I nearly died yesterday.
That sounds melodramatic, doesn’t it? I know. I think so too. And gosh, I hate drama. For the past 24 hours, I’ve struggled with what happened yesterday, and I’ve worried that I was being overemotional for no good reason, that I was being histrionic.
The answer is no. I could have died, but I didn’t.
Last night, to calm myself, I made homemade ricotta cheese. I felt the need to create something. I couldn’t create the words yet – the writer inside my head was mostly a crazed, screaming fool last night – so I stood at the stovetop and stirred milk and cream.
But I’ll get to the ricotta in a bit. Let me tell you what happened.
Yesterday morning, I met a woman from my work, Karen, at a local Starbucks. We had an appointment to visit a medical practice in a town about 40 minutes from here. I left my minivan in the parking lot and we climbed into her car, a company car. The morning’s appointment went well – I love getting to know the other physicians in our community – and we headed back before 11 o’clock. Clouds were gathering, and I told Karen I hoped we made it back before the rain let loose.
Karen drove, and we made small talk, chatting about work or our children, and eventually we reached the flat stretch of Interstate 75 that crosses Paynes Prairie. We were in the far left lane, the fast lane, but Karen was driving right at the speed limit – 70 mph. Ominous clouds the color of slate converged on the horizon, stretching to the right and left. A bolt of lightning punched downward, into the trees, ahead of us and to our left. We both cringed. The lightning bolt seemed to stay on the ground much longer than normal – 10 seconds? 20 seconds?
Half a minute later, another strike hit to our left, in the prairie itself, and a rumbling of thunder immediately followed. It still wasn’t raining, but the darkness ahead was closing in.
“Should we pull over?” Karen asked me. She gripped the steering wheel and leaned over it, as if to concentrate harder on the road ahead.
“No, just keep going,” I said. I just wanted to get through the storm, away from the lightning that seemed to all around us. I also wanted to be out of all of the traffic that had steadily picked up as we got closer to Gainesville. The three lanes of traffic were filled with cars, most of them speeding, and we were stuck in the far left.
The next bolt of lightning struck directly in front of us, perhaps just 3 feet away, sparks and flames leaping up from the pavement in front of the car, bright whiteness blinding us momentarily. The bolt looked at least a foot wide. We screamed, the lightning reached out toward our car, and then we were inside the bolt.
Karen never had time to brake, and in hindsight, that probably helped us survive. I grabbed her shoulder, both of us still screaming, but she kept her hands on the wheel, knuckles blanching white. The engine warning and indicator lights on the dashboard in front of Karen all came on, and then the car’s engine shut completely off.
My memories of the moments inside the car while it was engulfed lightning are hazy. I recall that it was loud and bright. It was so incredibly bright, with a whiteness that seemed to fill the car’s space. After the lightning bolt lifted, finally, and after what seemed like minutes, I saw ghosts of the jagged lightning strike wherever I looked, as my retinas attempted to recover from the flash.
Somehow Karen managed to maneuver the car – coasting, with no power – across three lanes of traffic and into a rest area on the northbound side of I-75. Somehow, we didn’t crash, didn’t cause a massive pileup like the one that happened last year in that same stretch of the interstate.
The car’s electrical system must have been fried immediately by the lightning; the engine never would turn back on. I later learned that the windshield was cracked, the paint of the car was speckled with scratches and chips, the hood was dented in a few places, and a smoky coating covered the exterior. There were burn marks on the car over the passenger side door, at the level of my head.
I did a lot of research yesterday afternoon and last night. I learned more than I wanted to know about lightning strikes, and about injuries – and deaths – related to lightning. I know we were protected from electrocution by the metal frame of the car – but not by the tires, that’s a myth – but I don’t know why we didn’t die on that interstate, driving 70 miles per hour in three lanes of traffic.
We were lucky, amazingly lucky.
