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Dear Julia Next Year

IMG_2111On the morning of May 29th, 2015, my cousin, a longtime supporter of my writing, sent me a message telling me that he missed me – Eater Provocateur, aspiring MFK Fisher 2.0, the woman and writer I dream to be. I did not have the chance to write him back or lament how much I missed me too. I’d planned to put together a book on Blurb this summer; I hoped to send off essays to journals. I was going to travel my small Utah world and write about the people and pioneers in local food production. I would take thousands of photos, and throw myself into research. After giving so much of my energy to my students, this was EP’s summer to shine.

Instead, that afternoon, I received a phone call from an emergency room in southern Utah, notifying me that my father had been admitted for a heart attack and possible stroke. The doctors could not stabilize Dad’s blood pressure, so they arranged for him to be airlifted to Salt Lake City. Not yet grasping the severity of Dad’s condition, I inquired whether I should drive to Salt Lake that evening or wait until the following day. They said, “Go now.” I went. CICU surgeons operated on his dissected heart throughout the night. Though the surgery successfully repaired the aortic tear, a scan the next morning revealed a massive stroke in Dad’s brain and no hope for recovery. He was, effectively, brain-dead. I hugged the hull of his body and authorized permission for the removal of life support. In the span of twenty-four hours, on a sunny day at the start of summer break, my father died.

*

In the intervening weeks, I learned more about my father than I ever wanted to. I scanned every credit card bill, finding pages and pages of online book purchases, and several unpaid balances. I sorted mortgage bills from utilities, three heavily indebted properties deep. I filled garbage bags with remnants of his last meals and pieces of his life that only held significance to him. I culled a biographical narrative of his youth from epistolary threads and salvaged forget-me-nots. But death is mainly business and arithmetic. In death, my father amasses a debt of $200,000 and rising.

My father was generous to a fault, and he attracted “friends” who found ways to manipulate and capitalize on his generosity. My siblings and I had often wondered why our tenured professor father lived like a pauper. Now we know – we have the calendar notations and check stubs to prove how he shared his salary with several others: current, past, or potential paramours; graduate students fallen down on their luck; renters he felt too guilty to ask for rent… and went so far as to pay their utilities to spare them from financial duress. Some of these “friends” received money from Dad for decades; one seemed especially distressed to learn that she would no longer be receiving handouts from Dad’s non-existent estate. Generosity was clearly Dad’s high.

It is not my intent to smear my father’s name, but I struggled with fury: at Dad for being such a tender-hearted idiot, and, moreover, at those who took advantage of his kindness. I will say that I did not hesitate to close accounts without notifying the parties waiting for their “paychecks.” I have also collected as much of their personal information as I can with the intent to press charges if the need arises.

As a counterbalance, I also learned that my father was loved and valued beyond measure by people who were not bleeding his bank accounts. Emails and letters poured in as news of Dad’s death reached farther and farther into his social and professional circles. All expressed genuine shock and concern; all were kind. The volume was overwhelming. I dreaded checking my email for fear of the inevitable raw and heartfelt messages within. In a way, after my mother’s laughable funeral attendance, it felt validating that so many people cared for my father, people who did not take advantage of his generosity but instead expressed their gratitude and devotion to him. I cannot remember which of these dispelled the fury, at least temporarily.

*

I still find it hard to drag myself out of bed. I do, but it takes a very long time and a lot of internal negotiation. My biggest motivations are letting the dog out and making breakfast for my family. I haven’t been running, though I know I should. I’ve been drinking too much, though I know I should not. My appetite is gone. But I believe that hope is slowly returning.

Over the weekend, I officiated Dad’s memorial service for the family. I did not pass out or collapse in grief. I held my chin high, kept my voice and my eyes level, and honored my Dad the way children must sometimes do.

I give Dad one hour each day: to make calls, to contest charges, to forward copies of his death certificate. His final affairs sit in a box by the piano; I can once again see the surface of my dining room table.

