Monday, August 31, 2009

the kindness of friends

I've been thinking a lot about the kindness of friends lately. The stories you always hear are the ones about the kindness of strangers. I guess it's more entertaining to hear about someone saving a stranger's life or helping someone they've never met find their way to the interstate. I'll admit that I, too, have been the benefactor of the kindness of strangers, and I agree the experience has its own special place in our world. There was the time I was in Scotland, plopping down heavily in my seat on the train I almost missed, only to discover I had gotten on the wrong train - heading in the right direction, but arriving too late for my connecting train. I confirmed my mistake with the ticket-taker, who came back a few minutes later and quietly said, "I've had a word with the driver, miss. She's going to put her foot down to get you there in time." The ticket-taker even met me on the platform and showed me just where to go to catch the next train. I can't say I think that would ever happen in the US - but it was a lovely example of the kindness of strangers.

I have also, of course, been the benefactor of the kindness of friends throughout my life. It would be impossible for me - for anyone - to accurately list and acknowledge a lifetime's worth of kindnesses. It feels the same way I feel when I walk into a great bookstore - even if I stopped everything I'm doing right now and just read books for the rest of my life, I would never be able to read them all.

There are the moments that really stand out, though, times when friends offered themselves to me and my family in selfless, loving, remarkable ways. There was the time a good friend who worked at our vet clinic made ceramic impressions of our beloved dog Lucy's feet after she died, knowing we would cherish them even though it must have been heartwrenching for her as well.

We experienced so many kindnesses when my mom was sick - meals delivered, pets cared for, heartfelt letters written. Friends who were willing to listen, and those who were willing to talk about something other than cancer for once. There were the friends who dropped what they were doing and drove many hours to be with me after my mom died, or who made the effort to attend mom's funeral in the middle of a busy winter quarter, or who sent baskets of blooming pink tulips in the middle of January.

A family illness and death is a great test of friendship - a real opportunity for error as well as selflessness. Moving is another time when your friends show up. When we left Athens, one of my friends came over and literally finished the move for us - packing up shopping bags full of stuff to be donated. Brian's uncle - he counts as a friend even if he's family too - along with my dad and others packed our UHaul so full of stuff it was a work of art. Items were actually suspended from the ceiling with rope. It was amazing. When we got to Asheville - Brian and I and my dad, two dogs, five cats, three cars, and a UHaul - colleagues from my new job and our new landlord helped us move Brian's baby grand piano into the new house. Moving a grand piano is NOT an easy job - one wrong move and someone is getting seriously hurt. These were people who weren't even really friends yet - they were banking on a future friendship.

Since becoming a parent - actually since becoming pregnant - the kindnesses we've experienced seem to have increased exponentially. There have been so many times when I have felt unable, or at least less-able than I used to be, to do the things that I needed to do to take care of myself, my home, my pets, and my family. When Dora was born, a whole contingent of friends formed to take care of the house and pets, bring us food, offer us support.

These friends have been the first people with whom I have entrusted Dora, and to this day I have many friends here and elsewhere who have helped with childcare over, and over, and over again, never asking anything in return. These friends don't just watch Dora, or stick her in front of the TV - she comes home fed, bathed, and ready for bed. There is nothing sweeter in this world than receiving a child back from the babysitter who can be snuggled, read to, and put to bed with so little effort.

I have had some dark days as a new mother, too. I had friends who stood by me through terrifying, troubling, unexpected anxiety - friends who listened at all hours of the night, who offered peaceful tones, who prayed for me and with me. I had friends during that time who would faithfully have me over for dinner every single weekend, knowing that when Brian was working was my most fearful time. These people sacrificed of themselves - giving up every weekend to take care of a friend who was in a fragile mental state. I think we need to amend the old saying - there but for the grace of God, and my friends, go I.

I cannot possibly list every kindness I have ever received from a friend, nor can I list all those wonderful friends by name. I feel like an actress giving an Oscar speech - I'm not going to name anyone lest I forget someone. I can't possibly include photos of all of you either. What I will do, to thank all of you, to remember all of you and how you've given me your grace to help me survive, is try to be that friend for someone else whenever I can. I will try and try and try to pay it forward, as best as I can, and when I fail I'll try again. What better lesson can I teach my daughter than that by offering herself to others - strangers and friends alike - she's taking a tiny step towards improving the world? I can't teach her to list all the friends who have helped her - already in her tiny life there are too many to list. In the meantime, though, let me just say this: you know who you are.

blackberry chutney

I made the most delicious blackberry chutney last night, which I served with a fine piece of local mountain trout, roasted balsamic beets with fresh thyme, and rosemary orange fingerling potatoes. Almost everything in the meal was local - mostly from our CSA, a few things from my backyard, and the trout from nearby. We had a busy day yesterday, so the pictures are somewhat limited. But trust me, it was really fantastic!