As the kids and I settled in for the evening, before the storms came – the storms that knocked out our power right at bedtime – I made fresh ricotta. I packed it into an airtight container and set it in the refrigerator. The kids and I would eat crostini with fresh homemade ricotta, drizzled with honey, for breakfast the next day.
Later, when the power was out, I lay in bed in the quiet, warm stillness. I listened to the occasional growl of thunder and cringed at the sporadic flashes of lightning that brightened the bedroom. I thought of that ricotta on the second shelf of the refrigerator, and I hoped that the power would return soon so that it would not spoil. I thought of sharing that ricotta the next day, with my children, simply because I could. Because I had not died.
Every one of us has a story to tell. Some of us share stories in writing, either on blogs or in spiral-bound journals or in published, hold-in-your-hand memoirs. Others share stories through photography or through the spoken word. Some simply share stories around the dinner table, with family and friends. Others enjoy telling their story to their seat mate in the economy cabin of that Delta flight home.
I’m at the BlogHer Food conference in Austin, Texas, this weekend, and yesterday, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel called Principles of Storytelling. My co-panelists were women I’ve admired for their writing, both online and in print. Jenny Rosenstrach is the author of Dinner: A Love Story and the blog by the same name. Molly Wizenberg wrote A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, is working on a second book now, and she’s the woman behind Orangette. Rachel Matthews is a native Texan who writes the wonderful blog, A Southern Fairytale.
And then there was me.
I confess, it still feels like I was the odd one out on that panel. The impostor. Like maybe the conference organizers picked the wrong blogger by mistake and then felt bad telling me. I had a lot of fun, though, despite my awkwardness. There was a lot of good advice passed around and the questions from the audience were wonderful.
I wanted to share with you four tips on storytelling through writing. These are some of the nuggets of information that I spoke about yesterday, and that all of us on the panel seemed to agree upon. If you have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments.
1. Read, read, and then read some more.
Read works by authors who are doing the type or style of writing you’d like to be doing. Read books – or blogs, or magazine articles, or poetry – by writers who inspire you and whose linking together of words makes your heart race.
One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. Do I want to be a writer of horror and suspense stories? Absolutely not. But, King is a master storyteller whose knack for pulling the reader into the pages of his books, right into the scenes themselves, is enviable. The Stand
Neil Gaiman, a writer of science fiction and fantasy, is another author whose literary style captures my attention immediately every time I start reading one his books. The Graveyard Book was the first of his books that I read, and it’s still one of my favorites. His newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, comes out later this month, and it’s on my summer reading list.
These are some other books I’ve loved lately, engaging stories told by writers who know what they’re doing:
Great chefs don’t learn their craft in a vacuum. They develop their style of cooking by eating meals prepared by other chefs whose cooking style or skills they admire and respect. Similarly, writers learn from devouring the words of other writers.
2. Read about writing.
Nothing inspires me more to write than reading about how someone else does it. What is clear in these books is that writing is hard. Starting writing is hard. Finishing writing is hard. Publishing writing is sometimes harder. What is more clear is that we — you and me and anyone else who loves to write — are not alone.
I recommend these to you:
3. Take a writing class.
A couple of years ago, I found a coupon for an online writing class through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. The course was six weeks long, and the syllabus covered the basics of creative writing. I signed up, and I loved it. I enjoyed reading the weekly lessons, and I liked the challenge of the homework assignments. And though it made me incredibly nervous, I even appreciated the instructor’s critiques of my work.
A writing class is a wonderful way to brush up on the basics of writing, things we all learned way back in college but may have let lapse in our current worlds of abbreviated texting and 140-character tweets and Facebook status updates. Need to know how to create a believable scene or develop a character with whom your reader will empathize? Take a writing class.
Of these four items, this is the hardest for me, and probably the hardest for you, too. Writing requires that I sit down and, well, write. Putting words to paper – or screen, as it were – is not easy. All too often I don’t know what to write about, or when I know what I want to say, I’m not sure the best way to say it.
