Thursday, December 30, 2010

"When you have a prepositional phrase modifying another prepositional phrase, you must examine..."

Mrs. Huber was my seventh grade teacher, and she taught me everything I know about English grammar. That is a bold statement, but she was a bold woman. Language arts had always come easily to me, and I especially adored sentence diagramming. She would call us up two at a time, side by side, in contests to see who could diagram the quickest. I can still recall the way the chalkboard smelled, standing expectantly with hand poised, waiting for Mrs. Huber to say, "Now!" I would tear into that sentence, circling and underlining and intersecting lines in an unabashedly self-important manner, running a figurative footrace with the classmate working on the board next to me. Diagramming sentences was my passion and it brought out the competitor in me. "Time!" Mrs. Huber would bark, and I would step back with faux modesty and wait for her to tell me my work was correct. It usually was, too, because Mrs. Huber knew her stuff, and I was an attentive disciple. I would go the extra mile and diagram sentences at home from the King James version of the Bible, or from Edgar Allan Poe, or even Mark Twain (potentially very challenging because of the vernacular). I was, and am, a total, unapologetic language geek.

But the seventh grade was a difficult time in my life and it colored all aspects of my experiences. She and I got off on the wrong foot early on in the year when she called me up to her desk and whispered, in prim, Victorian tones, that I needed to remember to always sit like a lady because, from her vantage point, she could see straight up my skirt. Shocked and embarrassed, I blurted out the first thing that came to my head. "You were looking up my dress?" I know now that she probably believed I was being disrespectful and snarky. How was she to know that I was struggling against a woman at home who was intimidated, enraged really, at my burgeoning pubescence? It was terrible to consider the idea that all woman might be frustrated predators... (*I was being raised by an aunt who had kidnapped me years earlier, posing as my real mother, and the situation was becoming tenser and tenser between us as I matured... which is a whole lotta' other blog posts!*)

Mrs. Huber was famed for being a difficult taskmaster in the classroom, and I thought she was mean to me. She had a zero tolerance policy for any disruptions of any kind, and she suffered no fools gladly. This was the seventh grade, remember, and it was chock full of fools -- girls flirting, testing their sexual powers -- boys strutting and putting on a show for their friends -- hormones whizzing around the room like air released from a balloon. No wonder the woman wanted control, but I saw her as overbearing and not a little scary.

I was eleven going on twelve, and she was over thirty, so naturally enough as I remember her, she might have been anywhere between 40 and 70. The rules of exuberant youth practically beg for a name like Huber to be changed to something like Puber, but my friends and I settled instead, for reasons now lost to me, on Shirley Shuba. We made a little cawing noise out on the playground when referring to her amongst ourselves, again for reasons I have entirely forgotten, and we cruelly dissected her hairdos and fashion don'ts in the girls' bathroom at recess. But for all our bravado, order reigned supreme in her classroom.

I remember the time she arranged all the desks into groups of 4, and Crista and I ended up with two of the cutest boys in our class. I am sure we must have smirked jocosely, and Crista scribbled some words on a paper and flipped the folded package at me. The entire contents ran something along the lines of "Can you believe who we're sitting with?", with my inane response "I know!" Mrs. Huber intercepted the note as I was passing it under the table to Crista and she stood next to me, my eyes level with the zipper fly on her polyester pantsuit, and read it to the entire class, her voice dripping with sarcasm and innuendo. I was mortified, and mad at myself for letting her get to me.

Just a few weeks later, I was the reluctant attendee to a farcical parent-teacher conference where the parent in question was not my parent, and the teacher in question was gushing and patting my shoulder approvingly, claiming there wasn't a subject I could not master. I felt I was in an alternate universe where pleasing fiction was stated as fact. I wanted to turn to each woman and level my accusations: YOU'RE not my mother, and YOU are not proud of me.

