PaR Cooked

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My Life with Migraines

My children pause briefly in the hallway before tiptoeing into the dark bedroom. As they lean down to kiss me their hair, still warm from the sun, brushes my face, and I catch the smell of damp soil and sweat on their skin. I lie unmoving under the blanket with my head, which feels as if it will split open, cradled in my hands. My son climbs under the blankets and presses his body against my clammy two-day-old pajamas. In his best approximation of a whisper he says, “Mama, can I just be here with you for a while? I promise I’ll be very quiet and still.” I don’t really move or speak because either of those things will make the pain worse. My daughter climbs in on the other side of me and breaths a similar promise into my face. At first they are still, but soon they begin to squirm, jockeying for more space, more blanket, more of my body touching theirs. The slight movement of the mattress makes my stomach churn and the bile rise in my throat. Risking the pain, I order them to be still.

My son finds a book left behind from a previous visit and begins to the turn the pages. The whisper of paper touching paper sounds unbearably loud. There is a physical feel to the sound that causes a sharp pain in my inner ear. I ask him to stop.

My daughter gets up and goes to the window. She pulls back the curtain and the late afternoon sun fills the room. I cover my face and cry out in pain. My son scolds her and, alarmed, she jumps on the bed and shouts at him. I am crying now. Weeping, really. And cowering away from them.

My husband bustles in, chiding the children for bothering me. He reminds them for thousandth time in two days that I have a migraine and need to be alone. My daughter howls in protest at being told to leave. She screams my name as she is carried downstairs and away from me. Again. My son sighs heavily and kisses me gently. “I wish you weren’t always so sick,” he says as he closes the door softly, though not softly enough, and joins them downstairs.

Through the floorboards I hear my daughter’s tears turn to laughter as my husband distracts her with a game. I smell the beginnings of dinner. I vaguely sense the day passing around me. I feel guilty relief at being left alone in the dark again.

This isn’t a rare scenario in our house. This is normal life for us. Three or four days out of every week, sometimes more but rarely less, I am suffering from a migraine. Many other days I feel the tell-tale neck stiffness, the irritation behind an eye, the churning nausea, the racing heart, or the mental and physical irritation that indicates an attack is imminent. Sometimes I can avert a migraine with medicine or rest or dumb luck. Other times the medicine doesn’t work, or I’ve already taken too much medicine that week, or the migraine comes on too suddenly, and then I am swallowed up by the pain. The few days each week I don’t have a migraine are spent recovering, recouping, and picking up the pieces of a life put on hold.

I was in my early teens when I my head started to throb and pound for several days out of each week. The pain was most often centered deep behind my right eye. I would have the discomfiting urge to temporarily dislodge my eyeball in order to relieve the pressure. I was in enough pain that everyday activities like school, reading, or just interacting with other people felt overwhelming. Ordinarily inoffensive smells (like food cooking) and ordinarily inoffensive sounds (like book-pages turning) were nearly unbearable and overpowering. I was constantly nauseated and had to force myself to eat. I couldn’t understand how my friends had so much energy while I only looked forward to going back to bed. Pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen did so little to ease the pain that I was convinced they were nothing more than modern day snake oil.

I didn’t know then that I had migraines. Unfortunately, it turned out my family doctor didn’t either. There is no blood work, brain scan, or other test to see if someone has migraines. Rather there are a collection of symptoms (throbbing head pain along with an extreme aversion to light, smells, touch, or sounds, nausea and vomiting,  and dizziness) that define a migraine. My doctor, however, pinned his diagnosis on my lack of visual or physical auras; a symptom affecting only about 20 percent of migraine sufferers. Twenty-five years later I still remember the way the paper rustled in the otherwise silent exam room after I answered no to his question of whether I ever saw flashing lights or felt numbness in my arms before my head hurt. I just wanted an answer that would explain and maybe even end my pain. I remember the way my stomach sank as he gently shifted the conversation away from my physical to my mental health. I was a physically healthy young woman, he said. The tests didn’t find anything wrong with me, he said. Maybe I was depressed or stressed or lonely, he suggested. As a teenager living in chronic and undiagnosed pain I was certainly all these things, but I was also physically sick. He recommended I avoid stress, rest more, and find things that made me happy.

His prescription left me worse off in many ways. I spent years believing the problem was me. I believed that everyone’s headaches felt this way and I was simply too weak to cope. I believed that if I could just find a way to be happy enough or calm enough or balanced enough the pain would subside. The pain, I thought, was clearly caused by my own weakness, so I pushed myself to work harder and be stronger. I went to class day after day and year after year when I could barely keep my head up. I pressed my thumbs into my orbital bones, or the base of my skull until I saw black, enjoying the way the self-inflicted hurt temporarily blocked out the otherwise all encompassing pain. I pressed my head against windows and walls for the momentary relief provided by their cool touch. I ate in tiny portions to try to control my nausea. I spent night after night unable to sleep because the pain was too great. And every time I hurt I castigated myself for always being so tired and so weak. I tried not to allow myself to cave to the pain because I was sure I wasn’t really sick. I told almost no one about how awful I felt almost every day. I believed all of it was my fault; and I was deeply ashamed.

