Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Harry Potter

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I've been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to N as his bedtime story for the past several weeks, with D usually coming in to listen as well.  (I read it to him when he was about N's age.)  We finished it over the weekend, and tonight N asked if I'd start another chapter book.

I said, sure, how about Harry Potter?  This was a devious move on my part, because I tried reading it to D last year, and during the letter delivery sequence, he decided it was too scary and refused to go any further.  But N is much less freaked out by "scary" books and movies (remember, he's the one who came to see Coraline, even though he's almost 3 years younger than D), and he said ok, mostly because he could see that it was a big fat book that would get him my attention for a long time.

So I read the first half chapter to both boys, and then D asked if I'd read the rest of the chapter as his bedtime story.  Gee, I guess you can twist my arm.  So we finished the first chapter, and then D asked if he could keep going on his own.  I said yes, overruling N's pout, and D made it to Diagon Alley before I made him turn out the light.

I'm feeling pleased as punch, both because I think he'll enjoy it, and also because D has been resistant to reading chapter books on his own, in spite of the fact that he's quite capable of doing so.  He reads lots of manga, and has read some of the kids' novelizations set in the star wars universe, but that's about it.  And while I'm willing to concede that Harry Potter isn't great literature, it's a heck of a lot better than those star wars novels. 

Fundamentally, I think I've been feeling a bit left out of D's interests.  I'm not fascinated by Pokemon, and I can't fake it.  I'm not a big fan of manga.  I'm really bad at Lego Star Wars.  So I'm excited to have him interested in something that I like too.

Haagen-Dasz: Five

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Yes, I really am posting about ice cream the day after I wrote about my diet.  It's part of a blog tour, and when they asked me if I wanted free ice cream, I couldn't resist.

The ice cream in question is Haagen-Dazs Five and, as featured in the front page of the Washington Post yesterday (don't they have a recession to report on?), the gimmick is that there are only five ingredients in each flavor and they're all something recognizable — milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and whatever the flavor is.  In other words, it more or less passes Michael Pollan's food rules.

They say that these have less fat than the standard Haagen Dasz flavors, but this is still a premium ice cream, coming in at 220-240 calories for a 1/2 cup serving (and my guess is that most people probably treat the 14 ounce packages as a 2 serving package, if they don't eat the whole thing).  That said, it's very good ice cream. Ginger was probably my favorite flavor of the ones we tried, D liked the passionfruit best, and N liked them all.

So, what am I doing eating ice cream if I'm on a diet?  Well, they're rich enough that a little goes a long way.  I served myself a big bowl of fruit and put a dollop of ice cream on top.  The passionfruit ice cream was amazing with the mango chunks from Trader Joe's, and the ginger, mint and brown sugar all went well with strawberries.  As Pollan says, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

TBR: The Instinct Diet

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

This January, I got back from vacation and hopped on the scale, and was horrified to see a number that I had previously only seen when pregnant — yes, I really did weigh more than I did immediately postpartum.  It shouldn't have surprised me — all my pants were too tight.  Somewhere along the way, I had added an extra 10 pounds to the usual "I could really stand to lose 10 pounds."  So I started looking around for a diet plan that I could follow.  I'm pretty skeptical of diets, but I also know that all of these "lifestyle" approaches that claim that you can lose weight effortlessly by making simple substitutions don't work for me, because I already drink skim milk, don't drink soda, rarely have chips, etc.

Over at US Food Policy, Parke spoke highly of The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep It Off, by Susan Roberts, so I decided to give it a try.  Eight weeks later, I've lost the "extra" 10 pounds, and am finding it painless enough that I'm going to keep going and try to get rid of the "could stand to lose" weight.

Roberts goes through a whole explanation of the different "instincts" that make us overeat, but fundamentally, the diet is about eating a nutritionally balanced diet, restricting calories, and using a bunch of "tricks" so that you don't feel deprived and hungry along the way.  So, you eat lots of soup and salad, because they're high volume.  You put the most fattening flavorful things on the outside (chocolate on strawberries, dressing on salad) so you maximize the taste punch.  You eat mostly whole grain or high fiber carbs so they digest slowly and make you feel full.  You eat a wide variety of veggies, but rotate through a limited set of main dishes, and have a choice of a starch with dinner or dessert, but not both.