Blackberry Chutney
1 small shallot, minced
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, finely minced
olive oil
1 cup fresh blackberries, rinsed
scant 1/4 cup sugar (or less, if the blackberries are really sweet)
3/4 cup water
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
freshly ground pepper

Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat until warm. Add the shallot and ginger and sautee until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the blackberries, water, sugar, and lemon juice. Stir to combine and melt the sugar. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 15 - 20 minutes. While cooking, smash the blackberries with the back of a spoon to thicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. Tastes great over baked fish, but would probably be great with grilled porkchops or baked chicken. Also delicious the next day on a toasted english muffin with butter!

Saturday, August 29, 2009


This day went from fall to summer and back again. It was a typical late summer day in the mountains - ever-changing, beautiful, tugging at your emotions as you ponder bidding summer farewell. It was a spectacular day - featuring a number of activities I was very blessed to participate in - yet I felt like my emotions were on a seasonal roller-coaster as well. I felt as unpredictable as my toddler, and I don't even know why.

The day started out nicely enough. Brian and I had a gift certificate for a kayak trip on the French Broad River. Our friends Kim and Jeff kindly watched Dora for us and we set off at 9 am with the requisite laid-back, hippy outfitters driving us to the put-in near Bent Creek. There were two other women and a man in the van with us, but we quickly left them behind. Aside from the Blue Herons, Kingfishers, and dragonflies, we were alone. The morning started out cool, but slowly the clouds burned away and the sun came out, warming up the trees enough to stimulate long, slow songs from the Cicadas.

It was magical - floating through the Biltmore estate, insulated for most of the trip from anything other than each other and nature. We chatted, we sat in silence, we laughed, we argued about how to steer through the rocks and other obstacles. It was the first time in over 2 years that I have been separated from Dora and inaccessible by phone or any other way. It was fairly liberating to let it go, trust that everything would be fine (which it was, of course). When we returned home, I walked down the steps to the car and felt the same calmness inside that I had felt on the river. Ahhhh, I thought, I have finally figured out how to maintain the stress-relieving affects of leisure activities after they end! It only took me 33 years to figure it out - what a relief!

Dora came home exhausted from her own happy adventures, falling into bed for her nap. She didn't sleep long though - a foreshadowing of things to come. Brian left for a gig, and we went to a friend's child's birthday party. It was a warm, loving group and no one minded that Dora kept horning in on the gift opening. A few cupcakes later, we proceeded to a couple of errands. Things devolved from this sunny scene to a low point - me yelling sternly at Dora, who had run away from me in the checkout line and was lying on the floor of the cereal aisle at the grocery store, laughing. In hindsight, I realize there were a few variables stacked against us, and I pushed it too far with the errands. But at the time I wondered how it was that I could have such a beautiful morning - a break from toddlerhood that should have left me feeling refreshed and patient - and have an afternoon that involved yelling at Dora in front of all the other Ingles' shoppers.

As a parent, it is so easy to feel guilty about what we do. I feel guilty about working, spending 40 hours a week away from my child at a job that, while it is valuable and important, doesn't result in lives saved, diseases cured, or wars ended. I feel guilty about going to the gym, asking Dora to spare me a few more hours a week than she already does so I can blow off some steam with the other sweaty ladies. I feel guilty when we hire a babysitter or trade hours with a friend so we can have some time together. I think these feelings are only natural, but I also think that I have to let that guilt go whenever I can. A friend who is also a mother told me recently that her philosophy is that taking care of her marriage IS taking care of her kids. I think she is right. I want Dora to grow up with parents who love each other, and the only way I can make that happen is if Brian and I take some time to focus on each other now and then.

I put Dora to bed early tonight, and her level of exhaustion became apparent when I nursed her before story time. She fell asleep in my arms, something she rarely does anymore. Instead of promptly depositing her into bed, I held her close, letting her rest her head on my shoulder, listening to her breathe. We used to sit on the couch holding Dora for at least an hour after she fell asleep when she was tiny, both of us getting weepy at the thought of how fleeting these sweet moments would be.

Tonight as I held her, I felt another sense of loss as I considered how big she feels, and how soon she will be too big or too independent to let me hold her while she sleeps. I closed my eyes, matching the rhythm of her breathing, thinking back even further to my pregnancy, when we were one body, one spirit, wrapped up together in our own sweet space.

