Baking Scones on Sunday Morning

In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn; color your hair; watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold the laundry for a family of five. In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world; or you can just jump off it.

                                    —Jodi Picoult

Scones and a drizzle…

It is Sunday morning, and I am baking scones.

I don’t think I have ever baked scones before. The fine art of biscuit making has eluded me, and scones are definitely a kind of biscuit.

Certainly I have never made gluten-free scones, and that’s what these will be—mixed up from a combination of sorghum flour and potato and tapioca starch, with xantham gum added to make up for the lack of gluten. I am using a cookbook James checked out for me from the campus library: Gluten-Free Baking at Home, by Jeffrey Larsen. Larsen is a food stylist who loves to cook. When his mother, who’d always struggled with digestive issues, was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, Larsen was determined to help her enjoy the things she loved in gluten-free form.

He was creating Gluten-Free Baking when he was also diagnosed with gluten-intolerance. This is a cookbook of recipes that real people use and enjoy.   

The scones I am making have praline pecans (pecans chopped and swirled with brown sugar and cinnamon, and sautéed until the sugar melts and the pecan bits are coated in syrupy wonder) mixed right into the dough, and melted margarine brushed on top, with sugar sprinkled over that. Regular sugar, although the recipe calls for turbinado; I do not have turbinado sugar. I put it on the first of the month shopping list.

Before I buy it, though, I need to buy some clear plastic bins so I can sort the sudden variety of  powders in my baking cabinet. I have the sorghum flour, the potato and tapioca starches. I have oat flour, sweet rice flour, and almond flour. I have buttermilk powder and corn meal, and I have all the gluten-ated flours, too—bread flour, AP flour, whole wheat flour, and semolina to make pasta. I have a premixed 1:1 gluten-free AP flour substitute. I have xantham gum, and I have granulated, confectioner’s, and brown sugars.

I pull the drawer open in the baking cabinet, and bags full of powders quiver and threaten. The other night, the AP substitute pitched over and shivered a fine white dust on the floor. It’s time (it’s past time) to organize.

When I open the oven door and check the scones, they smell warm and cinnamon-y and comforting. In a minute, I will lift them gently from the parchment paper and onto the wire rack, and then I will let them cool. When they are no longer steaming, I’ll drizzle them with a sweet, sticky, almond milk glaze.

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 The Scots eat scones. I know that from my mother, who tried, once, to bake some.

This did not go well. The triangles were rock hard (sometimes, I read, people call scones “stones,” but that is because of lumpy appearance, not texture) and very overcooked. I liked them, though; of course, I ate anything then. I sat and broke off bits of scone, lathered on butter and chewed thoughtfully, while my family had a battle. Someone threw a scone at someone else, and then things rapidly escalated. It may have been my mother who started it; she quickly made a joke out of cooking and baking disasters (perhaps I have told you about the salty pumpkin pies on that long ago Thanksgiving…)

I munched, scones flew, and the laughter, especially Mom’s, veered toward hysteria. What a good sport she is, I remember thinking.

I wonder, though, if she was feeling glee or feeling sorrow and horror; I wonder, now, if she was thinking, “I tried very hard to bake something special for you, and you’re laughing at it—and at me.

And…who’s going to clean up all these crumbs?”  

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Mom probably grew up eating scones in her extended family of Scottish cooks. Scones are an integral part of Scots cuisine, I learn from icytales.com (“A Brief History of Scones: How Did They Originate?”) They are a quick, white bread, leavened with baking powder, not yeast. The Scots made them with oats and oat flour and cooked them on griddles. (The original scones were shaped a little like small Frisbees; later, some bright cook decided to pat all the dough out into one larger circle, and cut that into triangles.)

Scones are mentioned in Scottish poetry as early as 1513.

Icytales.com and legend have it that a British royal, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), asked her servants to bring her, one afternoon, “scones, shortbread, and tea.” She enjoyed that late afternoon nosh so very much that she decided to have those treats every day, and, because she was an influencer, the custom of an English high tea was born. The practice also elevated the popularity of scones in the UK. (Like their Celtic cousins in Scotland, the Welsh, too, had been eating them right along.)

In Scotland, the article tells me, I might hear a scone called a bannock. And Freshways.com.uk says that the name ‘scone’ probably came from the Dutch word “schoonbrot,” which means fine or beautiful bread.

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Several years ago, I discovered that Panera was offering scones, several flavors of scones, and I tried, first, the cinnamon. It was crumbly, fragrant, and tender; a thick cinnamon glaze coated the top and ran down the bumpy sides of the sweet breakfast treat.

That became my go-to order at Panera; it was one of the very sad farewells I made when turning onto the Path of No Gluten. I am hoping, on this gentle summer Sunday morning, that I have found a recipe to rival that experience.

And the morning solidifies; the raucous dawn bird chorus has gentled when I pull the scones from the oven, and when Mark, stretching  and soft-eyed, comes padding downstairs. I transfer the scones to their cooling rack; Mark sniffs and pokes them, interested, then puts the tea kettle on to boil.

I mix up the almond milk glaze. When the scones are cooled enough, I put two onto red and gold Fiesta-ware plates, and I drizzle them with glaze. I leave the glaze bowl on the counter, with a spreading spoon leaning against the rim, and I carry the still-warm scones out to the patio where Mark reads the morning news on his iPad.

We sip our steaming drinks and eat the scones, and they are really and truly good. Mark goes back for a second; when he emerges, he says cheerfully, “I glooped instead of drizzling.” His scone is awash in a sea of sweet almond glaze.

He eats happily.

Later, I package the remaining scones (drizzled not glooped) individually, and I put them in the freezer.

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All week long, I nuke scones and eat them for breakfast, a reward after my long morning walk or a workout at the gym. It is a troubled week of gut-punch court rulings, disturbing select committee revelations.

It is a week when it’s hard to be positive, hard to feel valued by a society that suddenly seems alien and hostile.

I look for a bright side, for a rainbow cast by a prism. I struggle to conjure a scone metaphor: I have given up one way of making my breads, but I find there are still possibilities. They are more challenging, more complicated, definitely more expensive, but the scones that result are wonderful and comforting.

It doesn’t work, though; I cannot carry this metaphor to a comforting conclusion, cannot make it work with what’s going on in this world.

The best I can do is hope that we can find an alternative way forward. I have no idea what that means, or how that might look, but in the reality of now, it’s the only succor on offer.

I nuke my morning scone and try to spark hope in my heart.

Duct Tape Getaway

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”

Lawrence Block

We were at lunch one day, and someone asked about summer travel. My fellow lunchers shared exciting plans, like that they were going to Europe, or to coastal resorts, or taking long adventurous road trips, or going on luxury cruises.

When my turn came around, I had to admit that we were headed upstate to the Duck Tape Festival (https://www.duckbrand.com/duck-tape-festival) for Father’s Day.

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I feel like duct tape has had an important role in my life, even if that role has been intermittent. For example, in my first teaching job at a wonderful little parochial school that served a diverse community, I was privileged to be introduced to working in education as part of an amazing staff. The principal was dedicated, enthusiastic, and compassionate; the faculty members were creative and caring. The lunch ladies cooked everything from scratch (Mark would drive twenty miles to eat in the cafeteria with me on meatloaf day), and they dispensed wisdom and discipline along with their homemade pizza.

And the maintenance guys, Tony and Gary, were brilliant and vigilant. They handled the strangest of situations with aplomb. (Once, for instance, a teacher had a farming friend bring a goat to class. Tony dealt with the inevitable consequences of livestock trip-trapping through the shining, hallowed halls of learning, and then he wrote a kind of opus to the whole experience. I remember the refrain went something like this: And there’s goat doo-doo out in the hall. )

When things broke or needed bolstering, Tony and Gary would examine them and determine what level of intervention was needed.

It could be a total replacement was in order.

The equipment or object might need to be repaired.

Or, if the problem was not too major, if a quick fix could be easily implemented, they might look at each other sagely.

“Duct tape,” one would say, and the other would nod.

Duct tape, Tony once told me, was nature’s perfect tool. Many’s the time we have lived by that stricture in my household.

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When Jim was in high school, he found a tribe among some quirky and gifted teens at the local library. The young adult librarian, gifted and creative herself, searched vigilantly for ways for them to connect and create.

Sometimes they formed writing groups.

Sometimes they painted.

Sometimes they made wallets from duct tape.

I mentioned that recently to a friend, and she said SHE has a friend who made such a thing in the early 2000’s. That friend still uses the sturdy wallet.

Duct tape endures.

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I think it was around the time Jim was in high school that some enterprising, imaginative students decided to make their prom gown and tuxedo entirely from duct tape. I tried to find a history of those first outfits online, but I could not. I did discover that the concept has flourished. There are even major scholarships awarded to young duct tape designers.

The Duck Tape Company has a yearly contest called “Stuck at Prom,” and the participants submit the most amazing tape frocks. (https://www.duckbrand.com/stuck-at-prom)

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Duct tape is a tool that can be both effective AND innovative. I know Mark is sure to always have some near his tool bench.

So when notice of the Duck Tape Festival flitted into my email in-box early this year, we felt like it was calling out to us, in particular.

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Our friend Wendy told us about Airbnb several years ago, and we have been using that service ever since. We have stayed in wonderful places; there have been just a few klunkers—we once had to leave a cat-hair palace before morning because the boyos were wheezing, and in one lovely Victorian upper, right after a heavy bout of spring rainstorms, the beautiful plaster ceiling in the dining room just crashed down shortly after we had all retired for the evening. In both of those cases, we moved to hotels, which was fine.

But. Staying in a cozy home is even finer. (We’d go back to the Victorian home, though; the owner was wonderful, and we could just tell she loved the house and would get it fixed immediately.)

Mostly, though, our Airbnb experiences have been perfect. There is plenty of space when we rent a full home; Jim has his own bedroom, and if someone needs to get up at night and read, they can do that in a living room where the light won’t wake the other sleepers. We cook our own breakfasts, and no cleaners knock on the door when we are strolling through the process of getting ready for the day.

