Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The disappointment I should warn you about came to my attention on a frigid and stressful January night when I decided I wasn’t going to cook. It was a hectic, overscheduled day and the entire family was tired, cranky and hungry. Dinner was going to be late. The boy said he wasn’t going to eat it, anyway. The teenager wondered why it wasn’t ready NOW because she was “staaaarrrrving”. I finally gave up in frustration and told the husband to go start the car because we were going out to eat. I was sure that a couple of nice, juicy fast food burgers would solve all of our problems. I knew that the restaurant would help me escape the stress and the whining and the drudgery of cooking. That cheap, quick meal would be just the escape I needed from the crazy, dinnertime chaos. Little did I know how wrong I was.

Over the years, in my infinite aged wisdom, I’ve learned that there are 10 essential things that every human being needs to be happy. They need food, water, shelter, love, clean air, a virus free computer, an indoor toilet, cats who always use their litter box, nice abs and finally, some way to escape when things get crazy. Of course, this ability to escape the everyday stresses of life just might be the most important one of all.

When I was a kid there was a commercial on television that showed a hectic household full of screaming children. The exasperated and overwhelmed mother would throw her hands up in the air and pray to the God of Stress Free Bathing, “Calgon, take me away!” In the final shot of the commercial, the mother had escaped to her bathtub filled with Calgon products, that were undoubtedly responsible for her current relaxed and Zen-like state.

I was 11 years old when I first heard Rupert Holmes sing about “the same old dull routine” in his “Pina Colada” song, “Escape”. I didn’t fully understand the lyrics of the song at the time, but it was clear to me that he definitely needed an escape from something.

When I graduated from both high school and college, my peers always talked of taking trips to Mexico or Europe. They claimed they were looking to escape the real world just a little bit longer before they were off to college or their first job. These days it’s quite common to escape the stress of work and kids and daily life with exotic vacations or quaint weekend get-aways. It’s easy to escape into a 55 inch flat screen television when you have 212 channels to choose from. Video games, the internet, beer, the treadmill, gambling, iPods, cell phones and a plate of nachos all offer their own form of escape from the stressful parts of daily life.

My personal first escape of choice has always been books. For instance, I spent last week shadowing covert CIA operatives with questionable motives who were immersed in the Tet Offensive. I found myself suffocating in the stifling humidity of the Vietnamese jungle as I dodged Viet Cong bullets. When I left Vietnam I hitched a ride with some East Indian immigrants on their way to Boston and New York. I even learned a few new Bengali words. And just yesterday I started on a new adventure to rural Afghanistan. Some people escape to a concert or to a Hawaiian beach or to the World of Warcraft on their computer. I happily escape to page 342 of my book.

And of course, when family life gets crazy, like it did on that cold, January night, my 2nd escape of choice is the occasional meal out at a restaurant. As my family debated what they were going to order, I already knew that I would order my usual--a nice loaded burger, no fries and a big water. I never order the fries or the soda in my own admirable effort to cut a few calories. This time however, when I looked up at the menu to find my burger choice, I could see that something was different.

The number of calories for each item on the menu were now listed right next to that item. In big, bold black numbers. That everyone could plainly see.

Oh dear.

My preference for denial in these matters began to uncomfortably confront me.

I feel I must warn you now. I have found that the restaurant meal may no longer be a place for escape. My burger, even without the fries and a soda, was certainly no longer an escape. Calorie denial was no longer an option. That new menu began to taunt me with numbers like 680 and 745. The menu dared me to order the dry chicken breast salad with no dressing. That new menu was most depressing and quite possibly slightly evil.

I cannot say strongly enough that if a meal out is your preferred form of escape from the everyday stresses of life you are in serious trouble. I would recommend that you begin to develop an alternative preferred escape like gambling or drinking or training for a marathon. Because the restaurant is no longer fun. It is no longer an escape.

As for me, I begrudgingly ate my salad. And then I went back home to my books. Afghanistan never looked so good.

Check This Out!

