Archive for the 'pig brain' Category

up and down

Can we talk peonies? I’ve always kind of shied away from peonies. They just seem so loud. So boisterous. And so unpredictable. One minute they’re in fabulous display, hollering “look at me! look at me!” and then, after just the teeniest bit of wind, they’re a hot mess. Petals everywhere.

I acknowledge that one of my hang-ups with peonies actually goes way deeper—to a reluctance over pink. I’ve never really embraced pink. That is, until I got nieces. They’re teenagers now and are no doubt sorting out their own issues with pink. But back in the day, life was pink! Pink, pink, pink. Everything was better with pink. And for the first time in my life, I kinda fell for pink.

Not that all peonies are pink, but they do own a fair share of the market. Being fond of pink only helps their case.

A few springs back, I was in Winter, Wisconsin, browsing a killer nursery, smack dab in the middle of nowhere (google it, and go if you’re close), not even remotely considering a peony purchase, when my eye caught the tag of a mostly leafless plant. I was mesmerized. I wasn’t standing in the Winter Greenhouse anymore. I was sitting cross-legged on the warm brick patio of my childhood back yard, bad haircut and thick glasses, watching the ants march dutifully up and down the stems of our one and only peony bush. Up and down, up and down.

I have a lousy recollection of my childhood. I’m pretty sure the childhood itself was happy (save the bad haircuts), but the details of it are hazy. So when I get a random, vivid memory, it always kind of shakes me. Our peony had the classic white blooms with big, sunny yellow centers. And I spent a lot of time watching it, creeped out and captivated, all at once. Up and down, up and down.

Next thing I knew I was checking out and there was a ‘Gold Standard’ peony in my cart. Not the most exciting choice in Winter’s lineup of peonies, to be sure. But this was the one. This was the plant that completed me. I’ve never been so excited to get home and transplant.

It went so well that I went back to Winter the next spring for a second, flashier, pale pink number, ’Pillow Talk.’ And it too sends me into the garden, brimming with anticipation and optimism.

So imagine my delight this spring when my sister-in-law called to offer me divisions from her mother’s, mother’s peony patch (both dearly departed women whom I love and admire). I’m so pleased to have a piece of this heritage in my garden. But I’m still a little startled by my new love of peonies. I’ve even started following peony_addict on Instagram. It’s easily one of my cheeriest feeds. I guess I’m finally ready for unapologetic, frilly pink.

All this said, I still wrestle with my peonies’ overall manners. I have a brand new rock-walled garden bed outside my front door, currently taking applications. But I hesitate to move a peony in. It’s a small space. What will happen, I wonder, when a peony throws up all over it?

But then I know. Life is what will happen. Beautiful, unplanned, haphazard life.

liver lady

Does death always come in threes? The mighty little community on Lake Superior’s south shore that I call home recently lost a handful of members, all unrelated and all unexpectedly. News of death is never easy and getting blind sided by it adds one more layer of emotion to sift through. When you finally hit the bottom of your grief, you’re left grasping onto the undeniable truth of how precious our time here really is.

And so it is that I’ve been muddling my way through a deep look at lifehow I give, how I receive, and how I show up. It’s kind of an overwhelming process. One that can almost set me into a panic. Which is not to say I’m unhappy with my life. It’s just revealing to step back and take a good, honest look at it. What time is it anyway? Is this a mid-life crisis lurking in the shadows? 

I’m getting off track. This post isn’t about me. It’s about my dog, Earl. And Rita, the liver lady. I live on a peninsula, and as far as I know, there is only one place to train a dog. The Blue Ribbon Training Club. So when Earl came into my life five years ago, I dutifully signed him up for obedience school.

I had been to Blue Ribbon with a former dog, so I knew what to expect. A damp, windowless, uninsulated, low ceilinged shed attached to the local groomers shop. Conveniently situated in a low wetland area (read, swamp). In the winter months the room is either freezing, or sauna-like, thanks to a big old barrel stove chugging away in the corner. There’s very little in between. This awkward space can easily become claustrophobic. 

blue ribbon training club

And then there’s Rita, the woman running the show. If you don’t know her, she can seem, well, a little gruff. It doesn’t take long to realize that this well-built woman means business. Rita runs a tight, no nonsense ship. Which is a good thing, as far as your dog’s behavior is concerned. But I always like to warn new people that the whole experience can seem a little surreal at first. 

A typical class finds Rita sitting on a perch, barking commands to follow—heeling around in a ring, reversing directions, halting, laying down, leaving your dog and advancing to work with the dog ahead, again and again until you reunite with your pup. And just when everybody is teetering on the edge of exhaustion, she yells out a joyous “Praise them!” If you’re not exuberant enough with your praise, she’ll yell it again. But it gets even better. The liver snaps. Homemade, garlic marinated, dehydrated liver treats that Rita slips to the dogs for good behavior. Earl will stand on his head and spit nickels for one of Rita’s liver snaps. I’ve seen it.

