Sunday, 26 February 2012

Fumbling through February

It's mid-afternoon on a snowy Sunday. The kids are napping, and their father is preparing for tomorrow's evening class. After a night and a day of playing nursemaid/laundress, due to my daughter's recent bout with a (hopefully) 24-hour stomach flu, I could probably use a nap myself, but it's also my birthday, so a little blogging appears to be in order. Besides, sleeping with a head full of words is tricky even without the interference of sunlight reflecting off of mounds of fresh snow, nevermind those four cups of coffee coursing through my veins.

I have been struggling, of late, to find favour with February. I've never been overly fond of the shortest of months, though it's only been this year that I've delved much into why. I believe I find fault with its mutability; the weather may be fair, or very foul, part of it will likely be in Lent, but the actual beginning may fluctuate greatly, even its number of days remains inconstant. You just can't depend on February for much of anything.

It's been a troubling thought for an aspiring midwife - I don't much care for inconsistency, and yet I'm aiming for a career that caters to the unpredictable.  Babies come when they come, and the midwifery model of care is loath to mess with it for something as mundane as one's vacation schedule, let alone a wish for regular working hours. I've worried how I'll handle being on call. Will I sit at home and stew, or will I learn to make conditional plans, to fit in tasks in pieces that can be interrupted, to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little? I think back to how impatiently I awaited birthing my own two babes; will I do better when it becomes routine, when it's the twinges of someone else's uterus I'm trying to interpret rather than my own?

With such thoughts in mind, I've traveled through February with open eyes. And lo, there are patterns to be found within the anticipated chaos; predictable sequences, inserted at intervals beyond my control and ready to be enjoyed if only one can put them into focus: slow swirls of snow alleviating a grey sky, sun slanting across the sidewalk at the blessedly late hour of 5:30 pm, my son's adorable head-bobble as he trots merrily along, my daughter's playtime synopses that grow in complexity and hilarity at equal rates, all welcome interruptions to my perceptions of doom and gloom. Add some lovely visits with family and friends, some long awaited, some last-minute, and my life drums on to an irregular rhythm that's surprisingly freeing. Sure, there were still moments of moody inertia, afternoons of dreary weather and fits of impatience, but nothing worth writing off an entire month's worth of otherwise positive, or at least edifying, experiences.

Perhaps I'm setting too much store in the swing of the overly temperate El Niño winter. Perhaps the sheer relief of climbing out of weeks of flu-like fatigue is keeping my usual February blues at bay. Perhaps writing through the blissful haze of a fabulous piece of birthday cheesecake has got me overly optimistic. Or maybe my birth-month has never been all that awful and I've just been remembering the wrong moments.

My hope lies in learning to see patterns overlapping patterns; if I can come to appreciate the cycle of the Church year overtaking our tweaked Gregorian time chart to hone our focus onto He Who is most important, then perchance someday the rhythm of a child's entry into the world trumping my original plans for an evening will be an event I'll be honoured to witness time and again, rather than an inconvenience to be feared.

Speaking of cycles overcoming cycles, this year my birthday is trumped by Forgiveness Sunday, the Vespers of which I'll not be able to attend due to the needs of my convalescing daughter. As such, I'd like to take this moment to ask forgiveness of you, my readers: If anything I've written or omitted here or elsewhere has caused offense, please forgive me, a sinner. May God forgive us all.

Monday, 13 February 2012

"Aquired Intuition" or "Fun with Mac & Cheese"

It was Thursday night, and supper was not going as planned. Due to a desire to try out a couple recipes I'd gleaned off the internet, along with satisfying a craving for smokey meat and gooey cheese, I had intended to pare some of our staple farmer sausage (I'm married to a Mennonite) with a homemade mac and cheese (which I found here) and stuffed zucchini boats (which my cousin found here and shared with her sister over Facebook as part of a conversation that showed up on my newsfeed...all the world's a conference room where the players meander aimlessly and eavesdrop on each other's conversations...but I digress). A look at the pantry, however, revealed such a large back-log of Annie's Mac & Cheese that making my own seemed superfluous, and my loan zucchini, while still mostly edible, was no longer boat-able. So it seemed I would have to make do with faux-cheese (70% organic faux-cheese, but still - not so gooey) and amputated fried zucchini.

