Culture · Pandemic · Teaching

all for want of a puzzle

Well, team, here we are. Two months yesterday I got an email saying, “Pack up your laptop and essentials. You’ll be teaching from home next week.” Two months since life was something I recognized, and two months since Corona was just a crappy beer I didn’t like.

The past two months have been just plain hard, and being trapped on Emily Island has been no picnic, believe you me. Feeling off, being out-of-sorts, muddling along, and being a bit down have been common themes of “the new normal.”

I cried a lot. I was angry a lot. I wandered around aimlessly a lot. And I kept coming full circle, thinking, Why? I have no right to feel this way. So many other folks are so much worse off than I am. How can I possibly be so mad about the fact I am out of parsley? And yes, while this was true, knowing it did nothing to ebb the vague, gnawing sadness that seemed to color everything, or prevent me from feelings of cavernous loss. There are few things worse, I think, than mourning something you can’t quite put your finger on. It was terrible.

Then about two weeks ago, a horrible, cataclysmic thing happened that brought everything to a head:

Two puzzles I ordered on Amazon in the last week in March and which I had been awaiting for a month were delivered to the wrong city.

I know, you’re thinking, “Well, that isn’t so bad. I thought someone lost their job or died or something.” But let me tell you. In that moment, those puzzles were everything. I was so upset, I couldn’t see straight. In the span of about two hours, I found out that you can’t call Amazon right now (there is no one answering their help line), I couldn’t email them because coming from an “independent seller” I had to contact this party myself, and the tracking numbers told me that the puzzles were simultaneously on my doorstep, on their way to Madison, and still somewhere in Indiana (depending on which device I was on at the time). I was basically up a creek without a paddle. And I was furious.

After a rather…hm, shall we say…spirited exchange with the Vulcan in which he got a crash course in a good way not to try to console me (poor man), I was sitting on the sofa, sobbing about these puzzles and feeling really quite silly (which made me even more angry), and I was struck by a sudden epiphany. My meltdown was (shock of shocks) not really about my puzzles.

I was, at my core, upset, because I am terrible at everything my job is currently asking of me. I hate writing and replying to emails. I don’t know how to “digitally connect” with my students to make them engage and do what they need to. I don’t like staring at a screen for hours on end. I dislike not being able to interpret the subtext of what my students are saying in between the lines, because I cannot see their faces. No part of me is excited by the idea of being a part of (much less being in charge of) a virtual choir. I don’t like Adobe. I don’t spend much time on social media. I don’t like being in meetings when people I only know on a professional basis ask me how I am doing. Literally, I am good at no part of my job right now. And do you know what I did about that?

I mourned. I sat around and was sad for two days. I did nothing. I didn’t cook. I did the absolute minimum that everyone expected of me. I did nothing except eat tortilla chips and watch 5 1/2 seasons of M*A*S*H while I put together the giant, 2,000 piece puzzle the Vulcan brought me (the last one in the whole of Target because he is a good, kind, and also a very wise man). And I let myself be really upset. I sat around and thought about how sad I was. I reflected on the relationships I had with students which were just starting to blossom and which now will not be. I mourned the fact that I am not the kind of teacher who turns her house into a magical, virtual classroom, and I mourned that I didn’t feel bad about the fact I didn’t want to be. I. was. sad.

And let me tell you something. Allowing myself to go to the dark place–not to try to “keep moving,” or tell myself that other people were worse off than me, or force myself to be this person I am not–was unspeakably freeing. In acknowledging all of what I am not and cannot, I was able to accept that yes–this is okay. The things I am make my good at my job. And this is not my job. This is a crisis management version of my job. I am just surviving. And that is okay. It is okay that right now, I am doing my best and it isn’t the most amazing.

And after this mourning, this two day period where the Vulcan said he kept waking up in the wee hours with the M*A*S*H theme song in his head, I started to feel better. (I also finished the puzzle, so there was that). I started to want to do my best, even though I know it isn’t nearly as great as people who were born for this. I put away the tortilla chips and signed myself up for Noom (which is awesome, by the way). I made a color-coded calendar in my work planner. I put on my running shoes and went for a run. (It was slow and terrible, but I did it!) I signed up for a half marathon in August. I started baking things. I went and saw my family socially-distantly. And I started to feel like me again. And it is so exciting, I can hardly stand it.

And all of this got me to reflect on the nature of things. I was at a Bible study once, and it was talking about the importance of mourning and lament in the Bible. I didn’t really get it at the time. “Lament” seemed like a very remote word from my 21st century life. But I get it now. Lamenting has helped me move forward.

