Life Answers Its Own Questions

Archived | May 29, 2014 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. I was wrapping a few gifts as I listened, and giving some thought to what kind of cakes I’ll bake and what I might cook up to celebrate. We have two birthdays ahead as the school year winds down — both daughters, and in all the rush of grad party plans for our son and award ceremonies and concerts and fertilizing the lawn and putting away the winter things, it was a bit of a relief when the girls agreed they’d each love a summer membership to the local fitness center. There happens to be a bargain package for students, and both girls enjoy exercise, so that cuts down on shopping time and the search for just the right gifts.
Visited the place the other day to secure two memberships, and a lovely toned man named Bob gave us a brief tour, explaining some of the fitness equipment and how it all works. His hair was gray, and he had a few wrinkles, but he moved with a kind of deliberate ease, like a wildcat, or a storm rolling in. (I often feel like one of those Jesus lizards flailing over the water.) Funny thing, though, as he explained each machine and what muscles it works and its general purpose, I kept thinking things like, “Huh. I do that when I fold clothes” and “Hmm. I get the same result from going up and down the stairs 17 times a day” and “I bet I work those same muscles mowing the lawn.” Making beds in itself, if you’ve got a few and you’ve just washed all the bedding, can be its own aerobic workout. When he got to the yoga classes, same thing — my 20 minute naps, standing on my head on occasion, bouts of joy on the trampoline, cleaning out and rearranging the kitchen cupboards and trying to dust the top of the fridge — lot o’ yoga in a day for me.
Not to say a real workout is a waste of time. Hardly. And I’m all for a yoga class. Thing is, when your life is like mine, carving out the time can be a challenge, and sometimes money is an issue, so there is consolation and something like relief to realize how I move through a day is its own personalized workout. Designed by me, without much thought. Isn’t it true, that often life answers its own questions? That if you do good work in a day, the work that needs doing, and don’t give up, that you get a workout of your own. It’s true, I think.
Seems you don’t have to go too far to find the things you need. Conversations at the dinner table and questions like “Why did you have kids?” and “How can we save the planet?” A pile of oak logs needing splitting and a floor in need of washing. Basil and sugar snap pea seeds for the planting, and a watermelon waiting to be sliced. Exercises of mind, body, and spirit everywhere I go.
I’m glad the girls will have a place where they can work out and watch themselves in mirrors and keep track of their miles on meters and do yoga on solid mats with a licensed instructor. I’m glad there is a panic button in the place, and showers, and enough equipment for them to feel challenged. I’m glad they want to be healthy, and to feel good through the heat of summer, and I’m glad they are doing it together.
As for me, I’ll pass on the membership. Give me a lawn to mow, and windows to wash, some planting and baking and all the laundry you can fling my way. Happy to do it, and while I am, I can give some thought to answering those big questions. Like why I had kids. There are the obvious answers, but now that I think about it, maybe it had something to do with saving the planet. Makes sense to me.
Here’s something salty and sweet to make for the next picnic you attend. Five ingredients, and if you’re a fan of peanuts, you’ll want to try this one. Seriously.
Payday Bars
1 (16 ounce) jar dry roasted peanuts
3 T butter
1 bag peanut butter chips
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups miniature marshmallows
Grease 9×13 pan, and pour ½ peanuts on bottom of pan. Melt butter and chips, stir well. Add sweetened condensed milk and Marshmallows. (Don’t melt the marshmallows.) Pour mixture over peanuts and pat down evenly. Pour remaining peanuts over and pat some more. Chill, cut and serve.

