Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Nascent Grill Mistress

Tonight, I grilled for the first time.  At almost 50.  Grilling is something men do, not women.  At least, that’s what our culture has conditioned us to believe, and we play those roles quite well.  How many times have you breathed in that succulent, smoky aroma, looked around to see from which neighbor’s house the fragrant scent is coming from, and discovered the woman of the house tending the grill?  Not often, I would bet.  That’s what husbands are for.  They grill, we cook.  But in my case, both my husbands are well out of the scene.  They had both done a stellar job in their roles as grill masters, and I was sorry to have that perk of marriage stolen from me.  Somehow, I can never get Natalie excited about the idea that I can also grill burgers, or chicken, or anything else for that matter.  “No Mom, let’s just sauté that in the frying pan,” is her rote response every time I suggest I give the grill a whirl.   

But tonight, I was alone.  And tonight, I was hungry.  For meat.  Red meat.  Something I don’t get enough of, according to my doctors.  And something I should be eating a lot more often.  So, off to Whole Foods I went.   I opted for 80% lean.  Not just because it was on sale, although that was a nice bonus.  I opted for 80% lean because the more fat, the more tender, the more flavorful.  I am all about eating as much fat as I can possibly get into my body.  And 80% is as high fat as they offer.  I bought two pounds, but had the butcher make up one-pound packages.  I froze one, for some future day when the meat craving hits and I simply don’t want to leave the house just to quench my cannibalistic urges.

Next step: text my second husband, who technically is still my husband anyway.  No matter that we haven’t lived together for eight months.  We are great friends, and we offer a helping hand whenever we can.  I texted, “I’m finally going to try grilling tonight!  Bought 80% lean hamburger at Whole Foods.  Any recommendations for nascent grillers?”  He responded, “Ah, just wait for the flames to die down!  Maybe try three minutes per side, depending on how thick.  And have fun!”  He knows how rare I love my burgers, and probably remembers well the contentious moments when he accidentally got my burgers too done.  I had watched him on many occasions build the fire and let the flames go down.  I had seen him watch the clock, timing the burgers just so.  Our grill, well, it’s a grill.  No fru fru, no amenities, no accoutrements.  No knobs, no gas, no charcoal, no matching aprons and hot pads and chef hat, no fancy grill utensils.  Just a round metal bowl on three legs, the metal grill plate, and a lid with vents.  Pretty basic.  Oh, and a little stick, charred on one end, to place the grill over the flames once the wood burns down a little.  I had watched him wad up newspaper into balls, throw those into the bottom, chop up wood, set the paper to fire, and let the flames work their magic.  On good days, his rummaging around the garage netted a few pieces of prime piñon we had confiscated from the woods in New Mexico, hauling it back to Colorado just for this purpose.  Tonight, my rummaging met with no such luck.  However, I did manage to find enough pieces of wood small enough to allow me to skip the chopping component of the grill session.  That is a task I am happy to leave out. 

My intentions to grill had been gaining strength.  Not surprising, as so were my cravings for red meat.  Long ago, I had drawn a picture of what the grill should look like, built and ready for the placement of the piece de resistance.  It had been hanging on our dry erase board for about two years.  Tonight, the moment had arrived for that picture to come to life.
  
First, I formed three beautiful patties, mixing in some Jane’s Crazy Salt.  I liberally peppered the patties after that, but on the outside.  And I didn’t stop with the meat.  I decided if I’m grilling, I’m grilling.  So I decided to grill New Mexico style.  Which means, chile.  It never takes me too long to find green chile in my freezer.  The green chile I found tonight was still whole, and lucky for me, I had already removed the skin and seeds.  I threw a few pods on the grill, along with some thickly-sliced onion.  Ah, the aroma!  It transported me straight to heaven.  Alas, I lost a couple of onion chunks to the depths of the ashes, but I saw that as my offering to the Grill Gods.  As my burgers sizzled, I poked around the garden and found a few perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes.  Pluck, pluck!  Those would make a colorful addition to my plate.