*

Dear Julia Next Year,

Remember that, at one time, you valued compassion and empathy. You will get that back.
Remember that letting go leads to freedom. Let go.
You will smile and laugh again. It will just take some time to recover.
You will not be – cannot remain – this cynical and foul-tempered. It is not healthy and it is not you.
One morning, you will wake up and want to run/cook/sing/dance/write/ be yourself again. The lengthy internal negotiations will shift from “Should I get out of bed?” to “Why shouldn’t I get out of bed?”
The murderous rage against those who manipulated your father will subside into peevish irritation and hopefully humor that cuts deep.
The world exists outside your door, and you are not done with it yet.
You stand with those who love life. So stand up.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

 

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Back to Beginnings

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Shot at night in low light with a flash… and four friends willing to be scalded in the process of capturing a single good photo. This, to me, signifies true love.

In this new year, I find myself going back to beginnings. Eater Provocateur started as a creative outlet for my inner MFK Fisher, a vehicle for self-expression with the side benefit of bringing culinary joy to others.  Entering the teaching arena diverted my energy, dividing my attention inequitably: scales tipped towards the classroom, leaving behind the whispered remnants of a blog, dusted with shreds of faded photographs past.  These days, I write as often as I can (which is not as regularly as I would like). I cook only rarely, and my camera and my food intersect awkwardly, like lovers who have grown apart but still try to maintain the pretense of an intimate relationship. Thinking of my forsaken blog causes me to wince.

Friends advise that I shouldn’t worry about my absence from the electronic world. They are, in ways, right – isn’t it more important that I engage as a human being among fellow humans? Logically, this makes sense, but it doesn’t ease the guilt of abandonment or the mourning for the lost solace of each passing day. A blog is like a child or a spouse: it requires constant, devoted attention. The reciprocation, once provided, sustains the giver. Deprived of such dynamics, the partners stray. I have been wandering in the weeds.

Nevertheless, I am blessed with friends who want, earnestly, to help keep me on track. If I make French onion soup, with toasted baguettes topped with bubbling smoked Gouda, they rally around me in support, armed with oven mitts and professional-grade cameras… a boon to a girl who started a blog with an Elph and a dream.

So I’m going back to my roots. I used to think an ambitious person could market herself in the food world and succeed according to the effort she put forth. Adulthood, and Amanda Hesser’s Food52 advice to budding food writers, convinced me otherwise. Realistically, the reach of my writing is constrained by the economic sensibilities of geographic distribution. Publishing trends and books sales are similarly disheartening. The modern literary forum is so different from that which fostered MFK Fisher and Julia Child. That knowledge is, reluctantly, and maybe must be by necessity, okay with me.

I’m still a girl with a food dream. It would be awesome to one day realize my life in terms of writing about food for a greater purpose; I’m just not there yet. I couldn’t have started this blog without the help of the friends and readers who buoy me, without those shouts of support right from the beginning. Thank you for joining me on this blog’s journey so far. Let’s make this a great year to get back to our roots… together.

Happy New Year!

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Fortune Cookies

A scholar's writing lasts longer than a martyr's blood.

A scholar’s writing lasts longer than a martyr’s blood.

You have an excellent sense of humor. Lucky number: 13

I have a moderate book problem.  I inherited my addiction from my father, who suffers from a severe, raging book problem.  He spends hundreds of dollars on books each month, scouring book-buying clubs for the newest titles, the latest, greatest publications to acquire.  He views his acquisitions in terms of collections, and is continually searching for ways in which to improve his collections. His Africa collection is exhaustive, as are his Peoples of the World and Peoples of the American Southwest. He taught these subjects at Utah State University throughout my youth.

I go on book binges, but have not yet reached a point in my life where I can afford or find room to house hundreds of dollars worth of book purchases.  My only prized “collection” – of food writing and cookbooks – falls far short of comprehensive. Sometimes I make second-hand purchases, a practice my father finds reprehensible.  I can’t help myself.  Books comfort me.  I love their distinct printed smell, the silken heft of their pages.  I do not feel settled unless I can see their colorful spines, lined up in rows on my bookshelves and arranged alphabetically by author’s last name or, in the case of anthologies, alphabetically by book title.

