Suffice it to say we have been busy. (Note to self: never again move to a new house just before Christmas.) A little peek at what some of us have been up to these last couple of weeks. Heavenly Peace on this Christmas Eve, from my family to yours.
Suffice it to say we have been busy. (Note to self: never again move to a new house just before Christmas.) A little peek at what some of us have been up to these last couple of weeks. Heavenly Peace on this Christmas Eve, from my family to yours.
Have you ever fixated on a simple word until it’s no longer recognizable? The word desk, for example, is a four-letter word that means “a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for WRITING and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes,” so says Merriam Webster. Roll around the word desk for a while, considering its three consonants, and the single vowel that makes it pronounceable, and it will elude you, gentle reader, like some sci-fi shape shifter only masquerading as a desk. Soon you will question your own sanity and wonder whether you invented that word, or misunderstood it all these years, and it was never really a desk at all, but some other thing. Like a sked. Or maybe a keds (ah, somebody already took that one). But you catch my drift.
My beautiful writing desk has no drawers, compartments, or pigeonholes—my antique bill-paying desk fits that description to a tee, and now sits in a preordained spot in our gleaming new kitchen. Instead my writing desk is sleek and modern, with a clear glass top and nickel-colored legs that arc up from the ground gracefully to meet it. For six years it was my director’s desk in the office at Knoxville Ballet School. Then it was loaded onto a moving van and set before a big picture window in my Vermont cottage across the road from Lake Morey: that was a magical and terrifying year, and a lifestyle I could not sustain. But for the next move to a loft apartment in the central part of the state the writing desk was pronounced Too Bulky: David-the-Chef and I took it apart and carefully placed it in the garage below the loft. Thence to an Arlington, Vermont storage unit when we finally combined our two households in 2015.
But in our new home a beautiful room awaits that desk, with pale yellow walls and big windows overlooking the back yard and the river beyond it, one corner of the room awash with sunlight on days we’re lucky. That corner looks like it was made for my big, glass desk. You can always hem and haw about the placement of a chair and ottoman here, or a bookcase there, but some furniture informs you unequivocally where it belongs, and the writing desk has spoken.
In fact I should be writing this post from that sunny perch, actually a tad overcast today. But the shape-shifting desk is missing its hardware. And in the intervening years since it was last moved, we can’t for the life of us remember where we put it. Other hardware—curtain hardware, for example—we found, exactly where it was supposed to be, inside a bag, inside a box. Right there. But in more than a week of hauling, schlepping, and unpacking, there is no desk hardware. It is specialized hardware for a special desk, not something you can run down to the Home Depot and pick up along with the trash bags and light bulbs you need. Last night I lamented to DTC that maybe the glass desk will end up in the tag sale with all the other things we’re tag sale-ing next spring, because it has no hardware. The writing desk is useless without its hardware, so I am still writing with my laptop balanced upon my knees.
One day last week leaving work I had a similar moment to the word contemplating moment, where I did not recognize a gauge on my car’s dash board: it was the visual equivalent of the shape-shifting word. I kept staring at the gauge and thinking, wait—have you always been right there? In that spot? I thought about this for several miles, several solid minutes, even turning down the radio at one point, unable to reconcile this stupid thing in my mind. I waited and waited for something to change, for some toggle switch stuck in the wrong position inside my noodle to finally flip, and then everything would seem as it should. The switch never flipped, and I finally relented to my own silliness, and retrained my brain to recognize the gauge in this new place where it’s been all along. I believe I grew some new neural pathways in that exercise. The only explanation for this I can muster is the monumental upsetting of everything that happens when you move: nothing is where it should be, nothing is as it seems, and life’s routines are shaken in general. Alas, there are miles of new neural pathways to grow yet.
Yesterday Scout tripped the alarm when we were away from the house getting more boxes of things at the rental. I disarmed the system from my phone before central monitoring was alerted, thus averting the arrival of the cavalry and an invocation of false alarm fees. Days before that the installer assured me Scout did not weigh enough for the motion detector to care, not to worry. He was wrong. Motion detected at 1:56 pm, said the app on my phone. Alarm tripped! I was in transit for trip number two of the day back over to the rental, so back I went to check on things. I could imagine Scout tripping the alarm when he hopped onto the sofa. Or perhaps hopping off the sofa to growl at the postman, a thing he did on Friday. Another item for the week: call the alarm company—little-ish Labs can convince the motion detector they are big dawgs.
