A Year of Dates #3: Playing Tourist in Our Own Town

I realize I’ve been rather remiss in updating the blog posts about the Best Gift Ever (from the Best Mom Ever – that’d be mine): a Year of Dates for my husband and me to enjoy, once a month for twelve (really fantastic) months. With my wedding anniversary coming up, I thought I’d spend a few writing sessions re-living some of the fun Bill and I have had so far…

January was a late (and surprisingly delicious) breakfast, followed by some serious bowling action (as fun as this was, I’m not sure I want to go back to the scene of MY victory, as Bill is still grumbling about a rematch, and I’m pretty sure I’d never win again!).

February was a return to one of favorite dates when we had way more time on our hands (pre-children, obviously): lunch (a date isn’t a date without food…) and a visit to a bookstore for some serious browsing. (Can you hear my sigh of contentment? I can seriously spend hours looking at books…)

March was… oh yeah, March was a date at the HOSPITAL with the toddler to learn that he had Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. Hot date, right?! Actually, the third of our year of dates was supposed to be the day after Broder’s diagnosis, but since my mom would be babysitting (this is a major part of her gift to us, which is really a double gift: no babysitting expenses AND my kids get to spend quality-time with one of their favorite people on the planet, their grandma; have I mentioned that this is the Best Gift EVER??), and since Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease is highly contagious, and since Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease can still afflict adults (though it usually hits kids under the age of five), and since Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease can be quite painful… the gift-giver was more than happy to give us a rain check  on date number three.

Which brings us to our April date… playing tourist in our home town.

Driving Home from our Date

A major advantage when playing tourist in your own town? No need for a car rental! Wahoo! (And don’t worry; we were stopped at a light!! I’m all about safety, remember??)

I’m always surprised how little I know the town, state, and even the country in which I live…

For example, when my best friend from high school and I moved to England for four months during our junior year of college (we were supposed to be there for the year, but the University I attended, turns out, decided to up and DROP the program I crossed a continent and ocean to study at, and turns out, didn’t bother telling me until I showed up on the first day of school… Nice, eh? At least I managed to cobble together a semester’s worth of courses so I could justify my stay…), we took the train and/or bus to a different city EVERY WEEKEND. By the end of our 16-week stay, I knew England better than I knew my home state of MONTANA, let alone the good ol’ U. S. of A.

So, Bill and I have been back in Seattle now for 11 YEARS… plenty of time to get to know our “home” city, right?! Yeah… No.

In all fairness, I’m quite familiar with our little neighborhood of Ballard (for those who don’t know Seattle, our city is a bit like New York City – though on a MUCH smaller scale – in that it’s comprised of multiple burrough-like nieghborhoods that were once their own municipalities (with their own mayors and everything!) before being annexed into the city; this means that each neighborhood has a very distinct history and sense of identity that makes visiting each neighborhood a bit like visiting a different town altogether: Ballard was originally settled by Scandinavian immigrants, and is still an active fishing port; Fremont, down the way from us, is the eclectic, artistic neighborhood, and the self-billed “Center of the Universe”; Capitol Hill still embraces the edgy vibe that gave birth to grunge music; Downtown is home to Nordstrom (yes, fine, it’s also home to the iconic Pike Place Market… but, really, it’s all about Nordstrom’s shoe department); the University District is, well, duh, where the college kids hang out; and so on and so forth…). But, though I’ve necessarily visited and driven through various neighborhoods, and can find stores (read: Nordstrom) and street fairs (yep, I’ve seen the naked bike riders at Fremont’s Solstice Parade) and coffee shops (one requires much caffeine to survive the drizzly and dreary Seattle weather) just a bit further out than the 10 mile radius I tend to limit myself to, there are pockets of Seattle that I just haven’t explored and would love to know better.

Like, the International District… We’ve taken the kids to the (have-to-go-at-least-once-but-should-be-more-like-annually) Lunar New Year parade, and I, of course, have been told a thousand times that I HAVE to go to Uwajimaya, the huge Asian specialty supermarket (and someday I’ll get there, but honestly, just going 15 minutes to the local Fred Meyer seems a colossal effort most weeks; I just can’t summon the energy to battle the traffic and drive 30-45 minutes each way, no matter how awesome the selection of bok choy or hoisin sauce), but for the most part, Bill and I haven’t spent much time in this part of Seattle – located just a touch south of Downtown and a bit east of Pioneer Square (where you’ll find a lovely selection of art galleries, and the comical-but-historic Underground Tour – I’ve been to that neighborhood, yay!).

