Ageless

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By Elizabeth Speth

Today is my last day of being 48.

At least, I think it is. I’m a little fuzzy on the math, but I’m mostly sure that tomorrow I will be 49 and not 50.

Today, therefore, is the end of my relative youth (meaning that I am younger than many of my relatives). I’m only a whippersnapper for a few more hours, still officially in my 40s, full of pep and idealism. Mostly continent and arthritis-free. Practically a crazy kid.

After tomorrow, I won’t be young ever again, because 49 is nothing but a heart-stopping, screaming plunge into disappearing bone mass, uncooperative skin and suspicious-looking padding under my riding pants.

Tomorrow, I will be dragged, kicking and clawing, into the void of old age. Tomorrow I will stop buying lipstick because it’s all disappearing into the wrinkles around my mouth anyway, thank you very much, Revlon.

Tomorrow I will begin asking for senior discounts, giving unsolicited advice, and swinging my soon-to-fracture hips to the irresistible stylings of the big band era.

But today I think I’ve got to do something really, really special to commemorate the last little wisp of my viability as a human being in this crazy, youth-obsessed thing we call life.

Here are some suggestions I have submitted to myself:

1. Go on a crime spree
2. Go on a drunken crime spree
3. Get a tattoo (possibly of a smear of egg yolk on my chin)
4. Become famous
5. Start hoarding cats (better late than never)
6. Become a nudist (except for the adult diapers I will start wearing tomorrow)
7. Buy a motorcycle
8. Get filthy rich as a result of being famous (see #4)
9. Shave head and pierce eyebrows (or possibly shave eyebrows and pierce head)
10. Eat kale
11. Eat cheese, a lot of it
12. Join Weight Watchers
13. Learn clog dancing (check outYoutube tutorials, get distracted by teacup pig and monkey videos)
14. Start biting nails (but only my own)
15. Take a long nap, wake up grumpy and disoriented
16. Write my memoirs (make stuff up so they are interesting)
17. Re-enroll in elementary school and really pay attention in geography this time
18. Buy a car suggestive of a mid-life crisis
19. Have a mid-life crisis
20. Carry on hoarding cats, stowing extras in mid-life crisis car so no one realizes the extent of the problem

After careful consideration (and I did opt for the nap so I could sleep on it a bit) I have decided that I’m going with the kale and the Weight Watchers options, and, if I have enough points left today for alcohol, I will see if I can fit in a brief drunken crime spree. I know my neighbor leaves his door unlocked while he gardens, and I’m sure I could find something at his house to steal and then return tomorrow, after the adrenalin high has passed and I am an old woman taking stock of my life and making amends.

Alternatively, I will re-binge-watch Grace and Frankie on Netflix and clean the cat boxes.

It’s hard being young, I’m not going to lie. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Hey, Kid! Let’s Do Lunch.

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By Elizabeth Speth

I am not a good parent.

This is not false modesty.  Do not rush to comfort or reassure me when I say this.  It’s the truth, and my children will likely confirm the fact.

I’m not petitioning to be arrested here.  I more or less understand the basics of childkeeping.  Minimally, you must feed them, keep them clean and teach them to be kind.  You get bonus points if you mostly refrain from embarrassing them, and help pay for college.

You don’t leave them unattended.  Bad things happen to unattended children.

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But the rest of it has really eluded me, though I have read countless parenting books and compared notes and rubbed elbows with my betters.  I have struggled and chafed mightily against my failings.  In the nearly thirty years I have wrestled and warred with parenting, the only philosophy I have managed to pull from the smoking wreckage is this:

Take your child to lunch.

I mean it.  Every chance you get.  In a proper restaurant, with napkins that must go in your laps, with a menu that demands deliberations and choices.  Sit across the table from each other, and relinquish your leadership role.  Be equals.  Be people out to lunch.

That’s right.  My only parenting tip involves parenting time off.  All  fun, and no work.

You don’t cook, clean, or assume responsibility for the enjoyment of the food.

You take a break from the heavy slog of molding, teaching, shaping, guiding, refusing.

Go ahead and place the pressure of parenting on your server.  Let her make conversation for a while.  Let him engage your child, find things on the menu to entice the kid’s mercurial tastes, figure out what is going on in that tiny, inscrutable head.

Let your child’s critical attention and fragile expectations fall upon that tray-carrying, apron-shielded angel of mercy.  Order yourself a cocktail, sit back, and sigh.

If the meal disappoints, if the experience is a bust, if the carrots are cut in the wrong shape and the fish arrives with an eye still in its head, the server is the jerk.  Not you.  See?  Win-win.  And still no dishes.

You? Are the good guy.  There’s a gratitude factor, however reluctant, that comes to you when you say:  ‘Order whatever you’d like!’  And you must do that. And you must mean it. Lunch is a no-holes-barred experience, a rarified world of exemptions and permissions.

And, really, how many other times in your life can you really say that to your child?  ‘Have whatever you want.’  Doesn’t that feel marvelous, rolling off your tongue?  How bad can the damage be?  It’s the lunch menu.

Go ahead, Kid! Have a virgin margarita with whipped cream that’s mostly sugar and comes to the table looking for all the world like dessert even before your cheese enchilada arrives.  I want you to!  Do I suspect you won’t like calamari at all, with its little squid legs still attached under that crispy coating and silky orange aioli?  Yes!  But that’s what takeout boxes are for, and, here, fill up on these fabulous chips with salsa!  Shall we order guacamole?

