Ask for the Moon, but Settle for a Star

“Really?” I said in a weak voice that imitated a woman who’d just been told that her mother-in-law was about to become her new roommate.

Or that new federal regulations on sleep had been voted into law and now five hours a night was the limit.

Or that the last glass of Chardonnay available to mankind had just been sold and there will be no more. Ever. Again. Period.

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In truth, none of these things would apply to me as I have no mother-in-law, I’m managing to squeak by with an average of 4.95 hours most nights, and as long as we don’t replace Chardonnay with the word whisky I can somehow manage.

But I still uttered the word with that same tone as I looked up at the old star perched atop the Christmas tree I’d just dragged into the house off the roof of my car.

It’s the first decoration that goes onto the tree every year. The equivalent to the commencement ribbon cutting. The thing that signals the official beginning. That object of honor.

But that object of honor decided that showing up for work this year was going to be a bit of a stretch. It refused to light when I plugged it in.

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“Do you know how much I count on you?” I asked it from where I looked up at it, lying on the floor, covered in pine pitch and prickly fir needles. “I put a huge amount of faith in your kind all year long. You cannot check out on me just yet.”

I let my head fall back onto the sticky floor and really thought about what I’d said. It was true. I counted on the existence of these heavenly bodies with about the same level of addiction and enthusiasm as my son’s belief that our freezer is the birthplace of frozen pizzas.

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They will always be there for us.

I wake up to the blinding crack of sunlight most days as our nearest star climbs above the wide stretch of horizon I see out my bedroom window. Ah, Death has not yet pointed a knurled finger at me and dragged me off in the middle of the night. Get out of bed.

Each night I make a point to make a wish on the first star I see in hopes that whatever tiny prayer I offer up might be met with a genie’s “Your wish is my command” kind of an attitude in the forthcoming days. And then I am told by my space-science savvy kid that in fact, the object I have been throwing requests up to is not what I believe it to be.

Apparently, I have been spending years wishing on a planet.

Dammit.

And in truth, half of my country has elected a “star” per se to lead, and run, and oh-my-godfathers represent our nation as it makes four more trips around the sun.

I looked around the room empty of everything except holiday decorations and echoed that one word I’d said just moments ago but this time to a box full of shiny red balls, “Really?” I half expected it to answer me back.

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I started to fine tune my worries as I stared hard into the face of 2017.

What can I count on?

Who will show up to do the work that needs to be done?

What are the odds that we will ever run out of wine or whisky?

Glancing back up at that decoration forced me to pull the lens back a bit and redefine things in a way that annoys the hell out of my children because it’s the only way I think: in metaphors.

This tree is our country. Everything hanging from it are the people who live in it and are trying to find a temporary place to perch. That star … well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

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If there was any one thing that people have routinely criticized me for over the last many decades of my life, it would be that I’m too sanguinely spirited, too rose-colored glasses earnest, too naively hopeful.

Yes, genetically speaking, perhaps my default position on the optimism meter is a bit off the rails—like far enough off the rails to be considered beyond the ditch and somewhere halfway into the farm field full of corn.

But I have a strong belief in the system, in our series of checks and balances, and in some invisible hooded Monty Pythonesque figure called Fate who’s somehow keeping score. These are the things that keep me from joining throngs of others who are now so overwrought with how the year has taken shape they are looking at ways to buy their own island and make a fresh new batch of people.

I get it. This has been a year where most folks have been sleeping on a bed full of pins and needles. We’re asking ourselves some really tough questions. And what’s making it so damn difficult is parsing through the fictitious and fraudulent answers we keep tripping over.

It has been a challenging slog. An effortful climb. Things we’ve counted on as concretely dependable are crumbling, wavering unsteadily.

Things like how we define the truth.

Are we really being advised to get used to a “post fact” society? That this is the era of post-truth politics?

It was Heraclitus who is quoted as saying that “The only thing that is constant is change.”

