The Worst Day of Your Life

The Worst Day of Your Life might not start out that way. Maybe it is a Thursday, you get up early to get the kids ready for school and make yourself a perfect 3-minute fresh egg from the farm in town. You take the kids to the dentist, where they get the dental seal of approval, and then to school. Then you go go your favorite coffee shop and get a perfect latte. And as you are paying for your latte, your phone rings, and that’s when it takes a turn.

It’s the nurse at your oncologist’s office, they have your results from yesterday’s CT scan and would like to see you that day, as soon as possible. That’s bad news. You call your husband, who is out of town that day, and clear your schedule so that you can go, with your stoic Asian mother, to the oncologist’s office.

The radiation oncologist greets you with a grim face and red eyes. She tells you that the CT showed tumors in your brain, as well as swelling, and apparently the swelling is threatening, well, everything. There is a neurosurgeon waiting for you in his office, he has OR time on Monday and thinks he can fit you in. You medical oncologist tells you that he is “shocked and horrified” that the cancer has proven itself to be so devious as to figure out how to take up residence in your brain, protected by the blood-brain barrier from the drugs that seem to have beaten back cancer in the rest of your body.

Leaving your mom at home to wait for the kids to come home from school, your friend Rachel drives you to see the neurosurgeon because you need someone to go with you and also because you are now not allowed to drive. The neurosurgeon is a compassionate, competent, unaccountably humble superhero with magic hands. He patiently shows you your scans, a series of cross sections of your brain, highlighting the blobs of concern. He explains the procedure and you try to follow along, lightly grasping the sequence of cutting, removing, draining as outlined. What you do grasp: you must do something and soon. There is no time for careful consideration or second opinions or phoning a friend. You sign the consent form on the spot.

Then off you go to the MRI, the scan that will reveal in greater detail what is happening in your brain. You lie in a noisy machine knocking and rattling around you, head in a cage with padding to keep everything still for 45 minutes. This is a lot of time to absorb the shock of the past 3 hours, and you wonder whether your crying and shaking will interfere with the scan.

Next back to the neurology floor, where you are admitted to a hospital bed, and you have to send your friend home for your toothbrush because when you woke up this morning you thought the day would end at home in your own bed. And that was the worst day of your life. So far.

But if that was the worst day, then the next day might be a little better. You get a bit of sleep in hospital, you meet with the doctors you need to meet with and encounter no obstacles for surgery. The MRI shows no new bad news, and in your new reality that passes for good news.  Your husband, the light of your life, arrives and holds you close. A few close friends drop by. They cry, you cry, you all laugh. You have an amazing talk with your rabbi, and if you’re one of those skeptics who doesn’t know what the point of organized religion is, THIS IS THE POINT. Friends call from far away offering warmth and wisdom. You feel loved. You feel validated. Your life, ever more fragile, still has meaning.

And at the end of the day, your husband brings your children to visit you. They are quiet and frightened but also relieved to see that you look like yourself, and eager to snuggle up with you on the tiny hospital bed while your husband reads a chapter from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. You know that you have everything that you need.

*****************

So that’s where I am at. Having finished all the pre-operative preparations on Friday, I got to go home for the weekend, and now I’m back in the hospital bed ready for surgery tomorrow. I’m in good hands – literally, this surgeon is fantastic – surrounded by supportive family and friends. This is a very unexpected turn of events, but I am facing it head on. As always, I welcome your prayers and messages of support. I may not be able to answer them, but they do shore up my strength.

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Good-bye Summer

We’ve had a second summer here in southern Ontario in September. It was over 30 degrees Celsius (close to 90F) during the day for about a week now, which is actually hotter and more humid than it has been for most of the summer. This has the effect of stretching out the summer, especially since we can still get good corn at the market. And it causes me to look back on the recipes I’ve discovered this summer.

I had the chance to make a lovely summer lunch with two dear friends who are both fans of Yotem Ottolenghi’s wonderful, excessively complicated recipes. We ate outside and enjoyed cod with spicy tomato sauce, which I made a few times this summer, despite it being more involved than my usual fish dinner. We had it with basmati and wild rice with chickpeas, currants, and herbs and an Ethiopian lentil stew. The fish and rice recipes are from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook, which has enough great recipes to make it worth buying. In truth, though, I rarely make one of his recipes without skipping a step or leaving out an ingredient. In the case of the rice, it was the fried onions. It was still delicious.

