What’s for Dinner?

Dinners I prepare for company taste like braised cardboard.

As I plan, shop, and cook, I think I’m creating food destined for the culinary hall of fame; then I eat it. “Everything’s so delicious,” my guests say with straight faces. But to me, the food tastes edible rather than tasty. Could the stress of preparing company dinners cause my taste buds to run away from home?

First, I grapple with the menu. After  hours of anguish and indecision, I reluctantly decide on baked pesto chicken with potatoes au gratin, roasted asparagus, and a French bread roll; then the ensuing complications topple me into trauma. How do I coordinate four recipes that need the oven at the same time at three different temperatures?

So I switch from chicken to sautéed salmon and steamed asparagus. But do I really want to be in the kitchen frying fish and poking a fork into asparagus while the guests munch appetizers and laugh at my husband’s witticisms?

After I finalize the menu, shop for ingredients, then chop, mix, knead and spice until the food is under control, I focus on staging: Do I have the right bowls and platters for the dishes I’ve planned? Are they clean, chip-free, and color-coordinated? And do I have appropriate utensils? Then I serve the entree with my go-to spatula that has a melted lump instead of a handle.

While setting the table, I worry that the guests seated on the corners will be uncomfortable with no elbowroom and their knees jammed by the table legs; but maybe they’ll be merry from Joel’s pre-dinner comedy routine and won’t notice.

Giving up on a Martha-Stewart table, I hide the mystery stain on the tablecloth with a trivet and rush to the kitchen where my careful coordination of cooking times has gone awry. At last, a half-hour late and disheveled, I serve dinner. The guests make approving noises; I take my first bite; my taste buds pack their bags.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Family members and friends make company dinners look easy; and I’ve yet to see them choke on their own food.

A friend of mine once invited twelve guests for Thanksgiving dinner and refused offers of help. She welcomed us to a sparkling home, seated us at an attractive table and made a grand entrance with a crisply browned turkey — which slid from the platter, dropped on the floor and bounced.

As dismayed gasps escaped her guests, she sang out, “Oh, well, I’ll just pop back into the kitchen and get the other one.” Then she scooped up the bird, returned to the kitchen, brought back its knocked-awry carcass and served it to the laughter and enjoyment of all.

Later, she confessed she watched Julia Child’s cooking series on TV and saw the cooking queen drop a partially stuffed turkey on the floor, rinse it under the tap, and proceed.

I should watch more television.

I did hear an NPR interview with Julia several years ago. When asked if she ever cooked disasters, she replied, “Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine, start an interesting conversation and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

I should have her advice tattooed on my arm.

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In Search of Storybook Endings

As I looked at myself in the salon mirror, I expected to see a halo of soft brown curls imparting a youthful glow to my aging face; instead, I saw an orange-tinged strawstack perched on an old face filled with dismay. Once again, reality shattered my rose-colored glasses.

Many years before, when I quit my school-district position as the director of curriculum and staff development to become an independent consultant, I thought I had achieved the glamorous job of my dreams. Then reality intervened.

I remember huddling in the glacial entryway of an unlit city hall, waiting to facilitate the goal-setting session of a civic group in a small Colorado town. Two strangers crowded into the semi-protected corner with me. We couldn’t go inside because “Barb isn’t here, and only Barb knows the code.”

After twenty minutes of forced conversation about my white-knuckled drive over an icy mountain pass blurred by whirling snow, a breathless Barb arrived: “Oh, I don’t know the code. It’s only two digits, so I just punch numbers until it clicks. Sometimes I have to call the mayor.”

Eventually, we entered a small room filled with folding chairs, stained Styrofoam coffee cups and peculiar odors. Barb found the thermostat and soon the heater clanked in complaint and coughed out a cloud of dust-laden air. I found the easel I’d requested in an over-stuffed closet; one leg was jammed and incapable of fully extending; so I propped it up with my purse. When muffled thumps and angry voices reached us through a cinderblock wall, I was told to pay no mind; the jail was next door. “They’ve probably just arrested some drunk.”

In addition to Barb, four people and a large dog attended the meeting. No one claimed the dog, so it introduced itself by sniffing us with more enthusiasm than appropriateness. The leader of the group had a cold, which he shared during red-faced fits of coughing. An older gentleman with wiry hair springing from his ears methodically munched cookies and spoke not a word. Coffee arrived with a pony-tailed fellow who beamed with a benevolent attitude, and grandmotherly woman called me “Hon” and crocheted nonstop.