I can get used to change—hard as it may be. But I don’t want to stretch the line of discomfort to say that I will grow used to immorality, or dishonesty. I still want to live in an evidence-based world. I spend all day long in a fiction-based reality, but I’d like to come home to a fact-filled planet.

I thought we were making progress. I thought we were making improvements. I thought we were making room for one another.

I wrap the white and multi-colored lights all about the branches of this tree and plug them in. Most of them illuminate. Some are blinking fast and furious, flashing dramatically for attention. Others are calmly swelling to their full intensity before dimming down and repeating their pattern of participation. And some have been snuffed out. Their years of service come to a quiet dark end. This is us. We are those lights and baubles, the trimmings and treasures.

I may like some of them more than others, but they all go on the tree. There’s space enough for every one of them. They all made it into my home somehow, destined for that tree—whether I fell in love with them, was gifted them, or took pity on them. There will be room.

I stare back up at the large unlit star. “Hey,” I say to it. “I’m asking … pleading that you show up for work. Everyone else is here and some are even trying to get along. You won that covetous position up there because of your fancy marketing and packaging. My first choice was to go with something rather homespun and a bit rough round the edges. You made a promise from the shelf and, even though I can’t recall ever putting you into my cart, you’re here, and now I’m expecting you to do the great grind.”

Lead.

Head.

Shine.

I turn out all the lights and lie back on the floor. For a brief second or two that big ol’ star flickers.

I am flooded with hope and watch it intently.

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I hear the sound of an ice cube drop into the tray in the freezer.

Or maybe it’s the sound of another frozen pizza being born. A post-truth fact I could easily get used to believing.

As tough as this year has been, I’m not ready to give up faith because, as the great English poet Sarah Williams said, I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Happy New Year to you all. I wish you peace.

~Shelley

ONE LAST CALL: Robin has his annual calendar of curiously clever cartoons for sale and time is running out. If you’re hoping to take a peek a tiny bit farther into his unfathomable brain, then I suggest you head on over and order yours tout de suite! It may be the one bit of comic relief you come to rely upon to get you through 2017!  Robingott.com

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

 

 

 

Publishing; It Takes a Village (and some groveling)

Recently I had to write an acknowledgment page for one of my books.

You know what they are, right? They’re usually found at the back of the opus—the part so many folks gloss right over as the writing is mostly filled with names and one line quips about what these names did to contribute to the publishing process, and how life, the universe, and all of mankind could not have been birthed and evolved into what it is today without these sage and wondrous mortals.

Not terribly interesting for the average Joe—unless, of course, you happen to be one of those sage and wondrous mortals.

But in writing my page of “thanks yous,” I can easily see just how out of hand one of these notes of gratitude can become.

It’s critical that one includes the upper echelon of those who ultimately gave your book bound words a chance to be seen.

For instance, you must absolutely never forget to flatten yourself to the floor with a giant thanks to your editor—el supremo persona, le meilleur, un eroe—whatever language you choose to describe one of the most erudite, patient, resourceful, and good looking people you’ve ever met. Even if you’ve never “met”.

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Without your editor you are toast.

Maybe less than toast.

You’re just one slice of bland bread among dozens stacked in front and behind you and all the way down the shelf from side to side.

Your editor lifts you out of the endless mass and puts a fire beneath your feet—or whatever body part is molded to the anchor that’s producing your fairly vapid, stale, lifeless literary efforts. They then carefully tease out the aromatic notes, the visually enticing imagery, and the tantalizing flavors of your story while expertly identifying the exact dressing you need, applying a perfect layer of topping that will make the meat of you shine.

Yes, one must thank one’s editor profusely, and all your lucky stars if you have a truly divine one. And then eat, because just writing about editors and their skills makes one unreasonably hungry.

Your agent—should you have one of those as well—is also on the list for high-priority praise. They are the sleuth who, when first presented with your writing, siphoned out the thread of ability that wove itself in and out of the tapestry of clunky words you put down on paper. They are the individual who gets a first look glance at your work before bravely putting their name to an email that is then cast widely out into the pool of editors who are fishing for something new the public is hungry to bite on.