During his tenure at Blue Ribbon, Earl was more or less dubbed class clown. His starring moment came during a testing night. Owners lined up on one side of the room, dogs on the other. One by one we were to call our dog to us and have them preform just one command we asked of them. When Earl’s turn was up, he came to me as instructed and proceeded to fire off everything he had learned in class. Sit, down, finish behind me, sit, down and return. Rita laughed, looked me in the eye, and said “Don’t ever break his spirit.” And then she proceeded to give him a passing grade.

Rita is also the founder of Pet N’ Pals, a group of trained therapy dogs (and two cats) that makes weekly visits to area nursing homes. When Earl finished his obedience training, Rita encouraged us to go through the therapy dog class and testing. She could tell that Earl was made for this work. 

Earl has come along way since I adopted him, but he has a mysterious past. A fork dropped at just the wrong time can send him into a panic that lasts for hours. I agreed that he’d make a swell therapy dog, but I was dubious about his jitters. We made it through the classes without incident, and once again on testing night, Earl’s sincerity made Rita cave. One of the testing stations involves the owner sitting in a chair, dog at their side while a stranger lumbers forth with a walker. Earl managed to slink behind my chair and remain virtually unseen. Still, Rita noticed a little swish of his tail and passed him anyway. “He’ll grow into it,” she said. And he did. 

earl

As therapy dogs, Earl and his cohorts occasionally get called on to attend a funeral. They go and stage up in the back as an added measure of support. And it’s a really comforting touch. Every funeral should be so blessed. To be respectful, I always don Earl’s bowtie for these occasions.

It was with a breaking heart that I recently had to dig out Earl’s tie and let him know that he’d been tapped again for duty. This time though, it was for our ring leader—the loyal liver lady. Rita died unexpectedly at the end of January, leaving behind packs of dogs who owe their good manners and love of liver to her.  

Rita got dogs. If you walked into her funny little training shack and did exactly as instructed, you’d leave with a well-polished canine citizen. Period. And she had plenty of practice. Between classes and therapy outings, she spent more evening with a pack of dogs in her command than not. If that wasn’t dedication enough, she also donated classes, food, and emergency vet services to those who needed it most. Not that anyone would ever know. This was one area where Rita exercised discretion.

Small communities are such caring, tight-knit places to live. Of course the downside is that when people make their exit, they often leave a gaping hole in their wake. Rita is no exception. Her contribution and presence are noticeably absent. I take solace in her living, barking legacy. And I can tell you this. Dog heaven just scored big. Carry on, Rita.

Rita’s Liver Snaps

Beef liver
Worcestershire sauce
Garlic powder
Food dehydrator

Slice liver as evenly as possible, somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4-inch thick. Rub garlic powder over meat. Splash with Worcestershire sauce and a bit of water. Marinate 8 hours or overnight. Lay the liver out in an uncrowded fashion on food dehydrator trays and set temperature between 130 and 140º F. Dry until the liver is firm and crisp, with no trace of moisture, 6 to 8 hours, depending on thickness. Break into bite size pieces and store in an air-tight container. (I should also mention that while your dog might find this a delightful smelling process, others in your household may not. Consider running the dehydrator in basement or garage.)

earl

Rita’s service is on March 4 at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, WI. Her pack of therapy dogs will be in attendance. I’ll try and get a photo of our crew. Check back if you’d like.

And thanks to my friend Bob for taking these photos of Earl.

crafty devil

Whooboy! There are loads of reasons why the pig pen has been so quiet this past year. I’ll refrain from inundating you with the nitty-gritty details of my life. But I will tell you this. My kitchen routine has been turned every which way and has temporarily landed on smack on it’s head. Not in a bad way, but enough to leave me feeling a little discombobulated.

aip waffle

This spring and summer I got hot and heavy into Ayurvedic cooking  (and lifestyle shifts). Which means I was inviting more of a mind-body-spirit connection into my kitchen. I was concentrating on bringing all six flavors—sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent to each meal. I was trying to make lunch, rather than dinner, my heartiest meal of the day. My cooking got simpler. Indian influences took over my pantry with things like curry leaves, mung beans, and moong dal lentils. Certain foods, like garlic, tomatoes, and hot peppers were reluctantly set aside to enjoy during cooler times when my body would be more willing to digest them. It was, and somewhat still is, quite a fun experiment.

By October, however, I was immersed in a whole new lineup of blogs and cookbooks. What started as an act of desperation to help my best friend (and husband) get an upper hand on living with chronic Lyme and chronic fatigue has become a full-on lifestyle change for both of us.

Say hello to the Autoimmune Protocol. A meal plan that is essentially a slightly more restrictive version of eating paleo. It’s a nutrient dense diet, which means heaps of (most) vegetables, grass fed meat, seafood, and organ meat. It also eliminate foods that potentially cause inflammation and therefore disease—which, as it turns out, is a hell of a lot of food. This is especially noticeable if you heart longs towards vegetarianism. The last of my mung beans and lentils are pathetically lingering at the bottom of their jars.

