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Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Daily Grind: Wondering What to Make for Dinner

My oldest daughter—the only one of our three children with a sophisticated palate, who rarely gets to sample the diversity of dishes she was born to enjoy—has lately been despairing because I do not know how to cook and no longer know what to attempt to make.

I could definitely relate, for instance, when a friend recently posted on Facebook that she was “turning into Cher from ‘Mermaids’” by serving “Trader Joe’s appetizers for dinner.”

In fact, my daughter, 9, has started offering to help me in the kitchen because she is weary of the back-to-back rotation of stir-fry, tacos and pizza. I feel like I have really put myself out if I take my kids to Five Guys to snack on peanuts while I order their cheeseburgers and French fries.

Recent news about the carcinogenic effects of nitrates in processed meats sent me into a tailspin, forcing me to take these regulars off the menu—a move that proved only temporary when I broke down and started serving hot dogs again a few weeks later.

But it’s not my fault.

I grew up in a house where a hefty file cabinet full of recipes, ones that my mother had copiously copied out as a newlywed but rarely cooked, squatted untouched on our kitchen counter like an obsolete computer.

Culinary instruction in my childhood consisted of my mother slathering mayonnaise on slabs of Swiss cheese for a snack and my father boiling frozen cream-chipped beef to pour over burnt toast.

Needless to say, I have little confidence in the kitchen.

Sometimes I go to the store because we have run out of Honey Nut Cheerios; but sometimes, as a stay-at-home mother, I just need to get out. I also hope that pacing the aisles, watching other moms and dads load up on eggplant and risotto, will inspire me.

I suffer from a persistent delusion that what I need is not cooking lessons but rather proximity to those who actually know what they are doing—that by circulating among neighborhood chefs who understand how to pare vegetables and braise meat, I will absorb their skills through osmosis.

But so far, this approach has failed. I wind up packing my cart every time with the same old Yoplait Whips and ground beef. Even new acquaintances seem to sniff out my incompetence.

For instance, a woman I recently met in the parking lot of my children’s day camp recommended that I sign up for a supermarket delivery service. Then she friended me on Facebook to offer further encouragement.

“Just placing my Giant order,” she messaged. “If you send me your email, I’ll email you a link to save $20 on your first order. J

This sounded sort of appealing since one of the last times I visited that store, a fight broke out. Watching one worker pummel another, I dialed 911 as I continued to bag my groceries.

This experience did not help the vulnerability I always feel upon entering a supermarket, which is why another friend’s suggestion to try Plated, a company that mails fresh ingredients and recipes to your door for a fee, sparkled with possibility.

Gazing at the menu pictures of pretzel-crusted redfish with green beans and horseradish sauce and zucchini orzo with goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes, my daughter declared that she thought this service was a “really good idea.”

Georgia’s initial optimism flagged, however, when I had trouble determining when the oil was “shimmering” and failed to whisk together the horseradish and Greek yogurt to the proper consistency.

The mushy dish I delivered was somewhat less delectable than advertised. Plus, I had used every pot in the cupboard and splattered grease all over the counters and floor.

The next night, ordering take-out curly mac-n-cheese from California Pizza Kitchen seemed like a wise move.

“When I grow up, I’m going to open a restaurant,” Georgia declared between mouthfuls.

“Can I eat there?”

“Yes,” my daughter chirped. “And I’ll teach you how to cook!”


“Or I’ll just watch,” I said, wondering what on earth I would produce for tomorrow night’s dinner.

This Is What I Do While You Sleep

I don’t know if it is due to an undesirable hereditary trait or some kind of chemical change, but insomnia seems to have attacked my system—and upset my equilibrium—with the onset of middle age.

Instead of sleeping lately, in the middle of the night I have been doing everything from sampling esoteric foodstuffs, such as pickled vegetables straight from the jar, to pacing around the house, fretting about incomplete tasks and my kids. I have also been finishing novels (reading, not writing them), rearranging pictures on my daughter’s bookshelf while she sleeps, and scrolling through online images from Heart Home Magazine, dreaming of a room of my own.

Only occasionally, at this point, is my wakefulness still my children’s fault.

Recently, for instance, I was enjoying a rare sound slumber when our youngest daughter padded in to tell me that not only had she had a bad dream, but that she was also “starving.” In my misguided, midnight muddle, I led her downstairs to snack on some dried mangoes—way too chewy and sluggish a source of sustenance, I soon realized, my elbow propped on the counter, my head lolling uncomfortably in my hand. By the time she finished, I was wide awake.

Other times, I doze off shortly after putting my 6-year old and twin 9-year-olds to bed. Those are delicious, deep, early hours that I end up paying for dearly when I awaken at 12:30 or 1 a.m., wondering what I will do with myself until dawn.

Sometimes reading wears me out. The other night, I digested the final pages of William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” before drifting back off. Another time, all it took was a midnight stroll through Crate and Barrel’s fall furniture catalogue to return me to the coveted dark land of dreams.