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Or they are the one who picks up the tab at a gulp and go lunch where they pitch your work to those same bleary-eyed editors in hopes of convincing them to take on the task of giving up another night’s sleep in favor of reading one hundred thousand of your best and shiniest words.

Don’t forget the copy editors. These folks examine your one hundred thousand words, parse them, and then reconstruct them into more appropriate linguistic elements that will have true value to the reader. They will leave you dumbstruck with awe to realize that there are individuals out there in the world who truly understand all the principles and rudiments of grammar. They should be given many basketfuls of cookies for their efforts and patience.

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The marketing department, the art department, the line editors, the assistant editors, and publicists—where does one begin? Each of them, inundated with so much work and so little recognition, really should have a small shrine erected in their names.

So I have.

I’ve built a large altar in a separate room in my house—a temple where I’ve placed magic stones, a dozen candles, tiny false gods, myriad pagan symbols, and any other sorcerous talisman I can collect for my ritualistic moments of devotion and homage. It is a room filled with smoky incense and funneled in melodramatic and lamenting bagpipe music. It is the best I can come up with to replace what I believe they all probably truly deserve over my feeble prostrations: a cruise.

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I just don’t make enough money to make that happen. Sorry.

But you really should see the altar I’ve set up for you guys. It’s amazing.

And scares the hell out of the cat.

And lastly are the people who truly know you. Like—know you know you. The ones who had to read all those diabolically dreadful first drafts. The folks who see you drinking three-day old coffee and eating mac and cheese that you made for an end of school potluck last month. The family members who have had to learn to wash their own laundry, make their own lunches, write their own college essays, and attend their own parent-teacher conferences because you were “just finishing that last sentence,” or “editing that final paragraph,” or passed out on your keyboard.

Speaking on behalf of many writers, we know who you all are, and are so incredibly surprised to look up and discover that not only are you not in the house where we were certain we last spotted you, but are now living in another, entirely different city from us and have taken all of our pots and pans with you.

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We thank you too. Except for the theft of our housewares.

Lastly, as the orchestra music swells over our words, we thank our fifth-grade teachers, or librarians, or fairy godmothers. It’s that one individual who told us we had promise, we had potential, we had possibility.

It’s that one special person who started this whole domino effect of thanks and recognition: the one who gave us that first nod of acknowledgment.

So to all those sage and wondrous mortals—whether they see you as a product or a parent, family or a friend—the thanks are endless and the gratitude unfathomable.

Now it’s probably time to acknowledge the fact that there is no food in the house and the cat litter seriously needs to be addressed. Life goes on—even after The End.

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~Shelley

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

Don’t Rock the Boat (or Car or Truck)

When asked to make a list of my least favorite things to do, I’d likely answer in this order:

— Walk barefoot across burning coals to prove my physical courage as a warrior and gain the approval of any ancient Native American spirits that still linger on my land, as they occasionally show their displeasure with how I’m running my summer vegetable patch by simply shutting down the water well I depend upon.

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— Go through the ritual of my yearly facial tattoo—again, to please these demanding land spirits, but also because this has proven a very effective way of remembering my New Year’s Eve resolutions and ensuring my efforts toward completion.

— Keep up with the scarification task I’ve placed upon myself, as long ago, I realized this was the most effective way to keep an accurate score for how many crocs I have wrestled into submission while trekking through the tropics of Africa and Asia. People ask for my tally all the time. I don’t know. It’s a Virginian thing I guess.

I would not admit this list out loud to anyone, simply because their jaws would slacken in disbelief that I did not answer as they surely would have.

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Their least favorite thing to do?

GO TO THE DMV.

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That’s right. The Department of Motor Vehicles – or Transit Authority – or Licensing Agency. We all have our country’s version of it.

It doesn’t matter what time of day you come in, there is always a line. A line that rivals a Disney queue back in the pre-measles break out days. Yep. You can now ride the thrills of Space Mountain twice before you can make it to the head of the line that brings you to the information desk clerk—whose job is simply to hand you all your forms and a ticket that now states, “You’re in line.”