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The rules are simple.  Everyone eats as much or as little as they like.  The kids get to talk about anything.  Anything.  If they tell you they have taken to peeing in their closets, shoplifting, or skating off the steeply sloped roof of the high school cafeteria at night, all you are allowed to say is:  ‘Oh really?’

Pregnancy scare? Second thoughts about college?  Flag down that busboy for more butter.  If you are tempted to parent, take a sip of wine.  Blink, nod, order the cheese plate. Or a second sushi boat.  Or spicier curry so you can justify your watery eyes.  Later, when you have dementia and wear diapers and have terrible confessions of your own, they may return the favor.

Of course, there will be some inadvertent parenting that goes on.  Obviously, your child has to behave — you are out in public.  Insist upon politeness to all who care for you during your meal.  Please, and thank you, and eye contact are non-negotiable.  Teach them how to tip well — very well — so that it will be that much better when you come back.  Explain to them how hard the work is, this making happiness for strangers out of chilled plates and lettuce and baskets of bread.

You will of course tweak these rules and guidelines for yourself, but, I beg you, take your children to lunch.  Do it because they are here now (that won’t always be the case), and you are here now(the clock is definitely ticking on this fact), and don’t you have to eat lunch anyway?

Do it because of the lies they will tell you for the rest of your life.

I’m not talking about naughty lies.  I’m talking about all the times they will say things are fine when they are not.

Do it because they will go through terribly difficult things you will never have even an inkling about.

Do it because when they were first handed to you in the hospital, though you had carried them for months and months, you were shocked at how heavy and self-contained they were, and that’s when you understood you were truly separated, going forward.

Do it because you did and will make mistakes, and you were and will be impatient and short-sighted.

Do it even though they are hard on you.  And because only they know what the rhythm of your breath and the beat of  your heart sound like from inside your body.

Do it because you break their hearts sometimes, as much as they break yours.

You do.  You break their hearts too.

Case in point:  my mother was not the sort to take her children to lunch, or even the sort to provide lunch on any given day.  A mentally fragile and self-absorbed woman, her thoughts rarely entertained things like food, shelter and clothing.  She was consumed by her own disastrous love life, her endless quest for the perfect fad religion, and her conviction that she was a true ‘artiste’ in terms of temperament, if not exactly in terms of production.

It took me a lifetime to figure out that it wasn’t personal.  She was a bad parent, just like me.  But she did not want to be a mother, and I did. That was pretty much the only difference between us.

As a child, I was chronically lost track of, and as a result occasionally unfortunate things happened.  I did not bear up well, I admit it. An inevitable general haze of terror hung over the first twelve or so years of my life.  I was afraid of everything, although I mostly kept it a secret.

Our lives were transient, and chaotic.  Always there was a new place to live, a new classroom, a new man suddenly in a position of authority, new dangers to suss out.  This did nothing for my catatonic outlook.

One snowy morning in rural New Mexico, in the dark lull between Christmas and spring, my mother walked me to a new bus stop in a new neighborhood on a new first day of school, holding my mittened hand while I trudged beside her in wet shoes, my attention riveted on my constantly roiling insides.

The cold was ruthless.  It was wicked.  If I could remember the date, and researched it, I know it would have been some sort of New Mexico winter record low temperature.  Cows died that day.  Fingers and toes were lost.  Pipes burst, and I’m sure ballads and folk songs were written.

The bus stop was in front of someone’s house, and all sorts of children were running and shouting and doing unspeakable things to each other.  The woman who lived inside the house came out to her front steps, and called everyone inside until the bus arrived.  It was too cold, she said, for man or beast.

My mother was not a sociable sort of person, and so she indicated that I should go in, and she, presumably, would go home to thaw out.  I clung to her. “Please,” I said, terrified.  “Please don’t go.”

Go inside, she said firmly to me.

“Please come in with me,” I urged her, knowing she would leave me alone with all of the boisterous young strangers destined to be my future classroom tormentors.  “Please don’t leave me here.”

My mother got quite stern, told me to stop fussing.  But I wouldn’t let go of her until she finally, reluctantly, promised she would stay.  Outside. I was to go in.  She would not.  I knew it was her final, rock-bottom offer.  Heavy of heart and foot, I followed the others inside, and spent the next ten minutes watching her nervously through the window.  To my utter surprise, she stood sentinel there, alone, her back to the house, blowing out gusts of steam and occasionally stomping her feet.

The sight of her nearly broke my six-year-old heart with gratitude.  It just about brought me to my soggy knees.  When I could stand it no longer,  I scurried back outside to wait with her for the bus.  We didn’t say anything else about my being out there.  We didn’t speak at all.

I will never forget the incredible tide of sadness I felt that morning. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emptied out by grief.  Her parenting sacrifice was bigger that day than any of mine.  Even then, I understood that she did not want to be there.  She would rather have been anywhere else.

It wasn’t personal. I do understand that now. 

I take my children to lunch because they see my flaws, which are weighty things for them.  I take them out to lunch because sometimes parents are a terrible burden.

I take them to lunch because of my mother’s unexpected steadfastness in a sea of swirling snow, and her vulnerability, standing out there alone, waiting.

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It’s important to remember that people are vulnerable, and that’s most obvious when we eat.  Even mean people look vulnerable when they eat.

Look at the poor horse, a flight animal, whose only defense against predators is vigilance. Yet he must put his head down to eat.

Take your children to lunch because, if you must be vulnerable, you can at least be so together.

