Pretty Soon Now You're Gonna Get Older

I've entered a new phase of life, and it is terrifying. I am among the lucky to make it to this point, and I am grateful for all that has gotten me here. But I am at that point where I have realized I am most definitely in the second half of life, and what lays ahead of me is decidedly shorter than what is behind. This frightens me. It also is awakening in me a sense of urgency, a nudge to stop and consider how I am spending my time, how I want to spend my time, who I want to stay around with me.

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Gareth has brought up the Acorn website to listen to BBC TV while he paints. He started painting again about a month ago, which means I have started taking photos again.

We are talking about composition, about seeing the shot in my mind and then creating it, about moving from opportunistic photography into something deliberate, intentional. Taking my time to see the shot, to let it come to me rather than me rushing to it.

We are looking at the masters. He has me listening to the Modern Art Notes podcast and the interview with Edward Burtynsky. I am on InstrGram following the New York Times Food Section, Food52, and a host of food bloggers, looking at how they are composing their shots, lighting their shots, plating their food. I am taking pictures of my meals with my phone.

I am wandering the neighborhood with my camera, shooting landscapes right now but I am getting ready for the garden, getting ready for spring. I am getting ready to write again.

Here is what I've been eating at home and not writing about. More to come soon.....

Welcome 2016

The holidays are over and life is settling back into its normal everyday rhythm. I'm taking down the tree this weekend and organizing my holiday gear a little more effectively, a trend that I intend to carry over to the rest of the house. 2015 was another quiet year for this blog, mostly because I was busy, Gareth was busy, there wasn't much interesting going on in the kitchen - just good workaday meals that come together easy at the end of the day.

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On Honoring Family Heritage

My great-great-grandmother on my mother's side was named Princess Teske. And she had a story to match the name. She was kicked out of her Amish community when she voluntarily left to marry a nice Catholic boy. It was her blood that sang in my veins the first time I drove through the mountains of Pennsylvania Dutch country on the early morning leg of a college road trip, the mist in the valleys below pink with the rising sun. It felt like home, and I knew I would return. A few years after that, I did move to nearby Maryland.

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Reflections of a Carnivore

This is the year the deer have chosen my yard. They have always been present in my 5 acres of mostly wooded property - wandering through and sampling the natural vegetation, spending an afternoon napping in my fern bed, and occasionally interacting with my cat. But this year, a small group of them appears to have taken up a more permanent residence.

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The Changing of the Seasons

These last few months have been a busy time, full of joy and sadness, celebration and grief, and experiences that run the full gamut of living. I learned of the tragic death of a good friend I had lost touch with. I watched from afar as a friend and professional colleague made her last stand against cancer as her struggle finally came to an end. I participated in the joining of two good friends in marriage and contributed to their simple yet elegant and very personal, intimate wedding. I rallied my family to scatter my father's ashes some three years after his death after the UW Medical School had completed their study his body. I helped my mother mark the 50th anniversary of her marriage to him. I welcomed an old friend from high school into the area and attended my first military function as I witnessed her husband take command of a nearby military base. I saw my niece off to her new life in San Francisco, holding my breath as she lept out of the proverbial nest and spread her wings to really fly. And she is soaring.

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Golden Lady

When I first described her to my spouse, I used phrases like "put together", "a force to be reckoned with", "the most prepared one in the room", and "someone I can learn a lot from". Now that she has passed, I think of several things. A bright shining beacon standing tall, casting her light far and wide, providing guidance and direction to everyone around her. A giant bird from Greek mythology with wings spread wide and so many of us nestled in the warmth of her embrace. She was a role model, a mentor, a friend. She was strong and fierce and a little bit frightening to me at first. She was wide open to life and all its experiences, embracing the joy and the pain and everything in between. She was fearless.

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On Wisconsin!

When you drive through rural Wisconsin, whether on the vast network of county rural routes or the sparse network of interstate highways running along the Fox River and Lake Michigan, there's one thing you can find at almost every gas station along the way - fresh donuts.

