What uncertainty looks like

“We just need to get to the ocean,” Josh said.

Really? I thought. As much as I love the ocean, I wasn’t sure if we should really go. We have two littles, after all. Even with each other, with rock-paper-scissors,  drawing materials, and an Ipad for company, they can get impatient on road trips. Did I really want to drive for about three hours out to the coast just for one night on Thanksgiving weekend?

We hadn’t gone anywhere on a family vacation, getting-away-for-getting-away’s-sake in far too long, almost several years. Over the last few holidays, and over the last two summers we had promised ourselves a vacation, even a staycation. Things never quite worked out, and money was far too tight.

But we had to get away. It had been a month of waiting, layered on top of other months of waiting, layered on top of months of career transition. A couple of weeks ago we’d been waiting to hear about job news for me. When news came—not quite a simple yes, not quite a simple no—I had to rethink what uncertainty means, and what stability would mean.


Despite my slight misgivings, the four of us piled into the car. I’m a terrible camper, because I want to take EVERYTHING with me. I packed ridiculous amounts of clothing and two grocery bags of snacks for the girls, for an overnight trip. We drove down the coast. On the way down we drove over long bridges, crossing wide rivers, and as we neared the coast, we caught glimpses of the ocean behind the hills. But then we got to the cottage, half a block from the beach. We knew we had to catch some time on the beach before it got too dark; the Northwest winter sunlight ends by 4:30. So we bundled up, and walked out to the sand.

To our left, Haystack Rock reared its head. It was low tide. Part of the beach was so wet, it seemed to overflow with pieces of sky. The wind whipped around me, the horizon stretched into the distance. And, there, unexpectedly,  were all those crucial times I’d spent near the ocean.

There were all those coastal road trips that Josh and I took to the Oregon Coast in grad school, before grad school. We’d been to Cannon Beach, and Manzanita, and Coos Bay: quick weekend trips, or even part of a week.

There was our honeymoon, where we drove back from Mill Valley and San Francisco to Seattle, up the coast. That week we saw more moods of the Pacific than I’d ever seen, from an optimistic turquoise to a stern cobalt grey.

There was the morning after we’d slept next to the ocean in a cabin. I woke up to the sun rising over a village where the Russian River meets the Pacific, in California. It wasn’t the sunlight that woke me up that morning; it was the reflection of the light on the water, as pink and as golden as the haze in a Maxfield Parrish painting. I looked over Josh’s shoulder, and saw that glorious light.

Why was I surprised that the beach would insistently tug the memories right out of me?  It was the power of the waves: pounding slowly in, pancaking towards you, and foaming away. It was the sharp wind, clear and cold in so much open space. And this surprised me: it was the sound of the ocean that I’d missed the most. Oh, we have polite wavelets in Puget Sound. But nothing like these waves.

And it was the pull of the horizon—it stretched so far away, I couldn’t really see where it ended.

Back at the beach cottage, the little girls were simply thrilled to be somewhere else for the night. They squealed their way through each bedroom, opened each kitchen cabinet, and climbed onto the mountainous easy chair multiple times. The toddler, who loves putting things away, happily unpacked her clothes into a dresser and began work on my overnight case. I laid on the couch, as relaxed as cooked spaghetti. By nightfall I had a book in one hand, a toddler sitting on my stomach and the other curled up next to my legs. We were all in front of the fireplace, content as kittens. Josh had gone grocery shopping and was making us something with pasta in the kitchenette.

Lying there with the girls, my memory traveled still farther back. In seventh grade I visited Mendocino with my GATE class. For part of the trip we sat near the ocean in near-silence, and wrote about what we were hearing and seeing. There I wrote some of my first prose poems. It was my first stream-of-consciousness writing, and words poured out of me almost faster than I could write. We also made lists of our favorite words, and had to read the first fifteen words out loud. (As steeped as I was in fantasy novels at the time, I remember that unfortunately the word “darkling” made it onto my list.) But I  remember a certain small silence that fell over the group after I’d read my list out loud. I was so uncertain and so afraid of so many things, but even then I knew that I wanted to be a writer.

In our cottage, I left the bedroom window open before I went to sleep. And the ocean roared all night long.

(P.S. Photo credits here should go to my husband, Josh Parmenter. The batteries on my camera were out that day.)

Time to make pie

I helped to make the crust here! Photo by Shauna James Ahern. Used with permission.

I can make bubbling crisps, chewy cookies, melting brownies, moist cakes and quick breads. But I haven’t tried pie.