Can a love of words really be transmitted through a genetic line?  My dad and I both love to read in general.  We’ll read anything we can get ahold of, and spend all day doing it if time and circumstance permit.  Though I didn’t grow up in my father’s house, we cultivated our relationship over summer breaks.  My mother showed little interest in books and she sometimes teased me – not maliciously – about my reading habit, which causes me to wonder if I picked it up casually through observation of my father (whose houses over the years were technically libraries with beds, measured in linear shelf space rather than square footage) or whether there’s something to the theory of genetic transmission.

Your smile lights up a room. Lucky number: 2005

Another thing I inherited from my dad: a button nose.  I got my mother’s hazel eyes, and my father’s round chipmunk cheeks and pert nose.  My sister and brother are also blessed with the nose.  I used to like my nose passively; it was something that made my face seem less plain in photographs, though I gave little regard to it otherwise.

A large black Chow subdivided my nose in 2005.  Thirty-seven stitches later, I retained a nose, with a board instead of a button.  It healed into something wholly unremarkable, except for the thin vein of white scar tissue that flashes like lightning over the bridge.  I actively appreciate my nose now.  Had I been standing an inch to the right or left, I might have been severely disfigured or blinded.

Recently, my daughter, who is six years old, contracted mono. (We live on the campus of a boarding school, and, as such, germs befriend one another quickly.)  I have never before been so acutely aware of her spleen.  The weight and worth of my daughter’s existence catapulted to the forefront of my mind.  Simple tasks like riding her bicycle to school or competing in team sports are out of the question for the time being.  Nothing is worth risking the rupture of this small internal organ.

The body is such a miracle.  My daughter will recover.  My nose remains in tact.   Sometimes it’s the misfortunes that make us feel fortunate.

You have lovely eyes. Lucky number: 2

As a writer, I rely on my eyes to gather the visual details I tuck away for later: the tufted dandelion sprout, floating in the air; the crooked upturned arm of my spiny blue cactus; the silhouette of a horned owl, high up in a tree against the blush of sunset.  My eyes revel in my son’s playful smile; they drink in my daughter’s freckled cheeks.  They are vessels that carry the words I read onto the vast, curvaceous rivers of my mind.  If the day’s first blessing is waking up, the next true blessing must be opening one’s eyes to the possibilities of a new day. Thanks be.

You are an enigma. Lucky number: ?

Research for this essay returned me to a book I hadn’t read in years: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.  In a chapter titled “Double Face,” one of Tan’s characters, Lindo Jong, recounts sifting through potential fortunes at the fortune cookie-making factory where she once worked, in the hope of finding one that would elicit a marriage proposal from her beau.  She selected a fortune that read: “A house is not home when a spouse is not at home.”  Her clever plan succeeded.  The next day, her boyfriend asked, “Lindo, can you spouse me?”

My research also brought me to an article about the largest producer of fortune cookies, Wonton Food, Inc., which distributed over four million cookies a day in 2005.  That amounts to nearly a billion and a half cookies annually!  Who eats them all?  My theory is that most people – excluding children, who would eat cardboard if it tasted moderately sweet – are more interested in the fortunes than the golden cookies themselves.  Sometimes the messages resonate; sometimes it’s the lucky numbers. In 2005, lucky numbers won 110 people sums of approximately $100,000 each in a single day’s Powerball drawing.  The accompanying fortune?  “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”

I don’t harbor strong feelings about fortune cookies, but I love the intrigue they hold within.  Maybe if I had taken the time to read a fortune on the day of my new nose, it would have read: “Beware of inauspicious strangers.  The admiration of their beauty wields a deleterious cost.”