We are, as a society, not the best at mourning. We’re good at wallowing, at blame, and at anger, but not necessarily mourning. When people are sad, there are a million things to distract you, to fix you, to remind you that you’re better off than some other poor slub. And yes, there are times when we just have to go nose-to-the-grindstone and get things done because we have to. And in this rollercoaster of emotions I’ve been on in the past six weeks, I’ve done all of these things. (I went a bit Amazon crazy that second week of quarantine…) But I didn’t really start to feel myself coming out of the fog until I just took the time and acknowledged the sadness and the loss. I didn’t belittle it for being kind of lame, because it didn’t change how I was feeling.

And I can’t help but think that right now, everyone is mourning something. Some of them are big, “real” things (like death, for instance, or life milestones that have been taken away–weddings postponed, graduations cancelled), but some are little things that nonetheless remind us that we are not now who we once were. Baseball didn’t begin in April. Spring concerts didn’t happen. Wandering around the store without an agenda is now a thing of the past. Hugs you don’t get. Faces you don’t see. There is a whole lot of loss around for a culture of people who don’t do mourning. I think we may have to learn how to do it.

And if you are, might I recommend tortilla chips and M*A*S*H?

Happy or sad, stay well, my friends. I’ll see you tomorrow!


“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” –Matthew 5:3

Culture · Life generally...

Confessions of a Sometimes Hipster

I live in the hipster Mecca of my city.  That may not be a big deal to my West Coast friends, but it’s kind of a thing if you’re in the Midwest–we are into things like snowblowing and tater tot casserole.  I did not move to this area intentionally.  I did it because it’s a really cute apartment with nifty 1920’s period features and cheap rent that included free heat…  But, nonetheless, I live in a place with quirky restaurants that cater to whatever weird diet you may have.  (Vegan? No problem.  Gluten free?  Everything on the menu fits the bill.  Something as blasé as vegetarianism or lactose intolerance doesn’t even warrant an honorable mention.)  We have nary a big box store to be found, but I can think of three different vintage record shops off the top of my head.  We are also known in our city for our hip dive bars where all the cool kids (so cool that we don’t bother with the “usual” party clubs, you see–we are hipsters here, after all…) like to go.  There’s this one bar that is literally open randomly, and only when the owner feels like opening it–there are no posted hours.  So it’s open now, randomly, on a Wednesday night, but there is a real possibility it will be closed when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around this Friday–go figure.  I once saw a guy in a purple leisure suit ride past on his unicycle.  I live in that kind of neighborhood.

My friends (especially the ones who got married in their twenties and now live in the suburbs with their SUV’s and 2.5 kids) have started telling me that I’m kind of a hipster.  I used to deny it, but I’m beginning to think that maybe this would be false advertising.  I wear a lot of leggings and the messy topknot is the my Saturday hair jam.  I’m a big fan of baggy sweaters, scarves, and Converse.  I even own a pair of fake Buddy Holly style glasses that I wear when I want to look smart and get people to take me seriously.  My house is full of secondhand treasures and random retro kitsch that nobody really likes except for me.  I own a picnic basket and use it on the regular in the summer months.

Right now, I am wearing a burnt orange puffy vest, circa 1974.  I like old movies and classic red lipstick.  I like to make stuff from scratch and have at various points tried to make my own: shaving cream, candles, lip balm, and face masks.  I read poems.  I have toyed with the idea of getting an old typewriter because it just sounds so romantic to write letters on a typewriter.  (My mom talked me out of it because she said it hurts your wrists after a while.  That, and I didn’t know where to get tape for one if I bought it…)

I feel like, though, hipster-dom has robbed me of my nerdiness.  I liked all that stuff back before the hipster movement made it cool, and watching black and white movies and Glenn Miller were things only nerds like me did.  I simply refuse to allow some early  20-somethings rob me of my nerd-dom!  In the words of my sister, “Emily, you’re a natural born hipster–you always liked that stuff, so it doesn’t really count.  You’re not being ironic.  You’re just being you.”

Plus, I do have my little passive-aggressive, anti-hipster jibs.  Let the record state that I absolutely despise quinoa.  I think the texture is weird and it tastes like what I imagine prison food must taste like (i.e. like absolutely nothing.)  And while we’re at it, I think kale is gross, too.  (Unless its slathered in olive oil and sea salt and baked into kale chips, thereby completely nullifying any intrinsic health value…)  I can’t get into the heavily made-up eye look.  It’s just way too much work, let’s be real, here.  I also hate beer as a general rule, so something crappy like P.B.R. is definitely not part of my world.