No one introduced me, so I pushed the dog’s head aside and began.

During the months of planning my move into the world of consulting, I thought I would lead a life of air travel, inspired audiences and standing ovations. Then I discovered, once again, that happily-ever-after is a myth.

When young, my mindset was different: I deliberately predicted worst-case scenarios because I believed thinking of bad things that might happen would prevent their occurrence. Because of this poorly-thought-out philosophy, I imagined my parents had run away when they were late getting home, decided I would faint during my piano recital and assumed I would end up in an iron lung every time I had a cold.

I can’t say dwelling on possible misfortunes made me a happier child any more than imagining bliss made me a bleaker adult. But I’m glad neither approach stopped me from learning, experimenting, changing — and reaping the benefits of doing so. My friends thought my short, slightly orange hairdo an improvement over my long, 80’s perm; and consulting changed my routines, introduced me to interesting people and spurred my creativity.

Stepping into the unfamiliar, not knowing how the story will end, has its rewards.

My Many Mentors

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Great Uncle Henry taught me to pluck Thanksgiving turkeys, and cousin Carol taught me to pluck my eyebrows. When my bowling instructor told me to quit thinking so much and “just let ‘er rip,” my average rose from forty to fifty; and my brother Bob showed me how to increase the pain of those I beat when playing rock, paper and scissors by licking my fingers before viciously slapping their wrists.

Having learned such important life skills from the best, when I began writing, I realized I should try practicing the techniques I’d learned from specialists around the world. Most people call them authors. I call them mentors.

A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” fascinated me as a child, and the words of Luis Alberto Urrea in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” enthralled me last week. In between, a legion of authors enchanted me.

The authors of all those books became part of me, gave me a sense for paragraphs that pulse with rhythm, descriptions that usher readers into a scene and metaphors that surprise with their aptness. As I zipped through books in pursuit of compelling plots, I also developed an appreciation for dialogue that sounds real and for carefully edited works that give readers a sense of security. I was reading for pleasure, and, without realizing it, I was also learning from experts.

When I retired and began writing, my reading became more intent. Recently, though the plot of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” captured me, I read Urrea’s words slowly, savoring his mastery over them as much as I enjoyed his rich story. I recorded delicious bits of his writing, studied them and thought how I could do something similar within my voice and topics.

Urrea, like all my must-read authors, treats words like crown jewels, selecting each with care. In “A Hummingbird’s Daughter,” he wrote, “Tomas rode his wicked black stallion through the frosting of starlight that turned his ranch blue and pale gray as if powdered sugar had blown off the sky and sifted over the mangos and mesquites;” and I felt I rode with him. I would probably have written, “Tomas rode his black horse across his ranch through starlight as white as frosting,” and few would have hopped on for the ride. But because I studied the rhythms and word choices of his sentence, I might write a stronger description the next time I write.

As another of my mentors,  Mark Twain, said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I want to hurl lightening bolts like Twain and Urrea, but too often I propel tiddlywinks. For example, I know I overuse the tired twins, enjoy and like, but their alternatives rarely work. Value and appreciate are too refined, and the phrase, take pleasure in, seems a bit uppity. Casual use diminishes the compelling emotion of love. Treasure strikes me as over the top, and relish makes me think of hotdogs.

So yesterday, when I started “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” by the western writer Ivan Dog, I decided to watch for his use, or not, of like and enjoy. Does he sprinkle them liberally in his prose? Or does he have other techniques for describing or distinguishing the emotions they represent?

I’d like to discover his approach to my dilemma. In fact, I’d enjoy it.

Sound Advice?

Most of my writing workshop instructors etched write what you know on their foreheads. I believed them. Stephen King didn’t. Nor did the authors of Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit. So, unsure of the general applicability of the advice, I hesitated to share it with my students. Then Nathan Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for literature, addressed my incomplete understanding of the concept, resolved my conflict and informed my teaching:

“Write what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Often, young writers in my classroom clutched their pencils and wore pained expressions as they struggled with an assignment; so I’d help them discover any knowledge, experience or emotional involvement they had with the topic. I used a technique I first tried with 4th graders who had to write about farm animals during a practice for district-wide testing. Some of my students lived on a farm. Many did not.