So why even get onboard with such a crazy extreme diet? A couple reasons. Solidarity and keeping the cooking streamlined are the easy answers. But the more research I did on autoimmune disease, the more I started asking some sticky questions.

Haven’t I suffered from Raynaud’s disease (an autoimmune circulatory issue that causes extremities to turn impressive shades of white and blue) all my life? Don’t I have an eye virus that has a tendency to run rampant, even while on medication to suppress it? Haven’t at least four eye doctors told me I have an immune response that’s causing my poor left eye to destroy itself? And, oh yeah, haven’t I been on a steroid drop for over fifteen years to combat inflammation in that eye? It’s funny the things we can overlook in life, isn’t it?  Denial is a crafty devil.

As is autoimmune disease, I’m learning.

All this to say, I finally came round to the fact that, yes, just maybe, my body is struggling with autoimmune issues. So I embarked on this radical diet with a half-skeptical “it certainly can’t hurt” approach. For years I have longed to reduce and even quit my eye medications, but such attempts always end in trouble. Maybe this will be my ticket.

So far this new way of eating has been a roller coaster with every high, low, bump, and twist I can think of. Honestly it’s been a little exhausting—both emotionally and simply with the amount of time I spend grocery shopping and cooking—it’s a very fresh diet, not a lot of dry staples on the pantry shelves. But my intrigue behind the science of the diet is high enough to keep me on the ride. 

It also helps that there are some incredibly creative autoimmune cooks to draw inspiration from. I’ve learned to use cauliflower and winter squash in ways I never imagined. A food processor works magic on both—think fried rices and risottos. My toaster has not seen a slice of bread in months, but instead thick slabs of sweet potatoes toasted several times over. I top my “toast” with all sorts of things, but it makes for an unbeatable leftover turkey sandwich with avocado a dab of cranberry. I’ve finally perfected Sunday morning waffles using a base of cassava flour (a starchy root) and apple sauce. Coconut flour and arrowroot crust pizzas topped with things like figs, prosciutto, pears, and arugula come out for special occasions. And I even managed to make a tray of gingermen for the holidays. The dough was a little finicky, but what the men lacked in appearance, they made up for in flavor, rivaling even Grandma Myrtle’s recipe.

gingermen

Clearly I am not suffering for lack of food. But this has been a dramatic shift in the way I shop, cook, and eat. And oddly, I haven’t felt like writing much about it. It feels too new, too uncertain, and too raw. Sometimes I’m convinced this is the wisest eating path I’ve ever taken (and there have been many) and other days I wonder what in the world I’m doing and why can’t I just be normal for god’s sake?

I’ve also been wrestling with my identity in the kitchen. One glance at my cookbook shelf can send me into a tailspin of despair. Until I remember I can still open them, make adjustments, and garner ideas. And the protocol does allow for trying to reintroduce a wider variety of foods as you progress. Which is comforting. Extremes make me nervous. So I tend to think of this as the first chapter in a long book. Here are my cliff notes to date

  • the quality of meals has been off the charts
  • the prep time and planning required is also off the charts
  • being thankful for the first and accepting of the second is key
  • humans bodies are so responsive to the things we do and do not put into them
  • understanding and aligning with this makes any shift in diet way easier

And if nothing else, I’m learning a great deal about myself and how I approach healing. My no nonsense, type-A personality makes me a very good rule follower. Give me a recipe, hand me the instruction manual, tell me what to do. I will follow it to a tee to get the results I’m after. Discipline is not my problem. It’s my white knuckle grip to succeed that gets in the way. And even though I can rationally tell myself that this strategy isn’t at all useful, truly letting go and easing up is still a daily challenge. And that’s exactly where I’m at. Trying to relax back from what’s supposed to happen and opening my heart to what is. 

I’ve cooked some spectacularly delicious meals over the last few months. Not surprisingly, some of the simplest things are standouts. Like these two dressings. The honey balsamic is fantastic tossed with a salad of sturdy greens and warm roasted root vegetables. It’s also great on fruit based salads. I use the avocado dressing on slaws, dotted on fish and chicken, and as a dipping sauce for just about anything. Onward ho!

Honey Balsamic Dressing
(from The Healing Kitchen)

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 t sea salt

Combine all in a jar and shake well. Keeps well for several days covered in the fridge (makes 3/4 cup)

Olive-Avocado Dressing
(from the Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook)

1 avocado, pitted and skinned
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup water
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all in a blender and bend until smooth. Thin with a little water if it’s too thick. Keeps for a day or two covered in the fridge. (makes 1 cup)

aip waffles!

no path to power

My eyesight is notoriously bad. I was that bashful 2-year-old with the dorky glasses. Can I just say that kid’s eyewear has come a long way since the 1970’s? Fashion aside, I’ve never opened my eyes in the morning to anything but a very big blur. And it troubles me to report that the lush green blur that’s been gracing my bedroom window is tuning suspiciously yellow.

I do love fall, really. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to summer. In my world, summer is never hot enough nor long enough. But this one felt especially pinched. I knew things weren’t right when even my hobbies started to feel like chores.

