Me and Star Wars: A 35-year saga

Picture it. Santurce, Puerto Rico. Summer 1980. I’m not sure why my parents thought it was a good idea to take their 4-year-old daughter –who’d probably never seen the first Star Wars movie– to see Empires Strikes Back.

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My older siblings and me around 1980.

All I know is my 7-year-old brother was eager to see it, so all of us went. We must have gone to a matinee, because I remember the sun being very bright. It was hot. And the line outside the theater went around the block. People in the line were fanning themselves with whatever they could find, including pieces of cardboard they must have torn off some box(es) somewhere. Soon I started to feel funny. I pined for a bit of shade, and the makeshift cardboard fans provided only minimal relief. My dad must have noticed something, because he went to move me out of the sweltering sun into the shade. Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, blinking up at the sky, at Papi’s worried face, and at the pieces of cardboard in the hands of well-meaning strangers fanning me back into consciousness.

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An old movie house in Santurce, PR.

Turns out I have an abnormally high sensitivity to heat. That was my first time fainting, but I’ve been collecting similar embarrassing stories ever since. (Just ask my husband David about our hike in the Grand Canyon when we’d been dating less than a year.)

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David and me the day after I “survived” the Grand Canyon.

Thus was my introduction to Star Wars. I don’t remember anything about the movie except for the fainting, and the incredibly jarring scene where Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker’s hand. It sucked.

By the time Return of the Jedi came along, and we once again went as one big happy familia, I actually adored the ewoks, and the power of love in the final showdown between the emperor, Luke, and Darth Vader moved my 7-year-old soul deeply. But it wasn’t until the prequels came out many years later that I really got into the high anticipation for each new release, and the terrific excitement of watching them in theaters.

The Force Awakens has been an all new experience. I’m 10 years older than I was at the last Star Wars theatrical release, and am now the mom of a young Star Wars fan. There’s also social media. On opening weekend last December, friends’ Facebook statuses featured a lot of Star Wars-screening-related updates. I also saw folks who were earnestly out of the Star Wars loop and were moderately interested at best. Then there were the ones who are so above it all, who had great fun baiting their Facebook friends by faking an innocent I-just-don’t-get-what-the-big-deal-is! shrug and headshake. David and I (make no mistake about it) were super excited to see it. We were also okay waiting a couple of weeks.

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At the movie theater for The Force Awakens. Funnily enough, this was also in Puerto Rico. We loved it! And not just because I didn’t faint this time.

After some debating, we decided our 5-year-old Eric wouldn’t come with us. We really didn’t think he was ready for all that nonstop action and loudness (and drama!). Since he hadn’t yet finished Empire Strikes Back, and he himself wanted to be caught up on the stories, the decision was easy.

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Reenactments are a frequent scene in our house.

Eric had declared, right before his 5th birthday last March, that he was going to start watching Star Wars after he was 5 years old. He remembered it, too. He was a little scared in some scenes but made it through A New Hope after a few sittings. We started Empire Strikes Back with him in July. By now he was deeply invested in the characters, and as soon as things started to go awry for Luke and Han, he demanded that we turn it off.

“What if Luke dies?”

“He won’t die. We’ve seen it. We know.”

“But he could die!”

“He doesn’t.”

“BUT HE COULD!!!”

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So we let it go for a while. Eventually, the frenzy of The Force Awakens got him interested again. He finished Empire Strikes Back almost exactly 6 months after starting it. David and I were on pins and needles over the scene where Darth Vader reveals his true identity. But Eric seemed more concerned for Luke’s hand than the weight of Vader’s revelation. (I don’t blame him.) And there you go. After that, Return of the Jedi was a breeze. We watched it soon, and quickly.

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It’s dawned on me that my kid started watching Star Wars precisely 35 years after my parents took my siblings and me to see Empire Strikes Back. What vastly different experiences. I love few things more than a good hero’s journey tale where evil is redeemed by good. I don’t say this in a religious sense or to sound Pollyanna-esque. There’s immense life-affirming power in the triumph of light over darkness, and that draws and resonates deeply with many of us. This, for whomever doesn’t “get it,” is the reason why we love these stories. Experiencing and discussing them with my sensitive, inquisitive young boy is wondrous in ways I never could have dreamed back in 1980. (Not losing consciousness helps.)

My little man turns 6 in a couple of weeks. Can you guess the theme of his birthday party?

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This is Eric last Halloween, helping with the groceries.