I wrote the topic on the board and added key words for my connections to it: “When I think about the assignment, farm animals, I remember visiting my uncle. His dark, smelly coop full of squawking chickens scared me. I picture horses running in a field and think of how I wanted one when I was your age. I also remember a talking cow on a TV commercial that made me laugh.

I told them I now had three ideas I knew I could write about and added, “I think I’ll write about cows. They still make me laugh. Can you tell me some funny things about cows I could use in my writing?” I heard about mooing cows, stubborn cows, drooling cows, cow patties, bucking cows and flies on cows. When Dix bellowed, “Yeah, and teats on cows,” I decided to move the lesson along: “Thanks for helping me. I have lots of ideas about cows for my writing.”

Next, I asked them to tell me about other farm animals and how they felt about them. I accepted and probed their responses before giving them time to write. They created vivid and lively stories, so we assembled them in a class book, which they read and reread all year. On occasion, I thumbed through it as well and always read my cow story.

As I continued to use the association technique, I noticed age and environment impacted the connections students made. When rural elementary children in Utah brainstormed ideas on the topic of light, they quickly offered sun, moon, stars, sunset, birthday candles, and Christmas tree lights. The first connections made by junior high students in Carson City, Nevada, included traffic lights, head lights, casino lights, and lighting a cigarette.

But, always, the best writing resulted when I asked my young writers how they felt about the associations they offered and why.

Soon, I, too, had write what you know etched on my forehead.

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Seventh-grader Dean allowed me to use his connections to the topic January in teacher workshops. His resulting piece was rated advanced on the district assessment. Can you guess what he wrote about?

Of Resolutions and Poetry

 Mark Twain

Mark Twain

 

“New Year’s Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”            Mark Twain

 

Two months have passed since 2016 began, and most of us have paved hell: We still bite our fingernails and neglect vegetables. We look through dirty windows we vowed to wash every month and wear bedraggled bathrobes we swore to replace. Our cupboards and garages are not organized; the dog is not trained; and our bathroom scales continue to lie.

I win few victories when I make resolutions disguised as a rule: I’ll write 500 words every day. But when I dream about possibilities, my success rate improves: I’d like to write a book.

Shortly after I first contemplated the possibility of a book, I read an anonymous poem that captured my apprehension about trying to create one.

Before I share the verse, I’d like you to identify a consuming interest or passion you have: sketching, skiing, genealogy, calligraphy, hot air balloons, playing the trombone. Next, think about a personally-fulfilling accomplishment you’d like to pursue with that interest: making a cherry wood table, entering a photography contest, completing a half-marathon, starting a book club, crocheting an afghan for every grandchild.

Then substitute that ahievement for the poem’s title.

Writing a Book
It’s
impossible,”
said Pride. “It’s
risky,” said Experience. “It’s
pointless,” said Reason. “Give it
a try,” whispered the
Heart.”

As the unknown author knew, pursuing our dreams brings risk. We suffer from self-doubt, setbacks, and the skepticism of others. I feared I would not live up to my expectations or those of my friends and family. I cringed at my vulnerability when strangers critiqued the work I had poured my heart into. Sometimes, not attempting a book seemed easier to live with than trying to write one and faiIing to do so.

Another poem rescued me: “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1997 and 2009. As a self-doubting college student, Merwin asked John Berryman, an established and important American poet, how writers know if what they write has any value. Later, Merwin recounted the advice he received in the following verse of his poem Berryman.

I asked how you can ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write.
W.S. Merwin

I’d like to recommend a resolution to you for the rest of this year and for all the years to come: Follow your dream wherever it leads you; follow it because it will fulfill you, not because it will be perfect.

The Creative Process  

Rhett once told me he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Rhett claimed he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Rhett, a freshman teetering on the edge of both manhood and writing excellence, we examined his response to the latest writing assignment: a one-paragraph description of a vivid moment experienced in the past month. He’d chosen to write about the final seconds before he pushed off for his first run on a black-diamond ski trail. As I read his words, I wished he’d written more —an unusual experience for an English teacher correcting papers.