Garlic, vegetables, honeybees. Too many living things were vying for my attention this summer. When all my attention really wanted to do with its meager free time was sit in the sun and get lost in a book. But attention knows better and it opted instead to tend to its commitments. Which sometimes left attention feeling resentful and cranky. It’s ridiculous, really—that selfishness should rear it’s head in the face of such great abundance. Still, I’m pretty sure I threatened to take up needlepoint and crop art at least twice.

bee journal notes

This summer’s bee journal is littered with harried notes, question marks, and “should haves.” Which, to be honest, isn’t all that different from other years, but something was lacking this year. My heart.

I found myself dashing out to the bee yard with just enough time to perform the minimal duties to make sure everybody got by. And everybody did. The bees provided a fine honey crop, despite my lack of participation. But even that left me feeling a little defeated. Now I had to find time to extract, bottle, label, and clean up. As with most things I undertake, my economy of scale is exactly wrong. Which sometimes seems like all I’ve managed to do is create extra work for myself. Clearly it’s time to reflect.

I wrapped up my tenth summer of beekeeping not sure if I’m ready to commit to an eleventh. I typically wait until the thick of winter to pull my bee books off the shelf for inspiration, but this unfamiliar feeling I had couldn’t wait that long. I went straight to Richard Taylor, my hero of beekeepers. His writing is practical, witty, and full of wisdom. One of my favorites is his Comb Honey Book. This felt like an especially appropriate choice since my attempts at comb honey this summer were unsuccessful. Managing bees to raise comb honey is an art, for sure—which means that just going through the motions probably isn’t going to cut it. It didn’t.

frame of bees

Partially I revisited Taylor’s book for management strategies. But really I was looking for a bigger answer. Why do I keep bees? What keeps me returning to this hobby that can be expensive, time consuming, and heart breaking? Is it worth consistently making three trips to the apiary because I forgot something I didn’t know I needed at home? Only four pages into the book and Taylor offered this up:

…the way of life available to a serious beekeeper offers a special kind of fulfillment. It is no path to power or riches, but it does offer, or at least make possible, rewards that are vastly more precious. A beekeeper’s work can be not merely a means of production, but an art that has its place within the total scheme of life, which is itself an art. It challenges both body and mind, demanding not only endurance and strength but the cultivation of great skill, and at the same time calls forth from within one the inventor, the artist, the poet, and the worshipper. The beekeeper has constantly before him some of the most exquisite of nature’s creations, often the beauty of nature that no gallery or temple can rival, and through his own ingenuity and skill he is able to offer to others the loveliest product of nature.”

Damn. That’s a hell of an answer. And one that left me thoroughly humbled. Because he’s right. My bees do all of those things. How grateful I am to be a part of their ancient world. I can’t deny that some days I yearn for fewer obligations. But at what cost? I’ll take all the help I can get channeling my inner inventor, artist, poet, and worshipper. I doubt that hours spent hunched over the crop art table glueing amaranth seeds into place would provide such perspective. Maybe, but for now at least, I’m in for another season of bees—no matter how many extra trips it takes. 

wax curl

p.s. That said, I do have honey for sale I’d love to share with you. Drop me a note if you’re interested and we can work out the details.

raising the roof

We’ve arrived. Finally, it’s Minnesota State Fair season. Which basically means I revert to being 12—begging to go, while also getting overly nostalgic for my home state. And, it gets me thinking about my dad.

fairchild

My father was a man of habit. He could have served as a fire safety spokesman for as routinely as he changed our smoke detector batteries. Saturday nights invariably involved t-bones on the grill and caesar salad made with his recipe clipping from St. Paul’s iconic Blue Horse restaurant. On weekday mornings our kitchen radio was tuned to Minnesota Public Radio, but on weekends he went rogue and switched over to am—WCCO. The day after Thanksgiving meant vacuuming behind the refrigerator, an event which was actually scheduled in his date book. Who does that?

At any rate, in my college years I came to predict a phone call each Labor Day. “Wanna go to the races?” he’d ask. “My treat.” It was forever his treat—this invitation to the Minnesota State Fair Speedway. I’m sure I respectfully begged off more times than I said yes, wheels I wish I could turn back of course. (Insert your own poignant quote about not taking things for granted here.)

By and large, my dad was a liberal, suit and tie, let’s meet for a martini at five o’clock sort of guy. Later in life he earned a black belt in Aikido, hopped on the local foods movement, and took up meditation. None of these lifestyle choices, however, curbed his love of stock car racing. I grew up watching the Daytona and Indy 500s, learning about the racers, their cars, and the pit crews. So when the big time ASA racers made their annual, one day trek to Minnesota, he hated to miss it.

And what a great venue. I mean on what other tack does the winner get a post-race glass of milk presented by Princess Kay of the Milky Way? Forget the prize money. This is serious incentive. The late Dick Trickle was a long standing crowd favorite, and we could raise the roof for him with the best of them. We’d get a couple of Kiwanis Club malts (which my father insisted were better than the official malts from the Dairy Building) and find seats as close to the track as possible to watch the next 300 laps unfold.