So, I practice. I write here, on this blog. I write in a journal, sometimes regularly and other times, not so regularly. I keep a notebook of ideas in my bag at all times, a place where I can jot down little nuggets of memories or phrases or other gems that I hope will inspire those words to get out of my head.
I write, and I think about writing, and I stress out about writing.
And finally, at the end of all of the agonizing, I tell my story.
Our 6-year old son sleeps on the carpeted floor in our bedroom, just beside our bed. I am not proud to admit this. In fact, I’m flat-out embarrassed about it.
I was one of those moms who abhorred the idea of co-sleeping. I was the mom who sold the baby monitor at a yard sale, even as little Oliver still slept in a crib, because those baby sounds in the middle of the night were just too distracting and disturbing to my sleep.
So, as payback for my parental selfishness, our son moved into our room when he was 5 years old. It started gradually, with an occasional night spent cuddled next to our bed, wrapped in his red blankie, most often preceded by complaints of a scary dream. Those nights grew more frequent, and he wore us down over time. Eventually, we realized that he’d moved all of his favorite toys and books in and that we were now calling that side of the room, “Oliver’s bed.”
In addition to a complete lack of privacy, what this has translated to is that I hear every whimper and sigh that my son utters in the middle of the night. Over the glorious long weekend that just past, I started hearing little coughs from his side of the room. Those coughs grew deeper and longer, and three nights ago, we were up at 3 o’clock in the morning with him. Well, my husband was up, fumbling in the darkened kitchen for the bottle of children’s cough syrup, while I lie in bed wondering if anyone would be too upset with me if I just went back to sleep.
Oliver developed the 102-degree fever just before bedtime on Monday, our last Stay-Home-Day before school and work started back up. The scramble for a babysitter didn’t pan out, as it rarely does for us anymore on such short notice. My husband and I began the negotiations. Whose clinic was more full of patients? Who could afford to take a Tuesday off? Who sacrificed the last time this happened? All the while, Oliver slept hard, medicated with grape-flavored cough syrup and exhausted from his restless night the night before.
Or I lost, depending on how you look at it.
While I worked, Sam stayed home with our son. He ran errands when Oliver was feeling up to it, doled out children’s ibuprofen for the fever of 103 degrees, and he took him to the pediatrician who graciously worked Oliver into her schedule. Later, he helped our son with his albuterol breathing treatments from the black-and-white nebulizer machine (adorably shaped like a panda bear) and administered the first doses of antibiotics for Oliver’s newly diagnosed pneumonia. Meanwhile, between cancer patients and chemotherapy discussions, I ached to be home with Oliver.
I got my wish today. Sam and I again weighed the relative potential impact of canceling our respective clinics, and my clinic schedule was sacrificed. Thanks to some fantastic people in my clinic, all of my patients were covered and I was able to spend the day home with my little guy.
When I woke this morning for a pre-dawn bathroom trip, I was thinking of banana cupcakes. This may be odd for some people, but for me, waking up thinking about a recipe is fairly commonplace. When I find myself dreaming of banana cupcakes, I know that the time has come for me to make them. And that bunch of brown-spotted bananas that you see in the first photo above? They were destined for a dish greater than a humble (though amazing) banana bread.
After an emergency run to the craft store to get cupcake liners — with a stop off at Toys-R-Us to replace a lost plastic boat — Oliver and I got to baking. While I measured and poured and mixed and baked, Oliver drove his new toy boat [Who am I kidding? Two new toy boats. Because he's my baby and he's sick, that's why.] around my feet and through the legs of the Boos butcher block stand that was last year’s Christmas present from Sam. We took occasional breaks so that Oliver could “do the panda.”
Later, once the cupcakes were cool, I piped the frosting. I did this by myself, mostly because I like things to look a certain way (my way), but I let Oliver scatter rainbow sprinkles over the finished treats.
We celebrated our sick day with a cupcake. A banana chocolate chip cupcake with honey cream cheese frosting. And with a perfectly lovely garnish of rainbow sprinkles.