The book includes both recipes and suggestions for how to follow the diet using mostly packaged foods.  In general, the recipes are quite good — the thai peanut dressing for salad is amazing, and all the soups have been good enough that I'd make them even when I wasn't trying to watch my weight.  However, the "pizza" base was all but inedible — possibly because I couldn't find the white wheat bran she recommended anywhere, either online or looking at health stores.  But the no-cook alternative is to use a low-carb pita bread, which worked out ok for me.  I thought the "I-diet bread" was awful the first time I had it, but it's grown on me over time.  (And one of Roberts' instincts is indeed familiarity.)

So, I don't think the diet is perfect, but it's working for me.  And the Amazon reviews are overwhelmingly positive.  This may be the best diet book you've never heard of.

Sorry, this post is attracting too much spam.  I'm going to close it to comments.

a night at the movies

Monday, March 30th, 2009

I'm trying to think what movies I have seen in a theater in the last 12 months.  It's possible I'm missing one, but I think the complete list is:

  • Wall-E
  • Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull
  • Waltz with Bashir
  • Coraline
  • Monsters v. Aliens

The key point here is that four of these are primarily kids movies, and the most recent two are both 3-D.  (As it happens, the adult movie was also animated, but that's another story.)  I've just about given up on going to the movies as a way to spend an evening out.  The theater experience just isn't enough better than watching it at home on Netflix to justify the cost of a movie ticket.  (Let alone the cost of a babysitter.)  On the not-terribly-frequent occasions when T. and I go out in the evening, we'd rather spend the time talking or doing something rather than sitting next to each other in a theater.

The 3-D movies are, I think, the theaters' current best hope at answering the question of what they can offer in terms of an experience that a Blu-Ray player and a widescreen TV doesn't.  The new technology really is impressive.  If I'm going to see a movie that's available in the 3-D, it's worth the couple of extra bucks for the experience.  But, at some point pretty soon, the novelty of it is going to wear off, and the question will be whether the movies stand on their own.  Coraline passed that test for me.  Monsters vs Aliens, not so much, although the boys loved it.

The other thing that theaters offer is the experience of seeing a movie early, when your friends are still talking about it.  Almost none of my friends see first run movies either, so that's not a real factor for me.  (Interestingly, I got a pitch today from a service that rents recent hardcover books, in a Netflix-like manner.  Their argument for why you should pay $20 a month for something that you can get for free from your public library is that you'll get the popular books faster.  Again, there's certainly no short of older books that I haven't read, but I can see the appeal in the right circumstances.)

The sales data suggests that movie attendance is up in spite of the bad economy, or maybe because of it.  Including popcorn, it cost the four of us $60 to go to the movies, which certainly isn't something that fits in my budget terribly often.  But if you're giving up your family vacation, going to the movies can seem like a cheap way to splurge.


Monday, March 16th, 2009

I noticed this week that I seem to have arrived at a new parenting stage, one where the emotional work of parenting is often harder than the physical.  My boys can dress themselves (most of the time), use the bathroom without assistance (most of the time), get themselves a glass of water.  D can entertain himself for hours between reading and playing with his DS.  N isn't quite so self-maintaining, but on a weekend morning, the boys generally can play together for a good hour before the arguing gets loud enough that we can't pretend not to notice any more.

But the emotional work is challenging.  N gave me huge hugs and kisses before I went away on a 36 hour trip for work, but then ignored me on my return.  D says "sorry" for hurting his brother without thinking or meaning it, but bursts into tears when we press him.  Both of them are constantly complaining about headaches or stomachaches, but it doesn't seem to stop them from running around like lunatics.

Checking in

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I'm fine, just very busy at work.  I went to Connecticut and back for a hearing on Tuesday, and had an audioconference this afternoon.  It's a sign of the state of my life that a 14 hour round trip train trip felt like a nice break. 

