The Name Game

I got a phone call today from our dental insurance company regarding coverage for Milo.  (Milo recently had his first dentist appointment with a great pediatric dentistry practice.)  The insurance company wanted to know if Milo had any additional insurance coverage.

I told them no, Milo was covered under my name.

The insurance person asked, “So, no additional insurance coverage from the natural father?”

Excuse me?  Natural father?  “No,” I repeated. “He’s covered under my name.”

“Oh,” said the insurance person.  “It’s just that your names are different.  He’s Clark and you’re Chen.”

I explained that I just didn’t change my name and that Milo’s father and I were indeed married.  But nevertheless, Milo did not have additional coverage under his father.

As I hung up the phone, I felt a little indignant.  I understand it’s a little confusing that I didn’t take my married name, but in this day and age, why make the assumption that the different names meant that I wasn’t married to the father of my son?  Because that was the implication with the term “natural father.”  Why not just say “father”?  And what does it matter anyway?

Milo’s full name is “Milo Chen Clark.”  Chen is his middle name.  We decided not to hyphenate, but that Milo would be “Milo Chen Clark” and that we would be known as the “Chen Clark Family.”  Still, on the insurance forms, he was “Milo C. Clark.”  Annoying that insurance forms don’t conform to our vision of our child’s name.  I realize this will not be the last time  we have this confusion over my relationship to my own child.

Still, there are very specific reasons I chose not to take my married name.  I got married at the age of 38, after I was already well established professionally and personally as Sabina Chen.  I had no desire to re-invent myself as “Sabina Clark” or even as “Sabina Chen Clark.”  More importantly, being Asian American was a big part of my identity and changing my name to “Clark” seemed to undermine who I was.  “Clark” is so very…WASP.  It felt incongruous to me.

Blake didn’t really care what name I took and we knew plenty of families like ours: mom keeps maiden name, children take father’s name or some combination of the two.  Welcome to the 21st century, right?

The other day, I heard Blake explain Milo’s full name to someone.  Then he said, “We figured when he gets older he can choose–”

I interrupted, “Choose whether he wants to embrace the Chen side of his identity?  Because he doesn’t have a choice about the Clark side!”

Did I destine my child to be a WASP?

Probably, when Milo comes of age, he will reject both his parents’ names and make up some anagram of the two.  Milo Carlcheck or Charnleck.  Will accept suggestions for anagrams.


Milo working on his identity. I gotta be me!

Missing Daddy

Blake is in Africa for a month.  He’s building a school in South Sudan.  (You can read his updates from the field on Rebuild Sudan’s blog.)  He’s been away almost two weeks now and I’m adjusting to single motherhood. Exhausted.  Single parents are saints, I tell you.

Overall, Milo is doing okay with Daddy’s absence, but he’s definitely not the same.  On the day Blake left, we took Daddy to the airport and said goodbye.  Milo didn’t understand what was going on until that afternoon, when he looked for Daddy in every room in the house, but couldn’t find him.  It was a distressing moment.  Daddy, one of Milo’s most important objects of permanence, was no longer here.

Now, Milo won’t let me leave his sight.  Friends and family had lined up to help during this month of Blake’s absence, but having someone else babysit has been traumatic for Milo.  Previously, he’s been okay as long as he was familiar with the person babysitting him.  (The one exception has been my mother, but that’s for another post.  Tiger Grandmother, anyone?)  Last week, a friend was watching Milo so that I could go to a yoga class.  It was the mom of one of Milo’s playmates, someone he saw a few times a week.  Thirty minutes after dropping him off (and 10 minutes into the yoga class), I got the call: Milo is freaking out.

In general, Milo is definitely more sensitive than he was when Daddy was around.  Previously, he was pretty easy going.  Other moms noted that he didn’t even cry when he fell down.  He would just pick himself up and keep going.  Now, he’s much more prone to weepy outbursts.  Falling, tripping, moments of frustration normal to toddlerhood–any of these now set him off.  And it may be something in my reaction too that feeds his sensitivity.  I’m perhaps a bit too eager to pick him up and hug him these days.  Who knows?