Life Reveals Itself This Way

Archived | May 21, 2014 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Lot of rushing around to get things done before school is out and young people are in and out of the house day and night. Lot of awards ceremonies and concerts between now and then, and Memorial Day Weekend, and a graduation, too. Busy time. Ordered a cake from the bakery for the Open House after the graduation. Ordered potato salad, too, and a keg of root beer, and spent far too much time searching for the appropriate shade of green plastic tablecloths. Not lime green, not hunter green. “Moss green,” my son requested. “You know, a comfortable green.”
While the kids were growing up, when I wanted an answer, I generally gave them a choice between two things. Instead of “What do you want for dinner?” I asked, “Pasta or tacos?” Rather than, “What should we do today?” I said, “Swimming or canoeing?” Asking an open-ended question was asking for chaos; giving a choice narrowed things a bit. Added focus. It became, more recently, a road trip game. As I drive along, we ask things like, “Lake or River?” “Banjo or guitar?” “Hip Hop or Blues?” “Jellybeans or licorice?” and so on, and everyone else answers the question and sometimes there are arguments and sometimes we learn something about someone we didn’t know before and have wonderful discussions and sometimes there’s kind of a silence for a while until someone thinks of something new: “Trampolines or rollercoasters?” “Saudia Arabia or Siberia?”
The color of plastic tablecloths for a graduation open house is, in the grand scheme of things, not all that important. When I asked the question, I was looking for strong feelings my son might have, like “Not Orange!” or “It has to be plain.” Something. I expected, “It doesn’t really matter, Mom.” When his reply was “moss green…a comfortable green”, I was caught off guard a bit by his thoughtful reply.
It may sound silly, a conversation about tablecloth color, but life reveals itself this way, in the simple and the unexpected. All along the way, like fireflies in the night, I caught glimpses of the grown man in him. And now that grown man has begun to speak. Such a glorious thing, to meet the adult in your child. It has happened before; it will happen more often now, I imagine, until he’s here to stay.
If you’re like me, sweets are sweets, whether it’s Black Forest Cake from Germany or Poi from the Islands or Greek Baklava. Every region has its own take on what tastes best after dinner, and a rhubarb dessert from Norway is always a delight.
Norwegian Rhubarb Dessert
1½ lbs rhubarb
1½ cups water
¾ cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla
3 T cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Wash and trim rhubarb, and cut into ½ inch slices. Combine with water and sugar in a cooking pot and simmer on the stove until soft. Stir in vanilla. Blend cornstarch with a little cold water to make a smooth stiff paste. While stirring constantly, add paste to rhubarb and cook for five minutes or so, until thick and clear. Pour into a glass serving dish and set aside.
Whip cream until frothy, add sugar and vanilla and whip until stiff. Pipe whipped cream through pastry tube in decorative swirls on compote or simply pour it on and spread evenly with a spoon. I garnish with a strawberry and a bit of nutmeg, but I’m thinking raspberries would be good, too.


Archived | May 15, 2014 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Mr. Sundberg was home for the weekend, and made a lovely pizza for all of us Saturday evening, his contribution to Mother’s Day before the fact. It was nice to relax a bit and eat homemade Thai chicken pizza together while listening to the show. And then on Sunday, more good food, this time with my brothers and mother at an Irish pub in the city. It felt a bit odd for a place to visit on Mother’s Day, but why not? I thought, as I made the reservation a while back. It was a good call. We ate reubens and fish ‘n chips, and this wonderful pile of lettuce and figs and apples and Brie, and big puffy pretzel-like bread sticks with a cheesy sauce. And Irish coffee with a shot of Jameson. Mom wore three small white roses and looked pretty and happy, and we walked by the river after and took photos of each other and laughed. It was an afternoon one might frame and place on the mantel.
There’s a Latin word, “satis”, that comes to mind here. It means “enough.” Not “enough” like “we have enough butter” or “I’ve had enough of this crap”, but “enough” in a deeper way, like “sufficient”, a deep down “YES.” How you might feel if your soul would sigh. It’s a feeling I feel often during or after a meal with people I love. I feel it sometimes at the end a busy day, sometimes when saying goodbye, sometimes after washing all the windows. I felt it on Christmas Eve, and when our daughter graduated from high school, and when I turned 40. It appears after making love. And at twilight around the campfire. And sometimes after I finish mowing and raking and cleaning up the yard. And during a long, hot shower, and sometimes just sitting with a person with whom you can be yourself. Satis.
Thing is, like with happiness or straight As or a good relationship or a perfect rice pudding, you can’t force the feeling of “satis”, and there’s no guarantee. You can’t really plan for it, or count on it, and it has a lot to do with hard work, and not giving up, and a little to do with something else. I want to say “fate”, but it’s more like mystery, or chance. And it seems the fewer expectations a person has, the more often the feeling of “enough” appears. Sometimes the best things just come out of nowhere, out of the blue, and nestle around you and fill you up. A tall cool glass of lemonade. The kids’ voices in another room. The wind blowing through the curtains, with the sun peeking in. The scent of wildflowers. Satis. Yes. Enough.
My grandmother made these bars on hot summer days. My brothers and I ate them warm, with vanilla ice cream, out on the back porch, batting away flies and dogs, and dripping ice cream on our smudged up bare feet. Then she’d get out the homemade root beer, and we were good to go for a whole afternoon of swimming over at the lake.
Raspberry Rhubarb Pie Bars
3¼ cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup butter
¾ cup plus 1 to 2 T milk
1 egg yolk
2 cups sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch
5 cups fresh or frozen unsweetened raspberries, thawed and drained
3 cups sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb, thawed and drained
1¼ cups powdered sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
5 to 6 tsp milk
In a large bowl, combine flour and salt; cut in butter until crumbly. Whisk ¾ cup milk and egg yolk; add to flour mixture, tossing with a fork until the dough forms a ball. Add more milk, one tablespoon at a time, if you need to.
Divide dough in two portions, one slightly larger than the other, and wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for an hour or so until it’s easy to handle.
Roll out the larger portion of dough between two large sheets of lightly floured waxed paper into an 18-in. x 13-in. rectangle. Transfer to an ungreased 15-in. x 10-in. x 1-in. baking pan. Press onto the bottom and up the sides of pan, and trim pastry to edges of pan.
In a large bowl, combine sugar and cornstarch. Add raspberries and Rhubarb, and toss to coat. Gently pour into pastry.
Roll out remaining dough and place over filling. Fold bottom pastry over the edge of the top pastry, seal, and prick top with a fork.
Bake at 375° for 45-55 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.
For icing, combine powdered sugar, vanilla and enough milk so you can drizzle it over the pie. Cut into squares. Makes 2 dozen pie bars.

