I bought a $12 container of popcorn because I was afraid of a Boy Scout

Yes, it’s true. But there’s more to it than that. I’m not scared of all Boy Scouts. Just this one. And I’m not convinced that he was a Boy Scout at all. More like a Man Walkabout, without a uniform.

It wasn’t Halloween yet, so I wasn’t expecting anyone in a costume when the doorbell rang. Strange timing, I thought. About 8 pm, not terribly late but later than UPS usually delivers and it was already pitch dark.

Not knowing whether I wanted to answer, I peered through the living room window, where I could see the profile of a person standing on the front steps. Not a neighbor, not one of my kids’ friends, but also not someone with a clipboard or a stack of pamphlets. So I flicked on the overhead light and opened the door a few inches.

“Hello ma’am, I’m with the Boy Scouts,” this obviously grown man person without a costume or a Boy Scout-related chaperone said. Come to think of it, I didn’t even see a car, or bike, or any other mode of transportation. Did he walk here? And if so, from where?

“I visited yesterday and your husband said he was interested in buying popcorn, but he didn’t have the cash at the time.”

Then I saw the container of popcorn he was holding up. Yes, it had a picture of a Boy Scout on it. Ok, that’s promising. But wait. He walked here from wherever he came from, carrying only this one order for a single customer? That didn’t seem right.

“Um, ok.” I said. “How much is it?”

“Twelve dollars, ma’am.” Shut the front door! I mean, I didn’t actually shut the front door. At least not yet. Twelve dollars for what would cost a couple bucks at the grocery store? That’s crazy talk.

“Just a second,” I said. And then I did shut the front door, long enough to yell up the stairs to my husband:

“Hey, did you agree to pay twelve dollars for Boy Scout popcorn?”

A moment of silence.

“Oh yeah, but I didn’t have enough money.” Some rummaging ensued, and my husband came down the stairs with his wallet.

“Oh, I still only have two dollars. Do you have ten?”

“Hang on another second,” I told the Man Cub waiting on our steps, and got my wallet. Thank god, I had a ten dollar bill.

“Here you go!” I said cheerfully, shoving the money out the front door and grabbing the popcorn.

He said thank you very much, and I watched him walk away to . . . wherever he had come from. I almost expected him to disappear into the evening mist.

On one hand, I wanted to be annoyed that my husband had summoned this person back to our house with the sole intent to take my money. But then I remembered the time I ordered four years’ worth of magazines from an adorable young woman with a very sad back story and photos to prove it, only to find out a year later that I only had a year’s subscription.

Gullible, much? Or just afraid to say no? A little of both, I think.

It’s probably best if we just stop answering the door.

I wonder if the popcorn is any good?

I don’t believe in ghosts. But I believe in ghost cats.

There are certain places that my departed cats seem to like hanging around. They’re basically the same places they liked to be when they actually walked on four legs–any place where they might get fed, or could play with water.

Often I’ll be standing at the kitchen sink, or at one of the bathroom sinks, and I’ll feel that familiar delicate brushing of the back of my leg with their whiskers or the side of their face, inquiring if dinner is going to be soon. Or the slight flick of their tail as they circle me, winding between my legs and making it impossible for me to take a step for fear of squashing them. Sometimes I’ll feel the cool, “bop bop bop” of a tiny nose tapping against my leg, sniffing for who knows what.

I’ll turn around, and sometimes it’s my actual, living cats. But sometimes there is nothing there.

I’ll look around to see if maybe one of them brushed past me and quickly left the room, but usually I’ll see them both snoozing on their cat beds on the dining room table. Beds that, inexplicably, they refused to get inside, but will make biscuits on the top until they flatten out and become mattresses instead of hidey caves.

They don’t just make themselves known by touch. I’ll also hear them going down the stairs. Always down, never up. I’m not sure why. I’ll be sitting on the couch, right next to the stairs, and hear the unmistakable padding of paws down the stairs, each one followed by the slight click of their toenails. I would like to say that sometimes it’s my actual cats, but there’s never a cat there. Our floors are creaky, but they don’t mimic the sound of a cat walking down the stairs.

