Conversation Is An Uphill Battle

By Elizabeth Speth


Me:  (Pant! Pant! Puff! Puff!) What would you say the grade of this hill is, averaging it over the mile of climbing?

Neil (my husband):  I’d say it’s about a forty percent grade, give or take.

Me:  And we are climbing it today for the second time why?

Neil:  You need the exercise.  I’m kidding!  But you do.

Me:  Ok.  Fine.  Let’s do it.  The rain’s picking up, and now that we’re wet we won’t get warm again.  So let’s just get it over with.

Neil:  We’ll go slow and steady.  No rush at all.  You set the pace.

Me:  (Pant!  Pant!)  Neil, walk in front of me. You’re faster uphill.

Neil:   I’m walking in your footsteps, so I’m taking it super easy.

Me:  What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Neil:  Look!  We’ve already been walking for two minutes.  We’ve probably only got another 28 minutes to the top.

Me:  (Gasp! Pant!)

Neil:  We are easily an eighth of the way up now.

Me:  Listen, you can’t talk about distance or time until you’ve passed the halfway point.  That’s, like, Sports Psychology 101.  Reminding someone they have most of the way still to go is not uplifting.

Neil:  I’m not trying to lift you up, Elizabeth.  I’m trying to break you down.  So you can come back stronger.

Me:  (Gasp!  Pant!)

Neil:  This is the steepest part.  It’s a breeze after this.

Me:  No it’s not.

(More panting for a few minutes.)

Neil:  Maybe this is the steepest part.  Then it’s all easy after this.

(A few minutes of panting.) 

Neil:  Ok.  I think this is the steepest part after all.  Then comes the easy part.

Me:  Neil, this is not the easiest part.  There is a lot of steep stuff yet.  And you are not allowed to talk about distance or time or terrain.  It’s not helping.  Every time you open your mouth I’m a little more dismayed.

Neil:  That’s not a nice way to talk to someone who is being so supportive.  See how I’m staying with you?  If I were alone, I would be running up there now.  But I’m here.  Right behind you. Supporting you.

Me:  (Stony silence, punctuated by panting.)

Neil:  Why do women who are self-conscious about their weight tie jackets around their waists?  It only makes them look bigger.  Er, not you, of course.  You always look very nice.

Me:  (Tightening the jacket knotted around my waist.)  Neil, I want you to go ahead of me now. Run.

Neil:  Are you sure?

Me:  Yes.  Go.  Run.

Neil:  Ok, but don’t laugh when I flap my arms.  I always flap my arms running uphill.

(He does.)

Neil:  Yay!  You made it!  Hey, let’s take a picture of me collapsed here at the top!  How fun would that be?

Me:  Ok.


Neil:  I figure it’s going to take about thirty minutes to get back down.

Me:  The rain is really coming down.  There’s no trail left.  It’s all running water.

Neil:  Just one step at a time.  We’ve already gone one min–

Me:  Shut up.  Hey, look at that beautiful mist coming up out of the canyon.  I’m going to get a picture of that.

Neil:  Move out of the way.  I’m going to get a better picture.  Let me show you how to do it.


(About twenty minutes of silent panting, me carefully placing my hiking poles on slick, shiny rocks.)

Neil:  Be careful.  You usually fall going down.

Me:  Have I told you lately how much you don’t need to try to inspire me while hiking?

Neil:  Have I told you lately how grumpy you always are when we hike?

Me: Have I told you lately that you can go straight to h–

Neil:  How about I buy you a beer afterward?  We’ll go to the Auburn Alehouse.  Get a sampler.

Me:  Really?  Ok.


Neil:  Great hike today.

Me:  Yep.  Super fun.


Interview With The Equine — What Really Goes On Behind Those Eyes

By Elizabeth Speth

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A toast to my interview subject, Rushcreek Newly.

Well, I’m sitting here today at a popular watering hole in the South Pasture with my Arabian friend Rushcreek Newly, who has been kind enough to grant me an interview on the condition that we avoid a few sensitive topics.

Off-limit subjects include but are not limited to the whole gelding thing, sheath cleaning (look that up if you don’t know what it is), thrush, looking a gift horse in the mouth, and changing horses mid-stream.

Otherwise, it’s all on the table.

Me:  Newly, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Newly:  (Blink.  Blink.)

Me:  (Uncomfortable pause).  Ok.  Well.  I have often said that you are an honest horse.  What do you think I mean by that?

Newly:  (Blink.  Blink.)

Me:  Newly, you have to say something.  This is an interview.  Give and take.

Newly:  I’ll answer the questions I find interesting.

Me:  Sheesh.  Ok.  Fine.  I’ll explain an ‘honest’ horse.  You have no vices.  You don’t pull back on a rope, or chew up a barn, or kick or bite.  You don’t pretend to spook at things out on the trail because you don’t want to move forward.  When I get off-center in the saddle, you usually get me back where I belong instead of trying to dump me.  You’ll trot forever.  You’re an honest fellow.

Newly:  Thank you.

Me:  Do you…uh…have anything you’d like to say about me?

Newly:  You could stand to lose a few pounds.  You are sometimes late with breakfast.  You make a good bran mash.

