I’ll get a rise out of you: Bread-baking meditation

The timer dinged next to my head. I awoke in disoriented grogginess from my nest of blankets on the living room floor, an old black and white movie flickering quietly on the TV set. Time to check the bread dough and see if it had risen to the appropriate level of springiness, whatever that was--this novice bread-baker wasn't sure and she had a long way to go before she tasted bread.

Bread Baking 101 lesson learned one Saturday night in high school, many years ago: Read the recipe all the way through. 

In your mouth-watering anticipation of the cinnamon swirl bread recipe in your mom’s Joy of Cooking, you may miss the cumulative clock effect of two risings in the bowl, followed by a third rising in the pan. Thus you may find yourself sleeping on the living room floor, the retreat you chose in recognition of the deep, deep abyss of sleep into which you will fall if you get into an actual bed since you are Sleeper Girl.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, off and on over the years I’ve been a bread baker. Usually whole wheat, sometimes bricklike. I used the Kitchen-Aid I got as a wedding present in 1986 from Grandma Humphrey so much for the kneading phase that eventually it gave off a light burning aroma when I ran it with those heavy batches of whole grain.

This led to The Great Kitchen-Aid Debacle. It makes me sad to relate this tale, as my mother raised me to believe in the brand virtues of Kitchen-Aid. She wasn’t wrong, as that 1986 mixer ran well into the early 2000s (outlasting the marriage). It worked even with the light burning smell, but that made me a tad nervous.

Hence my decision to invest in the new heavy-duty model with a bigger engine. BIG mistake. About five minutes into the second batch of bread dough the thing stopped dead. I mean DEAD. What the--? Let it rest a minute or two, try again. Nothing. I had the joy of finishing a big batch of bread dough kneading by hand when that hadn’t been part of my time calculation for the process.

This heat death happened not once, and not twice. When the third one quit—the second replacement unit—I just gave up. The guy at the local small-appliance repair shop (these do actually still exist, at least in Spokane) told me I could spend $75 on parts and labor and still have a problem because this super-duper Kitchen-Aid came from a line that had a faulty thermostat or some such.

The mixer sat in the garage for a while and then eventually disappeared, possibly in a cleaning/donating frenzy. I didn’t bake bread for a while. Life got pretty full and the hours it took to knead dough by hand and then tend it through three risings seemed too big a commitment.

I wondered why today as I stood at the kitchen counter, rocking slightly as I leaned into the batch of whole wheat bread with yogurt and quinoa I was kneading. The calm of the kitchen soothes me and I achieve a level of meditative peace as I work the dough.

I can’t tweet or post Facebook updates or read email while I’m kneading bread. I can’t get distracted and turn from the activity I’m engaged in to something else entirely and then jump back the way I do at work with my two monitors and long to-do list. I can't go to Google in search of some random factoid and find myself an hour and a half later catching up on my blog reading backlog. (Thank all the gods for "mark all as read." Those people at Google know me.)

There is only the bread, and the anticipation of eating it warm from the oven with butter and honey.

I stand where I can’t see the clock so I can truly get lost in the rhythm. The New Laurel's Kitchen serves as the holy text for my practice. Its friendly and practical descriptions of what to look for and how to turn dough into various items has tempted me from straight whole wheat bread loaves into whole wheat pita, wheat/oatmeal, and this week’s wheat/quinoa/yogurt rendered as a loaf and eight English muffins.

The first loaf always disappears in a family feeding frenzy reminiscent of those South American death-by-piranha scenes in bad old jungle movies (probably what I watched all those years ago on my lonely bread-rising vigil). The second might last a day or two longer. Since I can’t devote a full day midweek to a second batch we do still buy some store bread for sandwiches, but I’d like to drop that and turn out a batch of four loaves on the weekend to get us through the week.

Problem is, I really can’t knead THAT much dough alone. I’ll need a Kitchen-Aid….

Thank you for the gift of friendship: Goodbye, Christianne

This post is an extended version of an email I sent out today to the wonderful women of Second Saturdays. The notes I got back as replies made me think I should post this and give them the chance to add to it, if they want to.

First, the saddest thing I've had to type in a long time: The memorial service for Christianne Sharman is this Saturday, Jan. 30, 4pm at Millwood Presbyterian. 

Many of us knew and loved Chrissie. It is just SHITTY (there is no other word for it—good thing Mom isn’t on the Internet to watch my language) that she is gone. She was such a strong and beautiful woman who taught me things without even knowing she did.