And at the end of the day, I’m just not ironic enough.  And when I say “enough,” I mean, “at all.”  I mean, I’m a child of the 1990’s who still associates the word “ironic” with Alanis Morissette.  And, anyway, I actually really like all the weird hobbies I have and old clothes I wear, and I don’t really have enough cares to be bothered by what other people may think about it.  If that makes me a hipster, well, then I’m in.  I figure it just makes me “Me.”  I’ll still be like that when hipsters go the way of Hammer Pants and The Rachel.  And I’m good with it that way.  And there’s nothing ironic about that…don’t ya think?

Culture · Hygge

The Quest for Hygge

Hygge.  Before you waste five minutes trying to figure out  how to say that, it’s pronounced HOO-guh, and it is basically the philosophy that puts the Danes routinely at the top of every study as the happiest nation in the world, despite the fact that it is dark and cold there for most of the year.  Basically, hygge is a concept of family- and home-oriented coziness that strongly features homemade food, comfy clothes, warm socks, blankets, candles, and spending intentional time with the people you care about.  The Danish people have elevated this to a national standard, around which the whole culture revolves.

I started out on my quest for hygge on a whim, really.  Work life was functioning at a resting temperature of HIGH STRESS ALL THE TIME, which left me without the emotional motivation to go out or “be social.”  I just wanted to retreat into the hobbit hole of my apartment and shut out the world.  Wandering around social media in a quest to not do whatever I was supposed to be doing, I stumbled upon this article about hygge.  That article led to several more, which led to a Pinterest board, which led to the purchase (and reading) of The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking.

I read all about the importance of light (and good lighting–no hospital-style, industrial lighting for the Danes, oh no.)  I read about the importance of creating a comfortable and cozy place to relax and simply be. I read about a cultural way of thinking that put the process and journey of spending time with people you care about before anything else.  It’s the idea of “less is more.”  “Quality over quantity.”  The Little Book of Hygge threw out examples like making food with a few friends (even if the end product is a disaster), sitting around the kitchen table and playing games while drinking hot chocolate and eating homemade cookies, snuggling up in sweats with a blanket and a good book.

I was hooked.  I wanted that.  I wanted my home to be a place that was warm and cozy, where people came, and we made memories and shared each other’s lives.  I wanted to slow down my life to make time for things like board games.  I wanted hygge.

My first attempts started out small.  I made the pilgrimage to IKEA and bought a bunch of candles and invited a friend over to make fondue.  We spent a ridiculous amount of money on all the right cheeses to make a real Swiss fondue–and then we sat for two hours around the fondue pot and caught up on the past three months of life.  It was slow.  It was natural.  It was amazing.  And I wanted more.

Armed with this first small success, my book about hygge, and an article from about how to host a crappy dinner party,  (it’s a great article–read it here!), I started making it a part of my life.  Whenever someone suggested getting together–the unspoken American subtext being “at a restaurant or coffee shop”–I always jumped at the opportunity, and offered to host as my house.  I sent out text message invitations for “B.Y.O.S.” (Bring Your Own Slippers) events.  I got out a big pile of blankets whenever people were coming over.  I stocked up on hot chocolate and coffee.  I lit candles–so many candles!  I bought some games at Goodwill and had people over to play Scrabble.  I got really good at fifteen minute cleaning, and told people that, while my house may be a little dirty, it was full of love.

And do you know what?  All my friends really liked it.  They didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t sweep my kitchen floor or that the cream cheese, cherry hand pies didn’t really turn out.  Everyone agreed toward the end of the night that it was fun, and we really should do it again.

I think our lives are so fast and so Instagram-ed, that we’ve forgotten that everyone else is imperfect, too.  Oh, I know when I say it, you think, “Well, duh.  Of course nobody’s perfect,” but in practice, it’s easy to believe that the pictures we see on social media are the way everyone’s life actually is.  You find yourself thinking, “I must be the only person who can’t get it together and leaves my purse and shoes right by the door as soon as I come in” and “I must be the only person who can’t figure out how to hang a really nifty, chic portrait collage wall…”

But really–we’re all in that boat.  We’re all standing and looking at the picture of the cupcakes on Pinterest, then the disaster on our counters and thinking, “Well.  That didn’t work.”  We’re all just little, imperfect people, doing what we can. Messing up.  Making mistakes.  Trying again anyway.

What we need, more than perfect lives, are people who share our imperfect lives with us. I think that, at its core, is what makes hygge so powerful to me.  It’s inviting people in.  It’s dropping masks of things none of us can be, anyway.  It’s putting people ahead of image.  It’s making real memories–not an airbrushed Instagram version.  It’s just–hygge.


The best thing that happened to me today

Life is busy. I know that is probably the most obvious statement you’ve read today, but sometimes, I just have to say it out loud to validate my stress–life is busy!