Me:  What do you think about the fact that, most of the time, you stand around and watch me work?  You chew hay while I pick up your poop, you look amused and rested while I haul sacks of feed. That’s some role reversal.  A mere century ago my species worked your species nearly to death on a fairly regular basis.

Newly:  Well, we have a saying in the pasture.  Karma is a mare.

Me: Speaking of ‘in the pasture’, there is no doubt that you are the alpha horse out there.

Newly:  The what now?

Me:  The alpha horse.  The one in charge.  You’re not mean about it or anything.  But you get to the hay first, you get the good spots in the shade.  When you move up, the others move off.  I’ve never seen you do anything aggressive.  It just happens.  How do you do that?

Newly:  I am a natural leader.  My mother says I was like that from the moment I plopped out of her onto a pile of clean straw.  I stood up, and I was in charge.  It helps that I am very, very tall.  I’m also calm, which inspires confidence.  And I have the You Are In My Space Look pretty much nailed.  I invented that look.

Me:  The You Are In My Space Look, eh? Can you demonstrate it?

Newly:  (Blink.  Blink.)

Me (stepping back a bit):  You were born in Nebraska, on a very large ranch, where you ran with a big band of horses, and generally had a wide open childhood.  It must have been wonderful. Do you miss it?

Newly:  Nah.  I infinitely prefer this tiny one-acre pasture that turns into a fly-ridden dust bowl in summer, and includes a view of your neighbors’ recreational vehicles and barking dogs.

Me:  That is very snarky, Newly.

Newly:  I miss eating the snow, and those Rushcreek cowboys.  They were very sensible.  I miss dominating the cows, and walking down the trail.  I will never understand your constant need to trot everywhere.  I’m not going to lie about that, being such an honest horse and all.

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Newly, showing his enthusiasm for trotting.

Me:  We have to trot.  Our sport is endurance.

Newly:  My sport is endurance.  Yours seems to be long-distance sitting and flask-swigging.

Me:  That is a water bottle.

Newly:  Sure it is.

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Newly, shaking off the vestiges of his work day. Post-ride roll in the pasture.

Me:  Change of subject.  A lot of different people are credited with saying that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.  Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, even Benjamin Franklin.  Do you know who actually said it?

Newly:  I think the more important question is:  Why did no one asked the horse if he wanted to be doing the man any good in the first place?

Me:  Man and horse have a history of deep connection, a strong partnership.

Newly:  It would have been a different history entirely without the ropes and the fences.  It’s not really a partnership,  is it, if only one of us knows how to tie a knot and open a gate?

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The outside of Newly trotting through endless fields of lupine. On the shores of Folsom Lake this spring.

Me:  I’ll show you how to open the gate later.

Newly: Will I be using my opposable hooves?  Oh, wait.  I don’t have opposable hooves.

Me:  You can thread a needle with that upper lip of yours.  You’ll figure it out.  I wanted to ask you about the proverb:  ‘Show me your horse, and I will tell you who you are’.  Can you tell anything about people by their horses?

Newly:  That’s an interesting way to look at it.  I can tell a lot about horses by their people.  If I see someone running a thin, wheezing horse nearly to death on the trail, with equipment that leaves sores, with heavy hands, flopping body weight and big spurs, I know that I’m in the presence of a very sad horse.  When I see someone who is being steered under low-hanging branches, stepped on, bitten, kicked at, I know I’m looking at a spoiled horse.  If  I see a person riding a horse with all kinds of silver trim on its tack, clean as a whistle from its blanket and stall, pooping out really expensive hay and vitamin supplements, I know I’m looking at a very wealthy horse.

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More Newly and lupine.

Me:  Why DO you let us do things like, say, coaxing you into a little box on wheels for transport, or climbing on you to ride after having strapped the hides of other dead animals on your back?  And dressage?  I mean, I can’t believe that some horses consent to essentially dance ballet.  You horses are bigger than we are, faster than we are, and stronger than we are.  Why do you do it?

Newly:  Well, I think most horses are basically agreeable creatures.  We start out giving the benefit of the doubt.  We are gentle plant-eaters, with big, silly teeth and no claws.  I think horses are a very strange combination of terrified and trusting.  It doesn’t take much leverage to bring us to our knees, mentally or physically.  There will always be people who will figure out how to take advantage of that.  I don’t know why, but that’s the way we were made.

Me:  Lucky for us.  You gave us a tremendous leg-up, so to speak, as a hunting and war-fighting species.  Not so lucky for you horses sometimes.

Newly:  Yes.  I think humans are lucky that we are not carnivores.  We would rule the world.  Speaking of which, is that a new mare in the neighbor’s pasture?  I’ve never seen herbivore.

Me:  When I first met you, you had just stepped off a transport truck and were being walked up my driveway for the first time.   I’d bought you sight unseen, based on a lot of nice people who knew you, and the fact that you are a Rushcreek Arab, which is something pretty special.


Newly’s Ruschcreek brand. This mark says a lot about who he is and what all went into making him the horse he became. It tells a story of a wonderful chapter in the history of American horse breeding.

I’d been waiting for you all day, and I thought you were the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen, walking up that driveway.  What did you think when you first saw this place?

