Hello, Back There

I wear light clothes on a late-September Thursday; it is hot,—hot and muggy. That night, I crawl into bed with the ceiling fan whirring full blast. As I nod over my book, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on again.

It’s been running hard most of the day.

I wake up sometime during the night and know that rain is pounding the roof. I sleep, deep and sound, until the morning has lightened, and I realize, before even swinging my feet out of the bed, that something has changed.

Finally, overnight, crisp fall weather has arrived.

I dress in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. I spend Friday morning grading papers and running errands. In the afternoon, I rake the front yard, and my cheeks are rosy and cold by the time I come into the house. I sit at the dining room table, I check my phone for messages, and I think: SOUP.

I know just the soup I want, and I have all the ingredients. I dig out the old yellow notebook and flip back to Kathie’s recipe for chicken and wild rice soup.

I get out all the ingredients, substituting here and there. I don’t buy Velveeta these days, but I have a wonderful Vermont cheddar and some sharp, creamy, American-style cheese that Mark brought home from one Saturday expedition; those will do nicely. And I’ll use my own chicken broth in place of the five cups of water. And I don’t buy canned cream of mushroom soup any longer; instead, I make something called “Cream of Something Soup.” Those directions lodge in the same notebook as Kathie’s soup recipe.

I found “Cream of Something Soup” when we were trying to wrestle Jim’s diet into some kind of control. Before his autism diagnosis, we discovered, with the help of a book called Is This Your Child?, that Jim was sensitive to a slew of foods. He loved casseroles with meat and cheese and canned cream of chicken soup. The book cautioned against using processed foods, and especially discouraged salty processed soups. I went looking for alternatives and found “Cream of Something Soup” on line.

The recipe provided all kinds of alternatives. I could use AP flour, or I could use gluten-free AP flour substitute. I could use milk, or I could use broth. I could add mushrooms or onions, or no veggies at all. And the prep time was three minutes. I used it in one of our family favorites dishes, a chicken and rice bake, and Jim liked it BETTER than when I used cream of chicken soup from the can.

I bookmarked the recipe, and used it again and again. Finally, I printed the recipe and taped it into the notebook.

One of my students had used the yellow and black notebook for her English assignments; at the end of the semester, she did not pick it up. Most of its pages were, sadly, unmarred by academic work and, after waiting a few months to see if she’d come back for it, I ripped out the used pages and started pasting recipes inside. Her name is still emblazoned on the yellow plastic cover in black sharpie that has faded but not disappeared over the 25 years I’ve been taping and using recipes in this book.

************************

While the soup simmers, I page through the yellow notebook. I have some awesome veggie recipes from a book called Black Dog: Summer on the Vineyard Cookbook. I found that at our former hometown library; the recipe for Roasted Pepper and Eggplant Salad makes one of the best bring-a-dish concoctions I’ve ever found. I copied those cookbook recipes on my printer at home; the pages were brightly colored, and my printer was not up to their vibrancy. But the words were there. I trimmed the pallid copies and pasted them on the loose-leaf pages of the book.

Some recipes I copied long-hand.

Some recipes were written out for me in someone else’s hand: Mark’s dad gave us his meatball recipe. Wendy gave me directions to make her neighbor Joan’s rhubarb cake. Terri sent me wonderful veggie-based recipes on beautiful flowered cards, written in her unmistakable flowing hand.

Kathie emailed me her recipe, and I printed it out.

And I found the other recipes in all kinds of random places—in magazines and newspapers and on-line cooking sites, on the backs of packages and boxes. I cut them out or printed them off, and I pasted them on loose-leaf pages intended for cramped, painstaking notes on some challenging academic subject, and the cast-off notebook grew fat.

*******************************

Now I page through the book. I am thinking of making some kind of dessert—not cookies; we just had cookies. We’ve also had pie and a sort of chocolate pudding-y trifle recently.

Maybe, I think, a cake, and I flip a page over and see this in-my-face title: “Better Than Sex Cake.” Despite the title, I read through. It is a Bundt cake; with a little creativity (I’ll use Greek yoghurt instead of sour cream; I’ll pulverize chocolate chips in the food processor instead of grating German sweet chocolate), I can put this together with things in my pantry. I take the notebook to the kitchen and start to gather ingredients.

And as I gather, I begin to wonder. Who was I, and what was I thinking, when I cut out this recipe? I was probably in my late thirties or early forties; I was parenting a bright, lovable, special needs kid. I was helping my husband make his law school dream come true. I was working.

And I was clipping recipes. They were recipes I probably wouldn’t use at the time that I clipped them. In a way, I think, I was sending letters to my future self.

Someday, I was thinking, someday…we’ll be settled and life will be calmer, and I’ll have a lot more time to browse through my recipes and try new things.

Someday, I was promising, we are going to make this cake.

For a minute, I feel like I’ve connected two wires, felt the snick as they cleaved together, and now hold the completed, humming cable in my two hands. There was a moment of reaching back, of putting my hand on that younger woman’s shoulder, of telling her that there were going to be some stunningly rough spots, but that it was all going to turn out to be okay.

Young self: sending message.

Old self: making the cake.

Message received.

That recycled notebook is looking a little bit like a time capsule to me.

********************************

I am not the only one who does this, who clips and collects and keeps recipes I won’t use right now but might indeed use later. I know this because, when Jim was at odds and between jobs, I asked him if he’d catalog my recipes for me.

He did better than that. He took my old yellow notebook, and my mother’s wooden recipe box—the one with the strawberries painted on it,—and the shoe box full of magazine and newspaper and back-of-package clippings, and he retyped all the recipes, and he printed them off, and he organized them into binders. They are categorized and alphabetized. They comprise four volumes.

My friend Susan contracted with Jim to create a binder for her. One chilly afternoon, they met in her pretty kitchen and bent their heads over a flat, square recipe box. Susan pulled out recipes she loved and recipes she treasured and recipes she wanted to try. Just as I did, she had started, in her young womanhood, clipping and collecting.

Jim made a binder for Susan, too, organizing those missives from a younger self into a tidy, easy-to-access tome, a book that current self could browse through easily. And I knew I hadn’t been the only hopeful young soul spinning dreams of parties and gatherings and comforting meals out into the future.

**********************

I love my binders. But I couldn’t bring myself to ditch the old yellow notebook. Sometimes I like to bring it out and just browse. I mark recipes to try soon and I put x-es through recipes I attempted that bombed, but mostly I think about who I was back when I saved that recipe for me. I run my fingertips over the glossy magazine clipping from twenty years ago, and I feel the cloth-y softness of recipes clipped from long-ago newspapers. I stop and take in the handwriting of some loved person, now, maybe, gone.

For a minute, nowness fades and I feel the continuum, the whole roiling, circling line that is life. I think that, if only I could master the art of tessering as Meg did in A Wrinkle in Time, I cold fold the continuum neatly and step off into those other days, bringing reassurance and giving promises.

But maybe, somehow, that’s already happened.

*****************************

The cake is good. Does it live up to its name?

I’m not even going there.

And I’m going to re-name it, anyway. One of the funny quirks of autism, I’ve found, is a sort of Puritanical streak. Jim would not find it amusing to eat “Better Than Sex” cake.

Maybe, I think, we’ll call it “Better Than Books” or “Richer Than Reading” cake. And of course, then I’ll have to dispute that title, too.

Whatever we call it, we’ll eat that cake, down to the crumbs on the platter.

*****************************

And isn’t it funny that, years ago, younger me clipped the very recipe that I’d have wherewithal to mix together at the ripe old age of 64, when all the worries of those days, all the encompassing demands on my time, and all the pulsing questions of the time have been resolved?

I might, of course, have been able to find a very similar recipe on line, but then that current never would have been coursing. I wouldn’t have held that humming cable in my hands.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn back and say, “Hello, you. Thanks! And wait till you see how it all turns out.”

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Dispatches from the Land of Old

We are at the mobile phone store, James and I are. A perky, attentive young assistant we’ll call Kimberly (she reminds me of Andie MacDowell, if Andie MacDowell were 22) finds Jim the new phone he needs—bigger, faster and with a whole lot more gigs. It takes moments for the new phone to be up and running and protected by a sturdy new case, and for the old phone to be wiped clean and readied for recycling of some sort.

Then Kimberly takes my sad phone from me. She looks at the shattered screen. The old tiny, edgy cracks were nudged recently, by a full-frontal splat on a hard floor, into full spiderwebs that flare across most of the glass.

Kimberly makes the tsk, tsk sound, and then she looks at me fondly. She will help me order a replacement phone (I have no need for more or faster, so my new phone will just be a pristine version of the same old phone). That will come to my house, and she tells me I should bring it back in and get a case and protection glass for the screen. Her fingers fly across a keyboard while she talks, and she finds that we can get a discount for setting up auto-pay and another discount if anyone in our family is a veteran of the armed services (my stepson Matt served proudly in the Navy, and even though he is not on our phone plan, his service is good enough, Kimberly thinks, to earn us a chunk of change.)

She gets the replacement folks on the line, and a new phone immediately starts wending its way to my house. It will arrive tomorrow, and a service rep will arrive at my door soon after to help me set up the new phone and disable the old one.

While Kimberly is efficiently dispatching all these necessary jobs—effortlessly clearing details that would have taken me weeks to wade through, I tell her how easy she’s making the process. She begins to smile.

“I was at my mother’s house for lunch today,” she tells me, “and her elderly neighbor came over with her cell phone. She said, ‘Kimberly, can you fix this?’ And I saw what it was—it’s a glitch a lot of older folks run into—so I was able to take care of it in a couple of seconds. She was so happy! She said, ‘I don’t know how you DO that,’ and I said, ‘Well I have these skills, and you have other ones.’”

Kimberly’s eyes are a little glazed; she is immersed in remembering, and forgetting her audience. She muses, “She was just about—” and I see her stop and realize what she’s about to say, stop and swallow the “…your age…” that was about to pop out of her mouth.

“…the sweetest thing,” she amends, a little lamely, a beat late.