For this reason, this year has been especially frenetic for me.  Ever since we went back to school in September, I’ve been behind a perpetual eight-ball. Or, for a more accurate (though less poetic) metaphor, I’m Indiana Jones, and that giant, Raiders of the Lost Ark bolder is rolling faster than I can run.  I spend my days rushing from thing to thing, task to task–from report cards to concerts, to lessons, to church, to the grocery store, to coffee–it never stops!  Welcome to 21st century American life, right?

I say this not because I want you to feel sorry for me, but because I know a lot of you are in the same boat. You know.  You get it.  You’re probably making a mental to-do list right now.  So, I’ll say it again.

Life. Is. Busy.

And when things get busy, I put on blinders, stick my nose to the grind stone, and just push. I don’t think, I don’t pause, and I certainly don’t stop–because I don’t want to break down crying at all there is to do and get even further behind.  I just have to keep going.  In my mind, there is no other way to survive.

So when my brother got on the phone tonight and said, “Emily, tell me the best thing that happened to you today,” I stopped short.

He didn’t ask, “How was your day?”, “What are you up to?” or even “Tell me about your day.”  Nope.  “Tell me the best thing that happened to you today.”

When I get busy, I get negative.  My whole life revolves around the things I “didn’t“–the time I didn’t get to spend on something because there wasn’t any time.  The millions of things I didn’t check off my to-do list. The run I didn’t go on.  The recycling I still didn’t actually take out. The sleep I didn’t get.

Being negative is easy.

So when my brother asked me that, I really had to stop.  Despite all the frantic busy-ness of the day, there was a lot of good.  My 7th graders gave their class piano recitals, and everyone survived.  My 8th grade choir sounds beautiful and they can tell. I had good conversations about “real stuff” with some of my friends.  The ukulele club I run is full of kids who are geeking out on music and it’s marvelous.  The new dish I tried for dinner worked. There is good–so much good!

It was a humbling moment for me.  I can be so selfish and narrow.  I’m quick to reduce my life to the empty dollars-and-cents of checklists and “have-to’s,” and I completely brush off the incredible little blessings that litter the path I walk.  Real Life isn’t easy (as I’m fond of telling my students who are in a rush to grow up, “Adulting is hard,”) but it is beautiful.  You just have to look for it.

“Tell me the single best thing that happened to you today.”  Tell me, and remind yourself, of the beauty in the life you’re living, the shimmering moments of wonderful–even in the chaotic messiness of Real Life.  Because the light shines brightest where the darkness is deepest.  And hope rises above a sea of despairs.

So tell me.

Tell me the single best thing that happened to you today.


Culture · Faith

Ash Wednesday

I kicked off the month of March today with Ash Wednesday.  For all of you non-religious or non-Christian types out there, Ash Wednesday is recognized in the western church as the beginning of the forty days that precede Easter (the high point of the whole Christian year, no matter what the marketing campaigns may try to convince you about Christmas…) It is traditionally a time of fasting, restraint, as Christians all over the world re-read, tell, and reflect on the story of Calvary.

I am your standard, non-denominational protestant for my druthers, but I have to tell you, my high church friends really know how to do those special, stand-out days in the Christian year.  So when my friend, “Ryan,” a good and practicing Catholic (and my chief “Faith, Religion, and Philosophies on Life” buddy) asked me if I wanted to go with him to Ash Wednesday Mass, I went for it.

There were definitely some funny moments, including but not limited to when we were kneeling during the preparation and blessing of the Eucharist.  (We will ignore the fact that I almost got my shins taken out as I didn’t realize the kneeler was coming down right when it was…) They were singing a song that apparently everyone  knew by heart except for me, so I’m trying to (discretely) thumb through this twenty page bulletin trying to figure out where on earth we are.  We Protestants tend to keep our songs all on screens in the front or out of one hymnal, and our memorized songs are pretty much limited to the Doxology, which is ten measures long–twelve if you count the “Amen.” Bulletins are strictly places to include announcements and the name of the sermon.  Anyway, so here I am, trying to figure out where on earth this dumb song is so I can sing it, but trying to do it discretely, on a kneeler, without giving the person in the pew in front of me paper cuts.  Finally, Ryan can’t take it anymore and he takes  my bulletin, but I feel much better when it takes him a while to find the song, too.  But, fortunately, it is a refrain that we sang a bunch of times, so I still had time to sing it once I got there.