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How to Make Every Meal a Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the US is steeped in nationalistic mythology and patriotic nostalgia. From images of early European settlers breaking bread with the Native tribes after a long, harsh first year to our modern family gatherings, Thanksgiving is our national day of gratitude. President Lincoln set aside the fourth Thursday in November in 1863 as a national day of thanks, and the tradition has continued to this day.

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How Much Take Out Can One Foodie Take?

We felt it as much as we heard it. The thunderous cracking of ancient limbs as the oak tree landed with enough force to shake the yard. Lights that had been flickering since the wind rose  blinked out, and all the electronic whines and hums and blinks were cut off. Silence and darkness fell across the neighborhood, and all we could hear was the wind and the rain beating against the house.

We awoke on Sunday with the sun. Power was out throughout the area, right along Churchville Road and into Bel Air. Nothing was open between the Aberdeen Wawa on Rt 40 and the Bel Air Double T Diner about 10 miles due west on Rt 24. We got breakfast across the street from the Double T at Einstein Bros Bagels, a young but highly efficient staff (the oldest looking no more than 25) handling the overflow from the Double T with a cheerful professionalism that was greatly appreciated and eased some of the initial dread of a potentially long power outage. Thus began our week of dining out.

Don't get me wrong. I do count myself among the lucky.  This summer's roof repairs held fast throughout the hurricane. There was no need for FEMA or the Red Cross where I live. There was no flooding in my area, no structural damage, at least nothing that extended beyond my own home. When that big oak tree came down, we knew it took a wire down with it. We called BGE on Sunday, and they had a crew there on Monday to assess the damages. The downed wire was attached to a utility pole, which the oak tree had snapped in two. That's all anyone could agree on, though. BGE replaced the pole but labeled it "Private" and claimed they could not work on the damaged line running from the pole underground to my home. A private electrician came out and said that the set up was not in compliance with current county regulations and they would need a permit to perform any work. And so on, until, after several calls to BGE, an older technical appeared late Friday night and hooked us back up.

As our week of take out progressed, each day began with the hope that this would be the day that everyone figured out how to turn our lights back on but ended in a restaurant eating burgers, tacos, any variety of things but nothing that actually felt like dinner.

We hit the newly discovered Fiesta Grill a couple of times. These were the best meals we had, and they appear to be consistently above the bar, not only for Mexican food, but for restaurants in the area as a whole. We also hit the Five Guys, a favorite that by week's end had lost all of its appeal. When left to my own devices on Tuesday night, I wandered into the Rogers House Tavern in Havre de Grace, a little hole-in-the-wall that looks to mostly cater to a loyal crowd of regulars. They welcomed me in and served me the best grilled ham and cheese I've had in a long time. And, of course, there was a lunch at the Laurrapin Grille and a special thanks to Chris Gengenbach who continues to make the place feel warm and inviting. When he saw me wander in, dazed and baffled and unwashed, he greeted me with a genuine smile and offered me a drink.

So, my experience with Hurricane Irene resulted in minor inconvenience for about a week with some residual headache still to come. Sure, I wanted the lights back. I wanted a hot shower and running water. But mostly what I wanted was a home-cooked meal, and to eat in my own dining room. Something about the inability to do these simple things created a greater sense of dislocation than not having any lights. Without the nightly ritual of cooking dinner, eating together (whether in animated chatter, irritable bickering or comfortable silence) and then cleaning up the kitchen, I felt lost, frustrated, depressed. And then the acid reflux kicked in.

By Friday, after a late lunch at Five Guys, I decided I was done. Confident that we would have at least a temporary hook up within 24 hours, I popped a multi-vitamin and did not mention food again. And The Fates smiled down upon us, sending us a technician knowledgeable in old farm electrical systems who firmly believed that the utility company is responsible for getting the power to the home, even if some farmer put up his own private pole 70-some odd years ago.

The power is back on. The refrigerator is cleaned out and ready to be restocked. While Gareth is cutting up the tree today and may be too tired to cook tonight, just knowing that we can fend for ourselves again is a comfort.

Additional thanks go to Juan for letting us use his shower, to my in-laws in Aberdeen for the same and for joining us for dinner, to Jim for helping us remove the big ass tree, to anyone who worked directly with me on Wednesday when I felt that all hope was lost, and to my employer for allowing me time off to get this mess sorted out.


