Eggplant Puttanesca — How Much Love in a Teaspoon?


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.

The Ghost in the Gate


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.


Dinner, Because Why Not?


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

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…

monday 1

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.

A Few Thoughts on Women — None Original

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  • Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
  • And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
  • Well done,  Sister Suffragette! — Mrs. Banks

By Elizabeth Speth

A woman of a certain age — let’s say she was just about to turn 48 — was walking through a deep woods, enjoying the loamy smell of undergrowth, and flecks of blue sky visible through ancient treetops.  She breathed deeply, eyes closed, and nearly squished an enormous frog directly in her path.

The frog fixed intense, bulging eyes on her.  His throat throbbed as his wide mouth opened, and he exclaimed:  “Kiss me!  Kiss me, and I’ll turn into a handsome prince!”

The woman’s own eyes widened.  “You spoke!” she marveled.

“Of course I did!”  said the frog.  “I’m a handsome prince.  Kiss me and release me, and I’m yours!  Hurry up!  Let’s get on with it!”

The woman just stared at him.

“What’s the matter with you?” demanded the frog, and he seemed to snap his tiny webbed fingers at her.  “What are you waiting for?  Kiss me, damnit! Don’t you want a handsome prince?”

“Truthfully?” said the woman, “At this point in my life, I’m really more interested in a talking frog.”

woman 2

“I can’t decide whether I’m a good girl wrapped up in a bad girl, or if I’m a bad girl wrapped up in a good girl. And that’s how I know I’m a woman!” ― C. Joybell C.

I am, unmistakably, a woman.  There is just no hiding the fact.  There have been times in my life when I have regretted it. When it seemed that men were having all the fun.

I am older now, and smarter, and fortunately, I live in a world where that is mostly no longer true.  There are still some holdouts — places, people and situations try to cast femaleness as synonymous with misfortune.  In my life, though, there is an H.R. Department that takes care of holdouts.

The thing that I eventually figured out is that men don’t really have all the fun.  ‘Fun’ doesn’t belong to anyone — it is actually just a matter of permission.  We have to give it to ourselves.  Permission to say and do what we like.  To have opinions that may ruffle or surprise.  To sprawl, to occupy and claim a space.  To be loud sometimes, vigorous.  To take risks.  To take time for ourselves.  To protect ourselves.  To put ourselves first. To say no.  Or yes.

It has taken me the majority of my life so far to learn about permission.  Which is fine.  Having fun toward the end of the party is better than having no fun at the party.

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“It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman. Phenomenally.” ― Maya Angelou

It cheers me, looking at our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters and our daughters, to see that women are coming into themselves a lot sooner with every generation.  We have hundreds of years of women before us to thank for that.  Knowing full well they would not see change in their own lifetimes, they grimly did battle for us.  We owe it to them to own what they won.

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Now, I’m a bit of a hypocrite, touting equality while occasionally batting my eyes to get what I want.  I love a door opened for me if my hands are full, and I usually won’t take a seat when it’s offered, but I appreciate the gesture.  I may need it someday.  I suspect I am still entitled to first rescue from a sinking ship (although I share a lifeboat with the children).

But I know there is a quieter, gentler way to get where I am going, because that is who I am.  Thank goodness for red lipstick, and hats with flowers on the brim.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with being womanly.  Many men adore us for a reason.


 And I love them back.  Boy, do I.  They are wonderful.  I love how they think.  I love their deep voices, their vigorous humor.  I am pleased about all the ways they are different from me.   They certainly make life more interesting.  We go fairly well together, men and women, once we learn to synthesize ourselves.  Once we figure out the choreography.

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She listened to her heart above all other voices.  – Kobi Yamada

But thank goodness I know trying to be a man is a waste of a good woman.

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“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” ― Roman Payne

Passing Through the Shadow of the Valley of Mean People


By Elizabeth Speth

I love Sundays.  In my mostly beautiful life, they are a high point.

On Sundays I saddle up my horse Cake, and we ride through beautiful places like this:

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And this:

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There is a little scotch in my flask.  I take pictures.  I enjoy the rhythm of Cake’s breathing and Mother Nature’s too.

On a recent Sunday, I hurriedly loaded my horse in the trailer at home, drove for a bit, unloaded him at a trailhead overlooking the American River Canyon and the famous Western States trail network.  I unloaded my saddle and began brushing Cake as he munched grass.  And then I saw blood on his flank.

I looked everywhere to find the source, and finally did.  The underside of his tail, hidden to the casual eye, was a bloody pulp.  It could have starred in its own horror movie. Further frantic examination revealed large swollen spots on his belly, possibly lymph nodes.  Maybe abscesses.  I couldn’t tell, and it was Sunday.  A day my veterinary clinic reserves for emergencies.  I needed help determining whether this was one, so I called the clinic on the spot and got the vet on the phone.