So on a sunny (who knew?!) day in April (which is usually one of the rainiest months in Seattle, and this last spring was particularly and brutally rainy, so the sun was SO appreciated), we headed off to play tourist. Bill had suggested two vegetarian-friendly restaurants (I’m the vegetarian, which sometimes makes finding places to eat just a wee bit challenging – I know, I’m such a pain!), a Thai place and a Vietnamese place. Both sounded great, but as we neared our destination, I just couldn’t bear the thought of going indoors when the sun was shining so brightly! We needed a patio… So, I pulled up the Yelp app on the iPhone (how did we survive before smartphones and apps??) and searched for outdoor dining in the International District, and surprise surprise!, the Vietnamese restaurant Bill had found – the Tamarind Tree – had a patio! In the sun! I could pig out on yummy, Jill-friendly food AND soak up some much-needed Vitamin D. Seattle was turning out to be such an awesome town to visit!

Outdoor Patio Dining in Seattle!

Enjoying lunch on that patio… Proof that there IS sun in Seattle! (If you look closely, you can even see me!! Wearing sunglasses!! Because it’s sunny!!)

After we could no longer justify taking up space on the toasty warm deck (there were other sun-deprived individuals waiting patiently and not-so-patiently in the shadows), Bill and I slowly strolled down the hill a few blocks to visit what would be the highlight of our day’s tourist agenda: the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (tourist tip: general admission is free on the first Thursday and third Saturday of every month; how awesome is that?!). Though a bit hesitant to go indoors (it was sunny!!), the museum is light-filled and, really, a very beautiful and inviting space. The museum is dedicated to telling the (important and emotionally-touching) stories and sharing the cultural artifacts of the Asian/Pacific immigrants and citizens who have, since the very beginning, helped build Seattle into the vibrant community it is today. The museum is a wonderful resource and community center; after the couple of hours we spent wandering through the different exhibits (and I must confess, my favorite part was the pop-culture exhibit with the vintage Pac-Man arcade game visitors could play for free (!!); I just kept circling around the exhibit waiting for “the other tourists” to get out of my way – um, I mean, move on – so I could play another round!), Bill and I agreed we couldn’t wait to bring the kids for a visit.

Playing Pac-Man

My dear hubby, kicking my dot-and-ghost-eating butt while playing doubles on the vintage Pac-Man arcade game. I’m just a bit out of practice, that’s all!

With the kids on our mind, we took a quick tour of the gift shop, but (rather quickly, too) decided that this was one “vacation” (or “staycation” if you’d rather) that didn’t require us to bring home souvenirs for the children.

After all, we’d definitely be back. Maybe even on another date… Though perhaps after touring some other parts of our “home town” that we don’t know as well as our own backyard… Like the Museum of History and Industry at Lake Union Park (haven’t been there), or the Experience Music Project at Seattle Center (haven’t been there, either, other than for a cocktail about a decade ago), or catching an outdoor summer concert at Marymoor Park (haven’t done that – crazy, right?!), or taking a ride on the SLUT (again, haven’t done that; and for you dirty-minded readers, get your head out of the gutter – I’m referring to the very tastefully named South Lake Union Trolley, a fairly new streetcar connecting various neighborhoods of Seattle!), or even… well, you get the point. There is so much to see and do… just in our own town!

And the best part (well, other than not having to buy a plane ticket or hassle with TSA)? After playing tourist all day, it’s really nice to go home… and be home…

Together.

The Icing on the Cupcake

Birthday Cupcakes!

Homemade White Cupcakes with White Chocolate Butter Cream Frosting

As far as my children’s birthday parties were concerned, I used to be perfectly content making brownies from a box for classroom celebrations and buying jumbo-size sheet cakes from the nearest Costco for birthday parties. Such pre-packaged goodies were tasty, cheap, and – of the utmost importance in my chaotic life – QUICK. But now? Now there is PRESSURE.

I blame Pinterest.

Also Instagram. And the Food Channel. And even cookbooks.

But mostly, I blame all those (indecently) savvy food bloggers out there, toiling away at creating such pinnably delicious recipes, and all those (obnoxiously) talented friends of mine (you know who you are – and really, how can you call yourself my friend and torture me so?!) who happen to be (offensively) ingenious bakers; especially those (annoyingly) gifted bloggers and friends who upload beautiful mega-pixel photos – nay, photographs – of their drool-worthy sugary confections and mouth-watering baked ooey-gooey goodness on all the social networking sites I can’t keep myself from haunting on a daily (okay, hourly) basis.

So when my youngest child’s 2nd birthday rolled around last week (2nd birthday?! How did that even HAPPEN??), I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not, COULD NOT, buy a store-bought cake this year for his birthday party.  I felt compelled to bow to the pressure of all those Kitchen Gods and Goddesses and make something from the HEART with my very own HANDS.