It is amazing - painful, even - to think of how much she has changed in just two short years. How did we go from sitting on the couch watching my belly move around to where we are now, stealing moments away from our baby so we can reconnect, chasing her through the grocery store angry, embarrassed, exhausted? I guess we've come all that way because we're human - we're imperfect, and we do our best, which isn't always that great but is also sometimes quite spectacular. I believe we all have to work towards forgiving ourselves for our own humanity. I must also believe that, like carrying the stillness of the river back with me to land, the love we have for Isadora holds steady and true in our hearts, overarching and outlasting everything else, even our imperfections and our virtues. It is that love, more than anything else, that makes us who we are now. And that, my friend, is truly magical.

pesto, pesto, pesto

I have had varying levels of success when growing basil, but this year has been a good year for it. We have gotten bag after bag of basil in our CSA box and, for some reason, I felt it necessary to plant two basil plants in my backyard. With the help of our friends Mandy and David, we completed a huge landscaping project in the backyard earlier this year, so I finally had a sunny spot in which to plant some herbs and a blueberry bush. Basil seemed like a good filler while the other perennials got established. I now have two giant basil plants in the backyard. Between those plants and our CSA box, I am going to be making a LOT of pesto.

You can make a lot of different variations with pesto. The basic combination is basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, garlic, pine nuts, salt, and pepper. You can throw in other herbs, replace some (or all) of the cheese with another type of hard cheese or lemon juice, or experiment with other types of nuts. Pine nuts are so expensive, that's usually the ingredient I play around with the most. My friend Mandy says it's scary buying them in bulk and I agree - you don't have that much control over the lever, and you could easily end up with a two pound bag of pine nuts and a much higher grocery bill. Pecans, sliced almonds, and walnuts all work well. I like to toast them first for about 5 - 7 minutes in a 350 degree oven, or until fragrant. Watch sliced almonds closely, as they can burn easily. The key is to taste your pesto frequently until it reaches the right consistency and flavor for you.

I don't have a food processor, so I make my pesto using an immersion blender. I find this works better than a standard blender, and clean-up is easier. But, food processor devotees probably prefer to use them for making pesto. Pesto also freezes well, which is a real bonus this time of year. Spoon pesto into ice cube trays, wrap tightly in plastic, and freeze for 24 hours. Pop out of the ice cube trays and freeze in a glass jar or freezer bag. I use roughly one cube of pesto per serving of pasta. Pesto discolors quickly when exposed to air, so freeze or cover tightly immediately.

Here is a pesto starting point - you take it from here!

Basil Rosemary Pesto
2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 - 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/4 - 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup toasted almond slices
freshly ground black pepper

Puree the basil leaves, rosemary leaves, and garlic in a food processor or using an immersion blender. Drizzle in 1/4 cup olive oil and puree again. Add Parmesan and almonds, puree, and add additional olive oil as needed to reach desired consistency and flavor. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Freeze, or serve over pasta, boiled potatoes, on warm crusty bread, on a fresh tomato and mozzarella sandwich, or any other way you think of to serve it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

moon spotting

The road through toddlerhood is apparently a very bumpy one indeed. The mood swings we go through in a day are nothing short of incredible. Today was a great example of seeing my girl go from being the cutest, most angelic thing in the world to being a little naughty in a sort of charming way to devolving into a screaming, kicking, hot mess all within about a 20 minute time span. It's a pretty incredible skill - simultaneously being the cutest yet most obnoxious person I've ever met.

I've read - and agree - that toddlers just don't have a filter for their emotions the way adults do. They haven't yet developed that sense of restraint that most of us spend our adult, professional lives perfecting. Unless your Michael Scott, you probably don't walk around your office speaking the truth. I mean really speaking the truth, the kind of truth that says things like, "your obnoxious perfume does nothing to cover up your cigarette smoke breath" or "if you would just get to the point, this meeting would be over already".

Really, what Dora is giving me is complete honesty. She's just wearing her heart on her sleeve. If she sees I'm about to leave for work in the morning and she's not ready for me to go, she wraps her arms and legs around me and screams. If she feels like running around the restaurant yelling because the food is taking forever and she's bored, she does it. I can't say that I don't agree with what she's trying to express - it's just that frequently what she's expressing isn't convenient or socially acceptable.

Today was one of those days where she was all over the place, and rightly so. I had a full work day, and had to return to work for a public hearing at 7. For some reason, I thought I could fit in there a previously scheduled social arrangement - a meeting of my postpartum group at the Brew and View, a local, casual place where you can eat pizza, drink beer, and watch movies. I've only been there one other time, with the same group, and the food was okay and atmosphere just about right for screaming wild toddlers.

It is always great to see these friends of mine, who I have marched alongside on the road through early motherhood. Together we have seen our own share of ups and downs - difficult babies, breastfeeding troubles, marriages under stress, illness, losses of loved ones, anxiety. It's pretty amazing, actually, to consider all this little group has gone through in the past 2 years. We can look at each other, and we just understand, even without saying a thing.

Our kids ran around while we visited, trying to order food, prevent toddler disaster, and have meaningful adult conversation all at once. The waitress was less-than-impressed by our group, the service was horribly slow, and, honestly, the place smelled like a toilet. At one point Dora and her little friend Silas discovered a video game featuring two guns. They played around with them for a while, and although I of course want to keep that kind of playing out of Dora's life as much as possible, Silas' mom, Emily, and I just looked at each other and smiled. What can you do?