Meanwhile, Scout seems unimpressed by the move, and in fact alternates between moments of indulgent relaxation on the sofa or the human bed, and sheer exuberance exploring the breadth and scope of his new back yard. More lessons to learn from a dog.
On Thanksgiving Day we pushed up our sleeves and worked like crazy from the dawn’s first light until we collapsed into bed late. A vacation day during a big move is simply too valuable to do things like watch parades and football games and cook huge meals or entertain friends and family. Those things will wait. Instead we had a simple dinner prepared by the chef, of seared salmon, rice, and caramelized Brussels sprouts, and I opened a lovely bottle of wine from a case our CPA gave us as a housewarming gift, bless her. We ate hungrily, mostly quietly, sneaking Scout a succulent piece or two of fish after he finished the crisped salmon skin the chef threw into his dinner bowl. Then we watched the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, a favorite of mine the chef has never seen, and marveled at how much the world has changed since that David Lynch creation, which seemed so stylized and revolutionary at the time. Now it seems ordinary, maybe because I already know who killed Laura Palmer, or maybe in my mind’s eye I made it into something it was not, like the gauge on my car’s dash board.
Last night I reminded my David-the-Chef not to look too closely at the configuration of clothing in the upstairs closet, or the placement of pots and pans in the kitchen: it’s all a work in progress, I quipped, and will no doubt change and change again—shift shapes—in the coming weeks.
Keep that in mind next time you go into the bathroom, he said. Uh-oh, I thought.
Instead, this is what I found:
Everybody needs ‘em a little ballet in the bawthroom. Such a loving and thoughtful chef. Has anybody seen my desk hardware?
Changing your address can change your life, chirped a too-cheerful woman in a slick TV advert for planned community living.
We are long accustomed to cranking out some pretty impressive cuisine in our outdated, strapped-for-space, apartment-sized kitchen. We’ve made do using a teeny kitchen table that belongs to our landlord as adjunct counter space, perfected a risky bowl-balancing technique at the T-shaped junction of our rusty divided sink where it meets the lip of the unfortunate formica countertop, ditto the V-shaped metal dish drainer, and in a pinch have even pressed into service the flat top of our stainless steel garbage can to hold some large cooking vessel or other when there was absolutely nowhere else to put it. (Scout’s food storage bin doubles as a decent cookbook holder, I have discovered.)
But if I had to fault this kitchen for a single thing above all others, it would be its darkness. At times this vexes me enough to send me into a tailspin for a solid evening, when I can’t find my damn readers, and that on top of badly compromised eyes in the first place.
I’ve taken on the black-and-white photo challenge for the past few days, the one everybody’s doing. I decided to edit these in black and white, too, but the absence of light in our little kitchen speaks volumes through my Sunday morning biscuits in the make. That, and my inexperience with a camera. I expect more of our soon-to-be kitchen, a wide-open space with light fixtures everywhere, loads of natural light, and a pleasant collision of interesting 1936 cabinetry and storage with 2017 finishes and appliances. Yes, that change of address will indeed change our lives.
White Lily flour is the gold standard for Southern biscuits, and for over a century was milled at a factory near a familiar intersection just northeast of downtown Knoxville (the company closed its Knoxville plant in 2008 and moved operations to the Midwest). It was what everyone bought and baked with, a pantry standard along with Hellmann’s mayo and for many years, JFG coffee, if you lived in Knoxville. For a while Williams-Sonoma peddled White Lily at a stupid price in its brick-and-mortar stores and catalog; they seem to have come to their senses. Anyway, up in these parts King Arthur flour is the thing, and is what I put in my biscuits this morning.
My mama begged my great-grandmother Grace—Granny Grace—to tell us some of her beloved recipes many years ago, long before she died. I am sure Granny had recipes tucked away somewhere, but by then most of what she routinely created in the kitchen was stored in her noodle, and so she simply quoted from memory. Granny’s vagueries were maddening sometimes (‘put in about that much milk,’ said gesturing with tar-stained fingers between puffs on her ciggie, or ‘bake it ’til it’s done’). To her way of thinking it was obvious.