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Newly, all his belongings in a cardboard box…

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…arriving via transport service to start his new life.

Newly:  I thought:  ‘I wonder what time they serve dinner here.’

Me:  Seriously?  That’s all you were thinking?

Newly:  Well, look at it from my point of view.  When you are a horse, and you are bought and sold, suddenly your whole life changes.  You don’t have a say in anything.  It’s completely the luck of the draw.  Will I ever see my family, my old pasture mates again? Will I be beaten?  Will I be neglected?  Will I be forced to run until some part of me breaks, and then left to die a languishing death, covered with flies, malnourished and suffering in some pasture somewhere?  Animals don’t have control over any of it.  So I just concentrate on dinner.

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Newly, eating dinner in his new home immediately upon arrival. Carrots, soaked beet pulp, grass hay. Equine comfort food.

Me:  I see your point.  If it’s any consolation, you can stay here forever.

Newly:   Well, if they ever need me back on the ranch, I would like to go there.  That’s a nice place.  I’m supposed to be wandering and eating all day.  Anything else isn’t very natural for me.  You can do that at the ranch.  Look, you can come with me, if you don’t talk too much.

Me:  That’s nice.  I have really appreciated the opportunity to ask you some questions.

Newly:  I answered a lot of the uninteresting ones after all.

Me:  Well, I have just one more.

Newly:  Okay.

Me:  Newly, why the long face?  Ha ha ha ha!  Get it?  ‘Cause horses have — Newly, come back.  Get back here.  Whoa, boy.  Come on.  I’m sorry!  Newly!  Neeewwwllly!



In which you do NOT die…because there are things you must eat.

 By Elizabeth Speth


I love lists.  I really do. I love the lists I make — several every day — as well as the lists upon which I stumble.  They have the most marvelous way of prioritizing things.  Streamlining.  Directing.  Funneling our energy.

How often in life do we get the loud and clear message:  First, do this. 

Then, do this. 

And so on, and so on, and so on.  Without lists, life is ambiguous.  With them, we have a mission.  Broken down into manageable sections.

Our lists say a lot about us.  They reveal our aspirations, as well as the things we cast aside.  Show me your grocery list, your To-Do column, and I will tell you who you are.

If ever you want me to do something, put it in a list format and I’m your huckleberry.

Recently, I was browsing a favorite web destination, the Huffington Post’s Taste section.  And I found (cue long drumroll and then angel music):  The List To End All Lists.

It is called:  25 Things To Eat Before You Die.

This is a win-win-win-win list.  It involves many of my favorite things.  First:  Lists.  Second:  Eating.  Third:  Food, prioritized.  Four:  Something To Do Other Than Dying.


Without further ado, let’s get started.

Number one item is: Chocolate Chip Cookies from Levain Bakery  .   Never having heard of this place, I had to look it up.  It is A Thing.  A Very Serious Bakery.  You can find one in Harlem, one in the Hamptons, and one in New York’s Upper West Side.  A gift box of four Levain cookies retails for $27. Plus shipping if you buy them on-line.  Obviously, based on the price, and on the website pictures of several tiny angels hoisting one of these miraculous cookies toward heaven, these are The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies In The World.  Obviously, we have to have them.  We have to travel to one of these Levain bakeries, or order them on-line.  But first we have to save some serious cashola.  Or take out a second mortgage.  Or wait for a significant inheritance.

Now, this is where you do NOT despair.  This is a gastronomic bucket list.  If it were easily dispensed with, death would be imminent.  Right?  Think about this for a moment:  You are not allowed to die until you eat these things.

Take your time on this.  Please.

Second item on the list:  Sweetbreads.  You know what that is, right?  It’s not a variety of rolls and loaves sprinkled with sugar.  We’re talking calf or lamb glands.

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Sweetbreads can look something like this. They can be served with artichokes, potatoes, and a lovely tomato compote. We can do this. We just need a little time to work up to it.

Don’t cringe.  We have to trust The List.  Have a little faith here.  If it takes you a few years to work up the nerve, no worries.  You’ve got a lot of living to do yet.

Item number three:  A roast chicken that you make in your own oven.  This, my friends, is so easy.  I’ve already done this for you.  Please check out my recent blog post:

Four is:  The Lobster Roll.  This is a very beautiful thing.  Ideally, you should travel to Maine for this.  If you cannot, it is a very easy thing to make for yourself.  Check out my favorite recipe for this, from Ina Garten:

We are talking lobster here, and fresh dill, mayonnaise, capers, a crisp roll.  Beer.

But really?  Go to Maine.  There is time.

Next item:  Real ramen, not from the package.  So, not those little plastic-wrapped, freeze-dried bricks starving college students are famous for being able to afford.


This seems like a very worthwhile thing to eat, doesn’t it?  Since Ramen is a Japanese dish, and this is one of 25 dishes standing between you and death, you obviously have to go to Japan to have this wonderful combination of fish broth, onions, noodles, eggs, pork, seaweed and heaven knows what else.