But I don’t fear the DMV—I welcome any notice in the mail that states I have to pop back in to title, register, test or renew. But it’s not because I’m a glutton for punishment—as I believe I’ve made abundantly clear with my “least favorite things to do” list—it’s simply because I have an advantage:

My dad used to work there.

Back in Wisconsin growing up, I could cross the threshold of many a DMV location and simply state who I was, and then get stellar service. They recognized the last name.

Now in Virginia, I have to surreptitiously slip it into conversation. It’s challenging, because you can’t just blurt something like that out—the state employees will see you as an entitled gasbag and ignore you. One must use stealth and cunning conversation to bring it around to the big reveal.

I start off with all forms filled in correctly, and clearly—because I think we’ve all had an experience or two where we’ve gone to some government staffed window only to be handed a fresh stack of forms to redo because we did not write in BLOCK CAPITALS, or because we used blue ink instead of black. Or we discovered we had spinach in our teeth from lunch and were deemed unfit for service by whatever Ministry of Mightiness we happened to have offended.

If the individual sitting behind the window I am assigned does not immediately shower me with a, “Good afternoon! And how may I help you on this fine day we’ve been blessed with in the great universe we happily share? And here … have a cookie I baked last night,” I jump in with something to soften their day.

Ooh, gorgeous earrings.

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Or, My goodness, your perfume is heavenly. Or, That is a truly striking tie.

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Something, anything to get some eye contact. If I can manage eye contact, then I can unleash the smile I had melded into my person from years of media training. The kind of training that made you impervious to pinches, the ‘wayward hand,’ snarky put downs, and the surprise ice bucket challenge.

Thereafter, I am usually able to find some object placed around the staffer with which to bring on my shock of delight:

Well! Will you look at that? You folks are still using pens for writing—just like my dad did when he worked at the DMV for thirty years.

Again, subtlety and canniness is crucial for success.

After I gracefully lob a comment like this across the counter that reveals I am not one of the countless, faceless masses they must service today, and it expertly lands in the lap of our staffer, he or she brightens with a smile worthy of a successful laxative commercial. I am golden. I am in.

You say your dad worked at the DMV? For thirty years? Lord Almighty! Hey, Shirley! This here young woman’s dad managed to make it through thirty years at the department. I bet you’ve got the scars to show for it, doncha, honey?

This is where I cleverly turn to speak to the audience behind the camera that follows me everywhere, and that is imperceptible to all living, breathing beings around me, and reveal that I have no idea how many years my dad worked with the department, but with each visit, the number goes up substantially.

Yes, I do, ma’am. Then we laugh and I continue. He certainly saw his fair share of folks who drove him right up the wall. Some of them so demanding, so ungrateful, and certainly the majority ill-prepared. But it was his greatest pleasure to help and serve. I think the DMV must attract that kind of staff.

It’s at this point where she is supposed to turn to me and reach over the counter to motheringly caress my cheek.

But she doesn’t. Instead she peers at me through squinted eyes. I must have taken it a hair too far today.

She smiles tightly, bends over to open a seventy-five pound drawer, and scoops up eight pounds of it. She hands me a stack of forms.

Fill these out CORRECTLY.

I head back to my chair, but then make a quick detour to the lady’s room. I’m going to be here a while. I gaze at my reflection in the mirror. What went wrong? I ask myself. It’s then that I notice two things:

I’ve got spinach in my teeth.

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And I forgot to put my latest facial tattoo of “I love the DMV” all in block capitals.

~Shelley

*BONUS CARTOON FOR THIS WEEK’S POST!* (click)

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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I’ve Learned My Lesson

The other day I mentally took inventory of the most important people in my life. Strangely enough, Ben & Jerry did not quite make the short list. They were close, but had to be cut in order to make room for all the Glens and Bens in my whisky cabinet.