“Nice save,” I think but do not say to the red-faced assistant, and James bags up all his new phone accessories and holds the door for me as I totter my elderly self out of that bastion of techie youth.

***********************

I had been napping, my head against the window, when the pilot came over the intercom, loud and cheerful.

“Buckle up, folks!” he crowed. “We’re almost ready to land.”

I looked out the window just as we emerged from the clouds and a whole new landscape spread out before me. It looked nice down there; it was sunny, not too crowded, and there seemed to be lots of green space.

“You’ll find,” continued the pilot, “that you won’t need your jackets—it’s a balmy 78 degrees right now! Do make sure, though, that you have your elastic-waisted pants and your sensible shoes. And don’t forget to call your kids or your friends and tell them you’ve arrived safely.

“Sit back now. We’re just about to land.”

He clicked off, and the plane swooped down. There was a little jolt as the wheels touched down, but otherwise, all was smooth.

The plane was full, and we passengers looked around and smiled at each other as we reached for our bags in the overhead bins. We were all looking forward to joining friends and family, now that we’d arrived in the land of Old.

****************************

There is absolutely nothing good to say about a string of ninety-degree days that leech from late September into early October. It is wrong, and it is terrifying: climate change rearing its ugly face above the horizon once again. I was so relieved when, just last night, the heat streak cracked wide open, and clear, cold air rushed in to push the muggy denseness away.

I got up this morning, and I made some coffee, and I pulled on my walking clothes—capris, a long-sleeved shirt. I laced up my sneaks over soft white socks, and I tried to pull up the music app on my new phone.

I could get Van Morrison’s scowling face on my screen, but I couldn’t conjure up the little arrow that would bid him sing. Damn, I thought: my new phone and no music.

Mark came to look, and we passed the phone back and forth, checking this, checking that. Finally, I went into Settings and realized the phone was set for our OLD wifi. I typed in the new access code, updated everything, and went back to Music.

The arrow still did not appear, and Van remained mute.  I went for a walk with just my morning thoughts for accompaniment. It was a nice walk, but I was actually cold, and I wished I had dug out a light pair of knit gloves. The chill was good, though; I walked briskly and covered a lot of territory in a shorter time.

When I get home, I took some Tylenol.  Mark came through, rubbing his hip.

“I love this weather,” he said, “but my bones are aching.”

We mixed up batter and tag-teamed some awesome French toast and ham.

Jim smelled good smells and dragged himself downstairs.

I mentioned the phone music dilemma to him.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry to hear that. Did you turn it off for ten seconds?”

I turned off the phone, ate my whole grain French toast, and turned the phone back on again. The little arrow popped up on Van Morrison’s face. When I clicked it, he began to sing.

And I thought, again, Damn. Maybe I AM the same age as Kimberly’s mother’s elderly neighbor.

I popped a couple of glucosamine and wrestled the vacuum from the hall closet.

*************************

Maybe it’s harder for those of us born on the younger end of large sibling groups to get the hang of aging. We are too little for so long; we watch siblings go out and do daring things we won’t be allowed to do for YEARS. They hit all the milestones—Graduation! Big travels! Jobs! Weddings!—long before we are eligible.

“I can’t wait,” we think, “until I am old enough to…”

And then suddenly we ARE old enough. Suddenly we are, say, thirty, and an older sibling says to us, “You know, you USED to be a little kid, but now we’re all the same age.”

All grownups. All those hefty milestones passed. But still, we feel like we’re on the young end of things.

Until suddenly, we’re 60, and the doctor says things like, “Arthritis,” and “High blood pressure,” and “Decaffeinated coffee.”

Damn, we think.

*****************************

I walk by a beautiful garden display—no blooms, just foliage,–and I think to myself, “I’ve got to try some of that…what DO you call that stuff?” And as I walk, I mull names. Pachysandra? No, that’s the ground cover. Not chrysanthemums; of course not, silly. The name is right there; it’s written on a sturdy piece of card stock, and it’s sloshing back and forth in the muck on the bottom of my brain.

But I cannot reach in and pick it up.

When I get home, I look up ‘plants with colorful foliage,’ and find the word I want: coleus. I smack my forehead, and the cardstock, word emblazoned, pops up from the muck.

“A little late, aren’t you?” I mutter, and it does a little dance before sinking away again.

My memory hits sluggish spots. My shoulders and my knees creak. I read ads about clever gadgets that cure bunions without surgery, and I think seriously about sending off a check.

When I need to use technology, I look around for a twelve-year-old to help me.

It is true. My feet are planted firmly in the Land of Old.

*********************************

It’s not, really, such a bad place to be. The company is wonderful. I may be dragging sixty-plus years’ worth of baggage down the walkways, but so are all my companions, people who know what I’m talking about when I say things like “the Troggs” or “bomb shelters” or “plaid Bermudas and woolen knee socks.”

There are a lot of experiences to sift through from this lofty vantage; there’s a lot of meaning to be made.

And there is time, now, when I remember not to over-schedule myself, to think about those meanings.

There is the sense, too, of the less important things, the frivolous, unnecessary things, falling away, and there is the opportunity to really delve into the big matters, the important matters, the thoroughly engaging matters, that remain. There are books to be read; there are words to be written; there are still new things to be explored.

But now I am choosier. Now I can’t do everything, can’t make choices willy-nilly, can’t think, “Well, if that doesn’t work out, I’ll just try something else.”

Now I need to focus on the things I really want and need to do.

And, here in the Land of Old, I find a spiritual community too,…a group of compatriots steeped in gratitude. We made it through all that and have, now, the time to ponder. Many of our best ones finished the journey way too early. I didn’t earn the right to be here, I know: I was just blindly lucky. I will appreciate that luck; I will really, mindfully, dwell here in this time, foggy mind, aching bones, and all.

***************************

I take my new phone back to the mobile phone store, where I buy a case and a screen protector.

“Would you like me to put those on your phone for you?” asks the efficient young clerk, whose name, her badge says, is Devon.

“Yes, I would,” I say, and I hand her my phone. In seconds she has encased my new technology in protection from my haphazard ways. There are things I gladly hand to the young, things it would not behoove me to try to learn to do.

And there are things I’ve learned that they haven’t mastered yet. I still know a couple of tricks that they can’t do. So I’ll bring my Smartphone to that technology chapel, and then I’ll go back to my land.

But, my good companions and I, we’ve been here long enough to figure out the kinds of encouragement and support those young ones need. So we’ll watch for the times of need, and when they come, we’ll float out messages in brightly colored bottles, sending thoughtful dispatches from the Land of Old.

**********************

Oh, and I looked up Andie MacDowell, by the way. She herself is 61.

What Can It Hurt?

It is still pleasantly warm in the late afternoon. Katherine’s attention is flagging.

“Hell,” she thinks. “I’m 75 years old. I’m ALLOWED to wander a little.”

She sits carefully back in her seat, crosses her legs neatly at the ankle, and puts on her paying attention look. Boffle Three is droning at the podium, using this occasion to drive home his political agenda. She will know when it’s time to resurface by the change in his cadence. So, eyes wide open, lips slightly parted as if ready to comment enthusiastically on the words she’s not hearing, she allows herself to drift away, to think what this 50th anniversary means.

She was 25 in 2025; she had been born on January 1, 2000. Her dad called her Y2Katy, and that was part of the charm the press found in quoting her.

She went to a town hall on climate change, on the desperate need to make change happen NOW. Katherine was a young teacher, and she thought of everything in terms of the earth her students—4th graders, mostly 10 years old—would grow up into.

The first Boffle—Boffle One—had the podium. He was a short man, a round man, and a bald man. He was not much to look at, that Boffle (because it was before Boffle Two and Boffle Three emerged, Katherine just thought of him as Blowhard Boffle), but he did have a way with words. And now he was telling the audience, many of whom were happy to be convinced, that climate change was a hoax. That all the violent storms, all the dying animals, all the forest fires and all the melting, changing landscapes, were due to natural cycles.

“Nothing we can do—we’re just people, folks!” said Boffle One, “is going to make one diddlysquat of difference. We’re at the mercy of nature. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up progress.”

Katherine looked around the town hall, and she saw people wavering. And something propelled her, although she was generally a quiet person, out of her seat.

“Mr. Boffle,” she called politely. “May I ask a question?”

The round man looked over, took her in—a tall, serious young woman, with neatly tied long hair and owl-y glasses, and he smiled.

“Of course, you can ask a question, miss,” he said kindly. And he leaned forward as if to catch her faltering words.

But Katherine, who was never much of a public speaker, didn’t falter this time.

“Well, here it is,” she said. “And I’m sorry if it’s lengthy. But it seems to me that if you’re wrong, and we DON’T pursue immediate changes, we can damage things beyond repair. We could leave the children I teach a world that they can’t live in.

“But if you’re right, and we do pursue immediate changes—well, the world will be better for it, won’t it? And those kids’ lives will still be better for what we’ve done?

“So my question is, Mr. Boffle, when it comes to treating this earth with love and respect—well, what can it hurt?”

In the sudden, sucking silence, the little man stared at her. His look clearly said, “I thought you were one of us. I thought you’d support me.” His betrayal was so abject that Katherine almost felt a pang of remorse.

But then, from the back of the auditorium, a voice rang out. “What can it hurt?”

And Katherine, still standing, turned to look. As she did, other voices took it up. “What can it hurt? WHAT CAN IT HURT?”

They chanted Boffle right off the stage. He was supplanted by a writer who had made protecting the earth his mission, and right then and there, in that middling auditorium in that middling city, they began to plot real change.

*******************

It happened because people happened. People said, “I’m not buying single-use plastic,” and they found other ways of living. They took up canning. They composted. They bought in bulk. They hunted down alternatives to plastic packaging.

They shared rides, and they turned off technology for big parts of their days, and they installed solar panels on their houses.

