Month: March 2014

Biscuits and Gravy and Other Small Comforts

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My partner just got home this week after working in California for a month. A month is a long time—long enough that I had to try to remember what it was actually like to have her around, and that was an eerie feeling.

In general, when Kellie’s gone I revel in the space she’s left behind for the first two nights. Some of that is literal—the half of the bed she usually occupies is very useful to me when it’s empty. But also it’s sometimes nice to have one less personality since we’re a family of four strong-willed humans in a 900-square-foot house. But always, by day five, chaos descends. All of a sudden, the trash needs to go out, the chickens need water, the dogs are out of food, there are dirty dishes and crumbs on every surface, and everywhere I go I step on a Lego or trip on whatever kitchen implement the baby was playing with. Since Kellie was gone for over a month, there were at least twenty-six days like that.

When Kellie came home, she cleaned the house. She mowed the lawn. She changed the sheets on the bed. And then on Tuesday, while I was at work, she called me from the grocery store. “What do we need?” she asked, and I told her if she picked up a roll of biscuit dough I’d make biscuits and gravy. Oh, and wine. Couldn’t she stop by our local wine store on the way home and ask Jim, the owner, what was good for less than ten dollars? (As much as I would have liked a glass of wine during the month that Kellie was gone, there were no casual trips to The Wine Loft.)

That evening my son came home from preschool with a model helicopter kit, which he was intent on building immediately. I chopped mushrooms while Kellie uncorked the wine. The baby was up to his usual business of finding order and disassembling it. My son was having trouble with gluing the propeller, so he let out a whine, and Kellie immediately sat at the table with him. They finished the model together. I was amazed by how functional we were all of a sudden.

Had it been a week earlier, I would have panicked the moment my son unpacked the helicopter kit. He would have started the model, cried when he got to his sticking point, and we would have escalated from there. It would have ended with me packing up the kit while he screamed. By then, the baby would have been screaming too, and the entire kitchen would have been in disarray: floors, sink, counters. We all would have been hungry, and tired, and nowhere close to eating.

As it turned out, this particular evening wasn’t perfect. We were out of tahini, which is an essential ingredient in my mushroom gravy. I threw extra nutritional yeast in to compensate, but it wasn’t as creamy. But it didn’t matter. The biscuits were warm, the gravy was salty, and we had a ten dollar bottle of wine and a finished model helicopter.

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If you look closely, you’ll see the helicopter.

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Leaving Colorado Part 2: Strangers in Utah

[You can read Part 1 here.]

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It was 8:20 in the morning when I crossed the border into Utah. The sun was a cool yellow, and both of my sons—the baby and the four-year-old—were awake again, and both were whining. My two dogs had settled for the most part, but every once in a while the older one stood up on the passenger’s seat, turned a circle, and then settled back in the exact same spot just to remind me that he was there.

The desert stretched on either side of me. I floored the gas and held my breath, trying to will my little Honda up yet another mountain. As the road began to level, I spotted what I’d been wishing for: a quiet spot marked “View Area” with a small trail and a bathroom.

The parking lot was empty. As we pulled in for the first stop on our long journey home, I hoped we’d be alone. I was afraid that someone might ask me for a cigarette, or a dollar, and tell me his whole life story, or ask me for mine, or that some old lady would let a terrier hop out of her back seat. In this latter scenario, my own dogs would go ballistic, causing me to fall on top of my baby as they bolted for the highway; meanwhile my four-year-old would walk off a nearby cliff. I didn’t want that.

But somehow I managed to unload all the living beings from the car without incident. We walked together, the dogs pulling only a little, the morning air cool but not cold. Maybe we could do this after all.

From the view area, we looked over hills and blue sky. Another car pulled into the lot. A couple emerged, both of them round and middle aged. I held my breath, waiting to see if they had a dog.