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Some of these folks would be surprised to know that they’re on my list—like Leonard, the weary technician who repeatedly shows up at the door to fix my defunct internet service.

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Or Jimmy, the eighty eight-year old Baptist preacher who sits on a bench outside my tiny, local gas station, intent upon connecting with his flock or passing strays with nothing more than a broad, toothless grin and an embracing hello. And then there’s the sourpuss-faced librarian who I greet two or three times a week. I am determined to see her smile at least once before I die, and I’m guessing the only way that will happen is if I purchase her a pair of shoes that are two sizes larger than the ones she’s currently wearing.

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The interesting thing I discovered while thumbing through the short list was that nearly everyone on it was a teacher.

The teachers I have had could be divided even further into subcategories: the good, the bad, and the under investigation. It has been said that kids cannot learn from teachers they don’t like—that one would realize a far better outcome for a student if they highlighted the three correctly answered quiz questions out of twenty rather than stapling a fast food restaurant application to the top page.

If I were to take a hard, calculating look around and behind me, from the present moment back to my first flash of sentient thought, I bet I could easily say that I have spent most of my life swimming in a pool of teachers. In fact, I believe we could all say that, because we have lessons to learn from every person we interact with—if you look deeply enough.

The lessons are constant and subtle, or intermittently gargantuan, but they are present whether we recognize them or not, and ride in on the coattails of folks we might never have considered to be those in charge of our lives’ direction.

For instance:

My yoga teacher, whose classes I’ve attended twice a week for the last decade, has become my personal Jiminy Cricket—her voice, a constant presence of gentle encouragement and sage advice. Because of her, I listen to the obvious: what my body can and cannot do, what my body should and should not do, and also the blatant reminder that yoga is not a competitive sport.

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One Hollywood music producer brought into sharp focus two things I would never forget: 1) I am quite agile at dashing around furniture in order to stay away from groping hands, and 2) a well-placed kick can do wonders for sending the message Back off, Buddy, but sucks for career advancement.

The small bewhiskered feline I have been placed in charge of enlightens me daily with the knowledge that sitting still does not necessarily equate with being still, and that the magic of sensory perception will blossom if you practice distilling life down to the minute and overlooked. She has also illuminated the fact that my reflexes suck, and that unless I am approaching her with food, I had best do a one eighty and rethink the value of ungrazed flesh.

I have had music instructors who have encouraged me, following a performance, with their assessment that I played all of the notes and some even in the right places, and others who have sat back laughing, and then after wiping away the tears in their eyes said, “Okay, play it for real now.”

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I have had teachers who unintentionally cut me to the quick with nothing more than their desire to help. Like the time I received a graded English assignment, still wet with its shellacking of red ink, and a note at the top that said, SEE ME, which I interpreted to be a disapproving nod toward my undeserved confidence with the previous day’s lesson. Consequently, I slunk into the background and never really internalized the rule of It’s I before E except after C

I have even learned some of life’s greatest lessons from the string attached to my tea bags, where dangling from the end is a tiny truism worth remembering:

Experience is a comb which nature gives us when we are bald.

You cannot get to the top by sitting on your bottom. 

And lastly,

The problem with the gene pool is there’s no lifeguard.

We’re all in need of instruction. And finding a good coach to guide you through life is a gift we may not recognize we possessed until after we’ve had our ‘aha’ moment.

Our teachers are there to build up our skills, to broaden our mindset, and to prepare us for the future as it unfolds before us. On the flipside, the old definition is also true: a teacher is simply a person who helps you solve problems you’d never have without them.

But for now, I shall leave you with my favorite life lesson from my pilot instructor of long ago. He quoted Douglas Adams, and said the words applied to nearly everything: Flying is learning how to throw yourself to the ground—and miss.

Now edge on out there to the end of the branch, safe with a parachute holding all your life’s lessons, and leap.

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~Shelley

 

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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Humble Heroes

There is a guy I know—and I’ve known him for an awfully long time—who has managed to squish a plethora of memories into an area of my brain that surely should hold less than a plethora.