Dick Trickle and Princess Kay

My dad outlived racing at the fairgrounds, but only by two years. In 2002 the classic half-mile mile track saw it’s final Labor Day race. Fans were uprooted when the the fair board voted later that fall not to put forth the $4.5 million needed to update the track for just one day of racing a year. It was an abrupt end to a 95 year tradition.

I haven’t been to a stock car race since, but that’s probably just as well. My head turns when I hear a broadcast, but it’d be hard to top the two of us taking in the last bit of summer with the mesmerizing drone of engines racing by. My dad was not without some hard edges. I know, because I pretty much have the same ones. And we went head to head plenty of times. But if there was one thing we could pull off, it was knowing how to do the easy, uncomplicated parts right.

Happy summer friends.

live large

Last week I did exactly what they warn you about. I went back. I took a perfectly good childhood memory and jimmied open the door. I went to Disney World.

My brother surprised his two daughters at Christmas with a spring trip to the Magic Kingdom and invited me to tag along. I was hesitant to say the least. It’s not that I’m anti-Disney, quite the contrary. I have such fond memories of my own childhood trips that it seemed foolish to tamper with them. I’ve also heard one too many adult horror stories of barely surviving endless lines, non-stop piped in music, whiny kids, bad food, and overall crowded chaos. Five things I make a point to avoid.

Still, it was snowy and below zero outside when the offer came. My nieces’ tears of joy around the Christmas tree pushed me over the edge. I was in.

cinderella's castle

As our trip approached I started getting texts from my nieces. What color magic band did I want? (yellow) Should we do a character dinner? (of course) Did I want a homemade autograph book? (hell yes!) Oh, and by the way, we’re staying at the Contemporary Resort. (you know, where the monorail passes right through the hotel) Clearly my brother was embracing our father’s approach to vacation. Which can be summed up in three words. Do it right. Generally speaking our dad lived a modest lifestyle, well within his means, but when it came to vacations, he did not scrimp. Vacation was a time to check out of ordinary life and live large.

My excitement was brewing. Trepidation crept back in though when nearly every respectable adult who asked where I was going responded with a sardonic “why?” upon hearing my answer. I even got a few “heaven help you” sort of responses. Did they know something I didn’t? Maybe it wasn’t quite as magical as I remembered. I forged on, and even boned up on all the Disney movies I’ve missed over the past decade (for the record, Stitch is my new favorite character.) And I knew I was going in from a position of strength—I was riding on my nieces’ pure, undiluted enthusiasm. That’s powerful stuff. 

Here’s my report. Disney has changed. When I was a kid, Mickey and the gang roamed the streets at large. Now you have to pay to dine or endure long waits to get a giant mouse hug. In my day, there were lines for sure, but they were shorter. Fast passes didn’t exist. Nor did meal plans, or magic bands, or park hoper passes, or magic hours. It just seemed simpler, and a little less structured.

But the upshot, for me anyway, is that it’s still a magical place. People (albeit a lot of them) are generally happy to be there. The staff (who even go so far as to call themselves cast membrs) are happy to be there. There is a good mood vibe that’s easy to tap into. I surprised myself at how fast I embraced the fantasy of it all. I ignored my phone, emails, and even my Instagram feed. Can I tell you how refreshing that felt? It made the piped in music seem not so bad.

hidden mickey

I discovered that my brother does an uncanny impersonation of Mickey Mouse. He turned more than one head with his act. Forty three years I’ve known this man. Not once have I heard him pull out a Mickey Mouse voice. Untapped talent, I tell you. I also learned the fine art of looking for hidden Mickeys. A definite high point, and something I wasn’t privy too as a kid. The jokes on the Jungle Cruise are as corny as ever, Space Mountain is still a spectacular thrill, and the People Mover (yes, the People Mover) remains on my top 5 list. I could live in Tomorrow Land.

I have to admit that going in I was probably most worried about the coffee situation. I don’t drink a lot of of coffee, but I’m extremely particular about getting at least one rock solid cup. So much so that I dutifully packed my aero press and a bag of Big Water, Bayfield roasted Sea Smoke. I fumbled and crept around the hotel room the first morning, only to discover a great double Americano down in the lobby. I also stumbled on a perfectly steeped four-minute Kona french press at the Polynesian Village. Definitely worth a morning monorail trip. My aero press sat untouched the rest of the trip.

On the food front, there is plenty of fried, unhealthy, and poorly cooked mishaps to be sure. But it didn’t take much work to find some real gems. Everything I ate at Epcot was delicious. I’m still thinking about some of it. Potato and goat cheese ravioli with fennel leek cream from Norway, stuffed grape leaves and baba ghanoush from Morocco, the dank tequila cave in Mexico. They were all home runs. But even in the more kid-centric Magic Kingdom I did alright. My two best vegetarian friendly scores (besides a great black bean bowl at the Tortuga Tavern) were a beautifully cooked, salt crusted baked potato from the Liberty Square Market and a cup of good old fashioned, nicely buttered green beans from Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. Brilliant.  