“Got your hands full there,” the man called out to me. His wife was rifling through a cooler. Just as we reached our own car, she extended an arm in my direction, offering a zip-lock bag of peeled, hard-boiled eggs. “Will you take these?” she asked. “My sister-in-law packed too much food.”

“That’s really nice,” I said. The bag was ice cold.

I meant it. I hadn’t seen a restaurant in many miles. For breakfast, I had planned to keep passing crackers into little hands.

“Can I have one?” my son asked, and I was happy to hand him one, so that the lady would know I wasn’t planning to toss them out the window later. My son took a bite and the dogs crowded him. He held the egg above his head like a treat and laughed, taunting them. The dogs wagged their tails and panted. This was a problem we’d been working on all summer.

“Stop that!” I commanded, but it had no effect. The couple drove off.

Another car, a silver convertible, pulled in beside us. The driver was tall with a shiny bald head and a short beard. No dog, just clean leather seats. He was about to see me lose it with my son. I grabbed the egg from his hands, split it in half and gave one half to each of the dogs.

My son wailed. “But I’m so so hungry!”

“And I’m so so angry that you don’t ever listen and you always tease the dogs.”

I wondered what the bald man thought of us. I could feel him a few feet behind me. When I turned around, he had his wallet out. Oh shit, I thought. He’s going to try to give me money. And in one long second, I weighed my options. I could turn him down, say “Oh, that’s all right,” as I instinctively do so often when friends offer help. If I did that, an awkward battle might ensue, or perhaps he’d turn his eyes back to his wallet as he returned the money. Instead, I decided I would take it.

“Put this in your gas tank,” he told me, handing me a folded-up bill. “You’ve got a ways to go.”

I thanked him, stuffed the bill in my pocket, and clipped my kids into their car seats. I handed my son another egg, my own generosity restored. Once settled in the driver’s seat, I pulled out the bill. There were two, actually. He had given me forty dollars.

I’ve since told this story to friends and they’ve all said the same thing: “He must have thought you were a battered wife.”

I had the same thought initially. But upon reflection, I’m pretty sure that he was just a guy with money in his wallet, and money in the bank, who saw a frazzled parent and decided the transaction would bring us both joy. He did it not because he thought he had to, but because he could.

So many times since that day, I’ve remembered that moment, before he had even offered the money, when I decided to receive it. I remind myself what that felt like, saying yes to someone’s kindness.

About an hour after I accepted the money, I pulled into a gas station and filled my tank. It came to $39.84.

Images: http://travellogs.us/

Kale’s Opposite: In Praise of Pigs in Blankets

ImageI live in a community where, at any given potluck, you can count on finding no less than three varieties of quinoa salad along with several dishes that feature kale. We take our kale seriously, and did so even before it was fashionable. We know the difference between Lacinato Kale, Red Russian Kale, and the more common Curly Kale; we know which kind works best for a kale salad, and can identify on sight whether our kale has been locally grown or shipped from California. Though I am always happy to pile my plate with these healthy offerings, I will sheepishly admit that, for me, part of the fun of a potluck is trying to get away with something. I prepare for a potluck with two goals in mind: 1. To bring something my kids might actually eat. 2. To put less effort into the potluck dish than I would into a regular evening’s dinner.

As it turns out, my favorite solution is an hors d’oeuvre that is as far from kale as possible: pigs in blankets. Though this food seems to make many adults wax nostalgic, they were not a feature of my childhood. We were deviled egg people. I didn’t discover pigs in blankets until a few years ago when a friend of mine brought them to a party and all of the guests wolfed them down before they’d even had a chance to cool properly. I will share with you now her method.

1. Mix some mustard with some honey.

2. You will need two packages of crescent roll dough and one package of refrigerator mini-sausages. My friend uses li’l smokies. Those are good. I like Aidell’s chicken sausages, mainly because when I say “pigs in blankets” I want my “pigs” to be figurative, not literal.

3. Lay out the dough and cut each triangle in half. Each piece of dough gets a nice little spot of honey mustard and one mini sausage. Toddlers and preschoolers are really good at rolling them up.

