Lemonade

I can’t predict how many times I will forgetfully attempt the innocent act of turning on the faucet in the kitchen sink and end up feeling like an urban kid seeking relief during a sweltering summer in the 1950s.

fire hydrantWhile others are sipping cafe cortado in Spain, hiking the Pacific Crest trail, or otherwise enjoying leisurely pastimes, we are experiencing The Summer of Broken Things (to drive that point home, as I typed Summer, the R on my computer keyboard came loose).

faucet

Todays’ surprise; tonight’s fix-it project.

To put things in perspective, none of these things are dire and they pale in comparison to the truly devastating tragedies that have befallen a number of people we know, and the horrifying events that have occurred around the world and in our country this year.

But they are wearying nonetheless and require a roll-with-the-punches, good-humored optimism (and lots of duct tape) that can be hard to sustain. These challenges kind of remind me of the aches and pains that interfere with my exercise. Go to boot camp or go running and end up with a stress fracture in the foot. Substitute swimming laps, only to become a landlubber recuperating from gallbladder surgery. Recover from everything, start doing the elliptical and barre classes, and suddenly wake up each morning with painful middle finger knuckles.

When the faucet went crazy, after a nice sunny afternoon at a lake and an amusing car ride home listening to Jessi Klein’s hilarious breakup story on The Moth, Daughter #1 said, in a world-weary way, “That’s just the kind of thing that would happen to our family.”

I get where she was coming from, but nonetheless, I was taken aback.

Yes, the oven is broken and (because I’m currently unemployed) Jeff has decided we should wait until the end of the summer to replace it, so we can recover from the unexpected car repair bills for his high-maintenance European ride and my stalwart cockroach of a 16-year-old Toyota minivan, which defies death time and time again, remaining more cost-effective to fix than replace (despite the fervent wishes of Daughters #1 and #2 and myself).

The gas grill died a while ago too, so our cooking options have been reduced to stovetop and our old charcoal Weber grill, resurrected from the shed and ceremoniously adorned with a new cooking grate.

homer bbq.jpg

Heroic Jeff has spent many a night watching DIY videos on YouTube and then taking apart the clogged dishwasher, and replacing the headlights and taillights (which went out on a harrowing rainy night five-hour drive home over the mountains) and dome light in my minivan. To be fair, at least once I cleaned out and scrubbed the refrigerator in a show of moral support.

A bunch of little appliances, like our home phone and the all-important hair straightener, have been on the fritz. The computer no longer talks to the printer and Netflix comes and goes. I’ve glued the R back on the computer keyboard several times.

By fixing these things ourselves or doing without, I thought we were modeling resilience and prudence, defying the disposable society. Michelle Obama (and even Melania Trump) would applaud the values we are passing on to our kids.160719005412-melania-trump-michelle-obama-composite-large-169

After all, summer is the perfect time to get creative and be oven-free, finally getting around to grilling fava beans and making panna cotta instead of baking berry pies and cobblers.

favas

panna cotta

 

 

Summer calls for experimentation and improvisation, as in the fig, orange blossom, and cornmeal pancakes I concocted one morning  (But the scones, something inside of me still cries on Sunday mornings. What about the scones?). You can be lazy in the summer, or you can kick it up a notch and make cardamom rosewater ice tea.

Most important, summer is a time of simple pleasures.

Mosier Mt. Hood Mosier sunset Bow hike Palouse falls Eliote Fideos Mirror Lake

pets

One night, after a disappointing day, I cried bitter, frustrated tears and watched Inside Out with my family. Had the oven been working, I would have baked brownies, which are the just the thing at a time like that. But I knew I could always rely on a microwave baked chocolate chip cookie in a cup. The next morning, I dusted myself off and moved hopefully onward.

I had intended to ask Daughter #1 what she meant by her comment about being “that kind of family,” when I picked her up from work, but we were listening to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and somehow, an overzealous, undirected kitchen faucet seemed like the least of our worries.

But her words made me reflective. 2016 feels like an annus horribilus on so many levels, I can see why a person might feel pessimistic. From a personal standpoint, I remember how guilty I felt when we were the ones enjoying cafe cortado in Spain. Given the current state of the world and some of the personal challenges we’ve weathered over the past two years, I no longer feel guilty, just grateful, lucky, and glad to have those memories (and my tinto de verano recipe) to fall back on.

How sweet it is.

How sweet it is.

So how does resilience differ between midlife and emerging adulthood?

In her book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife, author Barbara Bradley Hagerty suggests that attitude and perspective make all the difference. I’d add history to the mix. I can look back over our 20-year marriage and recall that Jeff and I have owned three dishwashers, battled rats and raccoons, survived the chronic illness of a toddler, handled my mother’s terminal illness, and battled lice several times, including discovery of an infestation on the day of my mother’s death at our home, when the cat barfed on the only remaining untainted bedsheets and I spent that day mourning and doing laundry. We DIY remodeled not one, but two bathrooms, and replaced a shattered refrigerator shelf, yet our marriage survived intact. I thought all was lost when Ronald Reagan was elected president. I had no idea…

For a 17-year-old, who has lived in the same 100-year-old house her entire life, it’s easy to focus on what’s broken. The current inflammatory rhetoric and shocking displays of violence reinforce that mindset. With growing political awareness and just a few months shy of being able to vote in her first presidential election, D #1 is disgusted and scared about the future. My daughters’ cohort has loosely been coined Generation Z or, more hopefully, “The Founders,” serving as the bridge to a more hopeful era.  For their sake, I hope that’s true.

At 11:30 one night, huddling mournfully together, having attended a poignant, beautiful memorial for a boy who left his family and friends much too soon, Daughter #2 remembered the lemonade that had been served at the service. Shaken by loss, she hadn’t been able to eat for several days, but had been able to manage that bittersweet lemonade.

I heard a whirring sound from the kitchen and walked in to find this, courtesy of Jeff:

lemons

I’d like to think that that’s the kind of family we are.

Speaking of history and perspective:

soup

  1. There is a garden vegetable soup I used to make when we and our friends found ourselves in times of trouble. Recently I had the occasion to make it again. It comes from The New Basics Cookbook, a compendium of standards from the brains behind The Silver Palate gems. I hope you can read this recipe:

garden soup

2. When I was a frazzled new mother, on the cusp of 40, with a baby and a toddler, one of the many books that gave me solace was The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Marriage, and Motherhood. Among other things (like the companion book, The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom) it spawned the New York Times Modern Love column, which now has a terrific podcast

I recently learned that The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, will be published in late September. I can’t wait to read it.

3. Escaping the ills of the world, I went to Pike Place Market the other day and, among other things, bought a romanesco.

foodie tear

Do yourself a favor and make this dish from the Los Angeles restaurant, Gjelina.

4. Happy 20th anniversary, Mr. Fix-it!  Wanna go oven shopping with me?

mr fix-it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing out from the Crowd

 

Jon Stewart meme

My father-in-law and I like to read the personal ads in the New York Review of Books. Actually, I like to read them aloud. He humors me by listening. I don’t, as a rule, read personal ads anywhere else and I have never participated in online dating, so I don’t know if these ads are typical. I suspect they are singular in their unabashed frankness.