Realizing that I hadn’t followed instructions to let the flames die down ~ I was hungry and that is not a good formula for waiting for flames to die down ~ I decided I better cut a minute off the cooking time.  I flipped my burgers after about 2 ½ minutes, and took them off about 2 ½ minutes after that.  Fearing they might be underdone, I let them sit a few moments, since we all know that meat keeps cooking even after being taken off the flame.  With a bit of trepidation, I bit into my burger.  OMG.  Pure Bliss.  Rich smokiness and char-broiled to perfection.  My burgers even had those quintessential grill marks on them, probably from not waiting until the flames went down.  I smiled a huge, smug smile, and looked around to see if any of my neighbors had noticed it was me grilling, and not Jon.  No such luck, but oh well. 

Deciding a few days earlier that I had to finally get serious about going gluten free, I had picked up some gluten-free beer.  Not the same, and not my beloved Negra Modelo by a long shot.  But, beer nonetheless, and alcohol nonetheless. That beer helped me relax and feel confident about my grilling endeavors.  Also deciding that I had to finally get serious about going dairy free, I decided to top my burger with goat cheese.  Not that that’s exactly dairy free, but according to some, it counts.  My avocado wasn’t quite ripe, so I had to forego that scrumptious addition.  But hey.  The chile was HOT, the beer was COLD, the meat was pink and tender, the cheese was creamy and mild, the onions were succulent, the tomatoes were sweet, the blue corn chips were crispy, the night was beautiful.  All in all, it was a magical meal.  So simple, so primitive, so earthy.  And… so empowering.  Women, unite!  We don’t need men!  At least, we certainly don’t need them to grill up an amazing meal.  I bid adieu to the Grill Gods… and I know that we will meet again very soon. 
  





Even though I didn’t follow instructions to let the flames die down, I did follow instructions to have fun!  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Seeing with New Eyes


The old woman’s eyes meet mine as our distance nears and she comes into focus as I walk down the street, unknowingly approaching her vegetable “stand.”  Avocados three times bigger than any I have ever seen are spread around her, spilling onto the street and sidewalk.  A broad smile reveals gaps where teeth once were.  Interspersed with the gaps are shiny crowns of gold, which glint in the morning sun and make me blink.  Cataracts only slightly dim the sparkle in her eyes.  As she shifts her position, bare feet emerge from underneath her multi-colored, hand-woven skirt.  Cracked heels and calloused toes tell me she’s probably never owned a pair of shoes.

On the shores of this sacred lake, stark contrasts continually appear.  Fertile volcanic soil bathes the surrounding landscape, offering up exotic fruits and vegetables of every shape and size and color imaginable.  That same rich soil is home to some of the most extreme poverty in the world.  People live without running water, without healthcare, without a reliable education system, without much, if any, help from their government.  Residents eke out a living on this lush land, because not much Earth has been left to them.  It’s been sieged and ravaged by war, by conflict, by colonialism and sometimes, by Mother Nature.  Yet, they are smiling.  And they seem genuinely happy. 

As I travel around the lake, the disparities continue.  Young children, no more than three or four years old, are clad in artistically-woven skirts, tops, and pants.  These hand-made garments divulge where they are from, where their ancestors originated, and what status in life they enjoy.  Barefoot but always smiling, they hawk their wares to the tourists.  Exquisite belts, blouses, jewelry, scarves, bedspreads…. all woven or pieced together with intricate detail and seemingly effortless aptitude.  The fullness of their culture is reflected in their joyful faces, their beautiful clothing, and their enduring traditions.

I find a little church in one of the villages, and duck inside.  There I discover a few women lighting candles, chatting, and praying.  The heady scent of copal fills the space, smoky and thick.  Two sides of the church are lined with deities that are at once Catholic and Indigenous.  Little dolls and other figures resemble Christian characters, but on closer examination, they betell their true identity.  Clad in the same gorgeous weaves, with brown skin and brown eyes, and names that are not European.  The women seem to have entire conversations with these figures, making gestures and offering up candles and herbs.  They are solemn, yet they look very comfortable in this space, and appear to be in no hurry to leave.  They are protected by these walls, blackened over time from the constant smoke of candles and incense.  This tiny sanctuary offers up a quiet refuge to rest and reflect.  I close my eyes.  The waves of the Lake appear. 