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French bread recipe

If you’re like me, you’ve often thought that homemade bread is something only the most sophisticated cooks can pull off. Oh how wrong we’ve been, and I couldn’t be happier to share this recipe with you! It is full-proof. And since few things bug me more than fussy, over-complicated recipes that feel unattainable, this one’s the opposite of that, and only requires ingredients most of us already have in our pantry. By the second or third time you make this, it’s going to feel so easy.

My inspiration/baseline was this online recipe. But I made some important changes to it that I think simplify things and deliver and even better texture and flavor. I also broke it down with lots (and lots) of pictures.

A note on warm water: Basically you run the hot water on the tap for a few seconds, but it doesn’t hurt your fingers to touch it. Not hot enough to cook anything, but definitely more than lukewarm.

Start by dissolving 1 tablespoon of sugar into 1 cup of warm water. After the sugar, quickly and gently stir in 1½ teaspoons of active dry yeast. Place in a warm place for at least 10 minutes. I often use my radiator when it’s nice and warm, or the top of the stove, with the oven underneath it preheated to 200.

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While that sits, mix together 2½ cups of all purpose flour with 1½ to 2 teaspoons of kosher salt (only 1 teaspoon or less if using fine table salt) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.

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When the warm water with sugar and yeast mixture starts to look like a funky, frothy science experiment –that’s exactly what it is!– and to smell a little bit like a brewery, you know you’re in business.

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Frothy and bubbling less than 10 minutes later. This part is so much fun.

Start running the mixer on medium speed, and add in the water with yeast. Try to scrape every bit from the measuring cup into the mixer.

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At this point, I always have flour nearby for sprinkling, and I refill the “yeasty” measuring cup with warm water. I mix for about 30 seconds. If A) the dough still looks too crumbly and isn’t coming together and off the sides of the bowl, I add additional warm yeasty water from the measuring cup, about 1 teaspoon at a time, then wait another few seconds.

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My dough was looking crumbly and dry, so slowly I added 1 tsp at a time of the warm yeasty water. Works every time.

If on the other hand, B) the dough looks too wet, I sprinkle very small handfuls (also about a teaspoon) of flour at a time. I usually run into A more than B. My point is, if the dough doesn’t look like it’s coming together like it’s supposed to, it’s still very fixable if you go slowly and watch it carefully. Just don’t panic!

Once you see the dough come together and off the sides of the bowl, continue to knead with the mixer on medium or medium high speed for about 5 minutes. (Make sure the tilt head on your mixer is locked, otherwise the dough will make it wobble and shake and it won’t knead properly.)

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This is what you want your dough to look like, then you let the mixer do the kneading for 5 minutes.

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Meanwhile, prepare a large flat rolling surface with flour, and a medium-sized bowl (it should hold at least eight cups) with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to coat the bottom and sides.

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iPhoneFeb2016 2579After 5 minutes, turn off the mixer. Coat your hands with flour, and remove the dough onto the floured surface.

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See how sticky that is? You’ll need flour to unstick it from the dough hook.

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Knead with your hands* a few times until it looks and feels soft and smooth. It can look like a disk or a ball. (*This just means you fold it onto itself and push down with the heel of your hand.)

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Place into the bowl with oil, turning over once or twice to make sure the dough is evenly coated in the oil. This prevents an awkward crust from forming as it sits and rises.

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Now it’s covered in oil.

Immediately cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and place in warm, draft-free place until it’s roughly doubled in size, at least an hour, up to 2 hours.

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Again, putting the dough on top of an oven preheated to 200 works really well.

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After an hour and a half, I was good to go!

Now you’re ready to prepare the dough for its second rising. 🙂

Uncover the bowl and take dough out. Don’t be alarmed when it deflates the instant you touch it. It’s supposed to do that.

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‘Punch down your dough’ is the bread bakers’ equivalent of the literary ‘kill your darlings!’

In fact, many recipes for bread and pizza dough will specifically tell you to “punch down the dough” at this point in the process. Place on floured surface again, and smooth out a little with well floured hands.

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Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out thinly, to about the size of a standard half sheet pan, about 13 x 18 inches. Cut the dough in half, lengthwise, until you’re left with two roughly 6 x 18 pieces.

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Begin to roll each half of the dough up, again lengthwise. Keep it tight, and smooth out air pockets.

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Pinch the seams as much as possible. The aesthetics are an area where my baguettes still need a bit of work (as you’ll see in the photos below) but the flavor and texture are so 100% legit that I know the rest will catch up. Place each rolled up dough half, seam side down, on a half sheet pan lined with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Fold and tuck the ends in and under using your fingers, again pinching the seams a bit.