I am assured by doctors that this overabundance—due to the nature of said memories—is not taxing me to the point where they would create health concerns and elevate the need for antidepressants, blood pressure meds, or an overwhelming amount of double fudge ice cream.

In fact, they have advised I use these memories in place of other treatments in order to stabilize, recalibrate, and maintain a healthy weight.

So, in times of particularly high stress, like my weekly trips to the gas pump, instead of feeling the anxiety-ridden squeeze of my pocketbook as I press the gas hose handle, I play the game I used to play with this man on a Saturday morning getting fuel after my piano lessons. The bet was this: if he could stop the hose dead on ten bucks, I owed him a candy bar. Anything above or below was my win, and I got the goods. There was no slowing down, no easing off the pump, just full fledge pressure and then—WHAM!—let go.

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I always won.

The game might have been worked in my favor so the other player could avoid seeing the welling of my tears.

So now, I do that same game with myself. Squeeze, wham, note the fact that I rarely nail ten bucks, and then carry on to somewhere around sixty. Then I pay the fee and glance toward the candy bars and wave hello. I can’t afford a candy bar these days after paying for gas. And no one there is particularly concerned with the welling of my tears.

Next up? How bout the countless times I find myself in a situation where I struggle to hold my tongue, hold my words and hold my breath from releasing negativity? Displeasure directed toward my kids. Impatience aimed toward the traffic. Or outrage at my finances.

At these moments I conjure up the recollection of this man who would toss four kids, a hound, and a woman desperately in need of a break into different compartments of a station wagon and release us all onto the sharply pine-scented shores of a Wisconsin lake no one else seemed to have discovered yet.

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You were allowed to grab hold of his shoulders with the quick warning of, “Let go when you must,” just before he would immerse himself beneath the water and swim with you on his back. Deeper and deeper he would plunge, until you felt your little ears pop. And when you could hold on no longer, you’d panic, bob to the surface, gasping for breath–your underwater dolphin game over. But he … would not appear. For what seemed like hours.

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You would scan the waters, heart pounding. Waiting. And worrying.

And then he would materialize, quietly, smoothly—in the middle of the lake.

I will practice holding things in with grace. And exercise a tranquil reentry.

There are myriad memories of walking into a room and finding this man with an open-faced book resting in his palms. It was his default position. I would need something. An answer, permission, a sip of his drink, but mostly just attention, and it would not be denied. My urgency was met with a raise of the eyebrow, a slipping in of a bookmark, but most importantly, nearly always with a smile.

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As a writer I have learned the wisest way to pen a tale is to steep yourself in other’s stories. My love for reading was one of example, fueled by someone else’s insatiable hunger for words. My love for my children is one of experience. The feeling of not being brushed off, ignored, or set aside because of inconvenience is an impressionable one, and one that has me swivel in my chair to greet whomever has called my name.

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These memories are the stuff of childhood, and yet they persist. Their tangible qualities are still felt, still practiced, and still admired. I have no idea what it’s like to be this man, but I have a million memories of what it’s like to be fathered by him.

Happy Day to you, Dad. Thank you for making so many of my days … Happy.

~Shelley

 

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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Gridiron Chef; we shopped, we chopped, we smoked, we seared.

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Somehow … my brother met an incredibly bright woman.

Somehow … my brother realized she was Tier One Talent and that he had happened upon a gold mine.

Somehow … my sister-in-law answered yes to his proposal of marriage.

I believe she may have been clubbed over the head, dragged back to his cave and denied food and water until she agreed, but that’s just a theory. (And for proof as to why I developed this hypothesis, last week’s post gives a rough outline that might illuminate.)

Regardless, this lovely woman gave her husband a plane ticket for his birthday, sending him off to mess up other people’s kitchens for a long weekend. I owned kitchen number one, but before we could put any floured fingerprints on my counter tops, we first needed staples. Therefore, we went to the place where both my children’s college funds have been spent.

Whole Foods Market.

