Monday, September 26, 2011

Comfort. Food.

I'm officially back in school working toward my teacher certification program, and it feels mighty fine to be blowing the lid off my life and moving forward on this path. As I drove the 45 minutes to orientation Thursday night, I felt out of my comfort zone. At a time of day when I would normally be walking the dog, eating dinner with my family and then hopping into my pj's--cozying up to a baseball game--I was instead eating a cold sandwich for dinner in my car while barreling down the highway.

Oh, but it felt so good! It felt so good to have a new mission, a new sense of purpose that fits well with who I am. It was wonderful to have some time alone to myself in the car, too. I never get that anymore, as my commute is blissfully short. But I miss it, and so it was a treat to listen to NPR's All Things Considered and be alone with the jumble of thoughts leapfrogging inside my head.

It was nice to meet so many new people, too. The average age of students in the program is definitely at least 40, with some weighing in far older than that, and some fresh out of grad school. These are the people I will be spending the next seven months with, each Friday night and all day Saturday. And in the end, I will hopefully have a new career. At the very least, I should be certified.

The schedule is hectic for sure--I have five assignments due our first class, October 21--but so worth it. And as much as I know the commute to class and the workload will get old and tiring at times, I'm going to do my best to enjoy it for what it is: An opportunity and an adventure.

The kids love that I'm in school again. They think it's neat that Mom has homework, too. And they LOVE that I'm going to be a teacher. In many ways, they're my best supporters. To them, there are no downsides, no drawbacks, no limitations. To them, there's nothing Mom can't do...except maybe reach the stuff on the top shelf in the cabinet.

No matter how overwhelmed I feel with the new workload, however, I know that one thing will not change this fall and winter: My baking. This is the time of year that I ramp up my flour/butter/sugar repertoire. It relaxes me, and it lets me treat the whole family to something yummy. It especially treats my Seany boy, who cannot have pretty much any bakery item because of nut cross-contamination. Fortunately, he has a mom who loves baking. And eating. I bake. We eat. And the house smells awesome.

As for recipes, I'm definitely going to hit up the ol' reliables--ginger cookies, pumpkin bars, chocolate chip ANYTHING... But, in the apparent spirit of this year, I'm craving change. So I'm digging up some new recipes for the season. And viola! Speaking of chocolate chips, this one fell right into my inbox this afternoon.

Cookie layer? Chocolate layer? Brown sugar mergine layer? Yes, please!

I'm totally making these. And then we're going to eat the heck out of them. That should gas me up for some late-night reading!

Halfway Cookies (fom

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cup brown sugar, separated
2 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

9x13 baking dish
aluminum foil
parchment or wax paper

1. Preheat the Oven and Prepare the Pan: Preheat the oven to 350°. Cut two pieces of aluminum foil and fold them to match the width of the pan. Press one piece into the pan lengthwise and the other into the pan crosswise with the ends hanging over the sides of the pan, like this. This makes it easy to lift the bars out of the pan once they're cooled. Spray the foil with nonstick coating.

2. Make the Cookie Dough: Whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a small bowl and set aside. Using a standing mixer, a hand mixer, or by hand, cream together the butter, the granulated sugar and just 1/2 cup of the brown sugar until this looks like smooth frosting.

Separate the eggs, reserving the whites. Mix the yolks into the butter-sugar mixture one at a time until they are completely absorbed, then mix in the water and vanilla. With the mixer at a low speed, add the flour mixture and beat gently until all the flour has been absorbed and the dough looks crumbly.

3. Add the Cookie Layer: Press the cookie dough gently into the pan with your hands, making sure the surface is even.

4. Add the Chocolate Layer: Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top of the cookie dough and use your palms to press them slightly into the dough. This will help keep them from moving when you add the meringue.

5. Make the Meringue: Using a stand or hand mixer with a clean bowl and a clean whisk attachment, start whisking the egg whites. Gradually increase your speed to medium-high. When the egg whites are very frothy and look like loose foam, start adding the remaining cup of brown sugar a little at a time. Continue increasing your speed to the highest setting. When all the sugar has been added, continue whipping the meringue until it holds a soft peak. It should look like glossy, soft-serve ice cream.