Ten years later, when I was finally diagnosed, the neurologist said with a shrug that my symptoms were textbook migraine. At last there was a name for the days and days of agony, but I still didn’t consider myself to have a condition or a disease. Instead I saw each migraine as an isolated event caused by something I could have avoided. This time I wore the wrong sweater and was sick for three days. That time I forgot my sunglasses and had a migraine for two days. Another time I laughed too hard and too long at dinner with friends and spent the rest of the weekend in bed with the curtains drawn. Some other time maybe it was because I got too hungry or I drank a glass of wine or I did push ups or  overslept or my hormones fluctuated or I got my teeth cleaned or I was anxious. Encouraged by doctors and the internet, I compiled a list of things I noticed triggered a migraine. At first I felt empowered by the exercise, but the list grew and grew until it looked something like this:

Constrictive clothing, ponytails, alcohol, chocolate, sugar, television, reading, dehydration, under-eating, overeating, maybe some cheeses, maybe some dried fruits, over exercising, under exercising, carrying heavy things, allergies, bright sun, squinting, humidity, rain, overcast days, glare, overheating, shivering, strong smells from gasoline to flowers, lavender, loud noises, loud music, nasal congestion, coughing, laughing, crying, yelling or cheering, talking too much, long car rides, air conditioning, too little sleep, too much sleep, vacations, traveling, fluorescent lights, flashing lights, too much caffeine, too little caffeine, sex, hormone changes, and my menstrual cycle.

In the end, knowing my triggers provides only a frustrating veneer of control. I don’t drink red wine or whisky and thereby avoid migraines directly triggered by them. However, short of living inside a pressurized bubble, weather and odors are nearly impossible to avoid. Then there are some triggers, like sex and laughter, where I simply choose the risk of indulgence over the austerity of avoidance. Triggers aren’t always dependable either; and they can change over time. Even when I do live a nearly puritanical life under sunny (but not too sunny) hormonal-free skies I still get migraines simply because I am someone with the unlucky genetic disposition to get migraines.

For me, a migraine often starts as pressure and tension coiled in my neck and shoulders. From there it snakes up the back of my head before finally striking behind my eye with sharp and piercing pain. Like so many migraine sufferers I often fantasize about self-taught lobotomies and bringing back trepanning. The pain is often so severe that I only move when absolutely necessary, walking doubled over or crawling from place to place. During other attacks the pain is manageable, but the secondary symptoms of nausea, sensitivity to sound and smells, dizziness, and weakness make me seek out solitude. Symptoms are not always predictable either. Sometimes I can’t speak in coherent sentences; or my face twitches uncontrollably. Other times it feels as if I cannot see properly; or as if my eyeballs are set too far back in my skull. Occasionally, my scalp tingles and stings for hours or days after a migraine. I often feel confused and have trouble following simple conversations. Almost always when I have a migraine everyday sounds feel painful. A spoon clinking on a bowl reverberates like a tuning fork has been struck against my skull. A glass being set down on the table rings loud like a church bell. Paper crumpling or a pen scratching on paper feel like my eardrum is being scraped. There are migraines–heartbreaking migraines–when the pitch and cadence of my children’s voices makes their words sound garbled and unintelligible; when listening to my children talk causes me physical pain. At times like these my daughter singing a song near my ear, or my son explaining his latest video game can make me feel panicked and confused.

There is no cure for migraines. The handful of drugs specifically designed to treat the pain and nausea of migraines can often cut an attack short, but they can only be used a maximum of twice a week, they don’t always work, they are expensive, and insurance companies limit the number of pills prescribed. All the daily medicines to prevent migraines (used for people who suffer 15 or more attacks a month) are borrowed from another disease or condition. Anti-seizure medications, beta blockers, nerve blocks, Botox, muscle relaxers, and antidepressants, for example, all happened to reduce some patients’ migraines, but none of them are designed to target migraines. These medicines also come with a host of side effects, ranging from annoying to debilitating, and only have a moderate chance of success. One drug made my hands tingle constantly and was likely to impact my word finding capabilities. Another made me so prone to panic attacks that I hardly left the house, but I still had migraines all the time. Most recently, I willingly let a doctor inject a mixture of anesthetics and steroids via a large needle directly into the occipital nerves located at the base of my skull; a process that sounds far more like medieval torture in theory than it is in practice.

Over the years I’ve also been diagnosed and treated by acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, massage therapists, and random strangers with well-meaning advice. I’ve followed extremely restrictive diets meant to reduce the yeast, the damp, or other perceived impurities in my body. I’ve meditated, huffed essential oils, yoga-ed, and had glass bowls suctioned-cupped onto my back (Gwenyth Paltrow does it, too). I’ve taken chinese herbs, vitamins, tinctures, homeopathic remedies, and minerals (very few of which are scientifically shown to reduce migraines). Some of it–-like the maddening game of word association I played while being videotaped by a practitioner who promised my subconscious would lead her to a holistic cure–-sounds utterly ridiculous in hindsight, but the promise of freedom from crippling pain easily overrides logical reasoning and the scientific method. None of it has made more than a maybe slight and short-lived improvement. The one tie that binds the medicinal, the alternative, and the absolutely ridiculous remedies together so far is that my migraines have always kept coming regularly and without fail.