The post a sick day, and a recipe: banana chocolate chip cupcakes with honey cream cheese frosting appeared first on The Merry Gourmet.
One Saturday night back in the late 1980s – it must have been 1988 or 1989 – my friend Carrie and I were out “driving around.” This is what we did during our high school years, once my friends and I had our drivers licenses – and a car. In our small, one-high-school, one-movie-theater town, there wasn’t much for teenage kids to do. So, we drove around. We drove loops through the town, from the fast food restaurants on the west side, to the neighborhoods of the east side, and back again. We gossiped, we sang along with The Cure and the B52s and Drivin’ N Cryin’, we agonized over our current dating (or not dating) situations, and we looked for other friends who were out driving around, too.
On that night, Carrie and I were discussing what it meant to be a grown-up. Both of us were headed to college, and on that night, we might have known that I was heading to the University of Florida and that she was headed to Stetson. But that may have come later. I think it was Carrie’s idea, but I embraced it: being grown up meant buying your own toilet paper. Yes, that was it. THAT’s what it meant to be an adult. We christened the idea the Toilet Paper Rule.
I’ve bought a lot of toilet paper since that night, and I can look back on my 16-year old self and confidently say that we were wrong.
There have been many moments in my 40 years of life when the thought crossed my mind: “This is it. Now I’m a grown-up.” Paying my bills in college, with money I earned from the job I worked while studying full time. Getting married and moving in with my husband. Having our first child over nine years ago.
Nothing has made me feel more my age, though, than caring for my sick father.
I sat at Dad’s bedside yesterday in the nursing home, and I talked to him about life outside. I talked about my kids, about the fact that my mother had taken a much-needed, impromptu trip to the beach for a night. Finally, I talked to him about his role as Mayor in his small town, and how it would be best if he stepped down. I held his hand as I told him that, because being Mayor is one of his most favorite things. I upset him with this, for he doesn’t understand his limitations, he doesn’t realize that he has dementia. He cried when I left.
I thought about the toilet paper rule on my drive home. I was so naive back then.
I’m trying to find bright, shiny spots of happiness in the small things these days. And, despite everything I’m balancing on my shoulders, there are lots of things giving me joy right now:
– Eastern bluebirds are everywhere these days. These sweet birds have a special place in my heart, maybe because I never saw them in Florida until about three years ago. Yesterday, as I walked into the hospital, I saw a male and female pair perched on a tree branch. Just the sight of those two birds made my morning.
– I bought myself an orchid, a gift to myself for Mother’s Day. I set it on the kitchen table on Monday afternoon after bringing it home from Trader Joe’s, and each day, it looks happier to be here. Another bloom opened yesterday.
– We’re headed to Walt Disney World this weekend for the Food Blog Forum Orlando. I’m looking forward to meeting new people and seeing old friends. Mostly, I’m looking forward to being surrounded by Disney magic for a few days.
– I finished a book over the weekend, in just two days (which is very quick for me given my limited reading time). The Dinner by Herman Koch was filled with wonderful restaurant scenes, and the writing was terrific. The story disturbed me completely, but I’m glad I read it. I started The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer earlier in the week, and I’m hooked. I only read at night, before bed, and this book makes me want to go to bed at 8 pm.
– There’s this food blog conference in June — you may have heard of it: BlogHer Food — and I’m thrilled to be speaking on a panel about storytelling. Last week I had a conference call with the three other panelists – Molly from Orangette, Rachel from Southern Fairytale, and Jenny from Dinner: A Love Story – and after that call, I’m even more excited about the entire experience.
– Cake. Really, that’s all I need to say. I’m finding happiness in cake. A couple of weekends ago, on a rainy Saturday, I baked this yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Despite the gloomy weather outside, my heart felt light as I mixed ingredients and frosted cake layers. We enjoyed slices of cake for our dessert that night, and I forgot to take a photo of the sliced cake until the next day. The cake is a bit lopsided, the frosting is not terribly even, and there are crumbs everywhere. But I don’t care. It made me happy.