6. Spread the Meringue on Top: Scoop the meringue down the middle of the pan. It will be very sticky! Use a spatula to gently spread the meringue from the middle to the edges. We found it helpful to skim meringue from the top and gradually push it outward.

7. Bake the Bars: Lightly press a piece of parchment or wax paper on the top of the meringue (this makes an even layer and protects the meringue from scorching). Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the parchment. Continue baking for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the edges look toasted and are pulling away from the sides of the pan.

8. Allow to Cool: Wait until the pan is completely cook before lifting out the bars and cutting them into pieces.

Additional Notes:
• To make a crunchier meringue layer, use granulated white sugar instead of brown sugar and beat the meringue until it forms firm peaks.

• You can also reduce the amount of sugar in the meringue down to 1/2 cup (minimum) if desired.

• Other ingredients can be used in place of or in addition to the chocolate chip layer! Consider things like butterscotch chips, nuts*, toffee bits, dried fruit, and fruit preserves.

(*Nuts are so not going to happen in my house, but you do what you like... - M.).



Monday, September 19, 2011

Play in the Light

I could complain that I'm coming down with a cold, and that I feel lousy, blah blah blah. But honestly, who cares? It's a cold. Just a cold. And even though I feel hot and cold, with a scratchy throat and one plugged nostril, I'll survive. It just seems so lame to complain about something like a cold, especially when overall, knock on wood, I have my health.

Colds don't scare me. But you know what? Cancer scares me. It scares the bejeezus outta me. And just last week, New Haven lost one of its own--a dad, a husband, a friend to many--to that evil disease. He was in his mid-30s. He had started to feel better. But the cancer spread. And that was that. I didn't know him all that well, but Ian sure did.

So cancer scares me. Accidents and mishaps scare me, too. And addictions really scare and upset me (some people I know in recovery describe alcoholism as being beaten to death by bunnyrabbits). Basically, I'm a kind of afraid of all progressive and/or terminal illness in anyone under the age of, oh, 80. It scares me because THERE IS SO MUCH LIFE TO LIVE. It seems cruel and unfair that some of us get a bigger slice of the pie when it comes to longevity in this awesome world. But then again, some people live eight or nine decades and spend most of that time complaining. While others are given far less and yet enjoy it so much more.

But a parent leaving too soon? Or a parent out-living a child? These things just seem so cruel. And so unfair. And scary. Because we don't know what the future holds. That uncertainty, that mystery is both frightening and exhilarating. It's what makes life...Life. It inspires us to live while we can (or at least it hopefully inspires that in people). There are no guarantees. And while logically I know that and, for the most part, celebrate it--for that's what makes life such an adventure--I also have a hard time accepting it. Maybe I'm just a control freak. But I just don't like the fact that human life is so, so fragile. I don't like the fact that at some point I'll have to go, and I will miss out on the next smiles and laughter of loved ones. I will miss the next baseball season, the next summer of sand and surf, the next fall of apple picking and baking, the next Christmas, the next spring and its promise of rebirth.

But I guess that uncertainty is what motivates most of us to get all Carpe Diem on life, right? Rage, rage against the dying of the light! To be truthful--not morbid, just realistic--that light is dying for all of us. So instead of cowering in the face of darkness, celebrate the light. Live in it. Don't just exist.

When I was a kid, I had this obviously misguided idea that once I was an adult, things would go my way. I would carve out the life I wanted to live, and I would live it. And nothing would get in the way of that, and I would be happy. Nothing could make me sad. Life would take its course, I would have used my talents to the best of my ability, and then when it was Time, I'd head up to that Big Cloud Party with St. Peter.

Hint: That's not the way it works. I didn't count on the times I'd be disappointed or that I'd disppoint others--and myself. I didn't count on losing friendships, and I definitely didn't count on burying some people so soon.

