This project has been an all-consuming one for me this year. It’s not 100% done (see also the next steps) but I’m thrilled at the conclusion we’ve come to. It’s been a tremendous, and tiring, journey, and I’m glad to see home at the end of it!
Brothers, Sisters and Friends of Burlington Presbyterian Church,
It was almost exactly a year ago that your Pastor Nominating Committee was formed. Seven of us were tapped for service: Chuck Anderson, Judy Brunner, Kim Oey-Rosenthal, Brad Morrison, Ferdinand Akombe, Brenda Flynn and Caitlin Rivet. We spent our first few months working diligently on our Mission Information Form (https://burlingtonpres.org/beourpastor/). We carefully crafted our call out to pastors, and in February we were reading our first applications. We read a lot of applications. By my count, the committee has carefully read 131 applications. We’ve met as a committee over 50 times. We interviewed candidates with a video call 23 times. A handful of those candidates, we invited to hour-long conversations. And three times we’ve dedicated a full weekend to really getting to know a pastor – eating with them, interviewing them, driving them from Stoneham to Lowell, and listening to them preach…
This is the 18th time I’ve prepared to host my friends for the Mocksgiving meal. I’m perilously close to having had as many years of life with Mocksgiving as without it. Adam and I were married in August of 2000, and moved into a cute little apartment in Roslindale, which I saw for the first time in the 5 hour layover between returning from our wedding in Washington and leaving for our honeymoon in Greece. I worked from home that first year of married life, and I got really bored. Bored enough, it turns out, to try to learn how to cook. Adam’s family had lately been going to restaurants for Thanksgiving. I decided to give them the treat of a “real homecooked meal” instead… just as soon as I learned how to cook.
I was young, but I was no fool. So two weeks before Thanksgiving, I decided to give it a trial run. So I did a “mock” Thanksgiving. But I knew that two people couldn’t eat a turkey (not and repeat the performance a scant few weeks later!) so I invited some of our best friends (and all of our wedding party). That year 13 of us sat around a table and shared a meal and it was FANTASTIC. Also, that year, it just didn’t work out with the inlaws and Thanksgiving. We had such a good time that I repeated the performance the next year. And the next. The Mocksgiving that was most likely to not happen was the one that happened a scant two and a half weeks after Thane was born. But that one happened too, although I barely remember it.
Just as a caveat, I always feel somewhat self-conscious about Mocksgiving. We have long since hit the physical limit of how many people it’s possible to invite. I can say with relative confidence that no more than 30 adults can be seated simultaneously. Even though my circle of friends and welcome faces has continued to grow, my dining room as not. So I cannot invite many people I would wish to invite. If you’re feeling a little wistful about not being able to come, I likely feel a little wistful about not being able to invite you. Please don’t use this as a litmus test of friendship!
Anyway, one of the things about this particular day in my year is that I always spend it talking to you in my head. I’m not sure why. I think there’s something about the continuity. On this day I practice skills and revive recipes that go back in time. My bread recipe, for example, is a simple one. But my mother used to make it as both a therapy for her aching carpal tunnel hands, and as our primary source of bread. My grandmother made it, and served it in neat slices at lunch. My great grandmother, sharp blue eyes and wry smile, made it before her. I can see generations of capable hands making the same mysterious, practiced gestures. As my hands gnarl out of their childish softness, long having left maiden behind and well into matron (on my way to crone), I see the hands of my maternal line. And these recipes are really throwbacks. Adam’s bread, which he makes year round and which is our “normal” bread, is a healthy, whole-wheat, no-knead recipe he’s improved over years. My bread bears all the hallmarks of the fifties – white flour, butter (or margarine, as the recipe calls for) and the Crisco which lays unused in every other recipe but my high holy day recipes.
So, with no further ado, here are the notes I’ve saved for you so far. I’ll likely continue to add as breaks in cooking allow!
There’s pretty much never school on my prep day, due to Veteran’s Day. Mocksgiving and Veteran’s day almost always line up. I probably could do this with them home. It actually would probably be great if I taught them in this long line of heritage. But man, that sounds exhausting. I find it very relaxing and centering to just do this one thing – readying everything – on Mocksgiving day. This year I found out a few days too late that their regular afterschool and vacation program, the Boys and Girls Club, actually had an offering. Oh well, enjoy your LARP lads!