People are often quick to point out that migraines are not life threatening. They are not cancer or even diabetes. They will not usually cause a stroke. They do not cause lasting damage. This may be true, but migraine is a disease. And one that makes it difficult to have any sort of a life with frequent attacks. When I have a migraine I am either partially or completely debilitated. When the medicine works I may be back on my feet in a few hours to a day. When it doesn’t, I’m usually incapacitated for three days. The day or two after a migraine I feel lethargic and hungover, so even when the migraine has passed it can be hard to get back to daily life. With only a few days between migraine attacks it can feel like I’m caught in an inescapable cycle of pain and convalescence. It feels as if there is hardly any routine to my life, except the routine of chaos and damage control.

If we’re judging by the cardinal rule that consistency is of the utmost importance in raising children, then migraines make me an utter failure as a parent. I often cancel plans with my kids at the last minute; and I routinely break my promises because I’m too sick to follow through. Often getting them a snack is such a physically demanding ordeal for me that they feel compelled to apologize for being hungry in the first place. I miss hearing about their days, eating meals with them, reading with them, playing with them, or hugging them even though I am home. I am absent even though I am right beside them.

When I am ill, housework goes untended, social plans get canceled, work and volunteer commitments are dropped, and deadlines are missed. My life is littered with with projects left unfinished because of migraines. When I am sick my husband takes on all the household and parental duties as well as caring for me. He tries to balance his own full-time work and my responsibilities. He makes my apologies for our sudden absences, of which there are many. He never blames me for being sick, but I see the way it exhausts him to carry so much of our lives for so long.

Repeated last minute cancellations take their toll on other relationships as well. I’m fortunate enough to have a very understanding core group of friends, but those casual friendships people develop by consistently running into each other at the park, school pick ups, meetings, the post office, the grocery store, and at social events are much harder for me to develop and maintain.

Each day, each week, each month, each year feels like it’s made up of a million tiny compromises and wagers. If I choose to clean the bathrooms and vacuum, I run the risk of needing to go to bed before dinner. If I go out for dinner with friends, it’s likely I will have to spend most of the next day in bed. Choosing to go to a meeting under fluorescent lights comes with a high risk of waking up sick the next day. Joining a committee, taking on new work, or even making an appointment for a haircut is taking a terrifying leap of faith that I will be well enough to follow through. I tend to resist making too many plans, or striking up new friendships because chances are good that I will have to cancel more often than is socially acceptable. I wouldn’t fault someone for thinking I must be exaggerating, but I’m not.

I’ve understood that I have migraines for nearly fifteen years now, but it’s still  hard for me to understand that I am sick. I  sometimes only see what gets missed, canceled, and left undone. I catch myself trying to push through and ignore the pain, the nausea, and all the other symptoms. In days after a migraine it’s easy for me to wonder if it was really that bad. Maybe I was just being melodramatic, I think. It’s easy even for me to forget that migraine is not just a headache, and that pushing myself unfailingly makes it worse. It’s easy for me to think about how many people have it worse than I do and who appear to do more. I keep a running masochistic mental list of very accomplished people who also suffer from migraines.

It’s harder for me to acknowledge the physical and emotional toll migraines take on my life, my health, and my relationships. It’s much harder for me to look at what I manage to accomplish between and during attacks. It’s harder to admit that I am chronically ill.

And yet, I wake up each day with some hope that today will be better than yesterday; that next week will be better than last week; and that someday the future will hold less pain than the past. I remember that I am not alone. There are 37 million people–the majority of them women–in the United States alone who also suffer from migraines. I remind myself again and again that a migraine isn’t just a headache; and that it’s not all in my head.

 

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Getting to Santiago de Chile

The Buquebus Ferry from Uruguay to Buenos Aires is like a cruise ship. When the sun catches its perfectly shiny outside as it glides across the river the whole thing seems to glow.  Even its name, Francisco, in honor of the Pope, sounds regal. They require you wear white booties (like those of crime scene investigators) onboard so your philistine shoes do not damage the boat’s pristine floors. Inside it has plush chairs, deep carpeting, sweeping staircases, a well-stocked snack bar, and a duty-free shop the size of a small grocery store. The boat is so large and so weighted with people, cars, luggage, and duty-free Toblerone chocolate that you barely feel it moving.

This was not the boat we took.

No. On the day when meteorologists were predicting 60 mph winds, we took the SeaCat, which is a glorified pontoon boat where luggage is lashed to the deck and covered with tarps. I admit that watching it bounce and skip into the port caused me a low level of panic. Watching passengers around us ready their bright white, plastic barf bags for the journey did nothing to calm me. And when they slammed the doors shut and told everyone to sit tight because while the journey might not look or feel safe it definitely was, I may have turned to Nathan and told him I wanted to get off.  I didn’t get off, mostly because I couldn’t.