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I like to –very gently– rub a bit of flour on the baguettes at this point. It helps create the crust when it bakes later on.

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I just rubbed these with a small amount of flour. This is optional.

Use the same sharp knife to slash each loaf (I go in about an inch). You can do a few diagonal lines, or one line lengthwise along the baguette. (Here are a few fancier ideas I’m excited to try soon.)

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Here I did diagonal slits.

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Here I went with one long lengthwise slit. As you can see, I had some issues rolling one of these. My problem? I didn’t like how it came out the first time so I tried to perfect it. It would’ve been much better if I’d left it alone!

Place in your warm place of choice, no need to cover it this time. Allow to rise a second time for another hour, until it doubles in size again.

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A little over an hour later, these had risen perfectly. And my awkward-looking one was still looking awkward. Scroll to the end for the result.

Now you’re ready to bake your bread! Place a roasting pan (at least 2 inches deep) on the bottom rack of the oven, then preheat to 375.

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Combine 1 egg while with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush bread with the egg wash.

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Once the oven is preheated, fill a large measuring cup or pitcher with hot water. Put the half sheet pan with the bread in the oven, then pour hot* water into roasting pan below it, until you fill it about ¾ of the way. This will create a steam in the oven while the bread bakes, which combined with the egg wash, will give your bread a delicious golden crust that won’t murder the roof of your mouth.

(*The reason you don’t want cold water here is because the steam it creates when poured into the preheated roasting pan could be dangerous — hot water creates the steam with less chance of causing any burns.)

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Watch out for that steam!

Bake for 20-25 minutes. Start checking at 20 minutes, and continue baking for 2 minutes at a time until the crust is golden brown.

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I was a little bummed at how visible the seam was on this baguette. Then I tasted it, and all was well.

Your only challenges now will be waiting for it to be cool enough to handle so you can eat some, and once that happens, trying not to eat half a baguette in one sitting. I have failed at both challenges and am not even a little embarrassed to say it. It’s so delicious I dare say you will impress yourself and your friends, and the return is that much more amazing considering how easy it is!


 

French bread

Active prep time: 30 minutes                       Inactive prep time: about 3 hours

Cooking time: 20-25 minutes                        Makes: 2 loaves (2 baguettes)

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups all purpose flour (plus more for sprinkling)
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons kosher salt (½ – 1 teaspoon fine table salt)
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water

Instructions:

  1. Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add active dry yeast. Let sit in warm place about 10 minutes.
  2. Combine flour and salt in bowl of electric stand mixer.
  3. Running the mixer on medium speed, add warm water and yeast mixture to the flour and salt. Mix until the dough comes together and off the sides of the bowl, adding up to 1 tsp at a time of additional warm water or flour as needed. (See notes for A and B above.) Once dough comes together, run mixer on medium-medium high speed for 5 minutes.
  4. Prepare medium-sized mixing bowl with vegetable oil.
  5. Using floured hands, turn dough out to floured surface and knead by hands a few times until smooth. Transfer to the oiled bowl, turning over once or twice to coat in the oil, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set in warm draft-free place for 1 – 2 hours until it doubles in size.
  6. Remove dough to floured surface and roll out thinly to 13×8. Cut in half lengthwise. Roll each half up (lengthwise) to form a cylinder. Transfer to lined half sheet pan, seam side down, and tuck and fold the ends under.
  7. Score/Slash with sharp knife. Set in warm place to rise a second time for 1 hour, until it doubles in size again.
  8. Place roasting pan in oven, then preheat to 375. Prepare egg wash with 1 egg white and about 1 tbsp of water. Brush the bread and place in preheated oven. Fill roasting pan to about  ¾ full with hot tap water.
  9. Bake 20-25 minutes.

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Wow.

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See, the one I was all perfectionistic about came out ugly. Plain and simple. Luckily, the flavor and texture were still perfect.

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Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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Snowga

I really, really, REALLY-really don’t like snow. Maybe I vaguely like the prospect of a white Christmas, or the cozy thoughts I associate with being stuck at home with my two favorite people (provided we have enough food, of course). Beyond that, I sort of like how pretty it looks from inside the window of our DC home, and how happy it makes my kindergartner son Eric. But I dislike everything else about it, especially being out in it.

When blizzard watches and warnings started earlier this week, I took heed, went to the grocery store, and bought a LOT of food. By the time the snow started Friday at 1PM, I was halfway through baking a cake for my husband David’s 44th birthday, and was all set for a lonnnnng hunkerdown.

