I Wish That I Could Go To Just One Party That Didn’t Have The Word “Birthday” In It.

Wait, did I ever say that I would actually post here on a regular basis? Is that really what people do when they have blogs – post things regularly?

They do?

Really?

Oh.

My bad. So anyway, Sarah turns three today – three! – and as you would expect we’re all pretty excited. Admittedly, the significance of this particular day might be stronger felt if we hadn’t been celebrating her birthday for a whole week already, but who am I to complain? The more parties the better, right?

Believe it or not, we’re the kind of parents who fully intend to keep these annual ceremonies small-ish and manageable. I’m looking for a word here – dignified doesn’t really work, not with children…tasteful, no… free of clowns, jugglers, balloon animals and bounce houses, too wordy…how about…underwhelming. Yes, that’s the word. We’d like to keep all of these parties underwhelming. The idea is that Sarah will grow up having learned the value of a nice, quiet evening spent with a small group of well-chosen, and ethnically diverse, friends. I’m thinking tapas. She’ll thank us, I’m sure.

Well, okay, so I’m kind of kidding. Bounce houses and jugglers are actually awesome, and Sarah has already shown an affinity for balloon animals (at least, those not attempted by me), so of course we’d never deny her the pleasures of a normal , whimsical childhood. We do still prefer to keep things small, however (and if a clown dares to come within 50 yards of us I will call the cops), but as any parent knows, what we’d prefer to do and what winds up happening are often two different things. Particularly when one factors in the needs of one’s extended family members, Sarah’s current schoolmates, and the kids and parents from her past “mommies” group – many of whom have already had you over to their kid’s birthdays so you know what that means.  Well I don’t know about you, but there’s no way that we’re fitting all these people under one roof in one day, so it looks like we’ll have more than one party – in this case, make that four parties.

We had our first party last Saturday, and I have to admit it went swimmingly. And no, it wasn’t at a pool, smart guy, it was at a gym, specifically the “Kidnastics” in Los Alamitos. Kidnastics, as the name implies,  is a pretty straight-forward and self-explanitory concept, and if you need any advice or guidance as to what it entails then for you I feel only pity.  We have been going to this gym weekly, and it’s an absolutely fabulous time for all involved. This was actually a duel birthday party, an old playmate of hers having turned three a week prior, and was a co-production of the respective parents. You would think that that would lessen the workload, especially taking into account that both we and the other parents wanted to eschew all excessive elements (no gifts please, no decorations, and no party favors), but that would only have been the case if one parent hadn’t offered to make the cakes at home rather than buy one fully decorated, as is customary. That parent was a fool.

That parent was me.

I do all of the cooking around here, but baking cakes is not my thing. Oh, I’ve tried – I remember struggling two years ago on Lizzy’s birthday, hovering over a large mixing bowl with my cheap, Target-bought hand mixer, waiting what seemed like hours for the damned butter and sugar to cream. Well, I had no intention of doing that again, and vowed early on to use only store-bought cake mix, but I still wanted to do something nice. I knew there’d be at least 15 kids so I decided to make a double-layer sheet cake, which I could then frost decoratively.  Both kids’ names would be written, in perfect script, with icing.

Figuring out how many boxes of cake mix would be needed for the sheet cakes was a trick – it turns out two boxes will fill one sheet tray with a bit left over, which means that I would need to mix up four boxes, eyeball how much to put into each sheet tray and then bake either a small cake or several cupcakes with the leftovers. There was also the matter of adjusting the cooking time (since most boxes include directions for a smaller cake), baking them without overcooking the sides or undercooking the middle, and then – if I were lucky enough to get this far – inverting the cakes out of the trays cleanly without destroying them.

And yes, ultimately I had to run back to the store for more ingredients – not only because I wrecked one cake by undercooking it but because I realized, after staring at the sheet trays and going over the numbers in my increasingly panicky head, that I would not have enought to feed all the kids and the parents. So two sheets of cake turned into four (plus the one that I had to redo), and the amount of icing I had planned to make doubled.

[On a side note – if you’ve made cakes from a mix you know that you still need some ingredients – the first mix I bought required lots of butter, eggs and milk; the second (when I went back the store was out of the original stuff, natch) needed oil, eggs and water. Add to that the ingredients required to make the icing – 10x sugar, margerine, shortening, milk, vanilla and food coloring – and you suddenly know with absolute certainty that anyone who says it’s cheaper to make your cakes at home rather than buy them fully baked and decorated is a complete ass.]

So ten boxes of cake mix, two dozen eggs, a bottle of vegetable oil, one pound of butter, a half pound of margerine, six pounds of powdered sugar, a half gallon of milk and an immeasurable amount of shortening later, and I had my two cakes. Each cake was decorated in light blue and dusty-rose pink (initially designed to be gender-neutral but ultimately looking very pastel),  and each read Happy Birthday!!! Isaac and Sarah in purple icing. A large candle in the shape of the number “3,” purchased at the local Ralphs, would top off the ensemble.