Airbnb’s tend to feel homey, and Jim, who doesn’t always want to go to all the people-packed places Mark and I enjoy, can stay behind, comfortably, with his books and movies and video games. We bring ‘home food’ and stock the refrigerator, there’s always a coffee maker for my decaf, and each place has its own certain charm.

The little house we rented in Avon Lake lived up to all of our expectations. It had two cozy bedrooms and a fully equipped kitchen (the stove and dishwasher were almost identical to ours at home), and it was in a comfortable neighborhood. When we pulled in, we met the elderly (i.e., ten years older than we are) lady next door, who welcomed us, but said that she’d be busy all weekend and probably wouldn’t see much of us: her grandson was being married.

In addition, there was a bonus room at the back of the Airbnb house with a bar and reading chairs and wrap-around windows. And beyond that was a fenced-in backyard with a cement patio, table, and fire pit.

And the weather was perfect. We’d had a really hot, hot week in Zanesville, but things had cooled down there, and the closer we got to Lake Erie, the cooler the air became. Glad we brought jeans, Mark and I drove a mile or two to a lovely community park and walked the trails while James relaxed at the house.

We luxuriated in the Lake air, and shamelessly people-watched; the hip oldsters swaying on double swings built to view the sun setting over the lake, or, with their own folding chairs and drinks decanters, clustered on the pavement right next to the steep slope to the beach, oldies music playing as they pointed, punctuated, and laughed and laughed.

There were posses of teenaged boys, hair mushroomed from hours in the water, who forced us onto the grass as they marched by. (They were not, we felt, malicious, just wrapped in that kind of self-importance and personal intent that settles on some people when they are in those mid-teenage years.)

There were corresponding units of teenaged girls; their hair, unlike the boys’, looked perfect. They were studiously uninterested in anything the boy posses might be doing.

There were generational family groups including babes in arms and the wisdom of the elders, and there were younger families with double strollers. There were couples walking hand-in-hand, geeky kids on fat-wheeled bikes, and footballs and frisbees flying.

And there were dogs everywhere…maybe because frozen dog treats were on offer at the busy snack bar.

We walked and we watched and we soaked in the particular smell and feel of Lake Erie breezes, and that night we went back to the Airbnb house and slept very well.

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And the next day we went, the three of us, to Oberlin, Ohio, less than thirty minutes from our rental, and we explored the village and the campus, soaked in history, and mooched around an old Ben Franklin store that was now half books and half lovely other stuff—stationery and office supplies, handmade soaps, and cards created by local artists… But the very best thing, to Mark, was an old-fashioned, family-run hardware store, where the nails and screws were in scoopable bins, where we could, if we wanted, buy window screens, sledge hammers, power tools, lumber, paint, pot holders, or microfiber cleaning cloths, and where, Mark said with satisfaction, the wooden floor creaked in just the right way.

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And that night, Jim opted again to hold down the fort while Mark and I drove to the Duck Tape Festival. Parking at Mercy Health Stadium (home of the Lake Erie Crushers; we couldn’t determine if they are a double or triple A team, but they’re named in honor of all the vineyards that thrive along the shores of the Lake), and we pulled in and crunched over white stones to the Festival.

And there we found purveyors of all kinds of crafty creations, wonderful street food booths, and a band playing Eagles and CSN hits (playing them pretty well, too.) We wandered through the beautiful stadium, where just regular people were having fun on the field, no game scheduled, and then we embraced the reason we’d come: we viewed the Duck Tape sculptures.

It makes sense that this year’s theme was baseball, being that we were at a stadium; the sculptures were interspersed among the vendors, every fifty feet or so, and we saw duct tape trophies and World Series rings, both male and female baseball players, giant hand-chairs invitingly placed next to a giant, sliced-in-half baseball, which served as a table.

There was a duct tape baseball hat large enough to be a kid-cave; there was a duct tape field of dreams, and there were tiny duct tape players and cheerers on duct tape fields. A giant pitcher’s hand held an outsized baseball, and a giant duck bobble head was dressed in a blue pin-striped uniform.

The creativity and execution were crazy-good, and we walked and snapped photos, and exclaimed until an ardent tub-fitter representative chased us down the midway, calling that she didn’t CARE where we live, she could fix up our bathroom…

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We stopped and picked up dinner (Mark ordered a Lake Erie fish fry, and I swear he got a little misty—a fish fry, duct tape, and a hardware store, all in one day…) at a restaurant on the lake, and we ate it in the barroom at the Airbnb house.

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We did lots of fun stuff last weekend, but I think the best part was realizing, when we got back to the Airbnb, that there wasn’t anything we SHOULD be doing—no laundry, no deer-proof raised-bed construction crying out for completion, no cleaning or cooking.

We opened all the windows and let lake breezes blow through the pristine screens, and I got my book, and I read away.

It’s the best part of any vacation, even a tiny one. All the shoulds melt.

We were on a getaway, and that removed all guilt.

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And then of course we came home, which is almost as much fun as leaving, and the next day we DID do yard work and Mark made progress on that raised garden construction and, even though we were only gone for three days, we washed and dried and folded four big loads of laundry, and then we were ready for the regular week to start.

We were ready; we were rested; we were energized. And I think that’s how any kind of getaway—the big, long kind, or the funky little Duck Tape Kind,—should bring us home: refreshed and renewed.

Never Do Today…

Procrastination, procrastina-a-a-tion
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

(OOPS! Sorry, Carly Simon; that should be a DIFFERENT -ation word…)

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5:27 Friday morning: finally, I sit down to do what I should have done Wednesday night—-write this post.

Procrastination: a situational malady. Some things I just do because I know there’s no waffling. Those bills have to be paid; dinner isn’t going to make itself; and I don’t much like the consequences of unwashed laundry.

But other things—-especially things that live in the area of ‘good for me, but not absolutely necessary’—those things wind up squarely in the Lost Land of Procrastination.

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Case in point: I have vowed to return to daily journaling. I have a quiet house, a ready notebook, the perfect pen. And here is what happens.

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I pour coffee into my freshly rinsed Hartstone pansy mug (my favorite mug; my special mug!) and set it on the table next to the old notebook that is my current journal. Then—where’d I put my cell phone? I wonder, and I go searching. (It’s in the powder room, of course, in the cell phone capture compartment of the toilet paper tower. But before I find it there, I wander the first floor three times, straightening magazines, tidying shoes, and putting a stray plate into the dishwasher.)

I have the phone almost to the table, ready to join the steaming coffee mug, the aging journal, the brand new pen. I am within a step, and then I realize, “LAUNDRY.”

So I pocket my phone and clatter downstairs, where the washer’s bright face tells me that the sheets and towels are on their last spin.

I turn myself around, put a metaphorical foot on my very real butt, and point myself toward the dining room table.

Journal,” I instruct myself sternly.

But at that moment, the washing machine gives a final click. The sheets and towels are cleaned, rinsed, and spun, and here I am. So I open lids, move sodden linens to the dryer, set it whirling, pour liquid detergent, dump dirty socks, white towels, underwear, hankies, and nubby white cleaning cloths into the washer’s bin. I pour bleach into the bleach dispenser, judiciously choose my settings, set the washer, too, to work.

By the time I march myself upstairs to do what I want to become a daily practice, to fill the pages of my partially begun journal (one of a half dozen or so stop-starts I’ve saved: spiral notebooks, composition notebooks, cute hardbound blank books that are almost too pretty and pristine to sully with random thoughts and  scattered words), by the time I DO that, my coffee is not steaming any more.

I dump the lukewarm brew back into the carafe and swirl it around (it’s okay: I am the only coffee drinker here) and decant myself a new, steaming mugfull.

And finally—FINALLY—-there is no reason not to start.

To get to this moment, I have made the bed, purged the refrigerator of sad old food, rinsed out some recycling and taken it to the recycling bin, and emptied wastebaskets. I bagged all the trash and took it out to the trash can. I washed my hands thoroughly, washed them through a rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” so I knew they were clean. I pulled a pound of burger from the freezer, and plucked a box of stand’n’stuff tacos from the cupboard, found some taco seasoning mix in the pantry, and put all that on the kitchen counter.

The house is relatively neat; it is not yet time to start dinner.

I have even had a little after-work time in the reading chair.

No, I tell myself: NO. It is not time for a nap.

It is time, in fact, to write in my journal.

Which I ultimately do, but why is it so hard to get myself to DO that?

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All day long, my thoughts are journaling themselves—words dance in my head when I am unable (driving, scrubbing pots, at work) to write them down. They dance, and they entice.

“Perfect!” I think. “I’ll write about that later.”

But when LATER comes, there are chores to do, people to see, busynesses to be indulged in.

And yet I WANT to write things down.

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I believe that keeping a journal is key to a healthy writing life. To get to the worthwhile nuggets, I need to unpack the STUFF resting on top, clear out the bony mind chamber of all the kapok, the little plastic puffy thought pellets that cling to everything, that have to be forcibly plied off the meaningful nuggets when I finally do find them.

That packing material, that clutter, is the detritus of everyday life, the little, often necessary things that can be great distractions from the main goal.

To journal, for me, is one way to open the hinged door on the top of my skull and dump all that stuff onto the page. Journaling is kind of like cleaning out the thing drawer; I sort through a lot of junk (“Why did I even KEEP all these take-out sporks?” I wonder), but when I’m through, I realize I’ve uncovered good, usable, STUFF.

If there are no chores, though, to help me righteously avoid writing in my journal, there’s a keyboard with access to online word games. “I’ll just play one round of Outspell,” I vow, and half an hour later, twelve games in, I realize it’s time to start dinner, and The Writing Hour has ended without a word being inked onto a cheap sheet of lined paper.

I LIKE to write, though; I enjoy it, and I want to do it. Why do I avoid it?

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So I pull my sweet little IPad, a new indulgence (it will help motivate me to WRITE!) from its charger, and bring it to the table. I pull up a search engine, and type in, “Why we procrastinate.”

There are 54,900,000 search results for this topic. Is it possible I’m not the only person struggling with procrastinating? (And then I think, of course, that looking this up may be, in itself, just another righteous way of avoiding my journal. How many of the millions of articles will I read before this magic time melts away, and it’s time to grate cheese and chop lettuce?

But I persist. I’ll read ONE promising article, I tell myself.)