Shapes and hues and colors undulating and rippling their way through and across the Lake suddenly make me feel dizzy.  Sunlight and shadows mingle, like an elaborate, yet intricate mosaic.  Deep greens and translucent blues interlace, like the patterns on the clothes worn by these courageous people.  I am deep within Mother Earth in this tranquil cave, yet I feel the relentless ebb and flow of the waves pushing and pulling me until I feel restricted, then stretched, like a rubberband being shaped and reshaped.  It is exhausting, and exhilarating.  I am a dancer, moving and swaying to an ever-changing rhythm.

I take a deep breath.  Suddenly my own life’s problems seem so minute, so irrelevant.  Witnessing these people, strong in who they are, alive in their beings, with the inherent knowledge that they will not be oppressed beyond repair, gives me much hope for humanity.  If these beautiful people can find a way to be happy and accept their lives, despite all odds, certainly I can do the same.  Our self-worth can always overcome cruel and unimaginable treatment by others. 

I touch my neck, and wrap my fingers around the strand of beads I bought from the abuelita outside the church.  I have been spiritually cleansed, not just from the shaman who performed the ritual on me, but through my inner eye, which has allowed me to see my world in a new way.  Realizing I’m hungry, I step outside into the brightness, and delve into a plump avocado.  Rich and creamy, it nourishes my body and soul.
 
 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Great Flood


The Great Flood entered our basement last July.  Having spent the day in Longmont, I was completely unaware of how severe a rainstorm we had gotten in Boulder.  A beautiful day awaited my return, sunny and warm as you please.  As soon as I pulled into the driveway, that beautiful day came to an end.  My neighbor was outside, looking frantic as she sometimes does, so I didn’t think much about it.  She came immediately over and said, “Fiona, you might want to go look in your basement.”  “Oh!” I replied, wondering why.  “What happened?”  Only then did I learn about the torrential rain that had passed through earlier that afternoon.

As I descended the stairwell, my heart sank in tune with each step.  When I reached the bottom, the destruction came into focus.  After a really loud, “Oh, shit!” I started wading.  Standing water a foot high awaited me, and a weird smell to go with it.  Everything on the floor was saturated.  Once-rigid boxes had become soft and soggy, sometimes spilling their contents into the water.  What first came to sight was all the granola, energy bars, packaging material, marketing material, t-shirts, and sundry other business items that were quickly getting ruined.  “I gotta save this granola!” I thought.  Never mind the photos, the generations of family history, my daughter Natalie’s artwork, papers, school projects, slides, books, life mementos, Guatemalan textiles, letters, postcards, Spanish teaching materials, travel memoirs, and other items of significance.  All these things were also drowning.  But in my reactive mode, I did not act rationally.  Whatever I laid my eyes on next, I decided must be the most important thing to haul out of there.  
 
Through the loss that became apparent as the days went by, the sadness deepened.  I dried out as many photos and pieces of Natalie’s artwork I could, but the defeat set in.  Not only did I have the material losses to deal with, but the emotional ones were what really wiped me out.  

The rationale for not addressing these material goods has always been, “I’m too busy.”  Too busy raising a child, too busy running a company, too busy going to school, too busy moving around the country or around the world.  So I found a simple solution: pile all my belongings into boxes.  On a good day I’d remember to label them, but not all days were good days.  When The Great Flood struck, I had more mystery boxes in the basement than I could imagine, some labeled, some not.  Some I had not opened for decades.

As it came to pass, one flood unleashed another.  Stuffed away in the basement, dark and concealed, it’s easy to forget one’s life accumulations.  But when they rise to the surface, and even float, they cannot be ignored.  They must be dealt with, one way or another.  And so, I’ve decided there’s no time like the present.  The basement now dry, it is me who is currently drowning in clutter.  Considering that I do not consider myself a materialist, I am in awe at how much stuff I have accumulated.  I owned my last car for 15 years until I didn’t feel safe driving it anymore.  I have purposely lived in third-world countries with families who had no hot water, a diet consisting mostly of beans and rice, rudimentary plumbing, and few of the “creature comforts” that many of us take for granted.  I do not want THINGS - in fact I beg people to not buy or give me THINGS.  I am constantly assembling THINGS to give away - clothes, jewelry, books, food, knickknacks, chatchkies, and “happies,” as my mother-in-law Gege calls them.  “Happies” are all the Valentine’s goodies, St. Patrick’s Day schwag, Easter paraphernalia, Thanksgiving frollies, birthday mementos, Christmas ornaments, and all kinds of things in between, that Gege somehow can’t resist sending us for every possible occasion.
 