But guess what else I didn't count on? How resilient I would be in the face of change and uncertainty. I also didn't count on how self-reliant I would prove to be. I didn't expect to accept the loss and sadness that steamrolled my way for a little while there, but I did. I accepted it. Because the only way around stuff is through it, right? It's the only way we grow. It's uncomfortable and icky. But we are always stronger for it.

If we curl up in a ball on the couch and lament all the things that have gone wrong, rather than look at how we've perservered though those things, we'll become depressed. If we curl up in a ball on the couch and lament all the things that CAN go wrong rather than look at all the life there is to live despite the inherent risks in living, well, then we'll become anxious. And if we're depressed or anxious, we'll miss out on Living. I don't want to miss out on anything.

This week there is a memorial service for our friend who just lost his battle with cancer. Also this week there is a family picnic at my children's school, my first night of classes for my teacher certification program, my 20th high school reunion, a wedding, and a birthday party. It's almost comical the range of emotion and celebration of life's stages we can go through in a single week--or even in a day.

And it doesn't end there. Next month, there is a fundraiser for my next-door neighbors and good friends, the Kellehers. Jimmy, Mary's husband and father of two young boys, was diagnosed with MSA last year. The financial and emotional toll that diagnosis has taken on the family is pretty brutal. And yet, they smile through it. Why? Because every day is still a new day.

The day after that, we're participating in an Alzheimer's fundraising walk with our next-door neighbors on the other side of our house. Florence, who is 82 and my beloved neighbor, was just moved to a home that can adequately care for and manage her disease. Her daughter and son-in-law, who also live next to me, did all they can and then some for a few years. So together, we'll walk. Mary's going to join us. And at some point that same weekend, we'll celebrate my little brother's 15th birthday.

The ups and downs of life are more easily navigated with a little reassurance from faith, at least for me. Yesterday at Mass, Deacon Marty--former NHFD Chief and current professor at University of New Haven--said the following: "Whether God calls us early or calls us late, He still calls us." We have to trust that when our time is up, it's up. And that it is all good because it is God's plan.

As I get older, I am increasingly grateful for my faith. Truth is, I wasn't always there for it, but it was always there for me. My mother made sure I had the foundation I needed. If I walked away from it, at the very least I would walk away intelligently, with basis for a difference of opinion. But just as easily as I can walk away from it, I can come back to it. And, dogmatic differences aside, I came back to it.

Tonight, I'll gather my first-grade CCD class in a circle on the rug in the center of the classroom. We'll start the class with a Hail Mary. Then we'll go around the room and each describe one thing we saw or experienced today that reminded us of God's love. And then we'll talk about the changing leaves on the trees and the cycle of seasons, all illustrative of cycle and beauty of Life.

There is no better way to honor our own lives or the memory of others who have gone before than to savor every moment, to recognize it all as a gift. So unwrap it. Tear into the box. Play with it until there's nothing left.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Classics

If today's New York Times is to be believed, Point Break is being re-made. Is nothing sacred?!?! After waxing philosophical--or whatever you wanna call it--yesterday about change, I can tell you this: I really dislike when movies are remade. How about a new idea, Hollywood? Because what's next? Jaws? Breakfast at Tiffany's? Casablanca? Or worst of all, Caddyshack? Leave my classics alone!

Speaking of philosophy and classics, I'm neck-deep in a book on the philosophy of education right now. It's required "pre-reading" for my teacher certifcation program. A paper on it is due the first night of class next month. I was so excited for the book. I tore it out of Amazon's packaging when it arrived on my doorstep earlier this week. Alas, the dense 10-point text immediately burned my eyeballs. But once I sat down with the beast, I got into it. After everyone was in bed last night--kids, dogs, and husband (who's nursing a nasty cold), I settled into the couch with the book and nothing but the mantle clock and backyard crickets to keep me company. Always the crickets.

