Feeds:
Posts
Comments

We have a security system in our house and two of the sensors have low batteries. Which I know because the keypad at which we control the alarm beeps to alert me of the danger. And living with low batteries is really dangerous, according to the keypad, because even though I key in a code that should let it know, “I hear you, I get it, I will call the security company right away,” it feels the need to remind me every two hours on the button. Irritating during the day, but MUCH WORSE in the middle of the night.

And of course the security company can’t send someone out right away. I mean, I GET IT. It’s just low batteries! But they can’t come until THURSDAY and that means THREE NIGHTS of getting up every two hours to key in my code and reassure the system that I AM AWARE OF THE BATTERY SITUATION AND MY IMMINENT DEMISE.

The keypad is in our bedroom. Of course, it does not bother my husband one little bit; he doesn’t even stir when it beeps.

Anyway, I am here to update you on one of my goals/aspirations for the New Year. I have ALREADY had friends over for dinner!

This is a big deal to me. You see, I like having people over to our house. I mean, in theory. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy being friendly. But man, in practiceI find it SUPER difficult.

First, even though I KNOW that it really doesn’t matter, I get all panicky about the state of my house. Is it clean enough? Is it tidy enough? Does our house smell funny? These worries send me into a cleaning frenzy prior to having someone over, which stresses me out. And I start thinking about all the projects that I want to complete – what about our horrible, mostly-destroyed ottoman? and our not-painted baseboards? and the missing kick panels on our kitchen cabinets? – and wondering if I should try to paint the fireplace before people come over and it’s ridiculous and makes me feel out of breath and frazzled.

And then there’s the food. I dither over the meal plan for weeks. (In this most recent case, we only invited people over a few days in advance, so I didn’t have to dither long.) Have I considered all their food restrictions/likes/dislikes? Have I come up with a balanced meal? No one ever seems to EAT salad if I make one, but does it need to be there to give the impression that I care about vegetables? Am I making enoughfood? (This is probably one of my biggest concerns.) Do I have a good variety of drink options?

It’s all ridiculous. When I go to someone else’s house for dinner, all I think about is whether there will be a tomato-free option. I don’t care whether they have Diet Coke or gin or a freaking salad. But for some reason, I am incapable of applying the same standards to myself. I am incapable of seeing my guests (whom I probably like! and likely think are good, easy-going, non-judgmental people!) as people who are more interested in hanging out with me and my husband than in eating a gourmet meal in an immaculate, newly-updated home.

I KNOW it is ridiculous.

And yet.

So we had this family over to dinner. We have wanted to invite them over for a long time; they’ve had us over twice, once for a playdate, once for a meal slash playdate, and it’s high time we reciprocated. And this past weekend, we were all free. I dithered only slightly over even inviting them, but I pressed forward.

I decided I would make chili, which is an easy, make-ahead type of meal (I don’t like having to cook while guests are here; it detracts from the socializing, plus people [nicely! thoughtfully!] want to help and I do not like that). But then almost immediately, I decided to make twokinds of chili – a spicy ground beef chili with a tomato base and a mild white chicken chili– both for sake of variety and in case our guests had differing spice tolerances and meat preferences. I cajoled my husband into making chocolate chip cookies. And then, to make life even more difficult on myself, I made guacamole and salsa, so we could have them (with chips) as appetizers. Before our guests arrives, I prepared a bunch of toppings for the chili (diced onions, diced tomatoes, cilantro, sour cream, shredded cheese, sliced jalapeno). The white chili was a crockpot option, so I started that early in the day. And the red chili tastes better the longer it cooks, so I started that a couple of hours before our guests arrived.

One of my biggest detractions from having people over is that my husband does not share my same level of preparation anxiety. You might think this would be a good thing, but so far in our marriage, it is not. This is not only because he does not understand how I feel in the days/hours leading up to having people over. It is because we clash on executing the actual preparations, and I end up doing (or at least feeling like I am doing) the bulk of the prep. And that makes me feel overwhelmed, overworked, misunderstood, frazzled, stressed, and put-upon. And frustrated and grouchy with my husband. Which is not really the mindset you want to have a fun, effervescent evening with friends.

I feel like I am being unfair, here, because my husband does not get a say on this blog. He cannot represent for you his own feelings, or catalog for you all the things he does to prepare. So please understand that you are getting a one-sided view of things.

On this particular day, I made a list of the things we needed to do before our guests arrived at four. We’d gone out the night before, and ended up sleeping in until NINE. Which put me immediately into a panic. My husband started out by saying that we had PLENTY of time, and so I tried to adopt that mindset and chill out a little. I gave him two projects: making the cookies (he’d made the dough the day before, so he just needed to bake the cookies) and making the white chili. And he had to get himself showered/dressed. He also wanted, separately, to go to a store and get something; I forget what, but it was on sale or something and he had to get it that day.