One thing I’ve noticed is Milo’s increased attachment to Baby, his doll.  (See previous post, A Doll for Milo.)  Before Daddy left, Milo would hang onto Baby only around naps and bedtime.  Now he carries Baby around everywhere.  He wants to take him to the store, to visit friends, to the sand box, to potty.  Today, he even wanted to bring Baby into the shower.  Baby has become a new object of permanence.  But he can’t replace Daddy!

Blake does call when he can and Milo enjoys listening to Daddy’s voice over the phone.  We did managed to skype once.  Milo kept kissing Daddy’s face on the computer screen.  In the meantime, we’re keeping busy, doing fun things: lots of play dates, bowling, a trip to Boston’s Children Museum, Milo’s first parade.  We will be visiting friends who live on a farm this week.  Next week, Grandma comes for a visit.  We’re so proud of Blake and all his work building this school in Sudan.  But if Milo could count, he’d be counting the days until Daddy comes home.

Milo and Baby at the Memorial Day parade in Nashua, NH.

I had to run a quick errand at Rite Aid this afternoon and I took Milo.  On my shopping list: shampoo and body wash for Blake. (Yes, Blake likes body wash.  He also likes that little poufy thing that comes with body wash.  That’s another story.)  Since Milo is walking and loves exploring, I thought it would be fine for him to run around the drug store.  I gave him his own shopping basket to carry around.  As long as I kept an eye on him, he would be fine, I thought.

I was wrong.

Milo did love running around the store.  Everything was so bright and colorful and shiny.  He selecting the following for his shopping basket:

4 pairs of sunglasses

1 bottle Revlon blue nail polish

1 jar American Crew Molding Clay for hair

1 bottle American Crew Light Holding Gel

1 bottle American Crew Grooming Spray

1 bottle Cover Girl orange nail polish

5 boxes of Calgon gift sets in Ocean Breeze scent

1 jumbo bottle Paul Mitchell shampoo, Lavender Mint

2 jumbo bottles Rite Aid body lotion

2 jumbo bottles Vaseline body lotion

1 bottle Calgon body mist, Ocean Breeze

1 bottle Calgon, body mist, Morning Glory

1 set Calgon body mist, sample pack of five refreshing scents

Mommy got a good workout putting things back on the shelves, including re-installing a glass shelf that Milo had knocked over.  I wonder if I’m inadvertently training my child to be a consumer.  Our family budget is very tight, so I’m always trying to look for deals and save money, or even DIY for some basic toiletries.  (I wash my hair with baking soda.)  But beyond the economic reasons, I don’t really like the idea of teaching Milo to buy stuff and throw stuff away and then buy more stuff.  It’s irresponsible.  We  American consumers live such entitled, spoiled lives.

Can’t wait to take the kid to Costco.

A Doll for Milo

I’ve been struck by how distinctly gender roles are defined in baby stuff.  Clothes are definitely geared for girls; the choices for boys are mostly limited to sports or transportation themes: footballs, baseballs, fire trucks, etc.  The same goes for toys: cars and trains for boys, dolls and clothes for girls.  Blue for boys, pink for girls.

I am trying to be conscious about what messages this early gender marketing is sending to Milo.  It’s okay to wear blue, but not pink.  You’re expected to be athletic and like sports.  Boys like cars, but girls don’t.  Why?  Why send these messages to our children?  What’s the point?  In an era where the definitions of masculinity and femininity are fluid and evolving, why box our children into their gender roles at such a tender age?

Blake likes to think of himself as a “sensitive New-Age guy,” not your stereotypical man.  He is especially sensitive to how societal pressures may squash Milo from being himself.  In addition to the cars and blocks in Milo’s toy stash, Blake suggested we get Milo a doll.  This would encourage his nurturing side, he explained.  Milo had recently learned the word “baby.”  He’d been pointing out pictures of babies, or even photos of himself, and chanting, “Bay-bee! Bay-bee!”  Now would be an opportune time to introduce a doll.