The televisions proudly told us that the boat traveled at a speed of 30 knots.  It did not tell us how much air space there can be between your bottom cheeks and the seat when the boat hits waves at that speed.  Several is the answer.  It also did not tell you how loudly people may shriek, in both fear and joy, when this happens. Really loudly and shrilly with the notable exception of the gentleman who just groaned as if he were dying. Our children responded in their usual ways. The boy said he wasn’t pleased, but it certainly didn’t stop him from eating or talking.  The girl spent her time singing and pointing out to our neighbors that we were on a boat! On the water!We made it to Buenos Aires and spent an evening with an Aunt and an Uncle before heading on to Santiago de Chile.

I’m not usually one to get worked up about seeing something just for the sake of seeing it, but have you seen the Andes from 30,000 feet? I felt a little like the girl, wanting to nudge people around me and say, Look! Big mountains! With snow!  Judging by the way the Chilean woman next to me (who I’m just going to wildly speculate had seen the mountain range before and possibly even from high altitudes) kept leaning over to take pictures and videos until the flight attendant told her she really, really had to shut it down for landing, I don’t think I’m exaggerating their awesome beauty. Really, my feelings didn’t change much once we were on the ground. Walking around in the city we’d look up and catch sight of the mountains–sometimes snow-capped, sometimes frosty with fog, sometimes glowing pink in the sunset, and sometimes just massive and brown–and gasp. There is something very humbling about being in a city of 5 million people, of being surrounded by crowds, traffic, skyscrapers, restaurants, and all the fine trappings of modern civilization, and having all of it dwarfed in magnitude and beauty by some ancient rock and dirt. Check yourselves humans.

Montevideo, both in area and population, could fit into Santiago’s  hip pocket, so it’s entirely unfair to compare them.  However, I’m not going to let that stop me. Chile is very different than Uruguay.  That should be obvious, right? They are different countries with different histories, different climates, different cultures, etc. I shouldn’t even need to say it, but both Nathan and I were caught off guard. I think having only traveled between Uruguay and Argentina in the past 9 months it was easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Argentines and Uruguayans will spend any amount of time telling you about how different they are from each other.  And they are. The accents are different enough that you can distinguish them.  Argentines use a kettle for their mate while Uruguayans tend to use a thermos. Argentines eat lomitos and Urguayans eat chivitos. I’m joking a little of course, because there are real differences between the two countries, but things are also similar enough that both cities feel familiar.

Chile was a different story altogether.  In the airport I heard people talking and briefly wondered what language they were speaking.  We were so accustomed to the lilt of Uruguayan Spanish that the harder and completely distinct sounds of Chilean speech sounded entirely strange.

The Spaniards didn’t manage to kill off all the indigenous people in Chile like they did in Uruguay, so there was a much broader mix of people. In fact, there were people (and foods) from all over the world.

We ate Japanese food (without any cream cheese added!), Indian food, spicy food (oh, spicy food!), Chilean-style ice cream and so many avocados (hot dogs are even served with a thick layer of avocado). According to a PSA we saw, Chile is second only to Suriname in its sugar consumption, which may explain why when we ordered juice we were served uncarbonated orange Fanta.

Ice cream

The streets were cleaner in Santiago. Less trash blew around and there was so little dog poop on the sidewalks that I almost forgot to look down while I walked.

Santiago also felt somewhat less child friendly.  Of course, this is an observation based on limited time and experiences. One of those experiences did include a woman insisting that the girl give up her seat on the subway. I can’t imagine that happening in Montevideo where people practically leap out of their seats to make room for kids. To be fair, Uruguayans are particularly accommodating to and appreciative of kids. It’s rare to make it through an entire outing  in Montevideo without our kids being patted on the head, chatted with, pressed for a kiss, or offered candy by people young and old alike–and that’s even when they are being totally obnoxious. Maybe, though, it’s just a difference of living in a place versus being a tourist for a brief time.

And we were tourists Santiago. More on how we touristed in a bit.

 


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Language at Five Months

Around the time leaves were appearing here and Phoebe was emerging there, the boy and the girl were exploding with language. It felt not unlike the long wait for spring. We had greeted every new word spoken and every phrase understood with joy, but fluency never seemed forthcoming.  And then, like with the spring, we looked away. We got distracted by other things only to look up one day and realize our children had blossomed into Spanish speakers. Suddenly, they were speaking to people and all their shyness disappeared.

Now, they are perhaps even bolder when speaking Spanish than English. The boy strikes up conversations with the porteros, asks questions of strangers and teachers, and yells to his friends about bottoms, boogers, and how exactly they should crash into each other. The girl still mostly speaks in shorter sentences, phrases and songs, but it doesn’t stop her from holding court in the apartment lobby to explain the intricacies of the most recent party at school. And it doesn’t stop her from from calling out to her friends’ parents or perfect strangers on the street to share some piece of news. It helps that people here are so obliging. Women of a certain age will sing along with her songs and ask if she means to share the candy she’s showing them. She still has a tendency to speak to us in long strings of nonsense words with a marked Spanish cadence, but every day more and more words emerge from the stream of sound until I start to wonder if the fault lies more with her ability to speak or my ability to understand. They sing pop songs (terrible pop songs), school songs, and made up songs without pause. The girl has things for which she rarely uses the English word for anymore and the boy pronounces some English words and names (thumb drive, Jackson Pollack) with an Uruguayan accent. They both pretend laugh in Spanish (ja, ja, ja) and they both use culturally appropriate gestures to express emotions.

