Author Archives: Ivy

I Get It, I Understand

You know who’s the best? You guys. After my last post I had so many people reach out to me, by email, text, comment, phone, Facebook message, husband, currier pigeon, pony express, smoke signal, morse code, and, dangnabbit, even in person. And just about everyone was saying, “Yes, I hear you, I’m in this place too.” or “I was in this place.” or “I think I’m headed for this place.” I’m humbled and honored by those of you who opened up to me about your own struggles and I’m buoyed by the love and kindness sent my way. And of course it has gotten me thinking a lot.

Why, if so many of us are burdened and struggling with one thing or another, is it so hard for us to talk about it? If there is a wealth of understanding and support out there, why can’t we just be honest with where we are at from day to day? Are we really going to be social lepers if we quit pretending that we aren’t a wreck when we actually are? Maybe. I don’t know. But I suspect not. I think we all crave intimate connection but most of us are well trained to keep our less pretty emotions tucked away. My Norwegian ancestors keep a close eye on me and they don’t mind shaming me from the grave for crossing the line of what’s appropriate. “Stop making a scene,” they say tersely, “and don’t embarrass anyone.”

I’m actually terrified of embarrassment, mine and other people’s. Once I was at the dentist and the hygienist thought I was pregnant when I wasn’t. It was like being thrown into a humiliation casserole. I was embarrassed, of course, over my size and shape, but also embarrassed for her for making such an ostentatious social gaff. I was full of guilt that my own body could cause such awkwardness between people and ashamed that I had no snappy comeback, just hot, red cheeks and sweaty armpits in an office full of other embarrassed people. While that experience had nothing to do with emotional openness, it had the result of everyone feeling mortified and I never want to be the cause of that. Still though, I know that the subjects that sometimes make people uncomfortable are the ones we need to share the most. I want to be bold and open and real, but I’m a wuss when it comes right down to it. I find it easier to share my inner workings in writing, here and in less public settings, because I can avoid seeing the reaction on someone’s face and if people disapprove or find me immodest, chances are they won’t tell me about it.

A friend recommended a podcast called ‘Terrible, Thanks For Asking‘. I’ve only listened to the first few installments, but I really like the concept. The idea is that every episode is an interview with someone who has experienced something hard (or awful in some cases) and the difficult emotional recovery that comes with it. It’s people who are unapologetically honest with their pain and shortcomings, even if it causes some discomfort. Some of the stories are hard to listen to, but it’s a refreshing look at how the dark sides of life make us who we are. Obviously, it’s right up my alley.

That podcast, combined with the feedback I’ve gotten on my last post has made me wish we had a different way to communicate with each other about how we really are from day to day. Of course it’s going to be hard to be totally honest when you see an acquaintance at the kid’s swimming lessons or while meeting a potential client or waiting in line to buy tampons, but what if there was another way? Humor me for a minute and just imagine:

Every morning after we get up and start the day we put on a name tag. But instead of writing our name, we write how we are really feeling. Write it in green and it means you are open to talking about it. Write it in red and it means you aren’t. Then you go to work or school or the grocery store and everyone is walking around with a tag. I’m lonely. My husband is cheating on me. I’m so excited for my trip tomorrow. I think I’m pregnant. I’m sick of people giving me advice. Abandonment issues. I got a great job that I’m completely unqualified for. This sunny day makes me feel like frolicking. I ate an entire bag of Cheetos. In laws. I screamed at my kid and I feel horrible about it. I’m falling in love. My wife has cancer. Bankrupt. I want someone to take care of me. I’m jealous of everyone who is better looking than I am. I had a hard time leaving the house because of my anxiety. I’m happy for no reason.

Of course this alternate universe relies on us always knowing what we are feeling and why, being aware of our issues and able to articulate them. As far fetched as that is, when we have a glimmer of insight I think it’s worth trying to be brave and vulnerable and generous with our truth. Most of us are floundering through life looking for the people with whom we are simpatico. It’s hard to keep in mind, when wallowing around in our own emotional shit, that people long to say “I get it, I understand.” as much as they want to be understood themselves.

Authenticity might be my favorite quality in a person. My own moments of faker-ness come more often than I would like but I’m striving to be more candid in the way I present myself to the world. When someone shares their real self with me, it brings richness to my life, another complex layer of flavor. Being open with our truth is a gift to those hearts that are in harmony with our own. It makes us softer and more trusting. It feeds the compassionate parts of human nature instead of the judgmental ones. It’s an awkward stumble into grace.