I unloaded the dishwasher while he made himself coffee. I made Carla’s breakfast while he made himself breakfast. I tidied up the kitchen table, which had become cluttered with Stuff. I asked him if he wanted me to dice the vegetables for the white chili and he said yes. I did that. I rinsed Carla’s breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher. I looked at the clock. The chili was supposed to be cooking for 6 hours, and we were nearing 11:00, so I just made the white chili myself. My husband went upstairs to do… I don’t know. Probably something very important and useful, like paying bills. (This sounds snarky but it is not meant to be; I am honestly trying very hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.)I got Carla dressed. I had made the guacamole and salsa the previous day, so I started dicing and chopping the toppings for the chili while my husband made lunch. I made lunch for Carla and coaxed her into eating it. I cleaned up lunch. I went and took a shower. I came downstairs and noted that I was supposed to make a roux for the white chili, to thicken it. My husband said it wasn’t necessary. I looked at the clock and told my husband he needed to get going. (He and I have VERY different understandings of time.) He went and took a shower. I made the red chili. He left for his errand, which I extended because I wanted him to grab me some flowers for the dinner table. It was an hour and a half until four, when our guests were to arrive. I encouraged Carla to move her toys from the living room to her bedroom. I chopped more things. I realized that we didn’t have enough spoons for dinner, so I ran the dishwasher through a quick cycle. I dried my hair and put on makeup. I cleaned up the kitchen. I ran a load of dish towels. The white chili was very watery. My husband was still gone, so I texted him asking if I should do the roux. Carla was running around asking, every five minutes, when her friend would arrive. I worried about drinks; I didn’t know if this couple drinks alcohol, so I had brought home a six-pack of unobjectionable beer and I had a bottle of wine in the fridge just in case. I worried about the kids – Carla won’t eat chili, but my friend said her kids eat anything… but what if they don’t? I washed some berries and some cherry tomatoes. I texted my husband to also grab some La Croix and a box of macaroni and cheese at the store. I unloaded the dishwasher. My husband texted me pictures of flowers and I picked a bouquet for him to bring home. I put out the salsa, chips, and guacamole. I cleaned out the sink. I fretted over whether I needed to cut some vegetables to put out with the chips. I decided against it. My husband got home with about fifteen minutes to spare. I asked him to choose some music for people to listen to. He said he wanted to put the football game on. I asked him to put music on the Amazon Echo while the game was on mute. I cut and arranged the flowers. I asked about the roux again. My husband looked at the chili and agreed it was watery. He started the roux. I cleaned off the counter. This is the most boring catalog of menial tasks ever. I realized I had failed to brush my teeth at all that day, so I ran upstairs to brush them. Carla shrieked that her friend was here. I snapped at my husband to put some music on like I’d already asked him to. He whisked the roux while Carla and I opened the door and invited our friends in.

I felt like I was busy every single second. (Is this a NORMAL level of busy? Are other people this busy in the day leading up to their dinner for guests?) (I don’t think so. Sometimes we go to dinner at the house of friends who were out at the zoo all day or had a birthday party just prior to having us over or who just said goodbye to week-long houseguests the night before. I COULD NEVER DO THOSE THINGS. I need to have plenty of space between guests, first of all. And then I also need the WHOLE DAY to complete my anxious preparations.)

These most recent dinner guests are newish friends, so we don’t know them super well. So while I was chatting with them and munching on chips, I was worrying about whether they’d like the food, and whether it was weird that I’d planned for us to all sit down at the table together. And I was fretting about timing – I’d planned for the kids to play for an hour or two, and then we’d sit down to eat; but was that making them wait too long? How long would they want to stay? Should we set up Guitar Hero for them to play? Should I try to herd everyone into the living room?

Carla was at Excitement Level 8 Billion, which translated into lots of running and shrieking and leaping off furniture. So I was also fretting about whether I was being too restrictive of the kids or not restrictive enough. Was it okay that we kind of shuttled the kids into the basement and all the grown ups stayed upstairs? Would they have preferred if we interacted with the kids more?

They left fairly early (seven thirty?), which of course made me worry that they weren’t having fun. But… it also seems like a reasonable amount of time for people to stay? I don’t know.

And the wife helped me clean everything up which makes me very uncomfortable. But she was very swift and practiced at it, so I didn’t even really have a chance to protest.

I think the dinner went okay? We had plenty to talk about, people ate the food, the kids had a raucous time which I think likely translates into fun. But man.

I really need to find some way to make it less stressful.

Some people think the way to make it less stressful is to not stress about it  but that is really terrible advice coming, I suspect, from people like my husband who are naturally low-stress people. I cannot help it. My mind begins whirring and if I don’t address the whirring it grows louder until it drowns out all other functions.

Some people might think I should just do it more often. But the anxiety around hosting happens even with people who come over ALL THE TIME – like my parents and in-laws, who come over several times a year between them, and with family friends that we have over for dinner four or five times a year or so (we swap houses every couple of months, so they are hosting us just as often). I am telling you, IT DOES NOT GET EASIER WITH PRACTICE. (The only thing that gets easier is that I worry less about the state of my home with frequent guests, because they have already seen it.)

The techniques I’ve tried, with, as you see, little success are:

  • Make things as simple as possible. (I need to work on keepingthem as simple as possible.)
  • Do as many things in advance as possible.
  • Enlist family members to help – and assign them specific tasks. (Possibly I need to also assign specific times, too.)
  • Try to only address things that are reasonable to address (i.e. NOT painting my fireplace).
  • Remind myself over and over that as a guest at other people’s homes, I don’t care about half the things I worry about people caring about.

We met a new couple a few weeks ago and I promptly asked the wife for her number so I could ask them to dinner and then actually followed up. They are coming for dinner in a few weeks. Which gives me AMPLE TIME to stress…. Or to come up with some real techniques for NOT stressing.

What do you do, to ensure that you are low-stress when you have guests over? What are your techniques for keeping things simple and fun? Should I just never invite people over again? That last one seems good, except for the dinner that’s already on the books. And I might as well TRY to overcome this Preparation Anxiety, because I inevitably start wishing I could throw a dinner party or something. WHY DOES MY BRAIN HAVE TO BE THE WAY THAT IT IS?

Advertisements

Man, I haven’t done one of these small-takes type posts in a long time! However, I would really like to blog more often (I was thinking the other day that maybe I should just change my blog title to “Dinners This Week” because that’s about all I can manage most weeks) and maybe this is the key. As you well know, if you’ve been reading for more than five minutes, I tend to be overly wordyand I think that’s holding me back. Also, I am boring. I’ll be writing along, 3,000 words in, and I’ll realize, my GOD this is TEDIOUS. Takes the joy out of posting something, when you know it’s dull as a bowl of marbles. Sometimes I go back and read old posts and I think, boy, I used to be moderately entertaining! Well. Sometimes people change for the good, sometimes they change for the snoozefest.