Picture the smart, intellectual, urbane women who are represented by most of these ads; gutsy women who don’t apologize for their accomplishments or their education. They’ve  worked at staying attractive and fit and aren’t shy about saying so. These “women of a certain age” know what they want (a guy to travel and go to the opera with) and are willing to give a little too (most profess a willingness to learn golf). They inject a touch of self-deprication in their ads (they’re not very good at golf) but their bottom line is: Be yourself and go after what will make you happy.

sylvia personal ad

In contrast, the men who advertise in the New York Review of Books are far less specific than their female counterparts. Unless they are artists, they don’t advertise their professions. Some are unapologetic about the fact that they are married. They don’t feel the need to say where they like to travel or what kind of music they enjoy. My favorite ad is from a Los Angeles man, now 71 (he was 69 when I first noticed him), who simply proclaims that he is “ready to share his life.”

Lately, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on how we present ourselves to the world and, in an algorithm-driven society, what we have to do to stand out. Daughter #1, age 17, is looking for a college. I, on the other side of 50, am looking for a job. Neither one of us relishes the shameless self-promotion required to get noticed, though with a few more years and experience under my belt, it comes more naturally to me. We both hate the demoralizing feeling of being one of a million seekers, though sometimes the depersonalization can be comical.

D#1 receives oodles of snail mail and email every day from colleges and college prep programs hoping to catch her eye. They try all sorts of interesting gamuts to make her feel special, but sometimes they fall amusingly far from the mark. She’s currently suffering through Chemistry. One particularly miserable day, this illustrious certificate in her name, which now hangs proudly on our refrigerator, provided comic relief.

science 2

Last month, daughters #1 and #2 and I went on a Southern California college road trip, where the schools worked hard to distinguish themselves in our eyes. It felt good to have the illusion of control, however fleeting,  in the college application process.

Los Angeles is one of the great food towns and I was looking forward to sampling some of the local standouts.  Day 1, we hit the ground running with a visit to Santa Monica bakery Huckleberry. I’ve got the Huckleberry cookbook on my Kindle and, in particular, have enjoyed making these rich and yummy vanilla pancakes. The book also features a great recipe for multi-grain pancakes. The hint of shredded cheddar cheese in the recipe elevates them from merely healthy to sublime.

Huckleberry

The line was long, made even longer by the ravenous runners from the just-completed Los Angeles marathon. We limited ourselves to one pastry to be shared among the three of us. At 2:00 p.m. we finally sat down to breakfast, in my case, Green Eggs and Ham.

Green eggs

In L.A. we were lucky enough to be staying with extended family  — foodies of the highest caliber. The family’s intrepid son was more than happy to accompany me to Mapo Galbi, where, before your eyes, this:

Mapo Gali pre

is transformed into this:

Mapo Galbi

and if that isn’t enough, you get a nice pile of rice to scrape up the leftover bits.

mapo rice

Though Cafe Gratitude’s vegan food was creative and tasty, my attempt to order “Vivacious,” and have it misconstrued as “Dynamic,” made me feel like a fish out of water.

Woody Allen source screen shot

“I’ll have the alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast.”

All in all, we ate well in Southern California and several items made an impression.

There were bananas,

balboa

and burgers,

 

and Zankou chicken. And then there was “that cake.”

In the annals of family recipes, “that cake” is legendary— a standout from the pile of hundreds and thousands of recipes that I’ve come across over the past decade.

I didn’t actually eat that cake in Los Angeles. Long buried, it came to the forefront of my mind as a suggested dessert for a dinner party our aunt was planning. Everyone remembered it fondly.

The cake we  all appreciate comes from Amanda Hesser’s (of Food 52 fame) book, Cooking for Mr. Latte. It’s rich with almond paste and sour cream but doesn’t feel overwhelming. When I got home I made it for a party, and worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. It did not disappoint.

A week or so after we returned from Los Angeles, I made an unexpected trip to Michigan to hang out with my father-in-law, while his wife was on an overseas trip. “Make sure you bring recipes,” warned Jeff, who’d pulled the shift just before mine and had done a similar stint last year. Lovable, yet precise in his food desires, I had long ago nicknamed my father-in-law after the exacting coffee bean taster from the television commercials of my youth.

 

Savarin

The biggest compliment after he tastes something? “El Exigente approves.”

Jeff, who only makes around ten different dishes, all of them spectacular, was riding on a wave of good will. He’d fed El Exigente well from his small recipe reserve. I’ve made around 10,000 dishes, and maybe 100 of them have been designated “keepers.” Which ones would rise to the top, as worthy of El Exigente?

I brought options. The first night, after my long journey and a meal of leftover Hainanese Chicken Rice made by Jeff, my father-in-law and I got down to business and chose the menus for the week.(There are a million recipes for Chicken Rice. I think ours comes from the Washington Post or the New York Times from 10 or 15 years ago. Whichever recipe you choose, make sure the sauce feature copious amounts of ginger.)

top-chef__140130164225

In what I came to think of as a friendly family competition, each night I waited to see how El Exigente (who I should stress, was very grateful for every meal) would react to my concoctions and I shared the results with Jeff.

Night One: A calculated risk. I persuaded El Exigente, a midwestern meat eater, to try pasta made with Marcella Hazen’s famous tomato sauce with butter and onion, our family’s favorite comfort meal. In a nod to his preference for meat, I paired it with Food 52’s Absurdly Addictive Asparagus, which features pancetta. In his eyes it was a good, though not a great meal. I told Jeff the crown remained squarely on his head. The next day, I happily ate the leftover asparagus for lunch.

Night Two: I opted for a surprise move. Though my penchant for European chicken has been well documented in this blog, I’ve made my reputation as an ethnic cook. Lacking a tried and true recipe among the thousands for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, I used this one from Saveur, and made it my own. El Exigente described my Chicken with 38 Cloves of Garlic as “thorough,” meaning the chicken was permeated with flavor. This was high praise indeed. I told Jeff I’d earned points for versatility.

Night Three: Back to my comfort zone. El Exigente didn’t just have seconds of my Lion’s Head meatballs, he had thirds. And from the very first bite, he proclaimed (in English because he doesn’t speak Spanish), “I like this.”

The first time I made Lion’s Head meatballs, I used this recipe from Food 52. For my father-in-law, I used this recipe from Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian recipes. (Ever since they introduced me to the Mapo Galbi I had in L.A., I’ve had a foodie crush on Lucky Peach. Check out their  website and their book, in which you’ll also find recipes for Chicken Rice, many delicious noodles, and more).

Miss America

The crown was mine. Until my brother-in-law arrived to take my place.

I’m back home now, where the college and job hunts have resumed and good meals keep our spirits up, as we study for the SAT and write cover letters, hoping to be noticed.

The thing about recipes, just like the thing about people, is that there’s so much more to them than what you see on paper. You never know which ones will stand out, given the opportunity.

air book

Today I was the beneficiary of a random act of kindness, courtesy of a Good Samaritan (I suspect my friend Peggy) who left this wonderful book in the locker room of our gym. If you haven’t heard about Drs. Paul and Lucy Kalanithi and the diagnosis that led to this book,  I encourage you to read this book. From everything I’ve heard, and the few pages I’ve read so far, it’s a bittersweet counterpoint to our algorithm-driven world.