Their grammar is definitely creative and often wrong, but nearly always understood. The boy mostly conjugates verbs as ‘you’ even when he is talking about himself and the girl tends to use ‘I’ even when she is talking about someone else. (Definitely take a moment to armchair psychoanalyze that.)  At home they speak to each other, themselves, and us in this pidgin Spanish. Sometimes they even speak it when they are sleep. Before, no matter how much we spoke to them in Spanish they responded in English. Now, they almost universally respond to Spanish with Spanish, and sometimes to English with Spanish. Often they will be playing together (or likely arguing) in English when one of them will say a word in Spanish and just like that the language will switch and the conversation (or likely the argument) will continue without interruption.

It seems like forever ago that we were reveling in those first few words and sounds. Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember what it was like then when they barely spoke or understood. The boy told us last night he was sure he has always spoke Spanish this well. While it is still amazing to hear their language continue to develop, at this stage there are times when it feels like the sole result of taking them halfway around the world and immersing them in a new culture is that they now have two languages in which to argue and whine. No matter, we’ll take it.


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emerging

It seems fitting that Rachel’s last post would be about leaves unfurling from their winter hideouts and flowers showing off to world as I write my first post in what feels like forever.  In many ways I too feel like I am “springing.”  The air is not jasmine scented and there are no beautiful petals tucked behind my ear.  Still, I am here.  In this space.  Both on the blog and in life.  This fall has been more intense than I ever planned, but, perhaps foolishly, I feel like I have turned a corner.  My spring is coming.  A new birth.

Since late summer every spare moment I have had has been spent following online classes towards getting my real estate license.  Online test, after online quiz followed by driving back and forth to the mainline for in-person testing.  Followed by some of the most boring and depressing proctored testing sights in Harrisburg and Allentown, I am done!  While it doesn’t seem like it should be such a big deal, people do it all the time…doing it while still having one child home half days, after school programs out the wazoo, Otto in full allergy shot mode (ie: 2 plus hours a week sitting in waiting rooms with both kids!) and still trying to maintain a clean house and feed all of us three meals a day, it has been a bit much.  Not to mention I volunteer on a few boards which this year have upped the weekly meeting time I attend.  Did I mention in all of this I also was painting my neighbors never ending grand entrance and hallway?  Yeah, kind of insane.  But, as of yesterday, all of that is done!!!  Now I just need to sell some houses.  My license officially will arrive later the month at which point I can actually start.  But I am still in training mode with the broker.  I am hoping to start slow and only work when Mette is in school so for now, just getting all the school work and test out of the way is a huge deal.

This afternoon is the first time since Mette started school in September that I have had a chance to sit and do my own activity while she is at school.  I have dinner prepped, meals laid out for the next few days and a shopping list for what I need.  I feel more prepared than I have in months.  It’s kind of amazing.  That’s not to say that the backlog of stuff that I have pushed to the back burner isn’t chanting in the background of every thought, but now at least I feel like I might actually get to some of those things.  Next week.  Mette and I have a playdate tomorrow morning and I don’t actually have plans for friday.

 

While Rachel is basking in warm sun, longer days and SPRING!  I am taking this time to slow down.  I have been baking bread again now that it is cold enough to make me want to run the oven all afternoon.  I pulled a roast from the freezer and am planning the first pot roast of the season.  There are many nights of roasted root vegetables in various forms on our menu.  After a summer of not being able to knit much because my arms and hands hurt too much (don’t say the CT word, I am not prepared for that) I have slowly picked up the needles again and am making my way through a sweater for Mette.  I will admit a big motivator to ramping up my knitting again is I need a good reason to buy yarn while in Montevideo because I have been dreaming about it since the first time Rachel went and brought me home goodies.

 

On that note, we are headed to the land of sunny Rachel and clan in 41 days.  That seems entirely too awesome.  I can’t wait.  Along with shoving as much yarn in my suitcase as possible, I am hoping to soak up enough sun to make it through the cold of February.  It’s a good goal.

 

For the next post I promise yummy treats and less complaining.  Cold weather is for cooking and I am hoping to share.


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You know what is hard, thinking anything you write is clever or witty when you are sharing a blog with Rachel.  I have had a very busy and insane last few weeks which has led to the static silence from my end of the blog, but that’s not to say I haven’t been typing away.  Every time I think I am getting something together she goes and makes the drugstore sound witty and charming.  That is just one of the many reasons we love her.  Who else do you know that can do that?

