Thursday, May 21, 2015

Honey, I'm Home!

Can I sneak back into your reading space without you having noticed that I've been gone? Part of me hopes not, that you've been wondering where I went, checking back in now and then to see what's new at Blue Plate Sundays.

I've been stuck under some rocks, really.

But I'm back, and as a peace offering, I'm bringing you the recipe for my almost-famous macaroni and cheese, the one I promised you in my last post. I'm also going to leave you with the name of a good book, the first of many I hope to share with you this summer.

It's best to be first in line since there's never any left!

This macaroni and cheese dish is a riff on my father's version. You might remember him as an old Navy cook, who once tried to hide left over baked beans in spaghetti sauce. I have always hated baked beans, but I loved his original spaghetti sauce. My sister still makes that sauce, right down to the last Howard detail. When I was little, I refused to eat his homemade mac and cheese, asking instead for the powdery orange Kraft version, just as my kids did when I'd put my casserole on the table. Hey, Dad, it all comes back around, you know?

Now, my children ask for the revved up Howard mac and cheese. After their early rejections, I gave up and stuck to the Kraft route. But one day, I made the scratch version for a party, thinking something dripping with gooey cheese and sticky enough might attract the younger set. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part, me wanting the comfort of those old Howard dishes? The kids loved it, but they had to fight for their spoonsful. The adults lined up in front of that dish, scooping mounds of creamy cheese pasta onto their plates. Did they all reject their fathers' mac and cheese, but wish they hadn't?

You may not, in fact, need to read this recipe because since Howard's Revved Up Mac and Cheese made its reappearance, I've written it down, emailed it, and texted it so many times that everyone in the world surely must have a copy.

Just in case you were buried under some rocks when the recipe hit the world, here it is again. Keep it mind now that it's all about the cheese. Don't skimp, even though you won't believe that you should add as much as my recipe instructs. Oh, and don't make this dish when you are starting a cleanse!
Howard's Revved Up Mac and Cheese

1- pound elbow, cooked al dente in well-salted water (I really love the extra bend and curve of the cavatappi pasta)
1- box of Velveeta cheese, cubed
4- 8-oz portions of different shredded cheeses (for example: cheddar, Colby Jack, mozzarella, fontina--but you can choose any of your favorites)
Grated parmesan/Romano cheese for sprinkling
4 cups of white sauce (I have a secret method...I'll share it with you.)

Coat a 9 x 13 pan with cooking spray. Put half of the cooked macaroni into the pan, and cover with 1/2 of the cheese. Salt and pepper. Sprinkle a light layer of the grated parmesan/Romano cheese across the surface. Top with the remaining pasta and cheese, salt and pepper, and grated parmesan/Romano cheese. Pour the white sauce over the top (do this SLOWLY, using a knife to make room for the sauce to slide down into the pasta and cheese mixture). Cover with foil and back for 30 minutes at 375. Remove the foil, and bake for another 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and bubbly. Some people have been known to fight for the crusty edges, so be prepared.

And now, the white sauce. Although I spent many hours watching Julia Child whisk flour, butter, and milk into the smoothest of concoctions on her Garland burners, I have struggled for years to make a smooth béchamel sauce. One day, in a real hurry, I decided to try making it in the microwave, and I've never gone back to the classic stove top method.

To make four cups of Jill's secret béchamel:
In a large Pyrex/microwave-safe bowl, combine 4 tablespoons butter and 4 tablespoons flour. Cook for 1 minute. Stir, and add 4 cups of milk. Cook for another 2 minutes, and then stir. Repeat. At this time, the sauce should be getting thicker. It's judgment time! If the sauce is thickened so it coats the back of a spoon and stays there, the sauce is just about done. The sauce should not be THICK, but thickened. Now the magic can happen. Whip the sauce with a hand whisk until smooth. If you need to add a little extra milk because the sauce is too thick, you can whisk that in now, too. But you must believe in the sauce. Just ask my son, who didn't believe the first time he made Howard's Revved Up Mac and Cheese, adding too much milk at the last minute because he thought the sauce wouldn't be creamy enough. Four cups of sauce will do it, folks.

While you are waiting for the cheese to melt into the sauce, dig into a good book.

I've just finished The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Packer battered my heart with this book, as her tale of the California Blair family investigates the unintentional loss of self in marriage and parenthood. Navigating these beautiful sacrifices will be a little easier when paired with Howard's Revved Up Mac and Cheese.  A little gooey cheese pasta on your plate will make you feel better, right Dad?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Letting Go...Again (or There Will Be Mac and Cheese)

Dear Readers: I'm sharing an old post from my first blog, JEMS, with you today. Tonight, I'm flying to California to see Cali Girl number two play her senior lacrosse game. The post below is written about her older sister's departure  for college over six years ago. Time flies. Yeah.