Another staple worth mentioning is Sarah Britton’s Best Lentil Salad Ever. Might as well just have this in the fridge at all times. It can be lunch, dinner, picnic, potluck, and is made from pantry staples. I like to dress mine up with fresh greens like mizuna.

Another recent discovery is Melissa Clark’s fusili with lemon, capers, and roasted cauliflower from her new cookbook Dinner: Changing the Game. It comes together fast and is a great mix of flavors. You can add chickpeas or cannellini beans to make it a little heartier. The cookbook is worth a look, too, because Clark is a brilliant recipe writer who keeps things simple and streamlined but the flavors come out interesting.

Another Melissa Clark standout is her broccoli salad recipe. Okay, I haven’t made this recipe as written, but I’ve used it as an inspiration to make a raw broccoli salad, letting the broccoli “cook” in the dressing over a couple of hours. I made it with olive oil, lemon, and garlic because I was traveling and that was what I had on hand in our beach condo and then in the little apartment that we rented in Paris for a week. It proved to be just the right thing to come home to after a long day of sightseeing when you only have the energy for a very simple supper. This will keep for a day or two because the broccoli won’t wilt like salad greens will. One of these days I will get around to making Melissa Clark’s actual recipe, which created a quiet commotion on the foodie-net when it appeared in the NYT last spring.

Looking back over these recipes, none of them are exclusively summer recipes, they’re just recipes that I happened to make over this summer. So I can — and will — keep making them into the fall. The pasta with cauliflower will be in our regular dinner rotation, and the lentil salad should find a permanent spot in the fridge. The past couple of days the weather has turned more autumnal, and now we look forward to the season of root vegetables, soups, and stews.

Revelations: Preserved lemons and mizuna

Every so often when I’m flipping through a Mediterranean cookbook (or, if it’s 1985, The Silver Palate Cookbook), I come across a recipe that uses preserved lemons.  Usually it’s accompanied by a little note that says something like: Preserving lemons is really easy.  Just quarter some lemons, rub with kosher salt, and stuff into a jar until it won’t hold any more.  Fill to the top with lemon juice, and keep in the cupboard for two weeks.  And that’s when I stop reading and think: I don’t want to make this recipe in two weeks, I want to make it now.

Well, I’m super chuffed to announce that my decades of not making preserved lemons are behind me, with assistance from my 8-year-old sous chef (nom de blog The Prophet) and this video from Food 52.  It really is as easy as they say.  I recommend using certified organic lemons because after two weeks you open your jar and chop up the lemons to use, pulp, pith, peel, and all, in a whole variety of dishes.

Always on the lookout for easy, tasty, healthy meals, I can’t get enough of lentils with preserved lemon and brown rice.  Mix up some of your favorite lentils (du Puy, if you ask me) and brown rice with a nice extra virgin olive oil, and nutritional yeast (for vegans) or parmesean.  Finely chop some of those preserved lemons and add them with perhaps some of the brine.  The bits of preserved lemons dot the lentils and rice like little juicy, sour, salty exclamation points.  I like to mix it up with one of my other recent discoveries — mizuna!

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It has recently come to my attention that the earnest tillers of the earth at my local farmer’s market have been cultivating myriad leafy green wonders.  Mizuna, according to Wikipedia, is also known as Japanese mustard greens.  I took a chance on this unfamiliar green because I have already eaten my weight in kale and spinach 1000 time over.  Mizuna’s sweet little leaves are delicate in texture with a slight bitter bite reminiscent of arugula but milder.  I stirred them right into the lentils and rice to add color and depth of flavor to the dish:

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In June, we took a trip to Chicago, where we ate at Il Pesce, one of the restaurants in Mario Battali’s Eataly, a.k.a. Foodie Heaven.  There, The Prophet and I shared a whole red snapper that was grilled with fresh herbs and slices of preserved lemon stuffed inside.  Turns out that the dish is easy to recreate at home.  Add fresh herbs – oregano, chives, cilantro, and parsley work well – to olive oil, brush on fish such as trout or salmon, and scatter sliced preserved lemon on top.  You can grill it or slow roast in the oven, and when you’re done, you may think you’ve been transported to a major Chicago food destination.

