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Gap Year FAQ

What is unemployment? If no one tells you that you’ve lost your job, are you really unemployed?

Generally speaking, the cessation of payment is a strong indicator that one’s job has been terminated.

Notification is a different story. I, for example, notified myself of my own impending unemployment. In February 2017, my husband, a full-time boarding school teacher, did not receive a renewal contract, so I, a part-time teacher and his partner, by extension did not either. My supervisor (the administrator responsible for contract renewals) did not discuss the matter with me, in person, in writing, or via email. I officially found out well after my peers did, in an email sent from the school’s business manager, who attributed the dissolution of my job to a lack of/low enrollment in the 7th and 8th grade student body. He intended, I think, to soften the blow: It’s economics, Jules. It’s not personal.

My employee evaluations were solid, and I completed every task asked of me (even the uncompensated ones), surpassing the requirements expected of part-time staff. I believed that my supervisor and I were on amicable terms, and, for several weeks, my confidence bolstered by favorable comments from the school’s higher ups, I reserved hope that I could continue working at the school in another capacity – potentially allowing my family to remain situated in the same house and community – until the time came when I realized that would not be the case. It felt intensely personal. People have disappeared from my life before, but for an employer to do so was a novel first.

 

I heard you moved. Where are you now?

In the fourth quarter, the school administration raced to disassociate from my family, and we reciprocated, vacating the faculty house in which we’d spent that last nine years, cleaning and preparing it for its new tenants within 36 lightning-quick hours. I documented the process on social media, using captions such as The Purge, The Big Move, Good Riddance, and, on a particularly bad day, Our Former Employer is Satan.

We took the carport and the trampoline, which we’d purchased, and dismantled the monkey bars we’d built, giving away the wood to friends for tinder. We left no trace of ourselves. Many coworkers – those with whom we’d worked and laughed, and broken bread, and raised our kids – didn’t blink or say goodbye. They avoided eye contact in shared workspaces. They drove by our house, and they watched us mop sweat from our faces as we carried load after load of pieces of our life to the ever-growing dumpster. They heard us cry on our front porch and try to diplomatically rationalize the school’s motivations to our children, who responded with greater maturity than we could have imagined.

It took several weeks to secure a rental property, during which time I slept little and fought nightmares. Ultimately, a neighbor took pity on us and agreed to rent us his house. Half a dozen school families, whose students my husband and I had taught successively, pledged to help us on moving day. When that day came, two of twelve “definites” showed up.

 

What is the hardest part about being unemployed?

This question has no single answer. Answers vary widely depending on experience and circumstance. My biggest challenge has been the shunning from former “friends” because it bleeds into so many different aspects of daily life: basic social courtesy, traditions, the definition of a functioning community. Our discontinued status at the school renders us invisible to our peers. Even today, when I encounter a former coworker at the library or the grocery store, most wince and/or avert their gaze, stumbling backwards to increase the physical distance between us. I offer them a smile and a greeting while seething inside. I used to think of myself as part of a great community, but it was only a construct of my imagination.

 

Why take a gap year, at your age?

Though we aren’t high school students trying to find ourselves before committing to a college path, the spirit of a gap year suits our current situation: we wanted to find out what to do next. My husband and I considered ourselves “lifers” at our former school. We were committed to the school’s mission and hoped both to teach our own children and to see them learn with esteemed coworkers. We dreamed our kids would matriculate from the school. The school did not return our loyalty. My husband and I found ourselves in middle age, rootless and directionless, reevaluating what we wanted from the next chapter of our lives.

Of the five major life stressors that jeopardize the stability of individuals and families, leaving the school confronted us with two: moving and starting a new job. (The other three stressors are the birth of a child, marriage, and death.) We didn’t want to act out of desperation: take last minute jobs in a random city that we might end up despising, only to job search and uproot again the following year. A hasty move compounded by a second hasty move seemed like a fast track to a lot of bad juju, and a costly one at that, so we made the decision that best supported our family’s needs. We have yet to discover whether we made right choice or not.