Life here is far less exotic.  Everyone in my house spends the whole day speaking the same language, unless you count the times when Mette speaks in Mette language.  Otto started first grade last week which is new and amazing and perhaps a little bit exotic.  But it’s in the same school he went to last year, he takes the same bus, at the same time and for the most part requests I pack him the same lunch he had last year.  Change in the details is not something he handles well.  Mette is chomping at the bit to start school next week where she is graduating to the almighty afternoon class!  Every day no less!  We are counting the hours until it starts.  Each for our own reasons.

There is no exotic pharmacy filled with magical potions in glorious packaging, but they did start restocking the toothpaste I like again at the local CVS, so that’s exciting.  We, like many other readers, are living vicariously through the exotic stories of “down on the other side of the world.”

While I would be lying to say I am not jealous of the adventures, though not the germ part, I have to admit it is also a daily reminder to enjoy the slow, predictable life here in our sleepy little town.  When our family returned from 6 months abroad last year the kids and I happily spent the first two weeks home without leaving the block.  The first time I ventured three blocks downtown to the pharmacy (do we really go to pharmacies this much??) it felt like I was in a new foreign land, again.  We were so content to have our own house again nothing else.   We are lucky enough to have a core group of friends who were better able to anticipate this new lifestyle and made frequent visits to our house.  Allowing us to feel social from the safety of a pajamas that make it to the dinner table.

 

Baring the squirrel incident and a light switch event to which there are no answers, the tenant in their house has settled in well which leaves me without a reason to check on their house every day or so.  I still drive by, making sure nothing has impaled it from the outside and the roof hasn’t caved in.  I am not sure what else one can observe as you take the corner onto their street and drive past without entering oncoming traffic, but I can confidently say it is still standing.  He is bound to take a long  weekend soon and I will have my chance!

 

I keep wondering how long Rachel has to be gone before I think twice about adding chicken stock to something.  Will I possibly be having an impromptu lunch with her later this week where I might want to share this with her and family?  Perhaps I shouldn’t….

 

As I walk around town I think of things that I see I want to share with you.  But I don’t always remember when I am emailing or skyping.  Things like,

-they finally put the fence up around the president’s house and the reason they were taking so long with the corner was because they did a really nice bent section of fencing to match the new curved sidewalk.  I approve.

The guy who does the thrusting planks at the gym in the morning has a new and more robust routine.

We never all got to try the cider place before you left but I had some at a wedding recently and it was not unlike strong moonshine.  I am guessing it’s not all like that, but wowza, it was interesting.

With our new kitchen remodel I now have a bench for people to sit on and have tea and cookies after lunch.  Or anytime of course.  It really feels like you, Belinda and Megan need to break it in.

Somehow we need to get Megan to drink tea.

I went to Country Cupboard with just Mette and got new flowers for the window boxes out front.  It wasn’t as much fun as when I went with you and your mom.  Though going with Mette wanted to choose would have been exciting!

While we soak up the remaining warm days of long sunlight I promise to try and let go and send the long rays your way.  With warm sun and longer days hopefully you will all be filled with itching desires to explore the amazing world just outside the kitchen window.


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Eating Eggs

Most chickens only lay for a couple of years, but will live for ten or more.  My mother’s chickens have stopped laying.  She now has nine very cheerful, very hungry chickens that collectively lay one egg a day. Letting them live out their days as pets would be grossly expensive and unproductive, but that’s exactly what she has decided to do. It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one except my mother that she has become attached to her chickens and their avian idiosyncrasies.  In her adult life, my mother has become attached to each and every one of the dogs, goats, plants, horses, cats, mice, birds, and legions of spiders she has taken into her care.

Caring for spiders?  Perhaps that’s a stretch, but those girls (to my mother all spiders are girls) have lead far longer, healthier lives under her roof than almost anywhere else in the world. Gertrude was the name she gave the large gray barn spider that took up residence over our toilet one winter.  Most of the spiders and I kept a respectful distance from each other, but Gertrude was a terrible bully.  She particularly like to torment me by waiting until my middle-of-the-night bathroom trips to spin herself lazily down until she hung suspended mere inches above my head. I pleaded for Gertrude to at least be moved to a less intimate location, but my mother would hear none of it.  So Gertrude, like all her sisters before and after her, stayed until spring.

Still, my mother is a realist.  You have to be to spend a lifetime raising that many creatures.  Animals die; arachnids, too.  In the end she spoke to people who know about these things and all said that the hens’ time had come. Integrating a new flock would be very difficult, and there was no room for her to maintain  two flocks.  She scheduled their execution, but when the appointed day was rained out, she changed her mind.  She now has a plan to integrate a new, younger flock with her old ladies.

I’m sure to most farmers her plan is one step away from chicken diapers, but to me, it was a bright spot in what had become a tumultuous internal struggle.  Ever since she told me that she would likely have to kill the chickens, I had been scouring Backyard Poultry chat rooms looking for irrefutable evidence that hens lay longer than she suspected. This was surely a hiatus.  They had laid steadily all winter, so hadn’t they earned a break? I became, I admit, obsessed with the natural and unnatural lifespan of chickens. If  even free-range, organically fed chickens are only allowed to live as long as they lay can I, as a vegetarian, really justify continuing to eat eggs?