But here’s the thing. I’m a terrible baker. Baking is a science (which is SO not my subject; I’m a language arts kinda gal…) where even a pinch too much baking soda or folding in the wrong size eggs (really – until recently I thought all eggs were the same size… who knew?!) can relegate an entire batch of butterscotch chip cookies straight to the compost bin. I’m way better suited to the world of COOKING, where an extra dash of salt or some spilled tarragon won’t ruin the dinner I’ve just spent an hour making (which my children won’t eat, anyway, but that’s another matter altogether).

So, I’m taking baby steps in the baking arena. Thanks to Pinterest (I fully acknowledge my addiction to this site; someone should probably stage an intervention), I discovered a yummy (even if I do say so myself) cupcake recipe that modifies a boxed cake mix. Yes, yes, a box is pre-packaged, and that’s BAD, but I give myself credit for going “homemade” – even if not fully from scratch – because the recipe still takes FOREVER to make.

Which brings us to the night before the party (you obviously know that nothing in my life goes smoothly… so here’s the fun bit…). I tucked the youngest two kids into bed (Bill had taken the oldest to roller derby practice), and poured the cake mix (the kind with pudding in it – did I say yummy?), into a mixing bowl. Just as I was about to add the other ingredients, I remembered the sage advice of the expert-level food blogger who provided the recipe, and set out the buttermilk and eggs (two large eggs, if you were wondering) to warm to room temperature before starting. Baking is so NOT a quick process… So, I poured some wine (just my first glass, I swear!), and sat at my computer to work (finding my dream wardrobe on Pinterest) for the duration.

After a few minutes (and some really adorable striped dresses pinned to my style board – I’m way into stripes these days), I heard this odd, repetitive sound… it was like a lick-lick-lick sound, but not “wet” (no sloshing or slurping) if that makes sense… not quite like sandpaper, but (Ooh, that’s cute… every dress should have pockets…) – what WAS it? It’s not outside… it’s in the house… I pinned another dress (or maybe it was a fedora – but am I really brave enough to sport a fedora?), and got up to solve the mystery of the dry lick-lick-lick sound that wasn’t stopping. I wandered into the kitchen…

AND FOUND MY DOG WITH HIS NOSE IN THE CAKE MIX!!!!!!

I almost had KITTENS, I swear. I’ve never heard my body make the kind of noise that burst out of my mouth. The stream of curse words I used should’ve woken the children (and scarred them for life), I was so loud. My 80-pound dog lifted his huge head out of the mixing bowl, his big brown nose smeared with white powder (like a canine version of Al Pacino pulling his mug out of a giant pile of cocaine in Scarface…), saw me (in crazy lady mode) coming toward him (I do crazy lady a little too well I fear), and, dropping to all fours, couldn’t follow my directions to “Get out, get OUT, GET OUT!!!!” fast enough, scurrying past me on his way to the back door, cowering, his large body somehow now the size of a tea-cup Chihuahua…

It was 8:00pm. Bill couldn’t run to the store for me, and wouldn’t be home from Paisley’s practice until 10:30pm. Also, he had the car. Even if I DID have the car, I couldn’t GO anywhere, because it’s not like I could leave the boys home alone (not that I didn’t think about it! I know… bad bad bad mama!). I needed to make two batches of cupcakes (for 48 total cupcakes) before I went to bed, giving the cupcakes plenty of time to cool before frosting them in the morning (turns out, frosting is very good at melting into, and sliding – yes, sliding – right off the top of, any cake product that has even a touch of warmth left from the oven… a lesson, if you were curious, I did indeed learn the hard way), before taking the birthday boy to the zoo after his nap. And the dog had just eaten, in essence, half the cupcakes…

THE DOG HAD EATEN THE TODDLER’S BIRTHDAY CUPCAKES!!!

So there I was, hyperventilating into a brown paper lunch sack (okay, not really; I was just guzzling my wine, which looks way more pulled-together than the paper sack thing…) when my best friend from high school, who was visiting us for the weekend with her daughter (quick aside: it was SO nice to see them, and not just because of the service they were about to render), came home from touring some of the local sites. They kindly offered to stay at the house while I walked to the grocery store a few blocks away. Phew! Maybe I could pull this fancy-schmancy cupcake thing off as planned!

I got to the store (luckily the perpetual rain had finally stopped, so I wasn’t soaked to the bone in the process), and guess who didn’t have the cake mix I needed? Naturally…

So I walked across the street to the big chain drugstore, hoping that just maybe they had the cake mix with the pudding in it… No luck – they only had the chocolate version, which my tricked out recipe didn’t call for…

Okay, all of you (outrageously) overly-accomplished bakers out there, I know what you’re thinking: I should’ve just made the cupcakes from scratch!! First: baby steps, remember? Second: Hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t have time to scour the blogosphere for a new recipe! And what if the new recipe called for some elaborate pantry item that I didn’t have, like fresh lemon zest or vanilla extract imported from Madagascar or strawberry preserves that I had canned myself from last summer’s bountiful harvest (and I don’t even grow strawberries!)?? I needed that cake mix, I needed the cupcakes made, and I needed them NOW.