The food arrived minutes before we had to leave, so we wolfed down what we could. I had ordered two slices of pizza with pesto, broccoli, and corn - aiming for an Avalanche pizza veggie rainbow experience. It was okay - not Avalanche, but good enough. Dora got interested in the pizza right when it was time to go, so when I put the second, uneaten piece in our to-go box, she grabbed it and ran away from me. I basically had to tackle her, grab the to-go box, and carry her out of the place kicking and screaming. She fought getting into her car seat - performing her famous back bend while repeatedly yelling "no, no, no". We drove away, me apologizing and her crying. At a red light, I opened the to-go box and picked a broccoli floret off the pizza and handed it to her, expected her to bat it away and continue crying. But no, she took it from me, and all the rest of the broccoli I offered, instantly quieting down to eat it.

I smiled as we drove into the sunset, heading towards a friend's house so I could return to work for the public hearing. Moments earlier, I was in one of the unhappier levels of toddlerhood - kicking, screaming, hot mess stuff. And now, my child, my perfect little angel, was being comforted by BROCCOLI! How perfect! All of my hours in the kitchen, all of my homemade foods and frozen baby purees - perhaps they have finally paid off!

After the hearing I picked Dora up from my friend's house. She had been crying when I left her but had a great time with Aurelie and her daughter, Clara. They ran around the yard after bath time, chasing the dog, while Aurelie and I chatted and swatted mosquitoes. We were all ready for bed - even the dog - but of course I had to face one more toddler meltdown when we got in the car. Toddlers are surprisingly strong - you really have to manhandle them sometimes to get them into their seats. She was screaming and crying, but as we drove down the road she got distracted by the bright moon overhead, pointing it out to me again and again, saying "more moon, mommy" when it disappeared from sight.

I realized tonight that there's another beautiful thing about that harsh, sometimes impossibly difficult toddler honesty. The silver lining of the mood swings of this age group is that the niceties of life elicit an honest, visceral, even primal response, too. Beauty, love, simplicity, nature, a bright moon in a clear night sky, a tasty little piece of broccoli - they can evoke as much positive emotion as buckling into the car seat can evoke negative emotion. It's a reminder, once again, that one of the most beautiful joys of parenthood is that of being reintroduced to the wonder of the world around us. You have no choice but to ride along with your child through each days ups and downs. And as hard as that is, you have no choice but to see the beauty while you're at it. So, look up, look closely - can you see it? Moon, mommy!

Monday, August 24, 2009

black bean stuffed peppers

This week we got 7 peppers in our CSA box - two red bell peppers, one green bell pepper, one jalapeno, and three long red peppers. I am not an expert on peppers but I believe the three long red peppers may be poblanos - they are not too hot, but spicier than a bell pepper. It's cool tonight - we are supposed to have a low in the 50s - a perfect night for baked peppers stuffed with one of my favorite standbys, black beans.

I really love black beans and my family probably eats them once a week. I usually make them into quesadillas with whatever else I have on hand. I could definitely eat black bean quesadillas at least once a week, or more, but Brian is not quite so enthusiastic about them. I'm sure he will be happy to see that the vehicle for black bean delivery this week is a stuffed pepper.

I don't like things really spicy, but you can definitely make this much spicier by adding a chopped hot pepper to the sautee, adding chili powder to the black beans, or by seasoning the rice and black bean mixture with some hot sauce.

black bean stuffed peppers
Two large poblano peppers
1 small red onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup cooked and rinsed black beans
1 - 2 teaspoons cumin
1 1/4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450. Cut the top off of each pepper, and carefully slice in half lengthwise. Remove ribs and seeds. Place peppers with cavities up in glass baking dish. Remove stems from trimmed tops and finely chop. Heat about a tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and chopped peppers and season with salt and pepper. Sautee for about 5 minutes, until soft and fragrant. Add the black beans and a few tablespoons water. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add 1 - 2 teaspoons of cumin. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer until beans are hot and most of the water has evaporated.

Add the cooked rice and 1 cup of the shredded cheese to the black bean mixture and stir well. Fill cavity of each pepper with rice and bean mixture. Cover with aluminum foil and bake about 25 minutes, or until peppers are tender. Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup cheddar cheese, and bake for another 5 minutes or so, until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown. Serve with your favorite sides - I served tonight's peppers with tortilla chips and some garlic-lemon guacamole.

Friday, August 21, 2009

wishing well

Tonight I saw a rainbow over our neighborhood. I took Dora out for a stroll after dinner, enjoying a cool breeze even though the sun still feels hot - a first tiny glimpse of fall. We went down the steep hill by our house, then slowly ambled back up towards Haywood Road. We were under a beautiful blue sky with huge white clouds, and in the distance was a cloudburst, just enough to create a beautiful rainbow at the top of the hill.