Cosmic Rays

So, would I go back? Maybe. My nieces’ zeal certainly raised the bar. I’m not sure how it’d be without that unbridled energy. But I will say this. One late afternoon during our standard retreat to the hotel to regroup and cool off, my brother and I sat pool side in the delicious Florida sun, drinking an ice cold beer, watching his kids swim, talking about nothing in particular, and I was slapped with one of those rare, flawless moments of perfection. Had the fairy godmother herself appeared (and I knew she was close by because I spied her at the head of a long line earlier in the day) I’d have been hard pressed to make three wishes. My wishes were full. Complete. Not bad for a dubious princess. Not bad at all.

autograph book

button therapy

My late mother-in-law (Muriel Anne on paper, Mutsy in my heart) kept a white cardboard box in her office that she simply called her “happy box.”  Muriel had thirteen years after her husband died and she made good use of them by traveling the world over. Her happy box was filled with 8×10 glossies of her adventures. Wildly colorful hot air balloons, arctic polar bears, Indian temples, grazing giraffes. Her happy box could take you places.

When the family undertook the heartbreaking job of sorting through the home that sustained forty-four years of marriage and five kids, I walked away with two treasures. Musty’s recipe for lazy lady donuts and her button bag. Both have served me well.

The donut recipe, well, that hardly needs explanation, does it? But the buttons. The buttons have evolved. When I got home I poured her buttons into my grandma’s little wooden sewing box that was sitting empty on a shelf. I was surprised at how long I could sit, just running my fingers through Mutsy’s plastic jewels. Every once and a while I’d stop and line up a few favorites to admire. Then I’d mix them up and do it all over again. Button therapy.

button box

I put the box back on my bookshelf. But I kept coming back to it. Every time I slid the lid off, I’d discover a new favorite beauty. Sorting through the buttons brought me a strange peace. I’m not sure how many visits it took for me to realize that I now had my very own “happy box.” A box full of bits of flashy color. A box full of history. A box full of potential. Everything about my button box makes me happy.

So last December, when I set out to create a word of the day advent calendar, I knew wanted to showcase some of Mutsy’s buttons. Now I get an extra jolt of button bliss when I hang the daily word. I reflect on the buttons almost as much as I do the words. Both make me slow down and pause, which is a nice tap on the shoulder reminder – especially this time of year.

advent calendar

I’ve been stuck on one of last week’s word. Alacrity. Which, admittedly, I had to look up the first time I came across it. But the definition stayed with me.

Alacrity (n): a brisk and cheerful readiness to do something.

A real nugget of advice when you stop and think about it. I mean, it’s sort of silly to approach life any other way. I like to think of it as channeling my inner Mary Poppins. Which is not to say you’ll routinely find me singing and waltzing through the halls with my umbrella. But it does encourage me to stay present and keep an eye out for little unexpected joys. Because they’re everywhere, aren’t they? Sometimes it just takes the right outlook to find them.

buttonsEnjoy the season!

chill meter

Sha-wing! Did you hear that? That was August. My dear, sweet August, flying by. I could live in August forever. A bottomless supply of tomato sandwiches, cat naps in the the corn patch, icy fruit popsicles, sweet peas gracing my windowsill, and a stack of beach reads. What else is there, really?

sweet-pea

If I play my cards right (I did), August also means a highly anticipated trip to the Minnesota State Fair. I grew up with the fair and I’m sort of a nut about it. Which is amusing. Because crowds, fried food on a stick, and highly stimulating situations generally make me run. But you’d never guess it, to see the way my faces lights up crossing over the Como Avenue skywalk into the fairgrounds. All bets are off, I tell you.

And without fail, August also brings a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. My number one rule about the Boundary Waters is this: always go. No matter how busy, stressed, or complicated life may be, always go. I actually wrote this rule down in a notebook seven years ago and it seems to have stuck. Some trips aren’t as long as I’d like, but still, it’s time in the wild. This year, though, we landed a full 7 days. Heaven.

This didn’t, however, keep me from racing around like a fool before the trip. Business to take care of, food to prep, camping gear to mend, and house sitter details to work out. My desk was littered with “to-do” notes. At the height of the pre-trip hubbub I mentioned in an e-mail to my friend Gail that I needed to “figure out the chaos of my life” and that with any luck I’d “have an epiphany” on the trip. She sent me back a one line response: “or not, spontaneous epiphanies are good…laborious epiphanies not so much and they might interfere with your chill.”

My chill? Epiphanies be dammed. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my chill. Nothing. I should mention that Gail is, quite possibly, my wisest and most inspirational friend. Her advice is typically worth heeding.

boundary waters chill

It was a top-ten, five star trip. We hit the peak of wild blueberry season, ran into remarkably few people, and had a turtle count in the double digits. Cool nights let me burry deep into my down sleeping bag and afternoons warmed up enough to play multiple rounds of “lizard basking on hot granite” (one of my very favorite pastimes).

