Butternut Squashed

Butternut squash looks so innocent sitting in a bin with a bunch of other squash of varying sizes, odd shapes and dull colors.  I had made the recipe before so picking the ingredient to the au gratin was not a big deal.  I just grabbed a medium sized victim and brought it hope for the festivities.

I don’t know why I volunteered to bring a dish to a get-together with my in-laws.   In contrast to my husband’s side, my family uses assigns the dish you are to bring and that’s that, or, in cases of lack of communication, we each bring the same thing.  In any case, the expectation is you bring food with you if you are going to eat.  My family’s predominantly female membership means complaints and honest expressions are commonplace.  You  understand each other well enough to know who is sick of cooking, who hates clean-up, and the psychological roots that each have over a particular dish that flopped.  We all attempt to cook and laugh when we have a disaster.  My mother was just glad we never burned done her kitchen while she as work when we were kids.  We are not gourmets just experimenters – or we buy it.  Simple.

With my in-laws, however, the activity around food is a bit more complex.   With a mother that cooked all of their meals for years, enjoyed the accolades, and reigns as judge of others attempts at perfection,  cooking was not a sport for the weak.   As my mother-in-law aged and became very ill, the trading off of family functions moved to those with the largest homes.  Translated, this means my husband and I host nothing.   My sister-in-law, bless her heart, has hosted for years and is not a big foodie.  Her meals are simple and elegant.  My other sister-in-law typically creates the family favorites and caters to the nieces, nephews, or family from out-of-town.  Both are wonderful  venues.  Both execute at a high level.

For me, however, I find the lack of dissension strange.  I do not hear complaints, yet knowing woman the way I do, I know they must – maybe not to me but I would bet to each other if not to a good friend.  I am never asked to bring anything.  It is as if no one wants to impose for fear of putting something unsaid out of balance.  What I end up with is  guilt for not bringing anything or guilt that I brought something no one cares for and should have been left at home.  Never understanding how to get it right without offending,  wine has become the default.  The problem, however, lies with my sense of free-loading since, again, in my family you bring a dish to pass as a matter of good manners like doing the dishes together.  Even with dirty dishes,  my in-laws either tell you not to worry about clean up or one sister does it all saying she is fine handling everything.  So this time, I set my mind on bringing food and helping with dishes.  Lord help me if I under cook or break something.

With the squash before me, I began my days wrestling match.  Something I seemingly forgot  from the last time I made the recipe in the fall was the tricky part of the removal of the skin.  Either that, or autumn  squash is more tender than the aged sprig squash I was about to tackle.  In any event, I carried forth with my self-imposed mission.  As the potato peeler moved across the pear-shaped surface, only little bits and pieces were removed.  I applied more pressure but the cuts were deeper and the creation of deep ridges where the peel broke off made it more difficult for the peeler to sweep across the surface.

Slowly, I managed to clear the skin and was ready to cut the squash into pieces.  The chef’s knife only managed to cut half way even with  leaning on the knife with my entire body weight which, believe me, should have been quite enough.  After multiple attempts and rocking the knife as much I could, the vegetable finally broke  in two.  One band-aid later the pieces were in the pan and I was ready to add the heavy cream, shallots, and cups of grated Gruyère.  Victorious, I threw it in the oven a day before the event knowing a quick warm up tomorrow will be quick and easy.

Dinner was an hour or two after arrival as the barbecued salmon,  ham, potatoes, and rolls were all assembled.  My bright orange, semi-warmed, enormous casserole dish sat hopelessly in middle for all to try and comment.  The entire meal was wonderful, the centerpiece being  the salmon’s simple perfection with its sweet glaze and crispy ends.   My dish was received with smiles and the dutiful,  “oh, you’ll have to give me the recipe” .  Although one non-relative foodie invitee pointed out my flaws in an off the cuff comment later,  family members I did not expect to even try the dish were good sports.   In my own family, I would have gotten mixed reviews,  a few teasing jabs from the men, and a few holdouts.   Somehow that would have been easier to take but I understand different dynamics make each family successful in their own wonderful way.