We took a break halfway through our walk at one of my favorite places in West Asheville, Two Spoons. I really love this place, and if they had a website I'd be giving you a link right now, but you just have to trust me that it's really fantastic. They serve Ultimate Ice Cream, handmade in Asheville, and they are located within walking distance of my house. You can't go wrong. They have a mini waffle cone with a kid-sized scoop for 2.70 called the Hot Mama, and that's what I always get, usually with coconut ice cream. Tonight, it was Very Cherry. Oh yeah.

Now, before you go thinking that all I ever feed my kid is ice cream, popsicles, and cake (which would be only natural to think since nearly all the photos of her I've used in this blog show her eating sweets), I just want to point out that I go to Two Spoons for a higher purpose than just indulging my favorite vice. I go there to support local business! I know, I know - the whole locavore thing is probably getting old for some people, but I really love following that philosophy, and I really love the idea of supporting someone else's dream. I mean, I know I support Ben and Jerry's dream when I eat their ice cream (which I also do quite regularly), but I actually know one of the women involved in the Two Spoons venture - and not just because I'm in there all the time. So I feel like my 2.70 is buying me something great, but it's also my little contribution to another regular gal's wishing well.

Strolling home in the sunshine, I thought about a phone conversation I had last night with one of my absolute best friends in the entire world. We were talking about wishing wells of our own - business ideas and creative ventures we both hope to pursue someday. It was so great to share ideas, and to wistfully imagine what it would be like to co-own some artsy little joint, with local photographs, muffins we bake ourselves, and a kitty in the window. If only we didn't live 700 miles apart.

OK, so maybe it is a little wishing-wellish to be talking about quitting our jobs to own our own businesses. I readily admit that owning your own business is overly romanticized, and from experiencing the ups and downs of it with my husband I can say from experience that it is definitely not easy. But, really, how absolutely fabulous would it be to get up in the morning, give my husband and baby a kiss goodbye, and start my morning commute walking down Haywood Road with a cup of coffee in my hand? (I don't drink coffee - can't handle the caffeine - but it goes so well with my little imaginary world I have to include it). Imagine - opening up the door of my shop - maybe the door's painted a nice bright red - turning around the sign in the window to "OPEN", pulling up the shades to let in the morning light. Hear the kitty purring in the window? Smell those oatmeal blueberry muffins I just set out? Perhaps my shop would have some handknits, some yarn and knitting supplies, a few books, photographs, hand-lettered cards, and whatever other artsy things I and my friends come up with. Oh, and of course, a collection of CDs by Brian and our other musical friends. On slow days maybe I'll sit at my laptop writing my blog - or my book!

It's such a perfectly sweet scene it's like something out of a movie - like the Shop Around the Corner only less annoying, or the bookstore in Notting Hill, only I'm the manager instead of Hugh Grant (sorry girls). I realize this is a little on the unrealistic side, but I also really, really love the fact that I'm still letting myself go there with a little glimmer of hope that I'll someday make it reality. I at least want to try something like this someday. And if I do, and if on the slow days I'm here on Nina writing something about missing my old office job, you can all kick me in the pants.

I know all about the grass and how green it can be on the other side, but I really think my little pipe dreams and those of my friends are more than just that. Here's to hoping we all get the chance to find out.

14 cucumbers and what to do with them

A few weeks ago our CSA box contained 14 cucumbers and I promised to post a few recipes for cucumbers.

While taking a walk this evening, I felt a distinct hint of fall in the air and thought, "I better post those cucumber recipes". Here are two ways to use 14 cucumbers, both adapted from Martha Stewart Food.

Quick Pickles

8 cups thinly sliced cucumbers
2 medium Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
3 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons mustard seed
coarse salt

In a colander, toss cucumber and onion with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Set aside to drain for 30 minutes. In a medium bowl, combine sugar, vinegar, celery seed, and mustard seed. Stir until sugar dissolves. Divide cucumber and onion mixture into clean jars, pour vinegar mixture over cucumbers. Refrigerate overnight. Pickles keep about 2 weeks in the fridge.

Sour Cream and Dill Cucumbers

1/4 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice or cider vinegar
2 cups sliced cucumbers
chopped fresh dill

Stir together sour cream and lemon juice or vinegar. Season to taste with dill, salt, and pepper. Toss with cucumbers.