Today I learned from a childhood friend from the old neighborhood that the house I grew up in burned down. She sent me a note on Facebook and included a memory of eating my mother's home made rosettes - a traditional Scandinavian holiday cookie - in our kitchen with my youngest sister. Indeed many of my own best memories of that house are in the kitchen. While I jokingly say now that in the battlefield of my parents' marriage, my mother's weapon of choice was often dinner, I still have many recollections of her doing wonderful things in the kitchen.

When I was a young child, my mother was at home with me and my two younger sisters while my other brother and sister were in school all day and my father worked. During those early years, she made a lot of things from scratch. I remember picking fruit that grew wild in the back yard for jams and jellies and being allowed to eat the foam she skimmed from the top of the large simmering pot. She made egg noodles that she hung around the kitchen to dry. She also baked her own bread and let me and my sisters take turns punching down the dough after it had been allowed to rise. The smell of baking bread still reminds me of this time and I always find time to bake when I miss my mother.

Even thought she gained a reputation for culinary atrocities like oatmeal tomato and cheese casserole (this was the  thermo-nuclear bomb in her arsenal), she was especially good on special occasions. There was one birthday when, at my request, she produced battered fried chicken and baked Alaska. She could also make custard-filled cream puffs that melted in my mouth and the best Door County cherry pie ever - despite the pits that my father invariably bit into with the stubborn hope that this time the pie would be pitless.

My mother really shone at Christmas. To to express her appreciation of friends and neighbors, she gave them cookies. She made refrigerator pinwheels, traditional cut sugar cookies, and a variety of treats from our Scandinavian heritage, including the aforementioned rosettes, krumkake, lefse, and a holiday braided bread of sweet dough and dried fruit. All this, she packaged carefully in aluminum pie plates wrapped with saran wrap that she hand-delivered in those last weeks of December.

Mostly when I think about the old house on Quincy Street, I remember the 1980's that had a lot of hollering and ruined dinner as my mother served meals of resentment and despair that my father washed down with frustration and incomprehension. Even though this rough patch in their marriage remains prominent, it is tempered with other better times. I also remember bringing friends home after school and getting home made cookies. I remember birthday parties with whatever I wanted being magically created by my mother. I remember the German apple pancake she used to cook on Sundays in a large cast-iron skillet on the stovetop. I remember good smells of home made pickles and tomatoes being canned and me sitting under the kitchen table while she used her considerable (if under appreciated) skills to make sure we had good food in the house.

Now the house is gone. Fire seems an appropriate end. With the passing of my father a few years ago and now the destruction of my childhood home, it feels like the early chapters of my life are now closed.

327 South Quincy Street, Green Bay WI 54301

Liberte! Fraternite! Egalite!

As Thursday was Bastille Day, I felt obliged to visit my local wine bar and raise a toast to Liberte. A small gathering of co-workers assembled at Vino Rosina for wine and light fare. We sampled two varieties of white wine listed on the Happy Hour menu.

Now here is where I am supposed to provide the details of the wines, but at this point all I know for certain is the first one had too much bite and the second one, while sweeter, was the overall winner. The aroma was light and fruity, and the top note was similar to a good Pinot Grigio. There were very few other undertones, and the finish was clean and final with no lingering after taste. This was a very simple wine, and after a fairly gruelling week, none of us seemed up for any additional complexity.

An off-hand reference to how my Libertarianism is perceived led to an enthusiastic toast of "Let them eat cake", and our Bastille Day observance was officially in full swing.

The best commemoration of Bastille Day was observed by a former classmate in Madison of French decent, and someone I knew through an on-campus job we both worked at before he left to study abroad. He spent a year in France and when he returned, he had lost 30 pounds, gained some cultural awareness, and launched the first Bastille Day Bad Wine and Cheese Party.