I miss her.

She never knew that she herself was the inspiration for Second Saturdays, the “grownup friendship space” I’ve blogged about. I should have told her this story when I could.

I had been meeting all these great women in various circles and wishing I could get to know them better, but never really doing anything about it. I got to know Chrissie a bit thanks to suggesting her as a possible board member for what was then the Spokane PR Council (now the Spokane Regional MarComm Association).

(I don't know if she ever knew THAT, either--that I was the one who suggested her for the board--not sure she would have thanked me since she ended up being the treasurer, which is always a thankless job in any small all-volunteer board :D).

I was so impressed with her and wanted to get to know her better, but didn't have a way to do that because we were all so busy being board members when we met.

So I sent out that first email suggesting the idea that we need to schedule girlfriend time--not just with people who are our friends now, but with people who might be great friends if we had the time to get to know each other. I went through my contact list and picked lots of wonderful women I encountered in professional circles.

We have so few playgrounds in our adult lives that it's tough to get to know someone at the swingset or teeter-totter level. Hence that first gathering at Rockwood Bakery years ago.

I don't even know how many years ago now, but others who were there at the beginning think we may have started in 1999. Over ten years? I believe it. 

At the same time, thinking about how quickly those years have flown, I realize all over again how easy it is to lose track of time, to forget to say the things you need to say and to see your friends because calendars get full.

Why didn’t I just call her up and see if she wanted to have coffee? Well, I was shy. (Insert maniacal laughter here from people who know me.) But I was.

She was so strong, and so very clear about her boundaries. That had already come through in our board meetings, where she was polite and firm about what she would and would not take on as a board member. If she declined the coffee I would never know if she didn’t have time, or wasn’t really interested in getting to know me beyond our contact as board members. She would be too kind to hurt my feelings.

It sounds so funny to me now, all these years later after having the privilege of her friendship. But back then it was kind of like giving a party in high school to which you invite the guy or girl you secretly like.

You hope he/she won’t end up hooking up with your best friend at the party. You hope you’ll have a long and meaningful talk in somewhat dim lighting, planting the seeds for something that blossoms over time. Having other people around provides a social buffer so you’re not left hanging while your heart gets broken.

Okay, now I’m really taking dramatic license. But I do remember feeling slightly (or more than slightly) intimidated and at the same time hopeful that I was about to make a new and fantastic friend in Christianne, along with all the other great women of Second Saturdays.

It worked. We did form those friendships. No dim lighting, just great coffee and pastries and conversation. And Chrissie, with her beautiful long hair, scarves draped carelessly around her neck in that effortless way that magazine stylists strive to imitate, such a style and strength and kindness, all that warmth and encouragement, funny, wry insights and indignation about crazy/bad politics and focused listening so you knew she really heard what you said. 

I still hear her voice.

Thank you, Chrissie, for all your gifts to me as your friend.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light: Phrases not to use in my obituary

Get real. People die. Do it all the time. Right now, this very minute.

But usually not in the obituaries, nosirree bob. What happens there, according to my hometown paper, is that people:
  • Pass away, sometimes peacefully/ at home/ with family at one’s side/ following a courageous X-year battle with [disease name here]
  • Go to be with our Lord, or with our Lord and Savior (in our town, at least since I started paying attention, no one has gone to Paradise, attained moksha or nirvana or samadhi, or moved on to any other non-Christian afterlife destination)
  • Enter into rest
  • (or, more dramatically and definitively) Pass into eternal rest
  • (with more detail about how they qualified for the rest) Peacefully are set free and enter into an eternal rest
  • (in fiestier mode) Fight [disease name here] successfully for X years but finally succumb
Today was an exception to the general DER (Death Euphemism Rule). Four people actually up and died, according to their obituaries. (For a much more entertaining short list of euphemisms with a lot more down-home flavor, see this page.)

Writing obituaries is an art, as observed by a writer for the Washington Post. There’s even a study about the obituary from which I learned that obituary publishing site Legacy.com is one of the 100 most visited on the Web. Who knew?

I read the obituaries every so often. Not just to find out whether I’m listed so I can get on with my day, as Benjamin Franklin once observed.

Sometimes I mean to scan the page quickly, but something catches my eye: someone dies quite young, or at an extremely advanced age, or has the same last name as someone I know, or has an especially appealing twinkle in the eye in whatever photo the survivors chose.

