelry for me. Yeah, I know. I suffer. And she’d point things out. Did I notice how the fit on this dress was baggy at the bust? How about how this one caught at the hip? She wouldn’t let her aged mother out in public in those shoes: why would she let her beautiful daughter-in-law? (All the training is accompanied, I should add, with copious praise.) The clothes got better fitting and more fashionable. The shoe selection got more diverse. The jewelry got bigger.

I started to catch on — to see the fun of wearing things that look good and fit. I learned to match the elements of my increasingly extensive wardrobe together. I figured out what MY style was and communicated it back to my mother-in-law, who promptly helped me focus in on those areas. (For example, I own nothing with leopard print.) I started having fun with it.

Thanksgiving - I take the pictures so I'm rarely in them

Yesterday we went shopping together, and I crossed a milestone. You see, for years I’ve declared all capri pants strictly out of bounds. Why? I’m not entirely sure except that I’d never worn them. But yesterday she found a pair with this really cute embroidery, and urged me to just try it on. What could it hurt? Well, she was right. They’re adorable, comfortable and fit beautifully.

I swore I’d never wear capris. Never say never.

I still think I’m in the sweet spot. I now know enough about fashion to be able to present myself in the way I choose, and to feel really good about how I look most mornings. But I also still have that early sensibility, of practical over fashionable. I don’t value myself or others based on clothing, or the state of a manicure. I don’t feel unsightly because I haven’t put makeup on. I’m not dependent on my external appearance in order to feel ok about myself — I know that’s not what matters. But neither do I rule out the entire arena of clothing as something other people do.

My current style vs. functionality in a nutshell

PS – In case you love the original jewelry my mother-in-law has made for me, she does sell her work. Here’s a gallery of some of her recent creations

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also

In my life as it is right now, there is tremendous pressure on my time. Working full time, commuting 1.5 hours a day, sadly being the sort of person who needs 8 hours of sleep a night, and taking care of two active curious boys is really time consuming, even when you have a great partner to do it all with. As things I enjoy have slipped away, it’s been enlightening to me what has stayed, and what I still make time for.

I had no idea food was so important to me.

I’m not a “foodie”. I don’t read recipe books for fun, like my sister. I don’t watch cooking shows or read cooking blogs. I don’t delight in new and exotic ingredients. In my perception of myself, I’m a pretty decent utilitarian cook who does enough to provide healthy tasty food for her family with a few heritage recipes thrown in for fun. Heck, when I married my husband I joked that I was doing so because I don’t know how to cook.

But when I look at the TIME I spend in the kitchen making food, it totally belies that perception. This weekend I spent several hours canning. I cooked chili and cornbread for dinner Saturday night (1 hour). I made Crock Posole and Arepas on Monday night. Then I stayed up after I got the boys in bed to prepare smothered pork chops for the gamers on Tuesday. Last night we served: Pork chops with onions, au jus, bacon gravy, bacon, baked potatoes with fresh chives and sour cream, bruschetta with fresh basil and tomatoes on homemade bread fresh out of the oven (my husband made the bread) and corn. Fresh strawberries and blueberries made up dessert. This was a little more overboard than usual, but not wildly so. Certainly, it wasn’t the longest prep I’ve ever had for a game night dinner.

We make roughly 3 “real” dinners (dinners with 45 minutes or more preparation) a week, and several little dinners (boxed mac and cheese, tuna fish casserole, IKEA meatballs, etc.) a week. If it only takes half an hour, I think it’s a moderate prep.

Basically, I spend way more of my negotiable time on food preparation than pretty much anything else.

We COULD do more takeout, although I don’t really understand how that works logistically. We could eat out more, although that’s not great on the budget. (To be fair, my grocery bill is pretty monumental. I’m increasingly coming to understand the impact that quality ingredients have on how a meal tastes and buying accordingly. Mmmmmmm blade steak….. But as a result, I’m not sure that cooking at home saves much money at all.) But frankly, my cooking is better than most food I can buy, up until the $25/entree price point. So I could pay to eat food that doesn’t taste as good as the stuff I cook.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this discovered value. On the one hand, there are many ways these tasty family dinners are considered virtuous. They tend to be healthier than purchased food (although knowing how much butter/bacon I use, I’m not entirely convinced of that). They are definitely tastier than the kind of food we could afford to eat out every night. We eat together as a family almost every single dinner. Studies show that children who eat dinner with their parents at a common table do better in some metrics, like test exams. Theoretically cooking your own food costs less than eating out. And my husband and I eat entirely (delicious) leftovers for lunch during the week, and always have. Finally, I imagine that my children will be grateful (in retrospect) for my great cooking (their Freshman year in the dorms).

On the other hand, the time I spend in the kitchen is time I’m not spending building block towers on the floor. I don’t have time to go for a walk with the kids before bed. I can’t make finger paintings with Grey because I have deadly chicken juice on my hands. Thane roams the kitchen floor, sweeping up old Cheerios and sampling tasty cat food while I work. This is some of the rare, precious time I have with my family and I spend it making bechamel and chopping onions. (Seriously, why don’t grocery stores sell 10 lb bags of onions?) And then there are the dishes. You have no idea how many dishes I can make.

Once a friend of mine came to visit, and exclaimed in astonishment at how there was no takeout boxes in our fridge. I actually hadn’t realized, to that point, that what I was doing was optional — that there was any other way to feed your family. On the other hand, I know it’s possible to be even more into it than I am. Many of my friends are far more adventurous in their cooking and eating than we are.

You can usually find out what’s important to people by looking at where they spend their optional time. We spend ours at church, playing games, cooking and outdoors. I am explicitly ok with the church, games and outdoors. I am surprised by this cooking thing, and not sure if I meant to make it such a big part of my life.

What do you think? Where do you find yourself spending a lot of your time, possibly to your surprise? What do you eat for dinner every night? Do you think the time spent in the kitchen is worth it? If you were my children, would you be glad for the effort at meals, or would you wish I’d spent more time with you than cooking for you?