But more often than not since I hit my mid-40s, I am up for hours worrying about the bills my husband and I haven’t yet paid, the doctor’s appointments I haven’t yet made, the years that are slipping by before I have a chance to grasp onto them and accomplish whatever it is that I am meant to do in this life.

Not knowing what my next step is is partly what’s keeping me up.

With my twins entering fourth grade and my youngest going into first—with all three of our kids finally in full-time school—I suddenly have stretched out before me whole days during which I know I should be earning money but haven’t quite figured out how to, the journalism landscape having drastically changed during the decade I was preoccupied with child-rearing.

I dream (but not while actually asleep) of converting our garage into a rustic retreat with a wood-burning stove, shelves cluttered with aged terra-cotta pots, and a window gazing at the main house where my husband is contending with our children. From this nest, I would churn out my memoirs or compose my first novel, the daydream goes, as if just by creating this space I would ignite the inspiration.

In the meantime, I am up at night in my regular house that usually needs cleaning, wondering how to jump-start my freelance career or find some intellectually stimulating part-time editing gig.

But rather than searching through foundering-writers-seeking-work websites, lately I have been prowling around insomniac chat rooms.

I had an interesting foray into InsomniaChat.com, which describes itself as a place to “join in forum debates and discussions about your experiences with insomnia and related issues.”

Though one visitor ranted, “Why get up early in the morning? Screw that! My Night is my morning!!! Insomniac and Proud!”—most of the rest of the content I read had nothing at all to do with sleep deprivation.

In addition to posting a YouTube link to Prince’s 2008 performance of Creep by Radiohead, a fellow night owl wondered, “Is segmentation leading to segregation based on race, politics, religion, gender and sexuality or personal views?” While these were important questions, they were not ones I was going to answer at 3:18 a.m.

When I’m not cruising chat rooms, sometimes I’ll actually write—garbled gook that seemed eloquent at 2 in the morning but that upon daylight inspection appears totally objectionable.

Maybe someday, during my candlelight vigils, I will embark on a longer-term project that will sustain me for many midnights to come.


In the meantime, I hope that I can stop wrestling with my insomnia and start viewing it as the gift of personal time and space—as a quiet room all my own.

Breathing in the Open Air

We recently drove from Philadelphia to a family camp on secluded Squam Lake in New Hampshire—completely unplugged, out in the open air, swimming, kayaking and hiking—one of our most successful vacations to date.

Georgia, 9, the foodie of our family, loved how breakfast, lunch and dinner arrived buffet style in a communal dining hall where she could choose between everything from Belgian waffles and omelets to shrimp scampi and roast beef.

I was partial to the desserts, helping myself most nights to a slice of cake or several fresh-baked cookies and a cone of Mississippi Mud Pie at the unlimited ice cream bar. After watching this pattern emerge, Georgia told me she was going to open a “dessert restaurant” when she grew up and that I would be “first in line.”

I wasn’t that worried about gaining weight, however, because I spent the better part of each morning pulling Georgia and her younger sister around in inflatable donuts as they hung onto the rope trailing from the back of my rented kayak, in a pathetic mimicry of those parents who were actually towing their kids in inner tubes behind motor boats.

As I frantically paddled, sunblock-laced sweat dripping into my eyes, Georgia and Jane, 6, took turns exclaiming, “This is so relaxing!”

Georgia’s twin brother, Griffin, did his part by wearing out my husband through a game of lake football they invented. Jeff would bob on one of the donut tubes and hurl the ball to our son as he leaped off the dock. They practiced endlessly every afternoon until Griffin could snatch it mid-air with one hand as he plunged.

Soon other children were joining in. My husband fetched the football like a loyal Labrador, tossing it to the next waiting child, and acted as barker, calling out categories for the kids as they jumped into the water.

“Fruit!”

“Watermel…” we heard before the child went under.

“One kid would wait ‘til dad asked the question, then think of the answer before he jumped,” Griffin later reported, highly offended.

That didn’t bother me as much as the fact that Griffin delighted in trouncing me at ping pong in the rec hall.

“You need to work on your serve,” he told me one afternoon, when I finally threw down my paddle, having lost seven games in a row.

I nursed my wounded pride and weary arms each evening, sitting at the edge of the dock, sipping frosty beers with my husband while we watched our kids swim.

One afternoon, a friend stopped by to chat, dangling his sunglasses over the water—dangerously, I thought, until proven right when he dropped them.

“Catch those!” he cried to Jeff, who didn’t.

Donning their goggles, Jeff and our friend spent the next hour diving down to the sludgy lake bottom, retrieving plenty of sticks and muck, but not the sunglasses.

“I’ll come back tomorrow when the lake’s calmer,” said our friend, unwilling to admit defeat.

I was exhausted just watching them and slept well that night until Georgia fell out of bed with a thud that resounded off the wooden walls of our small cabin. After making sure she wasn’t concussed, I retreated to the living room where a breeze was slipping through the screened windows facing the lake—ideal conditions, I thought, to light a fire.