I was having a lot of trouble at home and because Mrs. Huber was a temporary fixture in my world, it is possible I focused on her faults as a way to cope with the bigger, much hairier realities staring me in the face. Mrs. Huber was not the monster I constructed out of her shell, poor woman, and time has healed those psychic wounds, real and imagined, from all those years ago. I will always recall how distorted my view of the world was back then, and I try hard to remember that fact in dealing with my own daughters, who are generally the same age now as I was in Mrs. Huber's class. They do not, thank God, have the pressures and peculiarities forced on them that I did, but I am sympathetic nonetheless. Puberty is a rough period in most any kid's life... For years now, I have wanted to tell Mrs. Huber that she sparked in me my first genuine love of language play and that due to her dedicated teaching techniques, she influenced my grades and test scores throughout the rest of my education.

And for that I thank her.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pie Crust: It Is Easy to Fear That Which We Do Not Understand

I am a big fan of Crisco when it comes to pie crust. My best pie crusts always have Crisco in them. I rarely measure anything ever (I don't even own measuring spoons. True story. Come to my house and try to find some. You won't.), so to listen to me describe how I make perfect-every-time pie crust is pretty aggravating to the first-timer, I know. But it is not hard. My young daughters can make excellent pie crust, and so can you. My recipe makes two crusts actually. One for top and one for bottom. If you are making an open-faced pie, like pumpkin or pecan, just make two pies at once. Why not? You already have the oven heated and you are already flouring your entire kitchen. Go for the bonus round, I always say. Besides, I am not sure if I know how to tell you to make only one crust at a time.

I put a pinch of sea salt in the bottom of a big bowl, then I dump on what is probably about 2 cups or so of flour. I stir it all up with my fingers, then I start scooping in towering spoonfuls of Crisco. My guess is that I use about a third of a cup, but remember that a lot of environmental factors go into pastry -- humidity, heat, needy children, barking dogs, ringing doorbells, singing kettle, whatever -- and you need to be flexible. If you put too much fat in, add a small amount of flour to make it up, or vice versa. Trust me. Cooking should be intuitive.

The recipe books will tell you that you use a pastry cutter to incorporate the Crisco into the flour, or in the absence of a pastry cutter, two forks will do. Well, I don't own a pastry cutter, and while I do have forks, I just use my fingers to mix it up, which works best for me anyway because the heat softens the Crisco a little, making it easier to work with. You want a bowlful of clumpy flour, with the clumps about the size of green peas. Once you are there, drizzle in about 7 tablespoons of very cold water. Do you know how I measure the 7 tbs. of cold water? I go to my refrigerator, which is fancy enough to dispense cold water, and press on the button as I say, slowly and out loud, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven." Works every time, I swear. Stir the entire mess together gently, making a nice, round ball of dough. The dough should stick together enough to form into a circle shape, but it will still be pretty floury, so stop worrying. Let the dough rest in the fridge, covered in some plastic wrap or a damp baker's cloth, for about a half hour. This allows those fats that melted a little under your hot little hands to set back up again, making it easier to roll out. Easier is better.

Sprinkle a healthy amount of flour on a large cutting board, or directly onto your counter top so long as you have a smooth, clean surface to work with. Get out your rolling pin. I have a heavy, marble rolling pin that my husband bought for me our second Christmas together. It's wonderful and I love it, but I have to keep a careful eye out to make sure it doesn't roll off my counter ever, because it weighs a ton and will crack the tile from that height, I'm sure. It's marble because marble stays cold and the fat solids in most any pastry dough like to stay cold, but honestly, it should not take you so long to roll out a couple of pie crusts that you need to worry about whether or not your rolling pin is cold.

Anyhoo, split your cold ball of dough into two cold balls of dough and set one aside. I like to form a circle on my cutting board, flattening it with my hands and shaping as I go. Then I start rolling from the center out, and turn my rolling pin several degrees at every pass, making a radius circle as I go. This helps keep your circle more even, but stop sweating because it doesn't need to be perfect. Once it is about three inches larger than your pie pan (and yes, I actually hold my pie pan over the disc of dough to eyeball it, and so can you.), carefully lift up your dough and fold it into a half circle (just makes it easier to pick, is all) and place it in your pan. Tuck it gently into the sides and there you have it -- pie crust! Repeat with your second ball of dough and presto whammo! Two pie crusts! Fill with something marvelous and bake.