Pick your reason.  But do it.  Be people out to lunch.  Together.

 

 

Baked Flowers, Poofed Yeast, and Bee Worries

By Elizabeth Speth 

The bees should be here.

I know this because my rosemary plants are blooming in wild profusion, a dusky mass of purple only a few shades lighter than a ripe plum.   They smell heavenly, and usually I cannot get near them because they are swarmed with bees, buzzing around, rifling through the tiny blossoms, swilling pollen, busy as — well, you know.

This, multiplied by one billion bees, is what the rosemary looked like last year on January 26:

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This is what it looks like this morning, February 26, one year and one month later:

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Naked and bee-less.  I am very worried.  The bees are missing the purple party, and I’m not sure what this means for the future of my vegetable and flower gardens, but I’ve got a pretty big uh-oh feeling about the whole thing.

I brought up the subject on my community’s Facebook page, looking to stir up some outrage over the situation, maybe galvanize a grass-roots ‘Bring Back the Bees’ campaign. Barring that, I hoped for reassurance.  Maybe all the rain we’ve had has delayed things.  Maybe last year’s drought is the culprit.  Maybe my neighbors will see my post and fess up to crop dusting with bee-killing poisons during the night.  Someone must know something.  The answer is out there, and maybe it’s not scary.

“It’s too early for bees,” someone finally wrote.

“Too cold,” said someone else.  I felt marginally better.

Then this popped up.

“I’ve got yer bees,” (I’m paraphrasing, but, trust me, the words seemed menacing.) “My plants and flowers are filthy with ’em.”  Or something to that effect.  So what was I doing wrong?

Maybe my rosemary flowers aren’t as attractive as everyone else’s.  Maybe it’s because I wear unflattering clothing in the garden.  Sometimes I think uncharitable thoughts when I am weeding and, I admit it, I swear and yell at the dog sometimes for digging.  Once I thinned a whole row of carrots while slightly tipsy.

How do I clean up my act, become a Bee-Pleasing Zone?  How do I call them home?

Maybe put up some ‘Free Pollen’ signs?

Think, Elizabeth, think.  Calm down and ask yourself:  if you were a bee, what would attract you?

Other bees.

Stop it.  That’s not helpful.  What would lure you in, if you just happened to be buzzing by, looking for a place to land and tickle flower petals with your delightful bee feet.

Well, the smell of something baking.

What?  Now you’re being ridiculous.

No.  I mean it.  If the flowers alone aren’t enough to attract these darned hoity-toity, highfalutin bees, then what if we upped the ante, and baked them?  I know!  Put them in cookies!

No, wait.  Bees are dealing with sweet stuff all day.  Something savory.  Bread.  Bingo.   Who can resist the waft of homemade bread?

And I love rosemary bread, with a nice crust of salt on top.

Just to make sure I don’t kill anyone, I did Google it, and according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, rosemary blooms are perfectly edible, not poisonous, but they do have a very strong flavor.

Now, because you have stuck with me so far through this laborious narrative, here is your reward.  My favorite and easy-enough-to-use-every-day bread recipe.

Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread, Courtesy of Your Food Processor

3 1/2 cup flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons instant or bread machine yeast

1 cup of water, or more as needed.

Bittman advocates throwing all of this together in your food processor, whirling it around for thirty seconds and calling it rising time.  I’m not kidding.  And it works.

But.  I like to proof the yeast, or, as my daughter used to say, ‘poof’ it, which is not actually a bad description.  I can’t bring myself to skip this step, this puffy, bubbling, frothing grand gesture.  Maybe I just don’t have enough drama in my life.  Well, I didn’t have enough drama in my life.  Now, with the bees and all…

Still, I poof it, mixing the yeast with a little warm water, a tiny bit of honey in honor of all the missing honey-makers all over the world (honey gets yeast very excited), and I let it come to life before adding it to the other ingredients and whirling it around electronically.

The dough is very sticky and ragged.  It doesn’t look bee-worthy at all at this stage, but just wait.  Every great undertaking, every world-saving crusade, has an awkward phase.

It gets plopped into a bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a towel, and it doubles in size in an hour or so.

I go outside and harvest the rosemary and some flowers, and chop them up finely.  I taste a flower, and they are indeed very strong.  They are like, well, like a bee sting in your mouth.  I decide to use them sparingly.

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By this time, my dough has plastered its face against the window of my plastic wrap.

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It’s time to knead the dough a second time, incorporating the rosemary and flowers.   It rises quickly a second time while I pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

I sprinkle the top with sea salt.

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And in it goes, until the loaf is brown and lovely and sounds hollow when tapped.

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I let it cool and slice it.  It smells heavenly.  I open all the windows, so the bees can smell it.

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I put out ‘Free Butter’ signs.

And I wait.

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Irish History, Warm, with Butter

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By Elizabeth Speth

I am an early riser.

I have been all my life, and 4 am is my preferred wake-up time.  Mostly because I want breakfast.  Well, always and only because I want breakfast.

I am also Irish.  Somewhat. My great-grandmother Margaret Mary was a blue-eyed Mundy, and I took custody, after her passing, of her Irish drinking habits.

Therefore I must have Irish soda bread for breakfast every day.  Sliced thinly, toasted thoroughly, slathered with butter and orange marmalade.  This is non-negotiable for my peace of mind.  Just Google: ‘Irish, negotiation, peace’.  You will see how serious I am on the subject.

The history of Irish Soda Bread is humble and excruciatingly violent.