I was standing over a pot of bubbling shelleroni, looking morosely over my pan of sausage and onions to the bowl of still-fresh - but chopped - zucchini that would never know the pull of slightly melted cheddar, when inspiration hit. I had the makings of a casserole. Without waiting for conscious thought to catch up with my intuition, I threw the beleaguered squash in with the sausage, pulled the pasta off the heat before it quite hit al dente, and shredded some real(!) cheddar cheese. I began my imitation roux by frying the garlic I'd intended for the zucchini in butter before mixing in the package of "sauce". Knowing I needed to cover much more than just pasta, I added some extra milk and stirred in a tablespoon or so of flour along with some smoked paprika, to complement the sausage, and dried thyme, which I vaguely remembered from the aforementioned recipe for scratch mac & cheese. It didn't seem to be thickening even after adding more flour, but, rather than double checking a recipe, I just threw in some cheese - oookay, now it's thick. I combined the pasta with the sausage, mixed in my near-congealing sauce, covered it all with the rest of my shredded cheese, popped it under the broiler, et voilà! A satisfyingly gooey, smokey cheese experience for Rachel (I let the rest of my family eat it too).

It may sound like an episode from the Adventures of Suzy Homemaker, but this little experiment of mine represents a real step forward in overcoming an old intellectual block. If I may borrow the terminology from "The Trouble With Bright Girls" (found, once again, by a friend via Facebook), cooking was once labelled as one of my "innate" inabilities. It was the first on my list of shunned-as-impossible skills that I ended up trying despite myself, and discovering that I was, indeed, able to accomplish, if not perfectly, then at least passably. It could even be fun. I just needed to try harder and pay more attention. It was then that I first began to question my self-imposed dichotomy of "do well" and "can't do at all", and to wonder what other potentially enjoyable activities I was denying myself just because they didn't come as naturally as math or English. It was my first inkling of how self-definition can double as self-limitation.

I had this little epiphany back when I was a teenager. And while it did keep me from avoiding the kitchen altogether, it wasn't until time and circumstance had me cooking on a daily basis that I began to free myself from the bondage of recipes. As it turns out, I'd acquired culinary improvisation much like sight singing; if I try to analyze every interval, I'll never keep up, but years of practice have led to a muscle memory of what it feels like to sing them. And so I do, almost subconsciously, and likewise my hand migrates to the right jar in the spice cabinet. I still use recipes most of the time, but more as a guideline than an unbreakable law. Gone are the days where the lack of a key ingredient has put supper at peril; I know enough about what might and might not go together to risk a few substitutions. What makes it to the table may be a far cry from what the recipe-writer had intended, but it usually tastes pretty good all the same. I do believe Michael Smith would approve.

Speaking of supper, there's a plate of thawing chicken thighs awaiting my attention. Time to think like a bright boy ;)

Monday, 6 February 2012

Renewing relations with sunshine

It was the break of day. I awoke to the sight of a small child standing, pajama-clad, beside my bed. She'd come to inform me I'd failed to wake her for preschool yet again. It was a scene that has become far too regular these pass few weeks, as the ebb and flow of what we've come to call the Junk Bug has sent my girlie to bed many a night in full expectation of being roused before dawn, in preparation of normal morning activities, only to discover, more mornings than not, that plans had been cancelled due to one or more of her family members succumbing to yet another relapse of persistent flu-related fatigue.

The difference this morning was that her unusually acute skills of observation had led her astray. Granted, I had hit the snooze button a few too many times, so we were due for a bit of a scramble. But today the light creeping under her blinds was not a sign she'd be stuck staying home - it was a portent of a still-distant spring.

The air still held a good bit of bite as we trudged out in the early morning light, but once her brother and I had bid the girlie goodbye and headed for home, the sun had cleared the roof lines, bringing sensations I've come to associate with a much later hour, lo these long winter months.  Our shadows stretched across lawns glistening with snow as we strolled past at toddler-pace. We encountered the jumble of a disassembled dresser, abandoned to molder as a red-neck sculpture in an icy front yard. It looked like it had been a costly piece of furniture - maybe even recently as yesterday - and usually such a waste would be a sorry sight. But in the dazzle of sunlight gleaming off the still-fine finish, adorned with the sparkle of dissipating frost, it felt more like a piece of found art - the carpentry of man reclaimed by nature.