I have no recipes for you today. I'm cobbled together by Tylenol Cold and zinc tablets, hoping the flight personnel won't take one look at my red eyes and put me in quarantine. My husband just asked me if I wanted to ice my eyes. Sigh.

In Cali, the moms are taking over our daughters' kitchen on Saturday night, and one of my contributions will be macaroni and cheese. You may have heard of it. I'm pretty famous for my mac and cheese. When I get back, I promise I'll share the recipe, and some Cali stories, with you.

For now, I'm leaving another little bit of Jill for you on the page.

                                                  Letting Go

I am perched on a black faux leather stool in the middle of Sephora, feeling rather conspicuous as a flawlessly sponged and lined face asks me questions.

"Where is your daughter going to school?" she asks as she brushes on a thick layer of Dior foundation. I have asked for something to help my old skin look younger. "Yes, want something to make you look dewey," she says.

Dewey would be miraculous at 52, but I would settle for something that would masque the tiredness in my face. "She's going to California," I tell her. "To the University of California at Davis."

"To California, California?" she asks as the brush stabs foundation into the side of my nose.

I have answered this question hundreds of times since last fall when my daughter signed the NCAA Division 1 intent papers. "Yes, near Sacramento."

"Ohhhhh, that's so far," she coos. I hope the foundation is doing its job.

"Yes, it is far," I answer robotically, as I've answered nearly everyone who has heard she is going to UC Davis.

I look up at my daughter, wandering fresh-faced through the aisles of liners, bronzers, and concealers. She carries a round mesh basket, into which she drops various colored pencils, tubes, and boxes. We have been shopping for weeks, buying room decor, clothes, school supplies, books.

Winding her way back to me, she glances with a bit of alarm at my face, which has now been brushed with powder, blush, and a mash of bronze beads.

"What do you think?"

"I like the way you usually do your makeup, Mom," she says, "but this looks nice."

In the mirror I see that the dewey look involves emphasizing the fine lines around my lips and nose. My personal makeup stylist tells me, "We can change anything you don't like."

If only that were so. I buy the expensive foundation and concealer, putting back the dry powders that gathered in the creases of my face.

We purchase my daughter's pencils, tubes, and boxes, and we will add them to the ever-growing pile on the floor of her room, a pile that is a hedge against the day I fly home from California. She is collecting all she might need in any scenario, wrapping these new things around her as an insulation from the certain loneliness she will feel when she wakes to find herself only one instead of being one of six. In the packing, can I slip some of who we are together between the layers of sleep shorts and bathing suits? Can I leave something there for her to find, to hold onto until she gets her California legs, until the new becomes more real than the old?

I catch our reflection in Sephora's window as we leave, shoulder to shoulder, close enough to distance the coming separation. Even in the blurry mirror image, the Dior foundation lays heavily on my skin.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The East Coast Blues (or Corn and Avocado Salad)

The sun is shining. The sun is shining. Did you hear me? THE SUN IS SHINING!

I do fully realize that in a great portion of the world this miracle is a daily occurrence. Once on a trip to San Diego for a conference, I stood on a hillside at Point Loma University looking down, way (way, way) down the curvy streets, to the bay. It was just newly March, and at home the weather was still fragile, but here butterflies and hummingbirds flew in colorful, fluttering packs. I turned to a local professor, and asked "How in the world do you get any work done?" Many of the buildings were nearly glass-walled, showcasing a view of sunlight dappling blueish jade waters. I pictured myself getting lost in the water mid sentence, mid lecture.

"Oh, you get used to it," she replied.

I want you to know that I controlled myself. I really did. I wanted to shake her, to give her a good yinzer education. Back in Pittsburgh, we'd call her crazy, punctuated with a "ya jagoff," but I already told you I controlled myself. "Give me your job!" I wanted to shout. I'd willing trade my classroom for hers and let her have a taste of life in a grayed-out city where the sun plays tag with us, coming out to play just 160 days a year.

 Years ago, my husband and I had a moment when we thought we'd move to North Carolina. Only two of our four had joined our family at this point, and the idea took on texture. Why not? Well, it turned out that the why nots had names: my mother, my sister, his mother, his father, his grandmother--all of our history bound us to Pittsburgh. We'd grown up here, falling in love the first time in our high school's hallways, growing up taking the bus to Carnegie Library in Oakland, marking time by the addition of new rides at Kennywood Park.

One of my daughters lives in California and the other in Arkansas. There's no doubt that the Cali girl has the best year round weather ("Hi Mom! I'm wearing's 75 today!" happens most days in Moraga), but my Arkansas girl wore a sundress last weekend. Me? Well, if you are anywhere in the East, you'll know that we're having a day of sunshine today, but Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday of next week have snow in the forecast. (I think of North Carolina and give myself a good yinzer shake.)