This morning I did a side-by-side of her biscuit recipe and the one on the White Lily bag, and dang if they’re not pretty much identical. I clipped the White Lily version from my last bag of flour, the one I schlepped all the way to Vermont from Tennessee with me. It’s on the door of the fridge, right next to my mom’s potato soup recipe—soup she routinely made and brought to me the year I was going through my divorce, when I would eat nothing else. I’ve begged her to send it to me for years, and not long ago she finally called and quoted it to me over the phone. It reads pretty much like a Granny-Grace style concoction—a little of this and a little of that, until it looks right, and cook it ’til it’s done. She comes by it honestly, anyway. And when I protested, she merely quipped unapologetically, you live with a chef: figure it out.
The biscuit sandwich I made this morning assuaged my days-long desire for a made-from-scratch biscuit. It was not exactly what Granny Grace would eat: in lieu of her crispy bacon, for example, mine had a leaner applewood smoked turkey slice. There was no fried egg, but instead a small egg whites omelet folded, and folded again; I did not cook it in bacon grease as she might have done, but instead used coconut oil. I schmeared the biscuit with a little bit of apricot preserves, no butter, and layered on crisp, fresh spinach, the year’s last from our favorite farm stand. I still have a few tomatoes in the windowsill that probably come close to Granny Grace’s high standards for tomatoes, and so I added a thick slice. (She would wait until lunch for hers, sliced and laid out on a plate or saucer and doused with salt, taken with strong black coffee and another smoke.)
I’ll keep on making Southern biscuits wherever I live: some things should never change. And I know Gracie would agree.
The metal carabiner-like clip that fastens to the harness part of Scout-the-Lab’s seatbelt is maddening, like that childhood game Barrel Full of Monkeys: just when you think you’re about to get it clipped—or unclipped as the case may be—an irksome little hook (think crochet needle) gets hung up and refuses to slip through the metal clasp on the harness. At least, when you’re trying to do it one-handedly. Scout sits there patiently waiting for his lady-human to correct the situation while she tugs and pulls his harness this way and that, cursing under her breath, or sometimes plainly for the world to hear, depending on her mood. There! she finally spits out when the damned thing does as it should. The inventor of that childhood game must be complicit with the designer of the Kurgo dog harness, I am sure of it. Good thing Scout’s long familiar with the ritual, as we repeated it countless times over the course of nine days of Way Down South adventuring.
This was Scout’s big epiphany during our Dogged Adventures: he is a Dog of the World, schooled in long-distance travel, in navigating loud city sidewalks crowded with people and other dogs, and importantly, in waiting when he is told—waiting to jump down from the car, or to jump up into the car, waiting before bolting out of the hotel room’s open door, waiting for the automatic doors to open, waiting for the traffic signal to change, and sometimes, merely waiting. Waiting is also what happens when you go to a dog-friendly eatery with outdoor seating; the best ones bring you a fresh bowl of water and give you a pat on the head. But mainly, you lie down and wait; sometimes you snap at a yellow jacket until your human warns you to stop because this pastime can only end badly for you. But in spite of being asked not to snap at yellow jackets and being made to wait, you are glad to do it, because the rewards are sweet. Smoked barbecue, for example, is completely worth waiting for. Ditto bites of succulent grilled chicken, or crumbles of a grass-fed beef burger smothered in Vermont cheddar. Call it manna from heaven, if you like—good things come to those who wait, and Scout completely gets this.
No self-respecting chef embarks on a vacation without doing his culinary homework. HCB wanted barbecue from the get-go, and he wanted the best. One of his homies down in Asheville made recommendations, and because Scout-the-Lab was with us, we opted for number two on the list (see dog-friendly eatery above). This worked out fine, and nobody was disappointed: leftovers supplied a homemade pizza topping for one gluten-free twenty-something, a couple of sammies, and general late-night noshing with the fridge door wide open at our little vacation rental. We ate it with the abandon of people off their diets and on vacation, all of it, and mopped up what was left with remnants of homemade corn bread.
Asheville has always held appeal as a quirky but still somehow metropolitan mountain city, separated from its neighbors by, well, mountains. You kind of have to work to get there: eastbound I-40 out of Knoxville gets steep and curvaceous all of a sudden, and just when you think you can’t take any more careening up a steep, fast-moving highway wedged between a cement barrier on one side, and a long caravan of tractor trailer rigs on the other, you’re there. What struck us about Asheville on this trip is her ancient infrastructure long outgrown by the burgeoning city around it, crying out to be replaced (as the twenty-something correctly observed: because there are no turn lanes, traffic backs up for days). The seamier, industrial parts of town have elevated graffiti to high art, and damned if it does not work beautifully. We spotted an entire group of people photographing it on tripods, part of a class assignment we guessed. Downtown is fun, and treacherous, and did not slow down one jot no matter what time we were out and about. But for his part, Scout-the-Lab seemed to know exactly what to do after our excursion with him in downtown Knoxville. Dogs are amazing and resilient.