If you would like to escape to the Vietnam war, try reading Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. I didn’t think I would like this book because it’s like nothing I usually read. But I did like it and so have a lot of other people. It’s won a ton of awards including the National Book Award for fiction and was on numerous Top 10 Books of 2007 lists. If you’d prefer to immerse yourself in the Indian culture then try The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Ms. Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author who paints a compelling picture of the struggle many immigrants to the United States face. If you’d like to escape to Dairy Queen I highly recommend the Flamethrower burger. Order a ¼ pound version instead of a ½ pound version and tell them to leave off the bacon. Oh, and scrape off half of the sauce before you eat it. As long as you don’t look at the calories posted on the menu you should be able to eat it without too much guilt.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Don't Mean to Brag

I don’t mean to brag. But I know a few things about cars. I know what it means to change jets and not be anywhere near an airport. I know that butterflies have nothing to do with nature. I know that the often overlooked low lift numbers can be just as important as the peak flow numbers. I know that a high speed retard is a good thing and not an awful insult. I know that the Rhino Charge Enhancer is not a late night infomercial for men. I don’t mean to brag. But I know these things.

I know that alcohol injection and beer chugging are not the same thing. I know that I can have 3 custom tune files stored and still not have any music to listen to. I know that getting supercharged doesn’t involve drinking an ounce of coffee. I know that a double pumper doesn’t have anything to do with lactating breasts. I know that Cleveland is not a city, Magnum is not a gun and Wedge is not a golf club. I don’t mean to brag. But I know these things.

The husband knows a few things about cars too. While I do occasionally have to instruct him on how to drive them in a safe and law abiding manner, most often he can fix them without consulting the encyclopedia of gearhead wife wisdom. There is however, one area of the automotive world in which the husband still has a lot to learn. The husband has yet to learn the proper time to fill up the gas tank.

I don’t mean to brag. But I know that the best time to fill up a gas tank is before it gets below the red E. The husband naively disagrees. He has mathematical formulas to back up his position. He has years of commuting experience that he has submitted as evidence. He has an engineering degree that testifies to his qualifications.

I have common sense.

When we discuss how wrong the husband is about this he says things like, “Blah, blah, blah….fuel tank capacity….blah, blah, blah….EPA fuel mileage ratings….and blah, blah, blah…my recent percentage of fuel efficient highway driving…………blah.

I say things like, “Look….it’s on empty!”

And so, as I got in the husband’s car the other day I was most distressed to find that he has yet to realize the superiority of my knowledge in this gas getting area. As I turned the key, I looked down to find the little lever below the line. He was below empty. He should have filled up by now. I stewed the entire drive to the grocery store. I wondered if he’d ever learn. I stewed the entire time in the store. I decided that I was not going to fill his tank for him. I would let him suffer the natural consequences of not listening to me. I stewed the entire drive home from the store. I formulated my impending verbal attack on him trying to disguise it as loving, constructive, non judgmental criticism.

As I pulled into the driveway I looked down at the gauge again. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Suddenly, the husband’s car had somewhere between a third and a half tank of gas. I was stunned. I had no explanation. I called the husband out to his car.

“How do you explain this?” I demanded. “You were completely out of gas and now there is over a third of a tank!”

“The engine warmed up.” he stated calmly.

“What? That makes no sense.” I said a little too arrogantly. “ You don’t create more gas when the engine warms up.”

He looked at me with part amusement, part exasperation and part sympathy for my obvious ignorance. He pointed to the gauge. “No, it is not possible to create more gas, Melissa, but when you drive the car the engine does get warmer. And that’s exactly what this temperature gauge that you’re looking at is telling you. That’s why the little red line went up. The engine got warmer.”


Now I don’t mean to defend myself, but in my car the gauges ARE reversed.

It’s a simple mistake, really.

I’m sure it happens to people all of the time.

In fact, I think it really is probably a design flaw with the car.

I mean, really, I don’t mean to brag. But I do know a few things about cars.

Check This Out!

Now I don't mean to brag, but this bean dish is really, really good. It's my grandmother, Nanny's, recipe. My dad has perfected it with a few changes of his own. Now don't tell me how you don't like beans. They are really good for you. At the very least make this for your next pot luck and you'll see that I know a few things about beans.

Bean Dish

Brown 1/2 to 1 lb of ground beef, 3/4 lb of bacon cut into small pieces and at least 1 cup of chopped onions in a skillet. Drain grease. Put into a crock pot. Add 2 or 3 16 oz cans pork and beans. Drain 1 16 oz can of garbanzo beans, 1 16 oz can of kidney beans and 1 16 oz can of butter beans and add to crock pot. (Or use your own favorite combination of beans. I tend to use 2 pork and beans and double up on some other bean.) Add 1 16 oz can of diced tomatoes, 1 cup of ketchup, 1/4 cup of brown sugar, 3 TBL of white vinegar and 1/2 TBL of liquid smoke if you have it. Add 1 tsp of salt and some pepper. Stir it all up, cover and cook on low for many, many hours. Perhaps 6. It freezes well if you possibly have any left over.