It was unlikely we’d find an appropriate doll at Toys R Us, however.  Blake wanted a doll that was plain, with small features.  Such a doll would be like a blank canvas that would allow Milo to use his imagination to create its personality.  This idea comes from Waldorf teaching philosophy.  (In a past life, Blake had considered training as a Waldorf teacher.  Sensitive New-Age guy.)  A simple, small or no-featured doll made sense to me too.  However, most of the dolls on the market already had their personality, pre-stamped by Disney.

So I decided I would knit a doll for Milo.  I consider myself an advanced intermediate knitter and I thought knitting a small doll for Milo would not be too difficult.  I knit this:

It took me a little longer than I had anticipated, partly because I had to make a lot of little decisions: size, color, what kind of yarn, hair, etc.  “Milo’s Baby” is machine washable, complete with belly button.

One morning, we left Milo’s Baby in his room, in a spot where we knew he would find it.  Milo declared, “Baby!” and seemed to know exactly what to do with his doll.  He gave it a hug.

We’ll see whether giving Milo a doll will break open the gender role boundaries for him.  Milo has been both nurturing and ambivalent towards Baby.  He finds it convenient to carry Baby around by his hair.  One day, his hands were full so he decided kicking Baby down the hall was the most efficient way of transporting him.  But one night, Milo sat in the rocking chair and rocked Baby to sleep in his arms.  Then he pointed to the crib.  Daddy put Milo and Baby to bed together and they both slept through the night without a peep.

Knitting pattern for Milo’s Baby can be found at Wee Folk Art.  This is a great website for making all sorts of Waldorf type toys.  You know, for the sensitive New-Age guys in your life.

Yesterday, my dear little boy did this:

He poured out almost a full box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies on the floor.  Oops.

I was reminded of a story a friend told me years ago.  Her first child, who was then about the same age as Milo is now, had gotten into the flour pot and spilled flour all over the kitchen.  The little girl had flour all over her face and hair and she had made a big mess.  As my friend was telling this story, I would have thought she might react with annoyance at having to clean up after her baby.  Instead, she said, “Oh, well!” and let her daughter continue to play with the flour.  She figured the deed had already been done and she might as well let her daughter play in the flour.  She could clean up later.

I remember this story struck me because I admired my friend’s sense of humor and grace in this situation.  It would do no good to freak out and yell at the baby, who was just innocently curious.  And since the mess had already been made, you might as well let the baby explore and have fun.

So when Milo poured out the Cheddar Bunnies, I stifled my urge to say “Uh-oh!” and grabbed the camera instead.

It was great fun for about 20 minutes or so.  And afterward, Milo helped me clean up!

I get the feeling we’ll be finding Cheddar Bunnies in strange places for the next few weeks.  But it was worth it.

It’s been a very long winter here in New Hampshire and it’s still going.  Yesterday, I posted a link on facebook from Merrimack Valley Moms about indoor activities for kids with cabin fever.  My friend Angela commented on the link: “Corn starch and water.  All you need.”

This reminded me that I had come across a recipe for finger paints that used corn starch, water, and food coloring.  So this morning, I decided to wing it with the corn starch.  I mixed up the corn starch and water to consistency of gravy.  This didn’t work terribly well.  The corn starch kept gooping up at the bottom of the bowl.  But I didn’t have time to actually look up the recipe, so I went with what I had.  I divided the goop up into 2 bowls and added food coloring: blue and yellow.  Milo was fascinated.

Ingredients for fun?

This didn’t really work as finger paint, but it did work for bright colored goop that Milo liked playing with.  I spread butcher paper on the table and let him go.  He had fun dipping sticks and spoons and hands into it and smearing it everywhere.  He took my silicone turkey baster and used it as a paint brush.  He drank a little of it.  He experimented dropping some blue into the yellow and created green.  This occupied him for almost a full hour, which is an eternity in toddler time.