An hour of reading about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Augustine passed quickly. I was completely taken by the subject--even the introduction, for God's sake. I must be ready to go back to school. The new issue of Real Simple, also delivered to my mailbox this week, has sat untouched on the coffee table, while beside it new textbooks and Praxis II study guides are already marked up and dog-eared.

I expect the next eight months I'll be spending a lot of nights up late, alone and with a book to keep my lap warm. And no doubt I'll need to give my big eyes and little brain a rest with late-night TV once in a while, something I long ago got out of the habit of doing. Maybe I'll be lucky one night and catch Point Break before bed. The original. As if there could be anything else.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Change Happens

Pulled pork is in the crock pot, and I've cast my vote in the city's Democratic primary. It must be September. Summer's waning. The harvest moon loomed large last night. The fans in my house are humming more quietly, while the crickets in the yard seem to be chirping more loudly. The sun sets a lot earlier these days. And my after-dinner walks with the dog end with my front porch lights like a beacon, showing us the way home as we round the corner back to our street.

I used to fight the end of summer. Seriously. I used to dread it. But the past couple of years I've had a greater acceptance of the cycle of seasons. I've had a greater acceptance of a lot of things, actually. But the whole summer's-gotta-end thing was always a tough one for me to swallow.

I've also come to conclude that big change often happens anticlimactically. Like fall foliage, the really big changes in my life were all somewhat unsurprising and relatively slow to progress in their own way. From divorce to going back to school this fall, most of my major life events took their own sweet time to evolve. The same holds true even for my old ways of thinking--and even feeling. Eventually, many of the thoughts that don't serve me found their way onto the sidelines. While they still crop up from time to time, they don't have the importance I once attached to them. In short, I've gotten over the fact that things don't always go my way.

Last night was a gorgeous September evening. After the year's first CCD classes spilled out in the parking lot of our local parish, the neighborhood kids and classmates ran circles around their parents, playing tag while the parents chatted about the new school year and other things. We smiled and waved to the ones we didn't get a chance to catch up with. The school year brings the kids together again, for sure. But it also brings the adults together, too. We need that connection just as much as our kids.

Or at least some of us do. And we're lucky we have it. While out on a walk last weekend with two girlfriends, both parents at the same school my children go to, one of them noted how lucky we were to be part of our little New Haven neighborhood. So many of us are friends brought together by our children's school or parish. But we remain friends because we truly enjoy one another's company. For better or for worse. We don't try to pretend we're something we're not. We know many of each other's secrets and darker sides to our life stories. And we accept one another for who we are in a way that I've honestly never felt anywhere else but here. Home.

So fall, I welcome you and all the change you've got up your sleeve. My life is almost unrecognizable from six or seven years ago. When I first ventured away from that life, I was terrified. I thought I would never find the kind of happiness I had, at least to some extent, enjoyed. Who knew something better was in store? It slowly unfolded before me. And now I can look out from my neighborhood to the great space between our city's East and West Rocks, and I no longer feel like I'm looking back on anything wistfully or longingly. Instead, I'm just taking it all in and enjoying the breeze from the water on my side of town.


Thursday, September 8, 2011


I've been accepted! I got into the accelerated/alternate certification program for English, grades 7-12. I applied in Spring. I waited four months to hear if I had been accepted, and then I was informed that I was second on the wait-list. Crestfallen, drying tears, I began to accept that I may not get into the program this year after all. I started working on Plan B. And Plan C. But fortunately, after two weeks, two of the 16 candidates accepted for the program bowed out. And viola! I'm in.

I'm thrilled. Also nervous, psyched and eager to start. In all honesty, I hadn't paid too much attention to the competitiveness of the program when I was applying. I knew it wasn't "easy" to get in, but I'm glad I never really took to heart the whole "30%-50% acceptance rate" when I was putting together my application. It would have been a major psych-out. Instead, I blissfully aced the Praxis I, requested my college transcripts, wrote essays, licked envelopes, stuck stamps, submitted references, and the rest was up to the Big Guy--and the admissions board.

