Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Six rules for stress-free entertaining

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Sometimes you don’t think straight. Or maybe you don’t think at all, when you make plans and suddenly find yourself committed to hosting three different events in five days. That was us last week, when we opened our home to house guests from Chicago, a pooltime playdate with the girls’ schoolmate, and a neighborhood gathering in the form of an ice cream social.

Just thinking about it exhausts me, but you know what? We survived. For an introvert, quiet days at home are usually my style, but oddly enough, I also enjoy entertaining. I loved that we got to connect with people from so many parts of our lives - friends from our past, new friends who used to live in Chicago, and people who live around us, living disparate lives, brought together under our roof solely because of the proximity of their homes.

If you haven’t noticed already, we’re totally crushing on Austin, and finding a network here to ground us has been a driving force behind many of our activities, probably because we desperately want to belong. We know it would take time to get the kind of connections we had in Chicago, but, at the same time, we aren’t willing to just sit and wait for it to happen. We’re just not built that way.

So there we were, moving from one occasion to another, except there’s a certain fluidity to our motion since we’re no strangers to this whole entertaining business. The downside is, I’m constantly cleaning. The upside is, I’m constantly cleaning. I mean, when you have a five- and three-year-old whose job is to make a mess, it’s nice to have the chaos contained for a prolonged period of time.

But honestly, after years of organizing parties and playgroups, and social gatherings of all kinds, I’ve learned that simplicity is key. If you’re wondering how we did it, I’m happy to share.

RULE NUMBER ONE: Fuck hors’ d’oeuvres.
Individual servings have been replaced by a community bowl of an easy dip or two. If I have time, I’ll make them. If not, store-bought is fine. I no longer crucify myself for running to Trader Joe’s or Costco for premade stuff. Five years of “first, be gentle with yourself” parenting has apparently influenced every aspect of my life, and I like that. Fuss-free entertaining means I don’t cry into my cookies as I frost them like I did with Little Miss’ first birthday party.

Never. Again.

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RULE NUMBER TWO: Go for big pots and family-style eating.

If I have to prepare a more elaborate meal, the slow-cooker is my friend. As is a pot of curry simmering on the stove because that’s always easy for me to make, and it feeds plenty. It could be a go-to pasta sauce or soup for you, but to avoid stress, now is not the time to try new recipes.  


RULE NUMBER THREE: Fancy plating is easier than fancy cooking.

Thanks to the ubiquity of charcuterie boards on many trendy restaurants’ menu, having a tray of assorted meats and cheeses plus some fancy olives and pickles with crackers or bread arranged beautifully on a sturdy, wooden board doesn’t mean I’m too lazy to cook. It means we have a charcuterie board! Fancy.

It also means I get to pick my favorite items (like cured meats and cheeses from an exotic origin, or better yet, from the farmer down the road) from my favorite deli (and it could be as no-frills as your neighborhood grocery store or froufrou like Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, but the point is: no cooking!), and just like that, I manage to satisfy carnivorous appetites and vegheads who go nuts for cheese. Even the kids are happy to chow down simply because they adore “finger foods”. Everybody wins.

 

Salad


RULE NUMBER FOUR: Mix and match different colors.
When my menu calls for salad, I reach for veggies with bright, contrasting colors, like French green beans, grape tomatoes and English cucumbers tossed in a bowl with mint, parsley and feta in a lemon vinaigrette. It’s festive and it looks like I made an effort, even if it’s just tossing a bunch of prepped veggies from the store. If pressed for time, a bag of spring mix leaves, sliced strawberries and crumbled goat cheese in balsamic and olive oil will do the trick too. Pretty, but not fussy. Never underestimate the power of aesthetics. Same goes with fruit.


RULE NUMBER FIVE: It’s okay to delegate or accept a dish.
Someone often offers to bring dessert, and I always say yes. Or better yet, if it’s a larger group, I plan a potluck and unabashedly tell everyone what to bring. People are often happy to help out and they like having a task, instead of having to figure out, hmmm...what should I contribute to the table? What if someone else brings a cherry pie? To eliminate having five kinds of pies and no appetizers, I make sure people know what portion of the meal is their domain. Essentially, I help them help me.


RULE NUMBER SIX: You don’t have to make anything if you don’t want to.
With our “Sunday of Sundaes” party, the only thing we did was go to the store to purchase a variety of toppings and ice cream flavors to make things fun. I spent hardly any time on the food, which was why I decided to present it more creatively (see RULE NUMBER THREE). I put the ingredients in matching jars from our kitchen and created fun tags to identify each topping. The best part was I could include Little Miss on this task, who helped me decorate the tags with dots and attach it to the jars. Kids love helping, but when it’s a fun project, even better.