While I was describing Cake’s symptoms,  a man parked his car next to me.  A lean, sinewy, older fellow, dressed for running.  He looked at me and my horse, and asked what was going on, even though I was clearly conversing on the phone.  I held up one finger, and continued to explain my situation to the vet.

Running Man peppered me with a few more questions, which got tangled in my worried mind with the vet’s simultaneous queries.

Running Man:  “Is your horse sick?  Is he lame?  What’s the problem?  It’s a great day for riding.  Are you going to go?  Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, can it?  Oh, blood on the tail?  That’s not a big deal, can’t your wrap it?  Why don’t you just wrap it?”

I held up my finger again as my vet, a sweet and patient woman on her day off, asked me to snap some photos of the tail and belly, and then text them to her, so she could decide whether he should be seen emergently.  I hung up, trying to figure out how to hold a now-dancing Cake, lift his tail, and snap pictures in enough light so they could be seen.  Also, Running Man was beginning to frustrate me.

He asked again what was wrong, I told him briefly, and added that I was in the process of dealing with it with the vet.

He offered his opinion that we coddle our horses too much, it didn’t sound that bad to him, maybe I should just try this, or that, or maybe this other thing, which in his experience always worked …”

I was flustered.  I said:  “Sir, thank you, but I’m actually a bit distracted right now.  The vet is waiting for pictures so she can help me determine what to do.”

“What to do is obvious,” he replied, even though he hadn’t actually seen the problem for himself.  “You just blah, blah, blah.…”

“Sir,” I said.  I really need to focus on this.  “I’m getting veterinary help.  Thank you very much.  Enjoy your run.  It’s a beautiful day.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I’m going to run a bit in the canyon, maybe eight miles or so, although I’ve got this sore hamstring, but I think I can make it to that spot at the….blah, blah, blah…”  That went on for a bit.

Meanwhile I”d dropped my phone twice, smeared it with blood, and finally managed to get the tail up to snap the picture by holding Cake’s lead rope in my teeth so his rear end was facing the good light.

“That doesn’t look too bad,” said Running Man.  “Probably been rubbing it.”

(Because horses always rub themselves bloody for fun! Everyone knows this!)

He continued:  “What you want to do is…”

I took a deep, deep breath.

“Listen.  I’m in the process of figuring out to do with a veterinarian.  Who is waiting for pictures.  I’m flustered, and worried about my horse.  I’m just having a little trouble giving you my full attention right now.  I want to devote it to this.”

He drew himself up.   “I finished Tevis (hundred mile equine endurance race), you know.  It’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

What I wanted to say:  “Good for you.  I had no idea they handed out veterinary degrees upon completion.”

What I said:  “Good for you.  I’m going to call my vet now.  Please excuse me.”

Running Man’s face hardened.  His eyes narrowed meanly, right before he slowly and deliberately swept them over my flushed, sweaty,  addled, disheveled self.  I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.  I both saw and felt it coming.

“Maybe,” said Running Man, “now that your horse is laid up, you can take up running.  You look like you could use some exercise.”

My mouth dropped.  The phone rang — my vet had received the pictures.  Running Man said a few more things I did not hear because I turned my back on him.

My vet said:  “That actually looks pretty awful, Elizabeth.  Let’s get him in.”

I don’t remember when Running Man actually disappeared (hopefully forever).  I loaded my horse and headed to the clinic.

I won’t leave you in suspense about poor Cake.  He had an extreme allergic reaction to something he was grazing on in the pasture.  Many daily scrubbings and ointments and medications later, he is on the mend.

My wounds, however, have been slower to heal, and I am stuck in the shadow of the Valley of the Mean People.

Because I don’t meet many of them, to tell you the truth.  Very few people in my life exert themselves to annoy, irritate, aggravate, provoke, inconvenience, or wound me.  The opposite is in fact the case.  Even at work.

If your life is full of annoyers/irritators/aggravators/wounders, I am so very sorry.  What a horrible, toxic thing.  I wish you strength and  courage.  You can stop reading this now, because you are likely thinking I’ve been a naive idiot, living in a fool’s paradise on a fatty diet of illusions.

I started gnawing on this as soon as I knew Cake would live.  Driving home from the vet clinic, a few dollars lighter, there were voices in my head.

My grandmother’s — I could hear her clearly — repeating one of her favorite phrases: “Well.  He doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose, does he.”  This was never a question for her.  It was a statement.  No question mark.