There is nothing quite like being the low church protestant at a Mass.  I’m getting better at it, though.  I have learned, from past experience, that when you say the Lord’s Prayer, you stop in the  middle so the priest can say some things.  (Not that I ever barreled right straight through and was in the middle of the “forever and ever” before I realized I was the only one talking or anything.  Because I totally didn’t…)

But, for all the getting lost and confused, and trying to make sure you’re standing at the right time, I love visiting my Christian brethren and sister-en of other backgrounds.  And as I was sitting in church tonight, I reflected on how amazing it is–all over the world today, people from so many denominations, nations, and backgrounds, all gathered together to recognize the darkness of our world, our need for a Savior, and focusing our attention and spiritual eyes on the road that leads to the cross.  It is a powerful thing to think about.  Even though we are all so different–some stand and some kneel, some shout praises and some are silent in wonder, some sing songs hundreds of years old and others songs with ink that’s barely dry–we all end up in church.  Through all of our uniqueness, our foibles, and our preferences, we are all still bounded together in the One we worship.  That is an awesome thing.  And that makes my bruised shins worth it.



“Finish Columbo Episode,” and other things on today’s to-do list

Today is the first day of spring break.  Last night, I folded up my lunch bag and put it on the shelf, where it will stay for the next ten days.  I washed out my travel mug and committed myself to only drinking coffee out of real mugs until April 4th.  I dropped my school bag at the foot of my bed and have no intention of picking it up until I go back to work.  I woke up this morning at a luxurious 7 a.m. and flatly refused to get out of bed until a quarter of eight just because I could.

I don’t have any plans for today.  I only just made the transition from jammies to yoga clothes (which are really just trendy jammies…)  I am almost done drinking my way through a 10 cup pot of coffee.  I get to sit at my kitchen table with the sun (looking far too wintery to be spring break as it reflects off the snow-covered roofs) streaming through the windows.  I have a list, of course–I’m a big one for lists–but my list includes things like, “Cut up and freeze pepper.”  (Yes.  I mean one, single pepper.)  “Call Mom–what to bring to Easter?”  And (my personal favorite) “Finish Columbo episode.”  (Yes, I did that.  On purpose.)

My need for lists probably says a lot about me as a person–the fact that I feel like I need to make sure things are written down, because I can’t remember everything to do it…

When I reflect on the speed of my life, and I mentally tally through the roll of my weekly “Expected’s”–my job, yoga class twice a week, the choir that rehearses for 3 hours on Wednesday, running at least ten miles, helping out with a youth choir, voice lessons, church–that’s busy!  Then I add all those things that aren’t every week–dinners with friends, visiting family, writing letters to my grandma, working on my novel, reading…I realize my life is really, really busy.

This is definitely not a “Oh, pity poor, Millennial me” moment.  I know I did this.  I choose this life–I love the hobbies I fit in because they make me feel more alive.  I treasure my friendships and they are worth creating the time to maintain.  I very much buy into the idea of “living life to the full.”  It will not be said, when I go to meet my Maker, that I did not avail myself of the opportunities in this life He gave me.

I used to just think about having to stay busy all the time–the more I did, the more successful I’d be.  I needed my lists and schedules to make sure I did the absolute most all of the time.  I didn’t want to stop moving because that would be like quitting.  I would be wasting time.  (And we all know, if there’s one invaluable thing in American culture, it’s time.)

But I don’t think that’s true anymore.  I’ve learned that doing nothing–checking things off my to-do list like “Drink all of the coffee”–is not wasting time.  It is pausing and stepping back.  That my body and mind and spirit need that rest.  That break.  (This is probably why God gave the whole “Sabbath” thing.)  When I take time back to do nothing, to be bored, to stare at the sun coming through my kitchen window, my heart sings a little song I don’t usually hear.  I breath a little deeper.  The knots of the stress of my zany, modern life relax.  I feel whole.  I feel better.  I feel alive.

Culture · Kitchenware

Childhood in a time of peace

IMG_0510These are my salt and pepper shakers.  I will be honest and say that, most of the time, I only get them out when I have other people over.  On my own, it’s easier to stick with the pepper grind and the salt ramkin…or salt pig…or salt cellar…or whatever you call it.

These were an impulse buy at a thrift store when I was actually looking for something completely different (but the whole thing cost less than a dollar, I think, so why not?)  I actually bought them because of the tray.  I had never seen S&P shakers on their own special plastic tray, so I bought them.

Later on, when I was trying to figure out how to get their seasonings into them, I flipped them over and saw the “Product of W. Germany” written in relief on the bottom…back when West Germany was still a “thing.”  That made them cooler to me–because I have a product from a place that technically doesn’t exist anymore.

