Tuning out and tuning in

I hadn’t realized I needed the break until we were there. That may sound a bit daft – how could I not know I needed to get away? That some time off would be a good idea? Wouldn’t I understand my own self?

The answer, apparently, was no. I knew I was looking forward to our trip to Puerto Rico, to sharing the island that Nick and I loved with Ella and Annie, introducing it to my dad and Meg, celebrating my dad’s birthday. I knew I was psyched to be on vacation for six delicious days(!). But I didn’t discover just how stressed and anxious I had become, nor how liberating it would feel to lose that stress and anxiety, until we arrived.
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Fresh tropical popsicles at check-in make everything better.

IMG_0161So does the local rum in your hotel room.

It wasn’t until then, when we were essentially forced to take a break from life as we know it, that I understood not only that I had been feeling tense, but why: politics. More specifically, the ever-present coverage of politics on the news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, every time I turned on the radio.

Politics. Every. Where.

 

In our house, this is not business as usual. Until this last presidential election, Nick and I discussed politics basically never. (Obviously, social justice is a big deal in our family; I know that LGBT concerns, racial prejudice, and women’s rights have become political, but to me they’re just human issues.) It wasn’t that we didn’t care; we did. We had opinions. But, by and large, we trusted our politicians – even those with whom we disagreed – to take care of politics.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York Magazine: “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.”

For the past 16 months or so, I’ve thought of politics virtually daily. And I don’t like it. It’s exhausting; it’s maddening; it’s disheartening; and, without my realizing it, it was seriously stressing me out.

When we got to Puerto Rico, we got out of the news cycle. I unplugged and breathed.
It was glorious.
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Yes, I still checked in; I was aware of what was happening on the mainland. But I didn’t take time to dwell.

Avoiding politics became a deliberate decision. My dad and stepmom, Meg, are often at opposite ends of the political spectrum from Nick and me, so it would have been simple to fall into a debate, even accidentally. We chose not to let it happen. This was a family trip to celebrate my dad’s birthday; that was our focus. (I mean, if I hosted myself a party and someone went on about how awesome the Red Sox are, or started dissing the Yankees, I’d be pissed, y’all.) On this – my dad’s birthday trip – I had no desire to do that to him, to us.

At first, it was actually somewhat challenging; for months now, politics has been dominating my daily life. (And if I believe the news or my Facebook feed, politics is the only possible topic worth discussing or contemplating.) I didn’t know what else to talk about. We began with some slightly pregnant silences…  but they soon abated. How refreshing and renewing it was to consider books, family, movies, school, work, music, travel, food… You know – life outside politics.

IT DOES EXIST.
Sweet fancy Moses!
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Some liberal folks might say it’s my duty to bring up politics, to continually acknowledge that our current political environment is not normal, not okay, should be challenged. I agree that we cannot sit back and do nothing. We must remain aware, engage, keep at it.

But sometimes, it’s okay to sit one out. My friends know how I feel. My family knows how I feel. My dad and stepmom know how I feel. Staying quiet for a few days was not only acceptable, it was necessary.

See, at some point, this political cycle will end. Change will occur. I don’t know how or when or what it will look like, but I do not believe, in ten years, that the world will look as it does today. What I do know is that I adore my family, both my immediate family and my extended family. We may disagree politically, but they’re good people; in fact, they’re some of the goodest people I know. I respect them. I love them. When all is said and done, I want them in my life; I need them in my life.
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Decked out in our matching night kayaking jackets…

Sometimes, the right choice is talking things out. Other times, the right choice is taking a knee. This time, we knelt.

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the awesomeness of our our trip and my taking a break from contemplating politics, but there’s no doubt that it played a significant role. How magnificent it was to not be consumed by fear and anxiety, to not fight the urge to check the New York Times homepage or refresh my Twitter feed – to just be, to enjoy the moments.

How delightful to savor my daughters running in the surf; my dad knocking on our patio door just to say hello; my stepmom being the first to brave the ziplines, despite her fear of heights; my husband being pooped on by a seagull (<– maybe savor is a strong word).