In the meantime, to tide you over during your very long life while you are waiting to eat ramen in Japan, do what my son does.  Spend a few cents on one of those freeze-dried bricks.  Any flavor.  Follow package directions.  Add anchovy paste, minced seaweed, fresh shrimp or beef or chicken, hot chili oil, chopped scallions.  Just a few minutes before you serve, gently crack an egg into the bubbling broth and let it poach.  Ladle the ramen into a bowl, pierce the egg with a spoon and let its yolky contents run amok over everything else.  Slurp.  Dream of Tokyo.

Number five is:  Beignets at Cafe Du Monde.


You can buy a mix for this.  You can find the recipe online.  Don’t do it.  Life is short enough as it is.  Grab yourself some beads and a mask, and go to New Orleans.  No rush.

Moving steadily along to the next item:  Raclette .

This confused me, a bit.  It appears to be a heaping pile of cheese.  Swiss cheese.  Melted over an open fire and piled onto whatever you already happen to be eating.  Potatoes.  Maybe with pickles and cured meats.  It’s got to be good, because the Swiss are very proud of it.  As I sit here in front of my computer in America, something is lost in the translation.  I’ve got nothing against melted cheese — I love it — but this is apparently something special.  Melted cheese to the nth degree.  Hence, we must go to Switzerland.  Clearly.   Whenever it is a good time to do so.  No hurry.

I love what’s next on the list:  French Fries with home-made mayonnaise. I love French Fries.  I love home-made mayonnaise, which is so simple I don’t know why you don’t make it every day.  Add herbs.  Garlic.  Spices. Customize it.

Maybe the fries should be home-made too.  Yes.  I think they should be.

Here is a recipe:

This (discreet burp!) is fun.  Carrying on:

Pimento cheese, aka ‘the caviar of the south’. It appears to be grated sharp cheddar, mayo and pimentos. In most of the recipes I see, it is pictured alongside Ritz-type crackers. I dunno about this.  It does not appeal.  Perhaps we can get a Papal Dispensation to skip this one, and double up on something else on the list. If I’m wrong, and it’s worth having, I at least exhort you to use the last of the home-made mayonnaise (see above).

Up next:  Hot roasted chestnuts. I made these last year. They were good, rich, slighty suggestive of a macadamia nut, but very much less than that in terms of flavor. I suspect it is more the experience of warming your hands on a newspaper cone of them as you walk through the streets of London. Or Paris. So I’m going to suggest a side of London or Paris streetscapes at twilight with this dish.

All right…what’s next?

Ah.  Ceviche.

Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes indeed. This is marvelous, and there are so many south American and Mexican variations on this theme, all wonderful. There are entire restaurants devoted to the beauty that is ceviche. The main point is seafood, cooked only with an acid component like lemon or lime juice. Add herbs, toasted pine nuts, onions, avocado… Slightly charred tortillas or other flatbread. Beer. Shots of tequila. Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. Indeed.  You must eat this many, many, many times before you die.  On the beach.  In the rain.  On a train.  In a box,  with a fox…  But I digress.

Speaking of green eggs and ham, the next to-do on the 25 is breakfast at a diner. Any diner. Okay. Well, you’ve likely already done this, but it doesn’t count, because you didn’t know it was a Do Before You Die.  So do it over.

I, personally, don’t get excited about diners.  My husband, Neil,  is passionate about diner breakfasts. On our very first date, we went to a diner.  Where he would not allow me to order my own cup of coffee.

“We’ll share,” he whispered, leaning conspiratorially across the table.  “Free refills.”  Reader, I married him.  I married him in spite of this.

Again, I think this is an atmospheric thing. I believe in simply prepared food, but diners are about cooking eggs in vegetable grease, and margarine on your thin toast, and corned beef hash from a can. Your gravy will likely come from a can too. Your hollandaise sauce may well have originated in an envelope of powder. I’ve given you the ammunition to wreak this havoc at home, but just get thee to a diner, and get it over with for $1.99. As a side dish…er…note, I imagine the appeal of this food improves dramatically just before or during a hangover. So maybe plan ahead, over-do it a bit on the tequila accompanying the ceviche, and kill two birds with one stone.

Up next:  Hot stone bowl bibimbap. This sounds very much like something a hobbit would eat for third breakfast before setting out to recover lost jewelry.  Not so.

This is a beloved Korean dish, a bowl of mixed rice with  meat and vegetables.  It sounds wonderful.  Go to Korea.  Eat this.

Did you save room for dessert?  Well, we’re not there yet.  You have to next eat the Stone Crab at Joe’s Stone Crab.  Where the mustard sauce is apparently to die for. You will have to go to Miami Beach, Florida.  Also, order the Key Lime Pie.  Everyone says to.

I love the next item on the list.  Strawberries picked fresh from the field. There are strawberry fields all over near my home in Loomis, Ca. The fresh strawberry stands pop up in early spring, and those berries are very fine, albeit it a bit tart and restrained. They are wonderful macerated in a bit of balsamic vinegar, sugar and pepper, and served over vanilla ice cream. I’m not kidding.  About a tablespoon of very good balsamic, an eighth of a teaspoon of pepper.  Sugar.  Let it sit for a bit.

However, to really appreciate the lush, wanton, sensual pleasure of a strawberry from the field, wait until a few weeks after the really hot weather sets in. Heat does something to the sugar in the berry. You can smell it for miles in the summertime. All good things come to those who wait. Add nothing to these berries but your teeth.  Eat with abandon.  Life is short.