This stuff is cool

I like that I didn’t have to police Milo with the goop.  He could make as big a mess as he wanted, waste as much goop as he wanted, play with mixing colors, throw it across the room, etc.   It was an opportunity for him to play, which is how babies learn.  After it was all done–meaning when the colored goop was emptied out of the bowls onto the table, the floor, and Milo–clean up was easy.  The goop dried up into splotches that easily wiped away with water.  They looked like those sugared dot candy that you peel off strips of paper.  Maybe I stumbled on the recipe for sugared dots?

When I looked up the recipe for finger paints, I had gotten it wrong.  You’re supposed to use corn starch and dishwashing liquid or shampoo.  I’ll try that recipe some time, but this one was pretty fun too.

Basic color theory: blue + yellow = green

I met a new friend today, Dave Seah.  He’s Taiwanese-American, lives in New Hampshire, and he’s a writer–like me.  Plus, he’s my age, so we can feel old and curmudgeonly together.  But Dave is far from curmudgeonly.  He’s much more positive and hopeful than I am, so it was good to hang with him.  We talked for almost 3 hours.   He gave me the following advice:

“Think of your writing as a gift to put out into the world.  And think of it as a good gift.  A really good gift.  Not like a fish aquarium.”

I was following him until he said “fish aquarium.”

Dave had a friend who had just started dating a new girlfriend soon after he broke up with an old girlfriend.  The new girlfriend wanted to get her new boyfriend a present and she wanted to get him a fish aquarium.  She told this to Dave.  She said her boyfriend liked fish and she thought he would like a fish aquarium.

Dave did not think this was a good idea.  Knowing his friend, Dave thought he would be pretty particular about keeping fish and would probably not go for something his new girlfriend could find at Petco.  Essentially, Dave told her, she would be giving him a new set of chores to keep the aquarium clean.

She didn’t listen to Dave.  She bought the aquarium.

They broke up not too long afterward.

Dave said I could blog about this.  So I did.  Because my writing (and his story) is a gift to the world.

Front Page News

On Monday, Milo and I went shopping at our local grocery store for a few supplies before the next snow storm came in. The guy at the fish counter said I looked familiar.  He said, “Did you do something with pies?”

“I did bake a pie,” I said.  “I won second at Mack’s apple pie contest on Saturday.”

“That’s it,” he said.  “You’re in the paper!”


“Yeah, hold on a sec.  I’ll get it for you.”

And there it was.  Front page news.  Me and Milo.  Told you he was photogenic.

I bought some extra salmon from the fish guy.

To read full article from New Hampshire Union Leader, click here.

Pelham resident Sabina Chen beamed with her son, Milo, while showing off her winning ribbon Saturday afternoon after earning second place for traditional pies in the 21st Mack’s Apple Pie Contest.

The Pie Contest

Pie heaven!

Mack’s Apples is a venerable institution in Londonderry, New Hampshire, family-run since 1732.  There are sprawling orchards with well-groomed trails.  In the winter, the kids invade an impressive hill behind the farm stand for sledding.  I can see the sleds zooming down the hill as I pull into the parking lot with my pie.  Contest rules required all pies to be registered by 1:30 and judging to begin promptly at 2:00pm.  Milo was napping when I left around 1:00, so Daddy was to bring him later, while I went ahead with my pie.

The farm stand is a rustic, weathered building with brightly painted signs.  Bins of apples and pumpkins line one side, while the other side has shelves of local New Hampshire foodstuffs: maple syrup, apple butter, pancake mixes, candies.  Instead of shopping carts, there are big red-flyer wagons that Milo loves when we come here.

On the day of the pie contest, the farm stand is starting to fill up.  You can smell the warm cinnamon and sugar as you walk in. There were two categories for the pie contest: traditional and non-traditional apple pies.  Traditional pies were described as two-crust pies with an apple filling.  Non-traditional pies were any pies with predominantly apple filling, but could include other fruits, nuts, cream, etc.  My pie was a traditional pie.  I had wanted to limit the variables in my first pie contest, so I went with the traditional pie.

