Newest Spurts: rioting against risotto and dealing with lint

August 4, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

Lately the kids have been bugging me to let them help more with chores. I don’t know whether it’s because my children are strange or because this is that sweet spot most people talk about with their kids. You know, after the tedium of diapers and stopping to examine every single bug on the sidewalk but before the nightmare of slamming doors and being told how awful we are as parents.

Regardless, I’m making the most of it.

One day last week Eleven wouldn’t let the idea go, so I told her to take the clothes out of the washer and put them in the dryer. I explained the trick of giving each item of clothing a little shake before tossing it into the dryer to help it dry that much faster. Then I told her about the lint trap and how it needed to be checked.

“Do you know what lint is?” I asked, realizing its dishwater grayness can sometimes freak people out.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied immediately. “I’ve seen enough episodes of Full House. Danny Tanner, lint—I know all about it.”

Who said 1990s sitcoms were all froth and no substance?


Earlier this week we arrived at the YMCA for camp, and the kids started climbing out of the car. Eleven grabbed her snack bag and water bottle. Nine grabbed her snack bag and made for the door.

“Water bottle,” Eleven called out.

“Just bring it,” I told her. “I know it’s her responsibility to remember it, but as a big sister it’s your responsibility to help out your little sister when you can.”

She didn’t say anything as we walked toward the sliding door entrance of the building.

“Of course, eventually the younger siblings learn to take care of their own things,” I said. “Then us older siblings keep doing things for them anyway, just to annoy them.”

“Anything that annoys her is good,” Eleven quipped.

“You know that the younger ones usually want to annoy their older siblings too,” I said.

“I know.”

Good. As long as we’re square on that. Don’t want anyone telling me later that they weren’t warned.


Like many parents who own the duty of meal planning, sometimes I get stuck for new ideas. Occasionally I have random items left in my fridge from other meals and want to try something new with them. Earlier this week the item was orange marmalade, not a favorite by a long stretch in our house, and I decided to tackle a couple of Rachael Ray’s recipes.

Rachael and I—or, her shows and I, at least—go way back, all the way to the earliest days of my marriage, and I own several of her cookbooks. I’ve made many dishes from the books to varying degrees of success. Sometimes it’s as much about trying a new technique as anything else.

The orange marmalade made its way into an orange-balsamic glaze for some turkey breasts, and Rachael suggested a lemon risotto to go with it. I’d never made risotto before, although I’ve watched her and other TV chefs do it, so I figured this was a good chance to try something new. Broaden my own skills, as it were. I added a side of steamed green beans and decided to call it a meal.

The turkey came together really well. The green beans came in a steam-ready bag from the store, so they came out fast. The risotto took the longest, which surprised me. I knew it would take a while, but Rachael called it at about 18 minutes. I found myself standing there for almost 45, still stirring and waiting for all the liquid to absorb (although I did bump up the quantity in her recipe, so that’s why it took so long.)

When we sat down to eat, I got a thumbs up on the green beans and the turkey. The risotto? Not so much.

“It’s okay,” Nine said, trying to hide just how much she really didn’t like it.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” Eleven said.

Maybe there wasn’t enough lemon zest? I don’t know. My husband asked me how I made it, and I described the process of adding liquid a little at a time and stirring it and waiting for it to evaporate before adding the next ladle of liquid.

Eleven looked down at her plate and back at me. “Well, now I feel bad.”

I shook my head. “Don’t. That’s how we learn, right? We try new things, and some of them go well and some don’t.”

Neither of the girls said much about the meal after that, but I could see in their faces that they appreciated how much time and effort had gone into making it. I hope they can see this as a positive experience. Sometimes you only learn by doing; just reading about it or watching others doesn’t cut it.


This afternoon Eleven, Nine, and I got into the car to drive to the other side of the neighborhood to drop Nine off at a friend’s house. As we made our way, I spotted a turtle plodding its way down the street. I slowed down so the kids could see it.

“Mamma, we have to move it to the side of the road!” Nine, our resident animal lover, said.

“How are we going to do that?” I asked.

“Yeah, how?” Eleven asked.

“We have to pick it up!” Nine said.

“What if it bites you?” Eleven asked.

“I’ll hold it far away from me. Please, Mamma, we don’t want cars to hit it.”