 

How can you afford a gap year?

My husband and I have been continuously employed since we were teenagers. In the last decade, I’ve held multiple jobs at once, concurrently freelancing, tutoring, and teaching to maximize my revenue. We agreed early on about the necessity of long-term financial planning and we’ve been aggressively saving and investing ever since. Rather than acquire additional debt, we subsidize unemployment payments by cannibalizing our retirement fund, playing a game of risk with our security net.

 

What are the benefits of taking a gap year?

If money was of no concern, my husband might never return to teaching, because he relishes his newfound liberty. He sleeps in late and stays up until the earliest morning hours playing video games and reading. He speaks his mind and eschews shaving. Sometimes he doesn’t leave the house. And he’s okay with it.

I have also benefited from a certain freedom. My former self, who I’ll call Teacher Julia, used to do battle on weekdays – nag the kids to move quickly so I could drop them off at school, rush to the dining hall to inhale reconstituted eggs for breakfast, and hustle to the classroom for a precious hour of prep before the teaching day began. I graded student work feverishly, my eyes attuned to when the clock struck 3:00. My children came home and the battle continued: urging them to do their homework while I finished gathering materials for the following day’s lessons, losing patience when they had questions and needed help. Did I ever stop to say thanks that my children had returned home safely one more time, or take a break from working long enough to hug them and breathe in their warm, syrupy hair?

While my husband’s drive for intellectual inquiry will eventually propel him back into the classroom, this Gap Year has shown me that I don’t want to go back to being Teacher Julia. She was not a happy person or an attentive mother.

 

So, um… What do you do every day?

Until one (preferably both) of us finds a suitable job, we carry on as usual, accomplishing much the same daily chores and obligations we used to, albeit with much less stress. I send the kids off with kisses every morning and wait eagerly to see their bright eyes as they come home in the afternoons.

 

What are your goals/objectives for life after the Gap Year?

  1. Obtain meaningful employment
  2. Relocate to an affordable home in a new town
  3. Start over

Simple, right?

 

Have you reached a place of acceptance?

Friends have likened leaving the school to escaping from a destructive relationship: you don’t know how bad it was until you get away from it. In our last year of teaching, the school’s motto seemed to be The beatings will continue until morale improves, or, as Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge says: “A good thrashing is what’s needed in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred.” We saw (and experienced) countless random outbursts and rash, demoralizing criticisms. A change to the administrative roster caused ripple effects – thrashing upon thrashing – that led to roughly one-third of the school’s faculty being let go or voluntarily opting to seek employment elsewhere for the 2017-2018 academic year. In hindsight, it was time to walk away from a rapidly souring romance. We weren’t the only ones who did.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Thanks especially to MO, FM, and RD for the kindnesses you showed us when kindness seemed in short supply; and to all the friends, near and far, who stood by us during the painful transition. We are very grateful for your support!

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Eat, Memory

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Thank you for the photo, Lori!

Last month, three girlfriends and I attended a dinner featuring dishes from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. The event, a labor of love co-hosted by Chef Shaun Heaslet of Harmons Bangerter Crossing Cooking School and Sheral Schowe of Wasatch Academy of Wine, paired five courses with five wines, each thoughtfully selected to highlight the terroir surrounding Keller’s renowned California restaurant.

At the dinner, I met a cowboy – not my first, but the most memorable thus far: a cattle rancher wearing a plaid shirt with pearly snap buttons, a worn brown leather belt, and faded Wranglers. He introduced himself as Spence and I told him my name in turn. He looked to be in his fifties, with tanned, wrinkled skin from years of working under the sun. We shook hands. It didn’t take long before he asked where I was from, to which I gave my usual response: “Everywhere.” His smile faltered, so I elaborated. “I grew up in Coney Island, but my dad and grandpa lived out West, so I spent most of my summers here… I’ve also lived in Arizona and Florida and…” Spence nodded, waited a beat, and said, “And that was what you hoped you wouldn’t have to tell me, right?”