I took advantage of the trip to make some progress in the huge pile of unread papers that has been accumulating on my desk.  It made me realize that I've just been radically underestimating how long it's going to take me to read things, and that even if I was 100% efficient at work and didn't ever check personal messages, I still wouldn't have time to get to everything that strikes me as interesting.

Prosper as a microcosm of the banking crisis

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

I've written here a few times before about Prosper, the social lending site.  Last year at tax time I noted that you could see the recession starting to show up in the statement, with two loans sold as delinquent, and more and more loans running behind in payment.  Well, this year I've got a bunch more delinquent loans. 

What's annoying though is that Prosper is reporting them as "charge-offs" meaning that they don't think they'll ever be repaid, but they're still trying to collect them.  This makes it questionable to claim them as losses on my taxes, even though the one loan where they subsequently made some collections was reported as income.*  By contrast, if they sold the loans for less than face value, it could have been a standard capital loss.  My understanding is that they tried to sell them, but couldn't find anyone who would buy them.  Sound familiar?

What makes this a less than complete miniature version of the banking crisis is that Prosper didn't sell tranches on its loans — when you bought a share of a loan, it was just a straight fractional share, with everyone getting a corresponding share of the monthly payments. 

When Prosper suddenly stopped taking new money in the fall, they claimed it was because they were entering a SEC quiet period.  My understanding is that this wasn't exactly voluntary — the SEC said that they weren't just a middleman, but were creating securities without any oversight.  Frankly, I'd be shocked if they ever reopen for business.

*I've googled, and it's clear that some people are planning on claiming the charge-offs as losses.  But the IRS looks very closely at losses that aren't matched with a 1099-B, and the $30 I would save on my taxes is not worth the increased risk of being audited.  Even if I wasn't a DC policy wonk.

PTA report

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

My blogging time tonight got consumed by putting together the PTA newsletter. 

I'm not sure whether anyone reads the newsletter, as most of the content is repeated by single-topic flyers included in the take-home folders.  But it's a chance to provide a bit more advance notice of events and to thank the volunteers who make everything happen.

I picked this job to volunteer for because it's easy to do on my own schedule.  But I don't feel like it's allowed me to get to know as many people as I'd like, since I get all the info for it by email.  Volunteering at the election day bakesale was much better for that.

The hot topic right now is the school schedules.  For years, a group of parents have been campaigning to rejigger the schedule so that the high school students don't have to get up so early.  There's a bunch of research that says that teens really are biologically wired to stay up late.  But, the same buses do multiple routes a day, so if the high schools start later, most of the elementary schools will start earlier.

I don't really personally mind if the school starts at 7.50 (as would happen under the proposed plan).  The school is right on my way to work, so I'd probably drop the boys off in the morning on my way out, rather than having them waiting for the bus at the crack of dawn.  Before we moved, D's school started at 8 am. 

But the principal is really concerned about it.  The worries that she expressed are:

  • older kids not being home in the afternoon to watch younger kids
  • teachers who live a long way out not being able to make it in on time and so transferring to other schools
  • overall, need to provide coverage for a longer day (since it will start earlier but aftercare will have to run just as late).

I don't really know how this will play out.

In somewhat-related political news, Arne Duncan says he's going to send his daughter to public school, but in Arlington, not DC.

still buzzing

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

OK, I know you're all probably getting sick of my obsessing over the inauguration, but indulge me for one more post.  I'll get back to being my usual jaded wonky self soon enough, I promise.

I loved these pictures of Obama's first day on the job.  It still hardly seems real that he's actually the president.  So it's amazing to see him in the Oval Office, getting down to business.

At work, everyone was trading their inauguration stories.  It sounded like the people who just wandered down to the Mall and found spots near the Washington Monument generally had a better experience than many of the people who had tickets, who spent a lot of time on lines to get through security (and some of whom didn't make it in at all).

I really enjoyed reading about the experiences of these kids from Chicago who were selected for a trip to DC at Share My Inauguration.*  They clearly appreciated the historic moment, but also had a definite kids' perspective on the whole experience.