All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off. Lucky number: 2013

My dad once advised me to prepare to hold at least three professions in life.  The changing world, he said, required adaptability.  To date, I’ve worked in about twelve positions – with vastly different titles and responsibilities – without interruption (and sometimes simultaneously).   My love of words has threaded through each of my professional incarnations.  I am very grateful to possess a skill that benefits myself as well as others, and buoys me, despite sharp changes in the economy and employment rates.

Right now, I teach Humanities to a gregarious group of middle school students.  I have no idea how I got so lucky in this latest gig: not only do I get to read and write, I get to geek out about reading and writing with young, enthusiastic minds!  Together, we explore worlds that are so different from our own with characters who are so similar to us.  I love when my students ask questions about the text and I can literally see their imaginations flare.

I do not know what the new school year will look like for me, but I hope that the long weekends of lesson planning and grading will pay off.  I hope that this year of channeling my own creativity into the creativity of others will not have been in vain.  In truth, I have missed the freedom to write and read on my own schedule.  I have missed marching into the grocery store; sweeping ingredients into my arms, like long lost lovers; and coming home to a joyous orgy of cooking and photography.  But I have also cultivated positive relationships with seventeen great students.  I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a teacher… and learned that the process of learning never really ends. Nor does the adaptability of my spirit.

I face the fortune ahead of me with gratitude and optimism.  My love of words has yet to let me down.

© Julia Moris-Hartley 2013

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Humble Pie

Do you see a door or a wall?

I recently received a letter from a woman living in Virginia.  A small yellow butterfly adorned her address label, and delicate blue cursive spelled out my name and address.  It took me a few moments to register who this woman was, but, when I did, I tore into the envelope to read what she sent.  I’d been hoping to hear from her since February, when I mailed her two sample essays and the obligatory reading fees – an opportunity I’d awaited since October 2010, when I first learned of the essay contest that she chairs: the MFK Fisher Award Contest.

Nervous exhilaration flooded my synapses: my breath rapid, heartbeat pulsing in my ears.  There, on the page, was the familiar logo, the organization’s name, and the names of its board of directors.  There, printed in no uncertain terms, were the names of those who won.  There, in no uncertain terms, wasn’t mine. My idol’s ghost slammed the door in my face.

*

Doors open, doors close.  I’m no stranger to rejection of my writing.  Essays that appear on the blog are automatically at a disadvantage, since many publication venues consider them already “published” and are thus uninterested in “reprinting.”  I continue to submit to those few venues that will consider my work.  I’m okay with making the best of fewer options, and this was one of them… A contest blessed by the Grande Dame herself!

MFK Fisher is a sensualist whose prolific writing on the pleasures of the plate profoundly influenced the world of food writing today.  I’ve had a crush on her since I first read The Art of Eating over a decade ago. (I’ve since read it half a dozen times more.) I painstakingly selected the two entries I sent to the contest, intent on honoring her voice, her spirit, and her life’s work.  I wanted this.  I, the resolute pragmatist, allowed myself to believe this contest might even serve as a gateway.  With the rejection letter clasped between my cold fingers, I hated myself for my optimism.

My inner teenager shrieked and mentally threw a bucket of blood red paint on the winners’ cars.  My inner grandmother clucked and shook her head, weary of a lifetime of wisdoms.  I cried all night – a wretched, inconsolable mess, leaving behind a wake of soggy tissue and useless self-pity.  Then I pried my fists from my swollen, bloodshot eyes and forced myself to stop.  I wrote the award chairwoman a thank you note; gathered up the sour, limpid remnants of my humble pie; and moved on, jaw set, all the more determined to produce the caliber of writing necessary to place in the next award contest, which occurs in 2014.

*

My husband and I live and work at a boarding school, so, between our own children and the ever-fluctuating student body, much of our day involves direct interaction with impressionable minds.  We model our behavior and actions on those qualities we wish for others to see and learn.  It’s a stance I embrace: instructive and inclusive.  Many of the students I know have graduated but continue to follow my written work, either on Facebook or directly on the Eater Provocateur blog.  How many times have I told them to keep faith in themselves?  What would they think if they saw me curled in fetal position and wailing like a toddler on a sleep-deprived tirade?  What message am I sending my kids?

