Tossing Breadcrumbs Forward Through the Woods

I’ve been feeling gray lately. Most years I don’t start feeling winter blah until after the holidays, but it came early this year. A friend says we’re all like squirrels starting the winter with empty trees, winter reserves already depleted. That feels true of me this year. This same friend has been combating the mood by undertaking a completely non-productive project which spends resources but makes her happy. I was glad to see it working for her, but no project I contemplated sparked any sort of joy in me. Holidays seemed a set of looming obligations instead of something to look forward to. On top of the gray mood, I seem to have hit a migraine cycle.

This morning I started the day with caffeine to stave off the impending migraine. The caffeine unlocked that portion of my brain which allows me to be happy about projects. I’ll pay for it with insomnia tonight, but this morning I purchased elaborate shaped silicone molds for making ridiculous desserts for Thanksgiving. (Molded jello, truffles, shaped butter, etc.) I have a plan which involves delivering food to my married daughter we’ll have to wave to from afar this year. I’m going to have my two in-house assistants help me create the ridiculous food. I also have fragmentary ideas for a blog post on how holidays are always a construct that we create for each other, and the shake ups of this year are an opportunity to create anew.

I hope I get to keep some of my creative anticipation once the caffeine wears off. My molds are arriving on Monday, so now I have a small thing to look forward to. After that I can look forward to making the foods. After that, delivering the foods. By the time I get there, I will hopefully have found some other small thing I can look forward to just a couple of days out. I think that is how I’ll make it through this winter. Not with anticipating large things that are weeks or months away, but by tossing small markers only a couple of days into the future, and making sure I toss the next one just before I reach the current one. It’s like a reverse Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail to lead me out the other side instead of back where I started.

Sorting My Recipes

I have a recipe box. I got it when Howard and I were first married and I carefully collected recipes to fill it. Collecting and trying out recipes was part of how I learned to manage my own kitchen and was helpful for Howard and I to define our shared identity as a couple. We liked this one, we didn’t like that one, this one needs adjusting, we’ll never try that again. When we moved to our first house, the recipe box came with us. In our current house it first took up residence on the counter next to our library of cookbooks. Over the years it moved to a corner of the counter and then to on top of the fridge. We still cook, but I reach for the books more than I do the box. Half the time I’m reaching for one of a dozen pieces of loose paper, recipes that I’ve printed off the internet and stuck in the row of cookbooks because I make them again and again. The size of this stack of loose paper has begun to be ridiculous. Today I realized that loose paper is the reason that recipe boxes were invented. It is a place to collect the recipes.

So I pulled out my little box and I sorted through it. I got rid of all the recipes that I grabbed because I might make them one day. I kept all the things for which I have fond memories. I definitely kept the ones that we continue to make. It was like a walk down memory lane touching all the cards of odd things I collected over the years. There were card given me by people I don’t remember. I vaguely remember that giving me recipes was part of my bridal shower. Some of them came from there. Others were clipped from a cooking magazine that was given to us as a wedding present. But there is no sense in cluttering my life with little pieces of paper because they provoke a vague nostalgia. I cleared it out and made space for things to come.

Now I need to find a program that will let me transcribe recipes so that I can print them on cards, but which will also let me easily duplicate them for other people. My children are going to be heading out into the world to cook for themselves and I’m certain that some of them will be asking for copies of some of the recipes I’ve used. It would be nice to just be able to print those out instead of copying by hand. Except, I did keep one recipe that I’ve never made, because it was in Great Uncle Blake’s shaky handwriting. So perhaps there is value in handwritten cards.

Mostly I like knowing that I have space for things that are useful to me instead of it being occupied by things that are lingering without purpose.

In Quest of an Edible Lunch

The volume of kvetching over school lunch offerings increased this fall. Though that sentence does not paint an accurate picture. My kids would state their complaints if asked, but mostly they engaged in silent protest. Two of them independently decided that they would rather go hungry than eat anything served at school, and a third began hauling salt and spices to school in order to doctor the meals. Adding up all the information makes clear that something has changed in our current kid and school lunch configuration. Paying for school lunch bought me a measure of stress relief, but this year the kids are not demanding as much from me in the way of homework support, so I have extra cycles to explore home lunch options.