It was my parents who taught me that eating eggs was acceptable, but eating flesh was not. They converted to vegetarianism in the early seventies. My father’s legend was that his latent childhood concerns about meat were confirmed the day he held their pet rabbit, Laura’s, lifeless body in his hands. “How,” he claimed to have wondered, “can we mourn the death of some animals while eating others?” Then he ate meat no more. My mother maintains it wasn’t quite that simple or that dramatic.  She didn’t have a legend and she didn’t share my father’s loud-voiced prosthelytizing, but she did cook amazing food, which wooed more than a few hardened carnivores.  Either way, by the time my brother and I were born there was no meat–or refined sugar or packaged foods or white flour–served in our house, but there were always eggs and dairy.

Honestly, I never did much questioning of what my parents taught me. I realize this may sound like I don’t think at all about why I’m a vegetarian, which isn’t the case. My parents taught me about the health benefits of avoiding meat through their own examples and some heavy-handed anecdotes. Our menagerie of creatures led me to my own ethical hesitations about eating animals. I pushed our baby goats around in strollers, taught them to sing, and mourned them when they died of old age, disease, or accident.

It wasn’t that I was a stranger to meat or was morally opposed to others eating it.  I grew up where farming and hunting were both vocation and avocation. Animals at neighboring farms were raised for food, not for love. Every hunting season, blood trickled a winding path from the weigh scale to the storm drain in front of the firehouse.  Pickup trucks arrived at regular intervals, a dead buck carefully arranged for maximum exposure. These things were unsettling to me, but death wasn’t unfamiliar and these deaths directly fed my friends and their families.

All my friends ate meat and their parents were constantly concerned that I was being deprived of nutrients and deliciousness.  I didn’t think I was missing out, but I did wonder what it would be like to eat like everyone else. My father had always warned me that eating meat would turn me into just another unhealthy American kid.  As an awkward pre-teen, I only heard him say that it would make me just like everyone else.  I figured all it would take was a few hamburgers and some fried chicken. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  Eating meat meant I ate off the same plate, but that was it.  I was uniformly unimpressed with the experience.  The tastes and textures were foreign and unwelcome.  I felt a mix disgust and polite sympathy not unlike what I imagine people feel the first time they try tofu.

Assimilation, I decided, wasn’t worth the effort and I went back to my roots without too much thought and, with few exceptions, I have been a steadfast vegetarian ever since. My husband and I often choose not to ask about lard in Mexican restaurants or fish oil in Asian restaurants, or anything beyond the absolute obvious when traveling in many countries.  It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that sometimes too much information is just that.

I have too much information about chickens to ignore.  It’s not just how long they lay versus how long they live.  I watch how they come running when my children call.  I hear how they chirrup excitedly at the sound of my mother’s voice.  I know that, like me, they will happily devour a bowl of warm oatmeal on a cold winter morning.  And I felt the horrible drop in my stomach when my mother began to explain how the nice man would butcher them kindly when they stopped laying.  I’m not sure what I will ultimately decide about eggs; it’s a longer road to a decision than I expected.  My father had a long explanation of why he wasn’t hypocritical for being a vegetarian who unapologetically wore leather shoes. It boiled down to the fact that he didn’t eat his shoes.  And maybe it’s as simple as just not eating the chickens that lay the eggs.  Or maybe it’s not.


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Sour Milk

Hi, come on in.

Don’t mind the banging coming from upstairs, Mette is working on making me something.  Leave your boots by the door, hang jackets and hats anywhere you can find a spot.  It’s cold outside, warm up in the kitchen.

I have everything all ready to make a batch of yogurt.  Warm, tangy, delicious yogurt.  The same yogurt that when the professor saw how I made it was shocked.  “Really, that’s all you do?!”  Surely there should be something more to it than that.  And, there isn’t.  When making yogurt I think you need to remember this.  People first started making yogurt by mistake, in hot climates.  Less is more.  If you research recipes for how to make yogurt you will find countless methods, numerous temperatures and times to adhere to.  They are all right.   The process I am sharing here is my method.  I have found that it produces predictable results which, most importantly, my small folk devour.  That being said, feel free to experiment and find what works best for you.

The steps are basic.  Basic enough that you can have time to work on your curlers.

Mette trying out her new curlers.

Mette trying out her new curlers.

There is also plenty of down time, so feel free to organize a few cabinets while you are at it.

sometimes you just have to start a new project.

sometimes you just have to start a new project.