It was a grass roots movement, and each community figured out what they could do to make change happen. Shared gardens sprang up. Rapid transit improved all over, as more and more people traveled on hybrid buses. In one city, everyone pledged to turn off all but essential electricity for an hour every night, and they chalked up the amazing difference caused by that hour. A trend sprang up: blackout parties, they called ‘em.

And Katherine’s words…What can it hurt?…became the catch-call.

People crafted t-shirts that read ‘What can it hurt?’

People painted signs and stuck them in the veggie gardens that grew up in many front yards. ‘What can it hurt?’

At the grocery store, Katherine saw a woman loading her food into brown paper bags that her kids had decorated with pictures of plants and smiling animals. An owl was saying, “What can it hurt?”

The media loved it. They found her and interviewed her; they discovered the Y2Katy moniker, and they wrote about how a girl, born with the century, wanted to ensure that the earth was healthy in the centuries that followed.

She had a flurry of attention, Katherine did, and then it faded.

It faded because things really were changing. People were disconnecting from electronics, slowing down, looking at life a different way.

The amazing thing was that change bubbled from the bottom up, from the people who would be most affected, from that broad base of ordinary folks who wanted the earth to be a healthy, safe, happy place.

The movement simmered and boiled over. There was nothing for government to do, nothing for industry to do, but to get on board.

And Katherine plunged into her teaching and changed her own life.

She saved her money and bought herself a tiny house—a house she still lived in. She installed solar panels, which generated the power she needed for many things, including the air conditioning she only used on the hottest of days (fewer now than they used to be.) She used silicone storage containers and canvas shopping bags, and she mixed up vinegar and salt and a spritz of dish detergent to spray on the weeds that grew in the cracks on her old brick patio. That didn’t kill the weeds entirely, but it tempered them, made them manageable, and didn’t introduce poisons into the ground.

She mended things and she re-used things and she learned to bake and cook from scratch.

One of the best things about the whole movement, Katherine thinks now, was the social change. She began to get to know her neighbors, and they began to share their talents. Her neighbor Brian loved to can things. Rob was a skilled woodworker and his wife Sylvie could sew like a professional. Katherine shared her brownies and soups, the flowers she grew in her cutting garden, and the extra tomatoes that burgeoned despite inquisitive deer. Brian canned those tomatoes for her; Ron made her window boxes. One year, Sylvie gifted her with sturdy rugs that she had made from rags Katherine gave her.

Katherine still uses those rugs.

She still uses, too, the electric car she had bought almost 25 years ago, nurturing and babying it into a very healthy old age.

People had lived differently now for long enough that change was happening; the melt was stopping; the storms becoming less fearful; the animals becoming more healthy.

It looked, after this half a century, like they had chosen the right path.

********************

But there were still Boffles. Of course there were Boffles. This one’s grandfather had left his legacy to his son, who spend a lifetime making speeches imparting wisdom that began with lines like this: “I’ll TELL you what it can hurt!”

But the movement, once begun, seemed mightily unstoppable, Boffle be damned. And ‘it’ didn’t seem to hurt anything, except maybe the bottom line of those who already had enough, away.

********************

She pulls herself back as she hears the current Boffle switch gears.

“I still,” he says, “am not convinced that the change we are seeing would not have happened anyway. But I do agree that, in many ways, life is good. And a lot of that goodness came about because of the words of one woman, a brave little lady who asked my grandpa a question. That was Y2Katy, and here she is, still with us today.”

He sweeps an arm toward Katherine, and she smiles in what she hopes is a gracious way, and she stands up. She is wearing her heels, wearing them for this very reason: she walks over to the podium and she towers over Boffle Three.

“Maybe,” she says wryly, and her grimace is self-deprecating, “not such a LITTLE lady.”

The crowd laughs, and the laughter swells.

Katherine spreads out her remarks on the smooth wood of the podium. She wants to say she loves what her life has become; she loves the visits from her former students, many of who are parents, and some of whom are grandparents.

She wants to say she loves being retired and hanging her sheets out on sunny mornings, loves sleeping on those sun-baked sheets at night.  She wants to talk about the rich friendships she discovered after she put her smartphone down back when she was young and started looking into people’s faces, started slowing down to talk, starting bringing bunches of her posies to the elderly lady who lived next door and cookies to the harried young mom on the other side.

She wants to say that, when she started living a life that benefited the earth, her life did not become impoverished or laborious. Her life became richer.

But the crowd does not let her. The laughter simmers down, and a voice calls out, “What can it hurt?” And for the second time in her life, her words are chanted back to her, thrumming and uplifted.

And she realizes she doesn’t have to say a word. Grinning, she thrusts her seventy-five year-old fist into the air, and pumps it. The crowd roars.

*******************

She does not stay for the reception after the ceremony. She finds a bench and slips off her heels. She laces up her sneakers and walks the mile to her house, leaving the noise and celebration behind her. The movement would have swelled and happened without her, Katherine knows. But it’s fun that her question became a catch-phrase. It tickles her to be a foot-note to a grand historical happening, to a moment humanity can be proud of.

At home, she brews a small pot of herbal tea, and she wraps herself in a hand knit shawl against the evening’s cool, and takes her steaming mug out onto the little brick patio. She can hear the thumping bass of a band at the reception. And she is glad to be alone, glad to have time and health and community—glad to have a recovering earth to flourish upon—glad to be able to reflect.

She knows she did not cause the movement that led to this day, but she is proud to have been a tiny part of it. And she sips her fragrant tea and she admits that it didn’t have to wind up this way. She pulls the shawl more tightly around her, and she inhales the chilly truth: It could have been very, very different.

Old Bread and French Toast

She crouches down and sorts through the refrigerator. Bread, she thinks; there’s a lot of bread here.

It’s good stuff too. There’s a quarter loaf of homemade white bread, unsliced. There’s a heel from a bakery loaf of a sprouted, seven-grain kind of recipe. And there are four broad slices of crusty artisan bread from that same bakery.

What can I do with bread for dinner? she ponders, and she puts the packages back, stacks them together on the bottom shelf of the fridge, and packs up to head off to work.

She comes back to the bread all day long. As her morning students bend over their keyboards and type, she thinks, “Grilled sandwiches.”

There’s ham and there’s that good Vermont cheddar. They could have grilled sandwiches, oozing with melted cheese; they could slice up the fresh tomatoes; they could make side salads. That might be tasty.

But then she thinks that the homemade bread, while not nearly spoiled, is probably a little dry—too dry to grill up tastily.

Not grilled sandwiches then.

But what?

*******************

Later she thinks about a breakfast bake, about ripping the bread into chunks, tossing it in the glass casserole, layering it with chopped up ham and grated cheese. She’d pour an egg-and-milk batter over the top, season it with salt and pepper and dry mustard. She’d cover the whole thing with foil and bake it up for 45 minutes, then take the top off to let it brown.

It would puff up cheerily, the milk and the eggs working with the good leftover bread. The cheese would ooze, and the top would get brown and bubbly.

That could be a good mid-week dinner, she thinks.

But then she thinks that her son would not be thrilled with finding sprouted wheat bread in his dinner, and that they’d had a breakfast bake not too long ago for weekend brunch, and didn’t finish it.

They’d thrown about a quarter of it away, and that darned near broke her stalwart, thrifty Scottish heart.

So maybe not breakfast bake either.

*********************

She gets into the car after her last class, maneuvers through the village onto the freeway, and it comes to her: French toast.

French toast, she thinks, and steak—the thin, tender kind people serve with breakfast eggs.

She’ll need to buy milk.

And steak.

********************

When she gets home, she puts away her work bag and runs up to change her clothes. She invites her son to go shopping with her, and he says sure.

In the car, she explains her dinner plan.

“French toast and STEAK?” he asks, puzzled.

Then he shrugs. “What the heck,” he says. “I’ll try it.”

************************

She knows exactly the kind of steak she wants. The only package approximating her vision, though, has three small slabs of beef that are a little fatty and starting to look a little…mature. They’re tinged with gray around the edges.

Not that she can’t relate, but she’s not going to buy beef just because their lifespans share the same trajectory. And the package is priced at about twelve dollars.

Instead, she finds an eye round roast.

 That is pink and fresh and on sale.

“We can cut three slices for steaks tonight,” she tells her son, “and roast the rest for sandwiches.”

“O-kaaaaaaaaaaay,” he says uncertainly.

They find a carton of milk; they check out and go home to cook.

*****************************

“How do you know when bread’s good for French toast?” her son asks. She is standing at the counter, slicing the homemade bread.

“Good question,” she says, and she thinks for a minute. “It’s got to be good stuff in the first place,” she says slowly. “It can’t be spoiled, of course. And it’s got to be bread you like. If you didn’t like it in its original form, you’re not going to like it made into French toast.”

He helps mix up the batter, eggs and milk and nutmeg and vanilla.

She slices three little steaks from the roast, lines the broiler pan with foil and places them strategically on the grilling surface.

By the time her husband comes home, the oil is snapping in the big griddle. The steaks go in the broiler; the bread sinks into the batter. It emerges, softened and eggy, to sizzle in the pan.

********************************

The little steaks are good,—a little odd with French toast, says her husband, but good—but the French toast is the star of the meal. The bread, all three kinds, cooks up perfectly, crisp and brown and tender in the middle. They slather it with butter; they spread it with jam or syrup, and they eat every single piece.

And when every crumb is gone, they push back from the table and look at each other, sated and helpless.

“Yum,” says her husband. Her son nods.

“Yum,” she agrees.

************************

The French toast dinner stays with her, mind worms into her English teacher brain, a kind of metaphor. If it’s something you like in the first place, if it’s made of good stuff, and if it’s not spoiled…

************************

She thinks about the old friend she just visited who has taken an early retirement from a harrowing job, who walked away from a seductive salary to invest in her own piece of mind. She is, this old friend, re-inventing herself, living a new, fresh creative life.

Kind of…French toast-y.

*************************

She thinks about a friend of a friend, a man of a certain age, who was busy climbing the career ladder when his own kids were little, and pretty effectively missed it all. He retired, too, and now he is the world’s most hands-on grandpa, to his own and his kids’ delight.