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Lesson 2: Make friends with your cancer

Ahem.  Picture, if you will, Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer singing the following:

Happy Cancerversary to me,
Happy Cancerversary to me,
Happy Cancerversary to me-eeeeeeeeeee,
Happy Cancerversary tooooooooooooooooooooo me!!!!

It has been one year since I lay in bed at 2 am unable to sleep (perimenopause, am I right?) and thought, “Hmmm, I haven’t done a self-breast exam in a while.”  That was followed by, “Huh, I don’t think that’s supposed to feel like that,” and — one year ago today — a trip to the family doctor and a biopsy the next day, and the big reveal that this is was not the benign lump scare that so many of my friends have had, it was the real deal.

One strange thing about breast cancer, unlike some cancers, is that you can have no symptoms, can feel absolutely fine, when the doctors tell you that your life is in peril.  So how do you make sense of this unseen, unknowable threat? In Memoir of a Debulked Woman, Susan Gubar describes the legion of metaphors for what lurks within the body:

Despite Susan Sontag’s admonition against illness metaphors, images insist on creeping back. “Ovarian cancer is like a cockroach, defying an arsenal of poisons,” the fashion editor Liz Tiberus declared about her sense of infestation.  Systemic, cancer can morph from a cockroach to an astrological crustacean to an insane avenger…. Christina Middlebrook explains that the shifty and mobile crab-cancer “never takes the direct path, preferring to move sideways and furtively….

The heroine in Gail Godwin’s novel The Good Husband pictures her ovarian cancer as a “gargoyle” munching on her internal organs.  To Katherine Russell Rich, cancer becomes “a panther, voracious but willing to bide its time,” but also “a cellular part of you turned wild, ungovernable….” A cankerworm, eel, embryo, or cockroach; a wilding twin, bully, emperor, beast, assassin, or demon, cancer strengthens itself at the expense of the weakened and unsuspecting human being whom it attacks and within whom it lodges to gain strength.

Eesh, is it any wonder that I found solace binge watching Stranger Things?

One of the first things that you hear when you tell people that you have cancer is to “fight hard”; war is probably the most common metaphor for the cancer experience.  And, sure, if you’re a doctor it makes sense, as you’re going to use “everything in your arsenal” to “defeat the enemy.”  But what if you’re not a warrior by nature, and what if you don’t want your body to be a battleground?  What if critiquing militaristic narratives is kind of your thing? What if someone tells you to fight, and your  first instinct is, “Can we just … not?”  I could not go to war with my body. I found it unbearable to walk around holding my enemy within my body, right next to my heart.

In a few places, I read about people attributing a less venal attitude to their cancer.   One woman imagined her cancer as “a bumbling, confused lout who postured a lot but hung around the home.”  In Life over Cancer, Keith Block recalls a man with prostate cancer who would talk to “his little cancer” every day, offering it love and acceptance in exchange for staying small and contained.

A pathologist I know provided the image above to help me understand what was going on inside of me.  Look at the large, unruly nuclei in the rapidly dividing cells, disorganized, trying but unable to form breast ducts and other proper tissue structures.  It dawned on me that my cancer was just a collection of wayward cells trying their hardest to live and grow.  They didn’t know that they were overstepping sensible limits and threatening the very terrain in which they had taken root.  I felt towards them the way that I felt about some of my more challenging students from my days as a teacher: You’re making things hard for me,  and you’re making things hard for you, but I can see that you’re just trying to get by here and that you have no evil intent.

These metaphors matter because it’s hard to find a sense of equanimity and grace when you feel that you are under constant attack.  In Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life, David Servan-Schreiber argues that the research that shows that feelings of persistent stress inhibits the immune system’s normal mechanisms for identifying and destroying cancer cells.  Rats who were implanted with cancer cells and made to feel helpless when subjected to random electric shocks were half as likely to fight off their cancer as rats who were empowered with a lever to reduce their electric shocks.  I’ll take that lever now, thanks.

For my cancerversary I got an awesome gift – an MRI and a CT scan showing that my cancer is stable and tiny.  With Stage IV, stable = WINNING.  What were once active tumors are now small lesions or smudges on the scans that may be dead cancer cells or inflammation, or may be small, contained tumors.  We don’t know exactly what the remaining cancer cells are doing, whether they are dying off or plotting their next move.  I like to think that they are mollified, enervated, kicking back on their little malignant couch, watching Netflix.