Lemon Shaker Pie

Money is tight, so I do what I always do when I am stressed out over something. I turn to my cupboards and start rummaging around. I made a Lemon Shaker Pie yesterday. If you like lemons and you are not afraid of homemade pastry, then this is your pie. It's not for everyone, I will admit. John calls it my Lemon Pledge Pie and there is a touch of furniture-polish-citrusy-fresh taste about it, but I have always regarded the lemon as such a gorgeous, compact little fruit that is terribly underutilized. This recipe uses the entire fruit, and I like that.

First you need two largish lemons. If you only have teensy ones, you will need three or four. Should you be fortunate enough to own a mandolin (Martha Stewart's kitchen assistants totally have to borrow hers), dust it off and use it to shave a pile of paper-thin slices of lemon. If you don't (I don't), sharpen your best knife and do the best job you can, picking the seeds out as you go. Layer the slices in a bowl and cover with two full cups of sugar. As the fruit macerates, it will throw off a lot of fluid, so stir it all up every once in a while. Let it sit like this, covered and on your counter, for at least 24 hours, or even 48 hours if you have the extra time.

Beat four eggs with a pinch of salt and a fat teaspoon of cornstarch, then mix this into the syrupy, sugary, lemony goodness that your skinny slices have turned into. This is your pie filling. Take a moment to inhale deeply, because it smells wonderful. Set it aside and roll up your sleeves for some pastry work. I have a blog post on making pie crust, and we will pretend that you have read it and are now an expert in home pastry. Roll out two crusts, and place one of your crusts in a 9 inch pie pan. Pour in the filling and then cover it with the second crust. Cut off the excess crusts around the sides and pinch to seal the top and bottom crusts together. Cut a few slashes in the top crust so that it can breathe while it's in the oven. Bake your pie for about 45-55 minutes at 350F, until the top is nicely browned and your nose and eyes tell you it's ready. I always bake my pies on a baking sheet because, invariably, a little bit of the fluid bubbles out and all of a sudden, your whole house will smell like burnt sugar.

The pie needs to set up a little bit before you cut into it. Most pies do. Make a pot of piping hot tea to help cut the sweet tartness of the pie. It's wonderful served warm or cold. If you absolutely adore lemon curd, you will love this pie.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I have been promising and promising and promising myself that I would sit down and begin daily entries on my blog. But like a lot of promises one makes to one's self, nothing has come of it so far. I read somewhere (Arianna Huffington, I think) that the beauty of blogging is in the laxity of it all, the stream of consciousness thing, the idea that you just sit down and talk deep thoughts out loud, without editing. But I don't like this notion of not editing. Editing is important to me. I want my ideas laid out plainly first. The whoopdedoos can come later. Writing comes very naturally to me, but there is always some tweaking to be done, at least on my end.

Blogging is self-indulgence in the extreme. It is your most private journaling made public. My instinct is to try to make each entry important. I treat each entry as a composition assignment, and I am fighting for mine to be the one read out loud by Teacher. Why is that? Why can't I just cut loose and utter my little, mundane thoughts and then move on? Well, partly because I find those types of blogs rather insipid myself. There's that. I truly don't mind hearing about what somebody had for breakfast, so long as it is told in an interesting, meaningful way, you see.

So occasionally I have started an entry, on a particular subject, and I have set them aside to edit, and then they have languished, unpublished, unread, unremarked upon, for months. But in going back over some of the half-born entries, I was happy with the work. Here, for example, is an entry I began over a year ago:

"My eldest daughter, Greta, turns twelve today. I used to spend hours marveling at the sheer perfection of her; over her creamy skin and rosebud mouth; over her laughing hazel eyes and one plump little curl sitting directly on the top of her head; over her dimpled knuckles and gurgling laugh. Everything about her was beautiful and I drank her in like a milk shake."

I ended it abruptly, as you see, but really -- does much more need to be said? This was a great start and perhaps one day, I will be able to sort out the emotions of motherhood and then organize my thoughts long enough to finish. But editing takes time. So until then, I will have to settle for whatever comes...