I inserted myself in the kitchen and cleaned what I could before being chased off.  Contributing just a little to the meal was my main goal.  It was wonderful to try to give something back but the gesture that I thought I could just sneak in had become an uncomfortable special event that maybe I should have kept at home.  Next time, I concluded, definitely wine.

In my own family,  I have been assigned my sister’s favorite sweet potato recipe for today’s fest. The recipe is quick, easy, and full of sugar.   No overwhelming ingredients, no band-aids.   If it doesn’t turn out, my sisters will tell me or fight for leftovers when we do the dishes.  Doesn’t matter to me.  Whatever works.  We all love in variety of ways.

School Spirit At a Cost

I was on my way back to college.  My cool, oldest sister helped me pack up the car and drove me to campus where we instantly found ourselves at orientation rallies and wondering residential halls.  I sadly noticed the environment had changed.  One dormitory added an entire section on the bottom floor for school apparel, floor to ceiling, replacing dorm rooms to profit on swag sales.  The men were much older but still handsome which was odd but good.  The campus was vibrant yet I felt reluctant to move in for the year, especially since I was a senior having to room with a freshmen.  Then I remembered I had already been a senior.   I had already gone through commencement.  Really, what was I doing here since I had already graduated?

Strange dream but considering college basketball has invaded my world in the form of March Madness, I could rationalize a connection.  Bright lights, underclassmen, handsome older men watching the game – I get it.  Lying in bed, I thought about how different college is for students today.  I can cheer for a school’s team but the issue of student debt plays out regularly on the daily news.  I must have been in too many conversations with peers and siblings regarding the issue and, like a rogue radio wave, my subconscious drifted back to school.  Or, maybe, the romanticism of college life has disappeared.   I just don’t know how people manage paying for college these days.  The financial expense is astronomical which puts pressure on students to major in something that has an immediate positive return on their family’s investment.   I always accepted that higher education operated as a business but the machine of universities with their teams, apparel, branding, and high tuition has gone into over drive.

Take the selection of degrees.  Five years ago my own school had asked for my participation on my educational experience in the Liberal Arts.  They asked why I chose my concentration, how it applied to my career, and what advice I would give to encourage students in the same discipline.  Studying anything but business was a dying passion particularly for parents footing the bill.  Evidently, surveys indicated parents did not want to pay tuition for anything other than that which would make their child successfully employable upon graduation.  Not that having your kid successfully employable ever wasn’t a consideration by parents but employment and money is much more limited today.  The loans taken out need to be paid back and having a theater student out of work after college isn’t exactly a path for economic success.

I think about that now as I look around at the business world I am in.  If I had dime for every unhappy accountant or frustrated finance manager I have met, I would be rich (or even richer if I invested at a high interest bearing account or in the recent stock market rally).  I once heard a presentation on public radio from a psychiatrist discussing people’s source of unhappiness.  He stated those that worked with money were most unhappy because they never felt an achievement to the end of their pursuits.  Working with money never ended but cycled.  One was never finished.  Those words have always stayed with me and I see their truth.

I understand the motivations for educational institutions to be profitable and I understand students and parents wanting a degree worth the money they spent.  Pressures are on both sides to cater to the young adult’s helicopter parents’ satisfaction as well as attracting enough students at high costs.  I wonder if the point of broad educational experience is being lost.   Some individuals are better at constructing a story than examining a balance sheet.  Social scientists, historians, and poets should never be replaced by financial analysts who have a steady income.   They couldn’t, truly, because not all minds are wired to be business people.  And thank goodness because we need both and not every profession measures success by a bank account.

It is no secret that a Liberal Arts degree is considered less of a need when the payoff is unclear.  Universities attempt to supply to the need of their consumer but I have a difficulty comprehending why tuition is the same regardless of studies.  Maybe they fear cheapening their school brand would diminish their prestige or attract less qualified professors.  Another model for profit, however, needs to be presented if effective education is needed for our populace.  If business majors are in demand, raise their tuition and limit their enrollment or don’t limit the enrollment at a high price.  Give the Liberal Art student a lower tuition based on performance.  If they are doing well, discount their tuition.  If they are a history major and not doing well, charge them the business school rates.  My guess is that the studies will be taken more seriously; the liberal arts programs will be more popular because they are more affordable, and students who cannot justify the rise in tuition will reexamine their soul’s intention.  The university would be forced to keep the programs competitive and what professor wouldn’t want to have an energized classroom?