Once again, I give thanks for being one of “the lucky ones,” for the time being.  Have I made friends with my cancer?  A year ago I was curled up in a fetal position in a surgeon’s exam room, physically unable to face the truth of my body.  Now I sit calmly waiting to hear the results of the latest scan.  I can share good news: “My incurable cancer is barely detectable!” with only the slightest trace of irony or despair.  And I know that if bad news comes my way, I can face it with courage and strength and love, as so many others have done.  After all, illness is an essential human experience.  As Arthur Frank wrote in At the Will of the Body,

The ill have already fulfilled their responsibility by being ill.  The question is whether the rest of us can be responsible enough to see and hear what illness is, which ultimately means seeing and hearing what life is.  Being alive is a dual responsibility: to our shared frailty, on the one hand, and to all we can create, on the other.  The mutual responsibilities of the ill to express and the healthy to hear meet in the recognition that our creativity depends on our frailty.  Life without illness would not just be incomplete, it would be impossible.  

Have I made friends with my cancer?  Not entirely, but I know who the enemy is.  It’s not illness, and it’s not death.  The enemy is shame.  It is judgment.  The enemy is the voice that tells you that your fragile life lacks meaning and dignity.

Lately I’ve been reading Nina Riggs’ beautiful new memoir The Bright Hour, about her year after being diagnosed with breast cancer.  A poet and mother of two young boys, she makes the experience vivid and poignant and memorable.  Nina was not one of the lucky ones.  One night early in the year, when her husband said he couldn’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal,’ she responded with fierce determination: “I have to love these days in the same way I love any other.  There might not be a ‘normal’ from here on out…. These days are days…. We choose how to hold them.  Good night.”

What I’m cooking: Chinese Noodles for All Occasions, including Falling in Love

Summer has finally arrived!  This means that most days I do not feel like turning on the oven or generating much heat.

Do you remember back in the day when we used to buy cookbooks, with money, in bookstores?  Today you can find any recipe you can conceive of in a Google heartbeat, but there was a time when recipes had to be tracked down, collected, catalogued ….  I have a paperback cookbook called Fresh Ways with Pasta that I picked up for $5 from a Barnes and Noble bargain book table a couple of decades ago, and it has stuck with me ever since.  I was younger then and still learning how to cook.  Not a great improviser, all I knew about cooking was this: Find a great recipe, follow the recipe to the letter, and do not lose that recipe.  What I was learning was that some recipes just work, and they are crowd-pleasers, and you hold on to them.

This particular recipe is named Szechuan Noodles with Beef, but the title is dubious. They are more like generic Chinese noodles.  What is fabulous about this recipe is that the longish ingredient list gives it a lovely, balanced, light flavor with some umami from the beef and mushrooms.  They can be made ahead and served warm, cold, or in between.  You can swap out the beef for edamame or tofu to make them vegan.  If you double the recipe you can easily feed a crowd, so I take this to potlucks, where people slurp up the noodles and ask for the recipe.

This recipe also has a special place in my heart because it’s the first dinner I ever made for my husband.  I don’t know why I chose it except that it was probably the best thing that I knew how to make at the time.  I still remember sharing these noodles with him by candlelight in my small Cambridge apartment, where the table was in a little nook surrounded by windows that gave it the effect of being inside a lighthouse, especially on a dark January night.  Afterwards we went to see Princess Mononoke at the Kendall Square Theatre.

But it’s not just for sentimental reasons that I am still making these noodles.  I keep making them because they are perfect, and when you find something perfect, you hold onto it.  This week we celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary.  A lot of people say that marriage is hard work, but my secret, which makes for the worst relationship advice ever, is this:

If you are lucky enough to find the right person, then it doesn’t feel like work at all.

Life is work.  Life is hard.  But for reasons that I do not understand at all, being married to Rob is easy.  For years I thought that we were just lucky because we hadn’t been tested by real misfortune or challenges.  But then this past year happened.  And even as the whole world became warped and unfathomable and menacing, our marriage was as solid and warm and comforting as ever.