So here I am. Poised for a major life change. I couldn't be more ready, not that I haven't already had my fair share of change in just the past 11 years. Since 2000, I've been married, bought a house, had a child, quit my job as a magazine writer to be a full-time mama, had another child, worked as a freelance writer, had my first panic attack, taught myself to crochet, separated, "went back to work" as an admin, became a certified yoga teacher, divorced, started raising two boys on my own, hit the icky dating scene, went through a rough break up, unexpectedly began dating and fell in love with Ian (a friend who I had known for years), got a different job, sold the house, rented an apartment, taught myself to sew, became engaged to Ian, got laid off, got a new job, bought a new house, made it official with the new husband, (and a month later) buried someone dear to me, became a CCD teacher, taught myself to knit, supported my husband as he served as a juror (and foreman) of a grisly murder trial, dealt with the likes of Anderson Cooper calling my house when the trial ended (GO AWAY!), managed my older son's severe food allergies, coped with my grandmother's ongoing battle with cancer, and decided that I should cut my bangs again.

Bangs. I mean, really. If I can handle that kind of change, I can handle anything.

My current job has been good to me. It pays well, it's flexible, and it's a stone's throw from my neighborhood. Blah, blah, blah. But it's not my calling. Teaching is my calling. But for a long time--like, a couple of decades--I ignored it. I figured my future was destined to be waaaaaay more fabulous than that of a teacher. (For the punchline to that joke, refer to third paragraph.)

I'm on the brink of another major life change all because of some fancy-pants "calling".

What IS a calling anyway? I ask this because not everyone seems to have one, so I'm curious as to what motivates us to act upon certain impulses (or instincts?) especially when it comes to our careers.

I think the call to give back is a mixed-blessing sometimes. In my house, it was unavoidable. I grew up, as I love to point out, in a noisy Irish-Catholic household that talked about Bobby Kennedy as if he were an accomplished first cousin. The Kennedy's, religion, charitable work, literature, art, music and politics were pretty much all that was ever discussed at the dinner table. Or at the breakfast table. Or on rides in my grandfather's old Impala full of cigarette smoke, while I slid from one end of the backseat to the other on every sharp corner as we drove to the beach.

I come from generations of people who had given back. My great-grandfather was a beloved New Haven pediatrician who blew the family's money because he refused payment from so many patients--especially those war brides. My great-grandmother was a schoolteacher who refused to marry until well into her 30s so she could keep teaching, since married women were typically not allowed to teach back in the 20s. My grandmother was an English teacher for 40 years, retiring only a few years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer. My grandfather was part of the civil rights movement, before it was the civil rights movement, in the 1940s. My aunt is a social worker. My mother founded a non-profit shelter for homeless women and children when she was still in her 20s.

I've had it instilled in me from a very young age that you give back. Even if your day-job isn't your life's calling, you find ways to give back. You volunteer. You offer your time and talents to help others. Whether you're helping animals, hungry homeless men or saving wetlands from development, you work for something greater than yourself and one that improves the quality of life for others. It's that simple.

Or is it? I struggled with it, my own charitable efforts ebbing or flowing depending on the year. I desperately wanted my career to match my desire to give back, but I resisted the call to teach because, frankly, it had been done before. I wanted to be different from my family. I didn't want to be just another teacher. I considered pursuing a JD in public health. But that was cost- and time-prohibitive as a single mom, so I then considered nursing school. I think I'd make a great nurse, but I know in my heart I wouldn't be able to turn it off at the end of the day. I cry over roadkill sometimes, for God's sake. I can't handle patients DYING on me. And while I struggled with what I should do professionally, I was teaching yoga and, later, catechism, in my spare time. And so it was that teaching slowly reintroduced itself to me. After one year of teaching CCD to first-graders, I was hooked. I wanted to do this for a living, despite the salary cut. Despite the time it would take to get certified. This is it. I have nothing to prove anymore to my family or to myself. I can be just like them, and that's okay.