One of the great quests of Mocksgiving is the procurement of the turkey. It falls *right around* the time that stores start getting their fresh turkeys, or rather usually a day or two before. That’s what makes it exciting. I’ve noticed even the fresh turkeys tend to be rather frozenish for Mocksgiving. I went to Wegman’s first (figuring that any place that has an open bin of oyster mushrooms would have, you know, turkey). I was wrong, so then I went to Stop and Shop which had just gotten their shipment. I selected the largest turkey I could find, clocking in at 24 pounds. I once got an artesenal farm-raised, locally grown and ethically sourced turkey. It was terrible. It turns out that places like Butterball inject brine into the birds. I’m here to tell you that’s what makes them DELICIOUS. So I cheerfully buy Butterball turkeys and they always turn out amazing. Unfortunately this year, the Butterballs were all still frozen, so I went with an organic turkey that was marked as fresh. (Although is still rather suspiciously rock-like.) I trust that brine is organic, and I won’t miss out on any deliciousness due to upgrading.
My first task of tomorrow morning is almost always chiseling out the gizzards & neck of the frozen bird, while swearing that next year I’m going to find a turkey that is ACTUALLY not frozen, not one that just claims to not be frozen.
Aprons are most critical when you’re doing stuff that involves a lot of flour. Both making the bread and rolling out pies have this unfortunate tendency to enflour your midriff if you don’t wear an apron. So I wear an apron. I also have learned to seriously sequester my hair while baking.
The first step of my ancestral bread recipe is to make sure the yeast is alive. You add the sugar, salt, hot water and yeast and then go clean up the kitchen a bit. If you see this bubbling, your yeast is fine. If you don’t, you might as well stop now or you’ll get unleavened bread. This yeast was particularly vibrant.
I actually really don’t like my KitchenAid mixer, which I know makes me weird. I miss my Sunbeam mixer, but I got one of the “after bankruptcy” models that was poorly manufactured. I find it hard to add ingredients with the KitchenAid, and I can never mix in enough flour. I have to finish off getting the flour in by hand on the kneading table. The dough is warm, and moves like a slow lava-flow. I think the kneading is one of the spots where you need to know what it “should” be like, and where practice makes a big difference. I added almost 3 cups of flour more than the recipe called for to get the bread to the right consistency.
The bread goes through three rises. It doubles in the bowl twice, and then it rises in the loaf pans. While the bread is rising, I clean up the kitchen and get started on the pie starter. I should’ve made it last night, but I was lazy.
Once upon a time, I had a perfect pie starter made out of Crisco. Then Crisco took the trans fats out of their shortening. I’ve been complaining about this for like 5 years, and I may complain about it for the rest of my life. Anyway, they’ve improved the recipe, but I still find that the all Crisco recipe doesn’t taste as good as it used to. I really like working with a lard crust. It’s super forgiving. But it’s not vegetarian (which many of my guests are), and the taste also isn’t perfect. The mixed butter-Crisco crust is pretty hard to work (I use a vodka-water mix to help compensate), but has the best taste/flakiness quotient.
It’s possible I have strong pie crust opinions. By my reckoning, I’ve made about 200 pies in my life.
I still hate cutting in shortening. I often make Adam do this, but he’s working and I didn’t delegate early enough. The crumb on this isn’t quite small enough (eg the shortening bits should be smaller), but I’m a little lazy and this is good enough for me to work with. Its in the freezer now, getting super cold so I can work it.
As I mentioned, my yeast this time was super active. I think it cut nearly an hour off the regular rise time on the bread. (I’ve also learned on particularly cold days – like today – to prewarm my ceramic bowl by filling it with hot water.) This is the second rise on my dough.
My mom does a set of loaf-shaping activities I’ve never quite mastered. I suspect that if you plan on entering your bread in the State Fair they’re an important step. But so far no one at Mocksgiving has complained. I really like forming the loaves – you get to slap the bread with a satisfying “thwack!” that brings me back to being a little girl. I suspect there’s about a half cup of Crisco that ends up in the recipe, from how much I slather my hands with to make the forming possible.