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Eric was chomping at the bit, asking –within minutes of the snow starting– when we’d be going out to play. I told him sometime tomorrow, and reminded him there would be no we, just him and Dad.

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Chocolate cake drizzled with a slow-cooked caramel sauce.

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It was good. So, so, so good!

Saturday came and went. David and Eric, and seemingly every individual on my street and the street behind it and the other one beyond that, spent time outside on more than one occasion, making it look like a neighborhood festival of some kind. I won’t deny I felt peer pressure to join in. But every time I opened the door just enough to get a decent picture was enough for me to reassert my HELL no!

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24 hours in

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“You say snowzilla, I say focaccia.” My caption under this photo on Facebook. Isn’t it cute?

By Sunday morning, I’d eaten quite a bit of David’s birthday cake, and of the focaccia bread I made on Saturday to go with soup. I was feeling sluggish, and the view outside our door increased my anxiety the more it reminded me of that horribly jarring snowstorm episode on Little House on the Prairie.

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The cars were buried.

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I also knew cabin fever was starting to set in.

When I saw that my neighborhood yoga studio was offering most of their regularly scheduled classes, I took it as a sign to challenge myself and venture out on foot. The studio is about half a mile from our house. Obviously, I needed courage and fuel for the hike. So I treated myself to a morning slice of cake with a second cup of coffee. Then, before I could change my mind, I squeezed my 40-year-old Puerto Rican hips into a pair of snow pants that I don’t remember ever buying. They still had the tag on and were surely a tight squeeze even back in the conveniently forgotten time when they were purchased. After almost getting cold feet –no pun– twice, out I went.

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The sidewalk turned into a trench.

The thing I feared most happened almost immediately. In my case it wasn’t slipping and falling, but sinking into a snowbank. I was up to my thighs within minutes of leaving the house. This triggered both my latent claustrophobia and my fear of drowning (I’m not saying it’s logical, but thus is the nature of irrational fears) and sent my heart racing. I wanted to turn back. But I pushed on, motivated more by pride than the promise of stretching my stiff limbs in the warmth of the yoga studio.

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I had no idea where the sidewalk met the street here.

When crossing over (and plunging into) these wickedly high mounds of snow, my phone almost went flying out of my hands. Luckily I never did lose it, but it was close enough that I have to wonder how many phones ended up buried in snow this weekend. Word to the wise: Stop, take your pictures, then put your damn phone back in your pocket before you resume walking.

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Or here.

The other thing I had several close calls with was dog poop. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Dearest dog owners, just because it’s snowing, that doesn’t give you a free pass from picking up your dog’s crap. It is nasty on any normal day, and so much more so against freshly fallen snow, with neighbors in various stages of struggling to maintain our balance. Seriously, kiss my icicles!

Done ranting. Thanks.

Streets that I know like that back of my hand looked very different, and felt quite disorienting, under 20+ inches of snow. And since the streets were clearer than the sidewalks in places, they were more populated with people than cars. I felt like I was in a game of Find the Curb, which slowed me down and made me wobbly, but was also kinda fun.

Finally I made it. When I confessed to my yoga teacher that this was my first time out of the house since the blizzard started, she and another few people echoed, “Me, too!” Not that I was fishing for an amen, but it was a welcomed bit of you’re-not-alone validation. The class was PACKED! We huffed and puffed through our poses together. It was very worth it.

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I headed back with new found confidence. I noticed the charm and beauty more, and probably smiled more, too. It may not sound like a lot, but I felt as though I’d conquered something. And I did it for me, on my terms and through my own resources. Have I gone back outside? No. But I did learn today that the countdown to Memorial Day has already begun!

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Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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Tostones

I recently made tostones and posted some of the pictures on Facebook. Several friends responded with a request for the recipe. Here it is!

First, a language lesson. The appropriate singular form of tostones is tostón, not tostone (pronounced toston-eh). I’ve heard people, including high profile TV chefs, mispronounce it all the time. It grates on me. And I’ll be damned if I let a single tostón go the way of the tamale!

Thank you. Now let’s begin.

Start with very, very green plantains. In fact, it’s pretty critical for the unique flavor of these Latin-Caribbean delights that the plantains not show any signs of ripening, such as yellow spots (even a dulled green), or feeling soft when squeeze-tested. Green plantains are now relatively easy to find at most grocery stores.