As I said, the party went off without a hitch – the kids played happily while the parents chatted, we didn’t run out of pizza or drinks, and the wonderful staff at Kidnastics no only entertained and monitored the children while the parents gabbed, but also cleaned everything up at the end.

And, of course, we didn’t even touch the second cake.

So that’s one down and three to go. Sarah’s classroom is having a little thing today (another joint venture with a classmate), we’ll do something just the three of us this coming Saturday, and then we’re heading out to New England to visit the family where yet another party, this time with lots of alcohol and seafood on the menu (finally!),  awaits us. At this rate I figure we’ll be done celebrating some time this coming August.

Oh yeah – anyone need a cake?

Juiced! or: How I Made it Through Eight Days Without Solid Food.

I’ve always been someone who loves food a little too much, and, like many a Miller before me, I don’t need the holidays as an excuse for over-eating or heavy drinking.  I’ve always known my limits and had the metabolism to keep me relatively healthy despite my appetites, but I’m rapidly leaving my thirties now and I’m beginning to think that the aforementioned metabolism is pulling the old bait-and-switch. After gorging myself this holiday season on, among other things, roast turkey, shrimp scampi, goose, lobster and clams with butter, pounds and pounds of pasta and endless pies – washed down with plenty of beer, wine, vodka, whiskey, champagne and, on one regrettable occasion, a combination of all five – it became pretty clear to me that I was starting to look a little on the heavy side. As in fat.

A quick trip to the closet to try on some old pants confirmed my fears. It was time for some detoxification, and I’m not talking about any old diet, either – my gastric excesses required something much more significant. Over the years I’ve learned to listen to my body, and what my body was telling me this time was that it needed at least a week of staying away from the solids all together.

The solution? An eight-day juice fast.

I had fasted before some years ago, if two and a half days of consuming nothing but water and herbal tea can be called fasting. I did this on a whim, and I must say I managed it quite well, though I ultimately decided to break the fast prematurely after realizing, with no little degree of clarity, that I was really rather hungry. I’ll never forget the first meal I had that day: a Chicken Caesar Salad. There’s no easy way to describe the effects that first bite of crispy romaine, cheesy croutons and baked poultry had on me.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those sculptures by the Italian Baroque master Bernini, where there’s a person – usually a saint or some biblical character like St. Theresa or the Profit Daniel – who’s in the throws of a sort of spiritual ecstasy, hand clutching the heart and face lifted upward towards the heavens.  Well, that was me after the first bite. A pleasant warmth enveloped my body, my mind cleared instantly, and I was nearly overcome by a general sense of goodwill toward all. My memory is foggy, but I can’t say for sure that I didn’t hear angels singing.

So yeah, I broke that fast rather early, but one thing that I took from that experience was the realization that I could go that long without food – I mean, two and a half days! – and without much difficulty. Let’s face it – most of us would either collapse from low blood-sugar levels or go into a ravenous rampage if we missed even one meal. Add to that the abstention from alcohol and caffeine, and for a food-and-drink lover like myself the task would seem positively Sisyphean.

I did a little research and found pretty quickly that with a juice fast you simply run whatever vegetables (and some fruit) you can find through a juicer and drink about eight ounces of the swill down with an equal amount of water whenever you’d normally be eating. That means that I’d be getting a constant source of raw vegetable nutrition – enough to keep me humming along for days – just no solids or animal bits.  The idea is that denying your system all the junk it’s been forced to manage over the years will give it time to take a breather, look around, and refocus its energy on other, more important tasks.

As far as side effects go, there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Sure, my research indicated that headaches, bad breath, oily skin, general irritability and the frequent and rapid exodus of whatever lurks in my intestines from my body would await me, but let’s face it – that sounds like a normal Saturday morning for me. In fact, higher energy levels and clarity of mind seemed to be in the cards as well, along with some serious weight loss (estimated at an average of a pound a day). So I wasn’t worried about feeling weak.

Fortunately we have a juicer; all I needed was the produce, and a trip to the Sunday farmer’s market here in Long Beach provided all the veggies I would need. Pounds of carrots, cukes, celery, beets, tomatoes, kale – you name it, I loaded up on it. In retrospect there are several vegetables I now know to avoid in the future – I’m talking to you, turnips and cabbage – but for the most part any common vegetable combination turned out to make a rather tasty, if unfamiliar, concoction.