Here’s another task I should’ve done last night – the lone crust for my favorite pie, lemon meringue. Fun fact: I can’t spell meringue. I’m now at the point in the day where I’m watching the clock about when I need to pick up the kids. I still have three pies + the most difficult pie filling to go before I can rest. Maybe four. I saved some rhubarb this summer and I’m pondering whether I can make a pie of it. (I always think about the “extra pie”. I never make the “extra pie”.)
All the pie crust recipes I use are high-shortening and hard to work. There’s a few things I keep in mind: all ingredients must be COLD. Handle the dough as little as possible (an opposite from the lovingly worked bread dough). But I don’t know how you’d be able to get the crust in the pan if you used a board instead of a cloth. I fold it with the cloth. Sometimes with a particularly difficult roll, I’ll even drag it over on the cloth. Then I can gently unfold it. I still end up having to reroll after this step half the time.
I usually make lemon meringue, blueberry from farmshare blueberries set aside over the summer, peach ditto, and two pecan pies (which are SO EASY compared to all the rest). I didn’t make peach pie this year because, um, I’m lazy. I was really busy when the peaches were in season. It’s a pity because peach pie is my favorite. My mom can make the dough actually round when she rolls it out. I can’t. Also, my edge-crinkling skills have improved, but they’re not up to her standards.
This pie crust gives me fits every year. It always schlumps on me, regardless of crust recipe. I’ve tried different pie pans. My mom pricks the bottom like three times. As you can see, no inch goes unpricked. There’s actually specific gadgets you can get for this, although I’ve never tried it. So I take that as validation my schlumping issue isn’t incompetence. This year it came out ok. My mom’s looks way better. It’ll taste great with lemon meringue in it though!
Meanwhile, the bread’s out of the oven just in time to put the crust in.
I like how the bread and the wood of the porch are the same color. I keep all my baking on the porch because my cats are jerks. Ask me about the year that some feline stepped right in the middle of my pie and I had to eat it all by myself. Tragic. The lone crust goes in right after the bread comes out.
It’s amazing how interrupting it is picking up the boys. An hour gone, with nothing in the oven! Dark is falling, and I’m not nearly done! I came back and got started on the two pecan pies. The kitchen is a major disaster area – once I get the blueberry prepped I’ll need to clean it again. Then the last pie of the day is my lemon meringue. I should probably make that before I clean up, but I’ll need the mixer bowl cleaned.
I’m pretty sure there’s other stuff I should be doing too, but I’m momentarily forgetting it.
I should really make just over 3 pecan pies in Pi plates for perfect geekery. I tried to trace a pie in pecans on one of them, but I think you’d have to be staring pretty hard to make it out.
I’m starting to flag, energy wise. Now’s the hard part.
5:30 pm –
It occurs to me I should’ve been time stamping this all along. Sorry.
I’m in the home stretch now. The blueberry pie is in the oven. The pecan pies are cooling. I still need to make the lemon meringue filler before I collapse, but that’s not so bad. It could also THEORETICALLY happen tomorrow, but that’s not a good idea. I also made a sad discovery with regard to one of my favorite pie plates. It was a gift from a friend, oh, ten years ago. It’s my “go to” for blueberry pies. Lately it’s been a little porous and leaky. But it has now developed a fatal crack. Farewell favorite pie plate. Sniff sniff.
On the plus side, the pecan pies are looking excellent.
8:51 pm –
It’s done. The last pie has come out of the oven. The meringue came out very nicely this time! I could eat that filling by the spoonful. I’m a little nervous about putting on the porch. The temperature out there is currently 34 degrees, and I don’t think the meringue should freeze. There’s no room in the fridge (I moved the turkey from the front porch to the fridge, because the front porch was too cold to help thaw it). So that leaves the oven. (It doesn’t need to be chilled.) But the real question is … will I remember to remove the pie before I preheat the oven for the turkey?
Tomorrow morning – turkey, stuffing, potatoes & butternut squash! And table settings, cleaning house, and other preparing.
fealty: Stemming from the Latin word “fidelitas,” the noun fealty is related to “fidelity,” and is another way of saying “loyalty” or “faithfulness.”
Too busy to read the whole thing? In a nutshell, I was lucky enough to get a custom designed family crest. You can too! My friend Julie has started a new venture, Fealty Design to help families craft their unique identity. The first five readers who mention this blog post can get 10% off a family crest for themselves, or as the most-super-awesome Christmas/wedding gift ever!