Anyway. Random blurbs ahoy.

  • Last night I went out to dinner with a friend who was visiting from out of town. It was a lovely, lovely time and we talked about books – specifically The Friend, which had been a gift from this particular friend, and for whom I bought a second copy of the book because my friend MUST read it but also I need to keep a copy for myself – and work and family and travel. It’s been a very friendly week, which has been good: I had two nice hour+-long conversations with two separate long distance friends. I had a coffee with a friend who lives here in town, but who has been MIA for a good many months. I have another coffee planned for February with another friend I haven’t seen in a good while. And a lunch date planned for the last day in January with an old work friend. And then last night’s dinner. I am feeling very full and grateful right now. Perhaps if I record this feeling I can return to it on those inevitable days when I feel lonely and friendless. Friends: I highly recommend them.

 

  • The only bad thing about dinner last night was that I had too much to drink, which made the drive home ridiculously uncomfortable. No, not alcohol. I wasn’t drunk, or even tipsy. I mean I had literally put too much liquid into my body. Seems that I am constitutionally incapable of leaving a glass of water full. And the servers at this particular establishment were prompt in discharging their glass-filling duty, no matter how repetitive. The restaurant we went to was a good thirty minutes’ drive from my house, so as I poured my aching bladder into my car, I was feeling legitimately concerned about making it home in a dry state. If you are wondering, like my husband was, why I simply didn’t go to the bathroom during dinner like a normal human, well, I will tell you: We were having such a nice conversation! And I didn’t want to interrupt – not just the conversation, but the flow of the evening, you know? I was sure I would go when the server came to take our credit cards, but when the time came, it just didn’t seem like the right time. And then I needed to give my friend a ride to his car, and I felt weird about making him wait in the lobby while I went to the ladies’ (Side note: one of the things that drives me NUTS about my otherwise lovely husband is that he often waits until everyone has their coats on, all ready to go, before he heads to the bathroom. PLAN AHEAD.). So I just suffered instead. Perhaps you are also wondering why I just didn’t stop somewhere on my way home. Well, I will tell you. The city is… scary, okay? And the drive home takes me through some pretty undesirable neighborhoods that make me very nervous and edgy. And it was late and I didn’t want to be murdered. Peeing oneself is preferable to murder, right? Probably. I drove SO CAREFULLY the whole way home. Because I was sure that if I slipped through a yellow light or went even a tiny bit over the speed limit, I’d get pulled over and there’s no way a police officer is notgoing to arrest a woman who is sobbing and soaked in urine. I made it home. I know you were worried. My pelvic floor muscles performed admirably. Thank goodness for all those Kegels I did while pregnant, amirite? I mean. PHEW.

 

  • Speaking of pregnant, which I am not, I almost stopped on my drive home at a very grimy gas station for the sole reason that I stopped there before when I had similarly misjudged the elasticity of my bladder. Only that first time, I was somewhere around eleven months pregnant and I literally could not wait. Pregnancy is really one indignity after another, isn’t it? Take, for example, this poor woman I saw last weekend, in a similar state of Birth Could Happen Any Time. I was parked in a Whole Foods parking lot, waiting for my husband, and this woman came out of an all-day breakfast restaurant and started swaying toward her car – you know that walk that pregnant women sometimes have, where their belly has forcibly commandeered everything, including balance and momentum and even gravity? She was parked directly behind me, across an aisle, and so I could see her in my rearview mirror as she abruptly threw up on the pavement. I averted my eyes and pawed through the crap in my car to see if I had water or anything to offer her by way of help. Alas; nothing besides my undying sympathy and solidarity. Several minutes later, I noticed a man and two small children hustling out of the all-day breakfast restaurant. The man hefted the kids into the car, next to which the poor woman was still standing, occasionally retching onto the ground. I should have given her some privacy, I know, but I was so overcome by a sense of pity and empathy and helplessness that I just kept staring at her in my rearview. She kept climbing into the car and then hopping back out to throw up again. My god. Why is pregnancy so miserable? I’d sometimes drive to work with a plastic bag open on my lap, so sure I wouldn’t be able to get to the office without vomiting. Pregnancy is gross and humiliating and uncomfortable, and, yes, I guess you get a human out of it at the end, but sheesh. What a process. Eventually the pregnant woman stayed in her car long enough for her husband to spirit her away. I wish her well.

 

  • In Trying to Be a Good Wife news, I am trying out a new kitchen cleanser. I have a well-documented love affair with bleach. If I could, I would use it with abandon on everything all the time. Alas, it’s not so compatible with granite countertops, so I typically use Lysol for my kitchen cleaning needs. But my husband HATES the smell. So much so that he refuses to wipe down the counters. Fortunately for him I enjoy both wiping down the counters and rolling my eyes at his aversion to faux lemon scented chemicals, so we’ve managed to forge a solid compromise between us. But today Method cleanser was on sale at Target. I already love the smell of the Method Daily Granite, so I got two bottles of the antibacterial cleanser, one in citron scent, the other in bamboo. A little full of themselves with those scents, if you ask me, but I am hopeful that my husband will not be quite so sensitive to at least one of them.

 

  • We are supposed to get a good walloping this weekend, snow-wise. So while I was at Target, I kind of did a little panic buying. When you hear that potentially your city is going to be snowed under, what do YOU panic-buy? I bought some normal things, like meat and vegetables and plenty of tortillas. But I also bought a sled. A LOT of construction paper. And eggs. Believe it or not, the eggs was the weirdest thing. None of us really eats eggs in this household, and, sure, I use eggs in baking, but I don’t have any baking projects planned. But now we have two dozen eggs to… not eat during the impending snowpocalypse. Or, more likely, to not eat during the perfectly normal wintery weekend we will inevitably have, because weather is impossible to predict.