Home-made fresh whipped cream is on the list.  This is too easy.  It makes me uncomfortable, inching us ever closer to our mortality.

We love whipped cream in my house.  Never out of the can or plastic tub.  It has to be the real thing, with a little powdered sugar and vanilla, whipped just until stiff peaks form.  My boys grew up eating it plain by the bowl.  My daughter loves it layered with chocolate cookies that grow soggy if left to sit in fridge for a few hours.  For a little bit of a lark, add Grand Marnier and a little grated orange rind.  Stack it between layers of cake, fruit and more liquor and call it Trifle.  I can’t help you delay this one.  You are going to cross it off your list pretty quickly and easily, I’m afraid.  Vaya con dios, my friend.

Next please.

Ah, Lardo. There you are.

Lardo is not an unimaginative pejorative term for someone who is rotund, despite what my classmates called me in school. This is Italian cured back fat, and it is a fabulous appetizer. You want to hold it in your mouth forever, but it melts away too quickly. Don’t be squeamish about the fat. You’ve likely got some of your own, so no throwing stones. Eat with crusty bread and cheese, maybe some olives.  A very robust Chardonnay, or a lovely rose. Maybe some fresh herbs and nuts.  A light Pinot might work, too.  Eat the lardo. Drink the wine. In Italy.  Let the sun bake the last of the day away while you chew and sip outside, and slip into a twilight coma of bliss. You will forget about moving on to dinner. That’s okay.  You have your whole life to eat dinner.

An avocado in its shell, with only a spoon. Huff recommends Hass. I, personally, never met an avocado I did not like. It’s green, earthy butter.  Close your eyes while you let it glide across your taste buds.  Show some respect.

Pancakes with real maple syrup. That’s easy. Just be prepared to shell out some money for the maple syrup. Brattleboro, Vermont is my favorite terroire for maple syrup. Chew slowly.  We’re getting near the end of the list, and I, for one, do not have my affairs in order.

Home-made ricotta cheese. Why haven’t you done this yet? The hardest part of making your own is finding cheesecloth for the recipe. Here it is:


So stinkin’ easy. Drizzle the cheese with honey, serve with fruit. Figs are best. Thank me later.

Steak tartare. This is raw meat. Good quality raw meat. Some recipes call for raw egg in the preparation.  I’m a vegan, but I’ll have to do this, obviously, when I am ready to die, or I won’t be allowed to. So do it I will. My grandmother, who remains the cook I admire most in this world — I learned everything I needed to learn about food fundamentals at her apron strings by the time I was twelve, and everything after that was just fleshing out what she taught me — loved raw beef. She would sometimes down a bit of raw hamburger meat while cooking. I won’t do that, but I understand that for some folks this is a big draw. I respect that.

Chocolate croissant from Tartine Bakery, San Francisco. That’s easy for me to say. I live in Northern California. But it’s cheaper (for me) than a trip to France, and Huffington Post swears these are better than the French make. There is, apparently, often a line out the bakery door and down the street, and they come with a good helping of attitude from the staff behind the counter, according to one reviewer.

A loaf of bread from Sfoglia Bakery. Easy for you to say. If you live in New York City. It’s nearly ten dollars a loaf. It must be good. Get a loaf, eat all ten dollars’ worth while you stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is one of my favorite places on earth. Get three loaves. It’s going to take you at least three days to get through the Met.

Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Well. Duh. Campbell’s and Kraft slices and even Wonder Bread are just fine for childhood, or any day you need to revisit childhood. Give yourself permission. If, however, you are feeling like a grown up, roast the tomatoes with sea salt and then make the soup with good cognac. Use brioche for the sandwich, and chutney and brie and Gruyère. And butter. You’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine.


Tamales. Well. This is a labor-intensive effort. But make no mistake — it is not a labor of love. In my native Santa Fe family, I remember the women working together to assemble these in mass quantities.  While the men stood around and drank beer.  So the women invariably complained about the men, comparing notes, working themselves into a bit of frenzy as they cushioned beautiful masa around slow-cooked pork and beef, wrapping it all in corn husks as austere as the robes of our priests.

These must be home-made. In my family, we turn them out every Christmas, and top them off with just-simmered mole sauce. My husband is smart enough to stay in the kitchen and help.  However, if your tamales are plunked down a bit brusquely in front of you at mealtime, if you are glowered at and told tersely to enjoy them, you are likely a man, and you are likely in trouble.

And now, we come to the moment of reckoning.  The end of the list.  I have a few things I’d like to add (raw oysters, my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan, my grandmother’s Cioppino, fresh wild figs plucked quickly from a tree as you pass under it on horseback), but no one asked me.

I still (whew!) have a few items on this list I have not checked off.  Eight of them, in fact.  I am eight items away from the hereafter.

And you? How many of these stand between you and your ultimate reward?

Check, please.


Traveling. To Where We Know Not.

By Elizabeth Speth

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“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

The college road trip, it turns out, is a sort of rite of passage for parents and their offspring. A lot of people do it, and the experience is crammed tighter than a trunk full of suitcases with opportunities for life analogies.