I have to admit, even as I slowed the car down, stopped it, and put it in Reverse, a thousand conflicting thoughts ran through my mind. The desire for the greater good—“Helping animals helps the environment!” “Be kind to all creatures!” “Show compassion to those less fortunate than us!”—battled with the common-sense approach that infiltrates a parent’s life—“The turtle could have diseases!” “People driving down the street will get mad at us for blocking the road!” “What if the turtle bits off your leg?”

Well…maybe not common sense all the time.

As soon as I put the car in Park, though, Nine unbuckled her seat belt and opened the car door. To her credit, she didn’t make a beeline to the turtle right away. She eyeballed the street to make sure no one was driving like a crazy person. By this time one car had come to a stop behind me, and an oncoming car had stopped to see what we were up to.

I opened my own door and got halfway out. Nine made her way to the turtle, which had started to figure out that all was not right with its world. It had already pulled three legs into its shell, and by the time Nine approached it the fourth leg and its head had tucked inside its mobile home too. I exchanged a look with the lady behind me, and she smiled back.

Nine turned back to me. “Can you help me?”

She must have seen my own hesitation, because she turned right back around, picked up the shell a little gingerly, and walked it across the street. She placed it in the grass in front of a home and trotted back to the car. As soon as she got in, I hit the button for the sliding door to shut.

“Make sure you scrub your hands really well when you get to A.’s house,” I said.

“I will,” she said, and even without looking at her I could hear the smile.

We spend many hours watching documentaries of fascinating places and creatures. I’m glad that Nine got the chance to exercise her love for animals today.



Latest Chart: How a tape deck got us on the Titanic

July 28, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Who knew that a cassette player could inspire a discussion about the Titanic?

At the start of the summer, I bought a cassette player for my studio. You know, the kind with the little black handle and the CD player built into the top. Of course, this tape deck also comes with a jack where you can plug in an mP3 player, but I can ignore it and still play my music retro style.

I finally got around to addressing the tape player. Eleven has been bugging me all week to let her help with household chores more, so I invited her to go into the basement with me to grab the box of tapes I knew I’d stashed down there when we first moved in last year.

“Why do you need tape?” she asked, when I told her I was going down to get one.

“Not tape,” I said, “A tape. As in, a cassette.”

“I have tape in my room,” Nine said, trailing along.

“Not that kind of tape,” I said, although I caught the grin that told me she was being facetious.

I pulled out the box and Eleven offered to carry it upstairs for me, even though it was a little heavy. At the last minute, I looked in the plastic tub with CDs and decided to grab one to check the quality of the CD player. I pondered my choices for a few minutes then pulled out the soundtrack for the movie Titanic.

“Oh, no,” Nine said, “not that. Why do you want to listen to something so sad?”

My girls, of course, have never listened to the soundtrack of the film. They may have heard it in passing, but they’ve never opened the CD case in anticipation of the dulcet tones of what the ship meant with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet falling in love on it. For me, however, the Titanic CD holds many fond memories.

Even though I really wanted to play the CD, at the last minute I couldn’t resist the allure of the tape deck and pulled out a cassette instead. One of the best things about technology from the 1980s and 1990s is that it’s pretty straightforward. Even today, you just open it up and plug it in. That’s pretty much it. Nothing fancy to program; no novel-length instructions to read.

After listening to one of my most favorite Hindi songs (Kay Sera Sera from the Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit film Pukar, in case you’re wondering,) talk turned back to the Titanic and how its story related to the movie.

“Isn’t it sad?” Nine wanted to know.

“Well, the story of the ship is sad, but the music is lovely,” I said. “It really sounds like what the ship would.”

Somehow that sparked a conversation that brought in elements of the movie and the actual sinking, weaving the two in a narrative that lasted for almost 20 minutes. The girls wanted to know about the story of the film, and I gave them the short version. They were intrigued by the fact that Rose, Kate Winslet’s character, was engaged to one person and falls in love with another.

“He didn’t treat her well,” I said of Rose’s fiancé.

“Yeah, well, men take advantage of their wives because they think they’re weak,” Nine said pragmatically.

I thought for a moment about answering her, but then Eleven piped up.

“What was her fiance’s name?”

I tried to remember Billy Zane’s character’s name (Cal,) but for the life of me I couldn’t at the time.

“I don’t know,” I finally said.

“Bob,” Eleven said. “He’s Bob the Builder.”

The three of us giggled, and then I went on with the story of Rose and Jack. We talked about the class difference between the two and the fact that Cal, Rose’s fiancé, survives in the end while Jack dies.