I thought about my grandfather, a big man with a booming voice who would have cold-cocked the goose senseless had he behaved thusly toward my grandmother.

As I turned into my driveway, my memory replayed one of my dear friend Stefan’s oft-repeated and much-beloved character summations:  “What an ass-hat!”

It made me miss my grandmother, my grandfather, and Stefan, but it marginally comforted me.  Stefan is the only one of the three I can still talk to about these things, grandmother and grandfather being long gone, and so I did.  He is an incredibly articulate fellow, with a surgical precision when it comes to defining social boundaries and reasonable human interaction.  I am a proud graduate of the Stefan Murphy Finishing School of Professional and Personal Excellence, and my diploma is treasured.

I know Stefan would have leveled the man with one polite phrase had he been in my scuffed-up riding boots (but his would be polished to a fine sheen, and manufactured for him personally by Ralph Lauren).  Stefan would never have let the dialogue degenerate to the level of personal insults.  He’d have sent Running Man packing definitively after his second ill-timed question.  I know this about Stefan, but I can’t think fast enough on my feet to replicate what he does.


Stefan is the opposite of mean. If he is your friend, he will write impassioned letters on your behalf to people who wronged you in childhood. He jots down limericks on difficult days to cheer you up. He will devastate your enemy with a graceful insult.

So I decided to ask him instead how he copes with the aftermath of a mean person.  Does he dismiss it?  Let it go?  Namaste his way through it and move on to bigger and better things?  Or does he dwell on it, let the experience form an ulcer of angst in his soul?  Because I was working on one of those.

“Oh I’m a dweller,” he assured me after I told him my sad tale, and we agreed Running Man wore an ass for a hat.  “An Olympic caliber dweller.  I could medal in the Dweller Decathlon.”

All right.  I felt better.   But I still had the spiritual hazardous spill to clean up.  The ulcer to heal.

As the song says, there’s so much in this world to make us bleed.  And, I’m sorry, I have to believe most of us in this world don’t really want that.

Sometimes, when I am stumped in the Compassion Generation Department, it helps to look at the world from the other guy’s perspective.  Cover a mile in his proverbial running shoes, as it were.  I thought of Running Man, and figured it was safe to conclude he is oblivious to social cues.  He is self-involved, attention-demanding, and has a bit of a temper.  He lashes out when he doesn’t get his way.

Overlooking the personal insult, he invaded my life at a time when I was terribly worried about my horse.  He hijacked the situation and demanded an ego stroking.  People rarely only do this now and then, to my way of thinking.  It’s got to be a lifestyle, right?

So, when he interacts with people, they must respond to that fairly uniformly.  When he executes his signature Running Man moves, people are likely often outraged and offended.  So what does Running Man see then?

He sees narrowed eyes.  Hard faces.  Jaws set against him.  He sees a hard, angry world, and it is possible he has no idea that he started all of that.

Of course, I don’t know his struggles.  Maybe they are enormous. Maybe I would weep if I knew his hardships.  There’s so much in this world to make us bleed.

These are the closest things I have to answers.  Unlike my grandmother, some of my observations end in question marks.   At least for a while.

I’m not excusing the ass-hat.  He is going to have to get himself figured out, squared away.  Or not.  I’m just trying to get past him.

But first I want to say something to him.

Running Man:  On the off-chance you read this, and it provokes/irritates/aggravates/wounds you, I want to paraphrase one of my favorite authors by way of explanation.  If you want people to write/think fondly of you, you should have behaved better.

Let’s end on a good note, shall we?  This is Cake.  Feeling better.