“Engrave this upon my heart: there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” – Mary Lou Kownacki

(Except that I’m too realistic to be completely sold on this. There are plenty of people that I will continue to dislike even if I hear their story, because some people are just plain obnoxious. But I like the quote anyway.)

 

No More Leave It To Beaver

I’ve been struggling. The kind of struggling that sometimes leads to Prozac or psychotherapy or big life changes. It’s not really an easy thing to talk about. When someone asks, “How’ve you been?” I don’t say “I’ve been unhappy with my life and not sure what to do about it.” But that is the truth of the matter. It is part of the reason I haven’t been writing. I’m not gloomy all the time by any means, but often enough that I don’t feel like myself. There is a nagging feeling of being unfulfilled, stuck, lost, joyless. I have so very many things to be grateful for, but I’m having a hard time really feeling the gratitude. I can look around and see the gratitude, I can know intellectually how lucky I am but my heart is not swelling with it.

This has been such a busy couple of years for my family with very little down time in which to regroup. Most days, the urgency of the children, our business, the food that must be bought and prepared, is enough to mask what’s not quite right under the surface. But the subconscious starts to yell louder when you aren’t listening. I have found myself in the midst of bright green envy for the lives of my friends (who I know damn well have their own sets of problems) when usually I wouldn’t trade my situation in a million years. I have been leaky-eyed and overwhelmed at odd moments and without resilience. I’m getting a C- in mothering when I usually can pull off a solid B. Something is in need of adjustment.

I had a dream about my dad, who I haven’t dreamt about in years. We were seeing each other after a long time apart, supposedly having a visit and catching up, but he was spending the time making small talk with strangers and ignoring me. I finally cornered him and demanded to know why he wasn’t talking to me or interested in my life. I wanted to know what he had been doing with his time that was so much more important than our relationship. He told me that there had been an all day Leave It To Beaver marathon on TV “and, well, you know…”  I was so upset by the fact that he wasn’t even watching something new, but reruns of a show that was stupid the first time around, that I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, screaming “You are wasting your life!!! You aren’t paying attention!!! You aren’t asking me questions!!!”

I woke from the dream knowing that it was an important one. I started off thinking that my inner little girl was coming out to deal with some old issues from the past and wondering ‘why now?’ But as I ruminated on it a bit more I had an epiphany. The dream was not about hurts in my childhood, it was about me, right now, not paying attention. I’m afraid one day I will look around and feel that I have wasted my life. That instead of asking myself questions, I’m ignoring something important and distracting myself with metaphorical reruns. My dad came to visit me in the night to tell me I need to get my act together.

Okay, so, that’s great, but now what? I understand that I need to start asking questions, and I am. I’m asking over and over. What is it that I want? What am I going to do with the life I have left? What is missing here? How do I find inspiration again? But each of these questions comes with a subtext that points out that the answer must fit in with our real life, and our real life is kind of a pain in the ass right now.

My day to day at this point feels monotonous. My children will never stop testing me, my husband will work seven days a week for the rest of his life, and traveling is a thing of the past. Now, intellectually I know that is not true, but it’s such the reality of our situation at this time that I can’t fathom how we move out of this phase. Hence the feeling stuck.

After a number of talks with Robert, who is a tremendous, if distracted, support to me, we still haven’t figured out how we make owning a business less crazy and more sustainable. We both agree that it’s not working very well right now. Yes, we can potentially (knock on wood) make a living doing this, but at what cost? Living in a state of panic, always running to put out whatever fire is burning the hottest is no way to have a life. Short term and long term, changes need to be made.

One thing that has become clear is that for everyone’s sanity I need to take over some more of the business responsibilities. It does nothing good for anyone in this house when Robert has to spend his weekends shut away doing paper work. He feels fully burned out, the kids miss him and resent me, and I feel like a caged animal, about to scream or cry all the freakin’ time. I’m trying to figure out my place in this work we have taken on as well as what I need to do to feel personally fulfilled. Building houses is not my passion, but it’s not terrible either, and it is what we are doing right now. There is enjoyable, creative work in there, but I have to find my niche. There is also mindless data entry work, a lot of it, and that needs to be done too. I want to truly be a partner for my husband, not just the one who takes care of the rest of our life so he can work all the time. We both are in need of some balance.

I’m hardly unique in these feelings. Most people at some point, or at many points, feel unsure of their path or afraid of wasting their lives. We are all finding our way and sometimes, and for some people, it’s just really hard. I guess this could be called a mid-life crisis. I’m not in any danger of running off with my personal trainer or getting a boob job or dancing on tables at the local bar. But I am in danger of not being the kind of mom, wife, daughter and friend that I want to be. I’m in danger of not being the kind of ME that I want to be.