It originated around the middle of the 15th Century when the Boers, during a brief and fragile alliance with the voracious and pillaging Mongol hordes, invaded Ireland.  The poor, beleaguered Irish peasants needed something hearty, portable and delicious to sustain them as they fled, but they did not have time to wait for bread to leaven.  They only had time to run to the grocery store and grab a box of baking soda, and so was born this glorious loaf.

Tragically, there are no existing photographs from this time period due to the Great Irish Fire of ’23, but please enjoy this illustration, which is loosely related to Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales.

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I think these fellows look vaguely as though they might be fleeing with soda bread in their bellies.

You can verify all of this history for yourself, if you like doing that sort of thing.  But I hope you don’t.  We have baking to do, and research can be tedious.  Let’s just move on, shall we?

Before I share my great grandmother’s recipe, I will ask your forgiveness in advance for two untraditional elements.  The first is the spice Cardamom.  If you don’t know what it is, get a bottle immediately.  Get a bottle just to smell, and you will realize that you never really understood the smell of Christmas.  Cardamom is the smell of Christmas.  And childhood, and fairy tales.

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The second deviation from the classic recipe, which dominated Pinterest for all of the 1450s, is grated orange peel.  Neither cardamom nor orange peel made an appearance in any recipe from that period, according to historians, but let’s not blame the fleeing Irish (bless them), for they were highly distracted.

Are you ready?  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Please assemble:

4 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup very cold butter, cut into small pieces

1 3/4 cup buttermilk

1 egg

Grated zest of one orange

1/2 cup currants, which you can plump up by soaking in a bit of rum if you are that sort of person

You must proceed in the traditional, centuries-old way, with an electric mixer.  Put the first five dry ingredients into a bowl and set on low speed, and then add the cold sliced butter and wait until the blade turns the mixture into fine crumbs, three or four minutes.  Add the buttermilk, egg, orange zest and drunken currants.

Don’t overmix this.  The dough will be wet.  It should look like the beautiful Irish countryside after a devastating flood.  Like this:

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Turn it out onto a floured board, and try to coax it into some sort of a roundish shape, which you will then plunk onto a greased cookie sheet, or one covered with parchment paper.  Sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Traditionally, you are meant to cut two intersecting slashes across the top of the bread before baking, but don’t ask me why.  Just do it.  Make the sign of the cross and drink a prayer that your bread comes out.

Yes.  I said drink a prayer.  Jameson is widely considered a good Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is the Protestant invocation.  You are going to have to decide where you stand on this one, for it is not my place to tell you.  Just give me whichever one you don’t want.

Bake the bread for 50 or so minutes.  Until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped, and your house smells heavenly, so good you would never want to flee it, even to escape an invading army.

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Here is our merry little loaf in the oven on parchment paper.  I added very finely ground earl gray tea to this one.  It was delicious.

Enjoy it toasted with butter and jelly in the morning, perhaps a little fruit, and coffee or tea.  You will go into the world better for it.

In the late afternoon, slice it thinly and eat it as you would a cracker, with a glass of wine.

If you are not drinking wine and eating crackers in the late afternoon, then please do take this as an earnest suggestion to start.  Leave work early to do it.  Add some cheese, figs, savory spreads.  Whatever you like.

Jumping briefly back into my role as tradition-spoiler, here are a few suggested add-ins, if you feel like mixing it up:

Golden raisins

Rum-soaked golden raisins

Walnuts

Rum-soaked walnuts

Crystallized ginger

Rum-soaked crystallized ginger

Fennel seeds

Rum-soaked fennel seeds

Rosemary, chopped finely

Rosemary, chopped finely, soaked in rum.

I think you understand what I am trying to say here.

In summation, my friends, and in the lilting and whiskey-soaked words of my bonny great grandmother, may the roads rise with you, may the wind be at your back, and may you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead, with warm bread in your belly.

 

Eggplant Puttanesca — How Much Love in a Teaspoon?

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By Elizabeth Speth

As a child, I was not sophisticated.  I loved snack time and Big Bird, glittery snow on Christmas cards and other obvious things.

I never wept about opera, or paintings, or written words.  That would or would not come later.  I didn’t care one way or the other.

But my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan?  That.  Made me weep.  Hysterically.  When she said I could not have thirds.

Fast forward to today, as I huff and puff and lug tomatoes, eggplant and basil in from the garden on a 102 degree Northern California day.  My grandmother would recognize my plump, over-heated, eager face.

Because I’m cooking today.  I have a mission in the kitchen.  That is my favorite.

Looking back, remembering as I watched her cook, I realize she made a Puttanesca sauce for that dish, which was different, and good.  I have had to recreate many of her recipes from memory this way, because she did not share.  I understand, now, that she withheld many things and kept many secrets.  Certain women reserve the right to remain complicated.

But the sensuousness of her hands masterfully preparing food is seared upon my memories, and I trust them as I jot down my own formulas and techniques for cooking, in case my children are interested. I will share all of this, although my notes are short on cooking time and measurements.  It is hard to fit a wave of love into a teaspoon.

So.  Back to the recipe.

I pour all my yellow and red tomatoes, so many soft plops, into a pan of hot olive oil, add sea salt and pepper to the hiss, and watch them bubble and burst.  I add honey here, to amplify the summer sweetness of what’s in my pot.