Monday, March 29, 2010

The coyotes woke me again last night. I can't blames the coyotes alone for my wakefulness, of course. My husband is out of work, my middle daughter has a back injury, my car's brakes failed on me recently, we are running through our savings like water through a sieve. I'm not sleeping well. Insomnia is simply a way of life for me right now.

I am not afraid of the coyotes. On bright, chilly nights, the hunting must be very good because you can hear the yips and calls all around. My neighbors all have stories of missing cats, of daytime sightings, of midnight back door raids, and these stories are true. Yet I know the woods that crouch thickly along either side of the creek that runs for miles and miles, provide all the shelter, cover and food they require. They do not need me to survive.

I had been sleeping the sleep of the dead, that deep, deep sleep that clutches you hard and wishes to drag you back down. But my dog was sounding the alarm, so I shook my head and tried to clear the cobwebs from my confused mind as I stepped into the night. The moon, pregnant and full, shone with a frightening intensity, spilling its cold light on the wide outdoors. I gazed up at it, entranced. I imagined a kind of menace in its intent, hovering aggressively above me in the early morning sky. There was something undeniably otherworldly in its brilliance. I shivered as I peered into the illuminated woods. The coyotes, three of them, merely froze and stared at me from across the field that separated us, their yellow eyes narrowed to cautious slits. For what seemed an eternity, we pondered one another in perfect stillness, and I was the first to turn away.

The nighttime air was crisp and chilly. Stars twinkled overhead and the trees rustled and sighed. My dog panted and leaned hard against my leg, drawing courage and calm from my presence. Hundreds of tiny white pear blossoms floated on the surface of his water bowl. Details of my little corner of the world rose up with a startling clarity. Momentarily, I forgot why I was standing out there, cold and in my nightgown. My mind seemed to empty itself and then fill up again with the essence of the night around me. When my eyes darted back to the woods, the coyotes had moved on.

I crawled back to bed and fell into a troubled sleep. I dreamed of spiders. There were two spiders and they were in love. They had taken over our guest bathroom, spinning webs truly awesome to behold. The webs spread from wall to wall, suspended like delicate hammocks. At the bottom of the larger web hung a honeycomb, dripping and glistening, rich and golden. I found myself reaching a tentative finger out to taste the honey, like a child might, fascinated and fearful, yet unable, somehow, to resist all that sweetness.

I awoke and lay there for a moment recounting my dream. It was still quite dark outside. Feeling oddly foolish, I got up to have a look in my guest bathroom. For some time now, I had allowed a little house spider to set up camp in the corner opposite the sink. For weeks, that little spider had been something of a friend, a companion. I had watched her stalking prey, spinning her haphazard webs, preparing her egg sac. I had felt sadness for what I imagined was her effort to distribute her special set of genes before her own candle flickered and burned itself out. (I will admit that most of my information about spiders comes from "Charlotte's Web.") I related to her as a gentle mother, sacrificing herself for the futures of her numerous offspring, bowing to the inevitable, the unavoidable turning wheel of life.

A strange drama was unfolding. My little spider was perched high above the center of her web, inching her way up one of the long anchor threads that attached to the wainscoting. A huge spider sat quietly at the end of this thread, waiting patiently for her. The larger spider was grotesquely bigger, at least 5 times her size. Yet she came to him on what appeared to be her own will, under her own power. I don't know what happens with spiders, the finer points of spider society are closed to me, I can't even identify either of them with any confidence. I returned again and again over the span of an hour, checking the progress of their slow dance. Was I witnessing a death spiral? A courtship? A power struggle? What? I resisted the urge to interfere.

I found them gone in the morning. I had been half expecting them to be sitting on two enormous webs...

Monday, August 17, 2009

The girls and I were rushing to Greta's piano lesson when I saw a squirrel in the middle of the street. Completely unconcerned over my approaching vehicle, he was touching his head again and again to the asphalt as if he were tasting something. As I neared, I could see blood pouring out of his mouth. I grabbed a t-shirt out of the car and carefully inched toward him. He stood there rocking and shaking his head. My heart ached for him. I knew he was a goner, but I couldn't just let him die in the street. So gently, I wrapped him up and carried him to the house, where I placed him in a cat carrier. "We'll take him with us," I said as I got back into the car.