Doing it right the second time around.

Kind of…French toast-y.

*************************

And one of her students—call him Jeff—comes back to class on Thursday after missing Tuesday’s session. He can’t keep the grin from his face, and he waves her over when everyone else is engrossed in their work.

“I went to a hearing for my driver’s license on Tuesday,” he whispers, and the grins broadens, “and I GOT it.”

Jeff is a man who has gotten his life together after mis-starts, and he is studying to be someone who helps others face the same kinds of challenges he faced—to face them and walk away triumphant. And now he can drive to school and to work, something he hadn’t imagined was possible just a little while back.

She shakes his hand.

“And guess what else?” he says. “It’s my birthday.”

“It’s your BIRTHDAY?” says Leon, unabashedly listening. “Hey,” he says, standing up, and waving his hands, “it’s Jeff’s BIRTHDAY.”

And, led by Leon, who is loud, inspired, and just a little bit off-key, the rest of the students break into exuberant song.

And Jeff smiles and smiles and his eyes brim.

And hers do too.

*************************************

If it was something fine in the first place, if it’s made of good stuff, and if it’s not spoiled…

…a little creativity, a little inspiration…

…well, then, wonderful things–feastly things–are possible.

What I Think we Should Do With Mean People

I learned, on Wednesday, about two really, really mean things that happened to people I care about.

*************

First I got a text from a friend, the kind of friend who is really more like family. She had taken her mother, a woman in her late eighties who suffers from dementia, to a dentist. That elderly, ailing mom had a toothache. And her government insurance is wrapped up in layers of red tape, and she’s unable to use it just now.

And she doesn’t have a whole lot of money.

A young dentist examined the elderly woman. He told my friend that her mother needed to have a whole slew of work done—crowns and bridges at the outset and then a meeting to talk about a thorough and comprehensive dental plan that merely starts from there.

The daughter reminded him that her mother was aging and frail, and she just needed to have the pain—and maybe the tooth–go away. The young dentist snorted and told her to wait.

After 45 minutes or so, an assistant brought my friend that comprehensive dental plan—thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of proposed work. There was also a payment plan attached for those without dental coverage who needed to reach deep, and continuously, into their pockets.

My friend broke down in tears. But the dentist and his staff, she said, were clueless and without any kind of empathy.

There’s another dentist my friend and her mom can see, but they can’t, for several reasons, get in for another couple of weeks. The mom thinks she can tough it out till then.

How mean, I thought; how mean. That poor lady, suffering unnecessarily.

And this dredged a memory up from where I’d buried it, deep under murky water, anchored with the heaviest rock I could find.

My mother, in the very last stages of her cancer, found that her false teeth no longer fit. They rubbed and they hurt.

The dentist who’d prescribed the upper teeth had retired. Mom went to his successor, and he wanted to do the same thing  my friend’s dentist suggested: a total reworking at a cost of thousands of dollars for a woman who was dying—although my mother never would have shared the state of her health with that young professional. When she told him she just wanted the plate adjusted, he scoffed and walked out of the room.

My mother left in tears. I think she and my dad finally found a dentist who would grind and soften the pink plastic foundation of the teeth she wore, who would make it wearable for her.

So she could go out in public with her teeth in.

So she could enjoy food in the time she had left.

But she’d been hurt unnecessarily by a callous health care provider. Both those dentists who belittled hurting, aging women: well, they were just plain mean.

******************

I replied to the text, told my friend how shocked and outraged I was, got dressed and poured coffee into my nice steely go-cup, and I got in the car and drove off to teach my Wednesday morning class. It was a lab class, an independent working day, and the students were diligent and quiet. I split my time, walking around to check in with students on how they were doing, and standing at the instructor’s computer terminal, responding to discussion board posts from my online class.

One by one, the students completed their work, checked in with me, and left. Finally, only two students remained.

Derra was almost finished, and she waved me cheerfully away. Effie looked puzzled. I sat down beside her, and I saw her problem. She needed to save her document, close it, and submit it through the college’s academic portal.

We went through it together, step by step, and Effie submitted her work and sighed a huge sigh.

“It’s hard,” she said to me tentatively, “to work in a second language.”

I couldn’t even imagine the challenge of a whole new culture and a whole new language, I assured her.

Effie looked at me a moment. Then it was like the dam broke.

She told me she was taking two classes—my English class and a math class. The math class was very hard. She was also working, at night, as a nurse’s aide, doing home health care.

The work was hard, and she was often tired.

One night last week, Effie said, she didn’t get home from work until 3 a.m. Her math class meets at 8 a.m., on another campus about 40 miles away. She overslept, rushed to get dressed, and then got in her car to hurry to class. It was important that she get there because the teacher was giving a quiz. She drove to the four lane, pulled on, and sped to the other campus…until she saw the flashing lights and stopped for the cop who flagged her down.

He was kind, Effie said. He told her that no class was worth hurting herself or others for, and he asked her to slow down. He did NOT give her a ticket. But he did delay her.

So Effie ran into class 15 minutes late. The other students were finishing up the quiz. The teacher told her she was too late to take it.

Effie asked if she could possibly take it at the end of class.

“No,” said the instructor. “If you can’t be on time, you can’t take the quiz.”

Effie said she began to cry and tried to explain, but the instructor just held up her hand and said, “You need to learn to manage your time more effectively.”

“Do you think,” I asked, “if you went to see her…?”

Effie shook her head. Tears pooled in her eyes, spilling into purple crescents carved by lack of sleep.

“No,” she whispered. “No, Teacher. Some teachers are just that way.”

Some of us teachers are sometimes just MEAN, I wanted to say.

But I didn’t, and Effie closed up her document and packed up her things and waved, on her way home to do her assignments, maybe grab a nap, and then head off to her health care job.

**********************

As I drove home, I thought about Effie’s instructor, who couldn’t listen, couldn’t bend on the quiz, and I thought about that dentist, who couldn’t just pull a tooth.  Surely people don’t go into health care or teaching to be mean. What happened to them?

Such pain mean people cause, I thought, and I started thinking about what I could do about it.

I remembered a bumper sticker that was all over the place a few years ago.

Mean people suck, it read.

My neck got knotted and my shoulders scrunched up, and things started to ache. My hands, on the steering wheel, were clenched, and my knuckles were white. By the time I got home, I knew I needed to take myself for a long, long walk. I screeched the car into the carport, grabbed my things and ran into the house, where I greeted Jim, dumped my book bag, and ran up to change into comfortable walking clothes. I laced on my sneakers and popped the ear buds into my smart phone and set off.

***********************

My feet were marching along to this beat:

What CAN

we DO

a-BOUT

mean PEOP-le?

What CAN

we DO

a-BOUT

mean PEOP-le?

…which roughly complemented the Rolling Stones song playing through my ear buds.

It was a nice afternoon, not outrageously hot: a cloud-scudded sky, breezy and delightful in the shady spots. I could feel the tension-knots start to loosen as I swung my arms and marched along.

There were a lot of other people out on that nice day.

There was a young runner who fisted her hands rigidly in front of her. She lifted a fist with each step. As if wired, the corresponding leg rose with it.

I watched, fascinated, as she approached. Her hair was tightly pulled back, and her pony tail bounced abruptly with her fist and knee pumps.  She was a very tightly wound runner.

When she drew even, I smiled and said hello. She averted her eyes and fist-pumped on by, her mouth drawn into a tight, flat, little line.

Next to come was a couple in loose clothes, running and laughing. They were loose-limbed, and they stopped and said hello and then shook out the kinks and jogged off, relaxed and in sync.

I passed a wound up walker, all squinched and poundy, who didn’t say hello, and a rambling walker who gave me a big grin.

And I began to notice a pattern.

The loose-limbed people were open and friendly.

The tightly wound people looked cranky and unfriendly.

And I started to formulate a hypothesis. I THINK people who are too tightly wound might be the ones that become mean.

*******************

So I started imagining a cure.

I imagined a method where, if three people submitted sworn affidavits that someone was being mean, specially trained, loose-limbed inspectors would check things out…not judging, and not assuming. But if they found that, say, Mr. Harold Kruchenheimer, middle school vice principal, really was being mean—that he made a teacher cry when he publicly dismissed her suggestion, that he told a student she looked ridiculous, and that he discouraged a hopeful boy from trying out for the band by laughing at the very thought—well, then they’d know Kruchenheimer needed an intervention fast.

And here’s what they would do. They would insure that anyone dependent on Kruchenheimer was taken well-care of (kids and wife assured, say, or dog walked and fed) and they would engage a substitute for his working role. And then they would cart that man off to an intervention site…a lovely, relaxing intervention site where Kruchenheimer could stay for as long as it took.

The first day, maybe, someone would just mostly listen to the crabby, wound-up man talk. And when he was all talked out, they’d give him soft, comfy clothes to change into, and they’d lead him into a room with soft lights and soft music (soft—that’d be a theme of this intervention place) and they’d hand him over to an expert masseuse.

Mr. Harold Kruchenheimer would lay on that massage table until the masseuse had pummeled out all his tightened kinks; he’d lay there for hours if necessary. Pummel! Pummel! Pummel! Then he’d get back into his soft, soft clothes, and his legs and arms and back would be so relaxed they felt kind of jelly-ish, and he could go watch shows that delighted him or read books that engaged him. He’d dine on his favorite foods with fellow residents, and his behavior would be closely watched.

At the first sign of snarky meanness, Kruchenheimer would find himself back on the massage table.

Mean?

Pummel.

Mean?

Pummel.

Kruchenheimer would stay until all his mean was listened out of him and pummeled out of him and pampered out of him, and only then would he be allowed to return to his accustomed role.

And since there was a good chance that some of the stresses of his daily life were leading him to meanness, he’d be monitored. Whenever it became necessary, back he would go, to the land of listening, pummeling, and pampering.

With enough visits, Kruchenheimer would become permanently loosened and permanently a whole lot nicer.

**************************

And once loosened into awareness, Kruchenheimer himself would devise a way to undo the harm his meanness had caused.