Serve with spicy lentil veggie burgers and sliced fresh tomato. Or, top with roasted, sliced beets. Easy and delicious!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

taking control of the internal spotlight

One of the reasons I started this blog is because I have felt, for quite some time, like a part of the essence of who I am has been stifled and buried by my work. My current job, though satisfying in many ways, does not allow much in the way of creative expression. We all have days in which our work is not what we think we want, and on those kinds of days I think about the things I wish I was doing - knitting, writing, taking pictures, baking, or just spending time with my family.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I've had a number of "mini-careers" in my life. If you count high school and college jobs, I've gone from food service to catering to taxidermy to veterinary medicine to photography to law to geography to planning. Whew! I've attributed all of this jumping around to having a lot of interests, and I try to see it in a positive light. And I'm trying to accept that seeing this attribute of myself in a positive light is something I'm going to struggle with - maybe forever. Even though I think it's fair to say I've had success in several of these "mini-careers", sometimes my inability to identify my one chosen career leaves me feeling like more failure than success.

So much of who we are is tied up in our profession, or at least it seems that way when we meet someone new. What's the first thing we ask when meeting a new person? Usually - what do you do? It's been interesting being married to a musician and having so many people assume I am also a professional musician. Someday I might just start saying yes and see how quickly I get hired for a gig.

While we were on vacation I had the opportunity to reunite with some old friends who I studied abroad with in undergrad. We attended the Scotland Field School in Documentary Photojournalism at Ohio University. It was probably one of the best experiences of my life, even though many of the memories have dimmed due to the years that have passed, and due to the amount of alcohol consumed while in Scotland.

It was pretty wonderful to see that these friends of mine hadn't changed in the years since we'd seen each other last, and in many ways it was like returning to a comfortable, cozy, familiar chair to be chatting with them again. Both of these friends of mine now work in the field of photojournalism, both using the degrees we worked on together which, for me, has now been relegated to primarily hobby status.

Driving away from the restaurant, I felt a profound sense of sadness about what could have been for Carrie the photojournalist. I have had this feeling before - one of my very closest friends is a successful photojournalist. I have watched her career blossom from our time together as interns, when we were equals, to where we are now - her perfecting her vision as I toil away in my office, staring at a computer writing plans and answering emails, while I fear my good photographic eye will be lost due to neglect. I am nothing if not happy for these friends of mine and their success. But a part of me grieves the fact that my photojournalistic eye sits patiently in the corner of the room, hoping for a reprise even as I fear that my ability to catch up with the changes in technology might preclude me from returning to the field. Of course, technological challenges aside, there are many other things which preclude my return to the field - years with no photo experience, lack of jobs, poor pay, instability of the field of photojournalism.

There are people who say "I can't believe I get paid to do this". Is this not the most annoying expression on the planet? Perhaps people really do feel this way. I think if I am honest with myself, I might discover that no matter what I do for work, I may never be able to say that with any truthfulness. I want to love what I do - but I want to also get paid well for what I do, and I want to feel like I make a difference, and not be in a position of having to stifle my political views, and work good hours, and not get exposed to workplace hazards, etc. etc. etc. My specifics go on and on, to the point that I'm not sure any career would really satisfy me.

So, how do I answer this conundrum? What am I really meant to do with my life? I remember once visiting my pastor when I was in college, struggling with a feeling of "not fitting in" because all of my close girlfriends were joining sororities and expressing their school spirit while I wished that school would just be over. She pointed out that maybe my best days, the pinnacle of my experience, were still ahead of me. Perhaps college wasn't going to be this all encompassing, wear-your-colors-with-pride kind of experience for me. And I revisit that advice now and wonder if, perhaps, as much as I would like it to be, my career isn't going to be my pinnacle either. Perhaps my pinnacle is that I get to have a good marriage, a beautiful angel of a baby who melts my heart every day, friends who mean the absolute world to me, a family I love, a home I feel comfortable in (most days, when it's sort of clean), meaningful projects I work on in my spare time, a church that I call home and where I feel loved.

I don't know if this is the answer. I do know I'll probably always be searching for who "I" am, what the right field is for me. I am not going to be a one act show - and that is not to say that one act shows are bad, it is just to say that I am not going to have one act, because I don't have a long enough attention span to fit all of my drama into one act. And I don't know when the next act starts, or what it's going to be, but in the meantime I'll keep trying to love it all, keep trying to write it down, keep on keeping on. And I promise, old friends, to try to only enjoy your company, and not let your success take control of my internal spotlight and shine it too brightly on what could have been. Instead, let's just have a nice meal together, look the other way when my daughter refuses all food except butter packets, and laugh at how we've changed so much and also not at all.

Monday, August 17, 2009

a week of fresh seafood

Our week of vacation on Folly Beach has ended and we have returned to reality - bills, work, pet care, schedules.

It was a wonderful week, and it's always sad when vacation ends. Although there are some things about being home that I am not thrilled about - you can probably guess what they are - it is SO good to be back in my kitchen. I do not, by any means, have a fancy kitchen, but I do have a few choice implements that I just can't live without. I also have a few things that I wouldn't consider to be luxuries in any way but which were missing from our cute, cozy, yet somewhat unequipped cottage. It's nice to be home where I have things like measuring spoons, a skillet larger than 6 inches, baking dishes, knives that haven't been used for whittling, and mixing bowls of various sizes.