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Shopping with a chef is a heady experience. Shopping with a chef is an expensive experience. Shopping with a chef and no precise grocery list is a mistake.

My initial idea of arriving at the store for a “spontaneous” menu creation was born after a few weeks of seeing my email inbox overflow with my brother’s dazzling bill of fare ideas and the suggestion that I begin hunting down local food purveyors who could source out needs.

Huhu (800x640)Panic set in when I realized I was going to have to make some long term promises and exchange money under the table. We were probably better off not knowing who could locate Huhu grubs, boiled duck embryo and sheep back fat. Okay, I could locate sheep back fat, but it was still very much in use by its current owners, so I had to put the brakes on. Whatever was in the bins and behind the shiny glass cases at the grocery store would source our needs.Backfat (800x412)

While in the shop, a common occurrence was turning my back for thirty seconds and then pivoting to see my brother surrounded by people—both shoppers and stockers—who were wholly absorbed by whatever my brother held in his hand and the sagacious, culinary-infused words that came from his mouth. Within moments, folks were raising their hands to share a personal story—both ebullient and tear-jerking—of some meal that moved them. My sibling is a Pied Piper of the gastronomic world.

The plan was to purchase ingredients for two evening dinners. The cart held enough for two evening dinners and all the essentials needed for making our way through The Joy of Cooking twice. (Our chef is used to things coming into his kitchen by the forklift load.)Shop (800x568)

Once back at the ranch, it’s all business. Aprons donned, knives honed, hands scrubbed, patient prepped. (And by patient, I mean “deceased bovine.”)

We made steak fajitas. Except these didn’t taste remotely close to my original version—the one I’ve perfected over years and years of practice. Mine were no longer perfect. But the fact that I took mental notes and then called my brother because my mental notes had massive gaps in them means my steak fajitas will now be perfect again. That is, until he comes back to visit.

We pummeled avocados, chopped onions, diced tomatoes, gutted peppers, shaved cheese, seared skirt steak, shredded greens and peeled garlic. Bushels of garlic. There is no vampiric activity within miles of the house. In fact, we can’t even get Twilight to play on TV.

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But here’s the big chef secret free giveaway: VANILLA.

Yep, you read it right. The stuff we put in ice cream and cookies. The chef says to take about 1 ½ — 2 lbs of skirt steak and marinate it in the juice of four freshly squeezed limes (toss the lime halves in as well), 1/2 cup of olive oil, an entire head of garlic (don’t worry about chopping, just peel and smash each clove with the back of a knife), salt, pepper, oregano, and 1/4 cup of high-quality vanilla. Let it burble away for an hour on the counter or for the day in the fridge. Grill it. Slice it. Eat it. Beg for more.

The other big meal was an experiment that came to us on the fly. We were going to smoke short ribs, but decided to use a slightly unconventional wood. In fact, it wasn’t wood at all. It was PEAT. My favorite flavor in the world.

DSC09747 (800x450)Last summer, I got myself a birthday present. Two forty pound bags of peat. They arrived in two canvas sacks, housed within a large cardboard box and handed over by one irate UPS guy. “You shipped eighty pounds of dirt to yourself?” he asked me, rubbing his back.

“Yes. But it’s really old dirt,” I explained.

Then at Christmas, I received another eighty pounds of it. I didn’t order it. No one in my family ordered it. And I know the UPS guy didn’t order it. It was a mistake from the company. Thank you, Irishpeat.com. Sorry, UPS guy.

So we smoked these beautiful grass fed short ribs for about three hours and then made a one pot meal by layering the ribs on the bottom, covering them with mirepoix, beer, beef broth and eventually adding potatoes and greens to finish. Click here for the full recipe.DSC09761 (800x540)

Lest it need to be spelled out, the grub was good. Damn good. What phrase is more potent than damn good that I can use to explain the awesome quality without offending sensitive ears? You’re right. There is none available.

But to sum it all up, we acquired, we cooked, we conquered. The kitchen, although scarred, is grateful to have been included.