So this is life right now. It’s messy. It is also very mundane and privileged to have these kinds of problems. I know there are many, many people who work harder and more stoically than we do. It’s so embarrassingly prosaic that I’m rolling my eyes at my own self, but shameful or not, it’s where I’m at.

There is a lesson here, and I want it to stop hitting me over the head with a two by four, so I’m trying to learn it. So far I’ve got this much: Pay attention. No more Leave It To Beaver reruns. Your time is limited, don’t waste it.

I’m asking my questions and hoping the answers will come.

Yeah, I’m Still Here

I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me. Ha ha ha (that’s an evil laugh). Just when you think I’m gone for good I’ll resurface, like lice or horsetails.

I started a post a few weeks ago that was supposed to be a recap of what has been going on around here for the last six months. I kept holding back from hitting the ‘publish’ button though, and I realized what was bothering me. What I wrote was hideously boring. So I’m going to spare you most of the bitching and moaning and trim it down to just the basics, so that we are caught up and I can move on to other subjects.

The fall was a dynamic few months. And by ‘dynamic’ I mean that there was a strict Advil, adrenaline and red wine diet enforced around here. Robert and I finished the house we were building to sell even though it felt like swimming upstream though mud to get it done. In the end we were really happy with how it turned out and it sold right away. Though we vowed at one point to never again take on a project like that, it was successful and well received so who knows. We’re kinda dumb like that. Those of you that I know in real life have seen pictures of the project, but here it is anyway, proof that I was busy for a while:

After the house, the holidays came and wreaked havoc, leaving the usual exhaustion and apathy in their wake. I love Christmas, I think I do anyway, but truly, it makes me and everyone else crazy. I didn’t get my one perfect moment this year, because perfect is perhaps just a little hard to attain, and I was resentful about it. But we made it through. Next year I will have to just obsess a little more and control things a little more tightly because that is the key to happiness. (I’m kidding, totally kidding. Like 97% kidding.)

I can’t do a summary of the last while without touching on the darkness that has permeated our collective consciousness since November 8th. It is so hard for those of us who live in our liberal bubbles to understand how we ended up in such a mess. The thought that our country is not safe from tyrannical rule, that it only takes one charismatic man and his lackeys, no matter how unstable, to upend everything, goes against what I always believed about my country. As flawed as it is, I thought the system would work. I’m afraid for us. But I have also found hope in the fact that a fire has been lit in so many, including myself, who have been complacent. For the first time in my life I have been moved to tears by the bravery and goodness of my governor, I have grappled with explaining white privilege to my daughter, I have stuttered my way through calls to senators asking to be heard, and I have marched with my family and a hundred thousand others. My kids and theirs may have to work for years to repair the damage done by this administration, but they are going to know how to stand up for what is right. Kindness and fairness, these are the values we will defend. Onward.

 

It’s A Good Thing I Can Laugh At Myself

I’m a lot of things, but “cool” isn’t one of them. The only times that word has been used to describe me it was in a sarcastic way or in a ‘it’s cool that you are okay with being such a dork’ way. And I’m fine with that. Just managing to not embarrass myself on a daily basis is enough pressure. This here is a story to make you feel just a tad cooler yourself, just because there are people like me out there lowering the bar.

When we were in Morocco back in 2012 I ate numerous versions of lamb and prune tagine. My favorite was this one, sprinkled with fried Marcona almonds and served with twelve different Moroccan salads.

The real thing - lamb and prune tagine with Moroccan salads.

From time to time I get a craving for that spicy lamby goodness and cook up my own version of what we ate in Marrakech. A few weeks ago I was thinking of those flavors while planning a family get together. Tagines are nice for parties because they go into the oven before guests arrive, fill the house with a great smell and cook slowly until everyone is ready to eat. The meat in the picture is a lamb shank but I wanted something I could cut into chunks and trim the fat off of for the dish I was imagining so I ordered a boneless lamb shoulder roast from the butchers at my local market.

All the people who work at the meat counter of my grocery store are super nice and eager to please. The day I went in to pick up my roast I was helped by a woman who is especially friendly. Being the intermittently awkward person that I am, I always feel slightly intimidated by her tallness and outgoing nature. She came out with a beautiful roast and we talked about how nice it looked and what I was going to make with it. And then.

Then came my moment of humiliation. As a ‘congratulations on your awesome meat purchase’, she fist bumped me. Yes, fist bumped me.

Not such a big deal you say? Just wait.