4. Bake them before you leave, or, if you can cook them off at the potluck that adds to the dramatic effect and anticipation.

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As an example of how ubiquitously loved they are, I offer you this: I have a good friend who swears by her organic whole foods diet. Her skin is radiant. She bikes everywhere and drinks kale smoothies. She’s fifty-two, but if you just met her you’d probably guess she’s thirty-six. In general, if anyone offers her food, she wants to know what’s in it and where it came from. More than half of the time, she’ll politely decline. But let me tell you something: she will eat my pigs in blankets. She does not ask me what is in them. The reason is pretty obvious, I think. Who knows what’s in those crescent rolls? She knows that if she knew, she would not eat them and they are too good not to eat.

So it goes with the rest of my community. My pigs-in-blankets offering sits happily on nearly every plate between the quinoa, the kale, and the beets. No one asks me what’s in them or looks at me askance. I like to think they’re all secretly happy to eat something with zero grams of dietary fiber. Oh, and one more thing: by the end of the evening, the pigs are always gone.

Image credit, actual pig in blanket: cutepicturesite.com

Teddy Ruxpin, my would-be savior

Does anyone remember this?

I do. I might have seen this commercial at least a hundred times when I was a child. I would have been just beginning second grade when it came out, toting my brand new Trapper-Keeper folders and wondering who would be my friend that year. The product spoke to me. I dreamed of owning a Teddy Ruxpin; I thought that if I had one it was possible I would never have to be lonely again.

To begin with, the commercial itself closely resembles fantasies I entertained as a child. At night if I couldn’t sleep I’d fantasize about things like learning to do a perfect back handspring and then one day at recess, out of the blue, casually, I’d do a series of back handsprings across the field. I’d be unstoppable. One person would catch sight of me and point. Slowly, all the other students out at recess would gaze on my awesome-ness. Within minutes, I’d be transformed from class nerd to school hero.

But in reality I could barely cartwheel, and no one longed for my friendship. Every year I somehow managed to earn one best friend. Normally she’d last until the school year ended and then she’d move away, or we’d be assigned to separate classrooms the following year. To the rest of the grade, I was something of a pariah. I had eczema, which meant that I was constantly itching. I didn’t know the rules to even simple games like kickball, and if I joined a game I found that my legs froze when anyone was watching me. If I ever managed to kick the ball, it simply rolled a few inches and then petered out. Also: I had crooked teeth and wore sweater vests. Sometimes I cut my own bangs.

But in my dreams I had blond ringlets and excellent hand-eye coordination. In my dreams, I looked a little like Gidget, whose movies I had seen rebroadcast on TV.

ImageThough it closely resembled my fantasies—to the point my eight-year-old self could have written it—the commercial itself didn’t figure heavily into my thoughts about Teddy Ruxpin. I didn’t think that I would win any friends by bringing him to school. I wanted him because he could talk. More importantly, he would talk to me. I imagined him occupying a spot next to the pillow on my bed, reciting his pre-recorded stories. Somehow I thought his voice–which would be at my beckon call whenever I needed it–would act as a salve for all of the things that ached me: the loneliness of grade school, the realities of growing toward puberty and away from cuteness.

Strangely, I don’t think I ever asked my parents for a Teddy Ruxpin. Though my parents were resistant to buy any mass marketed toy, it’s conceivable that during the Christmas season I could have worn them down with some persistence. It seems likely that I never asked because a part of me recognized my fantasy as a pipe dream, and a weak one at that. Teddy Ruxpin could not save me from loneliness. I knew, just as my parents would have known, that we would install the four double-A batteries, I’d listen to each side of the cassette three times, maybe five, and then he’d sit in some forgotten corner of my room, his eyes perpetually wide with eagerness.