Using the better part of the Sunday New York Times and all the kindling I could scrounge from the wood box, I finally got one roaring and kept adding logs—delighted with my success—not realizing until it was too late that I would be too anxious to go back to sleep until the flames had died down.

But the following day, I had to ignore my exhaustion.

Our daughters wanted me to pull them behind the kayak again. We still hadn’t climbed Rattlesnake Mountain. And Jeff had to defend his title in the Pinehurst Classic 5K Road Race that afternoon.

I could tell he was nervous, another year closer to 50 and suffering from planter faciitis. Plus the fellow who beat him two years ago was back at camp.

That night we consoled ourselves about his third-place finish (not withstanding the fact that he beat his rival) by watching the talent show. A friend’s son played a Mozart sonata on the piano. Several guests did a robot routine with lighted gloves. A young boy tap-danced across the stage.

“I don’t want to leave,” Georgia said tearfully as we walked through the dark woods back to our cabin.

I, too, was sad, reflecting on how much time we had spent together, filling up on nourishing food and fresh air, bathing in the cool lake instead of showering—no iPads or TV and barely any Wi-Fi connection—unplugged from the modern world and all our cares. And as I stuffed the soggy bathing suits and towels into the trunk of the minivan to drive the 420 miles back to Philadelphia, I hoped that we would be lucky enough to experience this magical adventure again next year.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Living Amongst The Beasts Of Suburbia

Finally released from the captivity of school, wrestling with their newfound freedom, and each other, our children have resorted to one of their favorite summer pastimes—non-stop bickering about everything from who used all the scotch tape to who gets the iPad first—making my husband and I feel like our house has been transformed into “Meerkat Manor,” where a “battle royale of competition and survival” daily plays out.

Actual and sometimes harrowing encounters with the wildlife that brazenly roams our neighborhood in sultry weather, enacting Darwin’s theory of natural selection right before our suburban eyes, has only enhanced this sensation.

Rabbits hop through our yard, digging up our plants and bulbs. Grey and black squirrels scurry about, gorging on berries and buried nuts, as well as food scraps our kids make a practice of scattering when we dine al fresco. Groundhogs trundle out of my path when I run along the Cynwyd Heritage Trail.

The other morning I saw a curious hole in the grass outside our back door and peered in. I was rewarded with a chipmunk darting up into my face, as I leaped back, startled, recalling the time as a child I gazed into a similar opening—that one the home of a snake.

Thus, I am no stranger to animals cozying up to me in and around the urban and suburban shelters I have occupied throughout my life.

As a graduate student in New York, my roommates and I unwillingly discovered that the scratching sounds we heard in the kitchen each night came from a family of mice nesting in the paper bags we stored under our sink.

When I was growing up in Seattle, my mother tried to drown a rat she’d caught in a long cage in our attic in a bucket of water. But when she traipsed up hours later in her nightgown, the cage was empty.

The specter of that vanished rat still haunts my nightmares, as do the memories of the flying squirrels that infested the 110-year-old Bala Cynwyd house I now live in. We spent thousands of dollars and several months trying to evict them with the help of two separate exterminating companies.

So I was practically unfazed when a friend showed me a picture on her cell phone of a decomposing baby fox skull she had discovered in her yard one recent morning.

“Coyotes,” I said knowingly, recalling that I had heard somewhere—maybe from an unreliable neighbor, maybe on NPR—that these animals were lately moving into the suburbs across the country.

A few mornings later, my husband and I spotted a hawk on the street in front of our house, snacking on the putrid corpse of a squirrel.

By now, seeing a bird of prey taking its breakfast on our doorstep seemed the natural course of events. So we paused to snap pictures.

Then the other day, as I lugged a laden laundry basket to the basement washer, I spied a brown snake coiled near the steps to our Bilco doors.

I dashed upstairs, thinking only that the snake better be there when I returned or I’d never sleep again, knowing that it could still be slinking around our house. After grabbing a handful of plastic grocery sacks, I plunged back down, two steps at a time, and scooped up the snake, feeling its fleshy weight in my covered hand.

Outside on the strip of grass near the road, I danced around, frantically shaking out all three bags—hoping that none of our three kids were looking out the windows—ever more frantic as the snake failed to appear.

And then, abruptly, there it was, complacently slinking away.

“What have you got?” inquired a neighbor who had the bad manners to be sauntering by at this vulnerable moment.

“Looks like your common garter,” he said, taking a look, charitably adding after seeing my stricken expression that “anyone would be scared by that.”

I had been too frenzied to even think of calling or texting my husband at work for assistance. So that evening, I revised the story into one that illustrated my immense composure and bravery, still wondering exactly how a snake had sneaked into our basement.

Then a couple of nights later, after a particularly grueling afternoon of refereeing our children’s sparring, I heard what sounded like a baby screeching or maybe a woman shrieking in labor.

Our dog sat up on his bed, ears cocked.

“What is that?” I called to my husband, who came upstairs and listened at the open window until the hair-raising call sounded again.

“A fox,” Jeff said.

And with that, my husband matter-of-factly punctuated what suddenly seemed like just another day in the wilds of our neighborhood and our home.

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