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Shortly before his death, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published his manifesto, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Brillat-Savarin’s essays and anecdotes explore taste and the senses, the elements of a proper culinary experience, and our responsibilities as diners. “The pleasures of the table are for every man,” he writes, “of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest.”

Every man and woman, I might add, with essays titled “Portrait of a Pretty Gourmand” (in “full-battle dress,” her eyes shining and gestures “full of grace”) and “Women Are Gourmandes.” I discovered long ago that I fall into his category of “predestined gourmand,” which is fortunate because he also classifies writers as those who benefit the most from good eating. My friends and I were there that night to eat well. It’s safe to say that we four lean toward indulging our sensual impulses, as was evidenced when we all fell wildly in lust with the evening’s tomato sorbet, and struggled bodily to refrain from licking our plates. Spence tried not to laugh.

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn't for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

And we would have gotten away with licking our plates if it wasn’t for those other pesky diners! (Thanks for the picture, Casey.)

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Spence charmed me by the first course. He turned to our group and asked, “Which one of you’s in charge here?” Casey raised two fingers and assumed the role of lead provocateur among the sixteen guests seated at the long, low-lit table. Spence did his best to keep pace, regaling us with decidedly non-PC jokes (about Mormons, minorities, and the blind, to name a few). His wife, Cindy, rolled her eyes; I suspect she’d heard the jokes a few times before, but the rest of us cackled. Casey tried valiantly to suppress repeated fits of giggles. By the third course, we were swapping pictures of the animals we love. He and Cindy showed us their pack of small dogs. “This one had one eye and was in bad shape when we got it,” he said, pointing to a brown toy poodle on his phone. “Rescue cost me $1200 bucks.” He grunted and mumbled, “Sweetest damn dog in the world.” Spence warned that he was hard of hearing, yet chuckled when we mimicked his “I can’t hear you” gestures. Cindy egged us on.

*

At the start of each course, Sheral provided her own stories and experiences with the wine she’d chosen, giving us a relatable sense of the geography and environment in which the grapes grow and are harvested, and sharing the provenance of the wines and winemakers themselves. We sniffed and swirled our glasses, pausing to observe the flavor of each wine and noting with pleasant shock and delight the changes evinced by our senses of smell and taste working in tandem.

Perhaps because we were so immersed in each sip, so intently focused on each sumptuous bite, I started to feel a little uneasy thinking about other meals I’ve eaten. I could tell you what I ate for breakfast, but could I draw a mental image of it? What did it smell like? How did the first bite taste? Was it as good as the last bite? Sheral’s sonorous voice drew me back into the moment, but my inner Brillat-Savarin clucked, Exactement. “In eating,” he writes, “we experience a certain special and indefinable well-being, which arises from our instinctive realization that by the act we perform we are repairing our bodily losses and prolonging our lives.” I resolved to pay closer attention to that which sustains me.

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Though Brillat-Savarin was a lawyer by profession, his written legacy was central to the formation of the food writing and gastronomic world we know 190 years later. He posited, among many other things, that the company one keeps at a meal is as important as what is eaten; that hospitality and conviviality are essential and serve as direct aids to good digestion. Granted, his social circle – and the time required to dine as he did – differs greatly from what most of us recognize as the norm today.

It can be a struggle in this day and age to sit through a long meal, but it’s worth the fight. In the company of strangers brought together by passion and chance, removed from the expectation of cleaning up, we talked, drank, and ate for three hours. Who wanted to leave? We intoxicated ourselves with the spirit of joy.

*

We arrived to the dinner as strangers, but left with a feeling of satiation and heightened intimacy, which, I think, resides at the heart of any good dining experience. At the evening’s reluctant end, I heard a soft whistle behind me. Spence stood nearby, gazing at Casey with something like awe. “Man, you are tall!” he declared, smacking his leg and whistling again. He added, more to himself than to her: “And so pretty.” I am not sure if Casey heard his comment. I smiled inside and out. Spence tapped my arm and tipped his hat. “Y’all stay out of trouble, now.” We promised we’d see him again soon, but couldn’t speak for trouble.