It was truly un matin ensoleillé. You'll have to pardon my French, but the plain-Jane substitute of 'sunny' can hardly do justice to a forenoon engulfed in such brightness. I made the bed with deliberate untidiness just to witness white sheets offsetting the burgundy duvet. The everyday petty annoyances of spilled milk and chewed off markers (yes, it's becoming a daily occurrence) melted in the warm embrace of that far-off orb. Everything looks better in sun.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Coffee with Bulgakov

There is nothing I find so delightfully decadent as going out on a date with a good book. My perchance unpopular opinion dates back to the days of my very first job, when I occasionally spent the lag between split-shifts at a nearby bistro, lingering over a late lunch, complete with dessert and coffee, in the uninterrupted company of a nice thick novel. The fact that the bill of such an outing exceeded what I made in either shift surrounding it kept me from indulging very often, but such an expense without the excuse of socialization felt so deliciously daring that the memory has stuck and the act has been repeated many a time as the years went by, though usually on a more modest scale (unlike my sentences, which are going for broke - and by broke, I mean Proust).

Life at home with babies left me with enough time for reading and illusionary solitude that this treat fell on the wayside for a while. Now that those babies are now two very proficient chatterboxes, a night without conversation - pared with the novelty of leaving the house without my darlings and all their accessories in tow - beckoned once again. Hence I headed the call; with The Master and Margarita tucked lovingly in my purse, I kissed my children goodnight, left bedtime and dishes in my husband's capable, and, thankfully, available, hands, and drove out for a coffee - blessedly alone. 

I chose my route based on reasons that defied practicality.  Rather than heading to the nearest Second Cup, I chose this evening to try Transcend, a local coffee shop and roastery I'd heard of but never visited, and in the location that meant not the shortest drive, but that which was most scenic, and, due to scarcity of parking spots, a walk as well. I ended up driving down to the university, parking in the same lot I used during choir season, and walking the same route I would have taken as a student to get to my old apartment just off campus.

It was a cold night for a trip down memory lane. I found out later my discomfort was increased by the fact that my windows were not completely shut. I'm sure there are climates where being able to roll one's car windows down a hair-breadth with one's key-fob is a perk. The one in which I live is not one of them - at least not during a mid-January cold-snap - and thus I've never quite figured out how it happens. I enjoyed my drive all the same; choosing music without bargaining with a certain occupant of the backseat is becoming a bit of a rarity, and a chance to sing along without needing to know the song titles, or explain the nuances of the lyrics, was not to be wasted wondering why the heater wasn't taking the edge off the chill.

I did, however, begin to doubt whether I was truly prepared for the last leg of my journey; if I hadn't warmed up in the twenty minutes I'd been in the car, was I really dressed for a hike in sub-arctic weather? Then it dawned on me: I was heading for the natural habitat of the habitually under-dressed - a campus built on the assumption that walking from building to building ought to be done indoors, unless it's nice out or you happen to be a smoker. I rallied for the quick jaunt to the LRT station, and from there the adjoining pedway system took me half-way to my destination before I had to face the wind. Then nostalgia took over, carrying me past my old block. The two rows of walk-up apartments mirrored each other, as unchanged as the wending road between them, still reserved for foot traffic. I gave a nod to my address of yesteryear, shook my head at the hint of an elevator bay on a new building at the end of the street (kids these days - can't they take the stairs? Hopefully it's reserved for the paraplegic). I marveled at the trendy cafés I never visited when they were but a stone's throw away; back then, their names had not gained their current connotations. I felt new empathy for students in residence - when one moves to a city only to live on a campus, the perception of "city centre" gets skewed.

I reached my destination, well chilled yet energized by the prelude of my evening, looking forward to being warmed by a famed flat white before facing the elements once again. The shop was mostly deserted, the staff friendly, the coffee just as lovely as anticipated. And Bulgakov, even after such extended expectations, did not disappoint. I must confess I read classic literature only occasionally, and usually find the experience more laborious than recreational (I got my Proust reference from an episode of "Gilmore Girls"), so it is always an especial delight to discover that my chosen cultural vegetable could double as dessert. Master and Margarita proved just as engrossing as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Morbid fascination had me forgetting the draft, the time, my empty coffee cup until it was time to bundle up and head for home. And thus I arrived, refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to resume life as usual with my little darlings; dishes, diapers, 5000 questions, and all.