 

And that’s all I have for now. What are you up to this weekend, Internet?

Just as a general note, if you or anyone you know need a Girl Scout Cookies hook up, Carla is selling cookies between now and February 2. If you don’t know any Girl Scouts and you want cookies, want to donate cookies to U.S. troops, or want to support an Internet child you don’t know, let me know and I will send you a link to her online order form.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Last week reminded me that I enjoy shrimp. In small quantities. So I am going to try not to lean on it too much while I am avoiding chicken. Hence the Zero Shrimp Recipes below.

Also, we didn’t eat all the meals I’d planned (one night, my husband had a surprise – to me, not to him – meeting, so we ate leftovers, and another night we spent all day Going Going Going, so we went out to eat instead), so I’m recycling two:

Note: I think one of the reasons this is a leftover item from last week is that I am scared of the spinach. I don’t particularly like spinach, and I have never cooked it before. But I am getting sick of green beans, zucchini, and broccoli, which we rotate practically every three days.

Follow Up: This was SO GOOD. The cod was lemony and delicious, and super easy to make. I think next time I might even skip the flour, just sprinkle the fish with a little paprika, salt, and pepper, and drizzle it with butter and lemon juice. Very simple but really yummy. I also had a few baby potatoes and a red onion and some mushrooms lying around, so I chopped those up and roasted them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and some fresh thyme. I was afraid the spinach would be gross, so I wanted to have a backup vegetable. But the spinach was AWESOME. I used this Ina Garten recipe (I love you Ina) and it was so simple and really delicious. All in all, an excellent meal! Definitely will do this again.

Note:  I am also planning to do a homemade tartar sauce for my husband. (I prefer a bit of mayo mixed with sriracha, myself.)

Another thing is that I think maybe I need to be more… honest? is that the word? about how many days per week I am willing/able to cook. Especially when it’s a new-to-me meal.

This week, I am going out one night with my dear friend/mentor. And I think I’m going to give us a second night for leftovers/going out/what have you.

Here’s what’s on the meal plan for the remaining three days:

Note: I don’t think I have ever cooked flank steak. And my husband isn’t a huge fan of asparagus. So this meal could be a big loser, we’ll see. (But it’s NOT CHICKEN.)

Note: This is a recipe I’ve made before, so I feel fairly comfortable fooling around with it. I am going to swap the chicken for pork tenderloin, and the carrots for parsnips andcarrots andred onions because I don’t really like carrots. Cooked carrots. Raw carrots are A-okay.

Follow Up: This ended up being good… if I scraped the mustard sauce off of the pork. I think in terms of mustardy pork tenderloin, I much prefer this mustard balsamic version from Jo Cooks.

My husband admitted that he does not care for cooked carrots either (a revelation), and Carla tried one — and one parsnip — and agrees that she does not like either. So we will be foregoing the cooked carrots in future

Note: I have some tilapia in the freezer from the last time I made this. So all I have to buy is broccoli and some shallots! Woot! Also, don’t let the “en papillote” thing deter you. This is SO EASY. And very delicious.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy it when you tell me what YOU are eating this week, so please. Spill the beans. (Or chicken. Or spaghetti. Or whatever it is you’re planning for dinner.)

I just finished a book with which I fell so completely in love, I want to FORCE everyone to read it immediately.

Of course, in my intense desire to expose everyone to this perfectly wonderful book, I am fearful that maybe you won’t, in fact, like it. Which wouldn’t make me like you less, I promise; I know books of all things are highly subjective, and you might find the style irritating or disjointed or you might find the subject matter maudlin or disturbing.

But I still feel this strong, nay, irresistible urge to COMPEL you to read it, and then get all your friends and family members to read it as well.

Am I putting too much pressure on it? I’m putting too much pressure on it.

Eh, you may like it, you may not. Whatever.

Let me see if I can pinpoint, for myself, why I liked it so immensely. And maybe that will help you determine whether you think you might like it.

The book in question is “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez.

the friend

Image from amazon.com

And, by the way, Sigrid Nunez is nearly 70 years old, which I find appealing as well. (You don’t necessarily hear a lot of buzz about older authors.) (Her protagonist in this book is also older; I envisioned the protagonist as a stand-in for Sigrid, although who knows.) She didn’t publish her first book until she was 44! She is a critically acclaimed author, and I am deeply embarrassed that I haven’t read her work until now. I feel an urgent need to read ALL her books now, in quick succession.

This particular book won the National Book Award in 2018, if that makes any difference to you.

Do I need to include a trigger warning here? Probably. The book deals, in large part, with suicide. So if that is a problematic topic for you, I sadly recommend against reading the book. (I can’t remember any specific, upsetting descriptions of the death, but I suppose I could have forgotten them.)

But its larger themes are more philosophical: Grief, and its forms. Love, and its actors, and its varying forms. Growing old, and what that means, and its inevitable conclusion. Writing, and what it means to be a writer, and the changing view of writing/writers. Those are the big ones.

More specifically, there is a woman whose mentor dies, and who – unexpectedly, without warning her or asking her – leaves her his dog. Not just any dog, but a giant Great Dane. (She lives in a tiny pets-free rent-controlled apartment in New York City.)

From the get-go, I was skeptical of the book. While I don’t dislike dogs, I certainly don’t love them. I didn’t want to read a book about a dog. I didn’t want to read a sad book about someone losing her friend. I opened it with great reluctance. I was soothed to find that the protagonist prefers cats to dogs as I do.

Also, the book is (sort of) epistolary. It’s written in the second person, directed at the mentor she’s lost to suicide. That’s unusual enough that it could be distracting or annoying or tiresome.