Well, that’s not quite true. The last time I made pie, it tasted like a cheese plate minus the saving grace of cheese: fruit and crackers. Oh, the shame. And I’m a baker, so I was really upset. So I never made it again. Besides, I reasoned to myself, I don’t have a food processor. And I don’t want to use shortening—scary stuff in a can! And yes, I know there are other options besides transfats, or besides just butter. Pre-packaged crusts seemed to go against why I love to bake. So, I went on, rationalizing my way through all these excuses.

See, I also thought that pie crust was like the other forms of baking that I’ve done: mostly following a recipe, playing very little with the amounts or the ingredients, but mostly using the best-quality ingredients possible. But I cook differently than I bake—I do find recipes, but I often play with them quite a bit. This ingredient sounds good, but maybe I’ll use this instead of this. I’ll look, and taste, when I’m cooking, and mostly relying on my palate’s memory. It’s a lot more of an improvisational game than a putting together a model train, or painting by numbers.

So this week I was thrilled to see some different approaches to pie crust, and to making pie. My dear friend Shauna decided to give me a pie crust crash course. I watched her cut butter, roll her index fingers and thumbs together in order to coat the butter with flour, and  pat crust into her pie plates. It was a busy afternoon—two pies, one by hand and one by food processor, plus an online Facebook/Twitter pie party of 1500 participants, plus four children six and under needing different kinds of attention and snacks—but I learned so much.

If, like me, you are a piecrust novice, I thought I’d list a few things here that might be useful. Here are some things I wanted to remember for myself when making pie. They are not hard-and-fast rules–looking at different recipes, pie-makers will swear by their own rules, which seem to vary widely–but there are some guidelines that I can’t wait to put into practice.
• Chill everything before beginning to mix: your flour, your butter (it should be like ice cubes), your hands, your bowl. Maybe the water, which can be ice water.
• Make your filling first, especially with a fruit pie, so the fruit can macerate and rest in its juices. Cut your working recipe in half, and make the bottom buy albuterol inhaler online no prescription crust, leaving the other half of the ingredients to remain chilling in the freezer/refrigerator. Then once you have rolled out and patted the bottom crust in, you can make the top crust.
• If using a food processor, use about 8 pulses in order to cut the butter into the flour and salt. You want it to look something like dry cottage cheese curds.
• Kerrygold butter is the best. Using European butter with a high butterfat content helps the flavor.
• Work quickly, but not frantically.
• When working the dough with your hands, there’s a motion you can use to cut the butter into the flour—or rather, coat the butter with the flour. Holding both hands out in front of you, pinkies down, practice rolling your index fingers down the length of your thumbs. That’s approximately the motion you want to make in order to meld the butter with the flour.
• Contrary to what Pepperidge Farm and others might have you believe (at least, I did), the goal is actually not a uniformly consistent ball of dough, like pizza dough. You do want it to cohere, but you don’t need it to be smooth all the way through.
• A few lumps of butter throughout the dough actually help. They do not all need to be the size of a pea, either; some might be as large as a shelled walnut.
• The end result, the ball of dough, should feel something like cold cream cheese.
• Most importantly, chill your attitude. Be relaxed, be comfortable, be happy. It’s pie. It’s made to be shared.

Watching Shauna make the pies was inspiring, and it made me understand how I could get into pie-making this summer: it is baking as I like to cook. It is playful, it is flexible, it is creative, and it is pleasurable.

I saw how piemaking could be a meditative act, seeing how the baker should see what is happening to the dough, and simply roll (sorry) with the punches and adjust accordingly. I realized that I want a French rolling pin, which looks more like a mallet slightly tapered at both ends, rather than a log with handles at each end. Christmas elves, take note, please.

And I realized that the truth is that I am a perfectionist, and I hate getting stuff “wrong,” and I have a hard time fixing my “mistakes,” large or small, or starting all over again. I really need to get over that if I am going to return to my childhood dream: being a writer.

It’s time to make some pie. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Readers: any pie tips for me, or any favorite recipes? Or, do you have something “basic” that you’ve been afraid to make, and why?

Anne Lamott on parenting and writing

More later–with my first assignment!–but here’s my inspiration for the day.

It’s from the wonderful, hilariously comforting Anne Lamott, writing about her “Letter to a pregnant friend”:

“I couldn’t actually think of anything specific to share with her on pregnancy and parenting that didn’t also apply to writing — after all, both are elective courses in Earth School, and not things ventolin no prescription buy that everyone needs to do in order to feel fulfilled. But if you insist on doing either, you start where you are, and you let yourself do it poorly, you study the work of people you admire, and after some time, you’ll get better, and be insane for shorter periods of time.”