I was not born with an honest, easy sense of sportsmanship.  I suffer Scrabble poorly.  But I am trying.  I want them – my children and the students – to be strong, proud, and unafraid of facing frightening challenges, even if they don’t surmount them (though I desperately hope they will).  I want them to learn how to quickly recompose themselves after the wind has been knocked from them, and to extend a hand to those who have fallen around them.  I want them to be Davids to the Goliaths of life.  So I have to be all of those things myself.

*

Disappointment is a condiment that overwhelms the palate, rendering all things bitter and unsavory.  I am not proud of my unprofessional petulance.  In my defense, I would like to point out that a year and a half is a really long time.  Most contest deadlines range between three and six months; the MFK Award contest occurs every two years.  The anticipation kills.  Between October 2010 and the contest deadline in April 2012, I’d taken the MFK Fisher award out for many dates and we’d settled into a comfortable relationship.  I’d visualized our eventual marriage, our idyllic future.  The breakup was devastating.

The official results have not yet been published online, so it would be unethical to disclose the winners’ names.  I can say that the winners are cookbook authors, bloggers, chefs, and restaurateurs… even authors of highly regarded memoirs on the New York Times booklist.  Most of my competitors operate in much larger social and professional spheres, and have resources like agents, assistants, editors, and publishers.  Many have books of their own.  I competed against 82 talented female writers, each of us working in our own way to bring back the pleasures of the table and raise culinary awareness.

Now that the sting’s faded, I feel proud that I contended with such strong writers, especially as a newbie lacking in external professional representation.  That counts for something.  Clearly, we are all deeply passionate about the culinary world, contributors to culture and literature – also important.  But defeat is defeat, and disappointment is a key ingredient in humble pie. Other ingredients include hubris, self-doubt, lack of confidence, and a fundamental oblivion to the enormity of the odds at hand.  Humble pie pairs well with tequila.

*

I write notes to myself:

Be kind to Jules… She’s the only one of you that you’ve got!
Keep fighting!
Ambition is not a dirty word! 

I write notes to the students:

It doesn’t hurt to dream big – dreams are free!
Life is short – live each moment!
Never be afraid to show your compassion, intelligence, humor, and talent!

And yet.

I won’t lie.  I thought briefly – again, petulantly – about quitting: ending the blog, giving up on submitting essays to venues.  I thought: What’s the point? Why do I even try? I can’t go through this again!  Why is it that in a moment of turmoil, my first impulse was to abandon the passion that sustains me?  This is my forum for singing my love.  Giving up is not an option.

Doors open and doors close.  The trick, as ever, is finding the right doors to open at the right time, and never relinquishing hope that they are there to be found.

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Crush With Buttermilk

Memories and flavors three generations deep…

I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street.  I watch Grandpa across the table.  His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun.  Grandpa lowers his head to say grace.  “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.”  Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head.  “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.”  His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap.  “In Christ’s name, we pray.  Amen.”  I amen a couple of beats too late.  The wind chime tinkles.  Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!”  He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well.  I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.”  He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath.  His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists.  He hands me my bowl with a wink.

Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia.  For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing.  My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked.  Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches.  I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch.  Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail.  I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.

More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side.  My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth.  Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness.  Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.

As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks.  So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk.  I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat.  I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits.  I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family.  Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep.  I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.

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Halloween Haiku

Something creepy this way crawls...

During the week, I work as a writing tutor for a rotating group of high school students.  This group also includes a slightly younger pair of siblings: Stella and Lucas, age 12 and 10 respectively.  Stella’s former teachers in the San Diego school system had encouraged her to explore creativity through writing; the writing program at her new Utah school simply wasn’t compelling enough to sustain her interest.  I think that Lucas, a redhead with a sprinkling of freckles and a shy smile, joined our tutoring sessions to see if his interest could be similarly sparked.  We sit together for hour-long sessions at my large dining table and work through free writing prompts and language-building activities.  I write with them, and we share our writing round-robin style.  Stella and Lucas laugh with each other, making faces.  They reference each other in their writing.  They are the highlight of my workweek.