Better help.com says this: “Understanding why you may be prone to procrastinating is the first step in finding solutions to overcome the act of continually pushing work and tasks forward.”

There you GO, I think. Bring it on, baby! And I read forward.

Hmm. The article suggests that I might procrastinate to avoid the stress or anxiety that comes with the task itself. Avoid the task, it says, defer the emotion.

Is there something there? Did I imbibe, somewhere along the line, the message, that writing is not ‘real’ work—that it’s an indulgence, and that, anyway, I don’t really have anything to say…or, even if I did have a thing to say that might be worth pondering, I probably don’t have the right words, the pithy, perfect words, with which to say that meaningful thing?

Do I feel self-indulgent and/or inadequate when I sit down to write?

Certainly something to think about.

Later, maybe.

As a coping mechanism, the article notes, procrastinating is a poor one.

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And here’s another interesting topic raised by betterhelp.com. I might want to just check my time management skills. The author talks about the person who can delight in crafting detailed schedules, listing all the things that need to be done in precise and charming order,…and then not be able to implement that grand plan. A schedule, the writer advises, is nothing but a theory, unless I am clear about how much time and effort I need to wrestle with a project.

This one’s about setting realistic expectations, always a struggle for me. Being realistic is so limiting, after all; if I give myself 45 minutes to journal, and then, say, I just STOP when 45 minutes is done, I might miss writing down that ultimate brilliant THING I’ve been trying to pinpoint and excavate. Maybe it’s better just not to schedule ANY journal time…maybe I need to just wait until there is unlimited time to write.

You know: those big blocks of endless, uninterrupted time,—the ones that occur…well, never.

Which makes me think of that New Yorker cartoon where the busy executive says into his telephone receiver, “How about NEVER? Is never good for you?”

Hmm. I think I digress.

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The article makes other important points. For instance, I should be aware of my body’s circadian rhythms. Why, after all, would I start a task requiring peak attention at a time when I know I will be logey and dull?

Also, the writer points out, a lot of things I might be avoiding are not fun—things like emptying trash cans or doing laundry. However, since those are the things I do that actually allow me NOT to do the thing I really do find fun, I think this point is not for me.

Finally, the article suggests something called Task Overwhelm. If a challenge is too big, I might just back right off. And, because it’s remotely possible I have just a tiny little strain of perfectionism running through my tender veins, this might be a point to ponder. Because, of course, I want my journal not to be what it’s meant to be, which is kind of a messy vat of randomness that allows me to find the few small rocks swimming in that stew that MIGHT have the promise of being refined.

No, I want my journal to be perfect: perfectly organized, perfectly executed, not a hint of whining or self-indulgence in the words that are written in perfect script on its perfect pages. All I ask is that it be engaging, witty, succinct—-a memoir, in fact, a slam-dunk on the first try.

But a journal should be a sandbox full of old toys and broken sticks and abandoned paths to nowhere,—a messy place where its writer can sort, sort, sort.

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Ah, self-knowledge. What does one DO with it? Now that, maybe, I understand WHY I procrastinate, how do I change?

The article suggests to me that procrastination is a LEARNED behavior. Somewhere along the line, I taught myself to procrastinate, and so, right here, at this place along the line, I can start teaching myself to do things a little differently.

Maybe I should be more flexible in my scheduling habits. Maybe I can leave little blocks of time between chores or meetings or whatever, and if things run over, well, what the heck? Then the schedule doesn’t impinge on the next thing; then I don’t say, “Oh, no! I only have 15 minutes left to rewrite an entire draft! I’ll never finish; why would I even start?”

Another way to handle things, offers betterhelp.com,  might be to consciously break big tasks into little ones. So, instead of planning to write an entire essay, say, I could just plan to write an intro today, or to research the facts I want to offer, or to articulate point number one… This approach does not allow for the satisfaction of sitting down and swooping through a whole, entire task…it’s not quite as heroic a scenario, but it might, in fact, be a more efficient (and possibly less gut-wrenching) way of getting things done.

I don’t like the suggestion that I might consider the negative consequences of procrastination, but I DO like the idea of rewarding myself for getting them done.  The reward, the author notes, has to feel better than the temporary glow of putting off a job. Positive consequences, I find, ALWAYS work better, for me at least, than punishments. Maybe I could buy myself a new book when I rack up seven days of intensive journal writing in a row…

The article also says to be more self-understanding, but that’s not a problem for me; I always think to myself, “Oh, honey: you’ve been working hard. You can take a little break.”

And you can see where that’s headed. I think I’ll stick to the reward theory.

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So anyway. Here it is: I actually, finally, got my post written this week. It is not the post I intended to write. I have three other topics I want to explore, and I was trying to choose one of them for this week’s blog.

And, I must confess, I have not yet racked up the pages to earn myself a new bought book (although I got around that by going to our wonderful library; maybe I need to fine-tune this rewards program…) But I do have those three topics to journal about, and I think they will make worthwhile blog posts.

So I’m going to start exploring Topic #1.

Tomorrow.

Random Thoughts on Home

A house becomes a friend after you experience a fierce level of enjoyment in it.

                                    —-Alexandra Stoddard, Creating a Beautiful Home

At work, at the Foundation, we have been talking about home.

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We have a couple of projects going on. The first is a partnership with our County’s Community Foundation; we are working together to initiate a talent attraction and retention program called Make Muskingum Home. Like many small cities and rural areas, our area is experiencing a brain drain. The best and the brightest go off to college and explore new challenges, learn about new opportunities, and they very often never come back to live.

Oh, they come back to visit, for reunions with old friends, to bring grandkids to see the old homestead; they share fond stories of trouble they’d got into, adventures they had, friends who once seemed to fill their entire world. But those visits are filled with nostalgia, not belonging. Home, for them, is somewhere else now.

And there are others, people who COME from somewhere else, who have skills, degrees, certifications, and licenses, passions, work ethics, and goals that our County needs, but who would rarely consider this a place to put down roots. We’re hoping that Make Muskingum Home will reach members of both those groups, offering an incentive along with the realization that a person, a couple, a family, can build a lasting home here.

The other home-focused project is our annual writing competition. We had the first one this year; 150 high school juniors wrote essays, addressing this prompt: It’s five years after you’ve finished your post-secondary education, whatever that might mean. What would make you move back here to live and work?

Their essays were creative and thoughtful and amusing and challenging. Eighteen young people strode up to the podium and received awards at the culminating ceremony. Our guest speaker, a legendary local coach and author, joined with our Foundation President to hand out the prizes, including a grand prize to a young man who wrote about coming back to create a community filled with green energy resources.

The young writers responded to the concept of coming home; it seemed to reverberate.

Next year, our speaker will be a fascinating author, a woman who grew up in a loving adoptive family, and who, when she decided, finally, to explore her biological roots, discovered that her father is, truly, a prince in Sierra Leone. Now that young woman has three homes—a home with the family that nurtured her, the home she has created for herself on the West Coast, and a home in Sierra Leone, where she has established a foundation to help counter the effects of systemic poverty and war.

We have to tweak next year’s prompt, but I think it will be something like this: How does one go about finding home?

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So, of course, I am thinking about home myself. In this not-really-post-COVID-yet, shattered-by-gun-violence era, home, I think, gets to be a complicated subject. My thoughts are all over the place, but I think I’ll just put them down here, and I hope you’ll feel free to react and share yours.

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There are stages of ‘home,’ I think…home should mean a certain thing when you’re a child, something different during the Explorer and Settler years, and something else again during the Seasoned Era. But there are common themes, common meanings of home, during all those times.

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As children, of course, we are dependent on others to create home for us. We hope a child learns—always knows, really, right from birth,—-that home is a place of safety. Sometimes, the place where a child lives is not that place—that residence may be riddled with violence or addiction or some other kind of danger. My hope then is that the child has a third place that feels safe—a school, a library, a theater, a sports field, an art studio, somewhere—-where fear sloughs off like old dead skin, and, when they are there and immersed in that thing and in that place, the child feels truly safe. And at home.

Home, too, especially for children, is where the people speak your language: where euphemisms are shared that no one else might understand, where you don’t have to tell the whole story to be reminded of the joke, where you know how people respond to joys and to tragedies.

Home, for children, ought also to be the place where someone notices when you are not there. My mother grew up without parents; she was raised, along with her younger siblings, by a teen-aged brother and sister. They lived in a neighborhood where aunts and uncles (there were no grandparents) had houses, and often, my mother and her young brothers would wander to an aunt’s home if they were hungry or lonely or wanted to play with cousins.

That had its advantages and disadvantages. One of the saddest stories my mother ever told me was of a time when she was eight or so. Outraged by the unfairness of some older-sibling edict, she determined to run away. She packed some food and a change of clothes and got as far, I think, as her (or someone’s) backyard, where she hid under a bush.

When bedtime came, the people at home realized she wasn’t there, but they assumed she was at a relative’s house. No one worried. And she sat in the gloaming, as the lights dimmed under that bush, waiting for someone to come look for her. She woke up in the morning, leaves and grass in her hair, and went back to the house to get ready for school. No one ever knew that she’d been gone, that she’d run away.

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When kids who’ve been disconnected from home grow up, they have an opportunity to make a home—-for themselves, for the people they might choose to create family with. How do kids learn how to do that?

Is ‘home making’—-and not just cooking and cleaning—-a teachable skill?

I remember my one home ec class. I was in middle school: it was still in the days when the boys took machine shop and the girls learned homely skills. In that class, we cooked: we had to follow recipes chosen by the teacher, and my group’s recipe featured cheap hotdogs and canned spinach layered in lasagna noodles.

We were meant to eat the results; we group members looked at each other and made gagging noises. And then we let that casserole burn beyond recognition—-a shameful waste of food, I know.

But, gosh. Hot dogs, lasagna noodles, and spinach???

We did sewing in that class, too, and, I think, something about household finances, and the teacher told us that when she was our age she dazzled her family by using paper towels as place mats. But what we didn’t learn was how to make a place feel like home, like safety, like a place where those who reside there BELONG.

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That’s the job, I think, of the Explorer and Settler stages: deciding what ‘home’ means, and then creating that.