And now we stay because Pittsburgh is the place my children call home.

To celebrate the sun, I'm pulling out a summertime favorite: Corn and Avocado Salad. If you live in the sun-challenged part of the country, like I do, stick a spoonful of this liquid sunshine into your mouth and run outside at 1 p.m. (with your eyes closed, so you won't see the bare branches on the trees),and, just for a minute or two, you can pretend it is indeed June.

Corn and Avocado Salad

This is one of those recipes that can grow or shrink according to the number of people at your table. On a typical Blue Plate kind of day at my house, people are dipping spoons into the bowl as I mix, so I usually make a plus-size version. For a nice side dish to serve six, I'd use these quantities:
4 ears of corn on the cob 
1/2 of a sweet onion, chopped
1 red pepper or green pepper, chopped
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
2 regular avocados or 1 giant
 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 of a large or one whole smaller lemon,  juiced
salt and pepper 

Of course, during the winter in Pittsburgh, there's little fresh corn to be had, so you can substitute a bag of good quality frozen corn. Now is not the time to save money; the cheaper brand kernels lose firmness when thawed. Buy the silver bag, and defrost by running a little cold water over the niblets in a colander.Let them sit for a while to drain fully. Repeat after me: Do not cook the corn.

When my daughter studied at UC Davis, near Sacramento, she'd buy her veggies and fruit for the week at the Davis Farmer's Market. Twice a week, the center of town is taken up by booth after booth of the crispest, the ripest, the plumpest, the sweetest, the est of the est. I made a spectacle of myself taking iPhone pics of the display, my mouth hanging open a bit in awe...or perhaps in anticipation. The man selling avocados looked at me skeptically as I snapped a photo. 
"I've never seen anything like this," I apologized, gesturing at the six-foot mound of avocados.
"Where are you from?" 
"Well, surely you have avocados in Pennsylvania," he said slowly, over enunciating as if instructing a very young child.
Whoa, buddy, I wanted to say. You avocado bully, you just don't even begin to know. I buy my avocados at Sam's in a net bag, five small for $5.95. Sometimes there are even ten bags in the pile.

I do, however, live within spitting distance of Simmon's Farm, where our friends grow sweet corn that will make you smile. Robert Irvine says that good food should make you dance. If you drive by our deck during corn season, you might find us in the midst of a happy dance.
Believe me, we've set the record for mowing through a dozen, but I have a certain fondness for the curl of corn shaved from the cob. Back in the old kitchen on Clairhaven Street, at the old yellow Formica, chrome-legged table, my father used to strip the corn for me, spinning the cob between his fingers. Perhaps that is why the corn of my childhood good. Now, Rachel often asks for her corn to be cut from the cob, and my hands have become my father's.

The last into the bowl should be the avocados and tomatoes. Don't cut the avocado until just before. Squeezing the lemon juice directly onto the avocado keeps it from browning. The Chopped judges love a touch of lemon to "brighten the flavor." I think lemon is a little bit of liquid sunshine.

We all know food is love. Maybe, just maybe, it's sunshine, too. If you are standing outside right now with a spoonful of Corn and Avocado Salad on your tongue, you know what I mean.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Earthquake Kit (and Hello!!!!!! from the Rabbit Hole)

Okay, I'll admit it...I haven't posted lately. You probably haven't been able to see me, but I'm here, although buried a bit deeply under a mass of paper. I've fallen down the veritable rabbit hole that lurks in every writing teacher's life, a rather long and dark vertical tunnel created by a classes that must be prepared and papers that must be graded. Those of us in this profession start each semester well, confidently nudging our colleagues with an "I've got this" elbow in the hallways. Sometime in the dead of night about four weeks in, a hole begins to erode beneath our feet. Before we know it...WHOOSH!...we start to fall, and our surprised faces are soon covered with layers and layers of paper.

Recently, a friend shouted down the rabbit hole asking me to join him at a fundraiser for the Corner Cupboard, a food bank in Greene County.

"Will you read?" his faint voice wafted down the many miles I'd fallen.

I was able to pull myself up from underneath the mass a bit. That's right, I thought...I used to write sometimes. Well, yes. Yes, I think I will read.

And, so I climbed out of the rabbit hole for a bit. My husband bought me a large coffee on the ride to the reading. I think he sensed I might disappear without the caffeine. Afterwards, after so many beautiful words and songs, after a moment of suspended beauty when the lilting notes of Chopin floated up and through the big-windowed church sanctuary, he took me to Eat 'N Park for a club sandwich. Nothing has ever tasted so good.

We have a tradition in the Sunday house. When we pick up our weary travelers at the airport (or sometimes when they make the long climb up and out of the rabbit hole), our children who have moved and/or traveled to parts far from home, we stop at Eat 'N Park for a bite. We go even when it's 3 a.m., even when we aren't hungry. I guess there's always room for a Smiley cookie.