Last week, we wrote Halloween haikus, illustrating them in the margins with spooky characters. Frankenstein appeared in all three of our lists of Top Ten Things Related to Halloween.  Stella and Lucas’ faces furrowed with intent as they sorted through the box of markers I gave them; they wanted to make sure that their Frankensteins were just the right shade of green, his scars in the exact right placement.

Here is one of our resulting haikus:

If Frankenstein ate
candy he might not have been
in such a bad mood.

Here is one of mine:

Shaving cream egg bombs
they tossed from the bus windows
and freaked my mom out.

“What’s a shaving cream egg bomb?” asked Stella, blond brows knit together, aqua blue fingernails tapping on the table.  These were actually two different ‘bombs’ fused together for dramatic effect, I explained.

A shaving cream bomb and an egg bomb comprised only a small portion of the Coney Island Halloween experience between the years of 1984 and 1992.  An egg bomb is a raw egg pitched at high velocity from moving buses, apartment windows, and random passersby on the street.  A shaving cream bomb is a rock loosely encased by a blob of shaving cream, thrown with similar speed and intent.  I never received a shaving cream egg bomb firsthand because my mother barricaded us inside the apartment for the entire day, but the evidence was plain to see on November 1st.  Egg artilleries imploded on the sidewalks, shaving cream napalm smeared against buildings, pebbles scattered like shrapnel.

Corn mazes, hayrides, bobbing for apples, and bonfires were not commonly practiced.  Trick or treating was not encouraged.

The act of donning a costume for public appearance is referred to as ‘guising’ after the verb ‘to disguise.’  My mother disapproved of dressing in costumes at Halloween; she thought it wrong to celebrate ghouls, ghosts, and creatures she associated with the occult.  I know that she let me dress up at least once because she documented it in her journal: I was a black cat.  In college, I guised as a piece of jail bait, a nun, a witch, and a demonic vixen, selections that accurately mirror my social experiences during those years.  This year I will guise as myself, which is perhaps the most illusory guise of all.

Tricks are essentially implied shenanigan threats, translating to “Give me candy or I’ll toilet paper your rhododendron.”  In some parts of the world, however, children are expected to earn their treats by performing “tricks” like singing or telling stories, a quaint practice that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.  Wouldn’t it make the day more fun to see a pintsized skeleton dancing a jig on my doorstep?  Or to hear my daughter belting out spirited renditions of musical numbers for my neighbors as we made our rounds?  What does it say about a culture that submits to the threats of children with the reward of candy, and has even sanctioned a national holiday in celebration of this implied trickery?

Then again, few children seem to know the more mischievous nuances of the term ‘trick.’  Lucas didn’t, but he laughed when I told him about the singing and dancing alternative.  Many of the children who knock at my door omit the phrase altogether; they thrust out their buckets and bags, mute but with expectant eyes.  I wonder what they’d think if I asked them to sing me the SpongeBob theme song.

I’m not actually a Halloween crank.  The holiday endures because it’s fun to dress up and it’s even more fun to go on a raging sugar bender, as is evidenced by the extraordinary candy revenues reported in the days leading up to Halloween.  The Washington Post estimates that 90 percent of parents steal treats from their children’s sugary schwag.  (Lucas frowned when I shared this statistic.  Stella giggled.)  I admit to furtively savoring my ill begotten Skittles and Nerd Ropes. I try to remind myself that my history is not my children’s.  My kids will recall the chill of the night air, the anticipation, and the sweet rewards.

This year, Kai opted to be his hero, Spiderman, and my daughter, Rory, will be Ladybug Girl, resplendent with black fuzz ball antennae, shimmering red wings, and a gauzy tulle skirt that I handmade in one of my rare fits of crafting.

Our lights will shine through the windows on Halloween night.  I will gladly open the door.

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