Some things I loved about the book:

  • The style is unlike anything I’ve read before. Some reviewers refer to it as “stream of consciousness,” which I get. But I sort of think of “stream of consciousness” as a semi-derogatory way to describe someone’s prose (I don’t know why). I think of it as a Joyce-ian, Molly-Bloom-ian type of style, with long voluminous paragraphs and few sentences and winding, difficult-to-untangle threads of thought. (Maybe that’s why I think of it as derogatory; I did NOT enjoy Ulysses.) This book is NOT like that. I thought of it more as reading someone’s diary: there are discrete paragraphs, often unrelated or related only in that way that thoughts link to one another in your brain. Sometimes it feels like you are reading her notes, as she researches a particular subject: Here she is, going through her research about (for example — may not actually appear in the book) student/professor affairs; there is a paragraph about an author who had a famously disastrous affair with a student; there is a summary of the changing cultural attitude toward student/teacher relationships; there is a literary quote about the lawlessness of the heart; there is a paragraph about university regulations around fraternizing with students; there is an anecdote from her personal life about someone she knew who had an affair with a student. I can see how this might sound unappealing; there is no singular narrative that flows from beginning to end. I mean, there is, but you get all these ebbs and flows as she interjects and retreats. But I found it wholly appealing – a very fresh and interesting way to approach telling a story. And she does it so deftly that I felt as though I was riding around in her brain with her. The little intuitive leaps made sense and even when she turned away completely from something, it felt… right, and understandable. Nothing ever felt disjointed or incoherent, each thought became simply a new tiny wave breaking on the shore and then melting back into the larger narrative sea.

 

  • The prose is so clean and well-written. She has a very spare writing style, nothing extraneous, every word chosen precisely and with reason. Which is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of beauty in her words – on the contrary, her writing is lovely and evocative. I found myself rereading some sentences many times, marveling at their clarity and simplicity.

 

  • The subject matter is so heavy, yet she treats it so lightly. No, that’s not right. Maybe, she treats it with such a light hand. She seems so comfortable with the inevitability of the subjects of aging and death and grief… and she writes around the topics with such depth and breadth… that the gravitas isn’t pulling you under with each new sentence.

 

  • Related: she has a great sense of humor. You’ll be talking about aging and then suddenly you’re talking about poop. But not in a jarring way. In a charming, amusing way. (Oh clod I am not doing this justice at all. I should just stop talking.) There’s this one point where she relates a conversation with a friend. The friend wonders if she’s ever considered finding a therapist; she thinks the friend is talking about a therapist for the dog; the friend is not. It’s gentle humor, but helps keep the book light.

 

  • The book is meticulously researched. As I was reading, I was certain that any subject she raises in the book has been thoroughly and comprehensively researched. She’s read all the literature related to suicide or dogs or whatever. She’s got all the relevant quotes. She’s dug into the pertinent scientific journals. She’s read related news articles. She’s combed through Wikipedia. You know this only because she pulls out the best tidbits to share – again, kind of like you might scrawl off a particularly juicy detail about, I don’t know, a work project, in your diary – and they are fascinating. But it is clear that they are the gems she plucked out and shined up, and that there are truckloads of dirt clods that she left behind. It’s impressive and, frankly, kind of awe-inspiring.

 

  • She handles the central relationships of the book with such care. Basically, you’ve got a woman and her dead mentor. And you’ve a got a woman and her dead mentor’s dog. And, really, you’ve got a woman coming to terms with herself without her dead friend. Each of these relationships is drawn with such tremendous compassion and thoughtfulness and grace (this seems like the wrong word, but I keep coming back to it) that I was wholly drawn in, wholly won over.

 

  • Lurking in the background is that this book is about a writer, writing. Writing figures into the overarching narrative as kind of a linking force and maybe even a personal imperative. The protagonist is a writer, her mentor is a writer; their writing brought them together, kept them together. And she’s figuring out how writing fits in to her grieving process.

 

Perhaps you should know, before you read it, that I finished reading, closed the book, and wept like a child. Great body-shaking sobs that I could not control or suppress. And yet I welcomed the tears, because they were so well-earned.

Have I managed to make it sound dull and off-putting? Possibly. Hopefully I have not done more harm than good in recommending it to you.

Well, I think you’d be best off just reading the book. I loved it. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I look forward to returning to it again. And then again. I am so very glad I read it.

If you read it, let me know, will you?

My dad and I used to go out for pizza to this little pizza joint on the edge of town when I was a kid. They had the best pizza. But one day, the pepperoni (my favorite pizza topping) developed this weird smell. No one could smell it but me, and my parents frankly thought I was ridiculous. But to me, anytime I was around pepperoni – there or anywhere – I was overpowered by this sharp unpleasant nearly unendurable scent. The upshot was that I couldn’t eat pepperoni – or pizza – for A Long Dark Time. Years, maybe. So long that the pizza joint got turned over to new owners who transformed it into a rather seedy bar.

I have since come around and pepperoni smells wonderful once again and remains one of my favorite foods. The point is that I am not unfamiliar with being put off by certain foods. It’s happened before with ground beef. Perhaps it has even happened, years ago, with chicken; I can’t remember. But I’m off chicken currently, and it’s cramping my style.

Last week, I ate some leftover chicken paprikas and got a weird piece of chicken in my bite. I tried to keep chewing it, which was a bad plan, and ended up gagging into the sink and washing the rest of my paprikas (a much beloved and comforting food!) down the drain. BOO. And now I am queasy about chicken.

CHICKEN. I cannot stand the thought of it! It makes my face scrunch up and my stomach heave just to write the word on this page! And yet… how will I live without it?!?! Probably 80% of my meals revolve around chicken!