From my earliest days, I’ve loved the sense of identity and continuity that come from my family name. The Johnstone family crest is the “winged spur” with the Latin “Nuquam Non Paratus” or “Never Unprepared”. The legend is this is because my border reiver family brought swords to church, in case someone tried their own tricks on them. But when I “cleaved” to my husband and gave up my maiden name I didn’t quite feel as connected to his crest. And our family heraldry fell somewhat to the wayside.
My beloved friend and neighbor Julie is an associate creative director and designer for world-class brands. We commuted to Boston together for years, and got to know each other’s work very well. Our kids have been friends practically all their lives. The Shulmans ALWAYS win the “best Christmas card” award on our bulletin board, to the point of permanent disqualification due to lack of amateur status. Back in the spring, Julie and I were talking and she shared an idea with me. While she’s responsible for some amazing brands, she really misses the opportunity to do entirely new design. I’d long seen and admired the family crest she’d designed for her family – did I think anyone else would be interested in having her do the same thing for them?
After shouting “YES YES YES!” I, ahem, generously offered to be the first test case. I think it’s a brilliant idea. It seems like the whole world is trying to answer the question, “Who am I?” We want to belong, to be a part. We want for things to have meaning. And at the same time, we want to be unique and individual. Julie’s work creating family crests captures all that – connection and individuality. Heritage and uniqueness.
The first stage was a questionnaire. It was fun to go through this as a family and think about who we were and what it meant to be “us”. Even though Julie knows me as well as anyone does, I found it interesting to really think about what it meant to be part of our family and be explicit about it. (You can walk through the questions yourself for fun!) I sent it to her and tried really hard not to text her every five minutes to see how it was going. There was a fun anticipation to see what someone makes of you!
Not long after my curiosity was sated! Julie sent me this gorgeous response with the key words she thought of, the colors that came to mind, the “mood board” that inspired her designs, and finally – three crest options. I loved the mountains and the camels, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the one that was ours – the celtic knot and six-sided die, showing 4 pips (one for each member of the family).
Julie and I went back on fourth on questions about color (not a strong point of mine), and then she returned me a final version of the crest with versions for dark backgrounds, light backgrounds, and a single color version. I was frankly thrilled. Then, the shopping spree began!
We talked a lot about what sort of things I wanted with the logo on it. We had a long email thread I titled “Genius Idea!” when I figured out I could get etched glasses with it! My final selections are what ended up being the “Team Us!” package. In all packages you get the original, high quality image files to use in any applications you want. (Helllooooo Christmas cards!). Julie will also work with you if you have a genius idea I didn’t come up with first that you’d like her help to make a reality.
Here’s the Fealty page showing the first set of ideas on how to use this beautiful design!
The goal of Fealty is to extend these beautiful, personal images past our street, and into your homes. Julie is a compassionate, curious and world class designer who wants to bring the same warmth and meaning into your family that she’s crafted for her family (and mine!). If you are interested for your family, or as a gift to a family you love, the first five people to sign up and mention this blog post will get a 10% discount!
Days before my birthday on September 23rd, I came home with a “new-to-me” Hybrid-Electric car dubbed Minerva. Those first few weeks we classily stuck the charger that came with the car through a window to an inside socket to charge it. Ah, solutions that only work in September! But I knew that at some point the fantastic weather would cease (although you wouldn’t know it from this amazing 70 degree November day) and we’d need to, you know, close the window.
So I attempted to find someone in the area who had actually installed an electric car charging station before. I put a note on the local Facebook group. I emailed a work mailing list… crickets. I finally had to (heh) Google it. Sylvester Electric responded to one of those “Fill out this form to hear from a technician!” sites and sent out a technician who had actually installed one of these before.
There was a hilarious moment when I asked about using a charging station hardware setup that I got discounted through work. The installer asked if it was rated for outdoor use. I had this brain moment where I was very dismissive and confused. My thought process was something like, “Why wouldn’t they all be? What, you think people are going to drive their cars INSIDE THE HOUSE and park them there? How ridiculous?!” …. “Oh, right. Garages. Those are a thing.”
Anyway, he’s about the fourth electrician we’ve brought out for a big project (like the AC installation) where we’ve been afraid we’d need a new panel and he’s all “Nah, there’s enough room! Probably your next project.” Which is true – the next project is the attic. Between the steam shower, the upgraded electric and the heated floor I’d be deeply surprised if we got away with the electric we have now!