**************************

It might cost a whole lot of money to loosen up mean people this way, but some things are just worth it.

And think of the things that would never happen if we effectively loosened up all the potentially mean people in the world.

***************************

That’s what I thought as I walked, and it seemed like a nice dream, like a much better solution than my knee-jerk responses…which would be to out-mean the meanies.

You hurt my mother? I’ll hurt you worse.

You made this vulnerable one cry? Let’s see what it takes to make YOU cry.

Because those kinds of responses just tighten things up another few notches. They insure that meanness thrives…and that it thrives in me.

And there is way too much meanness going on today. Meanness, in some very influential circles, is even encouraged.

*******************************

It’s just remotely possible that my mandatory loosening-up resort idea is not practical, as good a concept as it might be.  And it’s possible, too, that some problems with mean people don’t require my specific intervention. Sometimes my nose needs to retreat, and I must let worthy people handle their own situations.

But sometimes, I’m witness to meanness and I need to respond. I need to respond by comforting the one who bore the brunt, and then I might need to engage with the meanie. I don’t need to out-mean them, but maybe I could show them the effect of what they’ve done.

*******************

Maybe.

But for sure I can make sure my own knots unwind as quickly as possible, that I don’t let my eyes narrow and what seems like a kind of justified meanness tighten my sinew.

For sure I can care and comfort.

For sure, at the very least, I can be a loose-limbed listener in a tightly wound world.

Teaching and Learning

Dell pulls onto the highway, past the one-lane wait where the long stretch of road is being re-paved, and she steps on the gas. The car moves forward, smooth and free, and she turns on NPR. What’s interesting this morning? she wonders.

“…they were locked in the hold?” asks the commentator.

The guest, identified as some kind of government inspector, demurs. They are not sure yet, he says; and they are still looking for survivors.

“The five they found,” the commentator presses, “are all crew members?”

“Yes…” says the guest reluctantly.

And Dell realizes only slowly that the others, the ones locked in the boat, were trapped in a fire.

A picture flares into her mind…of people stuck and terrified, of flames and screams and pounding pleadings at a locked door.

She turns off the radio and rides in silence.

She feels gut-punched.

******************

Her first class is on the main campus in a little industrial city. Today is a grammar refresher, and the students sigh and roll their eyes.

“I know,” she always says, “that this is basic and that you know this stuff. But going through it gives us a common language. Then I won’t confuse you when I write comments on your papers.”

She reviews parts of a sentence. What a noun is. Verbs and tenses. Subjects and objects. When to use “I” and when to use “me.”

They groan and shift and they write down every word she puts on the white board.

Because they don’t all know this stuff: they have gaps and empty knowledge spaces, some of them. They guard their borders fiercely, but every once in a while, a student will sit back with that look on her face—the look that says, “Now I get it. Now I know how THAT works.”

She puts them in small groups—it’s an English class after all,–and they come up with nouns and verbs and create sentences. They add ridiculous strings of adjectives and adverbs, words and phrases; they craft sentences a whole page long. They forget their coolth, and they get silly.

They work so hard, and they finish so much, that she lets them loose ten minutes early.

On the way out, one of the young women, one of the most languid and bored of all the students, stops and shows Dell pictures on her smart phone. Her dog has just had its first litter. She’s thinking, this student is, how hard it’s going to be to give the puppies up. She’s talking to her mom about maybe keeping one, the little one with the white spot on its nose.

Dell comments on the sweetness of the puppies, and the student smiles. Then the veneer slides back into place, and she nonchalantly says goodbye and saunters away.

********************

Dell’s next class is on a satellite campus, thirty miles away. She’ll drive on the four lane partway, veer off onto country roads, wind up on a four-lane again just as she gets to the satellite.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The tires thrum. She decides to see if there’s anything uplifting on the radio.

She turns it on to hear about another mass shooting. Semi-automatic rifle; seven people dead, including the shooter, who had lost his job that afternoon.

*******************

The students at the satellite campus are unabashedly NOT city kids. They are enthusiastic and cheerful. Dell starts going through the grammar review. “I know you know this, but…” she begins.

She writes the definition of a sentence on the board. They talk about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs.

“Wait, wait!” says one student in back, busily taking notes, so Dell pauses. In the quiet, one of the students slaps her hand on the table in front of her. She is a senior in high school, taking college courses through a special program the state offers.

She says, “I am SO GLAD we’re doing this! I forgot all this stuff!”

“Exactly,” says the young man next to her.

The students eagerly break into groups. They work up until the very minute class is over, and they stop on the way out to tell her what they’re doing on the weekend. One, an older student, waits until the others are gone.

“I think,” she says to Dell, hesitant and nervous, “I might want to be a writer.”

Dell can see how hard that was for the student to say, and they talk for a bit about some of the joys and the challenges of a writing life.

********************

The next morning, Dell heads—a true Road Scholar—to another satellite campus, this one in a suburb of the large city. The radio is filled with news of a devastating hurricane, of the dead and the missing, of whole cities flattened, of people stranded with no food or fresh water.

Dell grips the wheel, white-knuckled, feeling sick. So much pain. So much tragedy. Chaos reigns, and she is helpless. People suffer, and she is powerless and sickened.

*********************

Many of the students in this class were born in other countries. They wear, some of them, ethnic dress, and they talk with various lilts and inflections, and they are, many of them, very, very anxious about succeeding in this class.

This is a lab session and they work at computers, answering questions about Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay. The students have many questions, both about the content of the assignment and about the computer, and Dell works her way as quickly as she can through the raised hands, directing and reassuring. She smiles at Nadja, a tiny young woman with a gauzy head wrap and a soft, soft voice.

Before she answers Nadja’s question, Dell rolls her head and stretches, and she realizes that Edwina, the tall, elegant Ghanaian with the warm British accent, is working with the students in the front row. As Dell cracks her neck, Edwina shows Deanna how to access the submission portal on the class website. Deanna sees it; her eyes light and she sits back and grins.

Dell bends down to listen to Nadja’s question. She explains how to complete the assignment, and she helps the student open a Word document.

“But I don’t know,” Nadja says, “when I am done, how to get it to you.”

Dell tells her not to worry. Just concentrate on getting the work done. Then they’ll submit it together.

Nadja nods, troubled, but she peers at the screen, pauses, and begins, slowly, to type.

All heads are bent over keyboards, all fingers flying. Dell gives Edwina a thumbs up thank you, then retreats back to the instructor’s space. She keeps an eye out for raised hands as she grades discussion board posts.

Just before class ends, Nadja raises her hand. “I am done,” she whispers, and she asks Dell to check her work. Her answers are thorough and thoughtful, and she has nailed the MLA format.

Dell tells her that, and Nadja smiles.

Then, together, they save the file and close it, open the college website and click onto the class page. Dell shows her how to open the assignment submission link, and suddenly Nadja brightens. Her fingers fly; she attaches the documents; she hits submit.

The class packs up to go, and she waves them off, reminding them of Monday’s work, and wishing them a restful weekend. They say goodbye and hurry out the door.

Dell turns to gather her things, and then she realizes that Nadja has turned back. She is standing, uncertain, in the classroom doorway, and Dell hurries over.

“What is it, Nadja?” she asks. “Can I help?”

But the girl is not troubled. She turns her face to Dell, and it’s illuminated, glowing, kindled with hope.

“The computer,” whispers Nadja. “I understand now. Teacher! Thank you.”

And she bows just a little, a head-nod really, and hurries off.

Dells watches as Nadja wrestles the big door open, a tiny woman in beautiful flowing clothes, a strong, determined woman who is going to succeed. And then Dell turns and hurries to the instructor’s desk, her back to the door as she packs up her things.

She climbs into the car for the forty mile trip home. It is a sunny day, and she cracks the windows open just a little, letting a breeze dance as she drives. She leaves the radio off.

She is not in denial. Dell’s eyes are open; she knows what’s out there. But just for today, she’ll ride home on the power of hope.

Shopping Day

The boyos are off early to dental appointments in Mount Vernon, and, in the quiet morning, I straighten the house, run the vacuum, and make a short pot of coffee. Then I print off the “first of the month shopping list” and sit down to plot out my shopping.

I created the shopping list document almost thirty years ago or so, trying to organize a household with a baby, a teenaged boy, two hungry adults, a big, loveable dog, and a constant need to consider budget. I’ve transferred the list from old computer to laptop to newer computer; it now rests in the cloud, where I can access it from almost any site. And its changes read a little like a family history.

There’s no need, anymore, for the ‘dog food’ section; two dogs have lived and thrived on food and treats detailed on this list. Some days the house feels empty without a furry sentinel; some days, I still sense the last little beast’s presence. But, much as we miss them, there are benefits to living without a pet.

We can decide on Friday morning, for instance, that we want to spend the night in Cincinnati or Indianapolis; we can throw clothes into bags and make reservations online, check gas, stop at the ATM, and then be on our way. There’s no pet care to arrange, no kennel to call, hoping against hope they are not full. (Trips have been derailed when our favorite kennel, the only one the little dog would countenance, was filled.)

I empty the vacuum canister—which, to be honest, is still full enough—and I realize anew how much dog hair used to flutter down onto carpets and couches. There’s no big bag of kibble in the closet; there’s no ceramic water dish by the back door, needing to be filled.

There is no growling and howling when visitors come.

There are no sleepless nights, no heaving and panting, when thunderstorms threaten.

Right now, life works without a furry bundle in the house.

Today, I delete the ‘dog food’ section on the first of the month shopping list, and I feel a glancing pang.

There are other changes, too.

**********************

A year or two ago, I sat at the ‘Pay Here’ table at an indoor yard sale with a sweet young mom. The sale benefited a family support group for young people with disabilities; the mom and I had sons with autism. Her boy was about eight; James was twenty years older.

We talked about challenges and triumph and unexpected delights. We talked about how untrue it was that people with autism have no empathy.

And all the while we talked, I tried to keep my eyes averted from the wonderful bargains surrounding us. I won’t, I had vowed, come home with more used stuff than I had donated.