Sometimes I read every last one in a kind of silent homage to the lives they led, whether they were World War II veterans like my dad (still alive at 92), a woman who spent most of her life in Catholic orders, or a good ol’ boy who loved hunting, fishing and hanging out with his buddies (they may even name a favorite tavern where he’ll be missed, in this type).

Life companions, remarriages, children and grandchildren and stepchildren, work lives and military service—an entire life captured in a couple of hundred words.

Families pay for the obituaries I’m reading and presumably provide the information. I like it best when it feels like a truly well-rounded view of the person, not just the shiny outer shell. If I get a sense that the person loved to laugh, formed lasting friendships and left behind a family that will miss him or her, that tells me more about a life well lived than honors and awards.

What makes it harder right now is that I have a friend who is dying. When that obituary appears, it is one that will make people say, "Oh, so young!" and "I didn't even know she was sick."

I'm close enough to have visited her in these days of winding down, but so many people would be on a "short" list for phone calls that I may not know she has died until I read it in the paper.

That gives this section more weight every day, and I know that no matter how wonderfully it's written her obituary will not capture all her strength, grace and beauty. I don't think she would opt for the euphemism, but that's not my call.

As for me, I suppose that thanks to my time as an elected official I might rate an actual article, not a paid piece that my family has to come up with while they’re still grieving (I assume—you’d miss me, right?). But that would focus on the externals of public service, not on whether I was a decent mom to my kids and stepchildren, a friend you could rely on, a generally good person, kind, or a great cook J.

When I first started blogging I stumbled across a timeline site, Dipity. I started building my life chronology, although I also noted in a blog post that life isn’t just chronology.

It will do as well as anything for that official business of what/when/where, so can my obit (written many, many years from now, I hope) say a little more about the why and the who? And you can just say that I died. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
Mary Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

Recipe time: Interpretation of a kinda chunky Tomato/Red Bell Pepper/Black Bean Soup

This is more a set of guidelines for arriving at a soup than it is a hard and fast recipe. Adjust anything to suit your taste buds. Heck, you could probably leave out the tomatoes, although you’d have to change the name. (I’ve never done that so I won’t vouch for the results.)
Made with simple tools: knife, can opener, blender, cooking pot.

Chop a large onion and start it sauteing in a dab of olive oil.
After a few minutes when the onion is starting to soften and turn golden, mince or crush 4-5 garlic cloves and add them. Turn the stove down a bit—overcooked garlic gets bitter fast.
Add 1-2 t. basil, 1 t. dill, ½ t. crushed red bell pepper flakes, ½ t. black pepper. (I’ve also tried using a Cajun spice blend in place of this, and it was great. You could turn this a little more Italian with some thyme and rosemary, too. Follow your heart on this one.)
While this continues to cook, filling the house with a wonderful aroma that brings hungry family members in, sniffing eagerly, put your blender to work. Puree in batches and add to the pot:
3-4 cans diced tomatoes with juice, or the equivalent in real tomatoes from the garden if you’re lucky enough to have those
1 large can roasted red bell peppers
1 can black (or kidney) beans (you'll have little flecks of bean skin)
1 can evaporated milk (I use fat-free), or go for half-and-half or cream
Approx. ½ c. sun-dried tomatoes if you have them
I’ve been known to puree leftover cooked carrots or squash and throw that in, too, or I may grate some carrots, microwave them until soft, and puree them. Not an essential element.
Add 1 t. salt and 1 T. balsamic vinegar if you have it, or red wine vinegar. If you’re big on garlic, add another 1-2 cloves crushed garlic at this point. If you want it creamier and a little lighter in flavor, add another can of evaporated milk.
You can let this simmer as-is. I usually take ladles of soup out and re-puree them to get the onions smooshed up a bit more. I don’t do this scientifically—I just ladle some out, puree it, return it, and try to get my next few scoops from a different spot in the pot.
This seems to work just fine, but if you’re really conscientious about smooth, creamy soup, then you’ll have to empty the whole pot and puree every bit. Good luck with that. Either way you’ll still have bits of black bean skin floating around. This is a soup with character.
Allow to simmer 20-30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. I typically add a little more pepper at this point, maybe another garlic clove or two, maybe some salt. You can stir in a tablespoon or two of pesto, or swirl that into individual soup bowls if you like some presentation style.
Killer good with parmesan garlic toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, or crunchy croutons. Those are not included in the nutritional analysis below for one-cup servings, created at Nutritiondata.com.