There has to be some point of connection at the moment of choosing the place, the moment of, “Yep. This is where I am going to be.”

It could be a practical point of connection, like, “This is reasonably priced and has the kitchen counter space I need.” It could be an aesthetic point of connection, like, “I can hang my photographs on the wall going up the stairs,” or, “The back patio is just the place I need to sit and read.”

It could be completely subjective. When we were house hunting with an eight-year-old Jim, he whined and ruckus-ed on every outing. Then we toured the house we eventually bought, and realized he was not trailing us, asking, “How much longer?”

He was sitting on the stairs, reading a book.  “This,” he said, “feels like home,” and it did, to all of us.

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And creating home is kind of a muscular thing. Even if you’re swimming in money up to your chinny-chin-chin, you can’t just sit in a chair, wave a languid finger, and say, “Oh, put it over THERE, darling, would you?”

At some point in the creation process, you have to wade in and wrestle with the act of creation itself. That could mean being the actual person who paints the old olive green wall a lovely fresh shade of cream. It could mean doing the research, choosing the painters, the colors, and the furniture. It could mean compromising with a flat mate of whatever sort you choose to co-habit with.

But if it is truly to be YOUR home, your sweat equity ultimately gets infused into the décor.

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And then, speaking of muscles, there’s the bane of my existence: maintenance. I am good (often) (or, at least, sometimes) with the big burst of energy it takes to paint a room, to matte a picture, to pick out and order rugs and chairs, to find a funky little side table at a funky little flea market.

I am good with putting it all together, and standing back, and saying, “Yes! It is just like the picture in the bony mind cavern!”

But then I want things to stay that way, forever and ever, or at least until the next renovation  rolls around. I’m not so good at seeing the clutter that slowly takes over a once pristine surface or remembering that woodwork stretches and preens when scrubbed in spring and fall.

Huh, I’ll say. How long have we had those curtains? 2017??? Probably ought to clean them, eh?

Maintaining the home you make: muscle is necessary.

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I love touring the former homes of the famous and the mighty. I love standing at the velvet rope and looking at the books and pens, the old typewriter, the wastebasket full of crumpled mis-starts, and thinking, “Of course. Of COURSE this is where that writer wrote!”

I loved watching James Cordell’s Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney when they toured Sir Paul’s childhood home. “This is where John and I would play together,” he said, “and this is where my father sat when he yelled, ‘Do you have too sound so American? Can’t you say, Yes, yes, yes, instead?’”  

There was the loo, said Sir Paul, where he’d strum and sing because the acoustics were so much better than a wide open ordinary room. And I see the rooms and imagine their uses and think, “Of course. THAT’S how it all worked.”

Because trends are fun, but a home, ultimately, should look like, should reflect, the needs and habits and personality of its users. When a home does that, it just feels right.

It feels homey.

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During COVID, we stayed home. We worked from home, we picked up groceries outside the store, and we ordered things to be delivered right to the house. We Zoomed to connect, and we talked on the phone.

And during that shutdown time, a lot of people said to me, “I cannot WAIT to get out of this HOUSE!”

We like to shop, to eat out, to travel near and far; we like, usually, the sociability of seeing people at concerts and plays and gathering venues.

But I believe we only truly appreciate those things if we have a home—tiny or huge, simple or fancy,—that we love to go back to when the excitement dims.

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“Home,” Robert Frost once wrote, famously, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I appreciate that concept, but I think home is something each person creates, and, if we do, we never are in danger of losing that place, whatever that means.

Of course, there is a real and true problem in our country: a crisis of homelessness. It is a multi-layered problem; there is not one reason people are homeless. The state of homelessness comes with sad gaps in the need for mental health care and addiction services and the delivery of that necessary nurture. There are chasms of many kinds that separate people from a permanent home. There are biases and stubbornnesses and ingrained beliefs in people on all sides of the issues that clank and clatter and clash.

But if we look beyond blame or fault, I believe the truth is a very simple thing: everyone deserves a home that is safe and comforting.

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“Home is where the heart is,” someone else (maybe Pliny the Elder) wrote. I would amend that, too.

I would write, “Home is where the chocolate is.”

Home is also where the next book awaits; friends and I were just agreeing that to be almost through with one book and not have another in the wings is a very untethered situation.

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Of course, to me, the boyos help define what home is. But home can house many, a couple, or just one person. There’s not a minimum occupancy rule necessary for an abode to earn the name, “Home.”

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Have we, as a society, traveled far from the concept of ‘home’? If so, I do not think it is because women are working, or because housekeeping chores are shared these days. But I do think it may be because social media and other media constantly draw our gaze outward.

It is good to look outside of things. But then we need to turn around and look inside; we need to look homeward.

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You might wonder where I am going with this, and I would have to tell you, “I have no idea.”

But I think in some ways we are distracted; in some ways we are encouraged to be neglectful, to be seekers in the outside world, without creating the base we need, the launchpad we return to.

We need adventures; we need outings. We need the stimulation of other people, new places, amazing entertainment, and we need to taste new and different foods.

But there’s a point, after all those adventures, where —whatever the concept might mean to each of us means—we need to go home.

Unscheduled

For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished. On to the next, and the next. Check, check. Done and done. It explains—and solves—nothing to call this workaholism.

—Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day

We kept driving by a used bookstore here in town and saying, “We really need to stop in.” We like bookstores; it’s nothing for us to get in the car on a weekend day and drive an hour to go to a Half Price Books shop, or to mooch around a Barnes and Noble. Jim, especially, has his absolute favorite out of town booksellers.

But last Friday was a kind of rainy gray day, and my new mantra is Be HERE now, so I told Jim I was taking a ride to the bookstore in town. He was playing video games in his office; he weighed his options, and he finally asked, “Mind if I tag along?”

So that’s what we did. We hadn’t been in the bookstore since just after they opened—before, even, they had their grand opening event, and that was just pre-COVID. The shelves weren’t too terribly full then. We didn’t quite know what to expect. Jim, I suspect, was not too hopeful.

But the bookstore is the kind of place where books are neatly stacked and organized on shelves (FULL shelves, now, too, mind you). Sections are labelled—mystery, general fiction, romance, biography… The walls and shelves, in places, are new, raw wood, so the store has that just-tapped-potential, sawdust-y smell, mingled with the scent of books that many eyes have perused, and other hands have handled. (That book smell, to me, is very definite and completely indefinable.)

And then, in addition to the books on shelves, there are opened cartons placed, enticingly, here and there…and the nice lady at the desk said to please feel free to look through; they just hadn’t had a chance to unpack.

It’s a capacious place, so there’s plenty of exploration room. There were two other people shopping, a young Amish couple, and they were totally book-focused, murmuring softly, giving little gasps of excited recognition now and then when they happened on a particular book.

And so in we plunged, into a dangerously alluring place,–a place filled with potential treasure.

And I found wonderful things—fat beach read books, an omnibus of George MacDonald’s novels, a book of essays by a writer that I often love…but sometimes don’t. Those essays were about the books that changed that writer’s life. (I can’t resist a book like that; I think each of us should write a memoir called My Life in Books.) I grabbed a large-print book by Fannie Flagg, too, thinking I’d read it, then send it on to my favorite romance reader.

And there were tempters, there, too; I had to be stern with myself. Do you really NEED that? Cautionary Self would question, severely, and several times, Oh, FINE, Impulsive Self would respond, a little rudely, and reluctantly put a book back.

So that was a 45-minute odyssey, and I surfaced thinking, Oh, gosh; I hope Jim’s not bored. I found him in the sci-fi fantasy section, three huge omnibus volumes cradled in his left arm. He was pulling another off the shelf with his right hand, and when he turned to look at me, there were candles in his eyes.

“They have a GREAT selection here,” he said. “I just need a few more minutes.”

So I found a padded, straight-backed but comfortable, chair and started reading the writer’s essays about the books that buoyed him along. I think we were about two hours, total, in that bookstore, before we rung up our cache, thanked the bookstore lady, and left.

We took our haul home, and Jim immediately disappeared into the basement to rearrange his fantasy bookshelves again, to welcome the newcomers and fit them in. And I got dinner organized, on that gray afternoon, and then took the essays to the reading chair and read until Mark came in the back door.

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Yesterday, I found a voice mail telling me that the book I’d requested at the library was in; I picked James up at work, and he thought a library trip sounded interesting, and so we went there. And I came home with three more books—fascinating books, recommended, requested books, and I put them with the bookshop haul, and I had that comfortable feeling of shelves stocked, riches in store, for some time to come.

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And this morning, I woke up (much too early, at 5 a.m., to be precise, because I had neglected to turn sleep schedule off when I quelled yesterday’s alarm), and I mooched down into a foggy morning, made the coffee, checked the calendar, and realized: there’s nothing, really, scheduled for this day.

So I chatted with Mark over my coffee and his tea, and James got up and showered, popping downstairs perky and raring to go. Mark went off to work and to meet an old friend for a noon time meal.

The fog burned off, and James and I went to the college campus and walked off in different directions, circling the two colleges, meeting, finally, back at the car, refreshed and energized.

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And I come home to mix up some cookie dough, from a recipe in a cookbook borrowed from the library where James works. It’s a gluten-free baking book, and the author recommends his chocolate chip cookies as the recipe to start with, so that’s what I will do. I strap the book onto the wooden book rest James gave me for Mother’s Day; it rests, wide open and impervious to all the messes baking brings on my kitchen counter.

I have ordered the exotic flours the author calls on me to use—sorghum flour and potato starch, oat flour and xanthan gum and almond meal. This cool and beautiful morning is a time to try something new, so I whisk together dry ingredients in a big metal bowl, stir melted butter and sugar in the stand mixer, add in the eggs and vanilla and finally the powdery stuff; when that’s almalgamated, I pour in an array of chocolate—semisweet and milk chocolate chips, and a handful of plain M&M’s.

And then, the recipe tells me, put the dough into the refrigerator. This is essential, I read, for the liquids to be absorbed by the grains; if I don’t do it, I’ll have a flattened cookie mess.

I cover the bowl obediently, move some scattered cold food, stow it in the fridge.