Then comes a sudden turning point in the plot as I scrape finely-diced anchovies off my knife into the sauce.  I add chili flakes.  Lots of them.  Cognac.  Garlic.  Diced olives and vinegary capers.  Fresh chopped basil.  It’s a briny, spicy, sweet, rich, fresh-tasting concoction.  Like no other.  Like my grandmother’s.

I slice the eggplants and let them sit, salted, so the moisture will leach out.  So they will not be slimy or bitter.  I rinse them, dip them in beaten eggs, and panko bread crumbs.  I fry them until they are crisp.

I layer the eggplant disks in a buttered pan with the Puttanesca sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and aged Parmesan.  Top the thing off with bread crumbs and more Parmesan.  Bake until brown and bubbly.

On my plate is another chapter in the history of my grandmother’s kitchen, and also in the history of my garden.  As I walk through all the rooms of flavor on my fork, all the layers of the past and present in my mouth, I understand it is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t weep as easily these days, now that I am no longer a child.  But I acknowledge the urge.  So I have a third helping.

Panting, Petting and Passionate (Wet) Kisses: Saying ‘Yes!’ to Love in the Workplace

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By Elizabeth Speth

If you are human you have thought, from time to time, that there are things you must do before you die.

The urge to grab life by the — er… shoulders during our brief experience of it is universal, We seem to agree certain milestones are proof that we were worthwhile.  That our existence was adventurously lived, thoroughly enjoyed, deeply understood.

We hope these milestones will teach us something about the world. Perhaps they will teach us only that gravity is inescapable, and bones easily broken.  Or why it is a bad idea to lose our passports, or eat fermented fish from a street vendor in a Third World village.

We embrace the idea of them because we are brave, we humans, when we realize we are on a mortal deadline.

I recently have experienced one of these must-dos, one of these milestones, and like a new religious convert, like a freshly-minted cigarette-quitter, like a reformed alcohol-guzzler, I must insist that you do as I have done.  Because it’s a life-changer.

I’m talking about romance — about passionate love — in the workplace. Office canoodling.  Fraternizing.

Contrary to all the warnings, the threats of termination, and heartbreak, and humiliation, I’m urging you to dip your pen in company ink.  Dock your ship in the company port.

I’m telling you to bring your dog to work.

Now, I happen to work for a very liberal and accommodating company in this and many other respects.  We actually have two office dogs, counting mine.  Plus an employee vegetable garden and fruit orchard.  We cook a lot together at work, have soup days and pizza days and hummus days.  Not all workplaces are as understanding.

But you’ve got to get around it.  That’s all there is to it.  It won’t be easy, I know, but it’s not easy to live for a year in a Tibetan monastery either, and you still have it on your bucket list.  Don’t you? You think the Appalachian Trail is going to take nine months and hike itself, with only a backpack’s worth of hardtack and lip balm?  No.  But you are still reading the guidebooks, aren’t you?

I don’t care how you do it.  Get that dog to work.  Tomorrow.  You’ll thank me.  That’s what I did with my boy George, a six-month old secret recipe of terrier breeding, with little beady eyes and facial hair that would make a hipster proud.  This is George. At work.

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Why do you want to take your dog to work?  Why did I screw the top on his little commuter coffee mug (mostly because he doesn’t have thumbs), tuck him into the front seat beside me with his little briefcase full of chew toys and worming pills, and argue with him throughout the entire drive about who would pick the radio station?  Because it’s dangerous, my friends.  Wildly exciting and dangerous.

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This is George, saying goodbye to the family before leaving for work.

You haven’t lived until you look under your desk and see a tiny, snaggle-toothed, hairy devil’s spawn chewing furiously through a jungle of electrical cords.  Heart-plummeting doesn’t begin to describe the feeling as you count — one, two, three completely severed cords, and you hurriedly hide them behind the garbage can, hoping and praying you never find out what they once powered. Talk about an adrenaline rush.

Exhilaration is the only way to describe realizing your puppy is lifting his leg to pee on your boss’ desk chair.  During your performance evaluation.

That was the same day George also did something unspeakable to the executive printer, which is why he now has an appointment for a life-altering procedure at his veterinarian’s office next week.

I’m telling you it’s sheer adventure watching George passionately lick electrical outlets all over the building.  He is an ardent outlet licker.  He knows about grabbing life by the shoulders.

I think that about covers the danger aspect of this adventure I advocate.  Now let’s address the drama.  There should be drama in every milestone, every experience-of-a-lifetime.

George, I confess, is a polarizing force in the office.  He evokes strong emotions and responses. He is a bit of a thief, for one thing.  And he’s quick.  Many a co-worker has secretly, after looking around to make sure the coast is clear, slipped off her shoes to let her toes wriggle in temporary, private liberty.  In a split second — less than that —  the shoes are under my desk, George chewing them ecstatically to bits, making those odd, loud, grunting noises he makes when he is happy.

Shoe-less, trapped in her cubicle in shame, George’s barefoot victim must sit helplessly and listen as her shoe is murdered nearby. When I finally realize what is going on, I scoop up the battered, barely recognizable remains, I bury them hastily in shallow graves outside, and I say nothing.  At the end of the day, our poor naked-footed, fellow cubicle-dweller limps out to her car, traumatized and defeated, a grim, puppy-resenting look on her tired face.

Yes there have been problems.  Difficulties.  There has been urination.  But that is the definition of drama, is it not?