You know how in every romantic comedy the two leads bicker adorably to create dramatic tension?  Well, we don’t do that.  We’re more like the sidekicks to the two leads, like Carrie Fisher and That Other Guy in When Harry Met Sally, like Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce in Down with Love.  So, if you’re looking for your Mr. Darcy, my advice is STOP. Start looking for your Mr. Bingley.  As Mr. Bennet says to Jane, “I have great pleasure in thinking you will be so happily settled. I have not a doubt of your doing very well together. Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on….”  That’s me and my sweetie.

In our wedding ceremony 15 years ago today, Rob’s sister read part of Haruki Murakami’s short story, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning.”  So Gen X we were, tempering our romantic idealism with a self-conscious wink to the absurdity of finding “the 100% perfect girl/boy.” Even today, I delight in the unnecessary, goofy assertion of 100% perfection.

When you find something perfect, you hold onto it.  Ooo, that’s what they should be called.

100% Percent Perfect Chinese Noodles

Ingredients

1 lb Chinese egg noodles or rice noodles (I use white rice spaghetti from Pasta Joy)
12 oz lean beef sirloin
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in very hot water for 20 minutes and drained

Sesame-soy marinade

4 T soy sauce or tamari
2 T Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
2T rice vinegar
1-2 tsp chili paste with garlic
1-2 tsp grated fresh ginger root
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dark sesame oil
2 T canola or other neutral oil
2 T toasted sesame seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
5 spring onions, very finely chopped
handful fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

Garnish

1 small cucumber, thinly sliced
toasted sesame seeds
fresh cilantro

  1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Cut the beef across the grain into julienne about 1.5 inches long and 1/8 inch thick.  Cut off and discard mushroom stems and slice the caps into thin strips.  Combine the beef, mushrooms, and spring onions with one third of the marinade.  Let this mixture sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put water on to boil cook noodles.  When they are finished, drain them and rinse with cold water so that they do not stick together or overcook.
  4. Heat 2 T of oil in a heavy frying pan or wok until very hot.  Add the beef/mushroom/onion mixture to the pan, allowing excess marinade to drain off into the bowl.  Saute just until beef loses its pink color, about 2 minutes.
  5. Place the noodles in a large serving bowl.  Add the ramaining marinade and toss with noodles.  Make a shallow well in the center of the noodles and spoon the beef mixture into the well.  Garnish with cilantro, sesame seeds, sliced cucumber.

Love Letter to Bojack Horseman

Back in the 90’s I was in a very famous TV show
I’m BoJack the horse
BoJack the horse
Don’t act like you don’t know

And I’m trying to hold on to my past
It’s been so long I don’t think I’m gonna last
I guess I’ll just try and make you understand
That I’m more horse than a man
Or I’m more man than a horse
BoJack

I recently finished watching the third season of Bojack Horseman, and I have to say, this show is brilliant.  It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s deep, it’s therapeutic.  It’s the story of a half-horse, half-man comedian who, as the oddly haunting theme song exposits, had a very successful banal sitcom in the nineties called Horsin’ Around. The show made him rich and successful, but he is haunted by his inability to recapture the magic of that early success.  In other words, BoJack Horseman is a show about the particular pains of middle age.

First world problems, you say?  Why yes, the trevails of an obscenely wealthy misanthrope may seem to be unworthy of your scarce prestige tv-viewing time, even if he is half-horse and half-man and is voiced by the brilliant and unsparing Will Arnett.  But hear me out.  The show’s emotional range is bigger than anything else on television.  The show’s humor includes ridiculous dumb jokes about its many animal characters, like how Mr. Peanut Butter, a yellow labrador retriever, drives his car with his head hanging out the window, tongue out, face radiating pure joy.  It also includes sharp satire of entertainment and celebrity culture, as in the episode in which Mr. Peanut Butter’s wife Diane accidentally tweets that she is going to have an abortion, but because she’s got a gig writing tweets for celebrity pop star killer whale Sextina Aquafina, she actually tweets that Sextina is getting an abortion, and hilarity ensues as Sextina rides the wave of social media approval that goes with her owning her fictive abortion.  And with emotional clarity, the show manages to represent the urgency of Diane’s need to end her pregnancy, the tenderness of Mr. Peanut Butter’s feelings for Diane, the absurdity of a culture in which the extremely privileged can be celebrated for pretending to have the struggles of ordinary people, and the continued relevance of women’s right to control their own bodies.