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Saucy, sexy, and undeniably smart… Thank you for making the evening a night to remember!

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Starter Pack

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New life comes to friends around me. In the last month, I’ve congratulated parents-to-be and anticipated the purchase of adorable children’s clothing and, particularly, children’s books: Knuffle Bunny; Where The Wild Things Are; To Market, To Market; Love You Forever; A Sick Day for Amos McGee… I could, I think, recite these books by heart. My spirit surges with joy for my friends, now in the place in which I found myself ten (almost eleven) years ago. Yet their exuberance, this newness, evokes conflicting emotions. I feel a bit like a member of the Senate of Established Parents: What advice should I share? How honest is too honest? How much do I even remember? The resulting list comes from a late-night gathering of “Senators” who wish we’d known then what we know now.

Just Sign Here… And Here… And Here… And….

In my limited experience, it was much easier to contribute another human being to the gene pool than it was to obtain a driver’s license. (Friends who went through hell to conceive understandably disagree.) Most legal procedures require tests, forms, money, and unflattering photographs prior to initiation. When, for example, a person invests in something important, like a new appliance or car, the purchase usually includes an operation manual. With pregnancy, it’s Have Fertilized Egg, Will Travel. The authorized paperwork occurs later. Parenthood is absurd in that we enter it completely untrained and ill equipped.

Here’s Your Beautiful, Darling Miracle… Good Luck With That.

I attended the prenatal breastfeeding class that the hospital offered. I have the certificate and the detailed notes to prove it. Breastfeeding is lauded as the most natural and beneficial way to feed your child. Doing so seemed like such a no-brainer. And yet, one week into Kai’s early life, sleepless and exhausted from feeding him 10-12 times a day, my nipples sore and bleeding (apologies for the mental image), nothing I learned in the class applied to feeding the wailing child in my lap. Dear Parents, don’t be a stubborn wretch like me. Don’t wait until it’s too late and the nurse seated across from you says something hurtful, like, “You’ve been doing it all wrong” or “What in God’s name took you so long to come in?” If you plan to breastfeed, schedule a consultation with a Lactation Specialist as soon as your baby is born.

On Lobotomies

Maybe you’re the type of person who listens to classical music in your down time. If you are, please skip this section. If you aren’t, RUN – do not walk! – as fast as you can from those cutesy collections of baby composers. Run to save the last remnant of your adult sanity. Run to save yourself. It’s fine to stay away. I raised my children on Billy Idol and the entire 80s oeuvre, Madonna, Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Chevelle. Kai and Rory both love music today; they adore Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, singing, and wild dance rumpuses. The mathematic, mind-enhancing properties attributed to rhythm and meter prevailed. And I spared myself a lobotomy.

Sexy Time

For a while, there might not be any. That’s okay, because:

  1. Parenthood is sexy and empowering.
  2. You start to notice sexy new habits with your partner, like how he wakes up to feed the baby in the middle of the night or the way she consistently slam-dunks dirty diapers.
  3. Um, maybe sexy time takes a brief hiatus. It’s still okay.

Disclaimer: I, Julia Moris-Hartley, do solemnly swear that I never use the term “sexy time” in real life.

Keep Calm and Parent On

Millennia of procreative pursuits have shown that humans are fairly resilient. We withstand drought, plight, famine, mass migration, war, pillaging, diabolical dictators, journey by chuck wagon, scurvy, stomach flu, diaper rash, and plagues of Biblical proportion. Your little one is a testament of endurance. S/he will not break.

Time to Make The Donuts

Heretical and methodical as I may sound to the feed-on-demand faction, putting your baby on a reliable feeding schedule makes you both happier. Babies develop the understanding that life follows a pattern: wake up, eat, play, snuggle, rest, repeat. The number of daily feeding cycles decreases as your child grows. Your baby starts to sleep for longer stretches. You feel almost alive again. If you choose to adopt a schedule and one morning find – miracle of miracles! –your baby sleeping in, make yourself a coffee and enjoy every sip. No need to wake your child up if he/she sleeps past feeding time. Babies need sleep.