The Right and Healthful Thing

Archived | May 9, 2014 | By

Listened to the show Saturday, and it was not bad. Made some rhubarb buttermilk muffins, and a batch of potato pancakes that were pretty much the best I’ve made, with caramelized Sweet Vidalia onion thrown in for something new.
I finished putting away some clothes while the kids ate, and I could hear them talking in rather muffled tones. When I went back out into the kitchen, they asked what I want for Mother’s Day. Made me smile. I give them the same list just about every year: candles, flour sack towels, wooden spoons, perfume, rubber spatulas, chocolate, a gift card for a massage with Pam, books, and silver earrings. And a family outing is always good. Usually we go out for dinner, but this year I told them I’d like to see a movie. “Godzilla.” Unfortunately it doesn’t open ’til the weekend after Mother’s Day, but that’s no problem. We’ll go then, in the spirit of Mother’s Day. And because the outing has to wait, Mr. Sundberg announced he’d make dinner. His own concoction: Thai Chicken Pizza. Homemade.
The best Mother’s Day gift depends on the year, and on the mother. Some years, all I wanted was to be alone. For everyone to get the heck away from me for a day. One year I drove two hours to bluffs along the river and climbed to the top and just sat there awhile. I think I even took a nap. There have been years when we all spent the day together at the zoo, or at the mall, or we stayed home and kids climbed on me and we had a big feast and it was pretty ordinary except for the cards they made, and the way they looked at me as they handed me bunches of wildflowers they picked themselves.
One child is away now, and the second will go next fall. Next year will be my last Mother’s Day with a child at home. I think about this. It doesn’t make me sad. It’s a good thing, the right and healthful thing, when children grow up and go out into the world. And kids, you can take a few things for granted: I will always have your back, and love you, no matter what; you’ll always know where to find me; and, when in doubt, refer to the good ol’ Mother’s Day Gift List. Add “Call Mom”, if you wish, but no worries about getting home. Ain’t gonna happen every year, and I’m okay with that. I can see you when I close my eyes, feel you in my heart, and — if I take a long, deep breath — I can smell your skin. It’s true. If you choose to have children down the road (emphasis on “down the road”), you’ll know exactly what I mean.
There’s something about a muffin. Maybe it’s the shape, or how you eat it, or the variety of muffins out there. Or the sound of it, “Muffin.” I don’t know. I do know that a muffin is often just the thing, and this one is a fine example.
Rhubarb Buttermilk Muffins
1½ cups brown sugar
¼ cup oil
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1½ cups finely diced rhubarb
½ cup pecan pieces
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
⅓ cup sugar
1½ tsp cinnamon
1 T melted butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine in large bowl: brown sugar, oil, egg, and vanilla. Beat until well mixed. Stir into mixture buttermilk, rhubarb, and pecans. Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and stir until all ingredients are moistened. Do not over mix.
Fill greased muffin pan or muffin cups 3/4 full with batter. Quickly combine topping ingredients and sprinkle on top of batter in each muffin cup.
Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Makes 20-24 muffins.