Monday, January 12, 2009

It Makes Me a Little Nervous

I read the newspaper obituaries every week. It’s because I’m at that age. The age when anything is possible. People my age run multi-million dollar companies. People my age climb Mt. Everest. People my age are seasoned rock stars. But, people my age also get cancer and diabetes. People my age are starting to have back trouble and need prescriptions. In fact, people my age are starting to die.

And as unusual as it might be, it makes me a little nervous.

“How old was she?”

That’s usually the first question I ask. I’m always praying that the dead person was older than me. It makes me feel better, a little less vulnerable. I want to know if they smoked… because I don’t. I want to know if they exercised… because I have a treadmill. I want to know if they enjoyed too much whiskey and nasty frozen Mexican dinners… because I don’t… drink whiskey. I’d like to be able to pinpoint a reason that explains why that person died and I didn’t. As awful as it is, I can understand it when really old, really sick people die. But I’m not ready for people like me to start dying. It makes me a little nervous.

Recently a father in my suburb died. This man’s death hit a little too close to home for me. He was the parent of a teenager- just like me. He went to the same grocery store. He volunteered at the same school. He drove down the same highway. His death made me a little nervous.

While I was sad for this man’s family, I was, I’m embarrassed to say, also selfishly worried about myself. I thought of how difficult this loss would be for my daughter who was the same age as his. I thought of how difficult a loss like this would be for my family and my friends. I needed to find a reason that made him different than me and would convince me that my destiny was different than his had been. And so, of course, I wondered how old he was. I wondered if he smoked. I wondered if he was overweight. I wondered if he worked too many hours in a highly stressful job. I examined my standard list of reasons hoping that one might differentiate me from my suburban counterpart.

A week or two after this local father’s death, his obituary came out in our town’s newspaper. And I must say, it was a surprisingly honest and forthright obituary. Apparently, in his younger years, this man was a bank robber. “He robbed 49 banks in total before being caught by the FBI. He then spent nine years in federal prisons thinking about his life.”

Oh,I felt so much better. The stress from bank robbing and incarceration can’t be good for anyone’s health. I felt confident that I probably did have some time left on this earth, afterall. I may be at that age when people around me are getting prescriptions, getting sick and even dying. I may even have a few of my own bad habits that I need to work on. But at least I haven’t robbed any banks or been in prison. At least I had that going for me.

Check This Out!

Years ago I worked at a Waldenbooks in the Teton Mall in Idaho Falls, Idaho. My boss let me take home any book from the store that I wanted to as long as I brought it back in good condition. The husband was working long hours and I spent every waking moment immersed in the best fiction of that time. I was in heaven.

In the years since then, I've become more of a non-fiction reader. However, after thoroughly enjoying the prior Slightly Exaggerated recommendation, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, I am making more of an effort to read good fiction like I used to. And here is some good fiction by first time novelist Dalia Sofer. Her book, The Septembers of Shiraz, was a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. Set in Iran after the fall of the Shah, a wealthy Jewish father is taken prisoner by the Revolutionary Guards. Full of history and drama it's an honest look at what motivates people. The author's family escaped Iran in 1982 when she was 10 lending an added layer of credibility to this novel. I do tend to be quite fond of books about the Middle East and this definitely kept my interest the whole time.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I Blame the Snow

When I sliced open my finger the blood made vibrant red designs in the piles of white snow in my yard. The snow had seemed never ending and never melting. The snow dominated every newscast. The snow caused panicked people to fill up their freezers with food. The snow caused 3 week’s worth of garbage and recycling to pile up in my neighborhood. It was because of the snow that I was attempting to make more room in my overflowing recycling bin. It was because of the snow that I pushed the contents down as far as I could and sliced my finger on that hidden can lid. I blame the snow.

We were living in Idaho when the teenager was 2 months old. The snow was expected and the wind was always blowing. The temperature outside was 2 degrees. I felt that this was the perfect time to plan a Christmas party for 100 people. I bundled the infant teenager and headed to Costco to buy supplies. As I left the store I learned for the first time that it is impossible to push a fully loaded cart through a snow covered parking lot. The infant teenager began to cry as the wind picked up. I tried to put my mitten on but it was quickly blown away, landing underneath a car. Standing there in that parking lot, my lack of experience with screaming infants and foul weather shopping cart maneuvering and frostbitten extremities began to overwhelm me. It was because of the snow that I began to panic. I blamed the snow.