We also took a small hike from our rental (on the outskirts of downtown, and on the edge of the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s campus, as it happens) to the UNCA observatory, high atop a ridge overlooking the city. The area around it—the paved road leading up, the street lights, and a tall concrete stairway reaching from the road below to the building above—have been let go, it’s fair to say. Nor have the gardens around it seen much love in recent years, although the most determined flowering plants have elbowed their way to life in spite of the overgrowth around them: you can tell it was once really something. Meanwhile the observatory itself is still brought into service several times a year, and opens up for public viewings. We happened to be there for one which was unfortunately full, but anyway cancelled thanks to the overcast remnants of Irma. The boy said he could tell the top of the building slides open, and when we got back to our place I looked it up, and sure enough. Meanwhile, we got outside, exercised a little, and took in the incredible vistas from the top; my whiny kid said he had no interest in going, and then all of a sudden he was right there with us. Wish I had used that strategy in my younger parenting years instead of pleading, reasoning, and brow beating. Hindsight.
There’s no place like home. And there’s no place like the South; I miss it like crazy, content for now to busy myself with hopeful goings-on here in Vermont, about which more later.
Postscript: I meant to include this photo of my ghostlike dog-and-chef in the Knoxville post but somehow missed it. Serendipitous—I have no clue how I did it, something to do with shutter speed and the absence of light probably. It was late, we were going down stairs in a downtown parking garage. Mistakes can be beautiful, after all.
When it’s cold-ish, rainy, and a bit blustery on vacation, you spend a fair amount of time in your cheap hotel room doing mainly nothing. Or riding shotgun around town with your twenty-something while he shows you new stuff and changed stuff and plain missing stuff. Five years is long enough for the landscape to morph so dramatically in some places it’s no longer recognizable, five years of freeze and thaw cycles, stormy seasons, and a recovering economy. Midday Monday found me sitting with the boy in the drive-through lane at his favorite eatery, idling over the same pavement where I clocked so many hours with him snapped into the back seat booster, tired, hungry, a peanut-sized malcontent who never really met the world’s expectations from a tender age. This was a better scenario.
We can deal with boredom, content merely to be off the clock for a few days. My ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister has had a much rougher go of it in Charleston. I hate that we missed our visit, but hate it more that she and Waco-the-Lab are dealing with what they are. And there is that fickle José doing dog-knows-what out there in the Atlantic, a bit too close to Charleston.
Meanwhile the eternally agreeable and exercise-deprived Scout-the-Lab was positively giddy for his four-miler in a beloved city park in Knoxville, Tennessee Monday morning, a romp squeezed in before Irma arrived in these parts (she threw some cold rain and wind our way, and then moved on). HCB did eight miles in about the same amount of time it took me to cover four. The paved trail in the park was new, seems like yesterday. Now it is broken up in places, marbled with root incursion (a visual nightmare for somebody like myself with no depth perception); running in this case was a euphemism for playing hopscotch along the serpentine and hilly path. Scout explored every nook and cranny with the joie de vivre only a dog possesses; we should watch and learn.
Lakeshore Park was once the sprawling campus of a large residential mental hospital, the ‘loony bin’ as insensitive locals sometimes called it. In the late 19th century it was named the Eastern Hospital for Insane officially, then in the 1920s the more sanitized sounding Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital replaced it. And true to a trend, the residential services in the hospital came offline in pieces starting in 1990. For a time the grand old 19th century brick structures remained, some of them anyway, where patients continued to receive outpatient care. Then many of those services fell by the wayside, too, and the big, empty buildings served only as a snapshot of history, what was once a self-sufficient operation with its own dairy now a thing of the past. By June of 2012 the hospital was officially a hospital no more, replaced by legions of city athletic fields, and the new pathway around it filled with stroller-pushing moms and now hopscotching middle aged folks and their shy doggies. I halfway thought I’d bump into somebody I once knew and then it dawned on me most of these folks were mere children the last time I made this circuit. Time marches on.
