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Stirring the Pot

What’s for dinner?

Thanksgiving is just a few days away. Tweaking the menu from last year in anticipation of a crowd, I’ve printed out recipes, made multiple shopping lists, and started to stock pantry items. The swirl of definite maybe guests is sifting into a group of college students arriving Wednesday night with Eighteen, repeat guests from last year who know how to make a party, and relatives flying in on the day itself. I will shop for two days, cook for the two more, iron the linens and fret over the table settings, and I will love every minute of it. Thanksgiving, a holiday about gathering together, making and enjoying great food, and expressing gratitude, is among my very favorites.

Preparing an elaborate holiday meal is the kind of cooking I relish. From my early days, though, I’ve always been drawn to cooking. When I was little and I noticed my mother starting to pull out equipment in the kitchen, I would stop whatever I was doing, find a chair, and drag it to stand next to her, ready to help. I learned early to follow a recipe, readily ate a wide variety of foods, and found a love for the science of baking as soon as I was old enough to manage the oven on my own. By fifteen I made noodles and bread from scratch, mastered buttery chicken Kiev, plated a lovely salade niçoise, and annually crafted the family holiday favorite, bûsch de noël.

Flash forward twenty-some years and I found myself a very different kind of cook. Both of my children were specific eaters, but of specifically very different tastes. The daily grind of producing supper felt like a complicated dance of trying to please everyone that generally resulted in settling on a lowest common denominator, boring for both diners and cook. To complicate matters, while my peeps were still new on their gastronomic journeys, their mother shifted into vegetarianism (technically lacto-ovo-pescatarianism). To this day I honor my omnivores and try to address their tastes. The daily grind of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table and in their lunchboxes often feels relentless.

When Eighteen was still in elementary school, the honors program held a “Night of the Notables” event. Students learned about and then portrayed a variety of important historical and living people—dressing in costume and talking about the people whose lives and work they admired. Eighteen chose author Michael Pollan.

In those days, journalist, lecturer, and academic Pollan had hit one out of the park with publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, not, perhaps, standard reading for an elementary student. Having inhaled the young reader’s edition, my son co-opted my full version and read it cover-to-cover more than once. My memory falters a bit, but I think we made stuffed mushrooms to serve at his station—like his choice of Pollan, they were unusual and met with surprise by more than one in attendance.

Pollan’s star has continued to rise with good reason. He writes with vigor and conviction about the plates we put in front of ourselves and our families. Given the fandom in our household, I keep an eye on his work with affection. Recently I read an interview designed to generate publicity for a Netflix series tied into his most recent publication, Cooking. Pollan said: Aside from the many health benefits, cooking is also “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time…. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

Huh, I thought, captivated. He’s right. Other animals prepare their food, present it to one another, and have rituals around it, but no other animal cooks what it eats. Thus, whether creating a meal for one or a feast for a crowd, the act of cooking is truly a human one, something unique to the species. I’ve been so nourished by Pollan’s words that even simple weeknight dinners have become more absorbing for me.

A week before Thanksgiving, on Thursday afternoon, I chopped celery, carrot, garlic, and yellow pepper, turning them in pre-heated avocado oil in my soup pot. When they were tender, I added one of my favorite ingredients, a no-chicken chicken stock that somehow satisfies the rich warmth of chicken broth, the only thing I missed when I stopped eating poultry. That pan was on the stove waiting for the burner underneath it to click, click, click to a flame. When I returned home in the evening, I heated the broth gently and set to boil water in the pan on the next burner over, adding rice-ramen noodles that were be done in a matter of minutes. While the noodles drained, I reused the noodle pan to braise some escarole, my hands-down favorite green. Into warm broth went trimmed snow peas and then the cooked noodles. Fifteen enjoyed her weeknight ramen without greens; I piled them into mine.

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Leftover ramen, delicious on night two!

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Prep for one of Fifteen’s favorite weeknight meals: Eggies with asparagus and cheese. 

 

Fifteen and I are nearly always dashing in to a dark kitchen after dance, but with a little forethought and some pre-assigned leftovers, I’ve been setting our places with healthy, warm plates and no sense of drudgery. Incrementally Fifteen’s palate is expanding—and our dinner table conversations can’t be beat.

Under the energy of the new moon, may I wish you and yours the most wondrous Thanksgiving. I’m ever so grateful to each and every one of you who stops by to read these words. With all my love, Rxo

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Extra Miles

Are you all recovered now?