The post bright, shiny spots of happiness: yellow cake with chocolate frosting appeared first on The Merry Gourmet.
You all are the best. Seriously.
My family has had some challenging situations arise, and no matter what, I feel completely loved and supported by this community. To each of you who reached out to me after my last post, thank you. You lifted me up, as you always do, just when I need it most.
While we were in Louisville, my mother and I had dinner with my father’s brother, Uncle Boyce. My father is one of three boys; Dad is the oldest, and Boyce is the youngest. My dad and his brothers, though their heights, hair color, politics, and religious beliefs differ – prompting some terribly fun arguments when they all get together — are really more similar than different on the inside, where it counts. So being with Boyce was like being with a shorter version of my dad. It felt good to be with him.
Boyce took us to a local restaurant favorite of his, Cunningham’s Creekside. My mother was familiar with the restaurant and had been to the downtown location way back when, long before it burned down in 2001. Mom and I ordered drinks – wine for me, bourbon for her – a necessity after the long day of travel and worry and hospital rooms, and we breathed deep for the first time in 24 hours. At the tables around us, couples and foursomes drank beer out of bottles, laughed and talked, and occasionally glanced at the sports news on ESPN on the televisions bolted to the walls around the dining room.
Our conversations drifted as we waited for our meals to be brought to the table. My mother and Boyce reminisced about the old bar that used to be down the road, the one with the older woman who belted out tunes on the piano, the songs growing raunchier as the night grew late and more drinks were thrown back. I heard the story of how my mother and father met, in a bar in Louisville. He was at another table, and she thought he looked like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago, so she bought him a drink and had it sent over from her table across the room.
We spoke of the devastating accident her twin sister and brother-in-law had been in, and the potential outcomes. We left a lot unsaid, growing quiet and shaking our heads in disbelief and discomfort at the possibilities. The chatter in the restaurant grew louder as the minutes clicked by.
When our meal came, the conversation came to a halt. I think each of us was happy to focus on something other than the reason we were there, in Louisville. I cut into the crispy fried fish fillet I had ordered and savored that first bite. A forkful of creamy macaroni and cheese followed. And finally, I tried the dish I’d been looking forward to since I cracked opened the plastic menu and saw it listed under Side Dishes: stewed tomatoes.
I lifted a spoonful of the stewed tomatoes and, carefully, taking care not to drip the juices onto my shirt, I put the spoon in my mouth. If my mother or my uncle was speaking to me at the moment, I didn’t hear. All of my senses were focused on those sweetened tomatoes at that moment. And if someone told me that my eyes had closed while I tasted them, I would not be surprised.
When my father served stewed tomatoes at dinners when I was growing up, I viewed the dish as a punishment for something, probably for being his child. His preparation of them was simple. He opened a can of stewed tomatoes, dumped the contents into a saucepan with a plop, and turned the electric burner on medium high. When they were warmed through, he scooped up two or three whole, plum-sized tomatoes, and ladled them onto each plate. They looked like bloody organs, something that belonged in a hospital’s pathology lab, not on our dinner table.
I don’t recall what Dad’s stewed tomatoes tasted like, only that they were awful. Each meal that those tomatoes accompanied inevitably resulted in me and my brother sitting at the dinner table, after the sun had set and well after my parents were long gone into the living room to watch television, as we struggled to clean our plates. “Because I said so, that’s why.”
I learned to swallow stewed tomatoes whole. It was easier than the alternative, which was to taste them.
These are not my father’s stewed tomatoes. When I returned from Louisville, I recreated the dish I tasted at Cunningham’s Creekside. I cringed when I added the sugar, but the recipe would not be as delicious without it. The sugar provides balance to the acidity, a necessity for taming the flavors, for evening them out.
And even though these are not my father’s stewed tomatoes, I’m pretty certain he’d prefer my recipe to his own.