Thanks, Bro.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott’s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

Sibling revelry

My brother is a liar.

Not only that, he’s a cheat, he steals things and he smells like he’s been wrestling inside a giant vat of rotting fish.Liar (800x653)

Okay, maybe I should have put all of that in the past tense or surrounded it with quotes and introduced it with, I announced to my mom when we were nine and ten. But then that takes all the fun out of knowing his face will go beet-red when he reads this. And I’d almost give my left lung to be there when it happens because that opening paragraph is a form of payback for popping all my Barbie dolls’ heads off, supergluing them together and then using them as a makeshift whiffle ball for batting practice. Barbie (800x597)I might have misremembered some of those exact facts, but the end result was basically the same: I was miserable.

Except when I wasn’t.

And that “non-miserable” status was actually a much more frequent state of mind.

My brother was my roommate, my playmate, and a very convincing Frederick the Great whenever we played war, which happened repeatedly. We agreed to rotate the games we played: we could build stuff with sticks in the woods, sword fight with sticks in a field, or pile up sticks and attempt to light them on fire.

The alternative was that I could get chased with a stick if I didn’t agree to one of the prior games.salkville,shell&steve001 (622x639)

It was a rare day when we got to play house, but when we did, it was Little House on the Prairie where I got to be Ma and watch him play Pa. He built us a “log cabin,” fought off warring Native Americans who wanted to run us off our homestead, and started a smoldering fire on which I could cook him his grub. Still sticks, no matter how you look at it.

There was one thing we heartily agreed upon though, and that was food. Everything we did was centered around getting, sneaking, stealing, making, hunting, fishing or feasting on grub.

on ya bike...

on ya bike… (Photo credit: deer_je)

If we wanted to get up early to bike through the woods to arrive in time for sunrise on the lake, we first had to fill plastic bags with cereal, grab two spoons and strap a thermos of milk to the handle bars. We’d make a quick stop to pick blueberries en route, then it was breakfast on the pier.

If we hoped to act like all the folks with big RVs and fancy tents who arrived at the local campground down the street and who got to eat Toni’s pizza, drink orange Fanta and play pinball while listening to the jukebox, we first needed to put our allowance savings plan into action. If we couldn’t scrounge up enough quarters to cobble together the price of the entire event, we’d settle for just the pizza. We had to have that pizza.

How stealthily could we sneak a fistful of pre-breakfast Oreos out of the booby-trapped cookie jar on a Saturday morning? How many weeds would we have to pull in our ancient neighbor’s vegetable patch before she’d call us in for sizzling fresh perch, drowning in home-churned butter and yanked out of the lake not an hour before?

Angry squirrel

Angry squirrel (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

How many blueberries could we stuff down our gullets while slyly creeping through the woods, hoping to ambush preoccupied squirrels, engrossed in nut gathering? How many wintergreen leaves did we scarf down, pretending it was candy? How many winter snowfalls had us tearing open a package of Kool-Aid or Jello in order to open our own professional snow cone stand with us as our only customers?

Things haven’t changed greatly, although supposedly he’s a grown up. He pays most of his taxes. He drives a truck now instead of a bike. His three beautiful daughters cling to him like ring-tailed lemurs on a mighty oak, so I’m gathering either he’s learned how a bar of soap works or his children have no sense of smell.Chef (551x800)

He has an actual job that pays more than his childhood allowance. And as sad as he was to give up playing Charles Ingles, he refused to give up centering life around food. Somehow, he learned to read and write while I wasn’t looking. And apparently muscled his way through the Culinary Institute of America.

They call him “Chef.”

I call him lucky.

Yeah, maybe he no longer lies, cheats, steals or smells, but he still plays with sticks. He’s just swapped out those long, woody weapons for shorter, sharper blades.

Still sticks, no matter how you look at it.

~ShelleyBarrels (800x630)

*Next week, we’ll go shopping with our chef since he came out for a visit. And once we put the groceries away, chef and I did some sword fighting in the kitchen. Come back to see who wins.

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott’s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.