Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On the Verge of the Verge

After a crazy whirlwind of high school graduation parties and book completions and house guests and weird monsoon rainstorms, this summer has suddenly turned quiet. 

My daughter's on the verge of heading off to college. And I'm on the verge of starting a new book after wringing myself out writing the last one. At the moment we're both in a holding pattern. Hovering between adventures. 

Quiet. But with different definitions of the word. 

For my daughter, it's a building, impatient kind of quiet. She's eager to get going on her adventure. Texting her new roommate a thousand times a day. Making up packing lists and perusing college course catalogs.

My version is the lazy, borderline boring kind of quiet. I'm doing stuff like vacuuming. Making squash balls. Posting goofy pictures of vegetables on Instagram. 

When I teach writing workshops, I like to talk about the Hero's Journey. If you're not familiar with it, the Hero's Journey is basically the narrative structure for nearly all stories. Our hero starts out in the ordinary world--either perfectly happy to park out there forever (see The Hobbit. Jaws, etc.) or itching to get the hell out of there (Wizard of Oz. Star Wars). 

Either way, something happens. 

The hero gets a Call to Adventure (Gandalf comes knocking on the door; a shark eats a swimmer, a tornado blows the farmhouse away, storm troopers murder the family) and off the Hero goes on the adventure. 

I'm greatly simplifying here --because sometimes the hero refuses the Call for a while or it may take a few attempts to get moving-- but most stories don't get cooking until the main character crosses the threshold and goes off-- finally!--on the adventure. 

Readers and moviegoers tend to get a bit antsy when the writer holds the hero in the Ordinary World for too long. We want to see the hero in some real action. Not smoking a pipe in the hobbit hole or ticketing cars on Amity Island or singing on a fence post in black and white Kansas or farming and fixing droids for Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. 

Maybe I am getting old. I know my next adventure's going to start soon enough. Meanwhile, I am content to kick back and wallow around for a few moments in my little wedge on the verge of it. 

Look! An eggplant!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dispatches from the Dirt: Random thoughts from the garden (plus a bonus squash ball recipe)

It's that time of year when my neighbors pretend not to see me. Uh oh, here she comes, is what they are thinking. She's going to give us another bushel of green beans. Run away!! 

It's true. I have a lot of freaking green beans these days. Also, an overabundance of kale. Soon I will be up to my eyeballs in yellow squash, tomatoes, and green peppers. 

(Overabundance of kale)
Let's just say I have a tendency to over plant. It's a combination of not being able to imagine green stuff growing when I do my planting back in the cold crappy gray days of April and my inability to thin the little plants out when they do start to come in. 

It just feels wrong, you know? To kill them. 

Which is why I have more than forty green bean plants. 

Green beans are not easy to pick. They are hard to see. And hard to grasp. When the plants are all bunched up together, it's even harder. I MUST remember this next year and be brutal with the thinning. 

(Helpful green bean tip: Plant purple green beans.
They are much easier to see)

Other stuff I've learned from this year's garden. In no particular order:

It's good to have a plan. This spring I was bored with my usual throw a bunch of stuff in the ground and see what comes up. 

I saw a garden pattern in my Cooking Light magazine and decided to try it. 

Because I tend to go overboard in all things, I doubled the plan and planted four gardens instead of two. 
(Zooey can't imagine these patches of dirt
turning into anything green either)
But BOO YAH. They did:

The garden is lovely but it's had a few problems. Some obnoxious stealth critter ate all of my sunflowers and I had to replant them. The borage (not sure what this is exactly. A pretty flowery thing) grew much bigger than I realized it would and flopped all over the cucumbers. My eggplant got eaten alive by a weird yellow bug. 

A volunteer zucchini plant crowded out one corner of the garden and is now heading into the yard. 

(zucchini plant on steroids)

 A word here about "volunteers." Okay, I never knew what a volunteer was until my expert gardener mother-in-law told me. Volunteers are plants that sprout up from seeds you didn't plant. Maybe a squirrel dropped the seeds. Or they're left over from a plant from last year's garden. Every time I see a volunteer anything growing in my garden (or somewhere else in the yard), I am excited. Like a little surprise gift. Ooh, look, watermelon!! over here... by the gutter downspout. 

Real gardeners snap these suckers out as soon as they find them, but I can't bear to do that. (see above: Issues with Killing. I mean, thinning.) 