As we finished talking about his piece, Rhett said, “Mrs. Bohart, how important is the stuff you teach us about how to get an idea to write about and develop it? I don’t do any of those things. I just decide what to write about and then write and rewrite until I think it’s good.”

Well, that was an eye-opener.

Rhett’s words motivated me to read about the processes involved in creating — whether it’s planning a vegetable garden, tatting a lace edging, making music, taking photographs, designing buildings, drawing cartoons, or decorating a home.

As I read, I learned the creative process is unique and individual: like bikinis, one size doesn’t fit all. While it helps to learn and practice the basics of any hobby or passion, when we apply everything we’ve learned to create a product, we gradually develop a process that works for us.

I enjoy reading about the practices and techniques of other writers. But knowing an author I admire writes 1000 words a day in the nude while soaking his feet and chewing licorice root doesn’t mean I should do the same.

For example, I never create a detailed plan before writing. I can’t take time to make an outline or jot notes when my head is buzzing with an idea. I’m on fire to write, so I do. Sometimes my fire runs out of fuel by the third paragraph, but usually it blazes along quite nicely.

I also refuse to set a daily goal in order to force myself to write a set amount of time or a specified number of words every day. Sometimes, when I’ve fussed too long over a piece, a paragraph, or a sentence, I walk away from it. Other times, I prefer to continue banging my head against a wall. Either way, I’m not worried about making a quota.

Like Rhett, I’ve individualized my writing process; and I’m glad that, many years ago, I had the wisdom to tell my talented student to take the advice of others only when it made sense and worked for him.

Then, to my dismay, he did just that. He totally ignored my oft-repeated advice to pursue a career in writing so he could dedicate a book to me and choose instead to graduate from college with a degree in business management.

Why Have Hobbies?

In a recent Peanuts cartoon, when Lucy told Charlie Brown she was thinking of starting some new hobbies, Charlie said, “That’s a good idea, Lucy. The people who get most out of life are those who really try to accomplish something.”

Looking appalled, Lucy replied: “ACCOMPLISH something? I thought we were just supposed to keep busy.”

In the past, I thought like Lucy. Viewing hobbies as busy work to fill my idle moments, I pursued decoupage, macramé, origami, tatting, and yodeling. Each endeavor enjoyed the same success as my wish to be 5’6”.Wreath

My search for a busy-work hobby peaked when I scoured fields and ponds for nuts, pinecones, grasses, and twigs, which I used to make Christmas wreaths. I gave these creations to loved ones, who exclaimed happily and hung them in their snug homes.

I had used liberal amounts of a smelly liquid adhesive to attach my found treasures to the wreath frames. Too liberal. Over time, as the adhesive heated in warm homes, my carefully collected bits of the outdoors drooped from the wreaths and dangled like so many hapless bungee jumpers.

Looking back, I realize I also shared Charlie Brown’s notion of hobbies; my attempts to keep busy should accomplish something: impeccable cream puffs, granny-square afghans for all, a homemade wardrobe with nary a puckered sleeve or uneven hem, artistic greeting cards often made at get-togethers where participants share ideas and cut perfectly square corners.

I  thought an accomplishment was a learned skill that yielded an impressive product rather than an activity pursued for the pleasure of doing it. Though I backpacked in the Sierras every chance I had, I didn’t consider it a hobby. It was too much fun. I liked it when my legs stretched strong and my breath slid deep; I relished standing in the smell of pines to watch ridgelines march into the distance and a river tumble below. But the joyful experience yielded nothing I could enter in the country fair.

I learned that process is as rewarding as product from my mother, when she shared with me her passion for rescuing abused pieces of wooden furniture hidden under layers of paint. Working with her in the sunshine of my Nevada home, I scraped, sanded, stained, and oiled. Doing so, I realized that the smells, movements, and tactile experiences of the process pleased me as much as having a new, lovely piece of furniture.wooden chair

To this day, when I walk by something one of us refinished, I’m compelled to reach out and run my hand over it, an involuntary act of connection.

The synonyms for hobby — pastime, diversion, leisure pursuit — trivialize it. Hobbies satisfy my soul. When I’m immersed in one, I’m both Charlie Brown and Lucy: staying busy and accomplishing something — but with the added benefit of fulfillment. And I feel at one with potters, cooks, gardeners, skiers, kayakers, and photographers: all those who find completion in a process.