“But why?” Nine said. “You would think the bad guy would die in the end.”

“I know,” I said, “but he and Rose don’t end up together.”

I described the scene at the end where Rose hides from Cal so that she doesn’t have to leave the dock with him.

“Yes, see, Bob used to build part-time,” Eleven explained, “but being with Rose distracted him from building. When he didn’t find Rose, that’s when he started doing it full time and became…”

“Bob the Builder!” we all finished in a chorus.

I shared the excitement of the Oscar awards when Titanic came out and how the makeup department got a special nod for its work, particularly toward the end of the film when all the bodies of the dead passengers are shown just floating in the water. Our conversation continued in the car as we made our way to the Y for the kids’ half day of camp.

“But what was so special about the makeup?” Nine asked.

I explained how a body bloated by water takes on a different visage and that the makeup department most likely had to do some serious research so their work would appear realistic when the time came to shoot those scenes. That led us down a short rabbit trail about plausibility in a story, both film and written, and how an audience is willing to believe almost anything if it’s presented in a way that makes sense within the larger story world.

As we chatted, I remembered all of a sudden that a writing client of mind had written a pretty compelling novel about the Titanic to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the ship’s sinking. I shared that story in brief with the girls as well. The more we talked, the more details of the movie, my client’s book, and the general popularity of the story of the ill-fated ship came back. It struck me, as we left the house for camp, that the movie itself is now almost 20 years old.

Because Eleven and Nine have no emotional attachment to James Cameron’s film, they were able to joke around about how Rose might have wanted to be free of all the men in her life anyway. We also had time and space for more inquisitive lines of thought as Nine wondered aloud what would have happened to Rose, Jack, and everyone else if the Titanic hadn’t sunk. Of course, the answer to that was an easy one: the movie, most likely, wouldn’t have been made.

After dropping the girls at camp, I continued to think about Titanic, the ship that inspired the movie, and my client’s book. I emailed the client later to ask about her novel, and I spent part of the day reminiscing about what the soundtrack meant to me. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks pondering the past, and today’s discussion is proof positive that while we never know what parenting will bring us on a day-to-day basis we know it’ll always surprise us.

Latest Chart: The fear in planning a birthday party

July 7, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Ever since she was three years old, Eleven has been celebrating her birthday with her little sister. Both of them have summer birthdays that are two weeks apart, and when they were younger it was an easy way to save money. Plus, when kids are little, they really can’t argue much. Show them balloons and cake, and they’re happy to go along with whatever else you might propose.

This year, however, because we’re going to be out of town for Eight’s birthday, the girls and I talked about something we’d never broached before: a separate party for Eleven.

“Yes, finally,” Eleven said when I asked them about the idea.

Eight didn’t say anything for a little while. She probably didn’t want to admit just how much it bothered her that her big sister and de facto best friend wanted to separate on something that had always been a “both girls” kind of endeavor. Also, lately, Eleven has begun to assert her feelings in more thoughtful ways. More outspoken ways.

She’s letting us know what she wants.

The entire family tossed around ideas, and eventually we settled on doing a birthday party at home. I smiled and nodded and pretended to get excited as I offered to look up party ideas online. All the while I hoped Eleven didn’t see my apprehension.

This would be the first time we were going to host a party at home, and I really had no idea how to go about entertaining a bunch of kids.

In all the years past, whenever we’ve done parties, we’ve always left the entertainment up to others. The Little Gym and other party places happily gave us the freedom to set up double birthday parties. I went all out to plan amazing gift baskets in lieu of goody bags (spending no more than $5 per basket, no less) and elaborate menus, but I chickened out at the thought of bringing the girls’ friends home. What, I thought, could I possibly do to keep them engaged?

This year, especially, felt like we hit a new milestone. Eleven has become more aware of what other people think. Thankfully she’s in a school with a positive environment and one where the majority of her friends lift her up. She’s never endured any serious bullying, and she’s certainly never had to deal with a “mean girl.”

I’m more aware now than ever before that my older daughter has entered the life stage where little things have begun to matter more. I want to do everything within my power not to embarrass her. I realize that may be impossible. Once she gets deep into her teens, even asking, “How was your day?” in front of her friends may produce an eye roll. But I figure if I can do anything to actively avoid any potential mortification, I will.

