Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Even a Purple Funk has a Silver Lining

I've had a purple-laced-funk cloud hanging over me for several days now.  Back in the days when my kids were little I'd describe their down-in-the-dumps-days as "grumpled" . Well. grumpled or funked - I'm there.

Maybe it's the broken promise of expectations
Maybe it's missing the Ethiopia crew
Maybe early summer allergies
Maybe the drain of house-guests
Maybe it's the several  household mechanical systems that have conspired to break in the same week
Maybe it's the politics of this State I live in pandering to the base  demands of a bigoted few
Maybe it's the hatred directed at immigrants that has me considering leaving a place I love
Maybe it's as simple as getting the wrong movie from Netflix
Maybe it's sorting through my kids baby photos and confronting memories of a marriage failed
Maybe it's an eight mile hike causing knees to twinge
Maybe it's finally being honest with myself, recognizing there is more loneliness in an "iffy" relationship than alone

Whatever the reason, I know I have to snap out of it, burst the cloud of doom that's following me like a wet dog on a Saturday. No offense to the dog who smells like goose poo - he loves rolling in it! and is licking his paws - an annual early summer occurrence that no number of vet visits have been able to figure out.

I began this day looking for that silver lining. My garden offered the first hope. Roses  and deep-purple velvet-petaled iris dominate.  The roses were lovingly transplanted from my old house to this new garden.  As I snipped rich red  Abe Lincoln, pale coral Nancy Reagan and delicate pink Princess Elizabeth in the cool of very early morning I relaxed into the memories of choosing these particular varieties with my late husband. I chuckled at the memory of him falling backwards into a rose tree and snapping it. My remedy was to fill the gap with neosporin and wrap the trunk tightly with bandage - to this day , seven years later, that rose tree has a funny bump at the site of the wound but continues to offer glorious blowsy white roses twice a year.

The iris are double re-gifts. Jill gave me some corms. When I divided them I gave some to Sylvia, a gardening friend. She in return brought me corms last year for my new garden. When I divide the iris, I'll pass some on to another friend.

Iris and roses  fill a beautiful contemporary Waterford crystal vase bought in Dublin on one of the last trips David and I made together. We both were uneasy about the price - he insisted we buy it and so today it holds the colors and memories that are fast  lifting this bleak mood.  My silver lining was here after all.  I just needed to open my eyes.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Multi-tasking - Hah! I Knew It.

Vindicated! I have never been a fan of multi-tasking - have been known to say it means doing several things poorly at the same time - and now I'm proved right. A recent medical study shows that when a woman does two different tasks simultaneously, the brain divides the focus between the right and left brain equally. Throw in a third task and all three activities become "scattered" between the two lobes and no task is performed to maximum capacity or with efficiency.

I cannot tell you how many times I've been irritated in work situations to find co-workers and employees doing several things at once - talking on the phone whilst writing an email or filling out a form - even something as relatively low on brain power as talking and filing nails at the same time irks me. Why? because I've seen far too many sloppy results, embarrassing typos, failure to complete a sentence. One former employee of mine who insisted she could "multi-task" botched an entire crucial report form causing a delay in ordering parts that shut us down for a week. For my own part I've sent out more than a couple of hastily tapped e mails whilst doing something else and lived to regret the day.

I hate taking my life in my hands on the road as other drivers brush hair, manipulate a lipstick, chat on the phone or , god help us, send text messages all while driving. I was rear-ended last summer by a woman who had phone squeezed between shoulder and ear, and coffee cup in hand whilst she drove - into me as it happens.

I'm not saying that we can't stir the porridge at the same time as scanning the kids homework, or chop an onion ( although doing more than one thing at a time with a sharp object to hand has its own set of hazards) while listening to the radio but face it, ladies - the more we attempt to cram into a minute, the less effective we are.