My pie was registered pie #9–a lucky number in Chinese culture.  A contest official took my pie and laid it on a long table along with the other pies.  There weren’t too many pies on the table yet and I thought, oh, maybe the competition wouldn’t be too bad.  But as the room filled up, the table filled up too.  By 1:45, there were 23 traditional pies on the table.  Wow.  That’s a lot of pie.

Lining up with the competition: 23 pies total.

I had taken a seat next to Lorraine, a lovely grandmotherly woman who sat in the middle of the long room and wore an apron.  Lorraine had entered the contest six times and always wore an apron.  Two years ago, she won the whole she-bang.  This year, she had submitted two pies, one traditional and one non-traditional.  She used the same pie recipe that had won two years ago.  She does so every year.  She said there were people came year after year and it was great to see the familiar faces.

With our new friend, Lorraine.

Judging sounded like a complicated process, but a well-oiled machine.  There were twelve judges, six for traditional and six for non-traditional.  During the first round, two judges taste each pie and award points: 3 points for appearance and 7 points for taste.  After those scores are tallied, the top 8 or 9 pies from each category are advanced to the final round.

Milo and Daddy joined us just in time for judging to start.  Milo was an instant hit, of course, but I couldn’t use him to influence the judges.  They were all too busy gobbling down pies to notice him.  He flirted with Lorraine and with others gathered around us.  He squirmed off my lap and took off down the room.  He got his photo taken over and over.  I was sure his picture was going to make the local paper.  Milo is a photogenic charmer and he knows it.

The first round of judging completed, they announced the pies that would advance.  “Pie number 1.” “Pie number 2.” There was a cheer as each pie was announced.  “Pie number 6.”  This was Lorraine’s pie.  She was pleased.

I tried to keep my hopes down.  There were so many pies, chances of winning were slim, especially among this bunch of very experienced bakers.  Though it would be nice if my pie made it to the final round, I thought.  It was slightly nerve-wracking.

“Pie number 9.”  That’s mine!

Nine out of 23 pies advanced to the finals.  I was happy.  It didn’t matter to me who won at that point.  It was nice to know my pie made the cut.  (ar.)

For the final round, the judges switched sides: traditional to non-traditional and vice versa.  For this round, all six judges per category taste all the pies and award points accordingly.  Sixty points total.

By this point, Milo had taken command of the room, freely wandering off into a crowd of strangers.  Blake and I had to tag team him to corral him, until he discovered the forklift parked in a back corner.  Thankfully, he had a grand old time with the forklift until it was time to announce the winners.

Second place, with a score of 54.5 points, Pie number 9!

I must say, I was stunned.  Out of 23 pies, I won second place.  And with a pie that I had yet to taste.  I had an inkling it was pretty good, but it must have been really good to stand out in that field.  It was the first time I had entered such a contest, the first time I had offered up something I had cooked to judgement other than that of my family and friends.  Apple pie.  I felt humbled and grateful.  And quite a sense of accomplishment.  More than I had felt in quite a while.

When I finally did get a taste of my pie–there were only a few bites left in the pan–I had to admit, it was pretty good.  The apples, which I had pre-cooked, were just the right tenderness, not too sweet, not too tart.  The crust was flaky and light, but not too dry.  Even Blake, who (ahem) doesn’t like apple pie, said the crust was really good.  So I guess I was on to something with my baking experiment.  Third pie’s a charm.

My new friend, Lorraine, said she would cut out all the articles she read about the contest and send them to me.  We promised to meet again next year, if not before.

For my recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Standing out in the crowd, with pie.

Apple Pie!

On a whim, I decided to enter an apple pie baking contest at Mack’s Apples, a local orchard that has been in operation since 1732.  They’ve been hosting their apple pie contest for 21 years.  I thought, what the heck, I can bake a decent apple pie and this sounded like a fun community event.

The first apple pie I ever baked was in 1991, when I was living in China.  This was back when you couldn’t find many Western goods in China and if you wanted any American food, you had to make it yourself, from scratch.  So I learned to bake an apple pie for our small ex-pat Thanksgiving gathering that year.  It was quite a thrill when it came out of the tiny electric oven.  Nicely browned and bubbling apple goop out of the cut slits.  Since then, I’ve baked my fair share of pies and usually they come out pretty tasty.