I began by ordering some bynto boxes from Goodbyn. These are three-compartment containers with lids. I figure we have a better shot at getting the kids to actually eat lunches from home if I can make the presentation enjoyable. The boxes are due to arrive at the end of the week. Until then my kids will be bagging it. I fully expect there to be challenges in the form of lost boxes, boxes left at school, and boxes not rinsed out after school. My junior high and high school kid have both been subjected to the indignity of having to actually seek out their lockers and learn how to open them so that they will have a place to put their lunches. I guess they’ve just been carrying all their books all day long.

The biggest challenge for me is going to be coming up with variety while keeping the prep process as brainless as possible. Kiki does not like sandwiches, while Link does not like wraps. Patch does not like cheese very much and everyone else does. We’re going to have to do some experimentation to discover which foods best survive transportation to school and sitting at room temperature. In theory this should be familiar ground. I grew up bringing lunch to school and considered buying school lunch to be a treat. I know how to do this, but knowing theory is different from practiced knowledge. It is going to take us time to add this into the rhythm of our days. That process is going to be disrupted by my departure next Monday, or maybe it won’t. There is every chance that Howard and the kids will own this process in my absence and I’ll come home to discover that there is a working system.

Let the quest for edible lunches commence.

Contemplating My Hats

We were in the middle of a pre-convention stress-fest. Howard had a pile of priorities and worries, I had a different set of priorities and worries. Both of us needed to be two people in order to get everything done and discovered that neither of us could solve problems by handing them to the other. In a moment of stress I found myself muttering “I hate this” under my breath. In that moment I truly meant the words, but I worried that the feeling existed. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort building up this life and now I was saying that I hated it. The trouble was the unreferenced “this.” Days later when the stress levels were back to normal I realized that in my life I do a lot of jobs. Often I picture these various jobs as hats that I wear. In a moment of clarity I realized that it is okay for me to not like some of the hats. Not liking a necessary job is normal. I don’t expect myself to love the job of laundress, I do it because it needs to be done. However identifying which jobs I like and which I don’t helps me to be better at planning. So here is an incomplete list of hats that I wear and how I feel about them:

Accountant: This job is fairly routine and soothing, except when the money is running low. It used to be scary. For a long time I lived in fear that I was doing everything wrong.

Convention Liaison: This one has lots of little details to track and lots of advance planning. I keep track of Howard’s appearance and travel schedule. I make arrangements for all to go smoothly. I kind of like this one. It feeds my inner need to keep track of things.

Graphic Designer: I like getting to exercise the artistic portions of my brain. Playing with text, color, line, and flow all please me. However I’m very aware of the gaps in my graphic design education (self-taught) and am often afraid that those gaps will cause me to fail in an embarrassing or expensive way.

Shopkeeper: Running a table while at a convention is in the “do not like” column. It is not miserable, just draining.

Inventory manager: Don’t mind this one. It just is. Although I wish I could do a better job of keeping the storage room organized.

Shipping manager: This one wears on me. Not all the time. Mostly it is routine. I guess right now it is wearing on me because I’ve got a bunch of new things to learn really soon.

Business Manager: Again this is a job that gives me the opportunity to track dozens of things. This is the hat I wear when I’m assigning jobs and work flow to the graphic designer, convention liaison, shopkeeper, accountant, etc.

Art director: I don’t like this job. The art director has to hand out assignments and deadlines to the artist. The artist in this case is Howard, which means I’m piling on stress. Howard, naturally, then complains about his stress to his wife. Then I feel guilty even while knowing the stress is necessary to getting the job done.

Wife: I like this job. I plan on keeping it for a long time.

When I was talking to a friend and rattled off something close to the list above, she asked me if there were parenting hats that I don’t like. At the time I answered that I didn’t think that there were. That most of the parent hats I wear fill me up as much as they take from me. That conversation was several weeks ago and I’ve been paying attention since. Here are the parenting hats I do not like:

Homework warden: The homework belongs to the kids. It is their work. They should be allowed to succeed or fail at it according to their efforts. Except that teaching them how to succeed at homework is my job. It is a job that can only be done if I’m standing at their elbow to help, either figuratively or literally. Also I can’t stop my brain from tracking their homework. My brain has an auto track function which tells me that my teenager mentioned a huge report two weeks ago and that I’ve not seen him work on it since. Then my stress levels rise because I can sense the impending storm when said teenager will have a complete meltdown because now the work is due and he planned poorly. Then it is my job, not so much to rescue the child or make sure the work gets done, but to help the child navigate consequences in such a way that perhaps a different path can be picked next time. Often it gets to the point where I cringe at any homework at all.