Six days after I walked the Des Moines Half-Marathon with Seventeen, finishing in a respectable 3 hours 32 minutes and 16 seconds, I was still aware of feeling deep fatigue, the kind that finds me propped in bed with a movie at 8:30. He, of course, rebounded after a long nap. More surprising to me than my recovery time was the fact that I have zero desire to enter any more races. There’s a 5K or better just about every weekend until it’s too cold to exercise outside, many with chocolate at the finish line, but I don’t want any part of them. While I genuinely enjoy shared physical activity—I’m a yoga instructor, after all—and can’t imagine any better community than one devoted to fitness, the aspect of the race culture that doesn’t fit me came as a surprise: the noise. When the going gets tough, I thrive on quiet to recruit the strength I need to keep going.

On race day the noise from the start/finish line reached us several blocks away. By the time we got up close, the announcers and their roaring countdown couldn’t be ignored. They nattered about race times and the elite runners and sponsors and how we could all get back and have a beer. It was incessant. Out on the course I was grateful for the fog, a reminder to keep my attention on the task at hand and dismayed by the well-meaning people pounding pans with wooden spoons. It took a couple of miles for Seventeen and me to find our groove, but once we did we were in it and walked briskly in spite of sticky humidity and a slick course.

There were some joyful highlights. We felt famous when young women at a water station greeted us by name, until we realized that our first names were emblazoned on our race tags. Nonetheless, they provided just the right amount of cheer, water and thirds of banana we needed to boost us between miles 3 and 4.

At mile 7 Seventeen allowed as to he might actually be exercising. And we were both thrilled between miles 8 and 9 when the elite marathoners with their police escort ran by us. Shortly thereafter we were caught for some minutes in the noisy crosswinds of a self-appointed entertainer who surely meant well but was pitchy at best as she strummed and sang top 40 songs and the announcer who would call us in for bacon at their refreshment stop (Seventeen: “Even I don’t think bacon sounds good right now.”). The long hill up to the Capitol building followed and then it was north across the interstate and back south again, passing mile 11. The closer we got to the end, the more people stood on the sidelines cheering, playing, banging, yelling. For the last two miles I felt a little like the Grinch: It was all just noise, noise, noise, noise!

Seventeen took my hand and we crossed the finish line together. A smiling volunteer put a medal around my neck and Fourteen, who had been volunteering at the final water station, was standing there to greet us. Remembering that moment of triumph just now, it’s a tableau without a soundtrack, as though all the noise stopped for a few moments of sweet celebration with my peeps. And then it was back, louder than ever, as we threaded our way through to the food booths where Seventeen replenished all of the calories he had burned. A rock band played, the beer garden beckoned, and happy people with medals around their necks danced with their friends. I could barely move. And suddenly I realized all I wanted was the solace of quiet.

So my half-marathon completion party was just me, submerged in a tub full of warm water and Epsom salt until only my nose broke the surface.

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I’m proud of this medal!

When you’ve been striving for something with dedication—my training took over my summer and fall—it’s particularly interesting when it’s done, a different kind of quiet. Into the space spent thinking about hydration and training advancement, not to mention the time commitment for short and long walks every week, arrives an invitation, an opening. I was pondering just that after I dropped Fourteen at Nutcracker rehearsal, tooling over to get the torque on my recently rotated tires checked at Costco. Into the space walked a woman and man on a journey of their own that just for a few minutes intersected with mine.

I had parked when they approached and I could see they were both looking concerned. I wanted to set them at ease, “May I help you?”

The woman, tall, svelte, a little older than I am, looked relieved, “Yes, actually. We’ve locked our keys in the car and my phone is with them. If we could use your phone to call a cab I guess.”

“Of course.” I lit up my phone and dialed the number she reeled off from memory. As she waited for a dispatcher to answer, she was talking more to herself than to me: “I usually use Uber but the app is on my phone. They’re not answering. We only live about two miles from here.”

“Why don’t you let me drive you?”

If it seemed awkward at all to accept a ride from a stranger in the parking lot, she didn’t hesitate. She handed me my phone. “Really?” A big smile.

“My name’s Robin,” extending my hand.

“Mary,” she replied, shaking it. “And this is Charlie.”

Charlie declared he would go in and do their shopping, sending Mary with me. Truth be told he was looking a little askance at the convertible, even though it was a lovely fall day, bright sunshine and blue skies, a gentle breeze. Mary gamely climbed in, gave me directions, and we were off.