But most unsettling is seeing them. I mean, I don’t see them. But my two cats do. Always in our bedroom or closet, and always on the ceiling. They will both pause, look up at the same spot on the ceiling, and then their eyes will dart back and forth, back and forth, always looking at exactly the same spot. I have followed their gaze many times, looking for a bug, or a spider, or a swaying spider web, or a shadow, or a flash of light from outside. There is never anything there. I think, maybe it’s a sound coming from the HVAC system, or a bird or squirrel on the roof, but I never hear anything.

This mostly happens in our walk-in closet, where we have one of our cats’ ashes.

If I thought there were a ghost of a person in my house, I would move the hell out. Even if it was someone I knew and loved. That’s just too creepy. But the cats? I don’t know, it’s kind of reassuring. Like they’re just visiting to make sure everything is ok, maybe giving our cats some pointers about getting at the hidden snacks, sniffing the different foods they’re eating, sniffing their butts.

Our cats don’t seem too concerned about it, so I guess it’s ok with me.

Sometimes you just have to quit: How I prepared in advance for my own mental breakdown

I’ve always been an independent person. I don’t like to ask for help. I’m slightly on the introverted side, so I prefer to work by myself. Or with one or two people I really like. But most of all, I like to be creative. This was a good place to be, more than 20 years ago, when I started my career in corporate communications and was in a small team, managing a small publication on my own.

Then things started getting uncomfortable. There were promotions, there were children, there were projects and people to manage. All normal milestones in life, and of course there were many aspects of these changes that I enjoyed. And I was good at it. I could work 12 hours a day, take care of the kids, pay the bills, and all with a sunny disposition.

On one hand, I was proud of being able to accomplish so many things at once. But being good at getting things done is exhausting when the things you’re getting done are not ones you want to be doing. I’m talking about the work side of things, not kids or my home life. Those areas of my life I always cherished, but I never had enough time to really pay attention to them. To just enjoy them.

A slight buzzing had started in my head, a kind of background noise that crept in during times of stress and faded when things got quiet. Things were never quiet for long, and the moments of peace got to be few and far between.

The moment I knew I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, was when I was at home, giving a presentation to our CEO on the phone, with my boss on the line to assess my performance, while holding a squirming, sick, screaming toddler. I thought: Ok, now is the time to start hatching my escape plan.

You would think that planning ahead to leave something you don’t enjoy would make “that thing” easier to deal with. It didn’t. It made it worse. Watching my nest egg grow much too slowly, doing the calculations to determine when it was “safe” to leave . . . And the guilt of knowing that I was making a conscious decision to go from supporting my family to potentially making no money for a long time. It was suffocating.

The buzzing got worse.

I was anxious all the time. My heart raced, my blood pressure rose. I sweated even when I was cold.  In quiet moments I would sit and listen to my pulse pounding in my ears, and I could feel it in my nose. Sometimes I would get nosebleeds.

Eventually I got depressed. Nothing could make me happy. I withdrew from friends, family, activities, everything. I just wanted to be left alone.

One morning I found myself in my hotel room, pacing up and down the floor in my towel, gasping for breath. The reason? An event I was running later that day, one that I had run for 5 years in a row. In fact, one of many events and large meetings I ran throughout the year. Nothing major had ever gone wrong at any of them, and there was nothing special about this one.

But as I was getting ready to dry my hair and get dressed, I had a horrible thought: I couldn’t imagine the event happening. Usually before an event, I run through it in my mind, and I can see everything happening the way it should. That always gave me peace of mind, like I was just following a script that was already written. In this case, however, I couldn’t “see” the event. I took it as an omen that something was going to go terribly wrong, and my brain was protecting me by not letting me see it.

I panicked. I thought about packing my bag and running away. But I didn’t. I got through the event, it went well, and I got on the train and was happy to see my family when I got home. Fortunately that was only a few weeks before I walked out the door of my building for the last time, because I don’t think I would have survived another challenge.

I’ve been “free” for 9 months. Quitting wasn’t easy. I felt like . . . a quitter. And I still do.