Image credit, Gidget: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gidget

Like Christmas in January: Four Day Enchiladas

When I was a pre-teen, my mother once suggested that we should celebrate Christmas in early January. We could grab a tree from someone’s trash and buy all of our gifts on sale. At the time I must have given her a look like she was deranged, but as an adult, I think she was onto something.

One of my favorite things in the world is when I am rewarded for my own laziness, like when a friend returns my favorite scarf a week after I left it at her house. I may have had vague notions that it was missing but hadn’t taken the trouble to look for it yet, and now here it is, returned before I’ve bothered to worry. This is so much better than the alternative, which is also possible in my world: tearing apart my entire house looking for the scarf, driving myself crazy and checking every place multiple times.

My laziness was again rewarded this week when I planned to make enchiladas but wound up, due to my own lack of motivation, with a series of dinners that progressively led to enchiladas and fed my family for three nights, with enchiladas to spare for future lunches.

Day 1: Soaked beans. Went shopping for chicken thighs, tortillas, and canned enchilada sauce. Ate sandwiches for dinner.

Day 2: Put beans in slow cooker in the morning. By afternoon, decided I was too tired to deal with chicken—all that rinsing and dealing with a wet and stinky package. Resorted to standby meal: beans wrapped in a flour tortilla with sour cream. Bonus: the five-year-old was willing to eat that.

Day 3: Put off dealing with chicken until the end of the day. At 5:30 pm, realized that we could just eat chicken for dinner. Threw a few pre-cut veggies in the pan for good measure and made some white rice.

Day 4: Finally, enchiladas. Assembly took twenty minutes because all ingredients were ready. Remembered a lazy and useful trick: layer tortillas with the other ingredients rather than rolling them into individual enchiladas. Voila: enchilada casserole.

ImageIf I were ever to write a cookbook, I would title it “Put an Egg on it” because that’s pretty much my cooking philosophy. Most dishes are improved when topped with a fried egg.

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In the case of this enchilada casserole, once it comes out of the oven you’ve got ten minutes to kill and if you’re like me you’re antsy, so you might as well fry an egg.

ImageTo be honest, these weren’t the best enchiladas ever. But consider how disappointing that would have been if I had slaved away on them for an entire day. By now, the enchilada casserole had become a fancy way of serving leftovers, and on those terms it was a success.

I am that dog

A friend of mine shared this on Facebook yesterday and I laughed.

At first I thought I was laughing at the dog. Then I realized I was laughing in recognition of my own fool self because I am that dog.

I am that dog when I feel distant from my partner and so I try to connect by starting an argument about who changed the last diaper or does she really need to bid on another doorknocker on e-bay? At first, maybe I think I’m kidding, but then twenty minutes later I hear my own voice, somehow both prodding and defensive.

I am that dog when I insist that my son takes a bath even though he’s asked politely to skip a night, and then forty minutes later I’m yelling because he won’t get out. And I am that dog every time I make plans about all the things I will accomplish while my children sleep.

I am that dog any time I think I am acting in my own self-interest when really what I am doing is getting in my own way.

I was that dog two months ago when I signed up for a half marathon training group. I paid 75 dollars to run at 7:30 every Saturday morning during the rainiest months of the year with a pack of people I don’t know. I thought it would be fun—I had done this very thing two years ago and loved it. The dog in me failed to note the differences between then and now.

Two years ago, I had one child and he had crossed the supervision threshold, meaning he could play on his own for more than a moment. Two years ago, I was sleeping through the night, riding my bike to work three days a week, and running on alternate days. Two years ago, it felt invigorating to wake up early on a Saturday morning and run ten miles in the rain.

Now I sleep an average of six interrupted hours a night. Now I’ve got two kids to juggle, and one of them, if left unattended for over thirty seconds, will climb into the bathroom sink and knock over the mirror.