An adage I grew up with was "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing properly." How correct that proves to be and how we should take it to heart in a world gone ballistic on gadgets - and expectations of women. Give yourself a break! Come on. Just this weekend I watched a father berating his son at the little league baseball game. While exhorting the kid the concentrate on the game, the dad answered his phone, picked up a fly-ball, yelled out a hi to another parent and paid for his soda . Way to go , I thought to myself. Walk the talk guy if you want the kid to learn anything. If you are going to talk to a teenager about focusing on the task at hand - set the example by doing the same Sit down with him or her, make the talk the center point - not an adjunct to cooking dinner, driving, cleaning the kitchen counter.

If you need to have the "we never talk anymore" conversation with a spouse think why before you open your mouth. Could it be because talking comes in second to sorting laundry, paying the bills, pruning the roses.

The older I get the more convinced I become that the whole multi-tasking myth was a plot to keep us scurrying like mice and prevent us from taking any quality time for those around us. I liked the era when my mother sat on the front porch and shelled peas while watching my brothers and I play and chatted about nothing of consequence with the neighbors - that's the only multi-tasking I'll accept as having any value.

For a long time now I have resolutely refused to buy into the multi-tasking world view. I refuse to juggle my focus and am blunt in saying "not now, I'm already occupied". I don't answer the phone if I'm face to face with someone. I don't keep my phone on in the grocery store or restaurant. I don't keep my computer open and troll for incoming e mail while in conversation. Maybe that attitude puts me out of sync with this fast paced world of our but it keeps me in sync with myself. And to prove how resolute I am about not multi-tasking, I was so focused on writing this that I let my morning tea go cold!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Eulogy to Susie

Subject Line : My Sister
My sister Susie passed away on Tuesday April 6th. She was found in her bed. So, ends an unhappy life of suffering.

This was the email I received from my ex-husband a few days ago.

I was a rock star the day I met Susie and her twin, Liz. It was two days before I married their brother. How exotic I was to this Finnish family - the first non-Fin and non-Lutheran to marry into a tight-knit clan. My rock star status derived from my accent - British! The fact that I'm Irish was not worthy of mention. I sounded English and I was from "there"!

"Do you know the Beatles?" - 1966. These two bubbly, blonds (natural - they were a pure Finnish bloodline) besiged me shyly. I must have been an enormous disappointment to them. Not only did I not know the Beatles - I wasn't even au fait with their music. Now ask me about a Beckett or Albee play and I could have, would have, probably did drive them to distraction with quotes.
"But", I remember Susie confronting me, "you said you sailed from Liverpool so you breathed the same air"! Oh I did , Susie, I did. For you I feigned an interest, I signed a poster, I wrote a note to your high school classmate stating I came from Liverpool. I suppose in the parlance of today - I gained street cred and so did you.

When the questions, the desperate hope that this new sister-in-law could be worth something, persisted, I shot back with , "Do you know Elvis?" - they mock-fainted in unison. " Elvis." Hands on heart - give me room to breath.

A few years after we were married, the twins were involved in a car crash. Liz recovered, married, scooped me on the names I had planned for my children - her naming her daughter Jessica meant my first borne became Lisa, and naming her first son Ian, meant my third child was named Nicholas. I have no enmity - my kids become their names and are precious.

Susie did not recover. There was back surgery followed by a period of living with us. More surgery, constant pain, and the slow realisation that Susie thrived on the attention that pain brought to her. Her, brother, my then husband and a physician brought to the table the phrase "Munchausen Syndrome".

Divorce was bitter and for many years we were totally estranged - so much so that his family, one I loved dearly, were denied me. Occasionally I heard snippets - "Susie is ill. Susie has had all her teeth pulled. Susie cannot walk".

Perhaps it is a blessing that Susie died in her sleep. It is not a blessing that she died alone, and I do not want her death to go unnoted.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Found Soup - Simple Pleasures

Sunday I wrote an essay for Connections for Women on balancing life and mentioned a simple pasta flavored with the wilted, lemon and oil flavored greens from the turnips and beets sourced at Tucson Farmers' Market on Saturday. What I didn't confess to was buying six bunches of baby turnips and cleaning out the supply of baby beets.