The first day was tough, as you might imagine, but take away the foul mood, the pounding headache and all the retching and it really wasn’t that bad. Simply avoiding each of the regular meals and replacing them with a cup of juice wasn’t really much of a problem –  what surprised me was how often I caught myself almost putting something in my mouth. I came out here to Southern California to work in the film industry as a Producer, which means that when I work – which is infrequently – I’m so busy that I never even see my family, much less hang around the kitchen. When I’m between jobs, however, I’m at home pretty much all day.  Add to that scenario the presence of a constantly snacking three year-old (and all of her accompanying food-based detritus), and you can begin to imagine how often table scraps find their way into the gaping maw.  I am also a bit of a gourmand (having spent several years in the culinary industry) and do all the cooking at home – a habit I had no intention of breaking, despite my wife’s assurances that she and Sarah would be just fine on a diet of cereal and Annie’s macaroni and cheese. So I had to stop myself on a number of occasions from unconscious grazing, as well as soldier through breakfast, lunch, and dinner preparations for the family without ingesting even a crumb. Not ideal conditions for any extended fast, you’ll agree.

But if there was one thing that surprised me over the subsequent eight days it was how not hungry I was.  I desired real food, of course – desired it like crazy – but it became clear to me that it was just that: desire.  The constant intake of juice kept my hunger at bay, and left me to face the real problem I had with food – I was attached to it. I mean, we all are, right? If you could go for as long as you wanted without any hunger at all, you’d probably still crave your mother’s meatballs, your dad’s famous barbecued chicken, your grandmother’s killer martinis. I know I did. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Food isn’t just for sustenance, it’s for our pleasure and comfort – but it’s this very attachment to past pleasures and comforts that is at the core of many of our issues with food. It’s one of the things those Buddhist types are always saying: take away your attachments to things and you’ll be fine, even if the things you were attached to are still around, making faces and holding their extended index fingers a centimeter from your face.

When I woke up the morning of day two (after a restless night), the bathroom scale indicated I had lost five pounds. Five pounds. In one day. This should have alarmed me, but I have to admit I was thrilled. My elation, however, was premature; after that first precipitous drop my weight went back up the next morning, bounced around a bit for a couple days and then leveled off, ending the week right on target: eight pounds lost for eight days fasting.

And so I made it through the juice fast without much incident. My energy level was fine throughout the week, and I never experienced any negative side effects, unless you count being grumpy about everyone else enjoying home-cooked meals in my presence as a negative. I learned which veggies worked best (carrots, celery, beets and fennel), that throwing an apple or some grapes into every batch made the juice more palatable, and that I could enjoy a little bit of green tea each day without too much guilt. I also learned that, after each successful day of avoiding solid foods, managing my attachments to them, and honestly addressing my issues with food and alcohol, I will still lay in bed at night and think, “Fuck it – I’m getting some meatloaf and a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

But I never did cheat, and I have to admit I was even a bit disappointed when the eight days had ended. I really thought that I could keep going, and even felt some guilt after carefully consuming my first post-fast salad. True, I felt and looked better, but shouldn’t I have experienced something more intense? Maybe some visions, a glimpse of Nirvana, perhaps a moment of unity with the universe?  Something, you know, transcendent?

Wait – what’s this I’m reading…you mean there’s a thirty-day juice fast? A whole month?  No fried chicken products, buttery pastas, greasy burgers or rich desserts for thirty days? I mean, for the love of God, no cheese? I couldn’t, could I?

When’s that farmer’s market again?

Oh yeah, that’s right, I have a blog….

Hey there. Let me say right out of the gate that I’m embarrassed that I haven’t posted anything in a while. I’ve found it difficult to sit down and write anything of substance this last week or so, though not for lack of material. In fact, we’ve had a number of blog-worthy things going around here, not least of which is our recent trip to Mexico (from which we returned with a new appreciation of, of all things, Cuban food). For me the problem is that I’m incapable of just jotting down observations or updates without trying to make a big thing of them.

You know how it is – you’ve got a few minutes to kill so you decide to jump on your blog. After a few keystrokes you’ve posted something like “Sup…not much happening here…check back latr.” Done. But just before clicking on “publish” you figure you’ll give that little posting a second glance. You start, innocently enough, by checking for punctuation and spelling errors. It then becomes clear that the grammar needs tweaking.  After about ten minutes of that you think maybe adding a joke or two would help. The next thing you know you’re off on a furious tangent about how absolutely horrible every single brand of frozen, precooked Italian Meatballs is, and before you’re done you’ve incorporated your personal thoughts on the care and maintenance of backyard citrus trees; openly question the character and parentage of Representative John Boehner (R – OH); name-dropped a nineteenth-century German philosopher; confessed to making up a story, when young, about hitting a cow on your bike; included a recipe for flan; and mentioned, with no little degree of forcefulness, how much you hate Ethan Hawke. Suddenly your little “update” is looking like something Ted Kaczynski may have excised from his manifesto in the interest of brevity. It is this way for me, and it’s why I’m not as prolific as I’d like to be. I mean, this stuff takes time!

Well, as I say, things have been going on around here, and I promise to get to them directly. In fact, there may even be something this very afternoon! What luck!!!