Raised by Wolves, or Free Range Kids? Either Way, They Learn and Live. At Least So Far.

A simple dry magnetic pocket compassImage via Wikipedia
NOTE: This is an older post that disappeared somehow, so I republished.

For years now I’ve told people that my children are being raised by wolves. I’ve now learned a much healthier-sounding term for my parenting approach: I’m raising free-range kids.

I found this term through the Cult of the Bicycle blog, which picked up on a text reference on the Free Range Kids blog to letting kids go out and ride their bikes. (You can buy it on Amazon)

Following that link, I was THRILLED to find other moms like me who don’t make their kids live in an antiseptic, antibacterial, padded, no-sharp-corners, experience-free bubble.

I've never been a "smother" and I don't think that makes me either neglectful or crazy. My kids are learning lessons from real-life experiences that I could never convey through verbal instruction (the effectiveness of which, after all, assumes that they listen to you).

One example (and I’m sure my daughters will jump on here with comments to clarify, expand, correct, and shoot down my fuzzy memory and factual assertions)—

My daughters are now 19 and 15. They've been riding on transit in our city of about 200,000 for the last 5+ years.

When my 15-year-old started at age 10, it was because she was attending a citywide gifted program that didn't have school bus service, and I simply couldn't drive her to and from school every day. (My bike commuting habit was not the only factor.)

She had already ridden the bus downtown with her older sister a few times, and we had a bus stop at the end of our block. I rode the bus with her the first day. We got to the central plaza and I showed her where to catch the second bus she needed to transfer to in order to get to her school.

When we came to our stop, we picked out landmarks so she could recognize it again. I showed her how to get from the stop to the school (a 2-block walk), and told her how to get back. I instructed her to sit up front, close to the driver, and tell the driver if anyone bothered her.

Turns out I should have come down and ridden home with her that first time, because she thought it would be easier to just get on the bus on the same side of the street where she got off in the morning.

This, of course, meant that she was riding farther away from home instead of back. The bus driver recognized that she wasn't getting off as he passed stop after stop, heading farther and farther east until she was the only person on the bus.

He asked her where she was supposed to end up, explained that she needed to catch a bus going the other way, and helped her get off at the right stop and cross the street to catch a bus headed back downtown to the plaza, where she could then catch another bus to come home. She got home safe and sound with an adventure to talk about.

Sure, it gave me some heart palpitations to hear about it afterwards, and I kicked myself for not riding home with her that first time. But--SHE MADE IT JUST FINE (and geez, it WAS a gifted program she was heading to/from....).

My kids have had plenty of adventures. No broken bones or concussions, and only a couple of small scars, one set definitely caused by free-range behavior: a wild bike ride down a bluff at dusk when she went off a trail by accident (same Gifted Kid who got on the bus going the wrong way).

Gifted Kid, in fact, started riding her bike to school a couple of years ago, a distance of about 3 miles on some fairly busy streets. My husband and I rode with her the first day and explained the funny nature of the one-way streets she would have to deal with in order to come back along a different street than the one we were taking to get to school.

That afternoon I got a call from her cell phone. “Mom, I’m at some corner.”

Shades of the bus ride—she had gotten turned around or missed a key intersection or some such, and was heading south when she should have been heading west. The steepness of the hill she was facing stopped her, as she was pretty sure we hadn’t come down something quite that steep in the morning.

I’d commuted by bike that day too, so I hopped on my bike and rode to her after determining where she was (not a particularly high-rent district, in case you want to fill in some stereotypes and assumptions about the people who live around there).

When I got there, she was talking to a nice young woman who had gotten concerned when she saw a relatively young kid sitting on the curb with a bike and a cell phone, apparently lost.

The woman smiled at me and said she was just keeping GK company until I arrived. I thanked her profusely, and GK and I rode home.

No kidnapping or rape or assault, no drug addiction, no pregnancies. They have good grades, extracurricular activities, talent, manners—all the characteristics you hope your kids will demonstrate when they’re a few months old and screaming their heads off while they cut teeth.

They also have street smarts, they know how to handle an unwanted come-on much better than I did when I graduated from college, and they have great self-confidence. They've developed an internal moral compass and are quite clear about their values and priorities. They are far more comfortable being around people very different from themselves in age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and level of hygiene than I was at their age when I had had no such exposure to the wild, beautiful, and sometimes scary variety of the world.