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Something wonderful happened in the past couple of weeks: after having given up on the quest, I found a gluten-free pasta that has the exact taste and texture I’ve been craving. I bought a kind of sampler, and, impressed by the thin spaghetti noodles and the penne pasta, I ordered some elbows, as well.

So today, in the empty space where I thought I’d be spooning cookie dough onto trays, sliding trays into the oven, slipping baked cookies onto the old pizza pan, and reading in between, I boil some water and cook up some elbows. I am excited: I am making pasta salad with tuna today, one of my all-time favorite summer treats…and one I thought, when I couldn’t find a tasty gluten-free noodle, I’d have to give up for good.

I put some eggs on to hard boil, too, and while I do that, a FedEx truck pulls up to the carport, and the very nice driver starts sliding huge boxes out.

I run out to help; some boxes are REALLY heavy, the driver tells me. The others are light. Between the two of us, we neatly stack the equipment Mark will need this weekend to build us an enclosed, raised bed for our tomatoes. The chicken wire that rises five feet above the base of the raised beds will deter the deer.

Deer-proof raised beds! Excited, I run in to share the news with the Cordell tomato seedlings sunning on the windowsill in the family room: soon, kids, you’ll be big enough to play outside!

I think I have two dozen plants this year, and some Roma tomato seeds just starting; I imagine burgeoning plants and wonderful red sauces, and tomatoes stewed and frozen and ready to help me make sauce on frigid winter days…

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And, as soon as the sealer people arrive and get to work on the driveway, James and I plan to have lunch at a little bistro in town, one he’s never visited, but that promises a wonderful burger he can build himself. And then I’ll come home and bake those cookies, mix up the salads, and settle into the reading chair. My biggest issue today will be this: What should I read first?

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The world hasn’t changed; desperate problems have not disappeared; no tragedies have been undone. But I am both centered and grounded by this take-it-as-it-comes day. I realize this: sometimes I need a block of time with no external obligations. I need a day that I can steer—not, necessarily, a sit-on-my-butt kind of day; just a day when I make my own decisions. A day with books vibrating on the shelf and cookie dough ready to be baked and the promise of sun-drenched tomatoes untrammeled by our deer friends.

Every once in a while—maybe MORE than once in a while—I need an unscheduled day.

Coming Home from Otherworld

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

–Ernest Hemingway

I have this image that won’t go away. It’s of a tall, broad, tired-looking woman; her long hair is sloppily tied back—a gray, lank ponytail—and she wear a sort of shapeless linen shift. She is standing near the edge of a cliff, overlooking the sea. She is watching ships as they slowly approach the shore, and as they come closer, she grows more animated. The possibilities—the people or the goods or the news—of what those those ships may bring seem to excite her.

Then she sees a plane, and then she hears it, because it’s coming closer. It will land at the airport near her. The woman puts a finger into the air, traces the plane’s path. Her tired face is transformed now, glowing. Between the ships and that plane: what wonders may arrive?

Behind her, children play. She is meant to watch those children, and she’s forgetting. They are playing with dangerous things: fragile glass, pointed sticks. One finds a knife under a bush and shouts.

A baby crawls toward her, awkwardly, not exactly on target. That baby is headed right to the cliff.

Suddenly, the woman seems to come back to herself; she lurches around and gasps. She must grab the baby of course, but the child with the knife is toddling off on unsteady feet.

Her attention’s been elsewhere, and now there’s real danger right where she is.

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My attention always seems to be drawn to Otherworld these days,—to Otherworld where everything is better. In Otherworld, the bookstores have more books and big soft chairs, and the staff WANT me to sit down and read. Spend the whole afternoon if you want, they say! In Otherworld, I grab three memoirs from the New Books section, and I settle in…

…The coffee shops are better in Otherworld, too. They always brew amazing, rich, dark decaf, and my favorite chair and table are always waiting for me. The baristas are welcoming and friendly—but not too friendly, if you know what I mean: they don’t demand conversation or over-inquire. But they remember my favorites; they have an array of gluten-free goodies on offer. They make sure I am comfortable, that my order is hot, fresh, just right,–and then they smile and leave me to finish the book I bought in the Otherworld book shop.

In Otherworld, everyone is tapped into their creativity, and there’s no pandemic; houses, shops, parks, and yards are decorated on a spectrum that ranges from very clever to awe-inspiring. Their theater has the BEST movies, new and old; their auditorium hosts amazing acts. I can swim at the vast pool in Otherworld, and there are incredible hiking trails.

If I’m feeling sociable, my favorite peeps are in Otherworld, too, but I can also have unlimited quiet time there.

By the way, the food is amazing in Otherworld—sometimes cooked by me, sometimes eaten at one of the hundreds of absolutely amazing restaurants. And I am THIN in Otherworld, no matter how much I indulge.

In Otherworld, I still have my job that I love, but I am so full of energy that I spin words into essays and stories and reviews every day, so I work as a writer, too.

If only I could stay in Otherworld…everything would be delightful.

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I see Otherworld all the time—on Facebook and Instagram; on Goodreads; on Internet searches. My gaze is fixed on it: fixed outward. Like the woman on the cliff, sometimes I forget what’s going on in Real World until an incident has become an emergency.

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It is good to think globally; it really is. But I need to live locally, too.

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There are kids in my town who need help. And there are people doing their best to help them.

I know a woman, for instance, who’s mentored a girl through Big Brothers Big Sisters for close to 15 years. When they were matched, the child had never left the county where she was born. She lived in poverty, and she thought the woman’s ordinary house was a palace.

The girl has a family, mind you: one that loves her. It was her family members who signed her up, got her a “Big”—they knew she was smart; they wanted her to have the opportunities they knew were out there. They just didn’t have any idea of how to open those doors.

The woman spent time with the girl, helped her with homework, talked to her about her strengths and talents. Once in a while, they’d take a ride to another city, or to some sort of destination—just to see what was out there, just to realize all those things were accessible to the girl, too. They played sports and they talked about all kinds of challenging (but not insurmountable) problems.

They celebrated successes.

The woman helped the girl’s family with things like filling out a FAFSA, visiting colleges, and applying for admission.

The girl is a college senior now, doing a professional internship this summer, poised, professional, and excited about the future. She’s excited for herself, and she’s excited for her family, who supported her; her success can change all of their lives.

The only way to know what difference the woman who is the “Big Sister” made is hardly ethical…give one kid a Sister, let the other kid work it through without. (Although, now that I think about it, our society does let a lot of kids figure it out for themselves, every day, despite the best efforts of caring teachers, guidance counselors, pastors, coaches, and other professionals.) We can’t prove that the woman helped that girl get to where she is.

But that strong, caring relationship must have been a factor.

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I have told this story before, I know, but it seems relevant here. When Mark was in law school, I belonged to a book club through the library of a little town nearby. They read unique and fascinating books, and one summer we were discussing Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line. As a tiny child, Williams believed he was white; his father, explaining his dark good looks, said his family was of Italian descent. But when Williams was very young, his parents split up. He and his brother went with his father to Muncie, Indiana, where, to Gregory’s shock, he found out his dad, and his dad’s family, was Black.

The boy’s life was more than challenging. There was poverty, there was neglect; there was violence and abuse. But one thing didn’t waver: the father, even when incapacitated by addiction, always told Gregory that he could succeed, that the boy had the intelligence and the drive to make something of himself. He didn’t always tell his son that nicely, but the belief was out there.

Gregory Williams went on to earn his doctorate; he served as president of the University of Cincinnati and of New York’s City College.

My book club read that book and talked about it at the same time as Mark was interning with a local judge. The judge had to deal with a horrendous case. A young man and his friend decided to shake down a crack house. When they got there, the house’s owners had company; I am surely remembering this imperfectly, but I think there may have been seven people there, including a dad with a two-year-old, and a girl who was just budding into her teen years.

The young man and his friend wanted drugs and they wanted money. They lined up all the people in the house and shot them. The miracle, I guess, is that all the people weren’t killed, but that two-year-old baby was, and the girl just blossoming into young womanhood was too.

Of course, the killers ran, but they didn’t get far before they were apprehended. There wasn’t much doubt that they were guilty; their trials went quickly.

Then it came time for the judge to decide the first young man’s sentence. The death penalty was a possible outcome; this was not a decision lightly taken. Mark sat through the hearings that led to the decisions, and he came home and described what he’d heard.

The young shooter’s early story sounded so much like the college president’s early days, except for one thing: no one told the young killer that they believed in him. No one said he could do better, that he had a future. Instead, Mark reported, the young man’s grandmother said he’d been smacked around since he was a baby, that no one took the time to raise him.

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I believe strongly in the strengths-based philosophy: I believe that each person has significant strengths, and that the goal should be to find those strengths and develop them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each child had the wherewithal to discover their gifts, early on, and then to strengthen them, hone them, experiment with all the different ways those gifts could bloom into fruition—into a happy life where, despite normal stresses and annoyances, that child grows into an adult who loves the work they do?

In fact, I think that’s my definition of utopia: a world where each person is fully actualized. Imagine. Just imagine the power of that.

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I think, though, that a lot of kids don’t find that spark, early on; they don’t open a door and discover something that imprints: click! The click! is the moment the child knows: I will work with animals/help sick people/run experiments/do something with numbers/make cars run so that they hum/teach children to read/play piano/play baseball…or whatever it is, that firm cable of commitment and fascination.

I worry that some kids, unconnected to a strength, go looking for it in Otherworld. These days, the easiest way to get to Otherworld is electronically. And there’s a lot of misleading communication out there.

What if an untethered kid finds the wrong place to tether, online? What if a predator latches on? And what if nobody knows about it in Realworld?

Then we’re like the woman in that image of mine: we’re standing on the cliff, looking outward, looking to Otherworld, while the child right behind us is in danger.

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There is so much to be done, so many broken things, in this world of ours. There are solutions to the horrors we endure that seem obvious to people from other countries, looking in. And we need to right laws, we need controls, we need national leadership. We need to work toward that.