But finally I just had to look.

When the yard sale was over, I had a green chair that sported several heart and unicorn stickers and a round, spindled back, in my back seat. It was a sturdy chair, and it became the first of seven we collected over a year and half—we collected them, sanded them down, and used our new paint sprayer to make them into a black, quasi-matching, quasi-set.

I also came home with a five-dollar bread machine that looked as thought it had never been used.

I cleared a space on the low counter for the bread machine, and I downloaded the cookbook that goes along with it. And every now and then I would make some bread, or some sweet dough, or a pizza crust.

But then our doctor told us to cut down on wheat, and then I decided I needed to work really, really hard at controlling how much single-use plastic passes throw my hands and house.

And suddenly the bread machine became very important. I started to experiment with breads made with a wheat-free AP flour substitute and with other grains. I discovered that, while baking the bread in the machine itself resulted in a hard-crusted loaf, with a paddle-shaped hole in the middle, mixing and raising the dough in the machine worked really well.

We greased loaf pans and folded fresh yeasty dough into loaf-y shapes, and we slid the pans into a hot oven, and we started enjoying freshly baked bread once or twice a week.

We made our own burger buns and hot dog rolls.

We stopped buying bread in plastic bags. As a nice little side effect, we stopped consuming a number of additives and preservatives.

So now I can cross ‘bread’ off the first of the month shopping list, too.

And toilet paper—I can cross that off. Now I order huge cartons of the kind that comes wrapped in paper, not plastic.

Cleaning supplies need a list-update, too: I get my detergents in big tubs that last for months.

The changes in the shopping list reflect the changes in our family life.

**********************

But, still, I need to go to the supermarket for some things.

So while Jim and Mark are gone, I take the updated list and I go to Aldi, and I buy staples:  sugars and rice, canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Four pounds of butter. The individual chicken cordon bleu servings Jim likes so well. Chocolate bars to use in cookies and in making home-made magic shell. Coconut oil. Tuna fish. In the frozen section, I find a box of breaded veal patties, and I suddenly yearn for veal parmesan.

I take a full cart to the checkout; I pack the groceries in sturdy plastic bags, and I head home to put it all away. I need to go to Kroger later, for produce and bread flour and a few other things.

I have just finished putting things away when Mark and Jim pull in. Jim hefts a cooler from the trunk, and they show me the wonders they bought at the butcher shop—bacon and cubed steaks, a beef roast and pork chops. They brought home a half ham, boneless, which Mark will slice on our small kitchen slicer.

We carry things down to the chest freezer in the basement; it is comfortably filled. We rearrange, make room, organize.

*********************

After lunch, James volunteers to go with me to Kroger, where we put russet potatoes, green leaf lettuce, and collard greens in the gauzy produce bags I bought to avoid using the thin plastic ones the store provides. We put big jugs of vinegar in the cart—we’ll re-use those jugs, filling them with laundry detergent.

We buy pasta and we buy cream cheese; we pack the cart with spaghetti sauce in cans, not plastic jars. We get peanut butter in a big glass container, and a big glass jar of grape jelly.

We stock up on bread flour and yeast. Jim picks out a brownie mix, and we get ice cream in a reusable tub.

I buy the jumbo-sized package of acetaminophen, and I find a box of a dozen knee-high stockings, needed now that we’ve turned the corner into fall.

The bagger packs the groceries we’ve bought in the bags that we’ve brought, and we head home to unpack.

***********************

I have to organize pantry shelves to fit everything in; the chest freezer is filled. And it is 4:00 by the time I have everything put away. I have spent, really, the whole day shopping.

I take my mystery and I sit in the reading chair, my feet up on the ottoman, and I open the book, then contemplate for a minute.

I think of my niece Shayne and my friend Julie in Florida, where people have stripped the shelves of bottled water, where shoppers have gone home feeling they might not have enough to make it through the oncoming storm. We have no such worries; the weather here is defiantly beautiful, despite winds and rain beginning to hammer other parts of this country.

If I run out of something, I can easily run to the store and plug the gap. I am not a pioneer planning supplies to last a cold and isolated winter.

But it still feels good, and warm, and right, in some deep place, to have the larder full. Some inherited urge pushes me, especially as the nights cool and leaves brittle up and begin to fall, to have enough.

The way we shop, what we eat, how we eat it, who we feed…all those things have been subject to change as we’ve evolved. But hungry folks still need to eat; comfort-seekers need their nosh. I feel a warmth, a satisfaction, in knowing shelves are full, that everything we need for a month of meals is on hand.

Autumn, Already

“Here,” I said, and I thrust the prompt jar over towards Mark. “YOU pick one for me. My steel trap mind can’t seem to clamp down on a single idea.”

Mark shook the jar and dug deep. He handed me a folded yellow slip.

I opened it. “Autumn,” I read. Then I said, “But…it’s not autumn YET.”

*******************

I packed up my morning page binder and slid it into the cabinet, and Mark took his mug to the sink. He went up to the shower, and I tied on my shoes and headed out for a morning walk.

It was my first morning walk since classes started on Tuesday. I had to be on the road pretty early; there wasn’t time to squeeze in a walk and a shower before lift-off. So I’d been walking after class, on the campuses where I teach, and dragging James off to mall-walk when I came home. It had definitely been too hot a week for long, outdoor, late afternoon hikes.

This term, I am a traveling teacher lady, on two campuses one day and another the next. I drive along pretty country roads, and I have to admit that leaves have begun to fall, doing lazy spirals as I zoom past, swirling them on. Not a ton of leaves are falling, mind you—but there are enough to give me that uneasy, end-of-season feeling.

It is, for sure, a changeable time.

And it’s back to school time too. On those 90 degrees days, I ironed new cotton tunic tops and wore them with new slim-legged pants and summer sandals: back to school clothes anchored in summer reality.

Some of my younger students determinedly wear their new garb in the chilled classrooms—pre-ripped jeans and soft hoodies, long-sleeved knit shirts whose cuffs reach almost to finger-tips, trendy tunics over patterned tights. It’s hard to have new clothes and not wear them, and I appreciate that start-of-classes excitement: new clothes for a new term. And yes, for a new season.  But, oh, those students melt when they walk out into the blast of heat.

Now, I connect ear buds to my phone, shove my keys into the left pocket of my shorts and step outside. And I realize that, for the first time in a very long stretch, it is cool. The weather app tells me I am walking through 60-degree air, and I crank up the music and walk faster. My bare arms get a little goosefleshy, and I march along, ready to work up a little morning heat.

And as I go, I notice the leaves that have fallen off the trees, that were splatted by last night’s rain onto the street in front of Sandi’s yard. Her tree is always the first to shed, and we spend September mowing or raking the leaves that scrabble into our yard, chased by the wind.

That tree bares itself, and then, when it is done, the trees in my front yard return the favor.

Today, I think, I’ll mow the first of those autumn leaves into mulch.

The calendar tells me I have almost a month until real autumn begins. The outdoor world has a different message for me.

*************************

My rainy-day soup last week turned my food-brain to thinking about steaming concoctions simmered up, all in one pot. I take a couple of packages of beef chuck steak from the freezer. I rummage in the refrigerator and realize we have two bell peppers, one red and one green, from Mark’s trip to the Wednesday night farmer’s market in the square.

And I am remembering pepper steak—such a seventies kind of dish—made by energetic chopping and sautéing and opening up cans. I search through my cookbook shelf for instructions. There is nothing in the newer cookbooks, but I find exactly the recipe I remember in the Hunt’s Tomato Sauce Cookbook, copyright 1976. On the inside flap, many years ago, I wrote my name, and underneath it, my phone number. Then I crossed off that number and wrote a new one.

I did that four times, and my last four phone numbers never made it into this old treasure. This book has traveled with me from youth till now, and from house to house.

And I remember cooking pepper steak in the autumn, the jewel tones of the peppers, the rich, red-brown sauce, and the sizzling beef echoing the colors of autumn leaves.

I open out the book on the counter. Pages flare up, disengage, and threaten to escape.

Jim offers to transcribe the recipe for me.

I slice and chop: meat and onion and peppers. I heat oil in a sturdy pan and toss the beef in it, and I shake salt and pepper and stir and mix and simmer until, as the recipe says, the beef is cooked through and the peppers, crisp-tender.

I steam rice.

We fill thick white bowls with scoops of rice and pour the pepper steak over the top and settle in.

“Now this,” says Mark, “is a blast from the past.”

A blast, I think, from a past autumn.

***************************

The Fourth of July would pass in central Ohio when first we moved here, and friends would start lamenting.

“Summer’s almost over,” they’d say, and I would be appalled. Surely, summer had just BEGUN.

Summer isn’t officially over until the end of September, I would think, and certainly, in a practical kind of way, summer is summer until Labor Day.

But schools start earlier here. Back to school shopping has been going on in earnest since early July, and now, as I get back into a commuting routine, I contend with stopped school buses and sweet, excited kids humming with excitement and trying to elude anxious parents’ firm grips.

The bus’s magic doors swing out and open, and the wee ones clamber up the steps, talking earnestly to their new driver. That driver will not budge the bus forward until every child is seated.

Finally, they inch away. Parents stand and wave until the bus rounds the curve, is out of sight, and then they slowly disperse, shoulders sagging, trusting and hoping those precious little ones, so excited, will be okay. They look at watches and head into their days, accepting that a new season—of the year, and of a childhood,—has begun.

Autumn may be more an attitude than a couple of months on a calendar.

***********************

I start the task of remembering student names, and they help to anchor their personalities in my mind. They tell me stories: how their name came to have that unique spelling, why they decided to major in addiction and recovery services, how hot it is, in the summer, in Nepal.

“I just hope,” one worried older student mutters as I go by, “that I can handle this class.”

We talk about what’s to come and what’s expected.

The students are a little anxious, a little excited…partly confident and sometimes terrified.

****************

Change is happening. The Navigator has his hand on the tiller; we stand on the thick, iron wheel, and hold onto the poles that define our spaces. And the tiller pulls back, and the heavy wheel turns.