 

 

 

 

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

still life icepack

Still life with icepack

Welcome, 2016, from my perch on the love seat in my sun room, where I lay, knee elevated and iced, following an ill-considered evening body circuit class at my neighborhood gym.

This isn’t a case of overzealous New Year’s resolution implementation. In fact, my resolutions, such that they are, are to 1) make peace with and enjoy the aging process; 2) try to eat whole foods and exercise every day; 3) not make a big deal about it if I don’t.

My current injury is the result of mixing things up a bit. Formerly a dedicated early morning exerciser, I’ve been having trouble bouncing out of bed at 5:30, as I did last year, to attend chilly and dark outdoor boot camp, or 6:00, as I’ve been doing this year, to swim at our grimy neighborhood pool. Frustrated at not “catching the worm” these first few days back at school and work, I decided to sleep in and give evening exercise a try.

Sleep has been eluding me. At the risk of oversharing, but in keeping with the truthful spirit and subject of this blog, I’ll confess that night sweats are keeping me awake. In a funny sort of role reversal, my “chill” husband and I remain temperature incompatible, only these nights he’s the one snuggled up under blankets and I’m the one who has thrown them off, as if sleeping in a tropical paradise.

Phyllis 2

When insomnia strikes, I know some say you should get out of bed and be productive, but the looming 6:00 a.m. alarm is a deterrent. Instead, I prefer reading. And in deference to the aforementioned chill husband, I read on my Kindle so I don’t wake him up.

This fall I happily read my way through the four books that comprise Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Stories. Once I had finished them, I was at a loss for what to read next. Though the Kindle was full of tantalizing possibilities, I just couldn’t commit to any one of them. Instead, I indulged in my favorite dorky night time habit — trolling the Kindle daily deals for a $1.99 book that would catch my fancy. I found it in former New York Times food writer Mimi Sheraton’s massive compendium, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.

1,000 foods

Want to cure your insomnia? Try reading about baked calves’ brains with seasoned bread crumbs, apparently an Italian delicacy, or Ezra Tull’s gizzard soup (inspired by Hungarian bechinalt). Did you know the Swiss have cookies named for ladies’ thighs (one wonders how this was received by the wife of the chef who created them) or that schmaltz  (rendered poultry fat) used to be highly desirable? As desirable as wild pistachio tree sap, as a matter of fact.

The 1,000 page tome is arranged geographically, starting with Europe (broken down by language groups). Next comes  a transition section called “Jewish.” I read that section in early December and was inspired to bake my own bialys (Mimi Sheraton, who has a taste for interesting book projects, is also the author of The Bialy Eaters, and you can find her recipe for bialys at saveur.com).

bialys

Each sleepless night I bounced between disgust, boredom, fascination, and inspiration, as I made my way through the world of food. It won’t surprise you to know that the Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern section is one of my favorites in the book. It was there I discovered Ash-e-Anar, Persian Pomegranate soup. How had I overlooked that recipe in my copy of Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Kitchen? Two nights before Christmas, as the wind and rain howled and hammered outside, four soothing, tangy bowls of this unctuous delight graced our dinner table.

pomegranate soup

I can’t say for sure, but I imagine  I slept like a baby that night.

Last night I was awakened at 3 am, not by night sweats, but by the pain in my knee. I knew I should ice and elevate it and take some more Ibuprofen, but my cat had just settled on top of me and I feared I would not be able to get down or back up our stairs.

So I turned to that guy with whom I made vows 20 years ago and whispered his name. He was snuggled up under the covers in a deep, untroubled sleep, but he instantly awoke and uncomplainingly went downstairs. He returned with Ibuprofen, water, an ice pack,  a towel, and pillows, then got back into bed and instantly fell back asleep. Must be nice.

As for me, I’m up to the Caribbean now. While I waited for the drugs to kick in, I read about callaloo, a spicy dish of stewed greens that apparently has the power to induce any man who eats it to propose to the woman who prepared it.

i-married-marge17

Pay careful attention to the vows

I believe in the power of food. I lured my man with mangoes. And tonight, I’ll soothe my throbbing knee and tired soul with Persian Pomegranate Soup. Later, if I can’t sleep, I have conch fritters and pina coladas to look forward to.

At the start of the new year, the Kindle Daily Deals were particularly good.  I scored Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, two books I’ve been longing to read. I took a break from my nighttime culinary roaming to read Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful, poignant memoir of marriage, friendship, and loss. The Light of the World features a few recipes from Ficre Ghebreyeus, Alexander’s Eritrean husband, who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 50. Realizing that she and her children must leave the home they’d shared with Ficre, Alexander turns to a recipe for comfort. Though Ficre is no longer there, she can make his spicy red lentil and tomato curry and retain a part of him, wherever she goes.

Ash-E-Anar (Pomegranate Soup) from The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia

serves 6-8

Soup:

3 T grapeseed oil ( I often use olive oil)

1/2 yellow onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 c split peas

1 t ground turmeric

2 t ground cumin

8 cups vegetable stock or water (I’ve used chicken stock)

1/2 c pomegranate molasses

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

seeds of 1 pomegranate

1 c thick Greek yogurt

Meatballs:

1/2 yellow onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb lean ground lamb (I’ve used ground turkey and ground pork)

2 T minced flat-leaf parsley

2T cilantro

2 T minced mint

2 t sea salt

To make soup, heat oil in a large pot and cook onion for 10 minutes, until it starts to brown. Add garlic, split peas, turmeric, cumin and stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 1/2 hours, until legumes are tender and soup is slightly thick.

To make meatballs, combine all ingredients in a large bowl, then form into walnut-sized balls.

When split peas are tender, add pomegranate molasses to the pot, then drop in meatballs and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, till they are cooked through.

Season soup with salt and pepper. Serve in bowls garnished with pomegranate seeds and yogurt.

Vegetarian option:

Follow recipe, omitting meatballs. Along with split peas, add 1/2 c lentils, 1/2 dried mung beans, 1/2 c pearled barley, and 1 large bee, peeled and diced. Use 12 cups stock or water. When beans and barley are tender, add pomegranate molasses and 1 bunch chopped cilantro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Toll Booths on Memory Lane

Four years ago this blog was born on a crisp October night when my husband was on a business trip in Asia, my kids were already becoming well versed in ignoring me and I was thinking about chicken and France. There’s something about autumn that makes a person (well me, anyway) tap into her inner, not-fat French woman and think about preparing exquisite chicken and apple dishes eaten en famille, with everyone savoring the meal and the kids displaying good manners and open-minded palates. This was before we had books to taunt us that not only don’t French women get fat, but their kids are better behaved than ours too.

japanese book

And thus, a cottage industry was born.

My first post detailed a plan (which I remained somewhat faithful to for several seasons) for us to eat European chicken once a week. A post about my favorite apple desserts followed shortly thereafter.