Trim off the ends. Using a dull kitchen knife, run a lengthwise line down the middle, and peel. You will notice the skin is quite hard and heavy on sap. But a dull knife does the trick very well, and it’s a lot safer than a sharp knife given that it will take a bit of elbow grease to get this part done. Don’t be surprised if your fingers end up heavily stained from the sap. (It’s worth it!) Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds.

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Preheat a frying pan with about 2 inches’ worth of your preferred high-heat frying oil to medium high. Fry the rounds in batches (to avoid overcrowding them) for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, and drain.

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Flatten the rounds. I use the bottom of a plate against a cutting board. It’s best if the plate has a flat bottom, no rim. Once flattened, the rounds start to look like tostones. You may need a knife to unstick the flattened tostón from the bottom of the plate. Fry them a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side.

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Drain them on a fresh piece of paper towel. Sprinkle both sides of the tostones with salt the instant they come out out of the hot oil.

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You’ll realize right away that you can’t make these without needing to taste test the first one(s) to come out. The challenge is to not eat them all before the rest of dinner is ready to be served.

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TOSTONES

Prep time: 15 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes. Two plantains make about 1 dozen tostones.

Ingredients

  1. 2 very green plantains
  2. oil for frying
  3. salt

Cooking instructions

  1. Preheat about 2 inches’ worth of oil in a shallow pan to medium high
  2. Trim the ends off each plantain, and peel with a dull knife
  3. Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds (about 6 per plantain)
  4. Working in batches, fry each round for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  5. Drain and flatten using a flat-bottomed plate on a hard, flat surface
  6. Fry a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  7. Drain and sprinkle each side with salt
  8. Enjoy!
  9. (Serving these with homemade guacamole –recipe available– is optional, and highly recommended)

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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No more Miss Nice Girl (My turning 40 manifesto)

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The summer felt both long and drawn out, and short and sweet. It’s Saturday of Labor Day Weekend as I start this post. On Tuesday I’ll be 40. Friday is the anniversary of 9/11. A week ago the world lost Wayne Dyer. That made me pretty sad. Then a few days later, our human family lost a young Syrian boy named Aylan, and I swear, my heart –like so many others’– turned to shards. I tucked my own little boy into bed the night after those wrenching haunting photos appeared, then cried tears of gratitude (for our safety), denial, shame, angry powerlessness…

All this hand-wringing on the eve of one’s fifth decade really gets a person thinking. I can’t take on the weight of the world. SO WHAT CAN I DO?  Well. In my own small way, one thing I’ve decided to do in honor of my 40th birthday is to stop being nice.

Listen, I’ve been nice long enough. Nice paired with judgmental. Nice while prone to comparisons and competitiveness. Nice and secretly angry. And you know what? No. I’ve also been on the receiving end of similar types of niceness. Nice plus condescending? Oh, yeah, always a doozy. And how many times has someone been perfectly nice while slapping me with a terrific underhanded insult? Like I can’t tell? Please. Stop it-just-STOP IT!

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It’s not that “nice” is bad. It’s just so ubiquitous and tired. It conjures (for me, at least) comfort zone complacency and stagnation. It is all too often used as a front for self-righteousness and passive-aggressive derision. Plus it’s on a steep slippery slope to inane flattery without substance. And I want off  the damn slope!

In the face of bad stuff happening in the world, what’s the stuff that matters? What have four decades of living and loving and wins and losses taught me? Nice doesn’t cut it anymore. I want to strive for depth, authenticity, empathy, love. I don’t want to compete with you. I want the light in me to see the freaking light in you. And I want to tell the TRUTH about it all.

The whole, “If you have nothing nice to say … ?” Meh. I’m not a big fan. My kid is being taught about kindness, love, intention, about saying what he means and meaning what he says, and owning it. I don’t want him to settle for inserting some prepackaged PC response on cue. I want him to give a genuine shit! About the planet, his place in it, and how he coexists with its fellow occupants.

Also? I’ve never been softer (and I don’t just mean in my midsection) or sappier. I’ve never felt a greater urgency to say “I love you,” usually with a hard squeeze, to the people I love. I cry a lot more easily. There’s a space somewhere in my heart that I’ve only just begun to uncover in the five years since becoming a mom. I have a feeling this space runs deep, and I want to both nurture it and draw from it. I often look at my boy and say, “If you could see what I see every time I look at you … !” And once, after hearing it enough times, he finally said, “What, Mom? What would happen?” I love that he made me finish the thought. So I did; I said, “You would always, always know that you are good enough, and worthy of love, exactly as you are.” I fret often over whether he knows he is precious and beloved. I mean, does he really, really know it? I want to plant as many kisses on his sweet, soft face as I possibly can before he decides it’s uncool to let his mom do that.