I was only in kindergarten when the Berlin Wall fell, and I remember being in first grade when the U.S.S.R. officially dissolved.  I remember sitting at my grandparents house–all the grown-ups watching the news.  I remember how shocked and amazed they all were.  I also remember not understanding why, but my six year old self sensed that this was important.

I was thinking about that the other day, when I was putting out my salt and pepper shakers for my friends.  I am probably among some of the youngest people who actually remember those events taking place.

I lived my whole childhood in a way not many Americans have had the opportunity in the 20th and 21st centuries.  My memories start with the fall of the Wall, the Communist threat a thing of the past.  I played and went to softball practice and sang in school concerts in a time of peace.  I was safe.  There were no “bad guys” lying in wait.  (This also made generic bad guys for action movies hard to come by…) I grew up doing fire drills and never worrying about something bad happening to me.  My childhood and our country’s sense of security ended at the same time.  My senior year of high school was defined by September 11, 2001.  The world changed, and we were not the same.

I think about my childhood compared to that of my parents, that of my students–how different my world was from either of them.

My parents grew up in the shadow of the Cold War.  They had to do nuclear attack drills in school (precious little good, though, that these drills could have done.)  There was always the unspoken danger of Soviets, speaking eerily in Russian, lurking in America’s corners.

In many ways, it is the same for my students.  None of them know a world before the threats of al Qaeda and ISIS.  None of them know that there was a time you could get onto a plane without having to take off your shoes first.  They have grown up doing intruder drills.  For them, there is always the vague and unspoken threat of terrorists.


It makes childhood seem a lot more scary.  It makes me thankful for my time of peace.

Cooking · Culture · Kitchen Culture

Kitchen Renegade

I like cookbooks.  A lot.  As in, I actually read them, cover to cover, for fun.  As in, I own 44 (I literally got up from this computer to count them), and I have cooked multiple recipes out of 34 of them (I also just counted that).  As in, one of my favorite parts of the week is sitting down with a stack of randomly selected cookbooks to pick recipes and make my grocery list.  As in, I have been known to check cookbooks out from the library. On purpose. 

Most of my cookbooks are finds from bargain bins, community book sales, and charity shops.  Nearly all of them had previous owners, and I think I only paid cover price for two.  Like many things in my life, I believe in recycling.

Whenever I go to a Goodwill, I always make sure to do a flyby of the cookbook section.  I like reading the titles and seeing what’s there.  You tend to see a strong representation of cookbooks from last year’s diet “miracle” (Atkin’s, South Beach–I’m sure the Paleo collection will be in season in the next year or so…) and there are always at least four copies of that Oprah cookbook, In the Kitchen with Rosie.  (I guess every person in America must have owned at least five copies in 1998.)    Through my perusal-ing, I have gathered that, in the early ’80’s, people believed that the secret to healthy living was removing all the fat from all the things (titles along the line of Feed Your Family the Fat-Free Way, and Living Healthy: Old Time Flavor without the Fat).  It was also widely accepted, apparently, that it was only a matter of time before microwaves completely replaced the traditional oven (There is usually an entire shelf dedicated to things like Microwave Miracle!: 101 Microwave Oven Recipes for the Modern Cook).

I usually end up leafing through the oldest cookbooks there, myself–the ones from the ’60’s and ’70’s.  I like getting the window into a world that is so different than my own–a world where kids still took homemade birthday treats to school, getting together with friends meant someone was going to “entertain,” and Betty Crocker’s marketing team had not yet convinced America that from-scratch cakes are so much more difficult and complicated than ones from a box.  (They aren’t, incidentally.)

The recipes in these faded books are a lot better, by and large, than their modern counterparts.  I think it’s because when these cookbooks were written, people still, well, cooked.  Today, most cookbooks have recipes that call for about a million ingredients, at least a dozen of them impossible to find if you don’t live in one of the Food Capitals of the World (New York, London, Paris, L.A.), let alone Smalltown, America.  I mean, you can only cook recipes out of a book like Plenty (a truly beautiful cookbook–it’s like food porn) if you have about three to four hours, decent skill, a professionally outfitted kitchen, and access to some crazy ingredients.  And that book was a New York Times bestseller–a bestseller! I’d wager this cookbook sits in cabinets all over America with pristine pages while their owners eat Chinese take-out for the third time this month. 

Most people I know maintain diets that include a significant amount of restaurant food (be it from fast food, delivery pizza, or sit-down restaurants) supplemented heavily by premade food that we just heat up (chicken nuggets, burritos, frozen pizza, pre-portioned frozen dinners).  We live in a culture where we watch other people cook food on television while we pull the plastic film off the top of a Lean Cuisine.  We, as a culture, honestly believe that cooking is a thing reserved for professionals, retirees, and rich women with nothing better to do.

