Monday, June 28, 2004


A couple of weeks ago, Pukka & I pulled into the local Kum & Go (yeah, I know, but that's what it's called) just in time to see a couple trying to push their non-functioning car uphill. Well, mostly he was pushing, and she was steering, with one foot out the door. I jumped out of the truck and helped the guy push while Pukka parked. Then Pukka joined us and between the three of us we got them safely into a parking spot.

Good thing we helped out, because last night I blew a tire. In and of itself, this is no big deal. I know how to change a tire, and I've done it before (and even on this car). I had managed to cruise into the exact same Kum & Go, so I had a safe space to work in. And Pukka even came over in the truck to lend me a hand. So yeah, should've been no sweat.

Only neither of us could budge four of my five lug nuts.

So I'm contemplating the craziness of having the car towed to the tire shop (thank god for AAA), when this guy appears out of nowhere and twists off all four for me without batting an eye. He left us to finish the job, only then came back because he thought I was turning the jack the wrong way, and proceeded to pretty much change the tire for me.

So the moral of the story is either to help your fellow motorists in need, or to avoid the Kum & Go parking lot like the plague. Haven't quite decided which it is yet.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

A little traveling music, please . . .

I'm headed home to visit my folks and my sister this weekend. But before I go, I have a couple of tidbits for you all, some thoughts on the journey. Hopefully none of them will apply this weekend!

First, some wisdom from the Tao Te Ching:
"A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving . . ."

A wise friend once told me that there are two criteria for being lost: not knowing where you are and not knowing how to get where you’re going.

I’ve always loved that definition. And yet most people only use the first criteria in their definitions. So many people I’ve known cry, “We’re lost!” at the first sign of unfamiliarity. But to me the key has always been in the second half: Do I know how to get to where I want to be from here?

I grew up in the Midwest, where most streets are laid out in a grid. Unlike other places, where the roads wrap themselves around geographical features, around here, if you want to be North of where you are now, you can generally put yourself on a road heading north and follow it without getting yourself into too much trouble. This is a good thing, because I also have abysmal spatial skills. I’ve spent a good part of my life not knowing exactly where I am.

My friends and family will readily tell you that I have an uncanny ability to get myself lost in the first sense, even in places I’m familiar with. What they may not know (although I’m sure some of them have guessed by now), is that I enjoy being lost. I love driving through countryside or neighborhoods I’ve never seen before. I adore turning down a previously unexperienced road just to see where it goes. I love the challenge of figuring out a particular navigational puzzle. And most of all, I’m addicted to that intoxicating moment when I pull up to a stop sign, look around, spot a familiar landmark, and find myself suddenly back in known territory, a triumphant explorer.

There is a certain Zen quality to being lost. For that time, my life is transformed. No longer do I worry about what’s for dinner or if I’ll have time to clean the bathroom tonight. I’m consumed by my desire to find my way back to familiar territory. I absorb the details of the area around me. I’m completely in the moment.

The way I see it, finding yourself in unfamiliar territory is just the beginning of a grand adventure. So long as you’ve nowhere pressing to be and you make it home in time for dinner, what’s the harm in getting yourself a little lost now and then?

Monday, June 21, 2004

As Good As It Gets

You already knew this, but today is the solstice.  That means there's as much sunlight happening today as I'm ever going to get this year (ignoring the fact that it's been rainy and cloudy all day).  This morning on my way to work, I found myself wondering what it would be like if the rest of life was marked this way.  I mean, what if, when you started out, Life handed you this calendar with one day circled in big fat red crayon and said, "This is the best I'm ever going to give you, kid, so you'd better learn to make the most of it."

Obviously we all have some expectations about days that will probably make the top ten list: graduations, getting married, the birth of our children, etc.  But what about the days where nothing extraordinary happens, but everything just *click* falls into place and you find yourself content.  Isn't it possible that one of those days will turn out to be the Best Day, and we'll never have seen it coming? 

A few years back, I had a conversation with my brother-in-law about the best days of his life.  He counts the day he was saved as the Best, and the day he married my sister as a close second.  Now she's pregnant, due in December, so I'm guess he'll soon be adding another day to his list.  Then, as now, I'm impressed by the certainty of it for him.

I'm not certain what my best day to date is.  In fact, I'm not sure I'd necessarily recognize my Best Day if it walked up and smacked me in the face.  I'm kind of obtuse that way.  I remember that feeling where everything just seemed to go right, but I couldn't tell you what days those were or what happened on them.  And maybe that's a good thing.  Maybe those of us who don't keep track of such things are gifted with a lifetime of Best Days, simply because we can't remember the others well enough to compare and contrast.

If you could know your Best Day, would you want to know?  Somehow this is more interesting to me than the old question of whether or not you'd want to know the day of your death, probably because there's the added question of what to do afterwards.  At least it's something to think about.

Reason #653 I'm Happy To Live In Iowa

Last month I was driving home alone late one night. It was pitch black, and I had the radio turned up loud so I could sing along and stay awake. It was one of those insular moments -- nothing to see outside, nothing to hear but the radio, not much on my mind.

Then suddenly I was enveloped in something. It seeped into my brain, and at first I only processed it as something that smelled familiar. I hadn't quite reached awareness of what I was smelling though.

I inhaled deeply and suddenly I was in the warm, bright sun surrounded by vivid colors. That thing I was smelling? It's the smell of freshly overturned soil warmed by a long day's sun. It was all around me, filling me.

This is the smell that let me know it's time to put things in the ground, the things that will feed my family. This is the smell that tells me that winter's over and light and heat are here to stay (at least for their season). This is the smell that reminds me of my connection to my farmer grandfather. This is the smell of my home in spring.

When I take time to remember my blessings, this smell is one of them.

Sunday, June 20, 2004


I love mangoes. I love their sweetness. I love the pineyness of them. I love the color of them, both outside and inside. I love the little nose they have. I love the way they always push the little button labeled "tropical" in my head.

A few years back, a friend told me her lover had compared eating a mango to going down on a woman. They were in a long-distance relationship, and had since developed the habit of eating mangoes on the phone together. As she's describing the sensuality of it all to me, I found myself feeling a little sad for her. My intuition told me that this was not a long-term relationship, and I worried that when the relationship went sour, so would her love for this fruit.

Awhile back I discovered one of my coworkers had never eaten a mango. I liked to indulge her, so the next time I found a good one at the store, I bought it and took it in with me the next day. Morning break came and I cut into it with the paring knife I keep at my desk. Five minutes later and there we were, two women dripping with mango juice, in the middle of cubicle hell corporate America.

When the revolution comes, there'd better be mangoes.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Salsa Fresca

Every so often in the summer, I make salsa. Usually more than any sane person could eat. Which means I take it to work for my co-workers.

They love the salsa. I've never really understood why. There's no big trick to it. Every once in awhile, one of them will ask for the recipe. Since I don't measure when I cook, that's a little tricky. Below is the best effort to date.


onion, preferrably red
garlic, chopped finely (secret ingredient #1)
ground black pepper (not traditional, but I like it)
a fresh jalepeno, chopped finely
optional: corn, black beans (canned)
lime juice (secret ingredient #2)

Everything gets chopped up and tossed in a bowl until the proportions look right and it tastes good.

If it's early in the season and your tomatoes aren't so good, you may want to add a little salt.

You'll want to chop the garlic fairly fine. My family's Italian, so we'll forgive you if you don't, but normal people don't particularly like big chunks of raw garlic. This is marked as secret ingredient number one, because when I forget it, I can never quite get the salsa to taste right.

Some people's genetics cause cilantro to taste like soap. Unfortunately for them, I really like it, so I use it anyway.

I usually chop the jalapeno very finely, just because I don't like getting a sudden mouthful of hot pepper. The seeds and the veins in a pepper contain more heat, so I remove them. You may want to wear latex gloves to do this, since the oils will get into your hands otherwise and will not wash off. If you rub your eyes or any other sensitive body parts later, the oils will transfer. This can be an unpleasant experience, especially for men. A-hem.

I don't always add the corn and black beans, but usually if I do one, I do both. They help to stretch things out if you're feeding a crowd, or if you don't have many tomatoes. I like to use frozen corn, since I think it has a better texture. This also works nicely if you're traveling to an outdoor picnic -- just toss the corn in frozen at the last minute, and it will help keep the salsa cold.

Lime juice is secret ingredient number two, since it's another thing I tend to forget that changes the character of the salsa fairly significantly. Don't add any salt to the salsa until after the lime juice goes in. A lot of times it will do the trick on its own. A trick I saw on TV (I think from Alton Brown): If you need juice from a lime or lemon, but not all of it, just roll it on the counter, then jab it with a fork a few times on one side, and squeeze over your bowl. Pretty nifty!

Giving the salsa time to sit will allow the flavors to meld together. However, the longer it sits, the more water the tomatoes release, so "aging" has both its advantages and disadvantages.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Grandma’s Cookies

This is something I'm trying to get cleaned up so that I can have it printed in the IPAN newsletter this fall. There's still parts of it I'm not entirely happy with. Comments and suggestions appreciated.

Grandma’s Cookies

There are always cookies at Grandma’s house.
They have a special drawer – one low enough that all the kids could reach it.

When I was young, Grandma was the one that taught me to cook.
We baked mostly – sometimes pie, sometimes bread, but always there were cookies.
Always cookies.

When I was in college, she sent me a care package.
It didn’t have cookies.
Instead, she sent me the ingredients to make my own.
And two dollars for butter, because she didn’t think it would mail well.

I finished college and grad school.
Grandma got sick, cancer eating her body.
I could wrap my fingers around her upper arm and have them touch.

The family had a mission – to fatten her up.
As if skinniness were the problem.
There was a contest to make her something she found appetizing.
A victory when she ate more than two bites.

In October, I made cookies for Grandma.
I spent the morning making a huge batch of her favorites.
I used one of her recipes.
I picked the best ones to put on a plate for her.
When I saw her, I said,
“I’ve got cookies in my car for you,”
and her eyes lit up in anticipation.

“I made them to send to Steph at college,” I said,
“But then I found out she doesn’t like this kind.”
It was a lie and she probably knew it.
But I felt like an ursurper.
It was her job to make the cookies, not mine.

In November, right before Thanksgiving, Grandma left us.
We told stories.
We shared her recipes.

Thanksgiving Day came, the family still together.
I was in her kitchen.
I called to my cousin’s kids,
“Who wants to help me make cookies?”

There are always cookies at Grandma’s house.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

On Insomnia

I'm sitting up playing solitaire right now, when I should be in bed. I do this even though I'm tired, even though this will hit me at some point tomorrow as sheer exhaustion. Last night I was up even though I was so tired that I almost burst into tears.

In part, I do this because as soon as I lay down, I'll start to compile endless lists: of things I've done wrong, of things I should do tomorrow, and on and on. But I've lived with that for years, and have learned to ways to control that. The thing I haven't learned to control is the dreams.

You see, part of this urge to stay up long past my bed time is because I don't remember my dreams when I'm sleep deprived. And quite frankly, I like life better when I don't.

Last night, for example, I dreampt that a close friend of ours had died. Now, in my real life, I usually deal with death fairly calmly. But in this dream, I was simply devastated by this loss. Early this afternoon, I suddenly remembered the dream, and a wave of dream-grief washed over me. I think I'd rather have the fatigue.

When you don't have any choice

Ten years ago, I was engaged to be married. I had some doubts about getting married, but I told myself that this was a serious commitment and I had good reason to have second thoughts.

So I thought I would talk to some people who were married, get their perspective. I wanted to get their feedback on how they had decided to marry their spouse. Since my parents were pretty easily accessible, I started with them. After all, at that point they'd been married almost twenty-five years.

I approached my mom one night when I was visiting home and asked her why she'd married my father. The first words out of her mouth? "Some days, I just don't know."

When I went to dad and asked him the same question about mom, the first thing he said was, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Of course they both went on to say other things, but it was their first reaction I still remember ten years later. At the time, I thought it was kind of sad. I had been hoping for stories of love and romance.

In any case, I didn't end up getting married ten years ago, although I'm not sure that my parents' stories had anything to do with it.

However, a little over a month ago, I married a wonderful man, and I think I may finally understand what my parents were trying to tell me.

You see, Pukka and I reached a point in our relationship where we had to be together. Some days we don't particulary like each other, and some days we wish the other would just leave us alone. But none of that changed the fact that we both felt like we were better off with the other than without.

Unfortunately, none of that means either of us can vocalize a good reason why we decided to be together. A few weeks before the wedding, I heard Pukka tell a friend he was marrying me because he "didn't have any choice." It's good to know someday he'll be able to horrify our own children when they want to know why we got married.

Friday, June 11, 2004

There's no bridge to Britain

My youngest sister is flying to London today. She'll be there for six or seven weeks taking classes. She's the first person in the immediate family to leave the country.

I talked to both her and my mother this morning. Mom's concerned, of course, and anxious about her baby being so far away. Steph's also nervous, but I think she's trying to cover it up. When I talked to her, she was in the process of re-packing, having decided she didn't have enough clothes already packed.

I don't remember being very concerned when I went away to college, maybe because I knew there would be plenty of other new people around. But I remember the summer after my sophomore year when I came to Iowa to be a camp counselor.

I had never actually visited the camp (on-campus interview). In fact, I had never actually set foot in the state of Iowa prior to this time. I didn't have a car, so my mom drove me over. Inside my head was this constant litany: "I don't know anyone here. What if the other staff don't like me? What if I don't like them? What if I hate it? What have I done?"

Meanwhile, there's this gorgeous scenery going by. I grew up in central Illinois, and I had expected Iowa would look essentially the same. Somehow it's different though. There's more water here for one thing. More gentle hills. More little nooks and crannies.

So there we were, my mother and I, driving through this beautiful landscape, neither of us saying a whole hell of a lot, while I'm silently freaking out. After a long period of silence, out of nowhere mom said, "If you need me, you call, and I can be there in five hours."

I was not quite nineteen at the time, and mom and I were still recovering from my adolescence while struggling to figure out what our adult-to-adult relationship was going to look like. In that moment, I not only knew that mom understood what I was going through, but also that, no matter what I did, she had my back.

Now my sister's just a little over nineteen and she's crossing the ocean. Mom can't drive that far. Still, I just hope Steph knows that no matter what we're all going to be there for her.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Clean up

Dinner turned out just fine, thanks for asking. Red beans and rice. We even have enough left over for lunches, and I have a feeling it will taste just as good cold.

After we finished eating, I made polenta for the first time ever. (It's the base for tomorrow's dinner.) Found out that polenta is good for the cleanliness of my kitchen. It takes a good half hour to cook, and I wanted to keep an eye on it, since I was afraid it would scorch. But it didn't really occupy much of my time. So while I was 'watching' the polenta I managed to get the dishwasher unloaded and then reloaded with the dishes from dinner, plus washed all my pans and knives, etc. from tonight.

I know, I know, it's sad that at thirty-two I still consider cleaning up after myself an accomplishment, but what can I say?

Tomorrow we'll be having Italian style polenta, meaning it ends up more like cornbread than porridge. To make it, you take a little cornmeal and cook it in a fair amount of water. After it soaks up all of the water, you proceed to cook a good bit of that water right back out of it. It's a funny thing. Why not start with less water and just be done with the whole thing that much sooner? I know there are reasons, so I just have to trust the process, even if it seems a bit silly. For a half hour, it's fairly easy.

But the same thing comes up in my own life. I keep thinking there should be a shortcut, that things shouldn't take so long. Gotta learn to let go and trust the process.

Or maybe the answer is just to distract myself by cleaning the kitchen.

Fear of Food

Last night for dinner, I made one of the worst things I've ever cooked.  Earlier in the day I found this recipe for soup that used potatoes and broccoli, which were two things we had in the house that I wanted to get rid of.  To make this soup, you basically brown the potatoes a little, then add some garlic and bay.  Then you put in 5 cups of water, add the lentils and cook that, then add the broccoli and some salt/pepper and cook it some more, then top it with parmesan cheese.  So off I go to the grocery store to get me some lentils. No sweat.

As I was re-reading the recipe in preparation for actually making the soup I thought, "This is going to be really bland."  And guess what?  I was right!  How could cooking potatoes and lentils in water and then eating it ever have sounded like a good idea to me?  It might've been better if it was cooked in chicken broth.  Or heck, if there had been an onion in there to give it some flavor.  I put a ton of salt in it, and there was still virtually no taste to it.  I blame the recipe -- I mean, I had bad judgement for picking it, but I figured this woman knew what she was doing, and I trusted her. This definitely wasn't tasty though.  Ugh.

Pukka, god love him, ate a whole bowl full and keeps telling me that it wasn't that bad.

Of course, then, because I can't "waste" food, I package up the leftovers and put them in the frig.  As if we're going to ever eat them!  But I just can't throw away food (unless it's moldy).  So it will sit in storage for a month, and then I'll toss it.  What's wrong with me??

At least I'd also bought Oreos, so we had a good dessert.

Yeah, and so now I'm dreading cooking tonight.  I bought the ingredients for another untried recipe, and it's on the menu for this evening. Good news this time is that one of the ingredients is pesto, so at least we know it will have some flavor. And if nothing else, it couldn't possibly be as bad as last night.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 03, 2004

I know I'm not ready for children because my husband snores

I'm laying there in our bed; I'm tired and it's late. Next to me, my beloved is sawing logs. I've been listening to him for a half hour now, trying to get back to sleep.

I bury my head under my pillow. For a blissful moment, it seems to have worked. Nope, it was just the lull between waves.

I briefly contemplate burying *his* head under my pillow. Although I'm sure that sleep deprivation would not hold up as a defense in court, I'm certain there's thousands of women across the country that would sympathize.

I love him, but I also love sleeping. And as I lie there slowly losing my mind, I can hear my mother's voice in my head: "You think this is bad? Just wait until you have kids. You'll never sleep again!"