I am not opposed to eating vegetarian-ish things. But my husband needs Meat. I make him a beautiful butternut squash soup and he says, “where’s the protein?” He has gone All In on the Protein At Every Meal deal and I try to live up to my role, in his eyes, as Protein Provider.

We could have a lot of fish. But I like to buy fresh fish (am spoiled) (also my husband is spoiled and swears that any fish not fresh off the fishmonger’s ice tastes fishy) and also fish is expensive. I like to admire the beautiful snow white flesh of the halibut but I am loathe to spend $24 a pound for one dinner. Let alone more than one dinner. No thank you.

We could eat various other meats. But I am going to be honest with you here, I can only eat so much beef. Tacos, yes, maybe once a week (although they are not conducive to my Healthy Eating plans; if I’m going to eat one taco I’m going to eat six and I’m not even joking). Chili, fine. But it’s not a weekly kind of meal. Filet mignon, okay, once in a blue moon (expensive; finicky and oil-splattery to cook). Other cuts… just don’t appeal to me. I’m not a person who enjoys things that are shaped from ground beef – outside of hamburgers, that is. I won’t do loaves or balls sculpted out of meat, no thank you. I mean, I could probably do a pot roast now and again. But that’s a labor intensive affair right there. I am all about the easy meals. Same goes to beef burgundy or beef stew, by the way. Fajitas, but with steak? Meh, but maybe. That’s about it, folks.

This leaves pork. I do enjoy a good pork. Har har. I can do chops and tenderloin just fine. But… I just don’t think I could come up with enough variety. It’s not quite as versatile as that veritable blank canvas of foodstuffs, the boneless skinless chicken breast. I guess we will find out.

(If you are thinking, “Wait a second there… you have named literally three types of meat when there are MANY MORE OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO YOU! Turkey! Duck! Rabbit! Veal! Venison! Buffalo! Ham! Boar! Game hen! Sausage! Lamb! Shellfish!” Well then perhaps you have underestimated my ability to be squeamish about nearly everything on earth.)

(Neither my husband nor I eat tofu or any other plant-based protein substance. I know. We are lame.)

Well, despite all these crazy restrictions, I have managed to scrape together a week of meals that sound pretty appealing. And, most importantly, chicken free.

Dinners for the Week of January 8-January 14

Note: This is a new-to-me recipe but it sounds scrumptious. I haven’t decided if I will make this with beef or shrimp yet. Probably I will end up getting beef for my husband and then I will just eat the veggies.

Follow Up: This recipe was pretty good. I did end up eating it without veggies, and we added a handful of broccoli to the peppers and onions. However… as with most things containing Chinese Five-Spice powder, I found this overpoweringly five-spicy. I knew going in that I find that spice to be a little cloying, so I halved it. But it was still too much. So if I make this in future, I would either not include it at all or put in something like an eighth of a teaspoon or less. Aside from that, this was super easy to put together.

Note: Yes, this is a recipe for chicken. I am going to use pork chops instead. (In actuality, I used pork tenderloin. What? I like to play it fast and loose over here.)

Follow Up: I ended up foregoing the zucchini; instead, I made the tzatziki sauce that went with the recipe and made a quick Greek salad with quinoa, tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion, drizzled with lemon juice, olive oil, and a splash of red wine vinegar.

Note: I’m not sure what to pair with this, as a side… Maybe I will do some black beans? A simple salad? This is going to be a game-time decision, if by game-time I mean the grocery store produce section.

Follow Up: The rub/marinade for this salmon is super yummy. The avocado cream is also yummy. But I don’t know if they are necessary together? The avocado cream felt a little superfluous, and it was so limey that it kind of overpowered the flavor of the fish.

I paired this with a simple salad: mixed greens, quick pickled radishes, green pepper slices, and a sprinkle of roasted sunflower seeds. Then I made this quick lime vinaigrette. The salad was honestly the star of the show. Next time, I might make more salad, slice some avocado, and put the salmon on top. Skip the avocado cream altogether.

Note: This sounds decadent and totally anti-diet, but it has shrimp, which I enjoy for two reasons: 1. They are fairly low-calorie, if that matters to you. 2. I can only eat four or five at a time, which helps with #1 and also ensures I don’t spend a billion dollars on shrimp. The bad thing about shrimp though is the de-veining, which is DISGUSTING. Let’s not even think about it for One More Second or we’ll be down another protein.

Follow up: My grocery store sells shelled, de-veined raw shrimp in a big two-pound bag. I wasn’t in the mood to spend $20 to experiment with shrimp, so I bought some raw shrimp from my fish counter. The fishmonger told me that they are the exact same shrimp from the bag, so it was a good way to test them out. And they were excellent. I rinsed them several times in cold water, just in case they were salty, and they ended up not being salty at all.

This recipe was very good, but pretty labor intensive. I made the cajun seasoning (even though I didn’t have white pepper — whoops) and then I used my immersion blender to puree the sauce so there weren’t any tomato chunks in it. And even though I used the same pot for the sauce that I used to sauté the shrimp and veggies, I still had that plus the pasta pot plus the big bowl I used to keep the cooked shrimp and veggies warm plus lots of measuring devices that I had to wash. It was very tasty. It made a TON of sauce, and I am not sure how it will be as leftovers. We’ll see, I suppose. Next time I would probably try to halve the recipe, and I would make sure to have skim milk on hand (I ended up using whole milk, which is what I had in the fridge).

Note: Sometimes cod is good, sometimes it is bitter. I do not know when or how to determine which kind of cod I will get. Perhaps I will choose an alternative – tilapia is my the chef’s favorite because it is sturdy while still flaky and has the uncanny ability to take on any flavor you apply to it; my husband the dining public prefer more expensive “less fishy” fish.

Note: This marinade is good on chicken, I think it will be just as good slathered on a tenderloin.

Follow Up: I ended up using this marinade on pork chops rather than tenderloin and it was delicious.