I wanted to make sure we planned something fun for Eleven and her friends. Food wasn’t a problem. Again, pizza and cake usually induce smiles and eagerness from anyone. Because Eleven’s birthday was on a Saturday this year, we decided to hold the party on her actual birthday and invited people over from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

I couldn’t help wondering just what we were going to do for that long.

My trepidation notwithstanding, I Googled things like “ideas for tween birthday party.” Of course, thousands of websites popped up ready to offer advice, and after combing through several of them I made a list of Minute Games. These are games that use common household items and that are timed to be completed in—you guessed it—a minute.

I offered Eleven the idea, and she smiled wide.

“That’s a great idea! Can you show me the games?”

I pulled up the Word doc with the games and we discussed different options. The more we talked, the more I realized that I hadn’t totally bungled this. On a subconscious level, I had used what I knew about my child and come up with a solution that she actually liked.

We talked and planned and shopped for supplies. In the end we came up with six games and a blind auction. These were the games we picked:

Runny Nose, in which kids have to pull out as many tissues as possible from a tissue box in a minute or less (we ended up splitting the kids into pairs and making this a little more complicated by telling one kid to pull out the tissue and passing it to the second kid who had to fold it into a neat square);

Marshmallow Toss, where the kids would be split into pairs and one would toss the marshmallows while the other caught them in a paper cup (we used mini marshmallows, and by the end of the game we had marshmallows all over the floor!);

Stack the Cups, where the kids would have to build a pyramid of plastic cups and then take it all down again (we split the kids into three teams and made it a little more complicated by placing the stacks of cups on one side of the room; one teammate was responsible for running cups back and forth to the others who would have to pass them down the line and let the teammate on the end do the stacking and breakdown; the catch was everyone could only use one hand);

Cereal “Straws,” in which kids would get some Cheerios and see how many Cheerios they could thread onto pipe cleaners (this one ran pretty much as described);

That’s a Wrap, where kids would get a handful of Hershey kisses and see how many they could unwrap in a minute (again, we told the kids they could only use one hand to do the unwrapping, and later on we handed out paper bags so the kids could keep the kisses they unwrapped);

Listen Carefully, in which kids have to listen to a grownup shake a soda can that contains a mystery item (the website suggested nails or screws) and guess what the item is and how many are in the can (we ended up not playing this game because we ran out of time.)

In the blind auction, we handed out fake money to the kids and made them bid on our goody bags. I bought reusable bags in a variety of fun designs and colors and put things like books, fancy water bottles, and small board games inside. Each bag got one item, and no one know what was in each bag. After the auction ended, we gave the kids some time to barter with one another if they wanted to swap bags and prizes.

When all the kids had arrived, I took a minute to welcome everyone and explain the idea of the Minute Games. None of them rolled their eyes. None of them looked bored. In fact, when we asked them to help clean up after the Marshmallow Toss (which we played first so we could get the flying sugar out of the way) they all scrambled to pick up the abundance of marshmallows on the floor.

We played the five games and did the auction, and then everyone ate pizza and cake. After lunch we had about 15 minutes left in the allotted party time and told the kids they could enjoy some free play. And they did. No complaints; no demands.

I was astonished. We’d gotten through the entire party, and everyone was still smiling. No one had complained even once that they had gotten bored, and all the kids seemed to have a good time. Early in the party Eight started to grumble about something small, and I took her aside out of view of everyone else and made sure to let her know I expected her to get involved. We had invited a friend of hers to the party too, so she certainly wasn’t without company, and she just needed to accept it already that this party was about her sister alone.

For a few seconds Eight’s face crumpled in disappointment, but I didn’t have time to listen to her grievances. I sent her right back out to the rest of the group, and her friend called to her and everything was fine again. Even Eight had a good time.

After everyone left, Eleven FaceTimed with her grandparents and they “opened” presents together. Eleven spent the rest of her day sorting out what presents she wanted and what she didn’t, and then she and Eight were together again enjoying the spoils of the party.

That night as I went to give Eleven a good night kiss, I asked her whether she had fun.

“Yup,” she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice.

I was so glad. In the dark, she couldn’t see my face. Otherwise she would have detected that I wasn’t just asking the standard parent question. I genuinely wanted her to approve of what we’d done that morning.

Maybe, then, this is part of what parenting is all about. Putting in the time and effort and energy to engage our children and showing them through our words and actions that we’re doing all we can for their good and their enjoyment. Even with teen angst coming in the future, I have a feeling that starting with the right intentions and following through on those intentions will count for something.