In the space of only a few days Scout learned this truth: sleeping in a huge, soft bed with your humans is divine. He does not enjoy this luxury back home in Vermont because a vexation known as spiral stairs makes it impossible.
Funny that a 60-pound dog could scare the bejeebus out of a much larger shepherd, but that is precisely what happened when Scout-the-Lab invited a skeptical fraidy cat to play.
The culinary highlight of our time in Knoxville was authentic Cuban fare eaten on our laps from Styrofoam takeout boxes, since doggies are no bueno inside a restaurant with no patio. We also caught up with my dad for a happy couple of hours and obligatory family photos with lots of chiding dad about his ancient phone technology. He insisted the groovy clicky noise and the animated shutter on his phone trumps the benefits of a smartphone any day, but HCB’s missing head suggests otherwise.
Scout-the-Lab is not only the Most Agreeable Traveling Canine Ever, but can now also claim expertise as a city dog. I had reservations about this, mainly about folks wanting to approach and touch him. But when we spent an evening in downtown Knoxville they came at us fast and furious—I could not run interference on every single encounter, nor did I need to as it happened: Scout seemed to get it. He was happy to be approached and petted and in fact enjoyed the attention. Urban night life proved a treasure trove of delicious new experiences for a dog keen to take it all in.
When I was a young student at the University of Tennessee, I routinely stepped over the busts of naked ladies in the basement of the McClung Museum on campus, where they sat in storage when they were salvaged from a beloved downtown department store after its conversion to Something Better. In the last couple of decades as Knoxville came to its senses they were restored to their rightful places. I caught them hard at work as they should be, from our sidewalk table at this little eatery, where earlier we bumped into a pair of dear friends, and were waited on by the daughter of another. It was the perfect finale to our time in Knoxville.
With apologies to friends, family, and one beloved professor and a couple others I could not see this time around, more soon from the mountains of Asheville, NC.
Summer is color at long last after months of a monochromatic landscape, not only the verdant carpet that defines our namesake Green Mountains in Vermont, but in what it yields: marbled veins and rivulets in crimson radicchio, the bitter leaf that will cavort a while later with exotic mesclun and mustard greens waiting patiently in their twist-tied bags at the farm stand, where I stop on the way home from work, where a cat wanders around while people are picking through vegetables, a cat who sometimes plunks down lazily on the rough-hewn floorboards and flicks the tip of her tail back and forth and forces patrons to queue up awkwardly around her at the counter. Everybody smiles. Cat, you know nothing of the alert dog waiting just outside these big, open barn doors in the back seat of my car, I think.
Summer is taking that dog outside to do his doings whilst contemplating words like curmudgeon, and unctuous, or unctuous curmudgeon, and then realizing you can’t really have it both ways because they cancel each other out, which is too bad because ‘unctuous curmudgeon’ rolls off the tongue in a pleasing way. Scout, you are an unctuous curmudgeon, I say, and he wags his tail at me.
Summer is listening to Miles Davis in the evening with plenty of daylight still filtering through the skylights above, wondering who stole my copy of Kind of Blue back in Knoxville years ago and wondering why I never replaced it. And thinking of all the music I said I’d collect through the years but never did, like Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson in spite of his weirdness, or any of a number of 1980s British Invasion bands whose over-produced music I loved in my twenties. And the Bach Brandenburg Concerti—I still have none of them after all these years. And by the way maybe it was the same person who stole the liner notes from my Paul McCartney USA tour video, which vanished around the same time as Miles.
Summer is reminiscing about a highfalutin event my ex and I once hosted in Knoxville, a fundraiser for a local historic landmark where I’d worked as a young student of archaeology. And now years later I was somehow on the board of trustees feeling like a fish out of water and this enormous white event tent was pitched on our sprawling corner lawn shaded by massive, centuries-old hardwoods, a tent filled with tables and white wood folding chairs and people dressed to the nines and a sommelier going on about what they would be drinking that evening, and making Kir Royales for everybody all night long while they were writing checks. And thinking I knew on that night how the rest of my life would go. But in that moment, I am thinking I’d rather have a trowel in my hand and dirt under my nails than wear this tailored linen dress. Or stand at the barre breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes instead of wearing too-tight sandals on my own front lawn among people whose names I won’t remember and who know nothing of me.
And here I am two decades later in Vermont, longing for a summery Kir and making one for the first time in as long, with cheap cassis and even cheaper chardonnay. And it is better than I remembered.