Let me say that in another way:

We have bought into the lie that cooking–the act of going into your kitchen and making something from scratch–is a luxury the average American can’t afford. 

That doesn’t sit well with me.  It bothers me that we think we’re “too busy” to do something that makes us so fundamentally human.  It bothers me that we’ve let marketing campaigns convince us that we “can’t possibly” make a pizza by ourselves or that we’re “too busy” to make chicken noodle soup that doesn’t come from a can.  I think we’re better than that.  I think I’m better than that.  I think you’re better than that.

So prove the marketing people wrong.  Take back the kitchen from the people on T.V.  Be a renegade.

Cook dinner tonight.

Culture · Kitchen Culture

A few more Come-on-over’s

Tonight, I had to leave work before I got everything I needed to done.  I actually had to bring work home with me–something I NEVER do.  I had to skip my usual trip to the gym to break in brand-spanking-new running shoes.  (Don’t judge me; it is wet outside.  You can’t totally ruin new shoes in the rain the very first time you wear them…)  I cleaned my bathroom.  I washed every dish in the sink.  I dumped the classic “Sour Cream and Onion Soup Mix” dip out of the plastic tub and into an actual bowl.  I even swept my entire apartment.  (I live in a converted Victorian house.  Sweeping is the most hopeless cause since St. Jude took them up–dust literally comes out of the walls…)  I got out a clean dish towel.  I am now writing this blog and I am still wearing real pants, rather than the preferred leggings or pajamas.

I have done all of this because I have friends coming over for dinner tonight.

At moments like this, I hanker to just call everyone and say, “Let’s just meet at the restaurant across the street…”  It would be so much easier.

Long ago (before Christmas), “Kelly,” “Morgan,” and I did this exclusively.  We had a few quiet restaurants that we’d frequent every few weeks when we all could get together.  It was really a very pleasant state of affairs, if you must know.  But then I got the bright idea that we should use our aligning spring breaks to go somewhere on vacation together.  (I believe my exact specifications were: 1. Someplace warm.  2. Someplace where I can those floofy drinks with umbrellas in them.  3.  Someplace where no one will ask me any questions that begin with, “Hey, Miss D, can I…” for five days.  A girl has to have her standards.)

And rather than what usually happens–agreeing it’s a great idea and then doing nothing about it–the two of them came over to my house before the new year and we actually bought the tickets for the Caribbean.  It’s very exciting (especially as we are now in the single digits until we leave…)  However, we’re all teachers.  We’re not exactly made of money.

So we started skipping going out and passing around who hosted dinner.

The hostess is responsible for the entree  and usually one (easy) side.  The other two bring sides or dessert.  It is traditionally BYOB.  Of course, sometimes this division of labor backfires.  Kelly was hosting last time and said she had it all covered.  All we needed to bring was what we wanted to drink, “unless we wanted to bring something else, too.”  We ended up with four bags of chips, a pizza, a batch of cookies, a cake, and ice cream.  Clearly, we struggle with scale.

I actually like this arrangement a lot more than I had originally thought.  We still end up making those things you never make when you’re a one (pizza, burgers–I’ve got pulled pork simmering in my CrockPot as I write this…), plus, you’re in charge.  You don’t like that song that’s playing?  No problem.  It’s my Pandora–it’s gone.  You can literally sit at the table for four hours and not feel guilty.  You don’t have to keep ordering drinks and desserts and things you don’t want just as a way to apologize to your waiter that you’re still at this table on a Friday night.  Falling asleep halfway through the movie is a totally acceptable life choice.

Plus, I like seeing people’s houses.  I like seeing how each house has a personality as unique as its owner.  As an aside, let me here insert I am secretly suspicious of people who don’t decorate their living spaces.  There is no bigger red flag than a bunch of blank walls.  I’m always thinking things like, “What’s wrong with you?”  “Are you a cardboard human?”  “Do you like living in a hotel room?”  Or, when I’m feeling particularly ‘judge-y’, “Are you some sort of sociopath?”

Fortunately, my friends do not fall into this category.  Morgan, for example, has the most coordinated apartment I’ve ever seen.  The beach theme isn’t just in the bathroom–it flows seamlessly through every room in the entire house.  Kelly still has a couch that looks like she got it in college, because she’s been too busy buying the five million books she has in bookshelves all over the place.  My apartment is channeling “found beauty” meets “vintage cornucopia.”  We are all friends, and we all get along, but our houses are all so different.

I may never have known these things about my friends if I’d never gotten around to seeing their apartments or experienced equally sincere but drastically different hospitality around their tables.