We were living in New Hampshire when we rented the colonial house with the super long driveway. Life was full of quaintness and history and winding country roads lined with vibrant orange and red and yellow. And then darkness overtook the world and we began our winter of Nor’easter assaults and the accompanying perpetual dumping of snow. 6 inches of snow was entertaining. 12 inches of snow made the landscape stunningly beautiful. 24 inches of snow in the yard was something to brag about. The snow continued to pile up, however, and soon our landlord stopped using the plow on the front end of his pickup truck to clear our driveway. It was because of the whopping 130 inches of snow we received that winter that our landlord began plowing our driveway with a front end loader. It was because of the snow that we vowed to never live in New England. We blamed the snow.

She was not a young woman when she flew through the air in her Volkswagen. She was, however, a stubborn woman full of spunk and determination. Her ranch in the rural foothills of the Colorado Rockies had seen plenty of winter snow since she moved there in the 1970’s. Every winter, the plow would trudge up the mountain pushing mounds of snow to the side of the road, blocking the end of her long, steep driveway. She didn’t feel the need to shovel the mound out of her way. The most logical way to deal with it, she felt, was to simply plow right through the snow mound with her car. Year after year the dry, fluffy snow yielded to the woman and her car and she proceeded out of her driveway unchallenged.

One year however, the woman pushed the snow with the front end of her car and found the snow pushing back. This year, the snow was stronger. She backed up a little further than usual and rammed the snow a little harder. The snow didn’t budge. Back and forth she went with her car, compacting the front half of the mound as she attempted to push through to the road. Frustrated with the stubborn mound, the woman backed her car all the way up to the top of her driveway. She steadied both hands on the wheel and proceeded to send the Volkswagen hurling down the snow covered hill.

The now compacted mound at the bottom of the hill provided the perfect launching pad for the Volkswagen. The woman tightened her grip on the steering wheel as the car flew up and over the mound. Her eyes grew bigger as she continued to fly over the road. Her heart began to beat faster as she cleared not only the mound on the other side of the road but also found herself sailing over the pasture fence across the road as well. The Volkswagen finally came to a stop in the middle of a pristine, snow covered pasture.

When the tow truck driver arrived he appeared confused. “What’s the matter?” the impatient woman asked him. “Can’t you get my car out of there?”

“Oh, I can get you out of there.” the perplexed tow truck driver answered, shaking his head. “What I don’t understand, lady, is….who… who…. put the fence back up?”

“No one put that fence back up!” the woman barked.

Still baffled by the situation, the tow truck driver asked, “Well… lady… if you didn’t slide off the road and through that fence into that field, then how did you get there?”

The woman turned the driver around and pointed to her steep driveway across the road. “I came from over there.” she pointed with a hint of pride.

“It’s because of this darned heavy snow that my car ended up here in this pasture!” she explained to the tow truck driver.

She blamed the snow.

Check This Out!

It is because of the snow that I made this chili the other day. It tasted super good. I blame the snow.

White Bean Chili with Chicken

Saute a chopped onion, 3 chopped celery stalks, 3 chopped carrots, some chopped green or red pepper, if you have some, and a bunch of garlic in spray or olive oil. Add one small can of mild chilis or jalapenos, depending on how brave you are. Add at least one teaspoon of ground cumin, 2 teaspoons of chili powder, 1/2 teaspoon of coriander, 1 teaspoon paprika, and a few dashes of cayenne pepper. (I have added up to double the seasoning, usually going heavy on the cumin.) Stir well and add at least 30 ounces of chicken broth and 2 quarts of water. (I've made it with all chicken broth before.) Add 3 or 4 16 ounce cans of rinsed beans. (white, navy, pinto, black, cannelini etc--the recipe calls for white or navy but I change it around a lot) Simmer for awhile-at least 1/2 hour and up to 1 1/2 hours. Near the end, stir in some chopped cooked chicken breast and a few dollups of sour cream. (For a really creamy texture use cream cheese instead of sour cream.) Season with a bit of salt and pepper and stir. Ladle into bowls and garnish with a bit of cilantro if your family will let you and some grated jack cheese.