Located at the top of the hill on East Gorham (Madison alum know the hill I mean), he and his friends had rented a house with a large front porch and an almost perfect view of Lake Mendota. I arrived with a mutual friend shortly after sun set before things got into full swing. Like all house parties, invitation was word of mouth. Admittance, however, was another thing altogether. To get in, you had to present an acceptable item of bad wine or cheese. And by acceptable, it was meant completely unacceptable - Night Train, Ripple, Mad Dog in the full rainbow of flavors - all set out on a folding table for partiers to consume at their own risk. A bottle of NyQuil was accepted. And Velveeta, CheezWhiz, EasyCheese in the aerosol dispenser. Any presented items considered too high brow - like a gallon of Ernest and Julio Gallo's Best - meant admission denied.

Truly this was the best concept party ever. We got silly. We drank the Night Train. We mixed the Ripple with shitty champagne. We sprayed the EasyCheese at each other. We danced and sang and embraced each other without care or concern as if we would all be friends for the rest of our lives. And when it was time to go home, our host cut the music and replaced it with a scratchy rendition of the French National Anthem. We all sang along for the first several playings, but he continued to play it repeatedly until the novelty wore off and we all cleared out.

On a campus know for its parties, that one - held over the summer when the population of Madison drops by several thousand - was the best party I attended, and one of the few I can remember. I don't know how many more Bad Wine and Cheese parties there were after that. I lost my connection to the host through a falling out with our mutual friend that now seems childish and wasteful in retrospect. I started focusing on finishing college and trying to figure out what would come next. We all still ran into each other on campus, separated by the inevitable pre-graduation drift.

But every Bastille Day, I remember that night and how perfect it was. The summer seemed the only moment in time, and graduation a lifetime away. But I also remember the people and what a wonderful crowd I was running with that summer.

Food From the Dieter's Perspective

Something interesting happened to me this week. I was at work when I looked at my reflection in the mirror in the Ladies room and didn't hate what I saw. This might sound less than eventful, but think about this for a moment - when was the last time this happened to you?

Like many of my peers, I've been on some variety of diet or weight-loss plan for most of my life. My weight has vacillated from around 100 in high school (all-time low was 93 lbs in 1986) to 185 (2002, shortly after getting an office job, moving to the suburbs, getting married, and not changing my eating habits even though my physical activity came to a screeching halt). I've done Atkins, The Zone, Weight Watchers (which actually worked and got me back down from that high point). I've given up some foods for good - soda, Rice-A-Roni, frozen dinners and other assorted things I know I shouldn't eat. I've also maintained a gym membership since 2002, working out at least three times a week most of the time. Plus subscriptions to various magazines like "Shape" and "Fitness", which basically repeat the same articles every month about how giving up soda and taking the stairs will make me lose 10 lbs. But what if I'm already doing that?

All this attention on weight and what we eat and what we should eat (and what we shouldn't eat) takes a lot of time and energy. Add to it the mental static of being convinced that your own reflection is horrifying every time you are even close to anything shiny and it's a wonder some of us accomplish anything. It certainly explains why I felt like shit after those Suzy-Q's the other day. Sure, part of it was the sugar and chemicals and other assorted bullshit that no one should eat - ever. But part of it was also a good dose of self-loathing for indulging in a 200-calorie snack. (I know this because I googled "Suzy-Q" to get the calorie count before I hit the vending machine. I do this every time I think about something in the vending machine. Sometimes several times in a single day.) That lasted for a good day or so.

I know more about the caloric content of junk food than I do about world geography. Meanwhile, my male counterpart can hand-draw a map of the Middle East and correctly label all - yes all - of the Stans (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, etc.) Why? Because he doesn't feel like crap after every meal, snack, desert, secret binge in the middle of the night. He sees food as something nourishing, to be shared and savored. I see food as a necessity and something to have as little of as possible. Food relaxes him and makes him feel satisfied. It stresses me out and most meals leave me feeling lousy for hours (sometimes even days) afterward.

Of course, this is not how it should be. This denial of a basic need that so many of us devote so much of our time and energy to distracts us from real happiness. It can lead to the opposite of dieting - overeating. I've watched this other end of the spectrum among my family and friends. Either situation results in a maladjusted view of food and self.