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IMG_0684Zipline-ready!

I ignored my timeline updates and instead presented my dad with his birthday video, discussing it for days thereafter. There was no news, no politics, getting in the way of hearing Ella’s delighted gasp as she dipped her hand in the glowing lagoon of the bioluminescent bay.

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I was able to revel in Annie holding an enormous, rainbow-colored conch during our night snorkeling adventure.

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Night snorkeling: awesome. Also: TERRIFYING.

I gave no thought to the latest headlines when Nick and I took everyone to our favorite restaurant in the world, our hopes high that they would enjoy it too, nerves dancing as we waited for them to take their first bites… followed by relief and glee (and ridiculously full stomachs) as they agreed with our assessment.
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It mattered not what the president was Tweeting when my dad and I got ridiculously tiny (but delicious) coffees at an Old San Juan cafe. I didn’t care what the pundits were saying as I immersed myself in Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography.

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There was no newsfeed calling my attention away from watching the girls make memories with their grandparents: laughing as they sat on bubbling jets in the pool; splashing each other in the ocean; sharing dessert (or sometimes not sharing; hey – it’s dessert); exploring 400 year-old fortresses; .
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Instead of my pre-bedtime ritual of scanning the day’s Top Stories, I sat with my legs in the plunge pool, the ocean 25 yards away, listening to the omnipresent chirping coquis.

I can’t remember the last time I truly missed being on vacation; I’m always bummed to leave, but usually the relief of being in my own bed and returning to routine makes the trip a happy memory. This time, I actively missed it. I’d awaken in the night and think I was back in the hotel, feeling the crushing weight of disappointment when I remembered where I was. It took me several days to even want to look at our photos and videos; I was too sad that we were no longer there.

Looking back, I can easily pinpoint the reason for this: pure. joy. Remarkably, I enjoyed every single minute with my family, my dad and Meg. We had no arguments. No disagreements. For six whole days, we relished one another’s company. The entire trip! (Seriously, what were the chances?) What an absolute gift it was to be able to spend time with these people who I love so fiercely and cherish every moment of it.

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I know that experiences like this are few; next time, the girls may not want to look at us, much less have fun with us. So I’m appreciating the heck out of this one.

Maybe some of that was coincidental. Maybe some of it was luck. But maybe a lot of it had to do with making the conscious decision to tune out and tune in. Yes, it’s a luxury to be able to do so; I know many people cannot afford to turn off politics… which makes me so grateful that I can, and so glad that I did. (Plus, now I feel far more energized to continue persisting and resisting. WIN-WIN.)

In the end, I missed nothing – it was all waiting for me when we returned, believe me – but what we all gained by focusing in instead of out is immeasurable.

Yes, we’ll always have Puerto Rico… but even more than that, no matter what, we have each other. Muy delicioso, indeed.

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We Have Been Chopped

If there’s one thing that can be said about our family, it’s that we love to eat. (It could also be said that we tend to sing a lot and that we always have dog hair on our clothes, but eating is more fun.) Rather conveniently, we also love to cook — all four of us. One of our favorite things to do together is watch cooking and baking shows, from Cake Boss to Restaurant: Impossible to The Next Food Network Star to MasterChef Junior.
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We stumbled upon Cake Boss in 2010 before the show’s popularity skyrocketed; the day we visited Carlo’s with my mom and stepdad, Buddy flew to Chicago to be on Oprah… and everything changed!
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Naturally, the girls are blurry so that the baked goods could be in focus…

We have also logged a lot of time watching Chopped, the Food Network show where the four contestants receive baskets containing “mystery ingredients” (i.e. rice cereal, squid, jelly beans, and cucumbers), all of which need to be incorporated into their final dishes to be presented to the judges… within 20 or 30 minutes. The moment those baskets are opened, we four backseat chefs get to work calling out what we think could/should be done with the ingredients, oohing and ahhhing and gasping and groaning at the chefs’ crazy and awe-inspiring creations.