I have had to make adjustments.  The idea of a free-range George, traipsing from desk to desk, department to department, spreading love and joy, was not a sound one.  I re-calibrated, and I put up a child protective gate at the entrance of my cubicle, behind which George now sits, staring piteously out at passersby through his tiny button eyes.  Reprimanded for whining — and for overly dramatic sighing — he has resorted to throwing pieces of chew toys out of his cell, configuring them to spell out things like:  “Help me!” and “She’s mean!” and “She drinks!”

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George in captivity, not very happy with the carrot I packed him for lunch. Not that he helps me get ready in the morning or anything.

On to the warm, uplifting conclusion to my epiphany, my friends.

You must take your dog to work for the danger, the excitement, the drama, but you must also take your dog to work so you have someone there who understands you.  Someone who is part of your tribe.  For instance, George and are the most bedraggled, the least-groomed workers in our company.  This is what we usually look like, left to our own devices.

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But we look like this together.

We understand each other.  We are always hungry.  If we are ever not hungry, we still must be chewing something.  We are itchy and restless after short periods without stimulation.  We get overly excited about things.  We need a lot of short naps.

I bring George to work so I can stare at his warm little button eyes, under their busy, expressive eyebrows, when someone is yelling at me on the phone.

I need someone who can remind me about all the fun adventures we had together on the weekend, and that we will have more again after Friday.

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George and me, adventuring together on the weekends.

I need someone to sit at my desk with me, to help me decipher spreadsheets and write e-mails.

Big George

I need someone to shred an entire box of Kleenex over every square inch of our office when I step out to fill his water bowl.

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Sometimes he shreds Kleenex and shoes at the same time. He’s clever that way.

I need someone to eat the majority of my favorite orange highlighter and then keep me up all night while he vomits up piles the color of traffic safety cones.

My fellow employees need him — well, those who can forgive him about the shoes.

They need him to bark during unwanted conference calls, They need to cuddle with him after an angry client dressing-down.  He will look at them worshipfully when they are feeling less than proud professionally.  Especially if they sneak him a piece of chicken salad.  He is always available for a walk.  A slurpy kiss.  A game of tug-tug with a favorite tie or expensive pant leg.

We all need George.  You need a George.  At your work.  So you can take something as efficient, as unavoidable, as inevitable and business-like as a job, and you can inject a bit of thrilling, mortal humanity into it.  By way of sheer, joyful, unmitigated canine-ness.  Do you see the beauty of that?

Worst case scenario, you get fired.  You turn off your computer, with its frayed and severed cords.  You draw a diagram to show everyone where their shoes are buried, so they can have closure. You pack up your dog and you go home.  Then you are free to go to Tibet.

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The Ghost in the Gate

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By Elizabeth Speth

This is a true story.  A ghost story.

It’s a story about a woman aged enough to have an old-fashioned name like Harriet.  Harriet was also old enough to have experienced losses in her life, some significant, some her fault and some not.

She lived alone — sometimes sad — far, far away from the city.  Her old house was a family place, built a century before on a grassy plain under a wide blue sky.

She had several cranky old horses, and a naughty barking dog.  Horses and dog destroyed the garden Harriet planted every year, greedily tearing up carrots and lettuces, trampling and digging, until she wanted to give up on the garden.

She was old enough to know about giving up on things.

But she loved warm, sweet tomatoes in September.  So she did not let the garden die.

Instead she built a fence.  It was crooked, loopy and drunken-looking, but it blocked the garden from those who would do it harm.

She found that she needed a gate.  So she bought an old one from a neighbor.  Rusted, bent and blistered, with a tiny metal plaque affixed to it that said in faded words:  “Black Hills Fence Co.  South Dakota” under a faint buffalo silhouette.

A gate is a point of entry, or it can be an impediment to the same.  So the woman brought home that old gate, bouncing around in the bed of her truck, watching it through the mirror as she bumped over rutted dirt roads.

With some difficulty, she mounted the gate to a wobbly post, smashing her thumb in the process.  No one knew about her smashed thumb, how it throbbed for days.  There was no one to share that information, to cluck over the blackened nail, or roll eyes when she complained about it too much.

The gate hung crookedly — it had been hard to hang by herself — but inexplicably it swung freely.  This pleased and surprised her.

The naughty dog, a small, fat, white terrier, dug a hole under the gate and passed smoothly through it like a chute, in and out of the garden at will.

But the gate kept the horses at bay, and the carrots, lettuces, cucumbers and mostly the tomatoes grew.

There was, Harriet saw immediately,  something strange about the vegetables.  Every morning, she came out to find the soil beneath them cool and damp, though she never watered.  The leaves stretched and grew and budded, and not an insect molested them.

Sometimes, she would spend the afternoon out in the garden, because she felt at peace there.  She would pick a few stray weeds — there weren’t many — and listen to birds.  Though there wasn’t the faintest hint of a breeze, and nothing else moved in the stillness, the gate would rattle itself at her periodically.

Not in a hostile way, Harriet thought.  It was more like a dog shaking itself.  She didn’t understand it, but it soothed her somehow.

One morning Harriet came out to the gate, and she found all the horses’ manure piled neatly in her wheelbarrow, the old pitchfork leaning up against the fence.  She looked around her at the clean pasture, as if trying to see who had told a joke.  The cranky old horses pricked their ears at her, a new friendliness in their eyes.

On another day, harassed by the heat, Harriet approached the gate with her arms full of tree branch trimmings.  She was tired and sad, and thinking of things she regretted, and her loneliness made a kind of hollow sound in her brain.  She didn’t like trimming trees, and the branches scratched now at her eyes and arms.  But she meant to stack them in the back of the garden so the horse wouldn’t get at them, eat them, and grow sick.