Peas Before Pineapples

When baby graduates to solid foods, members of the Parenting Committee recommend introducing vegetables and savory foods well before sweet ones. The rationale: it’s much easier to cultivate an appreciation for pureed beans before baby knows that applesauce might be an alternative.

Haters Gonna Hate

You are not a bad person if the only baby you like is your own. Being the epic, unique creation of your union with your partner, your baby is obviously superior in every way. You will love your child so much that it physically hurts. Show baby some affection by cuddling often. Kiss your little one so much s/he smells like you. Try not to be offended if other mortals fail to celebrate baby’s perfection, 100 percent of the time.

The Take-Away

Most of all, trust that the Maternal Order of Parenthood makes converts of everyone – once you see your baby’s face, that’s it. You’re imprinted. You love the “pilgrim soul” in your child forever. And one day, too soon, memories of the hurdles you faced will dim, perhaps prompting you to start again. Savor every precious minute.

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A special note of thanks to Senators English, Austin, Roth, and Quackenbush, and Honorary Speakers Brinkley and Ryckman, for their participation in the January Symposium on Parenting.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Go, Daddy, Go!

This story of abundance begins two hours away, at a freshwater reservoir in north-central Utah, where, on a summer night, crayfish emerge from sandy soil and are easily caught between a net and a bright flashlight. Two hunting methods prevail. Shine a light in shallow waters where crayfish dwell and either: position a net behind them to catch them as their abdominal muscles (i.e. the delicious “tails” we seek to eat) furiously backpedal, or position yourself to pluck them by hand, one by one, writhing, in tact, as they slowly maneuver forward. Toss them quickly into ice coolers waiting nearby.

 

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Crayfish in wait.

Genetic cousins to insects, crayfish (also known as crawfish or crawdads) are crustaceans that have proliferated as a species for millions of years. Sturdy exoskeletons and an instinctual affinity for the dark have encouraged their success. To their detriment, their sexy abdomens: humanity’s temptation.

In the intervening hours after catching crayfish, and prior to boiling the crayfish in restaurant-sized pots situated on heat sources of your choosing, encourage the little bugs to purge the mud and flatworms from their digestive tracts by submerging them in a series of cleansing salt-and-ice-water baths, each of which should grow successively less murky as the purging progresses. Crayfish, like other crustaceans, have evolved to self-metabolize at death; their digestive enzymes quickly begin breaking down the very muscle tissue prized by food enthusiasts, so be sure to keep them very cold and cook them quickly.

At cooking time, aim for maximum output and minimal clean-up. Our hosts, Kurt and Maggi, set out vinyl tablecloths topped with newspaper and mason jars filled with fresh flowers (the former for practical disposal, the latter for aesthetic pleasure). Maggi and Kurt invited all guests to contribute their lot of corn-on-the-cobs, red potatoes, sausages, and butter. Kurt graciously incorporated all of our ingredients into a crayfish boil, extending the haul – with generous sprinklings of Old Bay – to a lavish backyard feast. Maggi adorned each table with bowls of hot, melted butter for dipping.

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The art of eating involves tactile education, which many guests received together, under Kurt and Maggi’s tutelage. With their guidance we learned to twist and snap the abdomens away from the upper bodies, and to grasp the middle tail fins in order to pull out the digestive tracts cleanly. (These are filled, mostly, with sandy debris.) Once accomplished, we smashed the protective abdominal shells in order to harvest the silken meat. Crunchy orange confetti, small enough to be overlooked, signify females and their roe. That weird green stuff under the spindly legs? Probably related to the tomalley in lobsters, crayfish’s bigger, saltwater relative: sometimes used as a flavorant, but deleterious to leave in tact, for its self-destructive tendencies. Should we eat the claws or the heads, as we’d seen on television? Yes, we could, crunching their shells in our teeth – we found them briny, but less abundant than the abdomens, which yielded fleshy stores about the same size as small-to-medium shrimp.