The truth is, I do finally have time to go through all this clutter.  That was one of the benefits I knew could be realized by taking time off.  “I’ll finally have time to clear out all this stuff!”  But who thought It would be so difficult?  Who thought It would be so emotionally taxing?  “It” has become it’s own entity in my household, a presence I find easier to avoid than face.  I have learned that being sentimental is a sharp, double-edged sword. 

When I look for something I can’t find it.  When I find it I don’t know what to do with it.  The frustration sets in, my body heats up with stress, and I leave the room.  Put it out of my sight and try to put it out of my mind.

I even found old love letters from my first husband.  Now why would I keep those?  Is there some sentimental value there?  It was a painful divorce, and he certainly doesn’t feel this way about me now.  Should I save them for Natalie?  Would she find some sort of comfort knowing first-hand that we were truly happy for a lot of years?  Or would reading those letters make her even angrier that we split up?  I don’t know if reading those letters would help her or hurt her, so until I think I know the answer, I choose to keep them.  Sigh.

Just last week, I got rid of all the National Geographics that have been sitting on my bookshelf since 1994.  I found parts of eight years worth of these beloved magazines.  Always thinking I’d get back to them, always thinking I’d find time to read them.  Not that I actually got rid of them.  I am certainly not capable of that.  After all, my decades-old dream of being a writer for National Geographic stays with me.  But they did go into plastic bins and down to, yes, the basement.  That opened up room for more of my beloved cookbooks that I had stuffed on top of all my other cookbooks.  Not that I’ll ever get to those either!  But my love of cooking and baking is so fierce, those cookbooks are not going anywhere.  And some of them are heirlooms.  Both my grandmother MM and my great aunt Leni were magnificent chefs, and I like to think their culinary talents live on through me.

Clearing my clutter goes way beyond the basement.  There’s my office, replete with business paraphernalia from the last 11 years.  There’s Leni’s old hutch in the hallway, its little drawers so stuffed with things I can hardly tell what’s there.  There are my music CD’s, which I’m slowly getting onto my iPod and my computer, so that the mountains of disks can go away.  Kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets, file cabinets, the garage, and just about every closet in the house - they all beckon to me.  

Initially, I was so excited about clearing my clutter, sometimes I got jittery.  “I can’t wait!” I fooled myself.  “It’ll be fun and just think of all the goodies I’ll unearth.”  Now that I’ve started, “fun” is about the last word to come to mind.  Interesting, yes.  Revealing, yes.  Heart-warming, yes.  But fun?  That is no longer a word I use to describe going through my clutter.  Most days I feel heavy, like I’m being burdened.  It has occurred to me that I could hire someone to help me clear my clutter.  But why should I give someone else the power to decide what’s important to keep and what isn’t?  How would someone else understand the sentimental value I attach to so much of what’s down there?  What will I ever do with MM’s old ski outfit from the 1920’s?  Or Leni’s tapes from her German Radio Hour?  Or Papa’s wooden stamp organizer?  Hired professionals won’t know that MM managed to get that ski suit out of Nazi Germany during a time she was lucky to be alive.  Or that Leni had enjoyed a flourishing acting career, often landing leading roles, and that her German Radio Hour on WBUR Boston was her way of holding onto some of that glorious past.  Or that my grandfather had been a respected professor at the University of Berlin, teaching Physics, Math, and Chemistry, and that he had amassed an amazing stamp collection.  Seeing these mementos reminds me of how miraculous their escape was, and how rich my heritage is.  To let these things go is to let go of a very important part of my past.  Somehow, I just can’t do it.
 