You’ve got to understand, I was caught off guard. In my wildest dreams I never would have guessed that I, a forty year old white lady, would be fist bumped by another white lady, one even older than me. Maybe some of you regularly fist bump in a serious way, but I certainly don’t. In fact the only person I’ve ever fist bumped is my three year old. And for us it’s always a big production that ends in the waggling of fingers and an explosion. You know what I mean, right? Bump, waggle, blowing up noise. I think you know where this is going. I’m blushing right now just thinking about it.

This meat counter woman is very tall, and I’m very much not, and she was on the other side of the counter so I really had to reach to meet her outstretched fist. It was super weird to begin with but then what did I do? I exploded the fist bump. I did. I waggled my fingers and burst open my fist. Midway through the explosion I realized that this was not right. Had I owned it, exploded my fist in a grand fashion, I could have turned a very strange moment into a humorous one, but no. Instead I just didn’t make the blowing up noise and pretended I was doing something else with my hand, not that it could’ve been mistaken for anything else. Then I said a meek and red faced ‘thank you’ while I scurried off with my five pounds of lamb and melted into a puddle of shame.

I wish I could leave you with a recipe for the tagine because it was delicious, but I don’t have one. Maybe I will work on developing one for the winter, but I need to wait a while before I show myself at the meat counter again.

 

 

Noteworthy 8/1/16

So much to catch up on. This poor blog has been neglected not because I have lost interest but because of all the other things screaming louder for my attention. Have any of you noticed that during summer vacation the kids don’t go to school? Yeah. And this whole ‘building a house to sell and trying to make money at it’ thing we’ve got going on is a little intense. In a soul sucking sort of way.

But here I am, for the moment anyway, and I have many posts worth of things to share. Just to get some of the cute kid stuff out of the way I’m doing a Noteworthy post first.

  • I know parents say it all the time, but “It’s a good thing my kids make me laugh because otherwise I’d kill them,” might just be the truest truth out there. To make up for the strife they’ve been causing lately the kids have given me some real gems.

Me: “Felix, what do you think we should have for dinner?” Felix, without missing a beat: “Chicken fried butt cheek.” And yet I complain that no one ever helps me come up with ideas for dinner.

From the 12 year old who still dresses up to play Little House on the Prairie we get this evidence that no one is immune to the power of Hamilton: Me: “Lola, it’s time to set the table.” Lola: “In a minute, I need to have a rap battle with Pop first.”

Felix: “I have a joke!” Me: “Tell me.” Felix: “Why did the monster cross the road? Because he bumped into a bar and he asked the bartender, ‘Do you have a hammer?’ and the bartender said, ‘No.’ and he said ‘Do you have an engine tractor?’ and the bartender said, ‘No.'” He’s got a future as a stand up comedian, that one.

Felix: “I’m going to go into the closet and put on this watch so you won’t recognize me.” Then five minutes later I was just minding my own business and this strange kid with a watch on showed up out of nowhere and he’s been living with us ever since.

  • I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but this grouping of things Felix has slept with is just too good to not share:       IMG_2124  And yes, I’m totally serious about every single one of those things. Even the clogs. Even the frying pan. Even the dinosaur puzzle. And the skeleton, who has been hanging out with us a lot lately. His name is Charles Poopin.
  • I had something amazing happen to me; you’re not going to believe it. I was making BLTs for dinner and putting the bacon on a sheet pan to cook it. You know how this goes, it never quite fits on there right and you have overlapping pieces or pieces you have to cut or whatever. But look at this, just look.  IMG_2039 That is an entire package of bacon. It fit perfectly. If you can’t appreciate the magnificence of that then I don’t think we can be friends. And I know that the picture itself is crooked and that kind of ruins it, but just try to imagine what it felt like to look at that glorious sight in the moment. Like cool water in the desert, that’s what.
  • I can be a bit controlling when it comes to cooking. (No shit Ivy, really?!) I suck at having small kids work with me in the kitchen because I can’t handle the mess and the eating of batter and the ugliness of the finished product. It’s a major fault of mine. But I let Felix help me make Robert’s birthday cake and I was pretty proud of myself for the level of not giving a rat’s ass that I achieved. I decided we would just make a cake, not a pastry chef cake. It was sort of liberating to make a sheet cake and ice it right in the pan without needing to prove anything. I even let Fe pick out the mismatched candles and put them on wherever he wanted and it was perfectly fitting.  IMG_1963IMG_1970Next thing you know I’ll be making cake from a mix. And you know what? Probably no one would care. There is a lesson there, but I don’t think I’m ready to learn it quite yet.