As I said yesterday, I had a better time at the inauguration for not being responsible for keeping D safe and happy.  I think he probably showed good judgment in turning down my invitation to come with me.  But I'm also a little sad that I don't think he appreciates quite how momentous a day it was.  He's learned about segregation and Martin Luther King, Jr. in school, but it's a pretty abstract concept to him.  And there's something lovely about that innocence too.  But I wonder if 8 years from now, he's going to be pissed that I didn't schlepp him down to the Mall so he could claim bragging rights.

One of the things that was interesting about the inauguration is that everyone there was consciously aware that it was a Historical Moment.  I wonder if the people who attended the March on Washington knew right away that it would be Important.  I'm pretty sure that most of the people who attended Woodstock (the other comparison I heard a lot) didn't know that it was an Event until after the fact.

* Full disclosure: I was asked to plug this site as part of MomCentral blog tour, but I'm happy to do so.  They seem to be great kids, and I'm glad that they got the opportunity to be here.

A day to remember

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

It really was a day to remember.

I'm assuming that anyone reading this has already read news coverage, so I'm only going to post about my personal experience:

The transportation logistics were convoluted, but not terrible given the huge number of people they were transporting.  The 16S bus we had been promised didn't exist, but that didn't really matter.  Bypassing L'Enfant Plaza and getting dumped at Judiciary Square instead probably cost us an hour of walking around, but gained us the experience of getting to walk through the 3rd street tunnel.  On the way home, we didn't even try to get on the metro near the Mall, but walked across the 14th street bridge to the Pentagon.  We passed a woman who suggested that it would be grand to have no cars and pedestrians walking down the middle of Independence Ave all the time.

The lines for the ticketed areas were a total mess.  The silver line literally looped back onto itself at one point.  We lucked into being right nearby when they opened up a new gate, but I'm not at all surprised that some ticket holders never got in.  There was no one managing the lines or providing information that I could find.

The Mall was a madhouse
(we were jam packed so tightly that I literally couldn't move my arms
for most of the time, and I could only see small pieces of the Jumbotron, let alone
the actual events) but it was still a glorious day.  Everyone was just
so happy and excited and buzzing.  I've never been in that tightly packed a crowd other than for short periods on the subway, but it was ok.

I really wasn't that cold, except on the way home.  I guess we were packed in so tightly we kept each other warm, like penguins.

That said, I'm glad that D turned down my offer to come.  He would have been tired and uncomfortable and unable to see, and I would have had him on my shoulders for hours, and we both would have been cranky.  It was a day for going with the flow, and I'm particularly bad at going with the flow when I feel responsible for other people's happiness.

The crowd was more integrated than any event I've attended that I can think of.  The woman in front of me (white) was 6 months pregnant and part of a group that was 4 adults and 16 children. She's a lot braver than I am.  The woman next to her (black) said she was only there because her 91 year old mother wanted to be there.

I'm not generally a fan of Rick
Warren, but it was moving to hear so many people around me saying the
Lord's Prayer under their breath around me.

The crowd was a lot more rowdy than you could tell from the TV
broadcasts — there was lots of cheering for Ted Kennedy and Jimmy
Carter as well as Bill Clinton and all of the Obamas, and there were
pretty loud boos for Bush, Lieberman, and Clarence Thomas.  (Some for
McCain, but not as many as for the other three.)   And there was lots
of singing of hey nah, good bye.  Chants of Yes We Can and Obama while the dignitaries were arriving.

I don't think the people around us
knew that Aretha was going to sing, so there were whooops when she was

I couldn't really hear most of the speeches — the audio wasn't very
loud, and there was also an echo effect from the multiple jumbotrons —
so I watched the whole thing over again once we finally made it home.

Here's a photo I took during Obama's speech — by holding my camera over my head and snapping in the general direction of the screen.  The view from my eye level was much worse.


Forgot to mention: Everyone in my section was amused by a squirrel who was clearly freaked out that there were so many people under ITS TREE.  At one point it got up the nerve to jump from one tree to another, and there was an audible cheer in our area.