But it doesn’t all happen there, in some big arena, far away. And all that big arena stuff doesn’t all happen NOW. Those wheels grind awfully slowly.Now, maybe I can do something on my own patch, right where I am: I can’t fix everything, but I can support my family in using their strengths; I can try to put my strengths into play at work; and I can find a way to reach out, or maybe to enable someone else who’s better at it to reach out, to that one kid who may need someone to say to her, “You are an amazing artist! Let’s frame that picture.”

I can stop peering into Otherworld quite so much and start looking around my own little patch. Today is a good day to start, I think; I might just go mooch around one of the used bookstores here in town, and follow that up with a trip to a new coffee shop that just opened, after I send an email to a woman  I know whose organization helps a whole lot of kids. Maybe there’s a volunteer slot there that’s kind of me-shaped.

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Do you have a story of how one young person was helped by a one person who believed in them? If you do, and want to share it, I would love to post it here…


 

Friendly Market. Friendly Town.

This week, I have been walking with memories.

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First, there is Buffalo.

I remember Christmastime shopping trips, packed into the old Buick, a car as sturdy and graceful as a tank.  I remember us driving to Buffalo as snow fell thick and silent.

To Buffalo! To our Big City! Where we would look at the displays in the Hens and Kelly windows and the Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson windows, see animatronic doodads spinning, hear music piping. Snowflakes and tinsel and ice skates and red, red velvet.

And inside, escalators. Escalators! The magic of that. And the magic of a more polyglot people than my small town offered, bustling, chattering, an enchanted mix of faces and hues and shapes and accents…it was a crowd, it was a place, where anything was possible.

Buffalo was crazy potential.

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And Buffalo was steel-strong roots. My parents, as we drove, would tell us stories.

The Sheas, my father said, who owned the theaters—they were some kind of cousins on the Irish side. (Oh, that theater, my mother interjected. Sometime, we’ll go to a movie there just so you can see it. Velvet ropes. Chandeliers. The glamour and the glitz. I pictured it, and I couldn’t wait for sometime to come, although it never did quite arrive.)

Not that, Dad continued, being cousins meant anything. We still had to sneak in to see the movies.

How’d you do that, Dad? someone asked, fascinated, from the back seat. Dad’s eyes sparkled. 

Jim, my mother said, that warning in her voice.

My father cleared his throat and laughed and drove the car.

When we were first married, my mother might say, we would walk downtown in Buffalo at night—just walk and walk. It was safe and no one bothered us, although people would say hello.

We drove through busy downtown Buffalo, through streets lined with art deco buildings, and past rawer, newer builds, through pavement bustling with people, and through car-filled streets.

I would erase the people and the cars from the picture in my mind, darken the stage lights, and place my young parents on those pavements. In those days, they loved to dress up (I knew this from photographs), and I would have my father in a broad-shouldered jacket, dark shirt, pleated slacks. My mother would wear some kind of frothy dress and, maybe, spectator pumps.

In a time before heartbreak and disappointments, they would bump shoulders, laugh, lace fingers, and greet the people they passed.

Buffalo. City of neighbors.

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City of family, too: we would go to visit cousins, go to play in the big driveway of the house they shared with a dentist’s office. We would marvel at how tiny the yards were, how close together the houses.

We were jealous of their quick walk to the corner store, the jingling ice cream vendor’s van that cruised the neighborhoods.

Once, when I was very young, maybe four or so, my mother took my brother Sean—a baby then—and me on the train to Buffalo. At the bustling trainyard, my Uncle Donald picked us up in a car that seemed flat and long. He drove us slowly and carefully to his house, where we visited with my Aunt Annie.

Aunt Annie’s house was gray-shingled and narrow; the steps to its one bathroom were steep and winding. There was a trunk in the kitchen full of toys.

Framed pictures of proud, kilted Scotsmen hung in the parlor.

Aunt Annie’s house always smelled spicey and good. They ate things there—ground lamb, little cups of orange sherbet—that seemed strange and exotic. There were older cousins there, impossibly glamorous.

I don’t think I said much at Aunt Annie’s, but I loved to go visit.

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

Buffalo was a place, later, to visit friends who went to college there, to put lunches together and backpack over the Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, Canada; to go to bars and restaurants that teemed and bustled with intriguing faces.

Buffalo was Antoinette’s chocolates and Sahlen wieners and real wings from the Anchor Bar.

Buffalo meant rooting for the Bills, staying strong, even in the awful years, and, even harder, in the years they came so close. And the Sabres—the hockey team; the Sabres didn’t always bring our hearts up to the peak and drop them over the precipice. The Sabres—sometimes they WON that cup.

Buffalo was going to see the Bisons, the bush league baseball team (Johnny Bench had been a Bison!), eating hot dogs, watching the Earl of Bud dance on the dugout, waving down the guy who strolled the aisles, yelling, “Get-chuh ice cold BEEE-YAH HEEE-YAH!”

Buffalo was the Albright Knox art gallery, where I always visited Marisol’s The Generals, my favorite statue,–Simon Bolivar and George Washington rode a horse-barrel together. One of them had a finger showing in a very un-generally way. (I read, too, that, while much of the statue is free form, the hands were exact replicas of Marisol’s own.)

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Buffalo was where my parents got the health care they needed, care that wasn’t on offer in our small town. My father had his heart surgery there, in the early days, when the doctor said, “Well, I can tell you it can give you five more years. I can’t say more than that, because we’ve only been doing it for five years.”

He soared through the surgery, Dad did, and the doctors had him walk down the hall to encourage other patients.

A decade after, my mother went to the same hospital for cancer surgeries and follow-up. Time and again, the medicos would shake their heads; time and again she would rally.

After we went to visit her at Buffalo General, we might go to the Anchor Bar, order a huge load of Buffalo wings and pitchers of beer, let the tension crack, crack through the guilt we felt about enjoying something so much right after visiting our terminally ill mother.

They beat the odds, though, again and again, until finally, time ran out for both those Buffalo Depression kids.

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I still go back, when I can, to visit special people, to locate old haunts, to eat at Irish pubs and Italian restaurants, and to visit Mark Twain’s handwritten Huckleberry Finn manuscript, shining under glass in the main branch of the Buffalo Public Library. It’s regularly turned to a new page. Twain and Livy lived there once; their son, Langdon, was born in Buffalo, too.

Buffalo is history—personal and shared; Buffalo is arts and sports and change.

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And then there is Tops Friendly Market. I worked at a Tops, in high school, in college, even, for a while, in grad school. I worked in the deli; I sliced huge loaves of luncheon meats, making sure the stacks burgeoned behind sparkling glass, and the refrigerated storage spaces below were stocked enough to cover the busy bouts. I learned about cheeses and sausage and how to mix a huge vat of ham salad.

It WAS a friendly market; I had special customers. They would take a number, which they would trade with someone else if one of my deli colleagues called them earlier. I would take care with their orders, make sure their ham wasn’t fatty, laugh at their bologna jokes, and look forward to seeing them next week.

It WAS a friendly market, despite the barrel-shaped manager who scared us.

“Can you SMILE?” he growled at everyone during their entry interview, and we would bare our teeth in horrible grins.

“Not like THAT,” he’d say, and shake his head, but he hired us anyway, and we learned how to smile at the customers all on our own.

Later, I moved on over to the meat room, where I learned, as I opened huge boxes of leg quarters, packing them in ten pound bags, about the desperate, clammy coldness of chicken parts. I learned to tap packaged clams on their open shells in the morning, determining if they were live clams or dead ones.

I learned, too, about what makes a good cut of meat; Richard, the British butcher, would instruct us in his lovely accent.

“See here?” he’d say, pointing to a section of a chuck steak (some weeks, chuck steak was 69 cents a pound, and I would buy three or four to take home, cut up, and cram into the tiny freezer in my efficiency apartment). “This is the same muscle as a filet. You can cut that apart and make yourself a nice little treat.”

I joked that, no matter how thoroughly I washed my hands, dogs followed me when I walked from that job to my apartment. But no job is without its education; I earned a lot of practical knowledge, and I made a lot of friends, at Tops Friendly Markets.

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And then there is Mark, staring at his phone, reading me words I don’t want to hear, about a shooter who traveled 200 miles to the City of Neighbors, bent on human destruction in a Friendly Market.

“No,” I say to him. “No way.”

The Tops Market that shooter targeted is just down the way from the street where our grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents lived for 40 years, my brother Sean, who writes for the Buffalo News, texts me.

That killer came to Buffalo, where, in the worst of snowstorms, people shovel each other out, push cars to safety, share shelter.

No, no. no.

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Mass murder in Buffalo.

I have a new “Big City” these days. I cannot claim this as “my” tragedy: I’ve never looked into those eyes that are now forever closed; the shuttered store is not MY friendly market. The sadness I feel is nothing to the grief that shudders along Jefferson Avenue and radiates outward into the city itself.

But what occurs to me, more viscerally with this latest mass murder, is that the grief and the aftermath does radiate out to all of us, like ripples in a murky pool; that senseless violence, no matter where it takes place, injures us all.

We say things like, “This has to stop.”

How do we stop it? Can the potential for mindless acts of deadly destruction be countered by mindful acts of loving creation?

What steps do we take, moving upward, moving forward—not moving the other way?

My heart aches for Buffalo, and for the people that much-loved city lost last week. My heart aches for ALL the places and all the losses.

And I don’t know what to do.

A Good Day To…

There’s one bird chirping, a sad, snippy, repetitive chirp,—a chirp that says, maybe, “You made me fly back from Florida for THIS?” The sky is gray; rivulets run down either side of the street, and the rivulets are pa-pinged by the insistent fall of a relentless Friday rain.

It’s a day for a hot breakfast. We pull the last of the ham chunks from the freezer, chop them up, and sauté them while the eggs are beaten frothy. The eggs join the ham in the big skillet; I grate sharp, hard cheese.

The omelet cooks quickly; before it’s quite done, I sprinkle the cheese in, flip it folded, turn the heat to very, very low, and put the old, dented aluminum lid on top. Within a minute, we have cheese ooze. The toaster dings, and Mark pulls out his bread, nicely charred—Zanghified, we call it. The boy likes a little carbon on his toast.

Jim clatters downstairs, and his eyes light up at the thought of an eggy hot breakfast. We share up the omelet, sit at the table, let the rain serenade our morning meal.