She drew a long, tired breath, preparing to drop the branches and open the gate.  But the gate rattled then, and the chain lock fell away.  And then it swung open for her, soundlessly.  Harriett was taken aback.

She was also deeply grateful.

Harriet began to notice other things about the gate.  On days the wind did blow, it coaxed a deep, moaning sound out of the posts, like lowing cattle.  Occasionally it sounded like a piano, warm, honey notes of a saloon ballad that plunked happily into the dust at her feet.

Her naughty barking dog stopped barking, though he was still fat and usually dirty.  Harriet watched him pass back and forth through the hole he’d dug under the gate, and the bottom rail scratched his bristly old back as the dog’s eyes half-closed in bliss.

On winter mornings, wind and rain brought the smell of coffee and bacon through the gate.

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Of a warm summer morning, the faint smell of baking biscuits lingered there.

In the evening, there was woodsmoke and whiskey, spiraling up into the sighing trees.

During thunderstorms or other catastrophic events, the horses gathered around the gate as if for comfort, and wild vetch twined purple flowers around its rusted corners as lavender bunched beneath it.

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And Harriet understood that her gate was haunted.  She also knew that all signs pointed to the fact that her ghost was a cowboy.  Not the young, firm-jawed, lean-hipped rodeo variety of cowboy, but rather an older version, with busted-up, poorly-healed bones, sun spots, and eyes the pale blue of soft, faded denim, hidden in wrinkles he’d earned staring past wide horizons.

He was the kind of old cowboy who opened gates for a lonely, tired woman, who kept gardens watered and manure picked up.  He convinced the dog to behave, and comforted horses with gnarled old hands.

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She knew that, though her cowboy was a kind ghost, he was not an angel.  She was old enough to know no good cowboy was ever an angel.

And so Harriet came to understand that people who have lived long enough to be sad, without hope of circumstances ever really changing — without a miraculous happy ending — can get through somehow.  They can learn to watch for moments of warmth and consideration.  She understood that not all good things can be seen.

She learned that she was not alone.

As I said, this is a true story.  A ghost story.

cowboy-silhouette

Dinner, Because Why Not?

pizza

By Elizabeth Speth

Once upon a time, there was a woman.  She toiled a little bit at an office every day.  She was also in the manure management business.  Dogs, cats, horses… lots of manure to manage every day.  She watered a garden, and washed dishes.  She drove a car, and selected things at the grocery store.  She fed the animals, and the people, swept the occasional floor.  She listened some, talked a lot, gave advice and sought it.

She was busy.  Sometimes she was tired.  And there was always the problem of dinner.

Dinner clamored to be made.  Every day.  And it always wanted to be delicious, or why bother?  And it always had to be accompanied by wine, or a cocktail, because why not?  What was the point otherwise, if dinner was not marvelous?

One day the woman brought home pizza dough from the deli.  She stretched and pushed and pulled it flat, brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt and pepper.  She baked it in a high-heat oven until it bubbled and browned.  She spread it with creme fraiche and mascarpone cheese when it came out of the oven (although one or the other would have been just fine, but she was prone to excess), and then she grated lemon zest over that.

She arranged salty prosciutto and smoked salmon in beautiful, mounded shapes over the creamy sauce.  And then thinly-sliced (paper thin) shallots, although red onion would have been good too.  Then herbs.  Chopped.  Chives.  Tarragon.   Dill.  Those seemed to be the herbs that would play nicely with the salty ham and the smoky fish.  And then dinner was done.

Cocktails, she thought.  Cocktails… cocktails…  Her mind and her eyes wandered and came to rest on the fruit bowl.  Which was empty but for some lemons and oranges.  So she went to the freezer, and withdrew frozen cherries, and a bag of mixed frozen fruit — peaches and strawberries and berries.  She listened to the icy plop of them as she piled them into a pitcher.  In went a bottle of fruit juice.  In went a bottle of sparkling wine.  In went most of a bottle of tequila.  She stirred it with the handle of a wooden spoon, mashing the fruit a bit.  She threw in sliced oranges and lemons for good measure, and poured some over ice.

Then she served others in her family glasses of sangria.  And crisp slices of pizza with lemony, creamy, herb-y, onion-y, smokey goodness on top.

And dinner was done.  And she announced that someone else would do the dishes.

And she lived happily ever after.

Shopping List:

Deli — Pizza dough or pizza crust, prosciutto or other smoked meat, smoked salmon, mascarpone or creme fraiche or both.  (If you can’t find those cheeses, mix sour cream with a bit of ricotta or cream cheese.)

Produce — Lemons, herbs (tarragon, parsley, basil, dill, chives — whatever you like, many or few).  Fresh fruit if you don’t want to use frozen in sangria.  Although frozen fruit makes nice ice cubes.

Liquor aisle —  Tequila.  Or gin.  Or vodka.  What’s your favorite hard liquor?  Sparkling wine.  Or rose.  Or white.  (Sangria is one hard alcohol, one soft alcohol, fruit juice and fruit.  That’s it.)

Other:  Frozen Fruit.  Fruit Juice

The Story of No Rain (Or: Blame the Drought on Cake and Newly)

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By Elizabeth Speth

Once upon a time there were two beautiful horses, Cake and Newly.  They lived in a gentle place, where the sun mostly shone.  Winds seldom blew here.  Harsh cold and snow were strangers.