Although Annie and Ella are very comfortable in the kitchen and, for years now, have been combining… unusual… foods just for the fun of it, they have long opined that it would be truly great to participate in their own version of Chopped — to be given mystery ingredients and then to create something, not only edible but delicious, out of them.

A good many years back, my dad and GrandMeg had gotten to know one of the chefs on Kiawah Island. Eventually, Chef Patrick left the restaurant business to focus on a more entrepreneurial, private chef approach; since then, he’s made several fabulicious meals at my dad and Meg’s house (on Kiawah) for special occasions. For Christmas this year, my dad and Meg very generously “gave” us dinner with Chef Patrick.

Normally when Patrick does his private chef thing, he does all the cooking; occasionally, he gives basic cooking lessons. Seeing that we were going to be in close quarters with a top notch chef who might be able to really teach us a thing or two beyond what we already know, I sent Meg the following email proposing something a little bit different:

When we watch these cooking shows, what impresses us the most is how the chefs are able to think on their feet, how they understand foods and flavors and how to work with the ingredients to create delicious dishes with amazing flavors… We can cook any recipe well; we want more!
So, THAT’S what we’d like to learn. How food works. What ingredients go well together and why? What basic sauces go with what foods, and how do we make them on the fly? What are some simple ways to elevate basic meals to something more flavorful? If we’re getting dinner on the table in a hurry, how can we mix things up so that it tastes different even if we’re pressed for time and using more or less the same ingredients?
So, you know… Essentially Culinary School 101. 😉
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Meg then forwarded my rather, um, broad request to Patrick, who responded like this:
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I think a great place to start would be stocks, sauces and soups and then go into flavor pairings. We could cover the different areas of taste buds on the tongue which make different combinations of food taste so good together… Also covering ingredients you may have sitting in the pantry which could be used to whip up or add flavor to a dinner would be great.
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We could also get the creative juices going with a couple of surprise baskets with different ingredients in them like the show Chopped and see what y’all can come up with for dinner. You could all decide what you could make for dinner with whatever is in the basket. Of course it will be more like some blue plastic boxes. Sounds like fun to me!!
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I was dumbfounded. We get to pretend like we’re on Chopped? But with a real, live, uber-talented chef to guide us? Are you freaking kidding me?? When I read the email to Ella and Annie, they could barely contain their excitement. DREAMS DO COME TRUE, Y’ALL!
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For the first few days of our spring break, we simply took in Kiawah and Charleston, like always, and enjoyed hanging out with family… but really, we were barely containing our excitement for our dinner with Patrick. When at last the day arrived, Chef Patrick showed up and, as promised, lugged in several blue plastic boxes and set them on the counter. Once he’d gotten everything ready, he invited the girls to do the unveiling; they were more than happy to oblige.
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One box held proteins – chicken, sausage, etc. The others held vegetables, fruits, and starches – squash, carrots, parsnips, peppers, white and sweet potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, kiwis, fresh herbs. Additionally, like the contestants on the show, we could help ourselves to the “pantry” – a section of the counter on which Patrick had spread out staples like pasta, garlic, onions, cream, salt and pepper, chicken stock, etc.
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As soon as they looked everything over, both girls immediately had ideas about what to make. Rather than just listen to their thoughts, Patrick had the (genius) idea of inviting them to draw their finished dishes so they could really envision their creations as actual meals instead of just ingredients.
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Next, he checked out their illustrations asked them to describe their “recipes” while he wrote down the key ingredients.
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Yes, that coat does have the Super Bowl insignia on it because Patrick was one of the chefs at this year’s game. So, that’s not cool or anything…
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Once he’d gotten a feel for what the girls wanted, the fun really began. See, ’cause while their ideas were very original and creative, they weren’t necessarily… doable… in their original form. Not wanting to disappoint or discourage them, Patrick considered their suggestions and, working with each girl, tweaked them into something more polished.