And then the boyos are off, Mark dashing out the backdoor to the carport, holding a file over his head, Jim scurrying down the front walk to the minibus that picks him up.

Doors slam on both sides of the house, and a certain quiet settles in.

I had thought of taking my umbrella and walking outside, but the streets flow and the ground, in this weird-weather week, is sodden. (This week, I got caught in a hailstorm on the drive home from the library. The sky was split in two: one half was a normal, cloud-scudded sky, with even a little blue peeking through; the other half pushed along a curled wave of murky white clouds, like the roller on an old-fashioned window shade. Beyond the roller, the sky was black and roiling.

“Let me get home; just let me get home,” I muttered or prayed, but five minutes away from my house, the roller shade surged overhead, and rain started pelting. It was pelting sideways, and I felt a clutch of fear, waiting five cars deep at a light.

By the time I moved forward, the rain had turned to hail, and the lights in the houses and restaurants on the street I normally take were snuffed out. Blind traffic lights swung crazily, and I took the first left turn, hoping that the side streets might somehow be more protected.

The hail was big. It pounded the roof and the hood and the sides of my car: POCKPOCKPOCK…an overwhelming and frightening noise. I thought once of stopping to wait out the siege, but I was afraid the hail would break my windows…and there was no getting out of the car to run.

I crept along, crunching the hail beneath my tires, struggling to see. In one part of the street, the skeleton of a trailer—the kind you pull a boat on, maybe—rocked back and forth in the righthand lane, escaped from its weighted perch, no doubt. Turning around was not an option; I nudged as close to the far side of the street as I could and, blessedly, didn’t scratch against the errant thing.

“Just let me get home,” I implored again, and somehow, I did, catching my breath in the carport before dashing to the back door. There was a cascade sluicing off the roof of our little back entry; hail was piling in glistening heaps. In the ten seconds it took to run inside, I was drenched and battered. And safely thankful.

What a storm. Mark’s car was parked outside while he worked; my little car suffered through the hail on the ride home. They are pockmarked, both cars, but we are the lucky ones. Friends lost windows in their houses and chunks of roofs or siding. The power went out in bizarre and random, patternless fashion. Across the street, our neighbors’ houses were dark until the deep of  night. Our power never flickered.  

So lucky. And so completely intimidated by the rage of nature unleashed.)

But now it’s Friday, and the rain is vertical, relentless, but gentler. Still, even with an umbrella, it’s not weather to walk outdoors. I grab my five-pound dumbbells and I march around the house for ten minutes. It’s a day to walk inside.

It is a day to do laundry, too. I go downstairs to throw in a load of towels, and then I open the new upright freezer by the basement steps. It is frigid and pristine inside, having chilled all night; I move the food from the old chest freezer—bought, probably, 15 years or more ago. It has been a good little chiller, but these days, the mechanism that holds the lid up is weakened. So I stick my head in, rootling for the pork chops I need, the pork chops that are, inevitably, on the very bottom of the freezer, under the turkey breast and the beef roasts, under bags of peas and broccoli and containers of frozen chicken stock.

And, as I rustle around, the lid gets gleeful. “This is fun!” it says. “Let’s wrassle!”

And it slams down on the bumpy, bony, back part of my neck. I yell words I won’t write here, and I smack the little freezer with chunks of frozen meat, which doesn’t help at all.

But: we waited out the supply chain freezer issues, and now we have our reward.

Now I can open the freezer door and see exactly where the pizzas are, or the bags of berries, the cool whip containers, or the sausage patties.

I empty out the little freezer and the even smaller freezer over the downstairs refrigerator, and I stand back to admire the space and organization of the new appliance.

Today, this rainy day, is a good day to be thankful for little, oddball things.

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It’s a day to use things up, too. James and I went on our bi-monthly trip to Sam’s Club yesterday. We brought home cases of canned tomatoes and kidney beans, big cases of vinegar jugs, industrial sized boxes of cereal, and a great big vat of spring greens. Goodies, somehow, crept into the oversized shopping cart, too, and when we got home, I stood on the stool to put M&M’s on top of the cupboard, and I marveled that we have an old, opened container with M&M’s still left in it after a two-month lapse.

This morning I decide to use up that aging candy. I’ll make peanut butter oatmeal cookies, a lovely cookie that contains nary a drop of wheat. I clipped the recipe from a newspaper many, many years ago. A long time passed before I used it; I just had no faith that these cookies would hold together, be a treat.

The trick, though, is to let the mixture settle for an hour; then, I think, the oats drink in the moisture and expand, and the cookies plump up perfectly. This is not an “Okay for a gluten-free recipe” cookie; this is a cookie everyone in the house just loves.

While the dough settles, I check email and switch laundry over, and march around the house some more. Then I preheat the oven and plop sticky, chocolate-studded doughballs onto cookie sheets; when the oven’s ding announces its readiness, I slide two trays into the oven, and wander away.

Soon the scent of hot, sweetened peanut butter floats richly into all the corners. I sit at the dining room table, reading a book about life in Hong Kong; I am there, and I am marveling. Then I am here, and I am switching cookie sheets, then flippering hot cookies onto the giant pizza pan where they settle and cool.

I eat a hot cookie; the oven chiggers and sighs its hot nutty breath, and I grab the dumbbells and march around the house for another ten minutes.

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I discovered, when I moved chunks of frigid food from old freezer to new, that we still had a piece of beef brisket. And this is a perfect day, I think, to have a braise, a long, slow, moist cooking; the result a tender, almost shredded chunk of meat to serve up on mashed potatoes.

I settle in with recipe books and decide to use Alice Waters’ method in The Art of Simple Food. That process, she writes, “combines the best of roasting and braising into one method to produce a meltingly tender, mouthwatering golden roast with a rich deeply flavorful sauce.”

We had bought a huge chunk of brisket, cut it into manageable portions, and eagerly anticipated the feasts we would concoct. But our first foray, involving smoking and barbecue, left us sadly disappointed.  The meat was tough and stringy.

The next time out, we tried a long, slow braise—guided by Alice Waters—and the result was fork-tender and amazing.

Today—this rain-softened gray day,—is the perfect day for a patient braise. I pull down the roasting pot, and I defrost beef broth.

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And the rain falls, and I grab towels, hot from the dryer, fold them into neat squares and rectangles—such a simple, soul-satisfying job. Now the house is scented with a rich, beefy smell, and I grab the five pound weights and walk some more, noticing…

  • The goodie bag Jim brought home from his TRiO orientation, with a T-shirt, a custom notebook and pen, and a plastic vial of hand sanitizer;
  • The goofy game Matt forgot to take home with him when he visited, a game he picked up for 94 cents at a Goodwill store, and I spy a box it would just fit into;
  • The gleeful, joyful, tomato plants, seeds from last year’s bounty surging into life;
  • A stack of books, some library, some ‘home’ books. (Jim texts from work to pass on a recommendation from his boss, Janelle, who has found tasty gluten-free chocolate chip cookies at Trader Joe’s in Easton, and he ends by writing, “You should grab a book and a cup of coffee and sit in the chair and read!”)

I think that Jim gives good advice.

Tomatoes plants are raring to go…

It is a day to enjoy the slow roast, the hum of the dryer, the taste of a fresh-baked cookie, and the rain-mandated diffusion of pressure,—a ‘count my blessings’ kind of day when ordinary and homely things snap into clear focus, reminding me that humble, humdrum parts of life are pretty important, too.

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Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

(I clipped this recipe from the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch many, many years ago. It was submitted by Miriam Beachy.)

½ cup butter, softened

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

¾ cup crunchy peanut butter

2 teaspoons vanilla

2-1/4 cups quick-cooking oats

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

8 to 12 ounces M&M’s or butterscotch chips

–Cream butter, sugars, eggs, and peanut butter. Beat in vanilla, oats, and baking soda.

–Stir in peanuts and M&M’s.

–LET MIXTURE STAND AT LEAST ONE HOUR. (If it’s left to stand longer, please refrigerate.)

–Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drop dough by tablespoonsful onto greased cookie sheets. Bake for about 12 minutes.

What We Eat; The Recipes We Share

Losing a beloved family heirloom is a very real, personal loss; they’re things that cannot ever be replaced or re-created. But perhaps the most precious heirlooms are family recipes.

—Stanley Tucci, Taste

Really men DO eat quiche—we had it for dinner last night, and I watched the boyos, real men both, down two thick, steaming, cheesy slabs each.

I had been thinking we had leftover Easter ham in the freezer when I stumbled on the idea of quiche for dinner, and I’d been wanting to experiment with making pie crust from gluten-free flour. Quiche seemed like the perfect way to incorporate the goals of using up leftovers and experimenting with pastry; it seemed a good thing to nosh on, too, on a kind of chilly Thursday night.

I followed a traditional one-crust pie dough recipe, substituting my “1:1” flour. The pastry mixed up just fine; it rolled out pretty cooperatively, too, on my flour-dusted Tupperware pie-crust-rolling cloth. But when I picked it up to slide it into the pie pan, the crust crumbled. I wound up patting it in place, chunk by shattered chunk. I smushed it together as seamlessly as I could, and I covered it with a couple of layers of thick aluminum foil; it baked while I mixed up the quiche filling.

And we DIDN’T have any leftover ham; that Easter ham was so good we devoured it within a few days, making sandwiches and omelets and fried egg and ham breakfasts. We had some deli ham, though, so I rolled up a couple of slices, and used the new knife Mark got me for Christmas—a knife so finely honed, it’s a dangerous weapon in mindless hands; my thumb is healing nicely, though—to chop them up fine.

The ham went into the batter, and I grated up some “Emmi” Swiss and some Dublin cheddar, and I tossed those shreds in my gluten free flour, and then I pulled the crust from the oven (“Pour the filling into a HOT crust,” my recipe admonishes). I stirred the cheese into the batter. Then I poured the batter into the crust, which was brown and a little lumpy, but still, it looked appetizing enough…and it was sizzling hot.

And while the quiche baked, we threw together little side salads, and Mark sliced up chunks of the sesame seed-topped pave’ bread (I bought it for him on Wednesday, after he had one of those knock-‘em-out procedures at the hospital—the kind of procedure men of a certain age seem wont to encounter, and often need cheering up after. Mark did very well; the cheering maybe wasn’t even necessary, but he surely liked the bread.)