Much of the show is about the divide in the world between two types of people: those like BoJack and Diane who lead lives of quiet, overthinking desperation and those like Mr. Peanut Butter and Todd, Bojack’s houseguest/entourage/hanger-on, who are just along for the ride.  (Which camp am I in? Do you even have to ask?) Todd joins up with Mr. Peanut Butter to launch an ride-sharing service called Cabracadabra when a girlfriend mentions that as a woman she is sometimes creeped out by her Uber drivers.  In another beautiful moment of social satire, Todd tells Mr. Peanut Butter, “Turns out there’s a huge demand for a safe space for women — WHO KNEW???”  This plotline celebrates the cluelessness of corporate masculinity, as Todd decides that their safe ride-sharing service for women should move into the untapped market of male consumers, but first they need to hire more sexy drivers to attract their new target rider… and hilarity ensues.  Dark, feminist hilarity (a.k.a. the best kind).

A lot of the show builds on the contrast between Bojack and Mr. Peanut Butter, who also had a successful sitcom in the nineties called Mr. Peanut Butter’s House.  According to Bojack, that show was a pale imitation of Horsin’ Around, but that doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Peanut Butter, who, true to his lab personality, is just happy to be Bojack’s – and everyone’s – friend.  While Bojack ruminates about the hollowness of fame and obsesses about whether his life is of value and has a romantic interest in Mr. Peanut Butter’s girlfriend-then-wife, Mr. Peanut Butter just greets each day as proof of the goodness of the universe.  Bojack yearns for another career success, but he agonizes that nothing he does will ever be good enough.  Mr. Peanut Butter, on the other hand, would seem to have all the same problems as Bojack, yet he’s content to keep working on commercially successful drivel, hosting a reality show called, J. D. Salinger Presents: Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities! What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out! 

Why “Hollywoo”? In an early episode of the show Bojack steals the D from the Hollywood sign as a grand gesture for Diane, thus turning Hollywood into Hollywoo for the rest of the show.  All of the characters can be broken down by the extent to which they recognize and are troubled by the hypocrisy and emptiness of Hollywoo.  Bojack is troubled to the point of being immobilized, as is Diane.  Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s cat-agent, understands the machinations of Hollywoo as a grand game that she chooses to play, until she doesn’t anymore.  Most of the minor characters appear to willfully ignore the bullshit because the promise of success is a trade-off they’re more than happy to make.  And there’s Kelsey, a smart indie film director who refuses to surrender her intellect and integrity.  Kelsey is visibly wearied and worn down by the system, but continues to work within it using anger and bitterness as her outlet.  The show poses the question, if you are sensitive enough to see the cracks in the system, how do you continue to exist hoping to find fulfillment and meaning within that system?

So you see, it’s not just about Hollywoo, it’s actually about the human condition.  (Does anyone even say that anymore? Whatever, bear with me.)  I don’t know how you watch this show if you are under the age of 30, or 35, or 40, or 45.  You could enjoy the goofy animal jokes and the sharp satire, but how do you understand BoJack’s predicament if you are not conscious being in what Richard Rohr calls the Second Half of Life?  Rohr writes that the first half of life is the part where you build your identity, your career, and your place in the world.  This is utterly necessary and part of the human drive to have security and a sense of self.  The second half is the part where you interrogate the meaning of it all, where you face tragedy, loss, fall from grace.  I can’t quite swallow Rohr’s argument whole – after all, there’s plenty of existential contemplation in the first half of life.  But there’s something that happens to a person at a certain age, once the career path is set, the children are birthed/not birthed, relationships settle down/unravel, and one stops creating and producing for long enough to look in the mirror and face uncomfortable truths and questions.  If any of these strike a chord, you may be in the second half of life:

  • Your human needs are largely met – for food, shelter, love, stability, social support, and yet you wonder what your purpose is.
  • You have attained your goals for creating a family, a home, a career but are uncertain about how these became your goals.
  • You wonder whether you should have aimed higher, succeeded more fully, or taken a different path.
  • You wonder whether you have lived up to what you were meant to be and whether the world is better off for having you in it.
  • You wonder how you could be a more generous parent, friend, spouse, daughter, sister, colleague, intellectual to the people and world that you love with all your heart.
  • You have been so many things to meet the needs of so many different people and institutions that you wonder which is the authentic self.
  • You have to decide what to do with the rest of your life, and the path that you are on, even if it has served you well, may not be quite right.