And then reading about how to make a perfect Kir after I have already made and drunk one, I marvel at the snobbery out there in the wine-y ether, and about how you’re supposed pour in the cassis first so that it mixes perfectly with the wine, taking care it’s not too red—and instead I pour it in last, and carefully, to try to make it separate from the wine in the glass on purpose like a dessert parfait, because it did that by accident one time in Knoxville and it became a science experiment to try to make it do that again and again; my archaeology colleagues would appreciate the layers that recall stratigraphy in the soil.
Summer is eating lobster and filet because they were on sale and because I live with a person who knows how to prepare and cook them, and also greedily gnawing on our corn on the cob from a local farm, which if we’re being honest pales in comparison to what I grew up eating. And sneaking a small bite or two to Scout-on-the-sofa between us while we enjoy this rare surf-and-turf supper and binge watch the final few episodes of Six Feet Under on a Friday night after a difficult work week, and laugh and cry at the hilarity and sadness of mortality and at human frailty in general. And then we decide to save the last episode for later.
Summer is rooting for the lightning bugs in the woods when darkness falls at last, whispering that their homies down South would love to meet all three of them, and wondering how in this far-north destination they could ever overwinter in the first place.
Summer is anticipating a trip down South in September when it will still be plenty hot, and pretending I’m running on a gravel road in North Carolina where my erstwhile family’s erstwhile vacation home languishes in legal limbo, and comes unglued at the seams a little more with each passing Appalachian freeze and thaw cycle. I pretend I’m already on vacation before I run around the corner with Scout in this mountainous Vermont neighborhood and remember I am not.
A robin red breast will sit on the gravel road in the summer in Vermont with his back to you, statuesque, giving you the impression—however fleeting—that you can have him. Your lift your tawny ears, furrow your wrinkly brow, and stiffen your body at this delicious possibility. The prey drive in you engages at the precise moment he takes flight. Away he goes, and with him your resolve, which evaporates right off your muscular neck, moving first through your collar, and then all the way up your leash where the human hand on the other end of it feels it waft away, the human who has reminded you time and again you’ll never catch a bird.
But you are here to remind your human to live in this summer moment.
We really did miss out on spring, dang it. Winter held fast, and then fought tooth and nail before it finally relented sometime a couple of weeks ago. There were fair weather days here and there; they were but an illusion, some atmospheric sleight of hand at work, wicked trickery you might call it. And now we’ve arrived at summer full blown. I miss the changing of the seasons.
After Saturday morning doings we struck out on errands and found a little fun. Part I: our favorite farm stand opened at long last, a springtime box finally ticked. One hopes for a long growing season and exquisite bounty. For now it is slim pickings, but pickings nonetheless and a crowd of folks as desperate as we to get their hands on it—our little home garden is only just sprouting.
My struggle to bring images into focus in low light with limited equipment and expertise seems oddly appropriate since the bounty of the season remains blurry at best. An extreme example at this little eatery where we had lunch, Part II:
See that pale thing on the plate? That is no tomato (and a certain chef suggested it should never have found its way out of the kitchen to begin with). This is a tomato:
Saturday Part III was all about time travel, my idea.
Eventually the din grew too loud to bear, all those stories clamoring to be told. And there is only so much Swiss dot milk glass one can stomach in a single Saturday.
Whoever coined the ridiculous phrase, You can do whatever you want to do, was dead wrong: I can never be a rocket scientist (not that I wanted to). I do want to twirl pasta skillfully against a spoon and I can’t do that, either. Still makes for pretty pictures and good eatin’ no matter how it hangs from the fork. And were there a soundtrack for this weekend it would include the sizzle of fresh veg hitting a hot sauté pan; wind knocking around the chimes outside the glass doors; occasional canine snorings, and REM tail thumpings; snow and ice rumbling off a steeply pitched roof, crashing to the deck and ground below (goodbye, good riddance); a little bit of West Coast jazz; hearts beating and shoes thumping down a cleared running trail; the muted roiling of the Battenkill River; and the heat cycling on and off, still. Yesterday there came an unpleasant rip in the universe from a thousand miles away, as is wont to happen on occasion. Today is a new day full of promise.
Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.
But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.
Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.
Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.
A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.
We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.
Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.
Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.
Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.
HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)
The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.
The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.
It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.
The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)
Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.
Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?
Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.
In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.
But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)
I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.
Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.
If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.
Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.
Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.
‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.