Noteworthy 5/26/16

  • More things my kid has slept with recently. Lest you think I’m a horrible mother, I want to say that most of these things he doesn’t actually sleep with. He falls asleep holding them and then I extract them from his sweaty little paws so he won’t lose an eye or sever an artery while napping.IMG_1952
  • You know those days when you just loose all control around 2:00 p.m. and start shoving sweet stuff in your mouth? I really try to keep my sugar consumption in check for the most part, but I had an attack so bad the other day that there was no use fighting it. I knew we were low on goodies, but there is always something hanging around so I went to the top shelf hiding spot and, wow, the selection was dismal. There were some beat up chocolate covered raisins, a mini Krackel from Easter 2014, a partially eaten salted honeycomb chocolate bar that had fallen down behind the lazy susan, and a handful of flavored honey sticks that moved here with us six years ago. The honeycomb bar was chewy instead of crisp but I ate it anyway. Then I rummaged through the freezer and found a bag of crumbs that used to be Christmas cookies. I ate the biggest crumbs even though they were freezer burned. And then…then I ate two of the ancient honey sticks. Not only did those things move here with us, they were old when they moved. And I ate them. Not a proud moment for me, and yet here I am, sharing it with you. Why? God knows. There are some things I really should keep to myself.
  • Things you can never have too many of: 1. Lilacs. 2. Purple things that make you think of Prince.IMG_2328
  • I don’t write much about my big kid these days because she is old enough to have opinions on who knows what about her and I want to respect her privacy. She also reads this from time to time and will give me hell as only a 12 year old can if I embarrass her. This little tidbit falls into a gray area of acceptability but we were laughing about it a lot together and I think she’ll forgive me. The momentary fad in the sixth grade right now is learning sign language and talking to your friends without actually talking. Lola was practicing so much that she actually strained a muscle in her thumb. I can now add sign language to the list entitled Crazy Ways My Daughter Has Hurt Herself. Also included are gems like ‘sitting at the table’, ‘starting the microwave’, and ‘drinking from a glass’. In this house we have many strengths, but coordination is not one. Felix may be the one to break our long, glorious streak of no organized sports, and I’m starting to think he might not be related to the rest of us.
  • I bought a pair of high waisted jeans. Because I’m sexy like that. Every time I put them on I think of the mom jeans skit from Saturday Night Live. They are certainly helpful with muffin top issues, but I’m afraid of where this might lead. Next I’ll be wearing pale blue sweatshirts with pictures of geese on the front and knee-high pantyhose with my Aerosoles. I’d also like to sign up for a laughing class at the senior center (doesn’t that sound awesome?!) but I’m not over 55.
  • There are a lot of things I don’t like about having a three year old in my bed at night. The grabbing and thrashing and talking and clawing at me means that I’m woken up repeatedly. I actually can’t even fathom what it would be like to sleep all the way through the night anymore. But I tell you, when the snuggling is good, it is so good. I woke up in the early morning hours last week and found my little guy soundly sleeping with his back against my stomach, head nestled under my chin. The air was cool, the bed was warm and my pillow was just right. And my boy was still. Still. As in not moving except to breathe. It was one of those perfect moments when I’m glad I’ve been lazy about teaching him how to sleep on his own. He’s changing so quickly right now and I know that his sleep routine is going to change too. Our snuggly nights together are numbered. It will happen gradually, and we will all be ready, but I want to soak up the sweetness while it lasts; sleeping with my kids has been one of the most precious parts of motherhood for me.

Mediocre Human Being Seeking Like Minded Individuals For Camaraderie

This one is going to come back to bite me in the butt, I just know it. I’m trying to decide if I should just post it quietly or share it on Facebook as usual. In any case it’s just a matter of time before I end up shunned in the school parking lot.

A few days ago I attended the sweetest, dearest, most delightful May Day festival at my kid’s school. It was a heartwarming day, our spritely children dancing around the may pole while we gathered together as a community of like-minded families. So heartwarming in fact that it made me want to stab myself in the eye. A slight exaggeration, but it definitely raised questions about my goodness as a human being and where I belong.

I love a lot of things about the little Waldorf school that Felix has attended for the last two years. I love how they make the everyday world magical for the kids, I love the dedication of the staff, the beautiful wooden toys, the way that the innocence of childhood is protected there. These things are important. These things are good. But I’m a sucky person, and sometimes I just can’t stand the earnestness of it all.

The night before the event I got myself worked into an unflattering state knowing that we were supposed to dress in festive spring garb and pack a picnic lunch. You’d think that would be right up my alley – I LOVE picnics, I LOVE spring garb. But I also love sarcasm and snarky humor, neither of which are welcome at the May Day celebration. All the floppy hats and picnic blankets in the world can’t make up for a lack of bad attitude. When I realized that I had spent more time thinking about how my picnic would be looked on by others than I did about what we might actually want to eat I started feeling pretty pissy. The little spark of rebellion inside me was being fanned.

I behave appropriately in most situations, I’m never looking to rock the boat. But unspoken rules about how one is supposed to live give me a case of the red ass, as my friend T would say. The pressure to conform to being non-conformist pushes my buttons. I wanted so badly to show up at this nouveau hippy gathering wearing hot pants and unpack a picnic of Lunchables, Doritos and Diet Pepsi. Maybe light up a smoke and offer my neighbor a wine cooler to go with her hummus and kale chips. I managed to keep myself in line, wear a flowery blouse and not swear but it was hard, so hard. My picnic was passable – we had sandwiches on real bread (bad) but the bread had lots of seeds in it (good). There were vegetables and fruit slices for dessert. I even remembered an extra sweater for my kid. But of course, I’m me, and I had to forget something so we ended up in the hot sun with no sunblock or hats. Felix wanted to enjoy the party in the nude and made a stink about it but I insisted he keep his pants on. In the midst of all that non-conformity, my kid was the only one trying to strip, and just about the only one without a sunhat. We weren’t kicked out but I’m sure a few eyebrows were raised in our direction.IMG_2398

Most of the Waldorf philosophy resonates with me, but the rigidity does not. That part feels contrived and formulaic. When kids are all wearing the same counter-culture clothes and everyone has similar eating habits and toys and modern pioneer lifestyles it starts to smell cultish. I want the best, most magical childhood possible for my kids, we all do, but sometimes, a lot of times, just making it through the day unscathed is the best I can do. In theory it would be awesome if I could be outside with my children felting gnome houses and gardening with mindfulness everyday, but my reality is that sometimes I’m precariously close to cracking up. Putting on a movie to shut the little twits up for a few minutes while I make a dinner of frozen chicken strips isn’t ideal, but it has been known to happen because a mom who runs away from home is even less ideal. I don’t feel like I could ever admit that at a school function without truly upsetting some people and that raises red flags and hackles all over the place for me. There is a balance to strike with all things, especially with parenting, and we do each other a disservice when we don’t acknowledge the struggle and imperfection that comes with the job.

Truly, this is my problem, and I fully realize that. I’m a jerk and shouldn’t be allowed around nice people. I have reached the conclusion that it just isn’t the right community for me, though I adore a number of the people who are involved there. There are many gentle souls raising good, kind children and I have the utmost respect for that. But my life is full of chaos and compromise and small failures. It’s entirely possible that everyone else has their act together more than I do, and they never run out of stories to tell about fairies or succumb to the allure of frozen pizza. Maybe they never fear that their ears will start to bleed if their child doesn’t stop talking. If it’s fake or if it’s real, it doesn’t matter, that is not my tribe. Purity is not attractive to me. I’m still trying to find more of my people, I guess. They are the ones trying their best in a less angelic, more irreverent way. They are doing well and then messing up, over and over again, and being honest about it. They love their babies fiercely and still feel okay about calling them assholes from time to time. Behind their backs of course, I’m not a monster.

Warning: Seasonally Inappropriate Post Ahead

I’m so far behind in things I want to write about that it’s still February as far as the blog is concerned. Never mind that it’s eighty degrees outside and every flower in my yard is blooming at the same time. I should be writing about artichoke soufflés and roasted asparagus with Meyer lemon and smoked salt, but am I? No, today I’m writing about the king of cold weather food, cassoulet. I shouldn’t even utter that word until next October, but I’m the boss of this venture so I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe I’ll tell you about the asparagus next time, or maybe I’ll wait until August when you can’t get any and tell you about it then. I’m such a rebel.

So, I turned 40 back in February. I wasn’t quite ready for it, not because I don’t feel 40, or look 40, and not because I’m trying to avoid being a real grown up, but because there are some things I thought I’d have a handle on at this point in my life that I just really don’t. Here I am, middle aged (!) and I still can’t walk in heels very well. If a problem with my computer can’t be fixed by restarting it then I’m completely dependent on someone else. I don’t know how to apply bronzer correctly. I have horribly uncomfortable, hand-me-down seating at my dining room table that maims people when they come to my house for dinner. I still don’t really know what WWI was about. I’m a lost cause with a curling iron. I’ve never owned a decent mop. I’m afraid of driving in cities. And I’m totally baffled by how our TV is connected to the DVD player and we have all these cables but the wifi has to be connected and I can’t get Netflix to work because maybe there is something broken but I’m not sure and what the hell is ethernet, and oh my god, how did make it this far in life without learning these things?!

Not to mention the lack of profitable career and all that.

One thing I do know how to do is plan a dinner party and I used my birthday girl status to plan the meal I wanted to eat at the dawn of my new decade. Cassoulet. Butter lettuce with fresh tarragon vinaigrette. Baguette. Triple cream brie. Cheesecake with raspberry and orange blossom coulis. Good, French, red wine. You know, a light, refreshing sort of meal. Ha.

For those who haven’t been initiated into the world of cassoulet, it is traditional French peasant food from the Languedoc region. It’s a dish that is made with white beans and an assortment of fresh and preserved meats. Every town has their own version, as does every cook. Duck or goose confit and some kind of sausage is pretty much required, but the rest of it is up to personal preference. I’ve made it a number of ways, and all were delicious. Pork, lamb, duck, goose, rabbit, mutton (not that many of us eat mutton in this country) and even boring old chicken can find a home in cassoulet.

Advance planning was key to my enjoyment of this meal. I wanted candle light, I wanted other people’s kids to keep my kids entertained and exhausted, and I wanted to eat my cassoulet in the snow. Not literally, but, you know, in a place where I could see snow out the window, so we rented a house in the mountains and rounded up some friends who aren’t afraid of eating fat. The cassoulet prep actually started weeks before when I placed my order with D’artagnan. Though they have a stupid name, this company sells amazing meat products. This is the place that a once sold me a ten pound bucket of duck fat, one of my finest purchases of all time. Classic cassoulet calls for a number of ingredients that are hard to find at most grocery stores, even fancy ones. You can definitely round everything up if you’re willing to work a little, but D’artagnan sells a cassoulet kit that is really high quality and convenient. The price isn’t bad either when you consider that it makes enough to feed a small army and that it’s all delivered to your door.

It's so exciting to have this box show up on your porch. At least if you are me.

It’s so exciting to have this box show up on your porch. At least if you are me.

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The kit contains six legs of duck confit, ventrèche (basically French pancetta), French garlic sausage, duck and armagnac sausage, coco tarbais beans, duck fat (in case you don’t already own a ten pound bucket), and duck and veal demi-glace. I’m not going to include a recipe here because I doubt many of you are going to go out and make cassoulet for 20 anytime soon, and if you do, the recipe that comes with the kit is pretty good. I have made it my own over the years and I will continue to make changes as long as I make this dish. Infinite variations. This isn’t a how-to guide to cassoulet, I just enjoy making it so much that I wanted to take pictures of these lovely ingredients and share them.

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Sliced garlic sausage ready to cook.

Ventrèche and bouquet garni.

Ventrèche and bouquet garni.

These heirloom beans are the best for cassoulet because they are remarkably creamy inside yet resist falling apart during the long cooking of the dish. They are also huge, about an inch long.

These heirloom beans are the best for cassoulet because they are remarkably creamy inside yet resist falling apart during the long cooking of the dish. They are also huge, about an inch long.

The greasy splatters you have to cope with during the cooking process are not for the faint of heart. Poor Robert, a ‘clean as you go’ type of guy just can’t be around while I decimate the kitchen with this work. It would be more than he could take. The floor, the inside of the oven, the counters, every one of my six burners, bathed in grease. Such a mess, but beautiful in it’s own delicious way.

Duck and armagnac sausages.

Duck and armagnac sausages.

The ventrèche is first cooked with the beans, then chopped and crisped in a skillet.

The ventrèche is first cooked with the beans, then chopped and crisped in a skillet.

Duck confit.

Duck confit.

Carrots, celery and onion cooked in the leftover fat from the ventrèche.

Carrots, celery and onion cooked in the leftover fat from the ventrèche.

I find it incredibly satisfying to line up all my cooked, chopped, shredded, and sliced ingredients and start layering them into my two big casserole dishes. Making sure each portion will get a lovely brown hunk of sausage, ample shredded duck, and bits of crisp skin surrounded with beans, veggies and thyme feels a little bit like love to me. I’m not going to just throw it all in a dish, mix it up and hope for the best. No, I need to count the slices, portion out the mirepoix, and divvy up the demi-glace. Because that is how much I care about you and your dining pleasure. Plus, I’m kind of crazy.IMG_1805

Those are dabs of duck fat on top, in case you're wondering.

Those are dabs of duck fat on top, in case you’re wondering.

I froze my cassoulets and brought one with us on the birthday trip. To me, real luxury is having a thoughtfully prepared meal in the freezer so you can spend your day having fun and still eat well. All I had to do was sprinkle the top liberally with buttery bread crumbs and put it in the oven to bake for a couple of hours. (The bread crumbs aren’t traditional, but I highly recommend them. There aren’t many things in life that won’t be improved by buttery crumbs.)

This little photo journey has a disappointing ending because I forgot to take a picture of the finished dish. Shame on me. I do have this picture of my leftovers, but I regret not getting a shot of the whole bubbling casserole because it is a sight that makes me happy. Next time.

This dish of leftover cassoulet is less than glamorous but it gives you the idea.

This dish of leftover cassoulet is less than glamorous but it gives you the idea.

After a day of sledding and snowball fighting with our kids we banished them to a playroom with enough electronic devices and macaroni and cheese to keep everyone occupied for a good long while. We ate and drank and danced stupidly until midnight, which is pretty much like staying up all night when you’re 40, and it was just exactly what I wanted.

I’d like to think that by the time I’m celebrating another milestone birthday I’ll have less items on my list of Things That Make Me Feel Like an Idiot, but I highly doubt that will be the case. All the Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos in the world won’t be able to save me from that. But I wish and hope that I will still have friends who overlook these things and are willing to raise their forks and glasses and laugh with me at the absurdity of being human.

 

 

Noteworthy 3/28/16

  • Do you ever feel like you live under a tyrannical dictator? A crazy one that makes impossible demands of everyone around him and goes berzerk when those demands are not met immediately? One whose abusive behavior you forgive the second he shows an ounce of tenderness or remorse? One that makes you wait on him hand and foot and has you convinced that his bad behavior is all your fault? No? Well then you must not live with a three year old.
  • I have a new job! This is good and bad because my kid free time is so limited and I’m feeling spread a little thin, but it feels good to be working again. I’m doing some (part time) personal chef type cooking for two lovely families and so far I’m really enjoying it. It may be a temporary thing and that is okay too. I’ve said for a while now that I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life but I don’t want to go back to cooking for money. This feels different though, because I’m cooking food the way I want to, being creative and using high quality ingredients. It’s kind of like cooking for my friends or family except I get paid for it. It has cut into my writing time though and I’m a little bummed about that.
  • The best toy EVER is the vacuum cleaner I bought a few weeks ago. It has gotten more hours of play than all the Christmas toys combined have gotten in three months. The down side is that it lives in the middle of the floor with attachments scattered everywhere and yet I don’t get to use it to clean up because it is always in use.IMG_1904Wait a second, what does that sticker on there say?!IMG_1909Uh…IMG_1907
  • Nothing says true love like spending your 15th anniversary doing taxes so you can meet with the accountant the next morning. We had planned to celebrate the weekend after, when we could get a sitter and go out, but fate had other plans. We all got the flu for two weeks, then the sitter was booked up, then sick again, and now Felix is going through some separation anxiety that makes leaving him, shall we say, difficult. We ended up last weekend (a month after the anniversary) having lunch together at home and calling it a celebration. Felix was napping and we threatened Lola with chores if she didn’t keep quiet for half an hour. And this is what life and marriage are like. We’ve had an anniversary in Tuscany, an anniversary where I was at a birth, an anniversary in Marrakech, romantic dinners out, romantic dinners in, and now an anniversary spent with receipts at the kitchen counter. You win some, you lose some, you cry and laugh and carry on.
  • Things my kid has slept with recently: IMG_1899  Not that I blame him, I mean, who wouldn’t want to snuggle with a Microplane or pieces of a Shop Vac? So cozy!
  • These last few weeks have felt long for a million stupid little reasons that I can’t quite cope with. There was a particularly rough stretch mid month that just seemed to drag on forfreakingever. Normally I make a proper Irish spread for St. Patrick’s day, something like shepherd’s pie or colcannon or Irish stew and soda bread (no corned beef, I just can’t, it smells too much like armpit) but this year I was totally spent. It felt like it had been Thursday for like 18 days, and it was still Thursday. So this year’s St. Patty’s dinner looked like this:IMG_1892No, not really. I pulled it together and and made these sandwiches. Grilled Irish cheddar, bacon and yellow heirloom tomato on white bread (remind me to explain my love of white bread sometime). They were tasty, and special because I didn’t kill anyone that day.IMG_1894
  • You know what’s adorable? When a small person wearing sweatpants, mismatched socks and sandals on the wrong feet tells you that you’re adorable. My exhausted, anxious, brow-beaten heart can still be melted.   IMG_2245