mean 2        mean 1

mean 3     mean 4

Parenting — a Short Story

  parenting 11
By Elizabeth Speth
Once upon a time, two people who were mere children themselves decided to have children.  Or they did not decide.  Either way, it happened.
parenting 22
Babies were born and they were wonderful and terrible things.  Tyrannical, foul-smelling, inconveniently spewing.  Riveting, too.  The exhausted parents couldn’t tear their bleary eyes away.  Suddenly, the babies were everything.  Something had sprung up out of nothing, and taken over the world.
 parenting 18           parenting 8
The infants stretched into toddlers, and then pre-schoolers, and that took about five minutes, give or take.  The parents watched closely, and it was a time of fear.  The ‘What if…‘ time.
parenting 7
What if… something happens?  What if… there is illness?  What if… someone hurts them… ?  What if…
 parenting 16
parenting 9
Holidays were fun, though.  There was squealing, and the slap of little feet in the hallway.  In summer there was the chlorine smell of swim lessons (to eliminate a ‘what if…’) and flushed early sleep while crickets throbbed, and the sun hovered low in the sky.  The lawn mower choked on army men hiding in the grass, and died.  Even that was amusing.
parenting 4           parenting 6
Then a tooth or two went missing, and the children changed.  They looked different.  Elongated.  Angles replaced curves, there was some awkwardness.  They kept secrets, whispered to their friends in the back seat, eyes sliding away when a parent looked a question into the rear view mirror.
parenting         parenting 3
Elementary school a blur, a little time in the classroom for the parents, a ride on the bus to a science museum, the underlying disapproval of their presence emanating from the children.  The beginning of the Time of Hostility.
parenting 5
Which stretched into junior high school, the first dance, don’t ask them too many questions, don’t look too long, don’t love too much, don’t worry (but worry!) because they look like adults but they still have tantrum-throwing, unreasonable, magical-thinking toddler brains behind those braces.  And they are still heartbreakingly beautiful.
High school.  The ‘Whatever‘ time.  Each child a little different, all of them preferring the cool teachers as parents, and it’s all about the friends.  The parents watch them drive off alone for the first time.  Pick a college.  Pick a career.  They are terrified.  They make poor choices, and the rest of the time they make no choices at all, it seems.  Somewhere in there, despite the parents’ subtle surveillance, they sneak their milestones.  First drink.  Maybe first drug.  First sexual fumblings.  Maybe heartbreak.  The only clue is that they grow more or less surly, inexplicably.
parenting 10      parenting 21
A last summer of separation.  Which they feel passionately about spending with friends.
parenting 17     parenting 14
College.  A terrible wrench, some internal bleeding.
parenting 15
After a long pause, a stony silence of independence, the calls start.  They miss the parents.  They appreciate the parents.  Home for the holidays, which are joyful again.
parenting 13
The parents think:  “Well, we can do this.  We like these adult children.  They are pleasant.  And we can turn our thoughts to other things.”
Then things don’t go according to plan.  The ‘What the…?’  time. Courses of study are changed.  Schools are changed.  Someone has decided he doesn’t really want to go to college at all.  Maybe a ‘gap year’.  Maybe trade school.  Maybe get a dog and hike for a few months.
Dad, tuition-drained, a child suddenly gray at the temples (when did that happen?), asks in exasperation:  ‘What the hell is going on in our kids’ heads?’
Mom:  “As if they should have it all figured out somehow. By the late teens and early twenties? Please.”  But she is very worried.  This is how things stand, as she sees it, with the children:
1. They are poor. Which is appropriate.  Isn’t everyone at this age?  Some of them will struggle with poverty for only a short time, some forever.  The world is made up of both types of children.
2. They want adventure. This is a great time for that. They are children, yes, but with no children of their own.
3. They also want the world to be quiet, so they can think for a minute, so they can figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
The parents decide to be quiet.   With difficulty, they try not to hold youth against itself. That would be the height of hypocrisy.
They mutter, they grumble.  They work to be grateful. And be quiet.
Someday, though they are but wrinkled, waning children themselves, there will be grandchildren. They want in on that.  And they want to see the process repeat itself.   They figure they’ve earned it.  The ‘What did we tell you?‘ time.
parenting 1       parenting 20

Hot, Crowded, Hungry…and Old

By Elizabeth Speth


Mid-life crisis? What mid-life crisis?

Recently, I had a birthday during an unseasonable wave of heat, against a backdrop of bad news.

Though it was supposed to be spring — the air soft and cool and green with possibility — Mother Nature had careened right past that season, screeching to a halt on a startlingly hot day,  the anniversary of the day of my birth.

Never mind which anniversary.  Suffice it to say I am getting close to the age of measuring in portions of centuries.  In most cultures, that is not something women feel like celebrating.

We become strangers to ourselves.  We grow speckles and spots.  We soften and spread.  We look like our mothers.  The older versions of our mothers.  Men stop behaving with gallantry toward us.  No one looks up when we enter a room, and what we have to say does not seem as riveting as it did when we uttered it through the rosy lips of youth.


When we are young, our skin fits snugly and our clothing is loose. Now, of course, the opposite is true.

I know that there are three definite, terrifying signs that you are officially old. One is losing your memory.  I can’t recall the other two.

But that wasn’t the only bad news on my birthday.  Something else was dragging me down as I trudged sizzling sidewalks, wiped sweat from my newly creased forehead, wondered if the whole world was having a hot flash, or just me.

I was sluggishly digesting (that’s one more thing that fails with advancing years) a news story about falling rice production in my beloved home state.

California’s recent dry spell, it seems, is expected to have a dramatic effect on rice production.   That is a big deal, and not only because this state supplies virtually all of the nation’s sushi rice.  The other half of our crops are exported.