Note: I am still kicking myself for not saving the recipe for the first time I made salmon cakes. It did NOT include Old Bay, which neither sounds nor tastes appealing (to me), but it was easy and fairly yummy. I have a sneaking suspicion that I Frakensteined my salmon cakes from multiple recipes, so it can likely never be recreated. Oh well. This version – stripped of the Elderly Docks and parsley – should do.

There you go! A chicken-free week! I plan to get the salmon all at once and then maybe make the salmon cakes and freeze them? Does that sound too ambitious? Perhaps. And then I will get the cod/tilapia/what-have-you on Saturday and make the cod meal that night. The shrimp… well, I’ve heard that frozen shrimp is one of the Great Hidden Deals of the grocery store, so I may attempt to put that to the test. If so, I won’t need to worry about waiting a few days before adding it to a meal.

What are you eating this week, Internet?

I am not a big goal setter. It’s just… not my personality. I promise you that I am hard enough on myself and my failures without seeing them clearly in black and white. (To-do lists are hard enough, you know?) Maybe that’s a cop-out, but I think I manage to accomplish a fair number or things without setting specific goals, so I think it’s one of those more-than-one-way-to-skin-a-cat (WHY is that a phrase? WHO is doing so much cat skinning? YUCK.) more-than-one-way-to-marinate-your-chicken kind of things.

Nonetheless, I love reading about other people’s goals. And so I am going to post a Very Loose List of assorted goals that I will be thinking about and trying to achieve this year. Some of them I already mentioned, if briefly, in my end-of-year wrap-up. Perhaps we should call them aspirations instead of goals. Yes, let’s do that; it sounds less demanding. Less judgmental if I don’t achieve them. (Why list out what you want to do, you may be wondering, if you are so laissez faire about actually doing them? A good question indeed.)

Maybe it will be fun to revisit this list next January, to see how much I’ve accomplished! Maybe it will be amusing to see how drastically my priorities have changed over the year! Maybe it will send me spiraling into a cavern of self-castigation! Maybe I will forget all about this list and only come across it by accident many years in the future, if ever!

To the list!

Habits

–      Be in bed by 10:30 every night. This is really tough because most nights, my husband doesn’t get home until around six thirty or seven. And then it’s time to put Carla to bed, which takes another hour. And then I need to make or finish dinner and we need to eat it. This puts us at finishing dinner around eight at the earliest, and makes a ten thirty bedtime seem kind of early. But I feel so much better about life when I get real, actual sleep each night, so I want to try.

–      Ignore my phone – unless I have a real, actual phone call – between Carla getting home from school and me going to bed. This means giving up my Toy Blast habit, but that’s not something I feel particularly good about as it is, so it won’t be a big loss.

–      Do a practice German lesson every day. I have already skipped a lesson or two this week (yesterday – whoops) so I need to really buckle down if this is going to become a daily habit.

–      Exercise three days a week on average. Some weeks – like last week – I just don’t have the bandwidth for exercise. Other weeks, I manage to walk on the treadmill or do an exercise video almost every day. So I think aiming for an average is the best way to succeed.

–       Eat better. I mentioned before that I lost a bunch of weight last year and then gained it all back. So now I am planning to lose it all again. Perhaps it will return in November and I should think of it as an annual fall houseguest, but if I could rid my person of it for good, that would obviously be preferable.

Work

–      Finish the first draft of my manuscript. I mean, this is Job One. Top Priority. The Most Important Goal of All Goals.

–      Figure out what to do with the short story I’ve been working on for a few years. I finally finished the thing last summer, but now I need to get it into fighting shape and think about submitting it to some publications.

–      Set up an interview with a subject expert for my next novel. The next novel is percolating away and I have a contact who knows a real-life expert with whom I would LOVE to talk. I need to get past my fear of talking to people and just set up an interview with her.

House Projects

–      Finally get someone to come fix the ice maker. It’s been broken for over a year. My husband has tried to fix it. Both of our fathers have tried to fix it. I even called the place that sold our fridge to us and got the name of someone they recommended – but I googled the place and it got terrible reviews, so I chickened out. I need to call back and get a few other options and just make the call already.

–      Find out what it takes to stretch the carpet in the upstairs hall. The carpet bags a little in the middle and I think we could get it re-stretched? I am not sure about this. But I do know I’m not ready to replace the upstairs carpet just yet.

–      Look into the cost of new windows. We got an energy audit and the result was that our windows are ALL leaking. We can get some money to put toward them if we install news ones within the year but man. This is a daunting (and expensive!) task if there ever was one!

–      Revamp the living room. I originally was thinking about this in terms of separate smaller goals, but when I look at them all together, it turns out the whole room needs work. Specifically, I want to:

o   Put up a gallery wall. We have tons of artwork that would look great on the big blank wall in our living room. We just need to plan it out and DO it.

o   Replace the ottoman. We have a beautiful leather ottoman that was a hand-me-down from my in-laws, and my child and other children who visit our home have slowly destroyed it over time, peeling the leather upholstery off the top so that it looks like maybe it first belonged to a raccoon. I want a new one, and I have my eye on some options that have storage inside.

o   Replace the side table. The side table is also a hand-me-down from my in-laws. (See also: almost every piece of furniture in our house.) But I hate it. It’s too wide for the space, the color/style is all wrong. And it has no storage. I want to replace it with something slimmer, in a darker color and more modern style, that has drawers or shelves.

o   Convert our wood-burning fireplace into a gas fireplace. We already have a gas starter, so I don’t think would be toodifficult, but I need to look into it.

o   Paint the baseboards. I mean. I’ve been hating our DARK GREEN baseboards since 2012, so it would be nice to finally paint them white. Maybe this is the year!

o   As long as we’re dreaming, I’d also love to paint the fireplace, get some curtains for the sliding glass door (which we have to replace; see above re: leaky windows), and stain our buffet. And get a new couch. Not that we can afford to get a new one that’s as nice as our hideous, uncomfortable, very expensive but FREE TO US hand-me-down couch.