None of which occurred to me as I packed a rental car for a five-hour trip south with my youngest, Leland. I had other things on my mind.

Like getting lost. I mean that literally, not figuratively. I am easily disoriented. I have Directional Dyslexia. I still, after twenty years, get turned around in my small town. I go the wrong way between the bathroom and the kitchen sometimes. Stopping to figure it out only makes it worse. I wasn’t born with that bird’s-eye view in my head so many people seem to have. I’m stuck on the ground in a maze of tangled possibilities, and I invariably choose the wrong one.

My husband had thoughtfully printed out directions for me — a sheaf of papers outlining how to get from our house in Loomis, California to our motel in Morro Bay. How to get from the motel to Leland’s possible future home for the next four years. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, some twelve miles inland from our lodging.

The thought of simultaneously driving and shuffling through those papers, my son a tight coil of unhappiness in the seat beside me, deepened my anxiety.

Leland does not want to go. My poor son is conflicted, which is a testament to his very open heart, and my own aches for him.

He knows he will be homesick, from time to time. He is going to miss his friends. He’s had a great childhood here, in a prosperous community built around a lake, and football, and family, and doing-the-right-thing-or-someone-is-going-to-call-your-parents-before-you-get-home-because-we-are-all-looking-out-for-you-son. He’s loved the independence of being a young man here.

The thing that grieves him most, though, is the impending separation from his girlfriend Kris, arguably his best friend, a young woman we all love too. I don’t dismiss their love (a year or so old) as merely young, which it is, or likely transient, which it may well be. They have a very fine friendship, and they rely on each other. They are loyal, companionable, relaxed, frequently silly with each other. I often hear their laughter from the other side of the house. Individually, they are decent, strong, loving, kind individuals. Together, they comprise a structure with integrity. I admire it, and I am so glad for them. Glad they have a safe place to learn about love. I hope they each have a long life full of loving relationships after such a great start.

Now they will learn about the barbed side of such vulnerability, though. There is always, always the pain of parting. Eventually, it will happen. Every connection gets severed by either logistics or time, and where love once flowed freely there is massive hemorrhaging.

So, as I look at his profile in the car, farmland whizzing by behind him, his eyes focused inward and not on the road ahead, I bleed a little too.

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We listen to his music. He plays a great selection. The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons. Hip-hop and rap he knows I’ll like. It makes the hours fly by.

“I’m sparing you the really bad stuff,” he informs me. “Some of it is pretty rough.”

I appreciate that. We stop for food, take turns driving. He laughs, not unkindly, at my sheaf of directions, which falls to the floor under his feet as he programs our destination into the GPS on his iPhone. Periodically our music is interrupted by a soothing electronic female voice telling us to bear right, to turn left in a quarter mile. The voice seems concerned when we stop for a bathroom break or deviate in any way from the plan. It insists on our course with something that sounds like anxiety until we are back on track.

It was that easy. Just like that, Leland has assumed the job of navigating for us. The reversal of roles hits me profoundly.

An enormous weight relinquishes its perch on my shoulders. My lungs expand, the road opens, the light lifts. My mental cloud clears. Which leaves me free, now, to contemplate an impending good-bye of my own.

I remember when Leland was an infant. A few days old, and in the hospital with meningitis. It was one of the darkest periods of my life. Would he survive? Would there be lasting damage to his brain, his hearing, his body? He was running out of places to stick needles. There was so little of him, after all. He wailed. He looked harassed, fevered, agonized. He had an IV in his head. How could such a tiny body house such a large threat?

The cord of attachment between us was already as wide and thick as it could be, and the thought of its severing fatal. I stayed with him in his hospital room for ten days, nursing him, willing him back to health by the sheer force of maternal imperative. When his nurses occasionally coaxed me to step outside, go for a walk, clear my head, I was filled with panic as soon as the hospital doors slid closed behind me in the brilliant, foreign sunlight. I turned around and went right back in. I did not want him to slip away from me. What if we were destined to have each other for only a very short time? I couldn’t spare a minute of it clearing my head. My head was plenty clear. I knew where I belonged.

As it turns out, we do only have each other for a very short time. A year. Eighteen years. Eighty years. All of it passing as quickly as the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms among the orchards lining Interstate 5.  The car is briefly filled with it.

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We reach our motel late. It is not a promising sight. They’ve left the key under the mat, and the room is dated, musty. Leland contemplates the array of possible body fluids on the plastic bedspreads. But he is smiling. We take turns brushing our teeth, slip beneath sheets and a blanket thin as Kleenex. We listen to sea lions barking throughout the night, rise before dawn and head out in search of breakfast.

In a small cafe, watching the sunrise over Morro Rock and a small fleet of sailboats, we eat a very good breakfast.

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We find the campus, which is a warm and comforting place. Some of it is old, and very agricultural. Many of the buildings are soaring and modern and new. We tour the business college. We like the faculty very much. We look at the dorms. I see Leland’s face clouding over and know it’s time for lunch.

We share an enormous platter of raw oysters, happily slurping (this vegan brakes for oysters once a year or so) together. We talk a little about the future, about the difficulty of sacrificing in the short term for the long-term. We agree to leave it for a week or two, let his subconscious gnaw away at a resolution while he enjoys the last months of his senior year. We take a long walk on the beach, pack up our things and head home.