We exchanged information, but mostly Mary talked. They were just back, it turned out, from a celebration of life for the parents of longtime friends. But the real shadow in Mary’s life, it came out just before we arrived at her house, was that her own mother had died about ten days previously. “It’s no wonder,” I soothed, “that you locked your keys in your car. You’ve been through so much.”

Mary had clear social graces and did occasionally ask me a question, but mostly she talked and I encouraged her. It wasn’t long before we were back by her car, key in hand, and there was Charlie pushing out a cart full of wine. By way of thanks Mary said, “I wondered what I was going to do to enjoy this beautiful fall day. I guess it was ride in your convertible.”

“I’m so glad,” I said, and I was.

As I waved goodbye to Mary and Charlie, I felt grateful that there was enough silence when we happened upon one another in the parking lot that I could respond with the kindness they needed. I remembered just then that one of the elite runners, somewhere between miles 10 and 11, had gone tearing past Seventeen and me, no longer accompanied by motorcycle police or the other four runners. Was he running more just for the fun of it? Adding mileage for some Herculean running test ahead? Or was he running on for the joy and freedom he felt for having finished his task? When he zoomed down the street, his back splattered in dirt, his arms and legs moving in wide free form rather than the disciplined lockstep intensity we had seen earlier, all I could wonder is how he could have run a step beyond the finish. But after my ride in the sun with Mary I realized that we each have extra miles in us—they just don’t all look the same.

Wishing you joy-filled extra miles and the start of something big as we slide into the middle of fall under a new moon. xoR

Walk On

How are you doing with your training?

When Seventeen was Five-and-a-Half, we moved kit-n-caboodle a thousand miles west, arriving at the front door to our new Iowa home on a below-zero December day, just shy of Christmas. Earlier that fall, I worked with a realtor to find our big box. She asked me for my “hot button” items. I answered, “Living space. I don’t care if we sleep in closets; we’re all home, all the time. It’s cold there. We need room to move around.”

Some thirty-eight houses later, she showed me the brick-front at the top of a short street with an enormous pantry, morning and afternoon sun, a sizeable yard, and oodles of living space. It was, among other things, a “circle house,” not merely situated atop a suburban circle, but inside you could walk around the main floor in a complete circle, a figure eight even, if you were feeling fancy.

One evening as we were still settling in, figuring out the light switches, and dreaming of living room furniture, I was making dinner too slowly for the children. I remembered that when I was little, my mother would send my brother and me outside to run around our house. That house was ringed in wooden decks, so we could go all the way around without touching the ground. But the ground outside our new house was snow and ice covered, so I reasoned little feet could pound around the inside circle of our house without causing too much disturbance. I tore around the first lap with them and then said, “Keep running. Go! Go!” Off went Five-and-a-Half with Two-and-a-Half pell-mell behind him.

“What are you doing?” Their father asked, arriving home.

“We’re running marathon!” They panted past.

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Running boy then …

The next day I got a tape measure and marked off their course. Then I converted 26.2 miles to feet, divided by the indoor track’s running distance, and wrote 1,946 at the top of a blank sheet of paper. “This,” I told Five-and-a-Half, “is how many times you need to run around the house to run a marathon.” For some time after, every night he would run a few laps and record his progress. When the weather got warm and they could run around outside before dinner, the big backyard became a secret land, a place to dig, a world of adventures. The marathon was perhaps half-completed when it was forgotten.

Today Seventeen’s long legs could stride that same circle in no time. Nonetheless, I like the way our house expands and contracts—I can fill it with people for a party or snuggle in with the peeps for family movie night. With Seventeen away at college, I’m very aware that for most days it’s much too big for his sister, Fourteen, his grandmother, Ninety-Two, and me, but as I commenced training to walk a half-marathon, my treadmill in the basement became too confining and I started to roam.

From my front door I can walk a five-mile loop that touches four towns. I can take the bike path east to do errands like dropping the water bill at City Hall or making a deposit at the bank or west to my friend’s house a whole county over. I can loop a variety of little lakes that front the expansive corporate buildings for the countless banks and insurance companies that make their headquarters here. To mix things up I have added destinations like Trader Joe’s, four miles from home, and endless loops around larger lakes to which I have to drive. No matter where or how far I go, I start and end every walk sitting on second stair lacing or unlacing my shoes. Second stair was another feature of that first house I lived in, the place I would be asked to go and sit when I was naughty. Now it’s a seat of nostalgia and a convenient perch near the door.