So come Thursday, beets and turnips roasted and long enjoyed, I had reproachful bunches of turnip and beet greens sighing in the fridge. NYT this week carried an article on a cooking school in Ireland and the resurgence of Irish cooking - a recipe for Forager's Soup was included. Memories and inspiration came in a flood.

Memories of foraging for sauce-sized mushrooms that my grandmother would fill with butter and put directly into the ashes of a turf fire until the butter melted and the mushroom was tender. Memories of dandelion and burdock wine fermenting - sometimes exploding - in the cold pantry. Memories of wandering a lane close to Snowdonia in Wales with my late husband - insisting that he give me his trade-mark Tilly hat so I could fill it with mushrooms, stuffing my own pockets with hazel nuts, and sacrificing my hat to hold blackberries. David put the scrumped apples into his pockets.

We were staying at a country inn. The owner was also the chef. Somewhat sheepishly, around five in the afternoon we presented him with our offerings with a muttered, "we couldn't resist harvesting these." He smiled, said thank you and noted the hat would likely smell of mushrooms for years to come - it did. Mine - blackberry stained beyond salvation got tossed into the washing machine when we returned home and was never quite the same again.

The custom in those country inns is for guests to gather in the lounge before dinner for a drink and appetiser - an amuse bouche courtesy of the chef. We were delighted to be presented with slices of grilled mushroom, filled with a local cheese and topped with chopped hazel nuts. Dessert that night was a sublime apple and blackberry cobbler - ground hazel nuts featured in the crust. I learned later that our meager offerings were but a drop in the bucket - the chef had done his own foraging earlier in the day.

I've always been a fan of 'found' foods. Inspired by the recipe for Forager's Soup and with those greens challenging me to be creative, I came up with the following recipe for "Found Soup".
Before crying "I don't have any beet leaves" read the end note!
  • About eight loosely packed cups of chopped greens. I used turnip, beet, watercress and Chinese pea pods.
  • About one cup of chopped onion
  • About one cup of sliced potato
  • Seven or more cups of chicken or vegetable stock
  • One tablespoon butter
  • Two tablespoons olive oil
  • Three slices pancetta cut into quarters
  • Optional toppings - crumbled crispy bacon or pancetta, creme fraiche, sharp cheddar cheese.


Wash the greens, discard tough stems and any discolored leaves. Set aside.

Heat the oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed soup pan. Add the onions, pancetta and potato - stir to coat with the oil/butter , cover with parchment paper and sweat for about 5 minutes over low to medium heat. You want to wilt but not brown.

Throw away the parchment paper, cover potatoes and onions with stock, bring to the boil and simmer covered for 15 minutes or until completely tender.

Since I like the flavor but not the idea of pureed pancetta, I remove it at this point.

Pile the greens into the pot. Add the remaining stock. Push down the greens with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil uncovered and cook 2 - 3 minutes uncovered. Any longer and you'll lose the wonderful bright green color. You can hedge your bets on keeping the colour by adding around 1/8 a teaspoon of baking soda at the same time that you add the greens. I didn't.

Pure with an immersion blender or in batches in a blender. Be careful - you are dealing with a hot liquid. Check for seasoning and add freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste.

Serve with a topping of either creme fraiche, crumbled bacon ( and you can substitute bacon for pancetta), crisp fried pancetta or a sharp cheddar cheese. Sublime!

I served my first experiment as a first course followed by grilled bratwurst and sweet and sour braised red cabbage. And because I made this three times to get it right, leftovers are in the fridge and will re-emerge on Easter Sunday as a "while we cook" get the appetite going prelude to lunch.

NOTE: Anyone who knows me also knows that I'm a go with the flow cook and not intimidated by recipes. For this green soup you can use chard, lettuce, parsley, green onions, dandelion greens. Go for it. It's a what you can find soup.