I’m beginning to think that maybe this is the way things should be.  I remember my parents and their friends rotating game nights–all the kids played in various basements and the grown-ups played ’80’s favorites like Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit upstairs.  I don’t know many people who do that sort of thing anymore.  But what I know about Kelly and Morgan now makes me think that maybe we lost something when people started closing up their homes from their friends and acquaintances because life wasn’t as shiny as the photos on the wall.

That maybe it’s worth it to let people see your not-quite-clean bathroom rather than opting to meet at a coffee shop.  Maybe it’s worth bringing work home with you once in a while to let people share your actual life.  Maybe we should say fewer Let’s-meet-at-that-Mexican-place’s and a few more Come-on-over’s.  Maybe we should act a little less perfect and be a little more real…

But I have to go.

I just heard the doorbell.



Cooking · Culture · Food · Recipes

And it doesn’t involve green beer…

It is St. Patrick’s Day today.  I’m sure every elementary school teacher in the world is painfully (I mean this in the literal sense) aware of this fact as they spent the majority of their time today trying to keep all the kids who were wearing green from pinching all the kids who weren’t black and blue.

am aware of this because I live in one of the popular, historic neighborhoods in my city.  Most of the time, this means quirky shops, hipsters, a few first-gen hippies still holding on, and groups of 20-somethings out to go to the fashionable bars on Saturday night.  On St. Patty’s Day, though, it is a different story.

I got home from a rehearsal at 7:45 tonight to droves of people all over the place, far too many of them far too drunk for the time, zillions of cars, and lots of police officers hanging around to make sure things don’t get rowdy.  Let’s just say I had a few choice thoughts for these people as I pushed my teacher bag up on my shoulder.

In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, the nightlife is not really “my scene.”   I am also intrinsically suspicious of anything that is an unnatural shade of green.  This applies equally to frosting, mashed potatoes, cookies, beer, and large bodies of water.  So it’s safe to say that St. Patrick’s Day (as it is celebrated in Milwaukee) is not exactly my cup of tea.

But my ancestors were Irish many moons ago, and so I feel like I ought to “put a word in” to this piece of my heritage.  (Which is difficult to do because, on a whole, the Irish are not known by and large for their food, and for good reason…)

Food it, I think, a reflection of the culture that creates it.  In Tibet, eating cubes of fat is a great honor, because the high caloric content helps build fat that keeps you warm.  India, a place where the climate basically begs every spice ever found to be grown, has a spice palate probably three times that of Northern Europe.  In America, we have taken all the food of all the cultures that come to these shores, put them into a giant bag, shake it up, and roll the dice to see what’s going to happen.  (This is how you end up with things like bulgogi tacos and quinoa curry…)

And in Ireland, a place that has been poor and marginalized for centuries, you get dishes that can turn practically nothing into something incredible.

My favorite example of this is a soup I picked up from a spice catalogue.  Like a lot of really amazing recipes, it has the most unimaginative name I can think of:  “Homemade Vegetable Soup.”

What it actually is, is genius.  It is a soup that combines four of the commonest, cheapest, longest-lasting root veggies I know–carrots, onions, potatoes, and garlic–into this rich, velvety pot of simmering deliciousness.  The first time I made it, it was because I was saving up for a vacation and trying to stretch my pennies.  You’re hard pressed to find a cheaper recipe than this.  I was skeptical (I’m not a huge fan of carrots,) but I gave it a go in the name of frugality.  It was a chance I do not regret.

I think what I love most about this dish is that it reminds me of how it doesn’t take a million steps or a thousand ingredients to make something wonderful.  Some of the best dishes around are profound in their simplicity, in the same way that what shapes us most isn’t that new car or house, but the t-ball games and vacations to Grandma’s and Saturday-nights-in.  Sometimes, the things that fill us emotionally or even spiritually are not the Major Events or Major Pricetags–just like a bowl of delicious, simple soup fills us physically better than the expensive hors d’oeuvres can.

Remembering what it’s like to laugh, re-meeting people we’ve known for ages but haven’t known in a long time, allowing ourselves a chance to reflect outside of the insanity of life–these are all things that happen around the easy dinners.  That’s why comfort foods are things like macaroni and cheese–there aren’t any linen table clothes or expensive china, there’s no pretense or putting on airs–it’s just good, honest, satisfying food that lets you sit and catch up for hours and hours.  The dish is just the vehicle to the healthy soul.  I love that.  I love that things don’t have to be fancy or difficult to be meaningful.

And it also doesn’t have to involve green beer…

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

If you want to embrace the Irish and try “Homemade Vegetable Soup,” you can check it out for yourself on the drop-down menu under “Recipes.”