Economists say that, of all the food crops, rice is likely to be affected by the drought the most, and the California Rice Commission estimates that rice farmers will leave 100,000 acres, or about 20 percent, of their fields fallow.

This of course nudges prices up worldwide.  Which can be a tragedy, depending upon where you live.  For us, rice is a comfort food, a sticky pillow upon which to rest your sashimi.  Something to round out a meal.  But in other cultures, a bowl of rice can make or break your day.  Perhaps that is most of what you will eat in a 24-hour period, and now you can only afford half a bowl.

To complicate matters, with food stores in the pantry beginning to dwindle, a real crowd has just shown up for dinner.

California’s population grew by roughly 332,000 people in the last fiscal year — its biggest increase in nearly a decade, according to new California Department of Finance estimates.The estimated population rose 0.88%, exceeding 38.2 million as of July.

Most of that growth was “natural increase” — births minus deaths (all those young whippersnappers having babies, which used to be my job, minus old people at the end of their lives, which is what I am now).  The rest is immigration.

So let me put all the layers of the birthday cake together for you, so you can see it clearly.  (Hang on.  I will need to find my reading glasses so I can see it too.)

My world was suddenly hot, crowded, and about to be very hungry.

The sky seemed to narrow, its gaze hostile and unwelcoming.

The message I thought I might be hearing was, ‘Shove off, Grandma.  Move over.  Make room.’

In a time of contracting resources, like space and food and familiar climates, shouldn’t we defer to the talent, beauty and energy of youth?  Can we afford the luxury of a vast, aging population, sucking up sustenance and space, reminding us all that the end is coming, and it is wrinkled and grim?

Have I, at my advanced age, over-stayed my welcome?

My youngest child had become a legal adult the week before.  What would I do with myself now?  How would I contribute?  Here I was, your typical old folk, obsessing about  weather and crops and the fact that my joints, like today’s young people, are so darned disrespectful.

It’s enough to make you want to whack someone with your cane.


As I usually do, I sought refuge and comfort in the gloaming of my horse pasture at evening feeding time.  I took comfort in the fact that I can still, for now, lift a bale of hay, and that I do still serve at least one purpose, even if it is only keeping the herd from starvation.  They need me.

I sat on the edge of a feeder and listed to the rhythmic munching of hay, and watched a feverish, fussy wind harass the tree tops.

I rejoiced as I felt one tiny tendril of cool breeze lift my hair, and then another.

I listened to the birds chirping to each other, telling stories about the day, and it did not sound as though they were complaining.  Small, colorful butterflies ignored the heat as they flirted with each other on the mustard blooms.  They don’t have a lot of time either, in this life, and they were getting on with the business of living.

I became aware of the drone of bees among the blackberry flowers and felt the world — finally, blessedly — expand.  As if drawing a breath.

Without realizing, I exhaled along with it, and the high, hot wind gusts finally quieted as the cooler breezes gathered momentum closer to the ground.

Because I had been thinking about rice all day,  I suddenly remembered something.  I remembered how many things can fit on a single grain of rice.


I thought:  If you can write entire verses — or faithfully detail the unique features of a human face — on such a small surface, how crowded are we really on this earth?  With the proper perspective, and appropriate tools, a grain of rice is enormous.

I looked around my familiar, large pasture, with its groves of trees, its seasonal ponds.

I thought, well, I have a little room.

I reminded myself that the hot weather I was finding so onerous of course meant the advent of the season of longer days.

That’s a few more hours in the day to get things right.  More time, if you will.

And my age has some benefits.  I can serve as a powerful cautionary tale, at the very least.  A walking, talking essay about things that should be done differently.

I am a living, breathing admonishment to:

— Wear sunscreen.

— Refrain from gluttony, because enough is as good as a feast.

— Live more outside of the comfort zone, even if it’s a bit terrifying, or become merely a collection of habits.

— Travel, or risk a mind that is fused shut.

— Accumulate fewer things.

— Glorify busy-ness less.

— Go ahead and get naked, because it’s only ever going to get worse.

Yeah.  That’s stuff young people aren’t born knowing.  Some unfortunate old person always has to demonstrate it.  I can do that.

Later that week, the oldest trainer in Kentucky Derby history, Art Sherman, 77, won that race handily with his horse California Chrome.  This duo — this perfect balance of very young horse and wise old man — also hails from the state of shrinking rice crops and swelling populations.  That made me feel better.

There was time, maybe, I thought.  Perhaps even for something amazing.

So, even though there is less and less room for me in the world, everyone knows people shrink as they age. I will take up less room. Well, vertically, at least.