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Or, in other words, the tables were turned and suddenly Chef Patrick became the Chopped contestant. Take these random ingredients and make something amazing out them HAHAHA GOOD LUCK.
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Annie’s idea was fairly simple: chicken and pasta with mushrooms and red wine. With Patrick’s guidance, they agreed upon pasta with grilled chicken and mushrooms in a sundried tomato, pesto, and red wine sauce.
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Annie’s drawing was… interesting…
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Ella’s idea was a bit more out of the box. Originally, she envisioned “sausage and potatoes with basil-stuffed raspberries.” After much discussion, with Patrick gently trying to figure out how the heck to incorporate raspberries with the sausage, he and Ella decided on Italian sausage and potato cakes with a raspberry basil balsamic glaze.
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You’ll notice the raspberry glaze drizzled nicely around the outside of Ella’s plate…
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Then it was time to get to work. Although Patrick absolutely ran the show, we helped out in every way that we could – chopping vegetables, chiffonading basil (I don’t know if you can  add -ing to chiffonade but I’m doing it anyway because it sounds way more chef-y to be “chiffonading basil”), browning sausage, boiling potatoes, cutting chicken. When we got to forming the potato cakes (a combination of Italian sausage, white potatoes, onions, basil, and olive oil), we were really winging it – even Patrick admitted he’d never attempted anything like this before, so there was little “advice” to be given.
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Over the course of the several hours it took to pull everything together, Annie and Ella grew antsy and would occasionally wander away to play. As their dishes were nearing completion, we called them back in to show them how things were looking — that Chef Patrick was nearly finished with turning their ideas into a real, honest-to-goodness dinner.
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Watching Patrick add salt to the sauce for the pasta.
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Checking out the nearly-complete raspberry glaze.
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Finally, after an evening of thinking and prepping and cooking, everything was ready. We set the table, gathered up the two main courses, and sat down, anxious to see if the final dishes would be anything beyond merely edible.
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Annie’s pasta with chicken and mushrooms in a sundried tomato, pesto, and red wine sauce. (Obviously, I’m not a food photographer… Carry on…)kiawah cooking15Ella’s Italian sausage and potato cakes (raspberry basil balsamic glaze to the side).
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You guys? They were more than merely edible. They were delicious.
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The pasta was light and fresh but filling. The sausage-potato cakes, the ones that Ella and Chef Patrick invented on the spot and then had to actually make doable? SO. FREAKIN’ GOOD. The potato and the sausage combined beautifully, the texture was just right, and the onions and basil added the perfect amount of flavor; even the raspberry sauce was fabulous, a sweet-ish (but not too sweet) complement to the saltiness of the cakes. We were in heaven; when Patrick joined us (we insisted that he eat with us because duh), he agreed, somewhat stunned, that their collaboration had turned out pretty damned well.
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Just a wee bit proud of herself… 
Oh! And you can see the raspberry sauce in the tureen, too.kiawah cooking17Thumbs up!
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After dinner, Annie helped Chef Patrick assemble two super-easy pudding fruit tarts. They, like the main courses, were absolutely dee-lish.
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It got late, so she changed into her jammies…
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It’s a month later and still we can hardly believe it: our girls created recipes off the top of their heads (recipes that were inspired by Chopped-style baskets!) and then a world-class chef took their ideas and turned them into dinner. CHEF PATRICK MADE THEIR RECIPES! It’s like we sent an idea to JK Rowling and she wrote a story based on our thoughts! Holy crap, people!!
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Or, at Annie succinctly put it:
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They say that, if you’re aiming to cultivate happiness, focus on experiences and not things; you’ll soon grow tired of the latest gadget, but the memories you make while doing something incredible will provide you with lifelong joy. I can say, without a doubt, that the memories of our evening spent watching Patrick make magic (and dinner!) with our girls will continue bringing us happiness for – well, pretty much forever. How unbelievably fortunate we are, and how grateful we are to Chef Patrick (and my dad and Meg) for making it so!
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We have been Chopped… in the best possible way.