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I want to remember to thank my husband every single day for being my best friend and cheerleader and the best imaginable co-parent. Ever. I want to try to yell at idiot other drivers less. I want to keep smiling, hell I want to smile more. I’ll probably share more cheesy Facebook memes with positive messages and lighthearted silliness. Why? Because I refuse to give in to cynicism. These four decades have hardened me in some good places and softened me in other very important ones.

I will continue to assert my faith in the good in humankind and in the power of love. I resolve to align myself, as much as possible, with things that are good. Not perfect or (god(dess) help us) superior. Not PC or ceaselessly angrily militant for one cause or another. Just good. Loving. Authentic. It’s not likely that I’ll be housing refugees or marching in protest against this and that. But I do promise to cultivate truth and peace in my world. And I pray that for now, that will be enough.

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Roasted Kale Chips

My beloved picky eater Eric came home from PreK one day and announced that his class had made kale chips with their gardening teacher. That he’d had some. And more importantly –wait for it!– that he’d liked them. I went straight to his teacher to ask if this was true, and she confirmed it! Whuuut?

So after several tries, this is my very own foolproof recipe for crispy roasted kale chips. Eric’s teacher wasn’t kidding. Whenever I make this (true story, I swear), he says, “Kale for dinner tonight! Yeah!”

(Oh yeah, and right as I perfected my recipe, I saw this at Whole Foods.

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Really? Don’t you just love it when that happens? “Like this or that? Yeah well that is sooo yesterday’s trend.” Bah, don’t believe ’em.)

Start with one bunch of curly kale*. Odds are pretty good you already have the other two ingredients for this recipe: olive oil and salt. Preheat the oven to 375. kale1

Pull the leaves off the stems, discard the stems, and rinse the leaves well (at least twice, depending on how much dirt you start out with).

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Make sure the kale is dried very, very thoroughly. I always use a paper towel after the salad spinner to be extra thorough. Otherwise, if it’s still too moist, it won’t crisp up in the oven. Drying the leaves is probably the most time-consuming part of this recipe.

kale6Arrange the kale leaves on two (half-sheet) sheet pans. Drizzle each sheet pan with a 1 1/2 tablespoon (a tablespoon and half) of olive oil. Toss to coat the leaves in the oil. Then arrange them in a single layer (this is why you’ll need the two sheet pans).

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The single layers is another step that ensures that the chips crisp up properly. If the leaves are layered on top of each other, they will only steam, and stay soft.

*My quest for crispy chips is an important reason why I use curly kale and not the more popular (if we believe Food Network) dinosaur or Tuscan or “lacinato” kale. Tuscan kale is too flat. The effect is similar to roasting the kale in multiple layers or without drying it well; it comes out soggy. Curly kale, on the other hand, allows some air underneath the leaves that helps the chips crisp up. Plus Tuscan kale is often more expensive. This one’s a no-brainer.

After the leaves have been tossed in olive oil and arranged in a single layer, sprinkle each sheet pan with about  1/4 (a quarter) teaspoon of kosher salt.

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kale12Cook each sheet pan (individually) in preheated 375 oven for 10 minutes. When the kitchen starts to smell like someone in your house has bad gas (about 2 minutes in), that’s how you know the kale is cooking properly.

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The kale chips will come out looking wilted, drier, and slightly browned once they’re done. But they’ll burn easily if you’re not careful!

Sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt the moment they come out of the oven (optional). And voilà. Enjoy!

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kalepicstitch1Any leftover chips can be stored in the refrigerator for two or three days. Just take them out of the fridge about two minutes before eating them, and they’ll taste just as crispy as when they were freshly made!

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ROASTED KALE CHIPS

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch curly kale
  • olive oil
  • salt

Cooking instructions

  • Preheat oven to 375
  • Remove kale leaves from stems, discard stems, and rinse leaves well.
  • Dry thoroughly in salad spinner followed by a towel.
  • Place kale leaves in two separate sheet pans. Drizzle each one with 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, toss and arrange the oil-coated leaves in a single layer.
  • Sprinkle each sheet pan with 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
  • Cook each sheet pan (individually) in preheated 375 degree oven for 10 minutes.
  • Sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt while the chips are still hot.
  • Ignore obnoxious trend-fixations and enjoy your superfoods!

 

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