Since then, I’ve written about teenagers and puppies and hamsters and perimenopause and work-life balance and gallbladders and colonoscopies and perfume and Tony Soprano, with lots of recipes and bewilderment about aging thrown into the mix. Where does the time go? I’d planned to write this post in August, on the heels of a trip we made to the East Coast to attend the wedding of the son of college friends of mine and to visit New England colleges for Daughter #1, who was still in middle school when I started this blog. Now it’s almost Halloween, that trip has nearly faded into memory along with my tan and Daughter #2 has started high school. Luckily there is a European chicken in the oven.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It’s no accident that wedding bands choose music the elders can dance to. I never thought I’d hear, much less dance to Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light ever again. But it was a highlight of the party. “We can dance to your music,” explained the groom, who doesn’t have a patronizing bone in his body. “You have more trouble dancing to ours.” For the record, Daughters #1 and #2 were mortified that we danced at all.

old dancing couple

We spent a week tooling around New England on what is apparently a pretty traditional college road trip. When you’re from the West, like we are, you feel a frisson of excitement every time you cross a state line, which in New England seems to happen every five minutes or so. The girls indulged me each time we crossed a frontier and sang my grandmother’s made-up song which bids farewell to the old state and welcomes the new one.

national lampoon vacation

Visit colleges with your kid and you’re bound to relive your memories. In my case, I was bound and determined to leave the East Coast for the West Coast, which I did via France (where I met the parents of the groom). Now, nearly 40 years later, my West Coast daughter has admitted she has a taste for the exotic East.

My kids make fun of me for being from New Jersey but they also are a little bit in awe of  the classic Jersey “in your face” attributes — the polar opposite of Seattle nice (aka passive/aggressive behavior). So when we arrived at the rental car kiosk at Logan airport and an altercation occurred in line (or “on line,” as we say in New Jersey), my kids, who were fascinated, thought I was in my element and would jump right into the fray.

taxi driver

When I held back and even politely let someone cut in front of me (others had jumped to my defense, which was the reason for the altercation), they were disappointed. “You’ve lost your East Coast skills,” they said and I knew that my feet were becoming cemented in clay.

I worked hard to redeem myself.  I took them for cannoli in Boston’s North End.

cannoli1

I explained the expression “old money.” The Howells

My kids experienced a lot of things they’d never seen before like

men in pink pants;

preppie

flash thunderstorms bringing down sheets of rain in such volume that we Seattlites, used to a more passive/aggressive kind of rain, were unprepared and got drenched;

sky

and tollbooths.

tolling

Though they’d been East before, this trip felt different. My daughters assessed everything with the eyes and attitudes of people who would soon choose where they wanted to live and found everything to their liking, even though I didn’t manage to find them any decent pizza. A particularly sumptuous post-wedding brunch sealed the deal. “I’m going to school on the East Coast too,” announced Daughter #2, whom I’d pegged an L.A. girl.

For me, mixed in with the delight of the once familiar were reminders of all the reasons I’d left. I kept most of these to myself, remembering that a trip to California in1968 had kindled my dream to go West and stay there and my mother never dissuaded me. Who was I to rain on their parade?

We returned home and in the last days of summer I made eggplant parmigiana, a nod to my East Coast heritage. School started and we began the roller coaster ride of college fairs and PSATs. There are more college road trips in our future, including at least one to California. Next year will be Daughter #1’s last with us. Daughter #2, who has begun studying French just like I did, hopes to spend part of next school year in France, just like I did when I was in high school. Those soccer Saturdays and all the driving I do will be over in the blink of an eye. Our house will be much cleaner and I will always be able to find a phone charger when I want one.

But not yet. Until then there are rituals like European Chicken Night to hold us together, even if they happen infrequently now.

Tonight we ate Poularde Farcie en Chaponnade Comme en Correzeor Roast Chicken Stuffed with Garlic Croutons in the Style of the Correze, from Paula Wolfert’s lovely book, The Cooking of Southwest France. Come to think of it, I cooked it in the roasting pan my mother bought me when I was in college.

Here's to new horizons

Here’s to new horizons

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It just goes to show you, it's always something.

It just goes to show you, it’s always something.

I remember the exact moment our luck changed. We were sitting in a Michigan airport getting ready to return home to Seattle when I learned that Paseo, the Cuban sandwich place located across the street from the beach near our house, was closing. Paseo signified everything that was right about Ballard, the neighborhood we’ve lived in for 20 years. I’ve written and ranted about the changes underway in Ballard and, more recently, about the changes brewing in our lives. When you have things that anchor you, like a pink shack with garlicky aioli-slathered pork sandwiches or a trustworthy drug store to buy lice supplies, school supplies, shampoo, chocolate and even wine (sadly, now knocked down to make way for a “mixed use” retail/condo behemoth), you can feel enveloped in a bubble of invulnerability. The destruction of those icons made my invulnerability bubble-wrap begin to pop, bubble by bubble.

The minor fender bender that occurred on the way to school/work left me grateful it was no big deal, but still a little shaky because I don’t, as a rule of thumb, have car accidents. Ditto the news that I had suffered a stress fracture in my foot, because I have never broken a bone.

So much for early morning boot camp.

So much for early morning boot camp.

But I rolled with everything, stylishly rocking the one shoe/one boot look for over a month and adapting each time a curve ball came my way. When Zayn Malik left One Direction,  I dealt with it better than some.

On a business trip to Chicago, I learned to tolerate lap swimming, thanks to the hotel’s 1929-era pool. Once home, I reveled in the fact that, instead of rising at 5:30 for boot camp, I could sleep in till 6:15 and hit my local (less fancy) pool at the end of the morning rush.

pool I made Yotam Ottolenghi’s carrot, apple and pecan muffins and I waited for a sign that this run of bad luck was coming to an end. muffinsThe first hopeful sign came in the form of  a package from my Chicago hotel. As proof that my stars were definitely out of alignment, I had discovered on my flight home that I’d left a drawer full of clean underwear and workout stuff in my hotel room. I do not, as a rule of thumb, usually leave anything behind when I travel (except for a black sweater coat left in a Grenada taxi. I blame my daughters for that). This was a fixable problem, and I jumped into action to get my items returned to me, convinced that when the package arrived, our luck would change. underwear Then, a setback. Daughter #1’s iPhone was stolen at a concert, to her perhaps the worst of all the mishaps that had befallen us. Heretofore, concerts were the ultimate bonding experience. Her faith in humanity was shaken. Worse, she couldn’t listen to music. headphones But a week later, we got great, life-changing news and we started celebrating. But then, unexpected, unwelcome life-changing (though to a far lesser extent) news came calling. So much for my attempts at pattern recognition. The latest news is that I’ve been advised to have my gallbladder removed because of a small growth that had been detected during the series of tests that followed my colonoscopy.

Among the random things I remember learning in school, such as that Taiwan used to be called Formosa and that guano is bat dung, I have a strong memory of learning about the four cardinal humors. The ancient Greeks believed that temperament was derived from the presence of bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An imbalance of any of these could influence a person’s personality and their health. temperaments Blood was associated with a sanguine personality. Phlegm could make a person apathetic or phlegmatic. Black bile was associated with melancholy and yellow bile was associated with anger, aggression and gall. If you’re like me up until a few days ago, you probably don’t even know what the gallbladder does. Like the spleen, the gallbladder is one of those under-the-radar organs that rarely gets mentioned. Its main function is to store bile, a substance that helps the body absorb fat.

The words gall and bile don’t carry positive connotations, as they are associated with boldness (in a pushy, nervy sort of way) and bitterness. Personally, I prefer the Chinese interpretation of the gallbladder and its functions. The Chinese associate the gall bladder with courage, bravery and heroism. According to one ancient Chinese theory of medicine, not only does the gallbladder play a role in digestion, but also in decision-making.

Beyond my fears of the surgery itself, I worried. Would removing my gallbladder upset my four cardinal humors? Would it make it difficult for me to digest fat and other foods? gall bladder meme I’ve learned that cholecystectomy, or removal of the gall bladder, is the most common surgery. And, in a twist on the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, in which something you just learned about seems to suddenly crop up everywhere, in the past few days, it seems that everyone I talk to is either missing a gallbladder or knows someone who is. Chances are, if you are a woman reading this, and a mid-life woman to boot, you don’t have a gallbladder either.

Or, as Jeff’s cousin Deb, a research scientist whom I greatly admire and who cuts right to the chase said, “Some of my favorite people have no gall bladders.”

no gall bladder club

Apparently, penguins have enormous gall bladders, but lots of animals don’t have them at all.

The night after I got my gallbladder news, I went out for dinner with friends, one of whom, I learned, is gallbladder-free. It didn’t seem to stop her from enjoying a divine meal of Muscadet, oysters, crispy sardines, cucumber salad and asparagus. I noticed she didn’t touch the pate, but that apparently had nothing to do with her lack of a gallbladder. Good sign.

Daughter #2, whose heart is in the right place, has decided we need to have a fatty foods party before my surgery. I suggested we should make an emergency trip to Paris for a cheese tasting. She’s in.

Last night,  I wanted to cook, something I haven’t done much of lately, but which always returns my four cardinal humors to their correct balance.

Jan Brady meme I ignored my usual impulse to cook something Mediterranean and decided to make khao soi, a rich, Northern Thai curry that reminded me of my early days with Jeff (we met in Asia). Our cooking and eating lives together began with Asian food, before we migrated to Mexican flavors and later, I veered off into Mediterranean, Turkish and Spanish territory.

Jeff’s been with me through thick and thin. He’s famous for giving the kind of unromantic presents that endure (though his sister was furious when he gave me a toothbrush holder. Turns out, I needed one). It’s true, I appreciate my Soda Stream fizzy water maker more than the iPad that I wanted for Christmas that year. And I love my mortar and pestle.

I hadn’t gone on a treasure hunt for ingredients for a long time and that was fun. And it felt cathartic to grind the spices, shrimp paste, chiles, shallots and garlic to make the paste for the khao soi. pestle Shit happens and the writer in me realizes it’s all in the interpretation. This one six-month series of unfortunate events is just that, and is far eclipsed by the many six-month great runs we’ve had together. However, I did find it galling that at a particularly low point, Facebook chose to show me a picture of what we were during last year around this time — making merry in Seville. Maybe next year, when I have no gallbladder, that kind of thing won’t bother me.

Jeff is a physicist at heart and he might scoff at my attempts to find meaning through pattern recognition or chaos theory. But, I bet that if I asked him, Stephen Hawking might give me hope that when Paseo, or something like it, returns to Ballard (I’ve seen hopeful signs at the pink shack), I’ll be able to eat rich pork sandwiches slathered in garlic aioli with no problem.

Stephen Hawking gives reassuring news

I used the khao soi recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook. Pok Pok is the wonderful Thai restaurant in Portland, Oregon (and now, I think also New York) that is an essential stop if you visit that city (make sure to order the chicken wings). The cookbook is a commitment, with several recipes advising you to begin preparation weeks in advance. I chose khao soi because it was relatively quick, but we still didn’t eat till 9 p.m., which taxed everyone’s gall bladders. Here’s a somewhat simpler recipe to try. 

Pan Bagnat

Pan Bagnat

Recently, I took one of those BuzzFeed-type quizzes to find out what type of sandwich I am.

I usually work from home, so most days it’s just me, my dog and two cats. I spend a lot of time at the Facebook water cooler. Those quizzes can be hard to resist.

Despite the fact that my friend Sam has warned me that the quizzes put my data out there for Facebook and God knows who else to mine, I feel more self-aware now that I know which city I am supposed to live in (LA), what stereotype I was in high school (the renegade— totally not true. I just had lunch with a guy I went to high school with and discovered that even the nerds were wilder than I was) and what my hippie name would be (Flower).

When the results of my sandwich quiz came in, I was pleased with the outcome.

I am a Pan Bagnat, that Nicoise specialty, which is basically a Salade Nicoise between two slices of really good bread. You wrap it and weigh it down with something heavy for several hours so that olive oil and juices from the sandwich ingredients soak into the bread. It’s heavenly.

The first time I made a Pan Bagnat was during those early years of motherhood, when I would console myself over the lack of travel and lack of a job by making global concoctions. Early one morning I assembled the Pan Bagnat and set in the fridge to saturate until lunch time.

Daughter #1 was at kindergarten. Daughter #2 was having an afternoon playdate. Once her friend came over, I planned to leave the girls to their Polly Pockets and pretend I was in the South of France.

French Barbie

By the time my kids were 4, most of us parents were comfortable with the whole playdate thing, so we dispensed with the ritual of hanging around to make sure our kids were settled and high-tailed it away to enjoy a few kid-free hours. I was banking on D #2’s friend’s mother doing this and was anticipating enjoying my Pan Bagnat in peace before kid snack time.

She came, dropped off her daughter and … stayed.

I made the kind of small talk that is so boring you can’t wait to get away.

I encouraged her to go enjoy herself.

I told her the girls would be fine.

When it became clear that she was in no rush to leave, I grappled with what to do, especially since this was a woman I barely knew. Offering her half of my Pan Bagnat seemed like it would require an explanation. What was this messy sandwich? Why was it so special? Why was I planning to eat it furtively?

lucy-ricardo

I offered her a drink and silently willed her to leave. I not-so-jokingly reminded her the two-hour playdate would soon be over.

Eventually, she got the hint or maybe she just got bored.

You can guess that I was no more than two bites into my Pan Bagnat when the girls came into the kitchen to tell me they were bored and hungry. Not long after that, the other girl’s mother returned, followed by D#1. Yes, I got to eat my sandwich, but I didn’t get to savor it.

Pan Bagnat has held a mystique for me ever since.

After I received my quiz results, I decided it had been far too long since I’d made a Pan Bagnat. My kids are older and gone for most of the day, so there was nothing to stand in my way. I made the Pan Bagnat and I savored it, while reading this great essay in the New York Times.

lunch and paper

A week or so later I made it again, taking the bold step of serving it for dinner on a hot summer night. To my shock, everyone enjoyed it (shhh, don’t tell them they ate anchovies).

So much of family life and life with other people involves delayed gratification.

Picture the recent summer afternoon when I, who rarely sit still, settled on the hammock with Sandra Tsing Loh’s, The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.

hammock

Enter my handsome husband, who announced that in ten minutes we were converging in the sweltering attic for a family cleaning session.

Homer-Simpson-wingnuts-doh

Today is my birthday.

“I hope you are doing something self-indulgent,” a co-worker said.

Self-indulgent?

Today was my turn to drive the morning carpool and then I had to give a presentation to the Parent Association at our school. Tonight is the 8th grade potluck. We are assigned dessert, so I am baking this terrific flip-over plum cake, which I told you about almost exactly two years ago.

I sat outside in the sunshine, flanked by my sun-loving pets and I sliced Italian plums that I had been given from a friend’s tree.

plums

And while I baked the cake, I wrote this blog.

I make my living as a writer and am lucky that I get to interview people, study issues in depth and share what I’ve learned with the world. This summer was a particularly busy and stressful one for me, fraught with deadlines and not a lot of down time. I’m proud of what I’ve written, particularly this story about kids and gender identify, but in the rush of reporting, this blog, which is a form of self-expression, has suffered. So has my cooking.

So I am happy to report that my birthday was self-indulgent, in the best possible way.

Thanks for sharing it with me.

And if I hurry, I can get in a run or a bike ride before the kids come home from school.

Here’s the recipe I use for Pan Bagnat, courtesy of French food maven, Patricia Wells.

Bon appétit. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tinto de Verano

restaurant I suppose it was inevitable that the vacation glow would wear off, but I was surprised by how quickly it happened. The first day back from our trip, the first sunny day of a week that would reach vacation-like temperatures in the ’80s, I got into an argument about my dog with our mail carrier. Of course the argument, and my reaction to it, wasn’t really about the dog or the mail carrier at all.

It was about Change. construction If you know me or you’ve followed this blog, you know my neighborhood is changing. As the old-timers die off, developers are buying their land and razing their houses, building three and four-unit expensive condominiums in their place. “Chicken coops,” my taciturn neighbor, one of the remaining elderly men on the block, calls them. “Filing cabinets” is the term preferred by one of my colleagues.

My street is a constant construction zone. It’s loud and busy and my dog and I can’t stand it. He barks, which is what upset the mail carrier. I sometimes bark too, but mostly I am full of suppressed and not-so-suppressed rage.

On that first sunny morning, when my dog and I went for a walk, I learned that the neighbors on the corner, who had built the treehouse that everybody’s kids played in, had sold their property and were getting a divorce. My next-door neighbor, a good-natured handyman, who is always kind enough to feed our cats when we are away, told me he was leaving too. And then he offered to come back to the neighborhood anytime we needed him to feed the cats.

So when Jeff told me to let go of the argument with the mail carrier, he was really trying to tell me to stop fighting the inevitable.

Change. musicians Makes a person want to turn around and head right back to Spain. (I had to laugh when I read the snarky comments in response to the article I wrote about the mail carrier/dog brouhaha and destruction of my neighborhood. One of the more vicious trolls, who obviously saw me as an entitled enemy of honest working people, snarkily accused me of vacationing in Spain.)

Yup, I was in Spain alright. Andalusia to be exact.

Carefully constructed around Christmas time, when we were all sick with the flu, this trip was meant to have something for everyone.

A pitstop in London, for British-obsessed Daughter #1 (with a long-anticipated trip to Ottolenghi for me). Ottolenghi Windsuring in Tarifa, for windsurfing-obsessed Jeff (with a side-trip to Tangier, Morocco for me). tarifa   Morocco stairs Warm weather, for Daughter #2. Morocco foodMorocco doorwayGibraltar, just because. And Moorish history and great food for me.

When you travel internationally somewhat infrequently with your kids, it’s hard to know what will make the greatest impression. You never know what’s going to stick.

The morning of the trip, as I was frantically trying to make sure we had everything together, we realized that Daughter #2 did not have a purse. I know from experience with D#1 that teenage girls are very particular about their purses.

All other options rejected, my eyes fell on a black faux-leather Marc Jacobs shoulder bag that my stylish friend C. gave me when she moved away. “You can use this,” I offered, sure that D #2 would reject it as falling within the fashion domain of a 50-something woman clinging to the last vestiges of style. But D #2 surprised me. “Really?” she asked, her eyes gleaming. “Is that a designer bag?”

“Our boots” flashed before my eyes.

Surprise #1 of the trip was the way in which D#2 and I bonded. We’d been having some tussles and she, far more enigmatic than her sister, rarely let me in on her secrets. Lending (yes, lending) her that purse opened a window. I discovered just how sophisticated her interest in fashion has grown. She discovered that I had a past, one that apparently included more designer swag than she’d realized.

At the airport I told her that in my young, single, traveling days, when leaving a country, I used to take my remaining currency to the duty-free shop and spend it on perfume.

So on this trip, together, we spent all of our airport waiting time in duty-free shops, searching for what she hoped would be her “signature scent.” I spoke with familiarity about Chanel and Dior, Guerlain and Lancome, and she regarded me with a respect for experience that sometimes gets lost in our day-to-day lives.

When, in the last few minutes at the last duty-free shop, despairing of ever finding just the right essence (despite my using my own olfactory history as proof that your signature scent changes, as you change), a kindly British saleswoman (who was clearly one of those “sweet-smelling women,” like those who guided me) took D#2 in hand and helped her navigate the shelves.

No matter that I misread and miscalculated the price of the Gucci perfume we ended up purchasing, only realizing after we returned home just how much we’d spent. provactive perfume

“Our perfume,” I call it. And though she may not realize it, we share it in more ways than one.

Back at home, D#2 and I went on a feminist movie-watching jag, watching the original Stepford Wives, which Jeff rented for us, under the suspicious eyes of the somewhat militant women at the video store, who refused to let him rent the Nicole Kidman remake. (A guy renting a movie like that is the equivalent of a guy buying tampons, which Jeff has also done. Welcome to the domain of women.) and Rosemary’s Baby.

My little girl is growing up.

D #1 looked utterly at home navigating the Tube in London, drinking tea and eating Maltesers. Maltesers-Wrapper-Small

She wants to study there and I realized that she probably will.

I dug even further back, before my perfume-purchasing days, to the two years that I was an exchange student in Europe, years of glorious poverty.

One of the most interesting things about being a parent as your kids get older, is that suddenly you can remember and relate. The distance between your respective experiences seems to shrink. My Eurail Pass self and my designer perfume self are just under the surface. My girls’ equivalents of those selves are just under the surface too, about to emerge. Ronda

But what about Spain?  Did they appreciate the Alhambra and the cathedral in Seville and the tomb of Christopher Columbus and the all-you-can-eat paella on the beach?

Spanishpaella

Yeah, they did. Granada

But more than anything they appreciated eating five times a day, dressing up, wandering around on their own, late night tapas crawls and sips of the drink that defined the trip for me: Tinto de Verano.

Enjoyed more by Spaniards than Sangria (which is apparently for tourists), Tinto de Verano, or summer red wine, is equal parts red wine and lemon/lime or orange soda. It is divine.

Seville

In Spain I was probably drinking a mixture of cheap wine and lemon-lime Fanta. At home, I tried to replicate it by mixing wine with Dry brand blood orange soda and a splash of agave and it wasn’t the same. I’m still tinkering. This uncomplicated recipe, from Saveur, is a good place to start.

The wonderful book that accompanied me on this trip was Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese.

Among other things, it’s about change, or rather the push-pull we humans feel as we struggle to preserve history, heritage and our way of doing things, with the inevitable changes that time brings. Cadiz

Fully back at home now ensconced in real life, with my Spanish sojourn and the sting of having three packs of jamon Iberico confiscated at the airport fading into memory, I can see change on the horizon.

But summer is coming.

As much as possible, I will spend mine trying to replicate our favorite tapa — grilled goat cheese drizzled with honey—cooking from my old favorite Spanish cookbooks, The New Spanish Table, The Spanish Table cookbook (from the wonderful Seattle store of the same name) and my new favorite, Moro, the cookbook, which I learned about one melancholy rainy day from this recipe for spinach and garbanzo beans (courtesy of The Smitten Kitchen), which transported me right back to Andalusia.

When the construction workers have left for the day and quiet returns to the neighborhood, I will lie on my backyard hammock with a good book, a glass of Tinto de Verano nearby.

I’ll try not to worry this summer, as Daughter #1 learns how to drive, reminding myself that change is inevitable.

How sweet it is.

How sweet it is.

Foodie Fan Fest

 

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

I’m just back from a glorious trip to the Andalucia region of Spain. The trip included a brief stint in London, where I got to enjoy a jet-lagged, yet wonderful meal at the Islington branch of Ottolenghi.

The next installment of Slice of Mid-Life will be all about that trip and the wonderful food we ate. I’m still marveling at the fact that Spaniards eat five times a day and late into the night, but don’t seem to get fat.

Until then, I wanted to share this brief interview I did with Molly Wizenberg, author of the wonderful food blog Orangette, who has a new book out this month. She’s at a very different stage of life than I am and it’s fun to see how she manages the interplay of food, art and motherhood. I admire her very much.

I hope you’ll think of this brief article as a tapa, in anticipation of the feast to come. Here’s the link:

Someone You Should Know: Molly Wizenberg

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

 

 

I’m Just Like Gwyneth. Except When I’m Not.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Gwyneth Paltrow would never let more than two months elapse without updating her blog.

gwyneth-paltrow-sticks-to-her-diet-while-family-eats-pizza-and-pasta__oPt

Bad for the brand.

I’ve been thinking about personal branding lately and, of course, about Gwyneth, because how could you not? For the lonely writer, social media is our water cooler. Gwyneth’s announcement of her split from husband Chris Martin has dominated social media over the past few days, but even better are the writers who have posted insightful and funny retorts to Gwyneth’s comments about “conscious uncoupling” and difficulties of life on a movie set in Wisconsin.

Others have responded so much better than I could, but I will just say, as someone with two jobs, kids doing three sports and and a husband who thinks I have all the time in the world to get his international drivers permit, life on a movie set in Wisconsin with 14 hours of uninterrupted focus on one goal sounds pretty good right now.

wisconsin cheese

Actually, I’ve been on something of a Gwyneth kick lately, exercising regularly, sticking to 1500 calories a day, snacking on cauliflower with bagna cauda and generally trying to maximize my potential.

But years of attempts at personal growth and personal stomach shrinkage have yielded an important realization: I’m good for about three weeks.

Three weeks is the maximum stretch I can regularly run, do yoga and Tabata, limit myself to one glass of wine with dinner, accomplish my professional and personal tasks with aplomb, volunteer at school, take the dog out regularly for long walks, drive carpool, manage the carpool Google calendar, make healthy dinners that everyone actually likes, drive to and from soccer practice and get enough sleep.

Gwyneth-Paltrow-Real-Beauty

Before

Three weeks. Then, something’s got to give.

I just listened to a piece on NPR about male coming-of-age rituals in Kenya. Boys are circumcised at age 13, in an elaborate ritual that involves pulling the penis through the foreskin and then tying the foreskin into a bow. Though I don’t have male equipment, my knee-jerk reaction is ouch. Prior to the ceremony, the boy’s face is caked with mud, which dries into a hardened mask. During the ceremony he is supposed to remain perfectly still. If he flinches or reacts in any way, the mud will crack and he will be branded a “sissy” for life.

 

Three weeks later

Three weeks later

That’s how Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand of “aspirational” (my new, most-hated word) lifesyle strikes me. I admire the effort to be perfect, but aspire to the more realistic, trickle-down effects of trying to do your best and settling for achieving your personal best, whatever that is, at any given time, with whatever you’ve got going on in your life.

Eventually, the mud will crack

Eventually, the mud will crack

In the months that I’ve contemplated what I wanted to write about next, two pieces served as inspiration. One was a much reviled piece by New York Times writer David Brooks called The Thought Leader, in which he paints a grim picture of the life cycle of a certain type of self-satisfied intellectual.

The other, which ran a few months later in The Atlantic, is called The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age. As we age, the writer argues, we may find it hard to accept that not just our looks, but also our ideas, are discounted in favor of the young. Wisdom and experience are no longer at a premium, especially in an age of self-absorption.

I found the happy medium in a New Yorker essay by Roger Angell. This Old Man is an account of Life in the Nineties. If you are short on time, stop reading this blog immediately and read that instead.

Wisdom is not dead.

Yes, feminists, I realize I have just cited three works by men. This past week there has been a trove of good stuff written in commemoration of Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. I am well aware that wisdom and reflection are not solely the domains of those who have endured penis-centric coming-of-age rituals.

Quote-by-Gloria-Steinem

In the past week, I had two contrasting experiences which provided food for thought. The first was the day I spent interviewing third-generation longshoremen on the docks of a busy container shipping terminal. I learned about the values that had shaped them and how they pass these on to the younger generation. The second was lunch in a beautiful penthouse apartment listening to academics and followers of the Dalai Lama talk about ways to bring “secular ethics” into schools.

Both groups were equally aspirational and I guess you could call them both “thought leaders.” And both, though they used different terminology, were essentially trying to accomplish the same thing.

The getting and passing down of wisdom is an important aspect of the human condition and a key tenant of some religions. Blogs and brands and Twitter accounts notwithstanding, it’s generally assumed that wisdom is something that makes an appearance on the heels of experiences, which are accumulated throughout the course of one’s life. There’s no right way to do it and no one time when you’ve got it all figured out.

It’s a solitary and individual experience.

Because we are treading into heavy, preachy Gwyneth-like territory here, please take a moment to watch this video.

I’ve jumped back on my Gwyneth regimen today (because I have three weeks before departing for Spain, where I will happily get off the virtue wagon). And here’s how my day has shaped up so far:

Up at 6:30 to rouse a tired teen who had been at a dance the night before and take her in the pouring rain to meet the bus for her track meet. We stopped at a coffee shop on the way. Didn’t I feel virtuous eating a Morning Glory muffin to take the edge off, so I could attend an 8:30 a.m. power yoga class.

Here’s the thing about that yoga class. I used to do yoga at a trendy studio with lots of young, attractive people in great looking yoga threads, who liked to do handstands and Bird of Paradise and Side Crow and probably use the word aspirational a lot.

gwyneth yoga

Now I do yoga at our friendly, affordable neighborhood gym with a bunch of regular looking people of all ages, shapes and sizes and a teacher who plays great music. I’m not much for the woo-woo aspects of yoga, but every now and then, something the teacher says sticks. Today he reminded us not to worry about how we looked. “Nobody’s looking at you,” he reminded us. “They’re all too busy focusing on themselves.”

Confession: I look at other people all the time in yoga and sometimes, like when my shirt is riding up over my belly, I worry that they are looking at me too. I don’t judge, but I aspire to look like those beautiful older women who look like they’ve stepped out of an Eileen Fisher catalogue.

between friends yoga

I’ll finish this blog post and then, because I’m not on a movie set in Wisconsin,  I’ll go out again in the rain and drive for 40 minutes to pick up Daughter #1 from her track meet. She’s likely to be self-critical about how she did and how she looked and, on the long drive home, I will dispense the wisdom that I, and so many others struggle to remember in this increasingly connected, always on-display world.

Last night, as I drove D#1 to a high school dance, (about as aspirational a venue as you’ll ever find),carrie

the streets of downtown Seattle were filled with people in costume heading into Comicon. We joked about how high school dances are a lot like fan conventions, with people dressing in character and finding their group. “But fandoms aren’t judgy,” (a word I have come to love) she reminded me. “Everyone dresses and acts the way they want to, and nobody gives them a hard time.”

comicon

 

 

 

 

 

In thinking about aspiration and wisdom and perfection and Real Life, I got to thinking about Roseanne Barr. Have you seen her lately? She looks pretty good. She’s got the relaxed look of someone who has been on her version of the Gwyneth-Go-Round and has figured out that perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe Roseanne should be the next Thought Leader of something I’m calling the “Lighten Up” movement. She’ll remind us all to relax, eat pasta and Girl Scout cookies and wear inexpensive drawstring pants if we need to.

If our mud cracks, it should be from laughter, not pain or self-sacrifice.

rosanne_barr_new_comedy

Not that I’ve been doing much cooking because of all those sports practices, but my absolute favorite new recipe is this aspirational, yet indulgent, Turkish Poached Eggs in Yogurt, courtesy of Saveur magazine.

This is not a perfect picture, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

eggs

 

 

 

Serrano ham will solve everything

Hello, new year, which snuck up on me the same way Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas did.

“it kind of feels like the holidays didn’t happen this year,” remarked Daughter #1.

I know what she means. All our little rituals —the advent calendar (which admittedly, I’ve never managed to have together by December 1), lighting the menorah (which admittedly, we’ve never managed to remember to light all eight nights. This year, because of Thanksgivukkah, we hit an all-time low), creating a photo calendar and trimming our Christmas tree were done haphazardly, late and without the enthusiasm of years past.

What took you so long?

What took you so long?

Finding a time when everyone was available to go get a tree was tough. Finding the time for our family ritual of eating gingerbread and going through our ornaments one by one, sharing the associated memories, was challenging.

For us, that luxurious block of time known as winter break was taken up by a week’s worth of flu. When we weren’t sleeping or sneezing or writing cards or working we were dragging ourselves around town shopping for presents, baking cookies (even during the “barfing Christmases” of yore, I always baked cookies) and trying to get into the Christmas spirit. We’d come home and take to our beds or the nearest couch to recover from the exertion.

Each year, we buy a few new ornaments to commemorate the year’s highlights. It’s sweet and increasingly bittersweet to look at the ballerinas and Disney princess ornaments, the owls, mushrooms and pet-related trinkets (the most heartbreaking is the ornament to commemorate our departed hamster Zen, the only rodent I have ever loved).

Christmas tree

This year, Daughter #1 got a Tardis ornament.ed9f_doctor_who_christmas_ornaments

Daughter #2 got a hairdryer ornament.

Hair-Dryer-BR12019

 

And I got an ornament of Seville.

seville

Because Spain is what will get me out of the doldrums and jumpstart my year. We are going to Spain, Andalusia to be exact, later this year. We’ll stop in London for a few days for the benefit of Sherlock and Dr. Who-obsessed Daughter #1.

While there, we’ll eat in one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants.

For me, this is the adult equivalent of going to a One Direction concert. I am giddy.

Everyone in the family had a different vacation wish list and London/Andalusia fits the bill. Daughter #2 wanted to go somewhere warm. Jeff wanted to windsurf. And I, who am fascinated by Muslim culture, am interested in seeing Moorish Spain. And am looking forward to taking a day trip to Tangiers.

On New Year’s Eve, we started feeling better and arranged to have a small tapas and paella party at home. I started sipping Fino sherry at around 6:00.

We indulged in an array tapas, including gambas al ajillo, mejillones a la marinera and queso manchego con membrillo.These recipes came from Tapas, the little dishes of Spain, by the late Penelope Casas, a book I scored one year at our biannual library sale (sadly, a  scavenger hunt tradition I have let fall by the wayside).

We supped on my friend Diane’s paella and her brother-in-law Ian’s sugar plums (not authentically Spanish, but oh, so good).

At midnight I had a few sips of Cava leftover from last January’s book launch party, and tried to get over the fact that, thanks to the developer who bought the property across the street and is now building a monstrosity, we no longer have a New Year’s Eve view of the fireworks over the Space Needle or our clear-day treat of a glimpse of Mount Rainier.

kenny's house

The new year arrived and with it, woes. These days, at any given moment, I am worried about people who are close to me, sometimes everybody all at once, and even the dog.

I appeared on TV and learned the life lesson that wearing polka dots on TV is a bad idea.

So I decided to think about Spain. I read this article about a jamon master. I sought out recipes featuring jamon serrano and jamon iberico, arranged to buy replacement parts for my Spanish-manufactured Fagor pressure cooker and anticipated the Spanish pressure cooker recipes I could experiment with. Daughter #1 and I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

My friend P, who was widowed when both she and her kids were young, was waxing poetic on Facebook about holiday traditions, remembering the Christmas Eve screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life and staying up late stuffing stockings after the preschoolers had gone to bed, anticipating the early morning Christmas magic to come.

These days, my girls like to sleep in, so I was the only one up early on Christmas. The good news is magic is magic at 6 a.m. or at 10 a.m. And as long as there’s coffee, either is fine.

In a post entitled “Time to Enjoy the Gifts That Matter,” Catherine Buday, who blogs as The Sandwich Lady, describes letting go of traditions  —no writing Christmas cards or baking multiple batches of cookies— instead, simply enjoying the return of the prodigal kids and having the whole family together on one couch.

My friend P. summarized it best: “Like all things, we–and our traditions–change. I think that’s a good thing.”

One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table. Every recipe in the book is outstanding. One of my favorites is Garlicky Braised Green Beans with Jamon.

You know how I feel about Yotam Ottolenghi. This recipe for Saffron Cauliflower is a winner.

Time will pass and people will change. But one tradition I will never give up is exploring the world from my kitchen.