There is a wealth of reading material available about this now, from "Eat, Pray, Love" in which a woman reclaims her sense of self by first reclaiming food, to "Women, Food and God", a seriously deep dive into recovering from eating disorders like bulimia and overeating and building a normal relationship with food. Plus a lot in between. I've been reading some of these and, while interesting and easy to relate to, they are all somehow unsatisfying. They contain truth, but no real answers, no resolution for us chronic dieters.

So how do we get so fucked up about this in the first place? How old were you when you first started dieting? What was your favorite dieting short cut? (Mine was always water pills) Can you maintain a normal weight yet? I'm still gaining and losing the same 20 lbs on a regular two-year cycle.

I'll admit, I'm at the high peak of that weight-loss cycle and just gearing up to drop those two sizes. When, out of the blue, in the middle of a busy, hectic day when I was preoccupied thinking about really what it is I am supposed to be doing, I caught a glimpse of my reflection and thought it was OK. I stopped and took an actual look at myself. And it was still OK. Even that belly. I went to my toning class at the Y and thoroughly enjoyed my dinner and slept soundly that night without a trace of anxiety. If I figure out how to make this last, I'll let you all know.

Was It the PDUs or the Carrot Cake?

I was drawn out of hibernation (in more ways than one) when the Baltimore chapter of the PMI scheduled a dinner in Harford County.

For those outside the Project Management culture, the PMI is the Project Management Institute, an international organization that maintains the standards of the project management field and provides professional certification to project managers. They host networking and training opportunities for their members in which you earn PDUs - Professional Development Units. A certain number of PDUs are required to maintain your certification.

The Baltimore chapter is located in Anne Arundel County, which is the other side of Baltimore from me and could very well be the other side of the planet for the number of times I actually drive through the Harbor Tunnel. Most of the really good events are in Annapolis or Columbia or some other place that requires a 90-minute drive home. I attended a dinner in Annapolis last month and the drive off set the value of the dinner considerably.

So, I was looking at upcoming events for the Baltimore PMI and saw a dinner in Harford County that was not related to government contracting. This is what we usually get in Harford County due to the Proving Ground in Aberdeen. As I said, all the really good events are elsewhere. The April PMI dinner topic was Risk Management. The dinner menu was provided and was pretty standard until I saw the desert selections. When carrot cake was among the choices, I knew I had to attend.

The dinner was held at the Aberdeen Clarion. The presentation on risk management was pretty good. The presenter included a clever example to demonstrate how S-curves and Tornado Charts really work and provided a demo of a Monte Carlo simulation. This is where you use a computer program to take your project activities and risk register, along with those probabilities and S-curves, and let the software run through a jillion  iterations to determine the most likely outcome. I got a lot out of it for my $10 and was glad for the PDU.

The food, on the other hand, was bland and without taste, much like the Clarion itself. While I did not have high hopes given the locale, the quality of the dinner managed to hover below even my lowest expectations. Served buffet-style, everything was over-cooked and lukewarm and made me think of e.coli and botulism. I made it through dinner by focusing on the salad which was, for the most part, fresh. Washed down with liberal doses of water (sans the provided lemon, which looked old and tired), I managed to consume enough to convince my stomach that it had indeed been fed.

In contrast, I approached the desert table with much enthusiasm. The usual choices were on display - cheese cake, chocolate layer cake, a variation on strawberry shortcake. And, in the center of the table, the coveted carrot cake. When I served myself a slice, I was impressed at how it held together, especially given the volume (and size) of walnuts. The cake itself proved to be moist with a very good texture. The walnuts were, however, a bit too much. That, along with the presence of the dreaded raisins, detracted a bit too much from the cake itself. This might have been a blessing in disguise. When I picked a bit of cake sans the add-ins, it was flat and flavorless - not even a hint of sweetness, let alone carrot or spice. The icing was smooth and buttery, though, and was the saving grace to a dismal carrot cake that topped off an abysmal gastronomical experience.

I awoke the next morning bloated and gassy, but a little better educated. The sad truth is, I will most likely do this again. As the Harford County contingent within the Baltimore PMI continues to grow (thanks to BRAC and the Proving Ground), there will be more opportunities in my neck of the woods. Here's hoping someone - anyone - in Harford County figures out how to cook.