When it’s turning, we ride, enjoying the cool breeze, the presence of good companions.

When the wheel stops completely, we can step off, mingle, chat and explore. All summer long, the wheel has stopped near the same place.

Today, the wheel stops for a moment, and the landscape I step off into is changed.

***********************

Calendar be damned. Autumn IS beginning. It begins in the curious excitement of students returning to classes, in their hopes and anxieties, and in their sparkling new shoes.

It begins in crisp temperatures, in mornings that beg early risers to find and slither into those comfy old cardigans.

It begins in determined leaves plunging to the ground.

It begins in earlier sunsets, and in morning darkness that lingers longer.

Autumn signals harvest, and this season begs me to begin celebrating that with bubbling, brothy pots—rich, steaming mixtures that comfort and warm.

Autumn brings us that dichotomy: the realization that the year is starting its downhill slide to winter amid the excitement of new beginnings.

We get ready to hunker down, to slide a movie in at night and pop some corn. The patio furniture gathers dew, empty in the dark.

But we get ready, too, to launch new explorations,–to read, to write, to figure and contemplate. To expand.

Perhaps autumn is a season of seeking physical comforts and intellectual challenges.

********************************

So, I bring the lightweight jackets to the forefront of the closet. I order a comfortable pair of black school shoes, shoes with toes that are not open. I sit after dinner with cookbooks, and I ponder soups and stews and casseroles.

And I concede; I accept; I recant. No longer chirping, “Not yet, not yet” I admit: It’s autumn already.

And life is good.

Soup

Image found on Pinterest…

********************

Tuesday morning: 5:42. Rain pounds relentlessly.

Mark goes off to the gym, umbrella opened as he runs to the car, and I sit in the dining room and write my morning pages. Water sluices down the windows. My all-knowing phone app says that, with a break here and there, rain will fall all day long.

I write, “This is a good day to make some soup,” and I look at my written words and know they are exactly true.

*******************

Summer is not a season of simmering pots, of things diced and sautéed and brewed up together. It is a season of grilled things—meats and veggies both—and of steaming ears of boiled corn. In summer foods are separate; they don’t touch on the plate unless the potato salad dares to encroach on the hot dog bun’s space, or the cowboy beans get overly friendly with the cole slaw. It is a time for sandwiches, for steaks and fillets.

It is a season for whole dinners that don’t require silverware.

I realize, on Tuesday, that I yearn for a big, long-simmered pot of something.

**********************

I take some early steps inside; then I sit at the computer, work on syllabi, and charge Connie, my Fitbit. While I fine-tune assignments and pull up ice breaker possibilities, another section of my mind is weighing soup varieties. There is Jodi’s beef-barley stoup, which is rich and hearty. Kathie’s rice and chicken soup makes another thick, stick to the ribs, kind of simmering pot.

Both of those soups are delicious, but maybe too much for a day that, although the skies are wringing wide open, will still soar into the eighties. I think that I will save those pleasures for autumn, when the air crisps, and there’s a bushel of apples on the bench on the back stoop,—days when the thought of a steaming bowl of heartiness and a great chunk of cornbread, butter melting on its golden brown, crusty top, rewards me for persevering.

Then I remember Wendy’s chicken tortilla soup recipe,which is perfect for a stormy summer day, and I go searching.

I cannot find the recipe in any of my paper-recipe reservoirs; I give up and print it out again. This time, I promise myself, I will three-hole punch this treasure and put it in my newest binder of family favorites.

************************

I take a rummaging break. I pull two packages of chicken from the chest freezer downstairs. I’ll poach the thighs and shred the meat for soup. I’ll bread the boneless breasts with panko and parm for Jim, who, like many folks with autism, does not like his foods to touch, and does not like the texture of long-simmered veggies.

I bring up the three last frozen blocks of chicken broth, realizing it’s time to make more.

I find a tiny container of chopped tomatoes and a quarter cup of leftover corn hiding behind big jars in the refrigerator. I’ll add those to the canned, diced tomatoes from the pantry shelf and the cupful of frozen corn from the industrial-sized bag in the freezer. There is sweet chili sauce; there are onions and garlic. I debate dicing up one of the jalapeno peppers Mark broke home from last week’s Wednesday night Farmer’s Market.

I line the dry ingredients up on the counter, put the cold things together on the second refrigerator shelf. I have everything I need for a well-simmered meal.

Soup: the scavenger of pantry shelves; the simmering pot that purges leftovers.

At 10:00 there is a weather break; the dampness fades from the streets and sidewalks, leaving pale gray stretches between puddles. I check my phone for permission; it tells me that yes, I can probably squeeze a walk in before the next rain.

I lace up my sneakers and head off, headphones on. I see the burly cheerful guy who’s usually out when I am, early in the morning. We wave as we stride past, and we agree that we have a LITTLE window of safe walking time, and we go marching off in our separate directions.

I crank up the 100 best songs of the ‘70’s playlist and I walk fast. I walk with Elton John and with Grand Funk Railroad, and I hitch a ride with Janis. The sky turns ominous, and I turn back, having fit three-fourths of my usual walk into this rain-free time.

The music is hard and fast and I match my strides to its rhythms and I hurry home. I’m listening to faded rock icons, but I am thinking, “Soup.”

Soup: the promise of warmth and protection on wild weather days.

I soak the boneless breasts in milk; I put the still-frozen thighs in the old, old cast iron skillet. I pour in water, and I put them on the stove, over a medium flame, and I throw in some herbs and spices, salt and pepper, and I go back to work while they simmer. Scented steam sneaks out from under the glass top.

By the time Mark comes home for lunch, the house is perfumed, and the chicken is cooked through.

I lift the thighs from the pan with tongs and set them on a small platter to cool. Mark and Jim look at them longingly, but we slice yesterday’s roast beef for sandwiches.

The rain has come back; umbrella-ed, Mark darts off to work. James and I drive to the mall, where we head off to walk in opposite directions. I can hear the pounding onslaught on the flat metal roof of the shopping center. I weave in and out of families urgently shopping for school supplies, and shoes, and just the right shirt to wear on that all-important first day.

Connie buzzes: I have met my step goal for the day. I meet Jim at the food court, where he shares a cup of hot pretzel nuggets. We stop at a funky store that has an amazing variety of stuff, and Jim finds a lamp that he’d looked at online. Its two black metal dragons face each other, wings half-furled, supporting the base. A tomato-red jewel gleams between them.

“This is just like the one online,” he says, “but it’s twenty dollars cheaper!”

It will look great in Jim’s newly painted, deeply blue room. We buy the lamp and head off in the rain,–heading home to make the soup.

Soup: that magic potion that draws us home.

I dig out the heavy sauce pot. And finally, I can cut and chop.

I dice onions and garlic, toss them into the heated olive oil; their enthusiastic simmering drowns out the rain, once more churned into torrent-force. While the veggies soften, I pull chicken, carefully saving skin and bones to make more broth.

I assemble spices, and I add a little water to the dregs on the bottom of the sweet chili sauce bottle, shaking it to get all the last bits of good flavor excited about going into soup. I dig out the big old can-opener and turn open a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce.

This is a perfect recipe, but like any fine soup, it does not suffer from substitutions or additions. We don’t have a can of condensed tomato soup, but the tomato sauce will do fine. Sweet chili sauce will fill in for chili powder. Cayenne will do for cumin, too.

I nuke the frozen blocks of broth. The onions and garlic are soft and fragrant. The shredded chicken joins them. I pour in the broth, already steaming from the microwave. I stir in spices and potions and the canned tomatoes; I throw in the refrigerated leftovers and the cup of frozen corn.

I stir and stir with my big wooden spoon, introducing all these disparate elements, urging them to get along, to work together to create something wonderful, and bubbling, and new.

I dip the boneless chicken into panko bread crumbs mixed with parmesan, and put them on a tray, and slide them into the oven.

It is four-thirty in the afternoon, and I take my Donna Leon murder mystery to the reading chair. And at that moment I cannot think of a better place to be, my bare feet resting on the old fuzzy gold throw, my imagination traveling on a Venetian canal with Commissario Brunetti, searching for answers. It’s been a good day’s work; my syllabi are almost done; the house is straightened up. Laundry tumbles below me as rain pounds above.

And from the kitchen, a wonderfully perfumed steam emanates.

Soup: an elixir of anticipation.

Mark comes home a little after 5:00, and, “Oh, man. That smells GOOD,” he says, and he heads off to change. I struggle out of the comfy chair and we converge in the kitchen.

Jim puts tots in the preheated air fryer to roast up, crispy and sizzling. I find the block of Vermont cheddar in the fridge, and Mark digs out the cheese slicer. There are whole grain crackers. There is a new bag of crunchy corn tortilla strips.

We pull roasted chicken from the oven, and Jim makes himself a plate of golden treats and wanders off to eat and type.

Mark grabs the old white ladle from the crock, and we fill the heavy white ceramic bowls with soup that is thick with meat and veggies and the exact rich tone of that jewel in the dragon lamp. We sit at the table and slurp; we slice cheese almost so thin we can see through it and we fold it onto those fresh, crunchy crackers.

And the day releases. Goals fulfilled, tensions melt in the fragrant steam.

Soup: the reward at the end of a stormy day.

*********************

Wednesday dawns bright and washed clean. I lace up and head out, seventies music pulsing me along. It will be a busy day, and it will be a hot one. Today, I think, we’ll rub some chops and throw them on the grill, put together a lettuce salad.

It’s a day to gather with retired teachers for an outdoor lunch, to mow the lawn, to trim the iris leaves, browning and curled. Today the air conditioning needs to be invited back on.

Today we will eat summer food, and I will pack the leftover soup into freezer containers. I will label those containers carefully and hide them away in the frosty dark. They’ll abide until the next damp and stormy day, when chill breezes breathe.

They’ll be there, those little chunks of frozen treasure, ready for us, the next time we have a day when we need soup.