I have a special dispensation for all of this navel-gazing, by the way.  It’s called “the cancer card.” It gives me license to live with my nose pressed up against the windshield of my own mortality (to borrow and mutilate a phrase from Susan Gubar’s wonderful memoir).  But I’d be lying if I said these thoughts weren’t lurking in the edges of my consciousness before my diagnosis.

Or maybe you don’t worry about any of this.  Maybe you’re more like Mr. Peanut Butter, who tells Diane, “Sweetie, you know I support you, whatever you want to do, but you’re not gonna find what you’re looking for in these awful made-up places. The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”

Bojack’s own spiritual and psychological darkness does not stop him from pursuing and achieving continued career success, as he lands his dream role playing Secretariat and earning critical acclaim.  It’s his personal life that suffers.  In Season 3 we watch Bojack attempt to reach out to the important people in his life with authentic caring.  He tries to have a grown-up relationship and has moments of genuine grace when he moves toward accepting his past self, acknowledging the mix of pride and shame that he has for his early work on Horsin’ Around.  But the strain of caring for others is ultimately too much for BoJack and the season ends with a tragedy and BoJack’s life once again in shambles. As the brilliant Emily Nussbaum observed, “It does what ‘BoJack Horseman’ does best, allowing the most heartbreaking parts of life to leach into the genre that’s meant to soothe them.”

Except I’m not sure that Nussbaum has it right.  The absurd elements of BoJack are not just the spoonful of honey that makes the existentialism go down.  They are more like a door offering passage to truth and maybe even redemption.  They pose the question, How can you be so hard on yourself when you are making your way in such a ridiculous and nonsensical world?  We live in absurd times.  We live in a time when the leader of the most powerful nation on earth regularly lies, defames, and spreads hatred for fun and profit. It’s enough to break your heart, but joking about it allows us the consolation of seeing that we are not alone as we carefully pick our way towards a reconciliation with ourselves.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

 

What I’m cooking this week: Ramps and Rhubarb

Last fall and winter, when I was so completely devoid of energy, because chemo, I had wonderful friends and family cooking and bringing us food, and I swear I didn’t cook a single dinner for like four months.  Thank goodness.  At the end of each day (which was 4:00), I was tired enough to cry, and I often did.

Being on the receiving end of the love that dear ones put into cooking for us made me see anew how cooking is a form of care and of self-care, and eventually I was eager to get back to cooking.  I’m still pretty tired at the end of the day, so instead of cooking during the week I set aside time on Sunday to cook things that I genuinely enjoy making.  This often means trying out new recipes.

These past few weeks have been full of Ontario spring staples.  Sundays we have slow roasted fish for dinner with ramp pesto, which was a revelation when I discovered it, especially since I’m only moderately fond of traditional pesto.

The farmer’s market is full of rhubarb, so we made rhubarb compote, which is great on oatmeal, yogurt, and ice cream, and these carrot and rhubarb muffins (GF&V).

Who knew rhubarb and carrot are such a great combination?  The carrot and spices are warm and comforting and then there’s a pop of tart, juicy rhubarb.  To cap it all off, for my veggie-loving son’s birthday this weekend, I made Smitten Kitchen’s rhubarb upside down cake.  And it even popped out of the cast iron pan in the perfect upside-down shape!

This week I made these black bean and sweet potato burgers for the first time; I got the recipe when Susan the World’s Best Next-Door Neighbor made them for us last fall.

With the rest of the beans I’m going to make a black bean salad with black beans, olive oil, red onion, lime juice, corn, and cilantro. Sarah Waldman claims that you can turn a slow cooker full of black beans into a week of dinners.

Rhubarb Compote

  • 1 bunch rhubarb (about 1 lb or 6 cups), chopped
  • 1 cup sugar, or more to taste
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • lemon zest, to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 T tapioca

Combine all ingredients except tapioca in a saucepan over medium heat.  Once it reaches a steady simmer, stir in the tapioca and reduce heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour.