Thursday, September 17, 2015

Egg Sandwich Perfection

Two years ago this week and next were the two worst weeks of my life. Two years later I'm focusing on honoring my dad's memory in the best ways I know how, and trying to do things, make things, or participate in things that make me happy instead of sad. Making egg sandwiches seems to be working, a little.

Don't worry, this isn't about to become a food blog (flog? foodlog?), but I have achieved Egg Sandwich Perfection, and I'm here to tell you about it. It all started when I made this herbed red potato salad recipe from my new fave source for healthy recipes: Cookie and Kate. This isn't a new blog and it's popular, so you might have already heard of it - but remember, I am just entering this world of people who "like to cook" and so websites like these are little golden nuggets right now.

The herbed red potato salad was Okay with a capital O. It's probably not a recipe I'll repeat, BUT I think the key to my Egg Sandwich Perfection was the leftover herbed olive oil dressing! When I dressed the potatoes, I felt like the dressing was too runny, so I poured some of it off. I was going to toss it but figured I could throw it in something else later on (isn't that what all talented, spontaneous cooks do?). The dressing is very repeatable and easily could be used for lots of things sans potatoes.

  1. In a small food processor or blender, combine the olive oil, ⅓ cup parsley, ⅓ cup green onions, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic and freshly ground black pepper. Process until the herbs and garlic have been chopped into little pieces, then drizzle in the reserved cooking water and blend until emulsified. (If you don't have a food processor or blender, just finely chop the parsley and onions and whisk the dressing together until emulsified.) []

Egg Sandwich Perfection
1. fry two strips of bacon to crispy, cut in half (I prefer Pederson's uncured)
2. chop up some cherry tomatoes, green onions, parsley, garlic, jalapenos, mushrooms (whatever you like with your eggs, insert here - I don't like rules)
3. toast some good bread to well done (Gluten Free bread if necessary)
4. when the bacon is done, remove and throw in all the chopped veggies to saute for a short bit before adding the egg
5. sprinkle in some goat feta cheese, or any cheese, if desired
6. salt and pepper egg scramble to taste
7. butter the toast, then spread with HERBED OLIVE OIL DRESSING on top (or skip the butter if you don't live on the wild side)
8. add egg scramble to bread, top with bacon and 1/2 sliced avocado, cut in half and serve with coffee, of course.

Guys, there is nothing "pretty" or gourmet about this sandwich. The juices run out the sides, tomatoes and bits of egg will fall off, you'll need a bib, but don't worry because you will! It's like holiness in your mouth.

Amazing for breakfast, lunch, OR dinner - I've had it for all three several times this week already... and it's now husband approved!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rainstorms and Root Beer Floats

It's always bizarre the way random, but super specific things will stick in your memory. I cannot remember valuable information when I need it, or often the end of my sentence, but I can describe the pattern of the paper liner in my childhood dresser drawers. Because, you know, that helps me on a daily basis.

There's something about a rain storm that always stirs up memories of root beer floats. The heavy, fresh scent of soil come alive with moisture, the thick breezes full of humidity, and the loud splats of rain on pavement calls to mind Blue Bell "Homemade Vanilla" swirled in IBC Root Beer. Slushy in a pre-chilled mug. Savored, first with a straw and then with a long iced tea spoon. We'd sit on the front veranda in our folding butterfly chairs, wrapped in blankets and breathing in the wet air, and for that half hour or so the storm would feel like something extra special. Front row seats to a private performance from the Rain Gods. A traveling Magic Show just passing through. Celebrated with sugar, toasted with "beer." 

I don't remember why this stands out to me, and when I've asked my mother she doesn't either. She doesn't recall doing it, either as a comfort or reward or even as a distraction. I know that game. I was a nanny - I know the lengths you will go to in order to keep children occupied when they must be kept indoors. Maybe it was one of those days where, with three little girls and two under the age of six, that was the last card up her sleeve. I wouldn't doubt it, knowing our shenanigans.

I have a feeling this probably only actually happened once or twice, but my little sugar-addicted mind has forever connected the two things together, like you do at that age. It's raining thereFORE I should be having a root beer float. 

Sadly, I no longer drink root beer floats when it rains. Now I curl up with coffee and a new catalog for inspiration or a good book for company. But I can still taste that hint of sassafras and vanilla in those rainy drops.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Signature of All Things

Last summer I read this book called The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I took a picture of it and posted it on my Instagram, 'cause that's how I do. Then I started loaning it out to anyone I could convince to read it. But I couldn't stop thinking about it and internalizing it. This is the kind of book I would love to write. This is the type of world and characters I would love to create and share.

The Signature of All Things is the grandest, most unique and imaginative story I've read in a very long time. Maybe ever. I'm not going to try and really summarize or review the book. It would be hard to without giving anything away that I feel you should just encounter through reading the book. Pick it up and be surprised. Or, Google that shit if you really care. But basically:

Alma Whittaker is born at the beginning of the year 1800, to a self-made, botanical/pharmaceutical entrepreneur father who sailed with the explorer Captain Cook, and a strong, brilliantly educated Dutch mother. Alma dedicates herself to studying the much-neglected mosses of the world, and this survey leads her deep into the mysteries of evolution. (Remember this is pre-Darwin, so there is no established Theory of Evolution.) But it's also about unrequited love, sexual exploration, and angel messengers. The book spans eight decades and takes place in Amsterdam, London, Philadelphia and Tahiti. 

I know, I know. A summary cannot do this book justice.  If you love science, specifically botany, and beautiful storytelling, this book is for you. If you love stories with tremendous scope and quirky, yet charming characters, this book is for you. If you love explorations of purity and pleasure, and encounters with divine beings, this book is for you. I'd like to think it is a book for everyone, but it is not. 

This book was akin to a little spiritual encounter for me. There was so much of my own father in this novel, it seemed providence I read it when trying to process his absence. The wonder at the ways of the world, and the logical deduction and creative reasoning that often cannot explain its mysteries was something that kept him quite fascinated, and frequently troubled, his whole life long. Nature is the battlefield where most often spiritualism and science collide in overt, examinable ways. My dad often stood there, not always sure on which side he fought, or why one had to necessarily separate from or against the other. 

Alma, a fictional character, and her deep admiration for natural sciences was so contagious, I found myself examining the world around me with new and enlivened senses. It brought me deeper understanding of how I think my dad might have experienced the world around him. For Alma, there is no need for something more than her here and now, her present existence. She relishes in fact and actuality. There's no need for anything greater or beyond, because the natural world is so glorious it is completely fulfilling and totally satisfying. But she just can't fully understand it. Some things - some people - cannot be explained by scientific fact or any amount of evidence and study, and that's her missing piece: the hole in her evolutionary argument.

For those of you snooty readers (like me!) who are raising an eyebrow at the author - Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame - let me just say: this book is nothing like Eat, Pray, Love. Now, I read EPL and I enjoyed it for what it was - a glorified self-help adventure. It was a light, frivolous read for the most part, that verged on self-indulgent. There are common themes that carry through all of her work, but EPL is not even in the same weight class as this masterpiece she's given us now. Every time I look at this cover I kinda want to grab a sharpie and mark out the line that says "author of Eat, Pray, Love" because these two books couldn't be more different. I love Liz, I love her podcast "Magic Lessons," and I'll read her future work (Big Magic on shelves 9/22), but her artistry here is ingenious. So don't let that association frighten you away, and conversely, don't open this book thinking it will be another rompy memoir. You'll be missing out either way.

Finally, read it before Masterpiece Theatre takes Alma's story to the screen! I'm delighted PBS optioned the book, and that Liz handed over this intricate and astonishing story to the team at Masterpiece, who I feel will treat it more delicately than anyone else could. I cannot wait to experience it all over again through film.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Trees, Chickens, Coffee, please.

Yesterday morning the "tree guys" came to take down trees along our fence line that were hanging over our power lines in the back yard. Of course they came early early and of course our bedroom faces the backyard, because it was my lucky chainsaw-filled day. Instead of getting up and being productive I stayed in bed and watched them work like any normal person would do, and within 15 minutes I was rewarded with a thundering boom as all our power lines came down with one of the branches. Awesome. I was soooo irritated at their incompetence, and it was far too early for me to be civil, so I rolled over, covered my head with a pillow and let Tim deal with it.

I must have dozed off because a few minutes later I realized the dimwits were chopping down our pecan tree, which was definitely NOT on the docket for the day's work. Within seconds I was scrambling out of bed and running outside in my underwear and wailing at them to stop, stop, STOOOOOP. Everyone just looked at me like I was a banshee, and I have no doubt I fit the description. A banshee in an old T-shirt and H&M men's boxer briefs, no less. Having imparted my message and stopped the crisis I went back to bed for a bit.

Then I'm reawakened by squawking chickens outside. Can that be right?? The chainsaw noise has stopped and Head Tree Guy's little minions are hunting stray chickens in my backyard. I'm already too late for one poor hen who lies pathetically limp on the grass. Too bad I didn't put clothes on last time I was up, because out I go again in my underpants, taking the steps two at a time, screaming my head off. "Have you no soul? These belong to SOMEONE. Leave them alone!"

Wouldn't it be awesome if all of that had actually happened? I tell ya, morning dreams are the best. This gives new meaning to getting up on the wrong side of the bed. In my dream, I guess I did that twice.

Anyway, with the morning off to such a good start, I thought it was a good time to break in my new little enamel cups from Target. These are really cheap crap, I'm sure, but they are the perfect size for the amount of coffee I drink in the morning (I hate using big cups with hardly anything in them), and, well, the message is TRUTH.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sincere Condolences

As I near the second anniversary of my dad's death from pancreatic cancer, I've begun to relive the events of two years ago all over again. There are so many awful things that my family associates with that time and those events, but when I think of the good things we'll hold on to, the many lovely condolence cards we received will be one of precious few.

A Cup of Jo wrote a wonderful post in August about how to write a condolence note, and unlike what you might find in Martha Stewart or a generic advice column, it had really useful, specific, and thoughtful tips from someone who actually had experienced loss. Everyone's different, of course, but pretty much everything she shared I found to be true in my own experience. I'm sharing the major points here, and adding my thoughts for those who experience that terrible "stuck" feeling when trying to put deeply felt sympathies into meaningful words or action, but please go check out the original post, as well.

We received so many cards, emails, phone calls, meals, and offers of help, from the time my dad was diagnosed with cancer till after he died. Every single one of them held us up on a life raft of encouragement and love. Nothing said here is in criticism of anything anyone did for us, as I have only gratitude for the hundreds who stepped up in our support or in his memory. No gesture was too small, no meal unappreciated, no card went unread. But, as someone who has personally experienced the desire to do something for grieving friends or overwhelmed care-takers and their patients, and been hampered by not knowing exactly what or how, hopefully some of what I've learned will be helpful.

Families coping with cancer and other terminal illnesses experience death over a period of time. That time could be days, months, or years, but the sick and their families need constant encouragement. In this respect, I've treated condolences as not only what you might send after someone dies, but what you might do while they are still alive.

*   *   * 
Snail mail a card. Every email, phone call, everything was wonderful; I was astounded by how kind people were. Physical cards were especially nice to hold onto. I didn’t care at all what the card looked like. I have them in a basket in our living room and see them every day.  [A Cup of Jo]
Greeting cards get a bad rap these days. It's easy to drop $6-$7 on a card, which feels kind of ridiculous, even when someone is dying - sorry, but true. The card itself doesn't matter, it could be stationery or a post-it note, but getting something in the mail is still something everyone looks forward to (right?). Oh, and if you know the family well enough, funny cards are always better than any card that actually mentions death, loss, grief, or sympathy or any other depressing cliche. Like the author, my mom also kept a basket of these on the kitchen counter and I remember reading through all of them multiple times.

When someone is sick with something like cancer, you might spend hours a day on the phone and computer. Insurance calls, doctor calls, appointment confirmations, reviewing medical records and transcripts, researching new cures, educating yourself about the disease, the list goes on and on. You might spend hours a day just on hold getting nowhere. I know for several of us during that time, keeping up with phone calls felt a little like work. Even if the caller doesn't ask for a return call - and p.s. you probably never should - phone calls are something to be checked and listened to, and then what do you do about them - delete them? That feels harsh. It's nice to hear people's voices, but they are harder to save and listen to later. 

As we all know, emails don't generally feel as personal as getting a piece of mail. Also, emails are likely to get lost or deleted, and sometimes hard to relocate later. On the other hand, my dad loved email and he spent time every day that he was sick reading and responding to emails from people who were wishing him well. I also started an email "newsletter" updating everyone about his care and progression several times a month, and sometimes several times a week. It was just the most convenient way to communicate, and when you've got a lot on your plate convenience trumps sentimentality. Lots of people responded to every email I sent with thoughtful words and reminders to stay hopeful. Many emailed my dad and mom directly on a regular basis. Those were always welcome and so so so appreciated, especially on the hardest days. They were almost daily reminders that people were out there, following along and making that journey with us. Those meant so much to my dad and he had some really important, albeit brief, correspondence via email in those last few months. In this way I think email is a valuable tool to provide quick and consistent encouragement to those who need it.

Regardless, I think cards win every round. :)

*   *   *

Describe how you can help. I was so grateful when people said, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” But when people offered specifics, it felt even easier for me to take them up on their offers. One friend wrote, “If you ever want to come over, we can grill and make grapefruit mojitos; we’d love to see you and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for you.”  [A Cup of Jo]
I love that she mentions this, and it is so true. The people who made specific gestures of help were most often people who had experienced what we were going through themselves. It does make it easy for someone to say yes, or accept, or even ask you to do something else completely, when you make a specific offer. I think it makes the gesture feel less "empty" and very personal. Some people made offers of help in areas we really didn't need any, but their willingness to do something, desire to help, and ability to be so specific about it empowered me to ask for their assistance in other ways.

Let me also mention the brain power most family members have left over for making decisions when caring for a terminally ill family member. There is none. There is nothing to spare after translating the doctors' information (or the lack of it), administering medicines, making a game plan for health care, the physical requirements of caring for a sick person, and at the same time trying to emotionally process what the F is happening. The result is that the countless offers you receive sometimes actually feel like more work than help, because they require yet another decision and often delegation. So, within reason, if you feel called or inspired to help in a way that does not intrude on privacy or cause additional stress for the family - just do it. Buy them that book on Amazon and ship it to their house, drop off that dinner with a bottle of wine, mow the lawn on the weekends and come by to walk the dog - and skip the offer. They'll be doubly thankful they didn't have to ask and didn't have to decide.

*   *   *
Tell stories. I loved when people wrote specific stories about Paul that I’d never heard, and told me how he had impacted them, what they loved about him, positive things they observed about our relationship. I personally think, the more detail, the better. The grieving person is thinking about the person 100% of the time; nothing you say is going to make her sadder; instead, the stories you tell are going to make her feel connected. [A Cup of Jo]
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. YES. I LOVE hearing about my dad. I love it when people say nice things about him, remember his quirks, remind me what a great service he provided to his hometown, describe his talents, and especially when they tell me things I didn't know before! I cherish those memories like nothing else, and I'm always thankful for people who want to talk about him. (I'm especially thankful for people who talk about him without me having to bring him up.)

One of his cousins wrote me:
"I remember when the river flooded and we heard he had hitchhiked back from college to help, I Immediately felt he would make everything ok. What a pillar of strength, character, ingenuity and dignity! Knowing him has made me strive to be a better person. The legacy he will leave with the world -- no man could want more."
I never knew he hitchhiked home to help with the river clean up! That's crazy. An acquaintance from my high school days emailed me about one of his basketball games where my dad approached him afterward:
"I have never spent much time getting to know your pop, but I have always respected him. After every guys game, he would come up to me and shake my hand and tell me how great we did. I can remember one game in particular, we were playing against a school in Austin. We trailed by 21 points going into the 4th and rallied from behind to win the game. Your dad was ecstatic and came over to tell us it was "one of the most amazing things" he had ever witnessed. Your pop has a way of making people feel good."
I love how specific this story is, and through all the detail you can plainly see how clear a memory it is for the writer - possibly one he'll never forget. My dad did that. My dad made that memory for him something he'll never forget. I needed to know that, as his daughter. Thank you for sharing it.

 *   *   *
Literally nothing is too cheesy to write. Whatever emotion you’re feeling, it’s probably helpful to say. My friend Kimmy, who lives in Sweden, wrote, “I’m sending you love from across the ocean, as you swim through yours.” Another friend wrote: “When your grief feels dark and bottomless, know that we are here to reflect Paul’s light and love back to you, whether it’s next month, next year or in ten years.” If there is something that you think sounds pretty, go for it. They aren’t analyzing what you say — they just feel so raw.
And there is nothing too great you can say about the person. One friend wrote, “I last saw you both at a friend’s wedding; you were gorgeous, and Paul was strong, confident and deeply happy. The awe I felt for him, you, both of you was astounding, and it has only ever grown.” I was blown away. You’re so starved for remembering and thinking you’ve lost something so great, when you hear something positive, it’s affirming and validating. You realize that people get what he meant to you. They understand, they think it’s important too. Your love is not lost in the world.
Of course, you don’t have to be sentimental. One friend wrote, “THIS SUCKS,” and that felt great, too. [A Cup of Jo]
We received some really beautiful letters from people. Not everyone is great with words, but that doesn't matter as long as it's well-meant and honest. All notes were meaningful whether they were straight to the point or read like poetry. I still cry every time I read what many of my cousins wrote about my dad. It just brings him to life on the page:
"Thank you for what has to be the best margaritas and breakfast migas. Speaking of which, thank you to the entire family for making it so new year celebrations anywhere else seem horribly boring. Thank you for teaching me how to shoot, and how to appreciate the worth of a good pair of snake boots. Thank you for being there, and for sometimes being a much needed breath of perspective. Thank you for being an inspiration. I am so proud to be part of this family."
It's so nice to know exactly what they remember him for, and to think that every time they have a homemade margarita or celebrate new years, they'll be thinking of him, too. One of dad's high school friends wrote me, and this funny little anecdote will always make me laugh:
"Even though we didn't stay in close touch over the years, every time we saw each other it was like we'd never left off. I know this is silly, but every time I look at a sponge, I think of him because he showed me how to microwave them in water when they are getting stinky. There are so many good memories I can't list them all, but they are all on my mind now."
I even received this note from the musicians that played at my dad's memorial service!
"We all agreed that we've never played a gig quite like this one, but we were all grateful for being a part of it--the support of your friends and family for your father and for each other was incredible. All the shared stories, and Maggie's wonderful singing, was an outpouring like nothing I've ever seen. On a break, [we] agreed that although we didn't know Chris, we both wish we had. He must have been an amazing person, and we are proud to have helped you honor his memory."
In some ways this last one was weirdly more meaningful than many others from people I knew. These guys showed up and played at my dad's memorial. None of them knew any of us or knew my father. But they left feeling impacted by his life, and one of them was thoughtful enough to share it with me. I appreciated that so much. 
*   *   *
Consider involving kids. I liked when kids drew a picture of Paul and me. Sometimes they drew a random picture and that was sweet, too. One note said, “Dear Lucy, You’re sad. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I said a prayer for you last night. I’m Molly’s son. Love, Finn.” And then he drew a four-leaf clover. One girl wrote “Sick, Happy, Dr. Paul” and then crossed out the word sick. That was before he died. Her mom was like, I guess she decided she didn’t want him to be sick! It felt so poignant. [A Cup of Jo]
Any little distraction is welcome when you are living a 24/7 cancer-hell. Pictures, drawings, funny gifts, goofy youtube videos - they pass the time, and certainly the long quiet days and nights after someone dies. Kids have that way of getting straight to the point and not beating around the bush. It's refreshing and welcome in those tough and often confusing times.

 *   *   *
Say you’ll never forget him or her. I like hearing that people will miss him. Someone sent me flowers and said, “Thinking of you; we miss Paul dearly,” and that meant a lot. A nurse who worked with him wrote, “We cherish the moments we spent with Paul in the operating room; he will never be forgotten.” Even though she’s a stranger to me, it’s really comforting to know that a nurse out there will never forget him either. 
This phrase was surprisingly and especially comforting to me. People could tell me they were sorry all they wanted, but to remember something specific about my dad and follow it up by "I'll never forget him" was true balm for my soul. I think it just seems like such an important acknowledgement of someone's impact on your life. We meet thousands of people in our lifetimes, and someone must be unique to be remembered - especially by people who didn't know you intimately or all that well. It also gives you the feeling of solidarity and that you aren't alone in the loss - other people are feeling it, too. Help us to remember, so we do not forget.

* * *
Write, even if you’re an acquaintance. A couple of people I didn’t know well still wrote to me (old friends of Paul’s, or the artist who illustrated Paul’s New York Times essay). It meant so much. You don’t have to be a close friend to write. 
Some of the most memorable and moving notes we received were from old friends of my father, or customers he worked for - we didn't know them, but they heard the news through the proverbial grapevine. These were fascinating for all of us, because it was a peek into little bits of his earlier life which we were not a part of or couldn't remember. Additionally, write to old friends you hear are sick, even if you haven't stayed in touch. I think it was very affirming and encouraging for my dad to receive notes from people in his past. Don't let distance, fear, or insecurity allow you to pass up an opportunity to say something you want or need to say.

*   *   *
Reach out anytime. A few friends texted or sent flowers on the one-month anniversary of his death. Others sent a note a couple months later. They said, “We’re thinking of you,” and that was nice. You are not better two months later. I can imagine it would feel good to receive flowers six months later, a year later.
It's yet another thing to add to your calendar, but especially if you are a close friend - do this. Program it into your phone or write them in the months to come on your planner. It's SO meaningful. Send a card or even just a text. Reach out in some way on important dates like birthdays, death-days, anniversaries, and any other day you think might be challenging for that person. But, don't hesitate to do something on random, insignificant dates as well. I had a hard time on my 30th birthday, ushering in a milestone without him just felt so wrong. The greatest comfort is not feeling alone, and the gaps between one anniversary and the next are often just as hard as those more significant days. 

A dear family friend took grapes my dad had cultivated and made "Saint Christopher's Grape Jelly" for us - such a special, thoughtful gift that allowed us to enjoy something he'd worked on, even many months after he was gone. We still have a jar!

*   *   *

In writing this post, I went through old emails and notes and read the words people wrote to me during that time. The grief is still there, of course, but I can smile at the stories and memories friends and family shared and know my dad is not forgotten. Those are the condolences that keep on giving!

And if you made it all the way to the end, my sincere condolences for the length of this post!

Friday, September 4, 2015

100 Years Ago

One hundred years ago, people didn't care how many twitter followers they had. They cared about whether or not their crops would survive the season until harvests. They cared that their livestock would bear offspring and see the other side of winter. They cared about surviving childbirth and keeping all their teeth.

One hundred years ago, children weren't raised as the center of the universe. They were birthed out of necessity, and often out of love. More children meant more sons to work the fields, more daughters to keep the house. Children grew up and followed the footsteps of their fathers and mothers. They weren't lost in a sea of choices and opportunity, but were anchored by hard work and simple goals.

One hundred years ago, women could not vote, homosexuality was still a crime, and the Civil Rights Act did not exist. Some things haven't changed. Others have taken on a new shape or face. We've seen progress, but we have the same problems. Women are still not equal, homosexuals are still persecuted, racism still very much exists. We're still at war, but with different countries, with different peoples, and with different social issues. People will always pick sides. We will always have opinions. We will always disagree. With transition, there will always be new problems. Every change starts a ripple of disorder, which in turn creates fresh waves of controversy. We have to amend laws and design a new order. 

One hundred years ago, living was just what happened between life and death. It was growing, eating, sleeping, working, marrying, birthing, care-taking, dying. The expectations weren't high. Life didn't owe us success, wealth, or fame. People got by on the least possible instead of in luxury. The stakes were survival. We were lucky, not entitled, to be alive.

We've come so far, we've learned so much. Breakthroughs in science, medicine, technology, commerce, connectivity. And now a generation is starting to move backward. Turn around and look to our grandparents and great grandparents. Look to history, handmade and homegrown. Question the wise and learn from the old ways. We're building a new dream on old ideals.