Seafood boils have roots in the coastal regions of the southern United States, but they vary in history, geography, and name: clam bakes, shrimp boils, low country boils, etc. Boils flourish in ice coolers (excellent insulators for temperature extremes); in cast iron pots or Dutch ovens; on the stove; on the grill; and in any place the human initiative seeks to celebrate the bounty provided by the natural world. For us, it was central Utah on a random July night with gas stoves in a friend’s backyard.

James Beard wrote fondly of the crayfish boils of his Oregon youth. “If you can find or order crayfish in your locality,” he wrote, “they are something to hail with joy and treat with reverence.” He cooked his in court bouillon; we cooked ours in water and Old Bay, but I like to think that, over two nights and in our very small scale, we joined Beard in spirit, hailing in joy over a delicious feast.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Red Curry Days

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“It’s something you can’t explain exactly, why people become friends. It’s chemistry, is what they say. Maybe it’s just being the right people with the right feelings in the right place at the right time.” – After Eli

I’m standing at the kitchen counter, mincing a dozen garlic cloves for a Thai-themed New Years Eve dinner with friends.  The snow-crusted landscape outside the large kitchen window reveals its secrets as I chop: trails navigated by fluffy, short-eared brown rabbits, deer, and silver foxes; the incisions – narrow, wide, and wild – cut during afternoons of sledding.  The garlic burns my chapped fingers, but I savor its aroma.  My friends roll limes and juice them. We marinate large London broil steaks in garlic, lime juice, brown sugar, and Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce.  We’ve boiled shell-on shrimp in Fat Tire beer and paprika. Rice simmers and swells on the stove.  Several generous tablespoons of red curry paste enliven two cans of coconut milk in a pot, bubbling gently. We’re joking and laughing… well on our way to a Thai feast.

Three days earlier, I sent these same friends a frantic email reneging on my offer to be the dinner chef for a short getaway we’d planned together.  I cried as I typed: nerves frazzled, ready to breakdown.  There’d been a death in my husband’s family; the combination of the emotions wrought by her death and the stress of packing bags and supplies for the entire family overwhelmed me.  I told my friends that I just couldn’t do it.  It was one obligation too many.  Could someone else please cook the food on the last night?  I immediately received two responses: one graciously offering to cook, and one expressing pride in me for asking for help.

My mood lifted as soon as we arrived. We walked into the rented house and received cheers. Someone handed me a beer. Someone else hung up my coat, and shepherded me to a chair. During those three days, we cooked, ate, drank, and played heated rounds of Bananagrams and Oh Hell, cursing with gusto.  My friends showered me in hugs.  They counseled me, refusing to let me make a decision in which I would “make do” and achieve less than my highest potential. I don’t care if I sound hokey.  I love these people.

After dinner on New Years Eve, I stepped outdoors to admire the shadows of the bare, white trees. I listened to the snow, faintly crackling as it hardened into a crusty shell, the muffled horn of a freight train hugging the curves of icy tracks in the distance.  My face pinkened in the cold.  My fingers felt brittle and difficult to bend. I thought of the bunnies and the scraggly foxes, how they manage to thrive in such a beautiful, but harsh landscape. Though my friends and I live in warm, comfortable houses, there are elements of our environment that are harder to endure, but we hunker down and endure them together.  I’m so grateful to have friends who come clamoring with hot drinks and warm cheer when my spirit threatens to plummet into brittle, icy winter.

Red Coconut Curry

My friends, Alethea and Jonelle, tie for the title of Curry Queen.  I am only a Curry Handmaid, but if you find your spirit in need, here’s a quick recipe to help warm you.

1” nub fresh ginger, grated (I use a microplane)

1 yellow onion, diced

3 tbsp. red curry paste

1 can coconut milk

Vegetable oil

Warm a little vegetable oil on medium heat in a large skillet. (I use about a tablespoon.)  Add ginger and red curry paste.  Stir and cook for a couple minutes, then add onion.  Stir to combine and cook onion until soft.  Add coconut milk and stir to combine.  Serve hot over a nice bed of jasmine rice.