It might be difficult to image but perhaps if we have more historians, our society will be better at understanding what motivates societies to react as they do and possibly prevent war.  And really, most liberal arts majors end up going back for more education or graduate degrees which Universities benefit from in the long run.  Careers are not handed out but have to be developed.  Teachers, for example, can have wage increases if they get a master’s in education.  Others return to get their teaching degree since they have become experts in their chosen field of study.  Even if a person r returns to school for business classes, they have a chance of being more well-rounded and open-minded to cultures, new ideas, and different approaches to ethical issues.   Education is life-long but the debt shouldn’t be.

I was relieved when I remembered in my dream that I had already graduated.  For the kids today, I wonder if their dreams of college in their later years will be about getting a bill they could not pay or guilt about having to pay for another class they hated.  Rah, rah, sis, boom, bahhhhh.

A Knead for Clarity

The morning birds sang boldly all week and the earlier sunrise made everything seem warmer even though the temperatures remained at arctic levels .  Animal tracks appeared near the backyard tree and were scattered  in the snow banks bordering the driveway.  Spring had stretched her arms and began her rise from a long nap.  Humans,  however, had not yet shaken their frigid winter blues.  This week they carried nothing but bad news my way.  From my former colleagues’  concerns over their  jobs being outsourced to India,  to news of an old college roommate’s husband taking his own life, and to being told confidentially that my own company had created a large severance account,  the week brought a series of facts I would have rather not have known.   I gravitated to popping my vitamin D, listening to the birds, squinting happily at the sun, and throwing my spare energies into cooking.  For obvious reasons, the challenge of making something to satisfy the soul seemed like a great distraction.

In my sunny kitchen, bread making was on the agenda.  What better smell than bread wafting through the house.   I knew I was in trouble when  the flour spun far too long around the mixer hook without clumping together.  More water was added.  A little more water was added.  More spinning then finally the clump reluctantly came together.  My mixer began to fight the dough, faltering, moaning, and spinning  with a groan.  I couldn’t be certain if it was my machine smoking or a haze of flour now covering everything in a two foot radius but something was not working well.   The bowl rocked back and forth, spinning off the base and jamming my thumb as my desperate attempt to keep the disaster under control backfired.  I resorted to kneading by hand, splitting the dough in two, kneading again, trying the machine intermittently, catching the bowl again, jamming my thumb again. That elastic, soft dough I had imagined never materialized.  I plopped the two mangled globs into a greased bowl and waited.  I weighed the disadvantages of continuing.  I just wasn’t ready to throw in the towel even though the towel seemed to be the only safe witness to the morning’s fiasco.

Time to tune out.   I flipped on the TV.  Incredibly,  public television was airing a special on French pastries.  I watched as they filmed a French baker making loaf upon loaf of their renown baguette.  The camera examined the ever so soft dough rising.  They filmed its gooey elastic consistency as the baker gently rolled the dough on to wood pallets placing them into the oldest oven in France.  Before moving into their examination of the croissant, the program cut to people biting into the most perfect French bread with its crunchy exterior  and soft aerated center.   Really?  They couldn’t be showing something about polar bears or something about antiques.  No, French bread.  Just French bread.

My  own bread rose a bit, enough to pound it down a millimeter.  Any “nice bubbles” appearing in the dough were non-existent.  I used my precious stash of heavy duty plastic storage bags and placed the dough in the refrigerator.

Perfect end to the week.  The universe shouted at me to pay attention to something  I did not feel like listening to.  Yes, bread can be difficult to make.  Like life, it is supposed to look easy.  You see the end product.  You know what perfection and success is measured by.  You do the best you can, sometimes you fail,  you practice until you accomplish the wondrous goal, or you go crazy trying.  The trick is keep perspective.   I mean, you are only going to smear something on it or use it to sop up something runny anyway.  Take it easy on yourself and make the best of what comes your way.

Tomorrow I will roll out the dough and enjoy whatever it can offer me.  I hope I have enough butter or jam.  If not, I know the birds will love it.