Short order cook: In theory I cook food, the kids eat the food and all is well. Sometimes it actually works that way. Usually though I cook food, various subsets of kids complain about the food, we have arguments about eating, and stress is spread all around. So then the next time I cook I try to base my cooking decisions on past experiences. I make sure to have a low meat option for one child and a non-potato option for another. I use all sorts of creativity to try to provide food that will result in no complaints. Sometimes I even stand around waiting for them to decide what they want and then fix four different meals for four different kids. Other times I place a standard in the ground and fight the battle of “I’ve cooked for you, therefore you should be grateful and just eat what is in front of you.” I have a guilty suspicion that if I could be more consistent about food and meals that this would be less stressful for everyone. But I don’t like spending creativity on food. I want to save it for other things.

Pack mule / garbage can: If the kids don’t know where a garbage can is and I’m near by, they give it to me. Thus my purse becomes a repository of wrappers and other sticky things. If we’re out of the house and they don’t want to carry something anymore, they give it to me. This happens a lot less now than it used to. However each time I have to decide whether to quietly accept what ever is being thrust at me or whether to make an issue of it.

And so that this is not a post more filled with complaining than good things, a couple of hats that I love:

Snuggler: When they need comfort, they come to me. Even the teenagers.

Listener: I love listening to people sort their thoughts and tell me about silly things. Sometimes I am tired and listening is hard because it takes energy. Other times listening invigorates me, filling me with hope and happiness. It is a good hat, much treasured.

Pears, guilt, and cooking during shipping week

There were pears on my front porch; the last fruits from our tree which we’d not given away. They sat there in a row where we’d placed them to ripen. They’d ripened fine, but they continued to sit while we all walked past them off to school, back from school, running errands, shipping packages, fetching mail, or hauling garbage. The pears witnessed it all and they gradually shifted toward the place beyond ripe. My occasional pauses to glance guiltily at the pears changed from “I really ought to can those” into “I really ought to throw those away.” One morning we finally did. Howard and I dumped all the porch pears unceremoniously into the garbage can. I breathed relief. Pears were no longer a little nagging item on my list of things to do.

The back lawn was blanketed with a layer of leaves. This is the natural result of having planted trees a decade ago. If the leaves were left all winter the grass would die. I sent kids out to rake one afternoon and they made leaf houses, outlining imaginary walls with long sinuous piles of leaves. On a different day I sent them out to rake again and told them they were required to fill up six garbage bags with leaves. They did as they were told and the lawn was still dotted with large grass-killing leaf piles. Howard surveyed the leaves and declared a family leaf raking hour. We armed ourselves with gloves, rakes, and a box full of garbage bags. In the course of one hour, our two teams of baggers and one team of rakers relocated all the leaves into bags. From there the leaves could be transported to the green waste station or offered to neighbors for mulch.

Our pear tree had a surprise for us. Protected under the layer of fallen leaves were several dozen pears. Many of them were the sort of rotten fruit one expects to find a month past the end of bearing season, but some of them were perfect. Ripe. Crisp. Ready to eat or cook. We took a break from raking and gathered up the still-good pears. We had almost two grocery sacks full. I looked at them on my kitchen counter. Pears were back on my list. I really did not want to spend another month feeling guilty about wasting pears. I also did not feel excited about canning pears. This was when I remembered apple butter.

Apple butter is a spread, like peanut butter, only it is made of apples, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. It is like distilled apple pie that you can spread on toast. I’d had some years ago and the memory stuck with me. Another thing which stuck in my memory is that pears can be substituted for apples in almost any recipe. I googled and had a recipe in minutes. I don’t know why smashing pears into a pulp through a strainer is more fun to me than peeling them and putting them into jars, but it is. The pulp cooked for over an hour, spreading the smell of apple pie through the house. Two batches resulted in 9 pints of pear butter. More importantly, it turned guilty pears into delicious spread.

Making pear butter is not what I ought to have done today. I’m not sorry for it though. Tomorrow I will find high gear and do all the shipping preparation things which need to be done. The calendars arrived and all the pieces are in hand. Now we just need to do the work.