Also delicious with chicken, shrimp, or vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, tomatoes, or crisp green beans.

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Cooking for Friends

House Rule #1: Maximum Fun!

One of the finest aspects of a work schedule structured around the academic school year is the three-month reprieve that marks summer vacation.  An educator devotes all of her year to working with students – long hours, wearying weeks and responsibilities that seem never to end, bewildering efforts that are seldom adequately compensated… at least, not by salary.  Boarding school life adds extra pounds to the professional weight, since school life is inseparable from home life.  A teacher or tutor remains a teacher or tutor, on-call even at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.  This uninterrupted stress is relieved on the last, blessed day of the school year.

We seize upon the freedom of summer as hungrily as if we’ve been on a yearlong cleanse.  I untether myself from tutoring appointments, becoming a freewheeler who runs at six in the morning and stays out late with friends if she feels like it; released from his second home in the classroom, my husband stays up all night and sleeps until noon.  We use the humble savings we’ve accumulated throughout the year to travel: visiting family, camping, and making the annual pilgrimage to the cabin my grandfather built for my grandmother, nestled deep in the woods of central Idaho.  This year, we invited friends to join us.

I love working at a boarding school.  I love the high school students’ energy, I’ve met incredible faculty families from around the world, and I have never had so many engaging, quirky lunchtime conversations.  My friends are some of the hardest working teachers, counselors, tutors, and administrators I know.  My life is better for knowing them, which is why I thought it would be fun to invite them to my own private Idaho – to commune, cook for them, and laugh without reserve.

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I’ve been coming to the log cabin since I was a baby.  I have pictures to prove it: a chunky toddler, all pudgy thighs and blond ringlets in a flowered swimsuit, wiggling her toes in the riverbank’s soft, white sand; a seven-year-old brunette in a short sleeved red dress, gazing out the window of a car into a swath of established, fragrant ponderosas, blurred olive and amber brown; a gawky teenager, outfitted in silver braces and a strange black skirt, caressing her aunt’s thick-haired Kairn Terriers; a bride on her wedding day, resting on a bed of pine needles outside the kitchen window.  I married at the little church in the wildwood.  I catered my own reception and held it at the cabin, where we blew bubbles over the river and partied long into the night at the town saloon.

Of all the places I’ve lived or travelled to, the cabin feels most like home.  I feel most like myself there.  I remember how much my grandfather enjoyed inviting guests to the cabin, particularly in autumn when the sycamore trees flared golden before browning and shedding their leaves in the river.  He flourished in the company.  He loved playing Scrabble late into the night (and he usually won – with triple word scores using the high-point letters).  I think he also savored his guests’ appreciation of the home he’d built in the woods, of the area’s raw scenic beauty. I hope to perpetuate my grandfather’s legacy of laughter and communion by sharing the cabin with friends.

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On this trip, I cooked:

Kielbasa with wild rice, green beans, green salad
Penne alla vodka, garlic bread, crisp salad
Pulled pork in spicy chipotle sauce, jasmine rice, black beans with green chiles
Gruyere egg casserole with mushrooms and tomatoes, bacon, sausage, pancakes
Crème brulée bread pudding and margarita lime pie (a birthday celebration!)

My friends asked: “Are you sure you want to cook for us?” Unequivocally yes.  I would make a living out of it if I could.  The act of food preparation quiets my frenetic mind; sharing with others soothes my soul.  Their pleasure is my pleasure; their company, my extreme good fortune.  Cooking for them is an earnest gesture of appreciation.

While our children played in the river, riding its currents on ancient black rubber inner tubes and building castles in the sand, I held vigil in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, and sautéing.  My friends went on hikes, biked the area trails, tubed, read books, and sunbathed.  I registered their comings and goings as I cooked, smiling into the pans sizzling on the stove, and squeezed in pockets of time to run, read, and write as well. When we all sat down at the dining table, huddled together under the big brass lantern, the rugged outline of pine trees silhouetted in dwindling evening light, I watched my friends dig into what I’d made, delighted by their enjoyment and delighted to share this time with them.

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