We have had an excellent, complicated time together.   My son is a first-rate companion for any journey.

We follow a sure navigational path home as the sunset fills the car windows with fleecy pink. I listen to the lyrics that occupy my son’s head these days, hear them articulate how wonderful and difficult and unclear life can be.

I try to have a little faith.

I hope his road is a long and interesting one.

Through open-hearted territory.

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Oh, The Horror…

By Elizabeth Speth

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I am in agony.  Burning, itching, weeping, wretched agony.

I am the victim of a natural disaster, a silent and beautiful menace.  The name of the villain in this piece?  Toxicodendron diversilobumPacific poison oak, western poison oak.   Rhus diversiloba.  By any name, this rose is bad, bad, bad.

I know how it happened.  I visualise my mistake as I slather myself with salve.  I curse the memory as I absently begin scratching a new spot.  Why is there never a roll of barbed wire lying around when you need one?

I was horseback riding on the beach, and took a shortcut through some downed trees and brush to a higher trail in the hills.  Shortcuts are always a bad idea.

Poison oak, how I dread the heroin high of scratching you, that brief second of ecstasy I will be chasing obsessively as my life deteriorates all to hell because of you.

Everyone’s got a remedy.  I’m not even going to bother discussing them.  Calamine lotion. Oatmeal.  Deodorant.  Commercial preparations.  Baking soda.  Vinegar.  Rhinoceros urine.  None of them work.

Nothing stumps this woody vine, this twining, monstrous tendril, this author of my misery that thrives everywhere near my home.  It likes wooded areas, coastal and chaparral environments.  It grows lush in shady and dappled light, but full sun is fine too.  Nuclear annihilation? No problem.  Poison  oak loves that.

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You can’t burn the stuff to get rid of it.  The surface oil, the urushiol, which is the thing that causes the horrible rash, travels like evil on sinews of smoke.  You breathe it in, you are in very bad shape, because now the horrible nastiness is inside you.

I suspect poison oak can only be killed with a wooden stake, or a silver bullet. Perhaps an exorcism.  I should try that.

The vines, which are actually quite pretty in a Ted Bundy sort of way, with their shiny leaves that change from bronze to green to a gorgeous shade of devil-red, can climb up large shrubs and tree trunks into their canopies. Then they proceed to kill the support plant by smothering or breaking it. 

If poison oak had feet, teeth and claws, it would rule the world.  It would be the only species left standing.  It would eat its young.

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Its snaky arms lie in wait in the forest.  Just a touch (which ought to be accompanied by a gong, or maniacal, take-over-the-world laughter so you at least know when it happens) causes contact dermatitis – an immune-mediated skin inflammation – in four-fifths of humans.

Never had the pleasure?  Well, gloat not, my friend.  Most, if not all, will become sensitized over time with repeated or more concentrated exposure to urushiol.  I’m talking to you, One-Fifth.  It will get you, my pretty.  And your little dog, too.

First comes the itching; then inflamed dermatitis, oozing, weeping, swelling, blistering.

I’m not going to show you a picture.  The internet is full of them, and they’re horrible.  Other-worldly.  God-awful.  I will simply invite you to imagine my flesh as an erupting volcano of flaming lava.  Only much worse than that.

Pity my friend who got it in an unspeakable place while doing what bears do in the woods.

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Don’t squat here. Leaves of three, go somewhere else to pee.

I know life is a taut line between what is good for you now, and what is good for you in the long run.

Therefore, poison oak, I will not give you the satisfaction of scratching.

I will not scratch.
I will not touch nail to skin.

Not when a hairbrush works so much better.

You are more agonizing than unrequited love, you poisonous wretch.

Well.  No.  Scratch that.

Let’s not be rash.

Unrequited love is pretty miserable.

But I suffer.  There is no relief.  I am aware of every second of every minute of every hour of my discomfort.

If tumbrels rolled through the streets to the accompaniment of exhortations to ‘bring out your dead’, I would heed that call.  I would fling myself into that wooden wagon, having first scratched myself thoroughly on it.

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But I will not, alas, be spared by death.  No such charity for me.

I will recover.  I will cease lurching through the streets like the proverbial shunned leper.  My skin will grow back together and smooth out, and people will speak to me again.

And, because I am not terribly smart or teachable, I will go again into the dark woods.  I will hike.  I will steer my horses through the shiny red sea.  Because I love to do these outside things, I will forget.

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Until the next time.

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The All-Powerful Thank You

By Elizabeth Speth


Sometimes I am under the mistaken impression that mine is a stressful life.

I get caught on the daily snags, frayed by arbitrary deadlines and timetables.  I labor under the myth that all should be smooth sailing, and anything else is intolerable.

I furrow my brow, jut my chin, tap my fingers. My body automatically assumes the posture of someone waiting to speak to management about a refund for bad service.

I think something is owed to me for my less-than-satisfactory experience.

Then I listen to the news, and I hear about people with real problems.  Not of the dishwasher-is-broken, fender-bender-at-the-intersection, offspring-not-behaving, too-much-to-do-at-work variety.