Excused on Account of Illness

Being sick is no fun at all, but being excused from my regular rounds of Things To Do is kind of nice. This particular sickness is somewhat confusing. I’m not actively miserable, just blanketed with a layer of fatigue which denies me the energy to accomplish anything except in short bursts. Oh, and there is the occasional coughing fit. In between the short bursts of almost-normal energy, I sit. Sometimes I sleep, drifting from wakefulness into the top layers of dreaming like a fatigued driver unable to keep track of the lines on the road. In the drift my mind ponders things slowly, like contemplating how to make a dessert quiche which includes elements of bread pudding. Why I chose now to plan quiche is something of a mystery, but it is restful and fatigue has interfered with my ability to question. Perhaps later in the day I’ll use one of my bursts of energy to see if reality matches the quiche of my imagination.

In some ways the lassitude which has overcome me feels like the calm drifting I did in early June. In my less lethargic moments, this makes me wonder if I am just being lazy, finding an excuse to lay on the couch and think of nothing in particular. Then the energy passes, or a coughing fit hits, and I know that the fatigue is physiological rather than psychological. I do ponder how good it feels to drift. It is as if I can only comprehend the pressures which I daily place on myself by their absence. This is not surprising news. I have been trying to give myself permission to relax more often, but unlike fictional characters, I don’t complete my character arc and move on. Instead the shapes of my habits and personality send me circling around like Winnie the Pooh in the misty woods, always ending up at the same sand pit. Like Pooh, it often takes me awhile to realize that it is the same pit, because things look different from this side. Yet Pooh did not stay in the woods forever, and neither will I. Each iteration teaches me something new until I finally find my way to a new adventure. Five years from now our lives will inevitably have a very different shape. The things I am doing now, that we all are doing, will make that future a good place to be.

Sometime last week Kiki was having a particularly difficult day, wrestling with problems which no one else could solve for her. After all the listening, hugs, and outpouring of my thoughts on conflict management; the most important thing I said to her was “I know this feels huge right now, but I promise that in the scope of your whole life this will become small.” If I could only keep this thought in mind, then each day could be filled with more of the calm, faithful drift which this sickness has imposed. Today I haven’t the energy to feel stressed about what I’m unable to do. Instead I focus on the few things I can. So I answer a few emails, then I nap. I ponder quiche, then I pick up my kids from school. I sleep and then read. Next week I will have to catch up on things not done today, and I will, but for today I drift.

A Snippet of Cooking

The cake was Link’s idea, part of his Sunday dinner plan. He’d done most of the ingredient dumping, but felt intimidated by the specificity of the mixing instructions. I creamed the butter and sugar together, watching as these two separate textures blended into smoothness. One egg went in for a minute of mixing and the texture changed. The second egg and second minute changed the swirling mixture again. I watched and pondered the chemical magic which causes molecules to bond when mixed together in the proper order. I was taken with a desire to make more cakes, learning how to side-step those boxed mixes and start from just the separate items on my shelves. We don’t need to be eating the dozens of cakes necessary to perfect a recipe, but I had conceived a desire to master cake in the way that I have chocolate chip cookies. I shall have to try, bit by bit, over many months.

Sunday Dinner in Process

Food currently in process:
Rolls -currently rising with the oven pre-heating. I began the dough before church, kneaded and rolled in the space between church and a church committee meeting.
Fudge -cooling. This is the promised reward for Gleek and Patch who have spent the last month braving primary without any toys or distractions. I made it after my committee meeting just in time to start everything else.
Rice -simmering. This will be the basis for the Sunday dinner which Patch has decided to cook.
Hamburger -thawing. Soon it will become beef stroganoff.
Vegetables -canned. Awaiting a can opener and a microwave.

Apparently in this new rhythm of life my Sundays are all about church and cooking. I’m not sure whether this is a problem yet. The minute resentment appears, shifts will need to be made. Today I’m not minding it because I’m focused on the positive benefits of all of us sitting down at the table to eat lots of delicious food. I’m staring at the puffy roll dough right now and they’re going to be amazing.

The other things I do on Sunday are often preparatory for the rest of the week. I make lists, plan meals, remind everyone of their Family Home Evening assignments, and sometimes have time to sit down and work on the family photo books. It is definitely a day focused on family and on being prepared. I am not doing my usual round of things, which I suppose qualifies as a day of rest. On the other hand, I hardly take time to sit down. For now I need to hold the patterns as they are. I really like the results of all the things I do on Sundays and this is the only way I’ve found which structures those things into existence. Any changes would have to be made carefully or important things will fall back out of the schedule.

For now I’ll just stick the rolls in the oven, then call Patch to come help cook while Link sets the table.