If I had been a stronger person, I could have gone to therapy, taken antidepressants and continued on in my job for another 20 years. But even the thought of that depressed me. I don’t want to look back on my life and think “wow, I really hung in there, didn’t I?” There are no medals or rewards for suffering in silence.

So here I am, hustling to get freelance writing work every day, getting some here and there, writing personal things for my own amusement, and slowly adjusting to a life without constant stress. It sounds easy, but ironically, it’s a little . . . um, stressful. But there’s negative stress that eats at your mind and body, and then there’s constructive stress, which drives you to work hard at doing something you enjoy.

I can deal with constructive stress. So . . . Here I am. And here I go!

“Someone threw a HERB at me!”

My son has always had a strained relationship with nature. He doesn’t like to go outside if it’s hot or sunny, because he gets sweaty very easily. If he is forced to go outside, he first puts on his sun hat and then inspects his surroundings to make sure there aren’t any bugs in the vicinity. If a bug is sighted, he immediately heads indoors.

A couple of greenery-related experiences could have contributed to his distrust of the outdoors. Or if not, they’re still amusing to me.

He couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, going somewhere with my husband in the car. They stopped for gas and the attendant, after peering in the window at my son in his car seat, declared “What a handsome little fella, he looks like a Bush!” Meaning the former president, which of course went right over my son’s head. He was quiet for awhile, then as they pulled away, my husband heard him say softly, as if to himself, “That man called me a bush!” I still wonder what he really thought that meant. And for the record, he does not look like he’s related to anyone in the Bush family. Or would that be the bush species? He also doesn’t look like any type of shrubbery.

Fast forward about 7 years. I love gardening, and I often force my son outside to help me transplant and water plants. He’s familiar with most varieties of the herbs and vegetables growing in our garden. One day the kids were getting in the car, and as usual they argued about who was going to get the front seat. Being smaller and faster, he got to it first.

As she got in the car, my daughter grabbed a leaf from a nearby basil plant and threw it over the front seat in retaliation. There was a moment of silence, followed by a loud exclamation: “Someone threw a HERB at me!” This made us cackle for so many reasons. Mostly because he pronounced it with the “H.” As if someone had physically thrown a man named Herb over the front seat of the car. Also, he was aware that “someone” had thrown it, but didn’t know who. My daughter was the only one in the back seat. Who on earth could it have been, if not her? And then there’s the formal (if incorrect) way he identified the basil leaf. He knew it was an herb, but didn’t know which type. Not wanting to dumb things down by simply calling it a leaf, he called it A HERB. So now, when I go outside to water anything, I’m going to water my Herbs.

He hates when I tell both these stories, so of course I have to publish them so I will never forget how to tell them.

 

Mediterranean Mashup: A Delicious Disaster

I made up a recipe awhile back for pizza with a Mediterranean theme—spinach, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, feta cheese, etc. I painstakingly took photos of each step as I made it, intending to post the recipe here. Then I looked at the photos: The pizza itself, with each topping added one by one. It was essentially the same photo over and over. That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!

I never said I was especially bright.

So, I invited my friend Karen over one night, and we re-enacted the making of the pizza, with “action shots” instead of pizza shots. Ok, there are a few pizza shots too.

Let’s start with the first photo, above. This shows you everything you will need to make the pizza—except the fresh oregano and basil. I thought of those after I took the photo.

ARGH! I mentioned artichoke hearts, but I didn’t use them this time, so they are not pictured above. But really, wouldn’t artichokes be overkill at this point? Use them if you like, though. They are good. Use the softest parts, chop them into small chunks and add them with the rest of the toppings in Step 8.

Here’s a complete list of ingredients (minus the artichokes):

Pizza dough (or premade pizza crust)
Ricotta cheese (low fat)
Mozzarella cheese (part skim)
Feta cheese (fat free)
Frozen spinach
Fresh oregano and basil (or dried)
Sundried tomatoes
Garlic (any kind—fresh/chopped, jar/minced, or pre-roasted cloves like I used here)
Kalamata olives
Seasonings—salt, pepper, red pepper flakes

Step 1:

Preheat oven to 375. I put it on convection bake. If you have a pizza stone, even better! Let it sit in the oven to heat up.