********************

Wendy’s Delicious Chicken Tortilla Soup

1 tsp .oil

I cup chopped onion 

2 cloves garlic, minced 

2 cups cooked shredded chicken 

1 cup frozen corn

1 tsp cumin (or cayenne)

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp chili powder (or sweet chili sauce. Or chopped jalapeno, or red pepper flakes…)

8 cups chicken broth or stock 

1 can diced tomatoes (10 or 12 oz) Diced tomatoes with green chilies add a little zip , but you can use plain 

I can undiluted tomato soup (or small can tomato sauce)

tortilla chips 

sour cream, diced avocado (Nice, but not essential!)

Saute onion and garlic in oil . Add all ingredients  except chips etc. Bring to boil , then simmer 1 hour on stove top or 3-4 hours on low in slow cooker. 

Garnish with crushed tortilla chips , sour cream and  diced avocado as desired. 

Recipe freezes well and is easy to double or triple for a crowd. 

Enjoy !!

What Happened to My Ladies’ Mags? (Laments the Old Lady)

I read all the time when I was a kid. Well, not ALL the time, of course. But I would have if I could have. I read in bed–read until I fell asleep and again when I woke up, and I brought books to the table, although that was forbidden on certain days and at certain meals. I carried a book with me to games and parties and anywhere there might be a wait time. I took books to the grocery store. When I was big enough for a purse, my purse was generally big enough for a book.

I was not allowed to read while walking to school (some rules just seemed so random to me, but I shrugged and figured my mother must have her secret reasons.) When company came over, I at least had to surface long enough to make pleasant conversation before diving back into a sea of words.

And the words could come from anywhere: cereal boxes, model car packages, Ayds diet candy true testimonials…I was not, as a child, a discerning reader. I just read everything that strayed into my line of vision.

Here’s an Ayds ad I found on tedium.com. As a chubby, chocoholic child, I though a diet based on eating candy was probably the right kind of magic.

Our sterling-quality public library was within walking distance, and, as soon as I turned seven and got my first library card, I made that trek at least once a week. And we had books at home—Dr. Seuss books with pages worn soft as cloth (I would read through Yertle the Turtle, whose power-crazed ambition always put me off,–and I felt so SORRY for poor little Mack!–to get to the story about Lolla-Lee-Lou, who traded her ability to fly for a flashy set of tail feathers. I don’t know why I loved that story so), dog-eared Little Golden Books, cheap kids’ books from the grocery store. There was a book about a boy who yearned, growing up out West, for a ten-gallon hat. There was one about a boy growing up in Africa who did everything wrong. At the end of the book, he stepped splat in the middle of all six (I think) chocolate pies his long-suffering mother had made for him. I wanted badly to defend that boy, feeling, as I often did, that I, too, got just about everything wrong.

My mother brought home classic kid reads from rummage sales—Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins books.

And there were newspapers, twice a day—the first city paper, the Courier-Express, in the morning; the second city paper, The Evening News, in the afternoon. The local paper arrived after school, too. The newspapers all ran interesting things—they had comics, of course; human interest stories that were sometimes very interesting; horoscopes; police blotters; and daily puzzles.

And, every once in a while, my mother would give in to a frivolous impulse and subscribe to a ladies’ magazine. How I wanted her to subscribe to McCall’s, which featured a Betsy McCall paper doll each month. There was a story about Betsy, too, and she always had exactly the right clothes to wear.

Vintage Betsy McCall page from etsy.com

One of my friends had a mother who subscribed to McCall’s; that friend cut the paper dolls out and brought them to school along with their clothes and allowed us to look, but not touch.

“They’re VERY fragile,” she would say, haughtily. Filled with longing for those dolls, I wanted so much to grab them away from sour Miss Stingy and dress Betsy in her perfect yellow rain slicker. Looking was not much fun.

The other place Betsy turned up was in the doctor’s office, where old, old copies of the magazine moldered on formica-topped end tables. I would open to the Betsy section and dream that I could take a scissors and clip and snip, making Betsy mine. (Maybe I would paste her onto an empty cereal box and cut her out; maybe I would reinforce her clothes with scrap paper. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be so fragile.)

But there was a rule about doctor’s office magazines—a commandment really, invented late because magazines didn’t exist when Moses was climbing up that mountain. The commandment was this: Thou shalt not deface magazines in waiting rooms.

Sometimes, during a long wait, my mother would take out a pen and copy down a recipe from a magazine. She might sigh over a really good coupon, but she’d close the magazine and leave it intact. She hated getting deeply engrossed in a magazine article and then flipping to page 182 for the finale, only to find some fiend had used a fingernail to carve out a 25-cent coupon for Crest or Heinz beans, carving out the end of the story, as well.

“LOOK at that,” she’d say, in disgust. “What kind of worm does such a thing?”

When my mother called someone a worm, things were pretty dire. I swallowed my suggestion that maybe we could ask the receptionist if I could take the Betsy pages from a really old magazine. And I learned to live with the disappointment of knowing Mom would never order McCalls to be delivered to our home.

*************

My mother DID, however, subscribe to Redbook. Redbook was a thick magazine with interesting articles—there was always a true-life story, kind of a ‘how I solved this dilemma’ kind of thing. I remember reading a mother’s story about her tiny ill child, a child who had been perfectly healthy but then began wasting away. The child grew thin and lethargic, and the mother was frantic to feed him. She would squeeze oranges and serve the baby that healthy juice, pouring it into a fun glass from a brightly-colored pottery pitcher.

They had bought the pitcher in another country; the glaze was lead-based. Finally, a doctor recognized the child’s desperate dilemma as lead-poisoning, and finally the mother identified the pitcher as the source of the lead.

The moral of the story was not to use pottery unless you were sure it contained no lead.

Redbook was known for its controversial, thoughtful articles on civil rights, which was unusual for a ladies’ magazine in the 1960’s, and it ran more fiction than any other magazine in its genre. At the back of the issue, printed on rough, newsprint-y type paper, there was always the condensed Redbook novel. I read Anne Tyler’s A Slipping Down Kind of Life (I was struck by Casey’s song at the end, when he queried plaintively, “But the letters were carved backwards. Weren’t they?”) in Redbook, and then I followed her writing as I grew older. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People was a Redbook novel. And every year, in July, I think—just in time for summer reading,–they would have a special fiction issue, jam-packed with short stories.

I LOVED Redbook. Of course, it was my mother’s magazine, so I had to wait, not very patiently, while she worked her way through it in the nooks and crannies that life allotted her for reading. (Woe to me if I snuck peeks early and moved or lost her bookmark. I would be the worm, then.) But when she was done, I could take the magazine to my room and devour it. I met writers like Gail Godwin in those pages, writers who have remained favorite authors for forty years.

Redbook changed hands, I think, and changed format, and the fiction disappeared; the magazine became more glossy and more focused on the challenges of modern married women. But I left Redbook before it left me, anyway; I left it for a glossy, glitzy periodical aimed right at young, independent, free-spirited women in the 1970’s: Cosmopolitan.

I worked at a supermarket during late high school and for many of my college years, and one of the real perks of being there was knowing when the new Cosmo came out. My monthly treat was the thick new issue, and a giant Nestle’s Crunch bar, and a block of time long enough to completely digest both.

I came to Cosmo AFTER Burt Reynolds posed his famous pose, and I really did read the magazine for its articles. Many of those dealt with risqué topics that addressed young independent women who washed ashore on the second wave of feminism. And those articles were interesting, of course, but the one that sticks with me was one by a single professional woman whose apartment was a mess. It was such a mess, she wrote, that her dates left in horror and never once called her back.

She railed for a time, raging that in these days of liberation, women—smart, professional, busy women!!!—should not be judged by their slovenly homes. But gradually she came to see that cleanliness could co-exist with independence, and her habits changed. As they did, her apartment morphed into a place of comfort and beauty and sanctuary for HER.

She learned self-care.

She learned to be house proud.

It probably says something about me that the article I most remember from racy, scandalous Cosmo was the one about learning to keep your house clean.

****************

Later, after college, I discovered Country Living, a magazine all about home and creativity and life in the not-so-urban areas, just like places where I lived. That, I think, was the first magazine I ever subscribed to, and its arrival day carried the same charge as those days when I had discovered the new Cosmo on the supermarket displays.

I still enjoy paging through Country Living, although, like all ladies’ mags, it’s had its own evolution. And today I look forward to regional magazines—Midwest Living, Ohio Magazine—sliding through the mail slot. Some of my favorite recipes have come from the pages of those two publications. We’ve discovered fascinating places to visit, too,–places we would not have found without reading those magazines.

****************

But I fear for paper magazines, just as I fear for local papers. Because I don’t HAVE to wait for a periodical to arrive for inspiration; I can hop online and read commentary, find a recipe, research paint colors. There are, alas, as far as I can tell, no longer any women’s magazines that carry the kind of rich, new fiction that Redbook used to feature.

But I think there’s still a place for the monthly magazine, a slow, delighted, reflective kind of place, where we step off the conveyor belt and settle down in the reading chair. It’s a place where we can let ourselves be inspired, shocked, challenged, or validated by what we read and encounter—essays and articles, great photography (Scavullo, by the way, shot Burt Reynolds, whose arm was very discreetly positioned in that famous photo. Or so I heard, anyway, back in the day), unbiased reactions, and yes, really good recipes, accompanied by photos and stories.

I’m exploring, these days, OTHER magazines, not just-for-women magazines, that offer that fresh, smart, relevant content. I know I will find the one that clicks, that tells me, “Yes! Here I am! I am YOUR magazine!’ And then I will subscribe, and I’ll wait, excited, for each monthly issue to arrive.

***************************

In the meantime, I’ll keep reading, of course. I have a tottering stack of to-be-read books. We still get a paper copy of the local paper, every day. I have a file in my email called ‘Interesting Stuff’ where I archive articles and essays and links family and friends send; once a week I try to clear time to feed my soul on what’s in there.

And even if I should someday run out of that kind of reading material, I’m not worried.  I still have plenty of cereal.