For this contest, I thought I should test my pie first on some willing takers.  A week before the contest, we hosted a potluck for Milo’s playgroup and I foisted my first try on them.  For this pie, I used the Foolproof Pie Dough recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated.  I also tried to address the issue of too much liquid when the apples cook down in the pie.  I found this sometimes happens and makes the lower crust soggy.  I had read about a technique called maceration, which calls for the cut apples to be mixed with sugar and spices and to sit in a colander for an hour so that the juices can be collected before baking.  The juices are cooked down into a syrup, which is added back to the apples right before baking.  Sounded fancy.  A little complicated.  So I tried macerating the apples, boiled down the syrup, etc., and fed it to the playgroup potluck.  I thought the pie came out a little dry and the apples tasted a little bland.  It was the kind of pie that needed ice cream with it.  Not optimal.

A few days later, my parents hosted a small gathering because my brother was visiting and I foisted a pie on them.  This time, I used the same crust (which had come out nice and flaky the last time) and did not bother to macerate the apples.  I just mixed up the apples with sugar and cinnamon and a little bit of cornstarch and dumped it into the pie.  This pie came out juicier, but maybe a little too juicy.  If I had let it sit for any length of time, the bottom crust might have become soggy.  Not optimal.

The night before the the contest, I decided the best thing to do was to pre-cook the apples before putting them in the pie.  In my search for recipes, I came across a basic recipe that seemed like it would work, with a few adjustments.  I made my pie dough that evening and put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Milo tastes the apples. Mommy hasn't showered yet.

The recipe called for apple juice, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I substituted a dry white wine–a nice California chardonnay I had been saving.  The alcohol would cook out of the mixture and we would be left with a lovely tart acidity to counter the sweetness of the apples.  I also added spices and decreased the amount of sugar, as I don’t like my pies to be super sweet. Finally, I would top off the whole thing with more butter.  In my opinion, you can never have too much butter.

The next morning, I got up and started peeling and coring apples.  Milo kept me company part of the time and helped by taste testing the apples.  Most the time, Daddy took care of him so that I could concentrate on building my pie.  I used Golden Delicious and Mutsu apples (from Mack’s Apples, of course) and cooked them in the white wine, brown sugar, and butter.  It was sweet and fragrant as the apples cooked down to just tender.  I added spices, white sugar and a few tablespoons of cornstarch, and cooked the mixture a bit more until the juices started to thicken.  (This is the way I add cornstarch to my beef broccoli so that the juices thicken and are not too watery.  Beef broccoli and apple pie–hm.)

Topped with extra butter!

I let the apple mixture cool down until it stopped steaming. In the meantime, I rolled out my pie pastry.  The chilled pie pastry was pretty easy to roll out.  Once the apples had cooled down, I poured the mixture into the pie and dotted it with some extra butter.  (Again, you can never have too much butter.)  Then I topped the pie with the upper crust.  Unfortunately, I got a little too eager with cutting slits into my upper crust and my pie looked a little sad, like a bad slasher job.  So I cut out a few decorative leaves and tried to patch up the edges.  Voila!

This pie recipe calls for baking the pie at a lower temperature (350F) than usual pie temperature (425F).  I figured this was because the apples were pre-cooked, but I was still a little paranoid about the crust not browning well, so I compromised at 375.  I brushed the upper crust with egg white and sprinkled on some cinnamon sugar and popped it into the oven.  About an hour later, I had a lovely, golden brown apple pie.  The crust had risen a little more than usual and I attributed this to the lower temperature, but when I poked the crust a little and saw that it was flaky, I knew I had something good.

I whisked the warm pie off to Mack’s and submitted my entry.  It took a little bit of faith to submit a pie I hadn’t tasted yet, but I knew it couldn’t be too bad to be inedible.  Details of the apple pie contest to follow.

For my complete recipe of Third Try Apple Pie, click here.

Warm apple pie. Yum!