In spite of the ill-equipped kitchen, we did enjoy some great fresh seafood dinners at home. We found a fresh seafood market - an absolute requirement at the beach - and visited it every day, except the one day we went out to dinner. Our vacation menu included:
  • flounder fillets poached in a white wine, butter, and garlic sauce, with sauteed zucchini and squash and corn on the cob
  • seared scallops over fresh corn pudding with tomato avocado salsa and roasted tomatillo sauce
  • shrimp with garlic, lemon, and parsley
  • crab cakes with garlic lemon green beans and balsamic roasted eggplant
  • mussels with fresh tomato, onion, and parsley
I was unable to photograph many of these meals - in some cases because I just forgot, or Dora was being extra-needy, or the lighting was just too bad to do it. But, I did manage to get a shot of the best meal I made - not one of my originals, but adapted from a recipe I heard on one of my favorite shows, KCRW's Good Food.

seared scallops over fresh corn pudding with tomato avocado salsa and roasted tomatillo sauce Note: This recipe came from KCRW's Good Food. The original recipe came from chef DJ Olsen, which he adapted from a recipe by Robert Del Grande. I made a few changes to use what I had on-hand, and to serve 2 and a half people.

roasted tomatillo sauce
3 - 4 tomatillos, peeled, rinsed, and stemmed
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded, and quartered
several cloves garlic
fresh lime juice

Toss ingredients on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in 450 degree oven until charred. Puree in blender, adding fresh lime juice and sugar to taste.

tomato avocado salsa
1 large tomato, diced
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed
1 vidalia onion, finely chopped
fresh lime juice

Combine tomato, avocado, and onion. Season to taste with lime juice, salt, and pepper and let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before using.

fresh corn pudding
2 cups milk
1/2 cup corn meal
3 ears fresh corn, grated on a box grater
salt to taste

Bring the milk almost to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Whisk in corn meal and cook until thickened, 3 - 4 minutes. Stir in corn and any juices accumulated when grating. Cook an additional 2 - 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

ed scallops
8 - 10 fresh sea scallops
olive oil

Season scallops with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil over high heat in medium skillet. Add scallops and sear on one side for 3 - 4 minutes. Turn over, turn off heat, and let sear on second side for an additional 3 minutes or until cooked through.

To serve, place a large dollop of corn pudding on each plate, top with a few spoonfuls of the salsa, and surround with several scallops drizzled with tomatillo sauce. Add a crisp white wine, and follow with a walk on the beach.

The next morning, you will feel so wonderful you'll be able to get up in time to see the sun rise over the ocean.

Monday, August 10, 2009

breathing it in

I'm sitting on a screened porch in Folly Beach, SC, listening to cicadas chirping in the trees, looking out at a gorgeous old Live Oak rustling in the breeze. It's South Carolina hot here - 90s and humid - but the porch is lovely. Inside our little beach cottage, my husband and baby are napping, along with the dogs. The solitude is blissful. I can't see the ocean - I'm not even sure I can hear it - but I can smell it. This, along with the mortgage, bills, and student loan repayments, is what I work for - vacation.

I grew up going to the beach for vacation. My family was solidly middle class, and I suspect that there were years when it was difficult financially for us to make the trip, but every year we did. It was a commitment my parents made to each other, and to us, I guess, and it became a family tradition that I loved. There is just something about being by the water that feels like home to me, like rediscovering a piece of myself that has been missing. Perhaps its because I'm a Scorpio, a water sign, or maybe everyone feels this way. But that first breath of ocean breeze as I step over the dunes feels like a reunion, like breathing air that I've always been meant to breathe.

It's not just the air at the beach that I love. I love the way my skin feels - cleaner, smoother, younger. I love the way I smell after being at the beach - the way my clothes smell, even. I love days devoted almost entirely to elemental, basic needs - physical activity, breathing and walking and swimming, eating, drinking, and sleeping. I love getting a tan. I know it is unhealthy, but I absolutely love it, and being in the sun is the only way to do it (in my opinion). I love sneaking out of the house when everyone else is asleep to watch the sunrise over the water. I love walking on the beach in the evenings, when the sand is cool and the sun is going down.

As a child, another part of why I loved those beach vacations is that it was an opportunity for me to spend time with my dad, who worked full-time and with whom I never felt I had enough time. Each year, I knew I had that one week when I had my whole family to myself to just focus on each other - play, eat, sleep, read. We were not allowed to watch TV at all - just on the last day while we packed. What a great tradition. As an adult, I still loved those beach trips, and probably my favorite one ever was the first year my husband came along, when we were still dating. We stayed in one of the nicest houses we'd ever been in, our dog came with us, the weather was great, and Brian had a blast. I could see he was going to fit perfectly into our family, and everything was right with the world.