While dotting the tags, she asked, “Why do we have to make all this pretty?” and I responded, “We don’t have to. But because it takes time to do it, it shows that we care and it makes people feel special when you do something nice for them. It makes them happy, and that makes me happy.” Again, win win.


So there you have it – how we kept it simple to survive our own scheduling fiasco.

It’s not easy to admit that I no longer spend hours slaving in the kitchen for my guests. I love cooking after all – it should come through in what I serve the people I care about. BUT. And here’s the big BUT. The world of fussy canapes and bite-sized scones is now consumed by little fingers tugging at my skirt and voices relentlessly demanding, “watch this! look at me!”

Who has the time?

My Guy, who is thankfully less neurotic than I am, reminds me that people care less about the mini cheesecake tarts and stuffed mushroom caps - yes, I used to make those too - and more about the company. (Oh, and in these 90-degree days, our pool.) But what terrible company I used to be when I was constantly running around refilling platters and trying not to burn the fresh batch of crostini in the oven.

At the end of my parties, I would sometimes not remember a single conversation I had with a friend, mostly because I didn’t have time to have any. I could scarcely keep up with my own ambitious menu, let alone my guests, and what a shame, when it’s really the interactions that should’ve been the highlight of our time together.

When so many of us are away from our own family and are looking to make deeper connections to help us make our place in this big, wide world, finding other people who find the same things funny, who share similar views, and whose kids play well with ours - that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

At least I hope so.

And that’s why I had to do something to carve out some time to cultivate these relationships. Hence these stress-free rules for myself so, I, too, could get in the pool and have fun with my guests. If I’m going to do this often, I might as well enjoy it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The livin’ is easy

PoolSisters

You know what they say (or sing?) about summertime…the livin’ is easy. I think that’s what’s happening here. There’s a certain lethargy to our motion and intentions when the temperatures soar. I find my go-getter ambition quickly vaporizes like water on a scalding July sidewalk. The homebodies that are my girls are perfectly fine with it, as we spend our days lounging/playing/bickering inside our house until the evening, when the only thing that would lure them outside is the pool.

And perhaps that’s how Little Miss, who could already swim confidently on her own last summer, is now mastering tricks like cannonballs and handstands in the water as well as diving into the depths to retrieve items from the bottom of the pool for her little sitter. Sometimes I marvel at my 5.5-year-old, who approaches the things she enjoys with such gusto.

Like reading. She devours books, finishing one, sometimes two, at each sitting while Pickle naps. Even though she hasn’t started kindergarten, she is already easily reading Roald Dahl’s books – “Witches”, “James & the Giant Peach”, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” – on her own, and is now working through the “How to Train your Dragon” and “Nancy Drew” series. Sometimes, at naptime, we’ll sit together to read, and often times, while we’re shopping, she’ll disappear into a corner at the store, perfectly content with a book she unearths from one of the aisles, oblivious to the world around her. It’s a wonderful thing.

TargetReading 

 

Pickle, on the other hand, continues to make us laugh every day. If we had a family yearbook, I would write, “Most likely to be class clown” for her, but the thing about trying to live in the moment is that I don’t pause to record everything she says, and consequently, with my aging brain, the details disintegrate with time. My three-year-old is funny and when she’s around, I find myself laughing a lot, that much I remember. I may even have told her that because now, when our friends laugh at her antics, she tells them, “I’m silly sometimes; I’m like a clown.” But maybe she really is that self-aware, because on our way home in the car the other day, I asked, “how did you know the answer to this?” and she answered, without skipping a beat, “Because I’m special.”

Well, then. I couldn’t argue with that.

* * *


As hot as it has been, we are still miraculously enjoying a mild Austin summer. We were warned by several people that we’re going to hate it here when the temperatures climb to the triple digits and stay there for days, weeks, even months (gasp!), and I braced myself for it. Since June, we’ve been waiting for that infamous hot summer, except we’re still waiting. I’m beginning to think that Austinites are fabricating scary stories to keep transplants like us out. And who can blame them? With an average of 120 people moving into this city everyday, making this the fastest growing city in America, Austin’s infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up to the rapid changes that come with population explosion. People are complaining that the traffic congestion at rush hour is horrific because of the mass exodus here, but to that, I can only say, hey, don’t look at us; we work from home. Besides, we’re from Chicago, where it sometimes took us 30 minutes to go three miles; I don’t know what this city is grumbling about.