Step 2:

Microwave the frozen spinach until thawed, dump in a strainer (I sometimes call it a colander, what do you call it?) and press it down to get as much liquid out as possible. I used a paper towel to absorb some of the liquid. Watch out, that spinach can be very hot. Let it sit there and cool.

I didn’t take a photo of that part. I got distracted by something shiny.

Step 3:

Roll out the dough.

This turned out to be more challenging than we thought. Sometimes I’ll get a premade, already baked crust, so you can dive right in with adding the toppings. This time I got a fresh ball of pizza dough, thinking that the texture would be better. That was true, but it took some wrestling and a lot of flour to get the dough rolled out. Make sure to leave the dough in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Once it warms up, it’s harder to work with.

We put a light layer of flour on a piece of parchment paper (the pizza will stay on this during cooking) and used a rolling pin to roll the dough out as thin as possible.

Oops, I lied. Sorry. We didn’t put the dough on the parchment paper, and it was hard to pull it off the countertop. Put the parchment paper down first, then a layer of flour, then the dough.

I would like to say that we ended up with a perfect circle, but it was more like a lopsided square. Someday I’m going to learn how to throw a pizza to make it round.

Pizza 4

Before adding any toppings, brush the whole surface of the dough with olive oil (all the way to the edge).

Step 4:

Cheese!

Pizza 5

Spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese on the dough, stopping at about an inch from the edge. I think we used most of the container. Add some salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes if you like it a little spicy. I like it a LOT spicy.

Step 5:

Add the spinach.

Pizza 6

It’s easiest to use your fingers to drop pinches of the spinach all over the pizza.

Step 6:

Sprinkle on the entire bag (yes, the entire bag) of mozzarella cheese.

Pizza 7

Finally, add the feta cheese. Just use as much as you like. We used the whole container.

Step 7:

Fresh oregano . . . and fresh basil.

Chop about a tablespoon of oregano (or dried), and as much basil as you like. We used about a quarter cup. Sprinkle these all over the pizza. I put these on now instead of the very end, so they wouldn’t get dried out while cooking.

Ok, I lied again. I made the mistake of putting them on at the end, and they got crispy. Don’t do that. Put them on now.

Step 8:

The rest of the toppings. Chop your sundried tomatoes, olives and garlic, and add those in any order you like.

Pizza 10

We only took a photo of chopping our pre-roasted garlic, but we really did also chop the olives and sundried tomatoes. In any amount that you like. I used roughly a small handful of each.

This is where you can add chopped artichoke hearts if your heart (get it?) desires. I’m picky about mine: Even though everything in the can is edible, I usually strip off the outer layer of the artichoke heart before chopping because it’s a little stringy/chewy.

Man, I really need to get new knives.

Here’s roughly what the pizza will look like before it bakes. I hope for your sake that yours is round.

Pizza 11

Step 9:

Into the oven!

Pizza 12

Transfer the pizza, still on the parchment paper, to your preheated pizza stone. If you don’t have a pizza stone, you can place it directly on the center rack.

It was a good thing Karen was there, as the pizza transfer takes at least 3 hands. We had 4 hands, and still almost dropped it.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, checking often once you hit 15 minutes. If the cheese is melted and the crust is just slightly brown, it’s done.

Step 10:

Eat! Here’s the finished product.

Pizza 13

It was delicious. Enjoy!

“Women like a man with a big back po’ch!”

Scenes from The Princess and the Frog that we watch over, and over, and over . . .

One of my kids’ favorite Disney movies (and mine) is The Princess and the Frog. Lately we’ve been watching it a lot, and there are a few scenes that always make us laugh, rewind and watch again.

One is the first scene with Raymond.  I apologize for the terrible quality clip. It’s the best I could find.

“Women like a man with a big back po’ch!”

S. likes to say this randomly during conversation and then slap his rear end. J. says he has a “juicy butt,” which is kind of gross, but the description has stuck.

So . . . as Ray would say, “Well, there you go!”