–      Get additional craft storage for the kitchen. We have a dedicated craft cabinet for Carla. It gets a LOT of use. But we could use more space. I have my eye on these IKEA TRONES cabinetsand I want to install them in the hallway between our pantry and laundry room. Yes, they are technically shoe cabinets, but I think they would be perfect for storing construction paper and in-progress artwork.

–      Figure out what to do about our grill. I tried SO HARD to fix it last summer and I failed. So I am torn between wanting to just figure it out… and throwing up my hands and get a new grill. We earmarked the earnings from our garage sale this past fall for a new grill, so we could totally get a new one. I am just feeling stubborn. But I also NEED my grill in the summer. Maybe “need” is too strong a word. I DEEPLY APPRECIATE my grill.

Family

–      Eat dinner together twice a week. Eating together as a family is not something we do daily. It just doesn’t work for our family. But when we domanage to eat together, I enjoy it. And it gives me an opportunity to model to Carla the eating habits and manners that I want her to learn. If we can eat dinner together on Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday, that would be an improvement.

–      Do more weekend adventures. When Carla was three, we were really good at this. We took her skiing and ice skating and did something new and fun pretty much every weekend. We hadto – she was a bundle of energy and needed to be going going going all day. Now that she’s mellowed out a bit, we don’t feel the same urgency to get moving. Plus, my husband and I are introverts and homebodies so our default inclination is to stay at home. But I think we need to push ourselves more to get out and take advantage of all our city has to offer.

–      Go on a date night with my husband more often (every six weeks?). We are not good at date nights, but I really do find that they help me feel more connected to my husband. So I want to make them more of a priority.

Personal

–      Be more patient and less yell-y. Evergreen goal.

–      Host friends for dinner. I like the idea of having people over. I like the socializing and the community building and I even enjoy the cooking. But thinking about all of it is super daunting. So I want to get past that.

–      Buy new underwear. I am stealing this goal from Stephanie because I have been lamenting the state of my underwear drawer for a long time. So many pairs of undies have holes in them, or just aren’t comfortable or flattering. Some I know I purchased when I was pregnant with Carla, and many more are even older than that. So it’s time. I get irritated by how expensive underwear is, though, so it’s going to be a challenge to force myself to buy some – especially if I’m going to avoid the prone-to-holes Target options.

–      Read 40 books. I read 30 books this year and I want to see if I can do more in 2019. If I can truly give up my phone habit (and not replace it with TV), I think this will be easy to meet.

I know one of the reasons people don’t accomplish goals is that they are too ambitious… and maybe this list is a little ambitious. But they are aspirations, after all, not set-in-stone do-or-die musts. Anyway, let’s see how this goes!

We are all sick. My poor husband has gone back to work and Carla and I are draping ourselves pathetically across various pieces of furniture. I have given up trying to ban Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse from our home, and it plays endlessly in the background, rotting my child’s brain and fueling my nightmares.

I have managed to drag myself off the couch long enough to write 80% of the thank-you notes for our Christmas gifts. Carla needs to write three separate thank-yous to her teachers, who got her a book for Christmas, one to her babysitter for an unexpected gift of Play-Doh, and one to her grandparents for whom thank-you notes are Super Important. (I have taken their Supreme Importance to heart, as you see, writing them from my deathbed and all when I haven’t even been able to make Carla a breakfast heartier than “dry Wheat Chex in a bowl.”) She is signing the other cards, which I think is plenty. Getting her to write all the notes she needs to will be… a lengthy process. Please fill in the ellipsis with your own of all the other words I considered and rejected.

Even before this illness – which began Sunday as a scratchy throat and has snowballed to its present state of misery – felled us, my plans for dinners this week were… relaxed. It’s hard to get back into the dinner swing, post elaborate holiday meal planning. Plus, I am back on the calorie counting wagon, which makes me feel spiteful about dinners anyway.

Here we go. Perhaps in a few days I will feel well enough to plan meals for an entire week.

Dinners for the Partial Week of January 2 – January 7

Note: I am making this tonight because it is so easy. Nearly no effort, which is the most I can muster right about now. My husband and I pair this with basmati rice  (which I made last night) and caramelized onions (also a low effort item), and he also adds sundried tomatoes and feta cheese to his plate. Nothing green with this meal, but you could add a quick side salad if you were so inclined.

Note: I think this was on my meal schedule a couple of weeks ago and we ended up not eating it. Such flexibility is the benefit of having lots of chicken breasts in the freezer.

  • Mulligatawny Soup

Note: WordPress spell check is claiming that “soup” is not a word. It is, right? A word? And a food? Have I stumbled into some weird delirium? In any event, this mixture of meat and broth and other things is another super easy meal. Although I don’t think I have any pre-cooked shredded chicken in the freezer, which means I need to roast some before I make this. The recipe we use is adapted from Joy of Cooking, and it requires sauteeing mire poix (which I have pre-portioned in the freezer; you can buy mire poix from Trader Joe’s and just portion it out into freezer bags, or you can do a big batch on a day when you have time) with a couple tablespoons of flour and curry powder, adding chicken stock, shredded chicken, some thyme, salt, pepper, and bay leaves, and rice, and then cooking for awhile. You can add warm milk at the end if you so choose. Very simple but hearty and delicious.

That’s it. On Saturday, we’re going out to dinner with friends. Sunday, we may have some friends over – if that happens it will be last minute and very casual and I am trying VERY HARD not to freak out about that, because I am neither a last minute nor a casual kind of person. Monday… well, we’ll figure it out when it gets here I guess.

What are you eating this first week of 2019?