Water Over the Bridge

The rain water had collected at the bottom of the Interstate highway ramp.  Ahead,  the ramp rose to a steep incline and I could see the large, green sign indicating the connector to Van Wert, Ohio.  I pushed down on the car’s accelerator and found myself on the other end of the water, rising with the road.  To my left near the guard rail one thin, grey haired man looked distraught while another  faceless individual berated him. “You should not do this,” was the lectures as the faceless person broke red dishes over the guard rail.

I awoke from my dream and lectured myself.  Why would I drive though a flooded road?  My car could stall.  I should know better.  Why would I have done so in my dream?  Yet, in my dream, I made it.  Bladder bursting, I stumbled out of bed thoughts still racing.

I found myself in nice a new house with a beautiful interior.  Walking in, the windows on the back of the house looked over a pool.  Many people were in the pool, splashing, partying.   I walked to the back to meet everyone.   No bladder issue there.  The dead of winter was getting to me, I surmised, and fell back into a deep sleep.

The fact that I was dreaming of water, however, brought back a theme of past dreams.  Years ago, I had dreamt repeatedly of a  great wave.  The timing of the dreams preceded the destructive tsunamis so they could not have been attributed to world events I had been following.  The dreams were just simply of  a great wave that stopped just before the reaching  my front door.  The enormous wave  was never near enough to harm me yet, through my window, I could see the water’s edge at my front lawn.   In my conscious existence, my job at the time was in jeopardy – again.  My industry was on a slow spiral and the local economy seemed unpredictable.   I worried about my company moving half way around the world, of being unemployed, of the future.  The dreams vex me while seemed to be telling me that something was coming but I would be safe.  Months went by and I found myself safely employed at a different firm while others I knew were out of work.  The dreams of the wave not return.

These recent water dreams  made me wonder.  The water seemed to return in a different form.    Another job scare was beginning for everyone in my company.  Days after my dream, I came across the word “severance” carelessly scrawled in, of all things,  red ink across the back of my boss’s notes I was given to copy.  Could my dreams once again be telling me something?  Perhaps forging ahead.  Take the high road.  Perhaps don’t think about the issue in front of me.  All of it seems unavoidable much like the water over the road when I really need to get somewhere.

Maybe a more deeper, more mysterious, issue lingers in my dream world.  I don’t even live in Ohio.  Maybe I just need a vacation, or a summer vacation house with a pool.  In Van Wert.

Life’s Dish

Sitting in the hairdresser’s chair may not have been the first place to decide to blog but it pretty much defined the need.  The discussion eventually drifted from the length of my hair to reality verses aspirations.  Confessing that I really don’t spend a great deal of time on my hair, that I was a rather messy person, that I admittedly day dreamed had lead my hair dresser into pointing out that creativity comes from messy people.  Further psychoanalysis, as well as the need to dry my hair front to back, pinpointed that my life’s choices had been mixed together.  She speculated that they were defining my soul’s need. That the culmination of a person’s dreams point to a need to be somehow satisfied.  I speculated aloud that dreams, or ingredients, made up a big dish of mish mash – or, as I put it, a Dream Casserole.  The name sparked a laugh from my hair dresser and it stuck.

So, how can a meassy day dreaming individual move past dreaming into action?  Does a person need to dream big in order to be self actualized or does dreaming simply help with coping?   Even more mystifying, what are other people’s dreams and how does it impact their daily lives?

Day dreaming must be a way of coping with dull realities, of being in a place that  deserves to be ignored to focus on more pressing ideas, places, situations.  It is the mind waking up in its own territory to define thoughts.  And day dreams are just during the day.  Stranger still are the dreams at night.  Such as my previous night’s dream of Bob Eubanks and three women dressed in canary yellow contemplating how to get the gold thread to weave through their TV costumes for the next show.  Not certain dreams ultimately help put together life’s direction but maybe something is being said.  Perhaps limiting games shows was my mind’s advice? Not certain.  

Interpreting dreams can be nutty business.  Life can drive everyone into odd directions.  But maybe hopes and aspirations manifested in dreams are all just part of who we are and what we need to examine.  Perhaps a casserole isn’t exactly the best term to describe our dreams but perhaps it will describe our need for a good serving of our own imaginings.