I want to be an English teacher. And for the first time in many, many years, I feel like I've reconnected with some kind of truth within myself. Some sense of identity I haven't felt in a long time.

So there you have it.

I sometimes wonder if the call to give back is especially rampant among Catholics. Something driven by...guilt?...that motivates us to work in a field that gives back. I'd love to see a census of the amount of nurses, cops, firemen and teachers who are Catholic, at least here in the Northeast. Of course, not everyone who goes into those professions is motivated to give back. Sometimes they're in it for other reasons, like nepotism, pension, or salary: Their dad was a fireman or cop; Union benefits were, for a while, really good; Nurses now make some pretty rockin' money; Teachers get "all that time off".

Not exactly. As I child, I used to go with my grandmother to set up her sixth-grade English classroom every August. I'd help staple corrugated borders of leaves and acorns to bulletin boards and tack up world maps and quotes from authors. At night, every night, when my homework was finished, Grandma would still be busy correcting papers, entering grades into her gradebook, and preparing the next day's lessons. It seemed Grandma was always working. She was always finding articles, books, field trips and plays to incorporate into the curriculum. She wanted to instill in her students a love of learning. And if she couldn't accomplish that, well then at least she could teach them what they needed to know.

For me, I have a hard time working a desk job for a Fortune 500 company, pushing around papers for the benefit of some executive I've never met. If I can make a living another way, by giving back in some capacity, I'd like to try. I'm not yet 40--I have a couple of years before I get there. It's my goal to have made the switch into teaching by then. God-willing, there will be some jobs available when I'm done with the program in May 2012. There will be 200+ graduates from my program, with just 16 of us certified to teach English. All of us hold Bachelors degrees, many hold Masters degrees, and all of us have worked in a capacity related to our undergraduate degree (I was an English major who wrote professionally for several years). We are qualified out of the gate, and we'll be certified on top of it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I will be teaching by this time next year.

I can't wait for orientation. I can't wait to buy my very own new school supplies after taking such delight in purchasing them a few weeks ago for my boys, who couldn't have cared less about them. It's going to be a major sacrifice of time for the next eight months, but that's nothing. The return on this investment of time and money is immeasurable.

And once I'm certified and gainfully employed as a teacher, I'll go back for my Masters.

I've accepted that I want to teach, and that it's not the glamorous life I had once envisioned for myself. I've accepted that I'm going to be a student in some capacity for the next several years. I've accepted that I'm going to take a pay cut in order to become a teacher, but that it's worth it if I'm happy and if I can make a difference in just one student's life.

I've accepted that life is changing yet again. But I guess that's how I roll. Evolve or die, right?

Here's to evolution.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Catching Up

Good God, I am so overdue to write a real blog entry. I've been so busy enjoying life offline that I've just not felt inspired to sit down and fill up this space with any of it.

Suffice to say, the tomatoes are ripening. The moonflowers and morning glories have taken over parts of my yard. We survived the Tropical Storm/Hurricane Irene intact. We had a great few days in Philly. Sean had a nice long conversation with Bernie Williams. There were boat rides and bike rides and kayaking and lake, pool and ocean swimming. There were carnivals and amusement parks, where Sean indulged his obsession with riding the loopiest rollercoasters. There was beach yoga and sunburns and seaglass to be found. Ian broke out the motorcycle again, while I fell in love with the Fiat 500. On steamy afternoons I enjoyed cool lunches on Grandma's back porch. And overall, summer was fun and hot, and it flew by as usual.

I'll catch up at some point here. I've got a few blogs that might be worth putting together, as well as at least one book review and some awesome recipes worth sharing.

But all I can say right now is that I have new jeans, cardigans and lipstick to greet fall. The new season of SOA starts tonight. The Yanks are back in the number one spot. And Mack the Knife was my song this summer. It was in heavy rotation in my car. I fall asleep with it in my head. I probably dream about it, when I'm not dreaming about long-dead dogs of mine, pets who have come to say hello and roll over for belly rubs while I sleep.

It was a good summer. Again.