Before the bacon and turkey, before the Chopin, I read a newly revised version of "The Earthquake Kit," previously published in Connotation Press. Here's the new version:

The Earthquake Kit

     When my youngest daughter Rachel was about seven, she began to worry about the weather. The worrying part she got from me, the weather-watching part from her father. We were a beach vacation family in those days, and some of her earliest memories must surely involve late-night deck sitting, where we witnessed red lightning cracking above the smudged line of dark water. One year we drove into Corolla, North Carolina on the windy heels of Hurricane Bertha, stopping once or twice to drag away splintered branches blocking the single lane blacktop which led to Atlantic Avenue, just off of Highway 12.

     A random assortment of pine needles, bark, and murky sand covered the driveway of the house we’d rented that year, a certain sign of things to come. Nature had been vigorously shaken, and we were in the midst of the fall out. On our first sunny day, trekking back from the beach, we stopped en masse at the outdoor shower.  We were a family who never used the inside showers, even the littlest ones preferring the fresh air tickling their skin, but this time, we backed out-- a formidable wall of Sundays—scurrying away from the aggressive encampment of big-headed, spindly-legged spiders that had taken refuge there from unforgiving winds. Later that week, we were treated to a gathering of tree frogs, leaf emerald in their greenness, their sticky pads sucked tight to our glass door. Coming for the insects that had been drawn to our inside lights, the frogs’ tongues spun out, darting so rapidly that the insects seemed unaware of their fate. We watched transfixed, spellbound by this little life and death drama played out before us on a vacation house storm door.

     Later, we were all awakened by our oldest boy’s shouts. We’d had rain all day; the fury that had been Bertha was long gone, but another hurricane was pushing up the coast. We’d tucked our two youngest in, whispering reassurances against the pounding rain on the cupola skylight, but now a steady torrent of water forced itself around, under, and through the skylight seal, an angry waterfall pouring into the open center of the house, pooling on the first floor where the Godzilla marathon the boys had been watching still flickered on the screen.

     Rachel learned about the ugliness of nature during this and other beach trips, slapping her hands at fat black sand flies, shielding her eyes from the piercing sting of wind-borne sand, overturning turtle shells all but scraped clean of red meat, watching the glassy green sea whip itself into an angry gray threat.  On our way south, we often drove through wild storms, once caught in a tornado on the beltway around D.C., once driving into West Palm just minutes after a tornado touched down, sideways pelting rain and van-rocking winds having unnerved us all.

     “Maybe we shouldn’t stay,” Rachel repeated in a kind of litany, rolling her worry between her fingers like beads.

     We looked at the broad palm leaves sheared in ragged segments lying around the pool. “It’s over, honey. We’ll be fine.”      

     That trip marked the beginning of Rachel’s sojourn with the Weather Channel. While the tornado was indeed over, unfortunately the remainder of our vacation week was fraught with the kind of hazy heat and pressure that were often followed by brooding afternoon thunder storms. Rachel sat rigidly in front of the television several times a day listening for the word tornado on the Weather Channel. Any mention of impending rain heightened her panic.

     “I’ve got to see the Local on the Eights,” she’d say as we rounded up our children for application of sunscreen.
     “Come on, Rach. If we don’t get to the beach soon, the clouds will start building. Let’s go get some sun.”

     “Do you think it’s going to storm today? Maybe we shouldn’t go to the beach today. I want to go home! Can we please go home now?”

     And so it went, her tone becoming more insistent after we’d run up the beach walkway seeking shelter from the inevitable storm. I wonder if the confident young woman she is now remembers how she cried that week, her blue eyes widened with the fear of waiting for the worst to happen.

     Another summer, we hurried the short distance home from the community fair, after hearing a tornado warning broadcast over the loud speakers. “Don’t worry, kids,” I said to my four and two young friends. “Tornados don’t usually come to Pittsburgh. We are just being careful, that’s all.”
     We sat playing games in my family room until a strangely orange sky shone through the front windows. The glow was unnatural, eerie, and I was a bit undone.
     “Let’s go guys--time to play in the basement.”

     Smiling while I boosted them up into the crawl space, I joked about being a crazy worrywart, praying all the while that the walls would hold.  I held my breath while I sat guard on the cellar steps, waiting for the ghostly sound of the rushing locomotive.  When we emerged, our local news reported downed electric lines, fallen trees, and lifted rooftops just a few miles away.

     Rachel is mostly grown now, a leggy blonde with a wild sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude.  A fierce “what of it” glint rises easily in her eyes if push comes to shove. Seven months ago she moved 2,577 road miles away from home to Moraga, California. When we packed up her suitcases in August, I checked St. Mary’s “Things to Bring List.” Reading the list aloud, a part of my brain eliminated the required Earthquake Emergency Kit, perhaps pretending that she wasn’t going quite so far, that she wasn’t my youngest, that I hadn’t quite reached this stage of my life. What bag of tricks could possibly help during an earthquake, anyway? What could I possibly buy to keep my girl safe?                                                                                                                      

      Earlier this week, I noticed a link posted on Rachel’s Facebook page: “Signs of California Quake to Come.” Below was Rachel’s comment: “Just in case, I love you all.”

     I tried the explanations out in my mind…the geologist doesn’t know what he’s talking about…it’s just dead fish and a low-hanging moon…earthquakes don’t happen where you are…I promise you will be safe, but all of them felt like so much dust on my tongue.

     Everything I knew about earthquakes came from an exhibit called The Great San Francisco Earthquake Experience my parents took me to on a trip to the Bay Area the year I turned 14. While we rode cable cars, visited Alcatraz and ate cioppino that week, my memories of that trip center on the 360 degree screen that showed life-sized images of the catastrophic 1906 earthquake. On that circular screen, reliable cement and asphalt bent until split, and people fell screaming into the center of the earth.
     When I talked to Rachel, after my husband tried to distract her with humor, I asked her “Are you nervous?”

     “Promise me you will get a memorial tattoo of me if I die in the earthquake. Use the picture of me standing on the bridge with Heinz Field in the background.”

     I have a mental picture of a large, intricately-inked tattoo stretching across my 55- year-old back.

     “Promise me.”

     “Okay. Sure. I promise, but you are going to be fine. You aren’t right on the fault line, and no tsunami could reach you because you are too far away and too high up on the hill.”

     “Just in case, I’m sending a goodbye text to everyone I know tonight.”

     “Rach, you are going to be just fine.”

     The truth, though, is that things don’t always work out for the best, and, even in the sweetness of her youth, Rachel understands. In third grade, on a classroom monitor, she watched planes fly into skyscrapers. She’s seen the footage from Haiti, and wars have always been part of her evening news. She’s walked into my mother’s hospital room to find the rigid contour of a lifeless face against the pillow. She’s heard crystal splintering, angry voices bouncing off of sharp glass shards glinting on a leaf-patterned cloth. She’s picked up her phone to hear really bad news emanating from the earpiece, news that she hadn’t invited, dreamed of, or wished for at all.

   The real truth is that Rachel comes from a legacy of sadness, just a breath away from shoddily hidden grief-- from someone who knows quite well that a ringing phone can’t be trusted, from a mother who has so desperately wanted to create a pocket of safety for her children, but who is sometimes irrevocably lost to the day when her brother died from a bullet to the brain.

     Rachel made herself an earthquake survival kit, just in case. She filled her black and yellow Vera Bradley backpack with snacks, Sarris chocolate, bottled water, a flashlight, and her Tide-To-Go pen.

      I have an earthquake kit too, but Rachel probably doesn’t know that I started mine many years ago, long before she left me, perhaps on the day I stood in the funeral home, feeling the wax slug filling the ragged entrance wound near my brother’s right ear.

     Sometimes the kit does work. I wish I could share its logic with her and my other children, providing them with a checklist for survival, a nicely printed list of circles to fill in with a sharp number two pencil, but part of the process is that each of us must confront impending disaster alone, gathering chicken bones and feathers to ward off that which might harm those we love.  My kit is a ragtag collection, including, but not inclusive of, spastic hopes, lopsided prayers, and improbable deals made in the dead of night. Yesterday, I added my promise to Rachel, praying that my vow will be enough to keep her safe, that I’ll never have to lie under the buzzing tattoo needle, feeling her “I love you all” worked black drop by black drop deeply into my skin.






Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Meatloaf and Resolutions

This morning, while waiting for the local appliance store to install our new washer (which died a horrible grinding-metal death the day after Christmas, thank you very much), I stood at the kitchen counter leafing through the latest edition of Sam's Club Healthy Living. It's not like I have nothing else to read in the house (that's another blog post), but there it was...and there I was.

On my next visit to Sam's, I'll be throwing a bottle of krill oil into my cart, for sure. I'm really thinking about buying a juicer and some avocados...maybe the plastic tub of kale, too, but an article on page 43 titled "Cheers to a New You" also caught my eye. If you read my last post, you'll remember that I hate New Year's Eve for a lot of reasons, particularly that damn sparkly ball that makes promises it can't keep. Lists of resolutions come under the broken promises category...okay, okay, sometimes it's been my fault, but sometimes I have to blame the ball.

"Cheers to a New You" (oh, I'd love to be able to order some new parts online!) lists the most popular resolutions according to the University of Scranton's Journal of Psychology, which are listed below with my annotations.

1. Lose Weight
Well, yeah. Welcome to my life, University of Scranton. I've been a Weight Watcher most of my adult life, and I'm going to keep at it until I get it right...or almost right, I guess. My kitchen baker's rack holds at least 10 Weight Watcher cookbooks, and I'm planning to actually use them this year. (To be fair, I have used them a little, and my family likes the meatloaf recipe from the Just Like Home cookbook more than my old family recipe.) Today, my plan is to make one new recipe a week. As I do, I'll share them with you.

2. Get Organized chance. Have you seen my desk at work? I once knew a lady who started the "Four and No More" club in the community where I live (four children, that is). As a mom of four, I was invited to the meetings. One meeting was about getting organized: when her children were all little, she knew if she didn't organize then, she'd never do it, so she put them all in childcare for a few months while she went through the process. Her house was soon basketed, labeled, and streamlined. Each child had a color of towel, so that she'd "know who left the towel on the floor." So, I guess I should say that I missed that organization revolution, and we are an equal opportunity towel-on-the-floor family.

3. Spend Less, Save More

Trying. This could be a creative nonfiction novel, believe me. I'm working on it...the novel, that is. Did I mention that our washer had to be replaced the day AFTER Christmas?

4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest

You know, everyday while I make the 50-minute drive to the university where I teach, I talk to God. I like to think that I'm offering prayers of gratitude, but sometimes I feel like I'm bartering. If I let You know how much I appreciate x, maybe You'll let me keep y. Since I got the call that my brother was dead from a gunshot to the brain, I've been a worrier. For me, the intangible and philosophical "What If" has gritty substance. I tend to answer my phone after 9 p.m. with "What's wrong?" I worry about everybody, all the time, because, you know, what if? So....I'm working on worrying less and enjoying more. My oldest daughter has been known to tell me that I don't know how to have fun. I'm like Joe Btsflk with a continuous dark cloud over my head. Yeah, I wish she could have gotten to know the girl who hitchhiked the length of Spain.

5. Stay Fit and Healthy

Really? Do there have to be two of these on the list?

6. Learn Something Exciting

Well, this one is right up my alley. I'm a teacher, for Pete's sake. My inner girl is standing in the Wal-mart Back to School aisle picking pretty notebooks and pens. She's cracking open the new volume of the Trixie Belden or Cherry Ames series. She's conjugating Spanish verbs like a @#&$ chica.
My desk is covered with new materials every semester, but I've been thinking about learning French--just for the je ne sais quoi of it.

7. Quit Smoking

Check! Never really started, well...except for that one pack of Lucky Strikes I smoked in Spain.

8. Help Others With Their Dreams

I deal in dreams. Lucky for me, I get to work with talented young writers on a daily basis, and we dream weave together.

9. Fall in Love

Done...a long time ago. Here I want to write "he's still the one" and "still crazy after all these years," but I'm afraid you might think my cliché disingenuous. All true, dear readers, all true. I'm singing those words right now.

10. Spend More Time with Family

Come home to me, my little ducklings! If only...but we do have Sunday Dinner at our house. Two of my four live in Arkansas and California, but two (and one extra soon to be mine) find themselves at my table most Sundays (sometimes they also do their laundry). When everyone is home as they were for Christmas break, our table overflows with family (mom/editor's note: the outcome of these dinners is not always as warm and fuzzy as I'd like, but, hey, we're family). The rest of the time, I rely on texting, Facetime, and Snapchat (oh, hello there...that's a nice outfit you are wearing to that party!). My preference would be to have them all sleeping upstairs in their footed jammies, but those days don't belong to this episode in my "Cheers to a New You" life.

If meatloaf will help cheer up your new year, here's a great recipe (adapted from the Weight Watchers Just Like Home cookbook).

Better than Jill Sunday's Original Meatloaf Meatloaf
  • 3/4 cup ketchup, divided
  • 1/4 cup minced onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground round
  • 1/2 cups quick cooking oats
  • cooking spray
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together 1/2 cup ketchup and the next 6 ingredients. Add ground round and oats; mix just to combine. Shape mixture into a loaf, and place on a broiler pan coated with cooking spray. (I cover the top of the broiler and the inside pan with foil for easy clean up. Poke holes in the foil on the top of the pan to allow the juices to run into the bottom pan. Spray the top foil.) "Ice" the meatloaf with the remaining ketchup. Bake for 70 minutes. Let set for 10 minutes before slicing into 12 pieces. (Per serving: 242 calories; 7.5 grams fat; l.4 grams fiber; 27.2 grams protein.)

This meatloaf is Blue Plate Sunday approved. Go make some.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I Hate New Year's Eve

I hate New Year's Eve.

I didn't always hate it. I spent my share of 11:59's sharing kisses under falling confetti while sequin-and-black-dressed beauties swayed to "Every Breath You Take" (substitute the appropriate song for the years from 1973 through 1983--this year it may be twerking to "Wrecking Ball"). We gave all that up when we had children, the hassle of securing a babysitter, the compounded sitting and cocktails/appetizers/dinner/champagne fees prohibitive to a young family. Suddenly, there was the added worry of WHO WOULD TAKE CARE OF THE CHILDREN IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO US TONIGHT WHEN EVERYONE DRIVES LIKE CRAZY? Plus, that little black dress didn't fit over my hips quite the same.

The last fully glamorous New Year's Eve I remember was spent at the Monterey Bay atop Mt. Washington with four other couples. We toasted each other at a long white-clothed table overlooking the Pittsburgh lights. My expectations for 1983 were full of crystalline wonder--a fragile, blown glass bubble of promise. That night, I had a tipsy heart-to-heart with my beautiful friend Elaine in the ladies' room. I can't remember what we talked about, but I remember the warm feeling I had as I caught our blurry reflection in the bathroom mirror. Three of those couples divorced not long after our New Year's date. I don't know if I miss all of them so much, but I miss that girl I was then. And I certainly miss Elaine, whose boyfriend found her hanging from the upstairs bannister a couple of years ago.

When our oldest two children were babies, our new-parent friends took turns hosting parties. All of our little ones attended in fleecy footed sleepers, and we played games and grazed on spinach dip in pumpernickel bread bowls and bacon wrapped around water chestnuts. There was always champagne, though depending on the year, some of us couldn't drink. It didn't take more than four or five years for this new tradition to fall to the wayside. As our collective children grew older, the logistics became more problematic, so our new normal became the Sunday Family New Year's Eve celebrations. Our table covered with appetizers, we'd watch movies until 11:30, turning to Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve to watch the ball drop, exchanging sticky HAPPY NEW YEAR! kisses all around. You can guess what happened next.

We really don't have plans for tonight, never sure of who might be home or who might need a ride. I did put together the Raspberry Sangria recipe ingredients for my daughters to take to their party. My freezer is full of mini meatballs, shrimp, and mini dogs wrapped in pastry, just in case. It looks like us and Dick Clark...I mean...Ryan Seacrest...again.

My youngest daughter just leaned into my writing space to say "We never have New Year's Eve parties here."

Here's why I think I hate New Year's Eve:
1. I'm not that girl in the little black dress anymore.
2. I didn't pay enough attention to her when I could.
3. My children don't know that girl. They would have liked her.
4. That damn glittery ball makes so many promises it can't keep.

Raspberry Sangria

If you'd like to make a batch of Raspberry Sangria, here's what you will need.

  • 1 jug Riunite Bianco (wine lovers, please forgive me)
  • 1 32-oz Sierra Mist (the diet version is delicious, too)
  • 1 large Cran-Rasperry juice drink (this comes in a low-cal version, too)
  • Chambord to taste (about a cup)
  • Frozen raspberries.(if you go the low-cal route, you can pretend this beverage is actually good for you...and you can start the new year with a healthy drink).
  • Thinly sliced oranges (really, you can add any sangria, the more the merrier!)
  • Mint sprigs

If you are making the punch at your house, use your mother's big glass punch bowl. Mine loved Riunite Bianco, and so her bowl is quite happy to hold this punch. If, however, you are sending this  to your daughters' party, use the plastic punchbowl from Party City. Refrigerate all ingredients (if you are in Western Pennsylvania, your garage will work just fine as a refrigerator on New Year's Eve). When it's time to drink, pour all of the ingredients into the bowl. Don't defrost the raspberries--they act like tiny ice cubes!
The Grinch in me is fighting my fingers as I type the following: Happy 2014!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jilliebeanery#2: The Right Mug (#writergirlproblems)

Lately, my words are stuck.

Most of the time you'll find a line of words behind me, letters hooking tails of j's and y's onto curves of c's and o's. Sometimes they trip me, the word trail growing so long that it entangles my feet, and I lurch ungracefully from my word world back into the real one. You may have seen me pulling words from my mouth like a magician with his bouquet of flowers that seemingly appears from just inside his narrow sleeve. At a party once, I touched my ears to find sparkling words dangling from my lobes, hiding a little behind the swing of my hair.

No such luck these days, though. Now and then I can feel my words climbing toward consciousness, but my locked mind knocks them from their ladder, and the rest  scurry back down into the darkness. I think of Annie Dillard who taped brown paper over her window so she wouldn't be distracted by the view while she wrote. I want to be that woman, but my windows are flung open, and there's no telling what will step through them.

On days when I can't write for all the nonsense that's heaved itself up and over the sills, I make a pot of coffee, and go to my cupboard to choose a mug that fits inside my cupped hands just so. If the coffee is hot and strong enough--if I've chosen the right mug, I just might get my words back.

The Princeton mug is my cold nose buried in Gary's warm neck. Back in the day, we'd walk from his room over to Prospect Street to buy a bottle of hooch to pour into the big silver thermos. One sip from this mug, and I'm back at Palmer Stadium, at football games I didn't really watch, more interested in the man by my side and the deep thermos full of apple cider and clear brown whiskey.
On cold-hearted days, I often pull the Pawleys Island mug from the back of the cupboard. It's hard to explain why this cup offers me comfort since it was on Pawleys Island that we lost two of our children for a hellacious half hour one summer night. We'd been shopping at the little village center, walking from one store to another, negotiating purchases with our four children. "Blackbeard sword? Hmmm....good idea now, but not when we start the long drive home and you want to whack your brother with it for 12 solid hours."
At some point, my husband and I decided to separate, each of us concentrating on just two instead of listening to four continuous rounds of "He's getting that? I want that!" When we got back to our car, we only had two of our four children. I can't remember now how they wandered off--perhaps one of them was intent on having that Blackbeard sword after all. One of us blinked, and they were gone. I do know that my husband lost his mind a little, flattening his thumb in the car door. He ran from shop to shop, blood drops marking his way. After our lost children were found, we sat in our red Astro van and breathed in the sweet smell of our family. 
If you ever get to Warehouse Point, Connecticut, even if you have to make a detour in your road trip, you MUST go to the Maine Fish Market and order a lobster roll. A mound of sweet white lobster chunks will arrive in a split and buttered roll. Some like their lobster coated with mayonnaise, but I order mine plain with a little drawn butter on the side.
The Main Fish Market is about a work day away from Pittsburgh, but I'm up for a road trip, if you are. When you visit the day after Christmas because your daughter is playing ice hockey in the Polar Bear tournament...when you've left behind the Christmas mess to be cleaned up after you return...when you fall from the car exhausted and sooooo hungry...the nice people at the Maine Fish Market will give you a coffee mug as a belated Christmas present. We have six mugs. There were a lot of Polar Bear tournaments.
The lobster rolls aren't as good in Mystic, Connecticut, but the lobster omelets at the Little Kitchen will straighten out any kind of day you are having. One rainy September day, we found ourselves visiting Bryant University with our youngest daughter, a lacrosse player. She liked the university, but when she toured the athletic facilities, one of the lacrosse players explained that winter workouts included shoveling the snow from their practice field. I knew then that we wouldn't be making the drive from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island again. She'd be joining her sister in California (as she put it..."shoveling snow in January or 60 degrees in January?"), a drive far too long for me to make in a day (really not even in three days). The next morning, we stopped in Mystic Seaport for breakfast at The Little Kitchen, and all was right with the world while the three of us sipped coffee and hot chocolate from these mugs. Just then, she was still close beside me.
"What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a teacher."
"Oh, what do you teach?"
Now, picture a person grabbing her throat, squeezing her eyes into slits, and scrambling backwards in response. I get this reaction often, thank you very much. Is it any wonder that I need some comfort? Don't be surprised when I tell you that Shakespeare soothes my soul. My mother bought me this mug when we visited Stratford Upon Avon the summer before I was married. I might have been an English major, but she was a child who grew up with a library in her home, these leather-bound volumes one of her few concrete memories of childhood. The quotation is from Macbeth, and, in addition of memories of my mom, it conjures up Mrs. Dyas, my high school English teacher, who stood on her desk, bringing the Weird Sisters to life, reciting "Double double toil and trouble," making a mark on a class of startled teenagers. I'd sell a little of my Shakespearean soul to have coffee with these ladies today, but I manage to capture a little of them when I wrap my hands around this mug.
If you give a girl a cup of coffee, she's going to ask for a beignet, at least at the Café du Monde in New Orleans. Of course, this is after the jazz on Bourbon Street and Snug Harbor. It's after the oyster and artichoke chowder and the jambalaya too, baby. Beignets are best at about 4 a.m.; the hot grease and powdered sugar followed by hot chicory coffee make the best antidote for a night on the town. There's promise in the New Orleans night, you know?  While sitting in the black iron chairs at the café, in between licking your fingers, if you listen hard enough you can hear the hot iron screech of the streetcar named Desire. 
Paris. Enough said.
Some days call for the Sumo mug, which holds twice the amount . Okay,'s really a bowl. Some days call for a bowl of coffee. On big coffee days, I'm so very glad my son thought of me while in Tokyo. You really have to love a mug decorated with a ring of wide-eyed Sumo wrestlers. He gets me, this kid of mine. I can see him wrapping this mug in t-shirts for the luggage trip home thinking, "yeah, I can see her filling up this baby." And, I do! Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.
So, now we're getting to it. Sometimes the blunt directive of this mug is what I need. Time to write again if the caffeine whooshes through my brain, clearing the word chute of sludge. From this mug to the writing god's ears, I say.
Bottoms up!