I discovered author Ruth Rendell and had Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford to keep me company on the trail. Nothing like a good old-fashioned English whodunit to nod off to sleep with. Rendell gave my vocabulary a run for its money. Words like bedizened (dressed up or decorated gaudily) and anathema (something or someone that one vehemently dislikes) left me begging for a pocket dictionary. And I came away with a new favorite expression: “needs must when the devil drives.”

I worked hard, slept even harder, and ate well. I delighted in the fact that, as always while camping, my life was brimming with mindfulness. Every step on the portage trail was a step to be considered and noticed. I always knew right where my pocket knife and lip balm were. Meals were efficient, simple, and satiating. My greatest anticipation was our daily “after-chores” swim. There was no clutter, no wasted energy, no laborious thought. My chill meter was pegged, baby.

There is nothing in my world that beats a week in the woods. I come back glowing and super-charged every time. Still, it’s good to come back. Back to the shores of Lake Superior. Back to the corn patch. Back to my chaotic life. Back to September, where there is still plenty of time to enjoy an icy fruit pop. And maybe, just maybe, back to a spontaneous epiphany. Happy summer.

icy pop

Tart Cherry Icy Lime Pops

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen tart cherries (to make a healthy 1 cup of puree)
1/2 cup greek honey yogurt (or 1/2 cup plain greek yogurt with 1-2 tablespoons honey stirred in)
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/3 cup sugar + 1/3 cup water for a simple syrup

Simmer the sugar and water together, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Chill this mixture in the freezer while you prep the rest of the pops.

Blitz the cherries in a food processor to make a generous cup of puree. Add more fruit if necessary. I like mine pureed pretty finely, but you can leave the mixture chunkier if you prefer a bit of texture. Combine puree with the rest of the ingredients, ideally in a large pourable measuring cup. Stir in the chilled simple syrup and whisk to blend.  Pour the mixture into popsicle molds, or, in a pinch, dixie cups. Insert sticks and freeze at least 8 hours or overnight. Makes about 5-6 popsicles, depending on the size of the mold.

* You can, of course, substitute different fruits. Just vary the amount of sweetness to suit your tastes. Some fruits may pair better with lemon too. The simple syrup gives texture to the pops and keeps them from turning too icy.

cherry-puree

bee flop

I’m a list person. I write lists to help empty out my head. The idea of course, is to get my jumbled thoughts on paper, thereby freeing up precious mental space for something else. I keep an ongoing work related notebook, and at the back of each of these books are pages and pages of neat, tiny lists. And, yes, I even break my lists into sublists. Things I need to do for work, people I need to talk to, items I’m on the look out for, errands I need to run, perfect dinner party menus. You name it, I can subcategorize it. I can’t help it. It’s genetic.

But mostly I write lists to help maintain an illusion of control. That said, I’ve learned to be careful when making bee yard lists. Yes, there are always routine jobs that need doing, but I’ve come to understand that most of the big bee jobs are unpredictable. You might know certain tasks are impending, but generally there are so many variables, it’s hard to say exactly when they’ll need doing. Making them difficult to plan for. This is hard for me. Which is why I couldn’t stop myself from writing “split hives” on a list a few weeks ago.

pink-bees

The problem is that as a beehive grows in population, it can start to feel a little cramped inside. At a certain point, the bees will take matters into their own hands and split themselves into two populations. They do this by swarming. Which means that half of the hive leaves (with half the honey stores) to find a new home. The really rad part of all this is that bees have the ability and wherewithal to raise a new queen for the hive when they need one. All fertilized eggs that the queen lays develop into female worker bees, UNTIL the workers decide to provide the growing larvae different nutrition. Just that slight change in diet changes larvae from a developing worker bee into a developing queen.

Prior to swarming the bees will start raising a handful of queens, just to be sure at least one survives. The bees know (miraculously) that it takes 21 days for a queen to fully develop. Shortly before the new queens begin to hatch, roughly half of the bees will fill up on honey, surround themselves around the old queen, exit the hive, and take off to a new home. Like clockwork, the queen cells in the hive begin to hatch. The first queen out wins, as she will promptly begin to destroy any unhatched queen cells. Her second task is to exit the hive – her one and only foray into the world – to be mated so she can return and resume the role of egg layer for the good of the hive. Problem solved.

As a beekeeper though, an even better solution is to keep the exiting swarm of bees in your possession. There are two ways to accomplish this. Catch the swarm before it sets off for new real estate and install them into an empty hive, or manually split the hive into two BEFORE they get the notion to do it themselves. Method one requires vigilance and a healthy bit of luck that the swarm actually lands where it’s retrievable. But method two, method two, you can plan for.

incoming

I knew that Hallie Frances’ hive was strong coming out of winter. And she didn’t miss a beat with resuming laying eggs this spring. So I also knew it was only a matter of time before they would start to think about swarming. Hence my preemptive list item. I was going to beat them to the punch.