Pondering Dinner

It is 4:30 pm and I am once again faced with the challenge of figuring out what to feed the kids for dinner. I don’t like this challenge. I particularly don’t like that it arrives multiple times per day. It is not that making food is difficult. Deciding what to make uses creative sectors of my brain that I don’t want to spend on food. Also I must always balance food choices against the likelihood that the kids will argue about eating the food. Do I fix that thing child #1 loves, but that will require a 20 minute argument with child #4? There are some foods that everyone eats without complaining, but odds are I fixed them yesterday and the day before.

I know I should meal plan in advance. Our diets are better when I do. Not to mention I can skip the step of standing in the kitchen for 30 minutes staring at the stuff in my cupboard and weighing complaint/healthiness ratios. I really should meal plan. It would be nice if I’d done it three days or a week ago. I didn’t. And now it is 4:40 pm. Time to begin the daily staring into the cupboard and pondering. Perhaps later tonight I will give a gift to my tomorrow self and actually plan in advance.

In which I revise my thoughts about cooking

Every time the kids turn on Ratatouille, Howard wanders into the kitchen and cooks something. All of the cooking scenes in the film remind him how much he loves to combine ingredients. I watched this with puzzlement. The movie didn’t inspire me to cook. It didn’t even make me hungry. In fact contemplating cooking takes up the same piece of my brain that I use to contemplate chores. Cooking is a necessary step in the “feed the children” task which comes up with annoying regularity. Julie and Julia, which I watched last week, is another movie focused around cooking. I really enjoyed the movie, but (as I smugly told Kiki and Howard) it didn’t make me want to cook. I just wanted to eat what the folks in the movie cooked. I was to be proven wrong.

The first shift in my thinking arrived at the Women’s Relief Society (church organization) dinner. It was a marvelous meal featuring two kinds of shredded meat and an array of sauces. The Bearnaise sauce was to die for. I snarfled up a plate full and went back for seconds. I was certain that the sauce had been catered by a local restaurant. It hadn’t. It was made by my friend’s husband. That marvelous sauce had been made in a home kitchen. Not only that, but the recipe was set out for anyone to take. I looked at it and realized that the primary ingredient was “Bearnaise sauce packet.” In theory I could cook this sauce in my very own kitchen and eat a lot more of it.

Next I was browsing in a grocery store and I noticed that they were once again stocking rosemary bread. I love rosemary bread. It is for savoring. I love the way the aroma mingles with food while I’m eating. I brought the bread home and toasted it. The flavor reminded me of the plan I had several months ago. It was a plan for healthy eating which involved eating small amounts of things that I truly desire to eat, rather than discovering I am hungry and filling up on whatever is handy. It was a good plan, but somehow I’d lost track of it.

Then Kiki needed at treat for school and she wanted fudge. So I found myself standing over a stove on Sunday afternoon, stirring. As I stirred, I explained how the heat helps the sugar crystallize and how all cooking is really chemistry. It was a good little speech. By the time I was done, I’d convinced both Kiki and myself that cooking is a fascinating scientific process.

So there I was stirring, spoon swooshing through sugar bubbles, and I realized I was enjoying myself. I thought about Julie from the movie and how her cooking challenge (524 recipes in 365 days) saved her from a dark time in her life. Scenes from the film played back in my mind’s eye and I saw the joy of creation. It helps that Julie is also a writer and so the movie is as much about writing and living as it is about cooking.

The fudge was done and poured into a pan and I stood back satisfied. It struck me that I wanted to do more cooking. Somehow I’d gone from thinking about the film, to picturing myself stirring sauces. I wanted to have a piece of the amazing experience that Julie had in the film. I wanted to understand cooking better, to find ways to enjoy it, to make some dinners that do not start with a can of cream of mushroom soup. I found that I wanted it despite the fact that I know some of the things I attempt will go disastrously wrong. I even wanted the associated emotional melt downs, because at least it would mean that I tried something new instead of staying where I am comfortable.

The last thing I need in my life is another big project. I have no space for a big project. This means I can not undertake so grand an effort as Julie did. I can not add stress to our family in pursuit of cooking. But there are times when my brain is tired of writing and I loathe the thought of being in my basement office. There are times when I have time and space to think about a short term creative project like cooking a single meal. So I am going to try this. I am going to attempt to educate myself about foods and how to prepare them. In between preparing new foods I will be feeding us all the ordinary stuff. I like the idea of introducing new foods, but not at the expense of the family budget.

First up: Bearnaise sauce. We shall see how this goes.