When making anything, clean equipment is a really good idea.  I make our yogurt in large Ball wide mouth canning jars.  I have tons of them, they are easy to clean and they store well.  Use what you like best.  Because today I was showing friends my “sour milk secrets” I used a whole gallon of milk, but usually I make one half gallon every week or so.  I use local raw whole milk that I get delivered to my house by the farmer.  It is lovely and grassy, but you can use any whole milk.  Pasteurized is even fine.  I am a big believer in the good fat in milk, especially local and grass fed milk, and I prefer raw or low temp pasteurized, but that is a whole other can of worms for another post.  The other key ingredient you need besides milk to make yogurt, is yogurt.  You need a small amount of yogurt to get you going.  Once you have made your first batch you can reserve a small portion of that to make you next batch.  It’s kind of like a sour dough starter.  The golden ratio to remember is 1/4 cup yogurt for every 4 cups of milk.  So to make a gallon of milk into  yogurt I needed one cup of yogurt from my last batch.  Amazingly enough I managed not to scrape the jar empty the night before and saved enough!  whew!  Can’t begin to tell you how many times I have done that.  In a pinch you can use store bought yogurt to get you going.  Or, if you are lucky and happen to have a Rachel down the street, you can call her and see if she has any homemade yogurt you can have.  But, not everyone is lucky enough to have a Rachel down the street.  Though wouldn’t it be great if we did.

So here is all my gear ready to go:

Yogurt making equipment all neatly gathered, ready to go.

Yogurt making equipment all neatly gathered, ready to go.

There are four large wide mouth jars with plastic tops, two pint glass canning jars I fill with boiling water (more on that later), a large iSi flexible measuring cup, measuring spoon, cast iron pot, polder thermometer, rice pack, milk and a cooler.

 

Homemade Yogurt

4 cups whole milk

1/4 yogurt

Heat milk to 185F.  Let cool to 115F.  Stir in starter yogurt.  Let yogurt sit undisturbed for 6 hours in a nice warm spot.  Enjoy.

 

Basically, when making yogurt you heat the milk, really you are pasteurizing it, let it cool, add the yogurt starter and then let it sit in warm snuggly place for 6 or so hours.  The times and temperatures in other recipes may vary, but they are all doing about the same thing.  It takes about 30 minutes to and hour to heat and cool the milk depending on how much milk you are using and how fast your stove is.  Then it needs to sit for about 6 hours.  Because of this timing, I find it best to make the yogurt just before lunch, let it sit until dinner and then when I am cleaning up after dinner I take it out and put it in the fridge.  If I do it any later in the day I am too tired to remember to go down and put it in the fridge.  I know from experience.  I can also say, that even if you do happen to forget about it until the next morning, you will still have yogurt.  But it might be a bit (a lot bit) tangy and you will need to add more honey to appease the small folk.  Best to stick to the earlier time!

I heat the milk to 185F first.  Normally I use a cast iron pot so it heats as evenly as possible, but one gallon of milk was more than my pot could handle so here you see an big ole stock pot doing the hard work.

milk heating to 185F

milk heating to 185F

At the same time I am heating the milk I put the tea kettle on to boil.  Not because I want tea, though I do, because as soon as I finish my coffee in the morning I start thinking about when I can have tea, but because I use canning jars filled with boiling water to make a funky old cooler my “warm snuggly spot” for the yogurt to relax in.  Some people set their oven on low, some put it near a wood stove, these are all good options but they don’t work for me.  I don’t have a wood stove and my oven is from 1912 and while awesome, it doesn’t do LOW, well.  Or at all.  So, I make a cooler all warm and toasty with two jars filled with boiling water and for some extra ambiance I have an old rice pack for sore necks that I microwave and wrap around the bottles.  My kitchen can be drafty and this way everything stays nice and warm.  I do have a radiant heat floor and I put the cooler on a warm spot, but I don’t know how much that really helps.  The water for the jars boils before the milk is up to temp so I fill the jars and put them in the cooler ahead of time. That way when the yogurt goes in the cooler it is already nice and warm.

watching the milk's temp

watching the milk’s temp

I have this awesome polder thermometer that I use for everything.  It has a prong on a long flexible cord so you can stick it in something and have a digital read out of the internal temp..  I would have to pare down my kitchen gadgets REALLY far before this was cut from the group.  You can see here the milk it at 55F, once it gets to 185F I take it off the stove and put it in the sink to cool.  Using the thermometer again you want to cool it to around 115F.  At that point you add in your starter.  I often use a whisk for that to make sure there aren’t any big clumps of yogurt.

milk cooling in the sink

milk cooling in the sink

Once you mix the starter in try to get it the jars quickly.  You don’t want it to cool off too much more.  When the jars are filled put them in your warm snuggly spot.  With any luck, in six hours you will have your first batch of homemade yogurt.

stick a spoon in it, it's done!

stick a spoon in it, it’s done!

From here you can do so many things.  Eat it with honey, which is Mette’s favorite.  Add granola for my favorite.  Make a smoothie, everyone’s favorite….  the possibilites are endless.

Aside from knowing that you aren’t feeding your family tons of sugar and things you can’t pronounce there is a certain magical quality to making yogurt.  You fill jars with what looks like regular milk and a few hours later they are filled with thick creamy yogurt.  Anytime you can do something that feels like magic, I am all for it.

 

After all, it’s the little things in life that mean so much.  This is one little thing that makes me happy every time I do it.

 

Try it.  Let me know how it turns out.

-(p)hoebe