This damn zucchini volunteer though. So far, all it's caused me is trouble. Taking up space. And still no zucchinis.

But I digress. 

Let's chat about slugs for a moment, shall we? Because of the crazy amount of rain we've had this year in Ohio, my lovely garden is being besieged by slugs. My neighbor told me to spray pesticide, but I dunno, this seems to go against my whole point of having a garden in the first place. 

A more organic yet gruesome way to combat slugs is, apparently, beer. What you do is pour beer into shallow dishes and place at various points around the garden. The slugs are attracted to the sugar? The alcohol? The grain? Whatever. And they slither up to the dishes, fall into the beer, and... um, die. 

So, I tried this, and I am here to tell you that it works. I want to think that the slugs died happy. 

On that appetizing note, here's a recipe! 

Squash Balls (from SpicySouthernKitchen.com

(Squash balls. Also, fried green tomatoes because
have I mentioned we have a crazy number of green tomatoes?)

5 medium-sized yellow squash **
¾ cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ a medium sweet onion, minced
½ a jalapeno
½ cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil
Chop squash. Steam for 12-15 minutes until tender. Mash. Add onion, jalapeno, buttermilk, and egg. Mix well. 
Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. 
Add squash mixture to cornmeal mixture and stir until blended.
Heat oil in a cast iron skillet.
Drop rounded tablespoonfuls into skillet and fry until golden brown on each side. (3 minutes per side) Drain on paper towels.

**(Be sure to pick all slugs from the squash before cooking.) 

Drink a glass of cold beer. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

How I Spent My 30th Birthday

The year I turned 29, I had something of an early mid-life crisis. From the outside I might've seemed put together. A stable contributing member of society. Wife. Mother. Homeowner. Teacher. 

But on the inside, I felt like a fraud. I liked teaching, but it was a pretend career, something I was doing "for now"-- until I figured out what I really wanted to do. I loved being a wife and mom, but those felt like playing dress up too. I had so few positive role models for wife-dom and mother-dom. Most days I was winging it, and then falling into bed and angstily analyzing all of my actions and choices. 

As my 29th birthday approached, I remember thinking: Yikes. I can't keep playing around. Time to get serious. Next year I WILL BE 30!!

But a funny thing happened the day I turned 30: I didn't think at all about turning 30.

I had too many other things on my mind. 

My husband's company had recently transferred him to another state. I'd stayed behind for a few weeks with our three year old son, to sell our house and wrap up my teaching job. I also got called up for jury duty.

Oh, did I mention I was eight months pregnant? 

We moved into our new house at the beginning of July and for the next few days I tore around like a manic unpacking (my husband teased me because I spent time arranging all of our books into the bookcase in alphabetical order. Just put them away, he said. To ME. A former bookstore employee. Ha ha)  

The only room I didn't touch was the nursery. I shoved the unpacked boxes into that room and told myself I'd get to it later. The baby wasn't due until the end of the month. 

The morning of the big Three-Oh, I slept. All of that racing around had finally caught up with me. I collapsed on the couch, waking only to pop another Scooby Doo video into the VCR for my three year old. 

Lunch was fun. I spent it in line at the DMV getting my driver's license renewed. Weight? the clerk asked, and I patted my engorged stomach miserably. It's okay, she said, just write down what you think you'll weigh after.

I still love that woman. 

And then it was back to the couch and Scooby Doo videos. 

My husband brought home dinner and I ate like I hadn't eaten in years. Half of a pepperoni pizza. A liter of coke. A quarter of a carrot cake. And I don't even like carrot cake. I was diabetic during my pregnancy. I wasn't supposed to be eating this way. But, whatever. 

I went into labor a few hours later. 

I called the only person I knew in the new city to come stay with our three year old son (a decision that still apparently haunts the poor kid. 18 years later). My husband had to get directions to the hospital from the OBGYN. Before we left, he dug around in boxes to try to find the sweet little dress we'd planned to have our daughter wear. 

All he could find was an old hand-me-down undershirt of our son's. 

The anesthesiologist laughed and laughed when I told her what I'd last eaten. Half of a pizza? Well, it's my birthday, I said. And it hit me. Who cared how old I was? Who cared if I ate half of a pizza every once in a while or if my kid watched six hours of Scooby Doo videos or...um... if the books weren't arranged perfectly in the bookshelf. 

This was one day in my one life. 

Our baby girl was born the next day. She looked darling in her undershirt.