My plan was to pick a fine day where I had plenty of time to more or less dissect Hallie’s hive. I’d find the queen, isolate the frame that she was on, and then hand pick an assortment of ten other frames – a nice mix of honey, pollen, capped brood, and fresh eggs – to create a second hive. Then I’d put the frame with the queen on it back into the the initial hive and reassemble it with empty frames to replace the ones I’d removed. The new hive would get to work raising themselves a fresh queen, and Hallie’s hive would have their breathing room.

Ha.

It sounds so perfect, doesn’t it? Which is why I looked at my list one fine day and decided the time had come. But here’s the thing. Nothing went according to plan. In three full boxes of bees, I could not find Hallie to save my life. I always find the queen. Always, except for when I’m looking for her. And halfway through the job, my overtired back decided it was done lifting heavy things. Like done, done. As I was looking around at the mess of boxes and frames I’d created, dubious  that I’d find the energy to put it all back, a rogue thunderstorm rolled in on my perfectly fine day. And on top of all that, this very full hive of bees showed absolutely no signs of swarming (they’ll often pre-build telltale queen cells). Everything last little thing was telling me that this hive simply did not want to be split.

bee-mess

Wet, tired, and disappointed, I laid down on my back next to the hive in defeat. A wood tick creeped along the inside of my veil. Eventually, I got up, put everything back together how I found it and headed for home. I keep bee notes in my calendar and when I got in and sat down at my desk I simply wrote “bee flop.”

But after a few days, I realized that it wasn’t actually a bee flop at all. The bees were fine. It was just a list malfunction. As is often the case, it took three boxes of bees to remind me of something big. My lists are futile. They may make me feel more on top of things, but not necessarily the things that count. As much as it makes my precise type-A personality squirm, deep down I know that there’ll be no tally of how many things get crossed off my tiny, neat lists. Life is much bigger than that. Thank god.

“The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees that burned with sweetness or maddened the sting: the struggle continues, the journeys go and come between honey and pain. No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.” – Pablo Neruda, Still Another Day

just because

A few weeks ago I was talking to my mother, lamenting the quality of plain old cotton dish towels. I’m spoiled, see, because way back (and I do mean way back) when I moved away from home into my first apartment, I was granted a stack of my grandmother’s hand embroidered flour sack dish towels. At first I just thought they were cute. A little salt dish, three kittens frolicking, a cheery teapot. They made dish drying an event.

salty-dogs

But over the years, as Grandma Myrtle’s flour sacks have become stained and thread bare, a few brand spankin’ new towels have made their way into my kitchen drawer. And I just need to ask, at what point in our history did dish towels stop absorbing water? The new towels seem to excel at spreading a thin film of water over the dishes. Whats more, they’re boring. Hence the grumbling to my mother.

I really had no motive. It was just honest complaining. But last Friday, there was an unexpected package in the mailbox. It was soft and had a nice weight to it. Like all unexpected packages, I let it sit on the table a while before opening it. That’s half the fun of an unexpected package, after all. When my anticipation meter was sufficiently pegged, I slit the tape and (surprise!) was greeted with a gently used stack of Myrtle’s handiwork. I didn’t know there were any left after all of these years. My mom has been holding out on me.

monday

But she made up for it by sending me a “days of the week” set of towels. Each one features a perky dog undertaking a daily scheduled activity. There’s the market on Thursday, cleaning on Friday, and baking on Saturday (cupcakes even!). Sunday is church, of course, followed by laundry on Monday, which naturally leads to ironing on Tuesday.  But that’s where the fun stops. There were only six towels in the package. What the hell am I supposed to do on Wednesday?

My mother’s theory, based on the note she enclosed, is that Wednesday must simply be a day off. I do not buy this. Is it gardening? Mending? Canning? Or maybe Wednesday is the day set aside for painstakingly embroidering inanimate objects onto dish towels, using no less than three thread colors per towel. The fact that women of my grandmother’s era routinely did this stuns me. And it actually leaves me feeling a wee bit envious.

How rich to have the skill, the time, and the patience to embellish something that could just as easily be left plain. And why? Just because, I’m guessing. To prove you can transform a cut up flour sack into a bonafide kitchen towel worthy of display. Finding a treasure on Etsy can’t possibly compare in the satisfaction department. I examine Myrtle’s neat, precise little stitches and feel a little gyped.

busy-dog

I am pretty confident that my grandma’s plate was as chock full of things to get done as mine is, probably more so when you really get down to it. So I long to know how she made time for all the little “just because” things. The things you don’t have to do, but that leave you feeling better if you do. The things that put an extra little shine on our day. The things that are easy to forget about when we get busy.

However she pulled it off, it seems worth exploring. Maybe I’ll rustle up one of Myrtle’s old embroidery hoops so I can make a proper towel for Wednesday. My stitching skills are dreadful I’m sure, and life would certainly forge on without it, but isn’t that exactly the point? In our age of modern convenience and instant gratification it’s nice to remember that the process can outshine the outcome.

bake-on