Warm rain fell in winter.  It filled the rivers, then turned itself into delicious, sweet, tall grass in the spring.  The grass was so tall it tickled the horses’ bellies.  Wildflowers drank the rain too.

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They exploded in happy purple blooms, surrounding the horses and making them look even prettier.

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It was a good life.  Until one year the rain forgot to fall.  And the not falling was so easy, it forgot again the next year.

And the next.

From time to time, the clouds would fill with gray water, and hang low over the horses’ heads.  It seemed the clouds would empty onto the cracked, hard earth.

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And the horses would be glad, because they were thirsty, and wanted to eat delicious grass in the spring, and not breathe hot dust in the lengthening summers.

But then the gravid clouds would pass over, and no rain would fall.

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And the rivers did not fill.  They shrank to tiny ribbons in the landscape, barely flowing, and the horses were thirsty.  They were worried.

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And the wildflowers were not lush.  Not at all.  Every once in a while, a tiny dot of color would muster itself and push up through dry dirt and rocks.

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But that wasn’t the same thing at all.  Cake and Newly did not think they looked prettier standing amongst these tiny wildflowers.

And the grass did not grow.  It barely cleared the dying soil before wilting between the horses’ nipping teeth.  Eventually, there was only dust.

The horses were not happy, and so they went to speak to The Woman.

The Woman was the one who brought the hay, and the grain, the carrots and the apples.  She seemed to be in charge of the good things, the horses reasoned, although they did not know or care why.

They did not know or care what she did other than the bringing of the good things.  But, they told each other, she might know about the rain.

“We want the rain back,” they said to her.  “We are not sure what we’ve done to stop it, but we want it back.  We want the flowers that make us look prettier, and the delicious grass, and we are tired of the heat and dust.  We want to bathe our lovely feet again in the river, and drink the cool water.”

river

The Woman thought, and she said:  “I will go and ask my mother, Nature, and I will see what she says.”

And The Woman did, and came back and gave the horses a carrot, and she kissed them and said:

“Mother Nature says we must go back to a simpler time.  When there were fewer people, and we made more of our own things, and grew our own food and did not care for cities.  We must go back to a simple time when horses worked harder.”

“What?” said Cake.

“The hell you say,” said Newly.

“My mother, Nature, says we must go back to a time when horses worked harder,” The Woman repeated.  “You must pull the plough and the wagon.   The earth will be back in balance, and there will be rain, and rivers, and flowers and grass.

“But you must stop lounging all day, and go to work.”

rainy

Cake and Newly put their heads together.  They whispered while The Woman waited.  They looked at The Woman, and they whispered some more,  Then they walked over to her, heads high and eyes rolling.

“Tell your mother, Nature,” Cake said, “that we are enjoying the drought very much.”

Newly added, nodding his big head:  “Yes.  Tell her thank you, and to keep up the good work.”

And so the drought continued.

The End

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Give Me THREE MINUTES Before You Start Your Monday!

By Elizabeth Speth

Well, shoot.  It’s Monday, isn’t it?

Quick!  Come on a three-minute hike with me.  I swear it won’t take longer than that, and I’ll have you in the office on time.  I promise.  C’mon.

Come on!  Hurry up!  But watch your step.

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We’ll start here. Top of the canyon, among the poppies. They won’t be there much longer, on account of the drought. So we must say a very fond hello to them now. Our destination is that thin trickle of water at the bottom of that canyon. It should be a raging torrent right now. Again, blame the drought. But we’re not going to think about that now. We’re going to start walking.

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We’re going to look up from time to time on our steep downward trek. See the sky, the wildflowers…

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Sometimes you will get some uphills, briefly, and your knees will sigh in relief. Mostly it’s down, down, down. These trails are deep grooves carved out by water run-off, horses’ hooves, peoples’ shoes… Remember, though.  You have to climb all of it on the way home.  It’s all right.  You’re up for it.  It’s going to be great.

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Did I warn you about the butterflies? We’re going to see a lot of them. They are glorious. Thick as a butterfly blizzard.

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They seem to have a ‘flash blue’ switch they turn on, and blue magically appears on those black wings, flashing and blinking in the sun.

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More trail. It’s leveled out a bit because we’re nearly to the river. Listen.  Hear it whispering to you? Look…

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…yes… There it is! The path has widened to a road. The water is rushing by, and you can hear the calls of geese nesting there. It’s getting warm. Almost warm enough to swim.

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We linger here a bit, watching the water flow by, worried that so much of the riverbed is exposed so early in the year. We gather our strength for the climb to the top of the canyon, and we whisper to Mother Nature. Soft little prayers for rain. And for the will to go strongly to the top.

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Back up. Steep. We welcome the butterflies. We stop and take pictures of them, which gives us a chance to breathe. Watch out. That’s poison oak. All of it, except for the flower.

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Globe lilies. My favorite wildflower. They are so unassuming. But at night, the woodland fairies come and detach blooms. They tuck fireflies inside and flit about using the pearly orbs for light. These are also called fairy lanterns.

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A fragile wild iris. Showing its kind purple dragon face to the sun.

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We are (puff, puff!) back up. Among our brief friends, the wildflowers. Hey, I know you have to get to work, but…

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There is a bar in town near here. A simple place. Good whiskies, or we can just order breakfast there and think about how fun it would be to be that naughty on a Monday.

Ok.  We’re done.  Grab a water bottle, and off to work with you.  It was a good hike, my friend.  You were good company.  Be strong this week.  Get through it.