Because there’s so much to love about Austin so far, we’re also weirdly curious to experience its uglier side. We need to know if once we’re exposed to the unappealing part of this city, would we still be singing its praises? And that explains how we maaaaay have cheered when we saw in the forecast that it would reach 100 in the near future – that’s how ridiculous we are sometimes – but as with most weather forecasts, accuracy isn’t really their thing. Sadly(??!) we never got to 100. We’ve lingered in the high 90’s, going as far as 99, but it never went beyond that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty hot, but you can’t fry an egg on our heads. In fact, the heat actually feels nice after a record-cold Chicago winter.

Speaking of Chicago, My Guy was there for work for four days last week, and I think I’ve had enough solo-parenting practice to go at it alone with relative ease, which is to say that I only yelled at my kids a handful of times, rather than half the time My Guy’s away. I learned that planning meals in advance so I can depend on leftovers does make a remarkable difference between ending my days with the girls in a soul-depleting blur or just your run-of-the-mill exhaustion.

This time, to challenge myself (because who doesn’t love a challenge?), I decided to tackle a small house project on my own as a surprise for My Guy. We had both previously agreed that the particular red at the bottom half of the dining room and the ornate molding were just not doing it for us, but to overhaul the room would be too elaborate a task for this time. I’m crazy, but not that crazy. So I decided to only paint over the red as an interim solution, thanks to My Guy’s mom, who suggested that it would help subdue the colors and the molding, and she was right!

BEFORE

 RedRoom

 

 

RedRoomWide

 

 

AFTER


WhiteRoom


WhiteRoomWide

 

It took me about four hours while the girls were away in preschool, and when they walked in that evening, they immediately noted that, “something is different about this room.” Pickle was the one who finally pointed out that “it’s the walls!” They were asked to keep this from their daddy, and they did. Miraculously.

When he walked in the next day, he noticed instantly, which didn’t surprise me since he is usually the more observant one, and, luckily, he was happy with it, even if my girls weren’t — “But I like the red!” They also think we should live in castles and wear bright pink ball gowns, so forgive me if I don’t take their personal preferences too seriously.

Despite the mixed reviews, it was an immensely rewarding accomplishment, even if it’s just a mini project. It’s so satisfying to cross items off the checklist, no matter how small. Next on the list of house projects is probably our master bedroom, which has the similar football team colors like our dining room did. Except they’re on the trayed ceiling (Ugh!), and I am just not that ambitious right now.

It’s glorious summertime, after all, and I’m going to go with livin’ easy. Wouldn’t you?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Magic

I read a post today from the talented Lindsey Mead that struck a chord with me, specifically at the end, where she admits: “It isn’t that I’m paying attention because my life is magic. It’s that my life is magic because I’m paying attention.” Yes! Yes! I thought. Exactly that. I’ve not been writing much lately, mostly because summer has taken over our days, but I was also feeling a little self-conscious about my posts. What do I even write about? Things are pretty much the same ole, same ole around here. We continue to explore this new-to-us city, we occasionally host friends from Chicago and experience Austin through their eyes, and we march, no, saunter to the lackadaisical beat of the drum.

Yet, here I am, happy, content. And somehow it makes sense. Being a transplant makes me acutely aware of our surroundings; I am constantly looking for things to resonate with us, desperately seeking validation that yes, Austin is it. Because of that, my eyes are wide open, noticing the big and small, the details that confirm what we’d hoped, that Austin is good for us.

Things are still so new that this city and our discovery of it is all-encompassing. Every new friend made, new route home becomes a significant mark on this blank slate. And noticing these things creates the extra in my ordinary. Like how the fawn gallops gracefully and quietly behind her mother to hide from me on my morning run, how the merest sight of rain after its absence for over three weeks has me dancing a euphoric jig, and how the playground feels pleasantly cool under the shade of live oak trees despite the blazing sun.  


swinging


Of course, just as Lindsey says about her kids, a lot of this has to do with noticing how my children experience this world, seeing how everything unfolds before their fresh, curious eyes. Summer is already a magical time, but with kids it’s even more so. I’m often moved by their infectious delight with ice cream to indulge in a scoop of my own, to listen to the chorus of cicadas in our backyard as they play the season’s anthem, to jump in the pool with my girls even when I dread the work that comes before (swimsuits, hair, sunscreen) and after (shower, hair, lotion, hang suits and towels to dry).

Lindsey’s post also mentions how she loves watching her kids sleep, and I have to say, there’s not much that tops that for me either. I think it’s funny that on a day that I read this, our evening was all about sleep—too much and too little rolled into one. A busy morning led to a delayed naptime, and while waiting for them to rise, I also crawled in beside my 5.5-year-old, who took a rare nap, and might have dozed off for a few minutes myself. But when I sent My Guy in to rouse the little one, he never came back. Something told me I’d lost him to the sweet folds of slumber too, although who can blame him? Laying beside sleeping children is pretty magical, after all.

 A family that naps together…

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SleepingPickle

 

 

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The thing about summer is that even if the kids nap late, there’s plenty more daylight with which to entertain them when they’re wired from too much sleep. Naturally, on a 95-degree day, the pool was on the agenda, but seeing that fatigue was nowhere in sight even after a prolonged stint in the water, we decided on a pajama walk around the neighborhood, where we stopped and talked to a neighbor and waved at a man who waved back while paragliding above us. What we also didn’t expect to see, because the girls were often in bed an hour before this time everyday, was the sunset.

We turned onto a street we seldom used, and My Guy gasped. Lo and behold, just above the hills beyond the pristine lawns and Texas-sized homes was the brilliantly round, orange sun. It took less than three minutes from the time the sun hit the horizon to the time it disappeared completely into it, but there we stood, holding each other, mesmerized by the evening’s final act right before our eyes. 

Had we not noticed, it would have been any other ordinary evening. But we did, and that made all the difference.

 

SunsetWalk

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tourists

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There’s never a dull moment around here…


This week, we’re playing hosts to friends from Chicago. They’re our second guests; the first arrived from Chicago two weeks ago, and we’ll be hosting another in a couple of weeks. In between all of that, we also had a little Fourth of July pool party with our local friends, and we’re planning an ice cream social to get to know our neighbors in the next week or so.

All that to say, things are a little summer-hectic in the Landed household, which means we’re busy in a really good way, with friends old and new bridging the gap between our previous and current lives. It’s been wonderful to see familiar faces on this side of the world, and while we’ve been showing them some parts of Austin that we know, we’ve also ventured into unknown territory with them. Tourists, all of us.

It’s both exciting and affirming for us, because the more we see of this city, the more settled and happy we are with our decision to be here. Sure, we miss Chicago like crazy sometimes, but that’s a given. You can’t be someplace for 16 years without it having a hold on you in some way.

Thankfully, we have plenty with which to distract ourselves, and here are the highlights:

The weather
 photo 4


After years of weather that fluctuates quite a bit from day to day, it’s nice to see that, even if it’s a bit warmer than I like, it’s consistent here and that summer is summer—hot and sunny. When it’s this predictable, it’s easier to establish a routine, like explore the outside in the mornings, stay in for the afternoon to avoid the peak heat, and swim in the evenings. Not a bad way to enjoy the season, if you ask me.

 

 

Fourth of July

 

photo 2 (71) 
I asked My Guy to get some kind of 4th of July decoration, and he came home with a flag. I suppose that works. Together with the trifle that the girls and I made, we were all set with the festive making. Yes, we’re all about subtlety here, folks.

 

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  Good times



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Sparklers now, fireworks later in the evening, although Little Miss and I were the only ones who drove to see it; the other two passed out in bed.


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First time for everything


 

Touristing


   
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A toast to our long-distance friendship


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Summer, the ATX way – water and more water


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My brave little explorer

 

 

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Drinks at sunset (while My Guy puts three kids to bed at home – he’s sweet like that)



 
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The girls’ first time at the Texas State Capitol. They wanted to see the inside of the big domed building; I wanted the air-conditioning. Everyone wins.




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The House Chamber and Gallery



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The Lone Star


 



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Outdoor BBQ and live music – can’t get any more Austin than this



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Friends since high school, and now business partners



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This is accompanied by fancy cocktails; it’s our kind of double-date night




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Yes, the meat was as good as it looks. I like that the restaurant, Freedmen’s, is housed in a historic building, built by freed slaves. Hence its name.

 

Tonight, there will be some sunset drinks again, and we hope to hit a different nature trail or two with our friends before they leave this Friday. I love that, despite the hot season, we can still always find something to do here. Everyone eventually learns to adapt to their environment, after all. Burning sun? Find shade and water. And BBQ, apparently. Clearly, we’re adapting well.

A flurry of activities in the heat also means the girls and I are now a deeper shade of brown and My Guy is, well, a little less white. Growing up in Malaysia, having fair skin was prized above all features –“Look! She’s so fair, so pretty,” and sometimes I catch myself cringing at my darkened arms until I remember where I am and snap out of it: Wait a minute, who cares? Now, I look at our skin that is turning a deeper, richer shade with each day, and what I see is the evidence of a summer well spent.

And that is a beautiful thing.


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