Three weeks ago I completed my last long training walk, just shy of a half-marathon at 12.5 miles. Since, I’ve been walking a few days a week, between four and seven miles each time. I feel ready for the challenge even as I have started to feel that Sunday’s event is no longer the point. It’s the training, the feeling strong, the finding out what my body can do, and the connection to the world outside my house that feel like they matter. It’s the stick-to-it-iveness that inspires me, dovetailing nicely with stringing together word after word toward my second novel, learning the art of continuous narrative. It’s not the destination but the journey, as clichéd as this trope may be, that has become the point.

Nonetheless Seventeen, who will be home from college, will join me at the starting line on Sunday. He will finally complete the marathon he started when he was a tiny boy. And I will discover just how much I can accomplish when I set my mind to it.

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…and now.

The moon is full on 10.15, and it’s a full moon by which to leave behind anything that no longer serves you. Happy Full Moon—I promise a post-half update early next week. Thanks for cheering us on, Rxo

Hand-le This

Hand-le This

How are you?

The wise woman seated across from me, a friend, a confident, a compassionate advisor, a yogini, looks at me with distinct concern. “I have a new teacher.” She settles in to hear my story and I hold up my hand. “My knuckle on my first finger is stuck. I can curl it in, but I can’t open my hand all the way.”

Yes, I will respond to the logical next question, it hurts, some days more than others. But the real issue is loss of function. I cannot open my hand flat, nor can I put weight on it. Thus I cannot do any of a number of yoga poses (Asana), making both personal practice and teaching challenging in the most frustrating of ways. (Typing isn’t a breeze, either….)

This current issue may or may not be related to breaking this same finger when I was thirteen years old, rebelliously sliding down a banister sidesaddle at my junior high. I did it every day on the way out to lunch, but that day my foot caught the upright and I toppled off, skittering down several steps to the horror of my friends. When I landed at the bottom, my finger was already swelling. A block away in the medical practice of my neighbor, a specialist in surgery of the hand and upper extremity, he braced it for setting with a Bic pen.

Or it could be more directly related to cutting the mats for the yoga studio floor, a feat that involved holding a straightedge rock solid as I fit the mats into the negative spaces all around the outskirts of the room. For six hours.

Or, it could be arthritis—changes consistent with age, my all-time least favorite medical diagnosis.

Whatever it is, the fact that my finger sometimes caught and then released—a condition I saw a surgeon for a year ago when we decided it was behaving well enough after a cortisone shot—became a significant issue not quite three weeks ago when it caught and stuck. I had, in fact, been having fewer problems with it. Keeping it warm and watching what I eat both had pleasantly reduced the number of times per week I’d feel that all-too familiar catch. So it was a complete surprise when I picked up a folding table by its handle and felt a shift in my hand along with the shock of joint pain—a moment when I knew immediately something was wrong.

Another cortisone shot and the surgeon’s suggestion that we wait three weeks to see if it would resolve on its own sent me out to work around my injured hand. Yoga and typing aside, I can manage most things, albeit with some adjustments. Washing my hair and putting on lotion, clapping, and loading up my hands and then finding a working finger to open the refrigerator door all prove more difficult. I need to be careful, too, not to put too much weight in my hand, let alone on it. This week, rainy with shifting barometric pressures, my hand hurts doing just about anything. Most days basics like cooking and folding laundry are okay, if a little slower.

The metaphor of a stuck joint isn’t lost on me. In the mind-body dance arts practice Nia®, the first finger is the finger of desire. I have been conversing with this knuckle about the ways I feel stuck, still sad over the man who left me in December, still wrestling with a full plate that doesn’t seem to ease, still mostly ignoring a house and garden that need more attention and money than I can give them, still uncertain about my long-range plans.

Then, just this morning, for five seconds there was a tiny pop and the finger straightened. No warning, no pain, my hand was

In this case, the right hand both knows what the left hand is doing and should be doing. That index finger toward the left side of the picture--that's as straight as it'll go.

In this case, the right hand both knows what the left hand is doing and should be doing. That index finger toward the left side of the picture–that’s as straight as it’ll go.

wide open. My brain, too—the fog lifted for that moment. I felt whole and free. As fast as it came, the moment was over and the knuckle stuck again. The pain radiated in my arm and has remained, sinking me back into what I realize now has been a mental haze, draped over me during this entire chapter.