PRESSURE.

At this point, my lovely friend, seeing that I was totally about to crack, or perhaps just worried about the health of my liver if I kept guzzling wine, offered to drive to another grocery store to find me the elusive cake mix with pudding. And now you know why she’s been one of my dearest friends for more than two decades: the gal who memorized Lita Ford & Depeche Mode lyrics with me in high school (her hair was even bigger than mine – she rocked!), who survived a firetrap of a roach motel in Amsterdam with me during college (honestly, one of the scariest nights I’ve ever experienced – I still get shivers down my spine thinking of that place), who sent me a “mama care package” that included a fashion magazine and Skittles (my faves; she knows me so well!) in addition to her handmade baby gift on the arrival of the soon-to-be birthday boy (yeah, she’s one of those exasperatingly talented friends I mentioned; she bakes, too… sigh), was now helping me indulge my (completely irrational, if hopefully endearing) need to make not-quite-homemade, but-totally-from-the-heart cupcakes for my son.

The best part? She’s vegan; she couldn’t even eat the (I did mention yummy, right?) white cupcakes with (insanely decadent) white chocolate buttercream frosting I spent the rest of the night making and the next morning frosting. She was just willing to help out an old friend, and celebrate the life of my child.

Which is what it’s all really about, isn’t it? I mean, yummy food and decadent desserts are wonderful and all, but birthdays (and baby showers, and anniversaries, and graduations, and holidays, and all those other festivities that call for an abundance of goodies and treats) aren’t about food and desserts – about how gourmet the pizza was (or not, as the case may be – look, I used up any kitchen skills I had with the cupcakes, okay?!) or how “from scratch” the cupcakes were – such special occasions are about families and friends coming together, about celebrating togetherness, about honoring the milestones and accomplishments of those people we want to be together with

Me with the birthday boy.

Celebrating the 2yo’s birthday at the zoo! After raining all morning, the skies cleared up just as we arrived; it was a lovely afternoon…

For a few minutes there (okay, a few hours, but who’s counting?), I lost sight of the important stuff: the day wasn’t about how scrumptious or photo-worthy my cupcakes were or weren’t; the day was about how joyful we were that Broder came into our lives TWO fantastically fun-filled years ago and how grateful we were to celebrate his birthday together with beloved family and friends.

The cupcakes (somehow and rather shockingly, I know, given my utter ineptitude when it comes to the science of baking) came out just like I wanted – yummy, pretty, plentiful (I was forced to hide the cupcakes in the oven to keep them away from the still-opportunistic pets; and in case you were worried, my dog suffers from no Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or any other ill consequence engendered from my little crazy-lady outburst: his big brown nose, licked clean of all white cake powder, was in the compost bin only an hour later…), and even photo-worthy (even if I do say so myself!).

But as delicious and photogenic as the cupcakes were, it’s Broder’s smile, his happy face, his giggles of appreciation and delight that make the photo… and the day. The enjoyment he took in seeing the penguins and jaguars and elephants on our trip to the zoo, the pleasure he expressed in playing with all the friends who came over to our house to share the occasion with him, the awe in his face as he stared at the two lit candles atop his cupcake, were the real icing on the cake…

A birthday party for a 2yo!

“For me?!”

In less than four weeks, Liam will be celebrating his 6th birthday (6th birthday?! How did that even HAPPEN??), and I know that I will once again feel the PRESSURE (and as much as I’d like to blame Pinterest and Instagram and the Food Channel and cookbooks and all those indecently, obnoxiously, offensively, annoyingly, outrageously, and exasperatingly savvy, talented, ingenious, gifted, overly-accomplished Kitchen Gods and Goddesses – bloggers and friends alike – that fill my life and computer screen with drool-worthy and mouth-watering culinary images and recipes, I know I, and I alone, am responsible for my own freakish, obssessive, borderline-OCD ways…) to avoid the pre-packaged, store-bought, and QUICK dessert options.

And really… How hard can it be to be to make those handmade, from scratch, definitely not store bought, chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches (with the ice cream edges rolled in mini-chocolate chips – so decadent!), the recipe for which I just strategically pinned to my Pinterest board?

But this time? This time I think I’ll ask the birthday boy to make those ice cream sandwiches with me. I’ll even let him eat a few of the chocolate chips. And maybe a chocolate chip cookie or two (hey, I might be new to this whole baking thing, but I still know I need to make sure everything tastes good, right?!). Just as long as we’re enjoying the process… and having fun… Together…

(The dogs, however, can wait outside…)