Sensitive to how frightened he must be, we were quiet as we drove to Greta's lesson. About halfway there, he flipped out of the t-shirt suddenly and I was surprised at his strength. The bleeding had stopped and his eyes were bright. My eldest daughter was holding the carrier in her lap and I warned her to keep her fingers away from any of the holes. "He has a lot of fight left in him, poor baby." He fell over and lay still, breathing hard, and I sighed. "Poor baby," I said again.

Over the next 45 minutes, as Greta had her lesson, we sat vigil with the dying squirrel. There is a certain ceremony that should be observed at the passing of a life, any life, and the girls and I were silent witnesses to this little being struggling against the tide. I respected his wildness and tried not to peer too much into the cage. He lay there, eyes open, rib cage working, head pillowed on the folds of cloth.

That very morning, we had had the difficult news that John's father, Steve, was fighting for his life in a hospital several hours away from us. John has had a complicated relationship with his father, who has always seemed to make the wrong decisions in life. Three times divorced, a lifetime of alcohol abuse, morbidly obese since his early 20's, unable to raise his own children at various points in their lives, supremely self-involved yet always rather proud of his handsome, accomplished son. In his way, Steve has taught John to be a good father by providing the case study for what not to do in life. John loves his father, even while recognizing each and every fault. Sometimes forgiveness is the only way to ever move forward.

It had already been a long day and I was jumpy every time the phone rang. So I slowed my thoughts down and waited, with my hand caressing the carrier every once in a while. But the squirrel didn't die right then as I believed he would. I brought him home and left him in a dark room when he could rest undisturbed and I began making calls. It took a couple of hours to actually make contact with a wildlife rehabber and I was amazed that the squirrel was not only alive but beginning to stumble around a little, disoriented but relatively calm and responsive.

I drove him up to the Heights to a facility where they immediately administered pain killer and a steroid to take down the swelling. The director of the wildlife center felt he had probably been hit by a car and once the swelling was down, they would x-ray and evaluate. I stood there in the lobby, amazed and humbled at this roomful of volunteers that were dedicated to doing all they could possibly do to help this little squirrel. I realized, beyond a doubt, that I had found a good place for me. "What can I do to help?" I asked and the next minute I was signing up for an orientation and looking at schedules and carpool lists.

The squirrel survived his critical first 48 hours and so did Steve. I cannot pretend to know the future for either of these souls, but I do know that I am pulling hard for both of them. Life is precious, a gift. It doesn't matter how canned that sounds. In the space of 18 months, I lost my mother, my grandmother and two of my dearest friends -- terrible losses that have irrevocably shifted the direction of my life. I will say it again -- life is a gift. Live it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I have been casting on and ripping back and casting on and ripping back on John's little hat so many times, it's ridiculous. But like many handcrafters, making something for the hubby is generally one of the hardest tasks I can tackle. I want it to be perfect, for one thing. I know this man really well, right? And I can picture exactly where he is going to wear this hat and under what sorts of conditions. Plus, I am wanting to use a super chunky baby alpaca wool and I don't have a pattern. So I knit little swatches and muddle through the best I can. I'm getting there though. It doesn't help that the man makes SUGGESTIONS along the way either. Like "Can it go down lower over my ears?" or "Can you knit anchors into it?" Tee hee. I patiently explain to him that I know what I am doing and that this yarn is really too thick for complicated stranded work. The anchors hat, which we have discussed, will be made of a much skinnier wool. THIS hat is for when it's cold and wet and you need something slouchy to put on in a hurry. Okay, so maybe I am not all that patient with him and use my long-suffering wife voice when I am saying all this...

But yesterday I started (and finished) some lovely yoga socks for my middle daughter, who is a competitive gymnast and wants a little comfort on her feet for when the gym is cold. I debated whether or not to post the photo of her in a handstand against the wall, with her bloody bandaid visible in the shot, but I figure heckfire -- gymnastics is a tough sport! Let 'em see the bandaid! You oughta' see the rips on her hands.

I found this note on them last night: "I LOVE the socks, Mom!" Way to receive a handknitted gift! She is so getting lots of goodies in her Christmas stocking!