Just like my finger, I’m not 100% stuck. It was a little over a week or so ago someone brightly asked me—your studio, your book, are you living the dream? I laughed the chagrinned laugh of someone who sees both the truth and the lunacy of a question like that. Then I smiled at her, knowing she was asking kindly, and said, “Sure, let’s go with that.”

The May full moon, appropriately named the flower moon, has waxed and begun to wane, but everything goes a little slower with one and a half hands. Blog postings too. Thank you, as ever, for going on this journey with me. xoR

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

What to feed the baby next?

Maybe I was a little ahead of the throngs, but when I strolled into his high school one morning recently, based on Thirteen’s reports, I expected to push through knuckle-dragging linebackers and towering hair-obsessed damsels. These larger-than-life characters populate Thirteen’s subconscious and often come visiting in the middle of the night, when he has a bad dream. And just as we did when he was younger, he tells me what happened in the dream and then we put it in a bubble and blow it away.

Walking through the hallway I saw, simply, teenagers: teenagers with backpacks; teenagers eating the last of their breakfasts; sleepy teenagers; teenagers with dyed hair trying to figure out who they are. I arrived at my son’s classroom where he was calculating problems on a worksheet just behind two of these behemoths; they were greeting him warmly. I presented Thirteen with his forgotten lunch. He played it cool: “Oh, yeah, I guess I might need that.” And then I saw what he sees—mini adults with iPhones and swagger, a foot or more taller than he is, shouldering their overweight backpacks and the world with apparent ease. And then he did what he often does and leaned the top of his head toward me for a kiss. The peck and the lunch delivered, I left him to his work.

Thirteen’s lunch contains the same thing every day of the week: half a turkey, lettuce and cheese sandwich; an apple and a full-sized carrot; something crunchy like pretzels or popcorn; a water bottle and a tiny treat. With little variation I’ve been making this lunch for him since second grade when he decided he really couldn’t abide school cafeteria food. Ten takes her lunch too: a mini whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese, applesauce, popcorn or goldfish, a clementine, a carrot and a treat. With so much predictability and so little variation in menu, you would think making these lunches would be automatic. Instead, it’s ten minutes of my morning when I can’t really think about anything else—just get those lunches made, packed into their insulated lunch sacks, the water bottles filled, and don’t forget the ice blocks. Too often I don’t get started until there are just a few minutes before the arrival of the first bus, so I rush and risk switching the items between lunch packs or leaving out the ice blocks completely.

I’ve said it so many times that I’ve worn a groove in the record, but from the second they were born, feeding my children has been the most stressful part of being their mother. I’ve been a tyrant about sugar, insisted on whole grains, and won’t let them drink soda except as a special treat. Hard candy has been virtually outlawed, they don’t chew gum, and their approved sweets are rationed. If a fruit or vegetable can replace a crunchy snack, we go that route.

“But Mommy,” Thirteen will remind me, only half joking, “my friends all drink Mountain Dew and they’re enormous.”

He’s right. They are. This is the year that boys begin to grow and reach towering heights. Thirteen’s friends over the summer bypassed their parents in height, and they weigh, in some cases, nearly twice his 78 pounds. How can I not second-guess what I feed him? Whether I feed him enough? What to make for dinner?

This summer the chorus of questioners became larger. My reassurances that his growth spurt was bound to happen trailed off in favor of

It was a long morning …

consulting with the pediatrician, an endocrinologist, and his geneticist. And so we found ourselves in a clinic room, Thirteen plugged into an IV, for a series of blood tests to determine whether his body is making appropriate amounts of the hormones he needs. The test took four and a half hours, from start to finish, and involved medications, needles, ten timed blood draws, and a frightening injection of insulin during which he became dopey, sweaty, and limp. We will wait three weeks before we have results.

While we wait (and wait and wait), I remain grateful to the geneticist who assures me that just like Thirteen’s array of early-childhood issues, his health now is related to his own body chemistry, not something I may or may not have done as his mother. I am grateful, too, to another mother who reminds me that eating healthily builds a disease-proof body. I am grateful that I have two children who eat well when they’re hungry and don’t overeat.

I have always known that Thirteen would not be an overly large man, but walking back through the high school hallway on my way to my car, I was arrested by MEN and WOMEN in black and white tiles announcing the student restrooms. I didn’t see men and women when I looked around; Thirteen, waiting for those hormones to kick in whether spontaneously or with medical intervention, must see them everywhere he looks.

The full frosty moon shines on us all at the end of November. Wishing you a lively month ahead filled with the sweetest of delights. Thanks, as always, for sharing my journey, Rxo

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