I share the belief of the Free Range Kids author/blogger that most people are good, and nothing has happened to change this. Statistically speaking, my kids and yours are in more danger from people they know than from total strangers.

I could keep them safe from “everything” and send them out into the world completely unprepared to function as adults, but what would be the point? Better to learn, live, and pick up a scar or two along the way—as well as a better sense of navigation. Right, Gifted Kid?
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Oh, those crazy memories of childhood: Throwing up

One of the saddest jobs as a mom is dealing with your vomiting child. You can’t do much more than pull the long hair back if need be, offer a wet washcloth afterward, and deal with the toilet clean-up. Your beloved baby has to do the really hard, gut-wrenching work.

We just came through a night like this over the winter break with 15-year-old Second Daughter, who threw up “8-1/2 times” (the “1/2” being “a strange noise like a baby dragon” and part of a cup of tea that she felt didn’t really count as a full throw-up).

We’ve all been there. Carsick, miserable, not wanting to tell your folks you need them to pull over but you just know you’re going to hurl any second. For me the smell of stale cigarette smoke triggers this feeling in an instant; Dad was a chain smoker so car trips always involved nausea.

Or lying there with the flu, dreading the moment when you make that rush to the bathroom just in time to throw yourself over the toilet bowl and start contracting those abs in agonizing fashion.

When we got sick as little kids Mom parked us on the sofa in the living room, I guess to keep us closer to where she worked in the kitchen. All the bedrooms were upstairs and it would have been a long sprint if she had to run all the way up every time she heard that sad, sad sound.

She always set us up with a great big metal mixing bowl—our back-up receptacle in case we couldn’t get off the sofa in time—some flat 7-Up (always 7-Up), and Saltines. If we ran a fever she had a wet washcloth to fold onto our sweaty little foreheads, which also came in handy for wiping vomit-y little mouths..

Mom checked on us periodically while she did whatever it was that moms did all day that kept them so busy (maybe it had something to do with a big house that had the laundry in the basement and the bedrooms on the second floor, six kids to cook for if we were all home, hanging laundry out to dry on the line in summer, the big garden and the food she preserved…..).

In my family, we really, REALLY know we’re going to hurl. Every last one of us salivates heavily with a particular kind of mouth-watering urgency that tells us we’re about to vomit—usually with enough time to make it to the bathroom.

I thought this was a universal signal until learning from my mom that one of her adult friends had thrown up all over a restaurant table unexpectedly. Hard way to learn you’ve developed an allergy to crab cakes. Fortunately for my Mom Vomit Clean-Up Assignments, my daughters inherited the same signal.

I’m reminded of this whole Vomit Train thanks to a vertigo-inducing YouTube video of the old Lewiston grade. For anyone who grew up in Lewiston, Idaho—or on the hill above it in Moscow—this could be a stomach-churning trip down Memory Lane (Memory Grade?), so view at your own risk.

Even viewing at this 4x high speed, I remember the twists and turns, some of the little valleys with a few trees and bushes, the scary sensation of looking out over the l-o-n-g drop to the valley on those U-turns and sharp outside corners, and the blessed stop sign at the bottom of the hill.

This video explains quite nicely why I threw up all over the side of the Oldsmobile after a trip to visit Middle Older Brother—the second of my three older brothers--at the University of Idaho.

Youngest Elder Brother (YEB), who is 11 years old than I, drove the dark red family Oldsmobile. Blind as a bat since about five years old, I lost my glasses at the university somewhere, so the ride home was a scary blur. As one of the Little Hoppers (YEB’s nickname for us), of course I sat in the back seat.

I got sick—and sicker—as the car hurtled down this roller coaster of a road. The moment of truth came somewhere about halfway along the line. I think I mostly got the window down in time, although I can’t be certain.

What I do remember: sitting in the car when we got back, crying bitterly because YEB had said I had to clean the vomit off the side of the car. I don’t know quite when I’ve been so miserable (although I had other bouts of nausea-induced misery as a young adult that had more to do with choice and quantity of beverage than backseat passenger status).

That sense of helplessness, the dread I felt at having to get out of the car and deal with that stinking mess!

A crashing sound reverberated against the side of the car. YEB, garden hose in hand, must have been kidding.

Now if only he were around when my kids threw up....