Now that my mother is gone, that beach tradition for my family, at least in the way it was when she was living, is gone, too. We've been back to the same place a few times, but it's not the same. I was there in April for work, and although I love that place like a childhood home, I also felt horrible being there. So, we are working on our own family traditions now. We've been to the Charleston area a few times, and this is our second family vacation here. We do some of the things we did with my family - hitting the beach, biking, fresh seafood made at home - and we're doing some new things, too - boat rides, visiting the historic areas downtown, seeking out parks and playgrounds for Dora. Most of all, we are spending some much-needed time together, just being a family, reminding ourselves why we love each other, giving our daughter the feeling of complete and total love she gets when her parents are together.

It's kind of like being at the beach allows us to reconnect with everything we need - all the pieces of ourselves that get lost in the everyday world. It's the water and the air, the sun and the sand, but it's more - the time to be together, the time to reflect on the past, the time to think ahead to the future - it's like that big expanse of sky, water, and sand gives us the space we really need to rediscover all those things, and each other. It's like being made whole, being healed, and being reunited all at once. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to experience that, and to give that experience to Dora. We almost didn't make it this year - we both felt like perhaps we couldn't afford it. And, maybe we couldn't, but I also think we couldn't afford NOT to come, not to give ourselves the time to reconnect in this way.

So, this week, I will breathe it all in - the Live Oak rustling in the breeze, the dogs slashing in the surf, the cool evening sand in my toes, Dora smiling at us, the screened porch with the turquoise floor, the fresh seafood, the salt air. Mmm - it smells so, so good.

Monday, August 3, 2009

two cakes are better than one

It's definitely full-on summer now - the crepe myrtle in the front yard is blooming, the purple coneflower are tall and leggy, and little Isadora turns two tomorrow. The impossibility of that aside, another sign of summer's vintage is the appearance of large and/or extreme produce. Big tomatoes, huge basil plants, and, of course, giant zucchini. A friend gave me this giant zucchini when I was home in Ohio, and when Brian brought our CSA box home this week, we were shocked to learn that it contained FOURTEEN cucumbers! What in the world, you may ask, do you do with 14 cucumbers? I'll be answering that question in a few days, so stay tuned.

One of the reasons I received the giant zucchini was for making two birthday cakes for the joint birthday bash we held on Sunday afternoon for Brian and Dora. Although the rain absolutely poured down all morning, the clouds miraculously parted mid-afternoon and we had beautiful weather. The party was a total success, with many naked children joyfully running around the backyard, friends sharing wonderful food and the bounty of summer, and all of us enjoying some great jazz provided by Frank Southecorvo and Bill Gerhardt. The cakes were a hit, too, so here are the recipes for you to try the next time you end up with a giant zucchini.

Zucchini Walnut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Betty Crocker's New Cookbook
Note: I find Betty Crocker's New Cookbook to be a great starting point for traditional baked goods, although I've found and enjoyed many other dessert and baking cookbooks. I always adapt the Betty Crocker recipes, however, by lowering the amount of sugar, using high-quality ingredients, and replacing about half of the flour with whole wheat flour.

1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 cups shredded zucchini
1 cup coarsley chopped walnuts

Heat oven to 350. Grease and lightly flour 13 x 9 x 2 inch pan (or two round cake pans).

Mix sugar, oil, and eggs in large bowl until blended. Beat in vanilla. In a medium bowl, stir together dry ingredients. Gradually add dry ingredients to large bowl and mix until blended. Stir in zucchini and walnuts. Pour into pan. Bake for about 40 - 45 minutes (30 - 35 minutes in round pans), or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
seeds from 1 vanilla bean (split and seeds removed with a sharp knife)
3 - 4 cups powdered sugar

Beat cream cheese and butter with electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla bean seeds and mix until combined. With mixer on low, gradually add powdered sugar to taste.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake with Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Cake adapted from recipe given to me by Candida and Cecilia Rinaldi; frosting adapted from Betty Crocker's New Cookbook

1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon whole wheat flour
4 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
2 cups shredded zucchini
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Heat oven to 325. Oil a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan and lightly coat with cocoa powder. Cream sugar, butter, and vegetable oil. Add eggs and sour cream and beat well. Sift together dry ingredients and gradually add to wet ingredients. Mix until combined and stir in zucchini. Stir in chocolate chips. Bake for 40 - 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled
3 - 4 cups powdered sugar

Beat cream cheese and butter with electric mixer until smooth. Add melted chocolate and mix until combined. With mixer on low, gradually add powdered sugar to taste.

Cut both cakes into squares and feed to wildly happy naked children in your backyard. Enjoy!