There are people who don’t have food, clothing or shelter.  They don’t have a basic assumption that they will be treated humanely.  They aren’t granted an inherent value just because they exist.  Or the right to speak or believe freely, to keep their families safe and together.

So I know it’s time to pull out the battered, much-written-in, thumbed-through Gratitude Journal.  Because I have much to be thankful for, large and small things, and I’d best take note of them.

Grateful people are happy people — it’s a simple fact and one that we are prone to forgetting.  That’s why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

I don’t know why I’m so lucky.  There are worthier people out there who have so much less, who would do so much more with what I’ve been given.  The absolute least I can do is say a resounding ‘Thank You!’ and never, ever forget it.

So, without further ado, my Gratitude Journal entries for just this week:

At the top of the list, after family and health, I always have to list my horse Rushcreek Newly.

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He was bred, born and spent his young life on a cattle ranch in Nebraska, and that makes him very special.  Because the cowboys at Rushcreek Ranch understood a thing or two about building a good horse.  First, they only bred strong, smart, friendly beasts.  They let them run in large bands over vast spaces, let them teach each other about social structure and navigating rocky terrain and snow.  They learned how to break through ice to drink in winter.  They were all put under saddle, gently, at the age of three.  Many of them worked cows, which is so good for a horse’s mind.  Then they were turned back out for a year, back to the wild far reaches of the ranch with their herds, to think about things and settle a bit.

My Newly is an old soul.  Rushcreek Ranch called for a combination of athleticism and reason, self-sufficiency and sensitivity, and conjured up Newly from a former life. I suspect he was a lawman, an upstanding town sheriff or the like in his past existence.  He is calm, fair, absolute.  And he’s mine.  I still can’t get over that fact.

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The sun coming to rest at the end of the day on Rushcreek Newly’s mane.

Journal Entry Number Two this week is an expression of thanks for my hiking adventures.  In addition to horseback riding in this wonderful Northern California landscape, I have two good feet and two strong legs that I am obliged to keep viable by traipsing through the breathtaking American River Canyon.

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This week I climbed impossibly steep hills to remember that discomfort is rarely an enemy.  It is a thing to pass through on your way to greater strength.  I reminded myself that I am capable of putting one hiking shoe in front of the other until I get where I am going.

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Emerging from a canopy of oaks to a hillside meadow of poppies. Below, at the base of the canyon, a rushing river. This was a wonderful hike.

Because it’s spring, I also got to see wildflowers.  And it’s only the beginning of wildflower season.  Some people are still shoveling snow, and others are shuffling across drought-cracked bare earth, and here I am looking at volunteer flowers.

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After the hiking there was beer at my favorite alehouse.

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The famous Auburn Alehouse sampler platter. Boy, am I ever thankful there are so many varieties of good beer.

And, because beer doesn’t drink itself (thank goodness!), my wonderful fellow hikers and I raised glasses of it as we said we were grateful for each other, and it was true.

That’s a lot of gratitude so far, but I have more.

This week, between work and grocery shopping, as I sometimes do, I stopped at my favorite Japanese restaurant for an early dinner.  I’m a vegan and my family isn’t, and sometimes the thought of cooking two meals is just a bit much.  So I take care of mine this way.

I waved away the menu as I was seated, ordering the one roll on the menu that I can eat.  It’s a very good roll, with mushrooms, avacado, mango, spinach and cilantro.  I love it.  I get some sake.  Read a book.  Exhale before I begin trudging through the errands between work and evening chores and responsibilities.

The server nodded, opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it.  He headed toward the sushi bar to place my order.

But then he turned around and came back.   He said:  “Why do you always order the same thing?”

He gestured toward the bar.  “We have so many beautiful ingredients.  Tuna, fish, crab, all very fresh and good.”

I gave him what I imagine was a sad smile.

“I know,” I said.  “I always look at it all and wish I could eat it.  But I’m a vegan.  No dairy, eggs, meat, shellfish.  This is the thing on your menu I can eat.  And I love it.”

“We will make something good for you,” he said decisively.  “Vegan is no problem.”

And that was that.  He and the sushi chef had a quick exchange.  He brought me some sake, and then a few moments later he brought this.

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I almost wept as I ate it.  It was that good.  Tempura vegetables, ginger, avocado, thinly-shaved and fried tofu… It was a tremendous gift.  A thing of beauty.  Unsolicited generosity and kindness.  And so delicious.

There is more.  Much more.  I could scrawl all over the Gratitude Journal, with cramped writing in the margins and on the inside covers, and not get it all down.  But I’ve taken enough of your time, for which I am grateful.

I don’t know what sort of gratitude journal you keep, whether mental, written or photographic.  All sorts of things count.  Drinking a toast to someone you love counts as a journal entry in my book.

I just think it’s important to feel the thankfulness.  To slow down and notice it, pay attention to what provoked it, and honor it somehow.  Record it, commit it to your spiritual memory again and again until one day when, unbidden and unexpectedly, a feeling of well-being creeps in.

Keep recording.  Keep thanking.  Keep focusing on the good things.  Some days they are a mite small, but they are there.

I wish us all many, many full journals.

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I am thankful that the sun finds its way through the slats of the dark barn every day while I do my chores.