Truth is, I’m finding wonderful treasures in all my rubble, even in my office.  Adorable cards and notes and letters Natalie has written to me over the years, together with precious photos that for some reason were stashed away with my business documents.  And hey, the other day I found an old beat-up envelope I almost tossed.  So glad I didn’t, because inside I found a stash of cash left over from farmer’s market, $535 to be exact.  Not a bad day for cleaning out the Tower of Power, my tattered but beloved office cabinet.
 
Some days I feel stronger than others.  Some days seem to set me back more than allow me to move forward.  One day, just when I felt a great strength come on that I really could toss so many of my old business materials from the last decade, the idea popped into my head that perhaps I should  listen to what so many people have told me over the years: that I ought to write a book about my experience starting and running a granola company.  Oh brother.  I guess that means I do need to save those years of daytimer fillers and farmers market notebooks I just found.  Sigh.

Through all this pondering, I’ve discovered if I am going to get through this, I need an attitude adjustment.  Hence, I have instigated one.  I’ve decided it’s not healthy to dub my belongings “stuff” or “clutter” or “junk.”  So I am renaming.  My THINGS are now called “Family History,” “School Projects,” “Travel Memoirs,” “Biz Materials,” “Personal Treasures,” “Life Mementos,” etc.  I’ve also realized that just getting all these items organized lends a tremendous sense of relief.  Plastic bins of varying colors have replaced boxes, and every one will have a label.  I remind myself that many of these objects evoke precious memories.  How can I complain about that?  The items that bring forth heartache and pain, well, I can either get rid of those, or write about them as a healing mechanism.  Perhaps one of my bins will be titled “Items for Healing.”  I will also start rewarding myself when I finish little projects.  I recently downloaded 2,234 photos off my camera.  Wow!  They are now in folders on my computer, and some of them even made their way to DVDs.  I’m not saying the folders are organized or the disks make logical sense.  But they are off the camera and in a safe place, so I need to give myself credit for that. 

Sharing this dilemma has netted sound advice.  One suggestion was to scan items such as artwork and family documents onto a computer, instead of stuffing them into bins.  Then let them go.  Another suggestion was to integrate my “clearings”  into my daily or weekly schedule, even if that only amounts to a few hours a week.  “You will appreciate every little bit of progress, and that progress will fuel you to keep going,” one friend told me.  As it turns out, she is absolutely right.  Filling up the recycling bin, topping off bags for Goodwill or EFAA, organizing bookshelves, and clearing out filing cabinets brings me more joy than I ever thought possible.  And seeing “empty space” - wow, that “emptiness” allows me to breathe more deeply and brings its own sense of fulfillment.  Another piece of advice: “If it has no sentimental value, out it goes.”  Taking this statement to heart allowed me to get rid of odd pieces of furniture, old utensils, books I’ll never read, games I’ll never play, obsolete electronic items, baskets I have no use for, replicate plant holders, and other sundry items.  Upon discussing my clothes with someone, she said, “If you haven’t worn it for a year, you probably won’t wear it for another year, so get rid of it.”  That piece of advice has been harder to implement, but I cannot deny it’s probably true.  Another friend told me, “We think there is value in the things we hold onto, and so that’s why we hold onto them.  But these things only have value if they are put to use.  If we don’t use the things we own, then what value do they really have?  We might as well give these things to someone who will use them, and then they will have value.”  What I’ve learned from these pieces of advice is that they are actually nuggets of wisdom born of personal experiences.  I’m not alone in my quest to lighten my load, and just knowing that others are going through this process provides a sense of bonding and connection that gives me strength to keep going.  Others find that fortitude, so can I!

Perhaps most of all, putting a positive spin on this process is proving to be invaluable.  Days when I just can’t face going through my belongings, I let it go.  I remind myself that I am making progress, that I’ll be happier moving through life with a lighter load, and that sifting through one’s possessions isn’t easy for anyone.  I take a deep breath, make a decision, and go about my day.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Am I a Mom or a Businesswoman?