So I’ve been growling at my own hind leg for the past few months, mad at myself for not getting it together.  It was only this weekend that I realized: Though I should be running at least four days a week, I’ve managed to fit a total of zero runs into my workweek during the last three weeks combined. (0 + 0 + 0 = 0) This is not going to change next week. On days where I’ve had time for exercise, I’ve felt more like going for a walk. And on weekends, I’ve wanted to sleep as long as the baby will let me, then go for a quiet five-miler. What’s more, I realized that if next week I somehow managed to force myself out of bed at 7:30 for a ten-mile run I would not be heroic, I would be stupidly risking injury to my undertrained body.

All this time, I’ve been telling myself Bad-Dog-Bad-Dog-Bad-Dog, until it finally hit me: I am not being lazy. This is just the current state of my life.

So I hereby officially quit. It’s hard for me to let go of that 75 dollars just like it’s hard for that dog to let go of his bone.  But it feels really good. (Wait, I think it does. Some little part of me is still growling. If I tune in I can hear it.)

You see, I’m trying not to be that dog.

Feeling Like a Tick on a Dog: AWP 14

When I learned that the AWP conference, “the largest literary conference in North America”, would be held this year in Seattle, only sixty-two miles from my home, I decided on the spot that I would attend. Immediately, I began fantasizing about how great my AWP experience would be. I would leave both of my sons at home with my partner and sleep uninterrupted in clean sheets for two nights (my first nights away from my one-year-old son); I would be rejuvenated and inspired by the conference offerings; I would reconnect with old writer friends and make new ones; in the remaining hours, I would write diligently and productively.  This vision reveals how very little I understand the realities of a) my own life and b) what it means to gather over twelve thousand writers in a single place.

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My fantasy began to collapse when, two weeks before the conference itself, my partner learned that she would need to travel for work at the end of February. But I had already registered and was determined to make good on my dream. My mother had been wanting to visit her grandsons, and so we agreed that she’d fly out in time for the conference and we’d all stay in the hotel. Since managing two young children in the city is a daunting task, we encouraged my sister to come along as well. The day before the conference started my mother came down with a massive cold; one member of my tag-team was down. Instead of writing into the wee hours and sleeping blissfully alone in white sheets, I shared a bed with my kids and listened to two grown women alternately snore, cough, and mumble in their sleep.

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Over the next few days, as I rode the escalator countless times up and down the six floors of the Washington State Convention Center, the title of David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” played itself over and over in my mind.  The throngs of writers startled me: people with sweaters and asymmetrical haircuts, people with black-rimmed glasses and jeans, people with shaved heads and silver rings. I never realized how much I dressed like a writer until I found myself in the company of thousands of them. I never realized how utterly normal I am until I was placed in a crowd of my own kind.

The conference itself, from what I can tell, was beautifully organized. I attended six panels, and each one featured multiple authors who had, it seemed, painstakingly prepared their remarks to offer unexpected insights. I enjoyed each individual session, and yet by Friday, I realized that whatever I was gleaning from these panels could not compete with the angst I was feeling.

Typically, when I’ve been a part of a small writing class or workshop, I’ve left each meeting with new ideas, inspired by the talent of other writers and wanting to be my best. I’ve felt like some essential organ—a kidney or a lung—to an important body. But strangely, AWP was having the opposite effect on me. If anything, AWP made me want to quit writing. It was a fleeting feeling but a distinct one.

At the first session I attended, Sherman Alexie referred to meeting his editor for the first time at a cocktail party at some Chateau, and then he mused on the word “chateau”, remarking to the audience: “See, these are the kinds of things you get to say once you’ve been published.” The crowd erupted in laughter, as they did on cue for every one of his jokes, and I sat there feeling less like an essential organ and more like a tick on a dog.

And that is why an hour after coming back from AWP, I can tell you I don’t plan to go again. I won’t say never. But if I do, I’ll pack the scaled-down versions of my hopes and expectations. And, god help me, I will spread out on a hotel bed and sleep through the night alone.

Image Credits: Hotel Bed by John Cooke; Escalator by Jeffery Simpson