The quiche, perhaps fueled by half-and-half instead of insipid skimmed milk, thickened up beautifully. A gluten free meal it was, even if a light one it was not, and Jim said he really LIKED the crust. Not just, “This is okay, considering,” but, “I LIKE this crust!”

So that was a little triumph.

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After dinner, after washing up, after we went for a little walk around the shady grounds of the Helen Purcell home, we watched the newest episode of Julia on HBO Max. This week, Julia Child went to New York City for a PBS awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria, and she got thoroughly dissed at least three times during the trip. Julia had lunch with her editor, Judith Jones, and with Blanche Knopf, Judith’s boss. Knopf made it clear that she found Julia’s fascination with and appreciation for food trifling.

Then the authentic French chef came out to be cosseted and admired by Knopf, and Julia introduced herself. The chef admitted to knowing who she was, and he took her hand and told her to leave the real cooking to the men who were oh so much more capable of doing it.

That night, at the gala dinner, Julia encountered Betty Friedan. The character was compelled to tell Julia that she was an intellectual lightweight, and that her show was contributing to women’s imprisonments in their homes and kitchens.

In the show, the impact of those three negative encounters is shattering for Julia Child. Did they really happen? They COULD have, my internet search tells me, but not for sure. The dressings-down are well dramatized, and they are unsettling enough that I am composing arguments FOR Julia Child in my head.

“Look,” I say, “whose philosophy stood the test of time!” and, “Certainly, because  of Julia, in part, we appreciate food more now, and the cooking and appreciation of it is every gender’s responsibility…women are not chained to their convection ovens…”

Julia is right to advocate appreciation of wonderful food at home, I muse, as I wander off at 8:30 or so, to soak in a tub and read Stanley Tucci’s Taste: My Life Through Food. It’s here that I encounter Tucci’s quote about recipes being the very best of heirlooms, and that gets me thinking.

Julia Child’s recipes are certainly a legacy; I made her scalloped potatoes for the first time this Easter. They are much easier and faster than the recipe I had been wont to use, and Jim absolutely loved them.

And as I read Tucci’s book, I think that every family creates its own culture, and a big part of culture is food.

What kind of food culture do WE have? Do we have heirloom quality recipes?  Does quiche in a gluten-free crust count?

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Mark’s family of birth, much like the warm Italian family Tucci was raised in, has a definite culinary culture. His father, Angelo, loved to cook, and he and Pat, Mark’s mom, collaborated on many a meal. They were famous for their red sauce, which most always had meatballs the size of baseballs in it. It might also have Italian sausage, pork, or ham hocks, slow-simmered and succulent. They would scoop the meat onto large platters and pour the sauce into sturdy pitchers, one for each end of the table. There’d be hefty bowls of pasta that passed around, and sliced crusty bread, and people who weren’t used to the meal would breathe in the fragrant steam, taste, sigh, and sink into flavor-induced ecstasy.

Lasagna at Christmas, when Mark was growing up, was another amazing feast. Mark’s dad made fritters, in spring and summer, with dandelions or nettles. And some concoctions, cooked up in Lent, I couldn’t always cotton to: sardines and boiled eggs in the red sauce, and a clear soup with olives in it—olives that bobbed to the surface like the eyeballs bobbed in Kathleen Turner’s soup, in, I think, the banquet scene in Temple of Doom.

Loved recipes, unloved recipes—still, Mark’s family had a food culture and definite heirloom recipes. We emulate the red sauce these days, although we seldom start with whole tomatoes; we use canned spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, and tomato sauce, herbs from the backyard, garlic and onion, minced, and whatever kinds of meat are on hand: meatballs, maybe, made with ground beef and pork from Rittberger’s butcher shop, fat links of hot Italian sausage, the leftover bone from a Sunday pork roast… It may not quite meet the sublime levels of Mark’s parents’ sauce, but it is thick and hearty and very, very good.

So that, maybe, is an heirloom recipe. That’s one for the box.

And, building on my brother Dennis’ wisdom (“Good chili,” Dennis said, “always starts with good spaghetti sauce”), we make some mean chili. That could maybe be considered an heirloom recipe,–an heirloom technique, at least–too.

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On my side, the culinary history was maybe not so rich. My father grew up half in orphanages, half at his father’s house, mostly when he was old enough to contribute—and when his father had married a much younger third wife. She was so young, she’d had little time to learn to cook, and dinner, my father remembered, often was fresh-cut bologna and a loaf of white bread from the corner store.

My father went from that table to the Army, where he didn’t get much chance to experiment with fine cooking; he had the opportunity, though, to learn that he didn’t much like Spam.

My mother was half-orphaned, too, and she remembers her Aunties thriftily cooking up the cheap cuts from the butcher shop. They’d make, for instance, Mom would recall, kidneys, and the house would smell like steaming urine, and she would wander off to find a better option—there were so many children in the extended family, and so many family members’ homes peppered along the same street, that no one much noticed when one kid didn’t show up for a kidney dinner.

There is one recipe for an oatmeal cookie that my mother passed down. It is kind of a sweet oat cake; it has a dry dough that must be flattened with a fork, and it’s almost as rich as shortbread. I think that may be one of her mother’s cookie recipes…and my grandmother, who died when my mother was three, is said to have been famous for her always-full cookie jar, and her always-scrumptious cookies.

Together, my parents favored a meat and potatoes cuisine; the meat and the potatoes both would often be fried. The meat would certainly be fully cooked; those Depression kids had had horror of trichinosis firmly instilled into their tender hearts. Roast beef, baked chicken, pork chops: what we knew about them was that they were chewy; lots of glasses of milk washed that protein down.

What did emerge from my birth family culture were goodies: a holiday sweet dough, rich shortbread cookies, and, of course, Chocolate Fudge Delight. Those recipes, for sure, could be considered heirlooms.

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And then there’s the family we’ve morphed into, and the people and places that have influenced our tastes, the sensitivity to smell and texture that affect the foods that Jim will eat. What dishes, I wonder, what foods can we call our culinary zeniths? We have some tried and true recipes we love—a chicken and rice bake that we make with a bechamel sauce instead of the originally-called-for cream of mushroom soup. There’s a Hungarian goulash recipe we’re fond of. Oh, there’s Alfredo sauce, of course, and we like risotto when I’m in the mood for labor-intensive stirring.

The thing is, though, I feel like we’re still exploring, still evolving. I am much more comfortable, less achy, and more energetic, living in a gluten-free world. I am finding my way; what’s better: gluten-free pasta, or skipping pasta entirely? Thin strips of eggplant are a reasonable substitution for lasagna noodles, and spaghetti squash is lovely baked with red sauce and mozzarella cheese. I am still exploring the world of zoodles, though, and gluten-free pizza crust techniques, and whether there’s any point in gluten free bread, or whether I’m just better off going bread-less, altogether.

Because of this, some old family favorites are fading out of the dinnertime repertoire, and others are being, cautiously, perhaps, added, and sometimes, the three of us eat completely different things.

Lately, too, I’ve been thinking about my meat consumption and how much healthier plant-based eating is both for the human body and for the planet. This is not a shared passion; meat-free eating is not, I believe, ever a practice Mark and Jim will embrace. So I sort through my meat-free cookbooks, and I ponder adapting recipes—adapted for me, though, and served alongside their carnivorous food, and it feels like I am sailing further and further away from developing any kind of rational, unified family culinary culture.

We like stir-fries, for instance, but these days, stir fry instructions might look something like this:

  • Put your rice on to simmer.
  • Slice the boneless chicken as thinly as possible, and sauté in a mixture of olive and sesame oil. When cooked through, put in a covered dish to keep warm.
  • Chop and slice veggies; cook in the same pan as the chicken was cooked in. When crisp-tender, remove from heat.
  • Scoop tender rice onto each plate. On Jim’s, pile slices of chicken. On Pam’s, stack those stir-fried veggies high. On Mark’s, mix the chicken into the veggies and ladle that onto the rice.
  • Pass around various sauces—sweet and sour, hot and tangy, teriyaki…let each apply liberally according to taste.
  • Dig into what are, essentially, three different meals.

Maybe an heirloom recipe is this: let each craft the food according to their own taste.

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

Could our culinary heirloom be confusion?

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

Still, I have five binders full of recipes that Jim has organized for me: some recipes we’ve tried and loved; some adventures are still waiting to be brought to fruition. We flip through those and pick tasty sounding dishes and try to experiment with something brand, spanking new, at least once a month.

Maybe there are culinary heirlooms waiting there to be discovered.

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

Not so long ago, Matt, Mark’s firstborn son, and our youngest granddaughter, Kaelyn, came to visit. I had pulled out some steaks, thinking we’d make fajitas with all kinds of veggies and shredded cheeses and thinly sliced seasoned beef, and everyone could basically compile the meal of their choice. But when I asked Kaelyn if she liked fajitas, she shyly said no; really, she said, what she liked to eat were burgers and chicken fingers and frozen yogurt.

So that night, we went to the steakhouse instead of cooking, and everyone was happy. Matt and I loved the crispy, honey-butter Brussels sprouts; Mark and Jim made gagging noises and ate seared meat. Kaelyn enjoyed her breaded chicken, and afterwards we stopped at the Sweet Frog shop and built our own frozen yogurt sundaes.

Maybe an heirloom recipe could also be this: Go to a restaurant that everyone approves, order what you like, and relax and enjoy the company of these people that you love.

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Beyond a couple of obvious staples, I’m not exactly sure what our heirloom recipes are; maybe we’ll just have a lot of multiple option meals to talk about. What’s important is that we have the chance to share meals with the people we love, the pleasure of seeing them enjoy flavors that make them smile, and the warmth of rich conversation fueled by real interest in what the other has to say.

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I think that’s what Stanley Tucci is saying in his book; I think that’s what Julia Child was trying to tell the world, and why her teaching reverberates long after she herself is gone. Sharing food IS important; what food that might be is personal and unique to each of us. Maybe the true, perfect heirloom recipe is this: eat food that makes you smile in the company of people you love.