For more than a decade, I lost sight of who I was meant to be.  Ironically, I lost sight of who I was as a result of trying to be the best mom I could be.  After my divorce, which happened when Natalie was a mere 3 years old, I had to go back to work full time.  I don’t mind work; in fact, I’m basically a work-a-holic.  Work helped keep my mind off feeling sorry for myself, and it brought in a much-needed income.  I also had a job I enjoyed; it was challenging and sociable, and used many of my talents.  However, what didn’t function was the fact that I couldn’t make my own schedule, take time off if there was an event at Natalie’s school or if she was sick or if I wanted to pick her up when I felt like it, instead of whenever my work schedule allowed.  My main goal was to be the best mom I could be, to get Natalie to soccer practice or piano lessons or playdates or birthday parties, on time and not in a frenzy.  Make creative dinners and do fun things together.  My work life was putting a cramp on all these things.  So I decided to do what any Boulderite would do: no, not yoga, but I began soul searching.  Pounding the pavement each day, beckoning the spirits to help me find an alternative path.  A path that would allow me the flexibility to be the mom I wanted to be.

One sunny day, walking down the street, I had an epiphany that I could start a granola company.  What’s that?  Start a granola company?  Yes.  After all, I did know how to make really great granola.  I had been eating it since I was 5 and baking it since I was 14.  Did I have a business background?  NO.  Did I know what a business plan was?  NO.  Did I understand what a feasibility study was?  NO.  Did I know what a marketing plan was?  NO.  Did I have a bakery I could use?  NO.  Was I familiar with other granolas on the market?  NO.  Did I have money to start a company?  NO.  Did I have a logo?  NO.  Did I have a website?  NO.  Did I have ideas for packaging?  NO.  Did I understand pricing?  NO.  Did I have a source for raw ingredients?  NO.    More importantly, could I sleep after this idea popped into my head?     NO.   Was I obsessed?    YES.  Would owning my own company allow me flexible hours?  YES.  Would being my own boss allow me to schedule my days as I saw fit?  YES.  Would I be more available to Natalie?    I THOUGHT SO. 

As it turned out, my granola business became my life, my identity, my livelihood.  The mom I was supposed to be got lost in the demands of production, distribution, hiring and firing, expansion, building out a bakery, dealing with unscrupulous business partners, racing around from store to store, falling into bed exhausted each night, functioning on 5 hours of sleep for years on end, and participating in countless food demos and health fairs and farmers markets and educational events.  Getting Natalie to soccer practice on time was supposed to get easier.   It didn’t.  Getting her to birthday parties on time was supposed to be effortless.   It wasn’t.  Creative dinners ended up burritos and spaghetti.  Really creative.  School events were a treat, but in the back of my head was all the work I should be doing at the moment.      

Through it all, I tried my best to make life fun for us.  Natalie grew up at the Boulder Farmers Market and really enjoyed it.  She spent lots of time in the bakery with her pile of books, cheerfully settling in on top of the 50. lb. bags of oats and sesame seeds.  She loved to help out with anything I allowed her to do.  She became a fixture at Whole Foods, adored by all, and made welcome by managers who offered her their couch while I did my deliveries.  We did have some fun, and I did my best to hide the stress from her. 

Finding self-forgiveness for not being as present as I should have been, and for making too many sacrifices for the good of the business, has been a process for me.  That I didn’t offer Natalie more of a carefree childhood, one with less frenzy and fewer demands on my time, is a hard pill to swallow. The decision to sell my company was in large part due to these reasons.  I know I can be proud for the success of my business.  But I also know the sacrifices that were made to get there.  It’s bittersweet, to be sure.

Some of the innocence of childhood was taken away from Natalie, yet she has always been a mature, insightful, and precocious child.  But did these attributes come at too high a cost?  She is also a fun-loving, friendly, happy, and delightful person.  So in the end, did she gain more than she lost?  Maybe I’ll never know.  Whatever the answer, I’m now taking time off work.  I’m home when Natalie gets home from school.  I get her to ballet, to appointments, to parties, on time and not in a frenzy.  I’m embarking on more creative cooking and suggesting enjoyable activities we can share.  She’s grown up so fast, right before my eyes.  With what little time we have left together, I plan to remember who I am and what my priorities are. 


To see published version:
 http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/04/am-i-a-mom-or-a-businesswoman-fiona-simon/