The cost of installation, including the 240v all-weather charging station, was just over $1400. The car cost (used, same model year, with 1300 miles on it) just about $21,000. I have gotten our first month’s energy bill with charging to car, and it looks to me to be about $60/$70 higher (although the year-over-year is made messier by having the AC installed, and it actually ran last month some days).
We’ve put nearly a thousand miles on the car since we got it, driving it practically every day for short distances. And I still have more than half a tank of the full tank the car came with – a predicted range of over 300 miles. We pulled the charging station window operation out of use last week (it got cold and it felt like a safety risk when we were gone for the weekend). We’re on track to fill the tank like once every quarter, for normal commuting use. Plus, apparently the “real” charger will use less energy than the “window-stringing” 110v version.
So financially-fuel-wise, at great gas prices it’s about a wash. Any increase in gas prices and we start saving money. The really big difference though is where the propel comes from. There are a bunch of ways to generate electricity – hydro, solar, wind, geothermal etc. There’s only one way to get gas, and that is both a limited resource (you do remember that part – right?) and one that moves historically sequestered carbon from inside the earth to into our atmosphere.
I do wonder if the car charger adds or detracts from the house value. I suspect that it might add a few hundred in calculations, but for the right buyer it would be a huge plus. For not the right buyer, it would be a neutral to a negative. Good thing I have no plans on selling, well, really kind of ever. Maybe when we have flying cars…
Final note – I just got this shaming letter from my electric company. Our family, pre air conditioning, was often “better than average” and sometimes the full smiley face. Now we’re clearly in the bucket of shame. I know that this is and environmentally friendly choice on our part, but it does kind of crack me up how bad it looks in this graph!
The wild hunt flung itself through the nearly 400 year old streets of Stoneham last night. On sleepy Chestnut, in the shadow of Nobility Hill, the winds started with the dark. The rain came as I tucked my children into bed. I put my youngest not in his own nursery room, but rather at the side of my bed. The dark crag of a dead tree shadows his room, and I feared that it would not stand the night.
Adam and I watched the first episode of Stranger Things II with old friends. They were staying with us in those awkward in-between times, when you’ve sold one home and not yet closed on your new one. Their moving van was parked across the street, well away from the oak with its spreading limbs.
We turned off the lights and I laid in bed listening to the breathing of my son and husband, until the wild wailing of winds and roaring of waters drowned them out. I listened a long time before I fell asleep.
At 4 in the morning, still very dark, a horn sounded. Not once, but continuously. Adam got our friends up in case it was the rental truck (sort of thing a rental truck would do!) but it wasn’t. The lashing rains were abating, but far from gone. It was our neighbors down the street, whose car had just up and decided to honk without ceasing.
We’d just settled in after that when Tiberius began setting up an awful yowl. He moaned at our door, scratching, begging, persistent. Twenty minutes of trying to pretend I couldn’t hear him, and I got up and locked him in the bathroom.
I’d just drifted off when Thane bolted upright on the floor and flung himself out of the room. Adam called after him. “I had a nightmare. It was about cannibals.” I snuggled my little boy as the winds calmed down.
Then the horn went off again. The storm being over, I moved to my son’s room to attempt to get an hour’s more sleep before the day started.
It was like this for the whole street. Another neighbor’s smoke detectors went off in the middle of the night for no reason. A tree dropped on the car of a neighbor further down the street. The entire region seemed blanketed in every last leaf, small branch or needle that could be wrested from a tree. Throughout my commute rotting wood had been dashed to the ground.
All Hallow’s Eve is Tuesday. But the spirits will be quiet – they already had their ride last night. And that old dead tree, overlooking my son’s bedroom, is still standing with a red X now painted on its heart.
I finagled my way to a business trip to Seattle, and got to spend a bit of the weekend with my folks. The answer to the question “what do you want to do” is pretty much always “head up to the mountain”. Yesterday it rained nearly four inches in 24 hours – which is a lot. So the thing about mountains is that they’re pretty far away and hard to see when there’s a bunch of water between you and the mountains. But we headed up anyway.
The colors out here are glorious. The East Coast is suffering one of the most drab autumns I’ve ever seen – I’m not sure if the leaves are going to change colors at all or just fall off. But I don’t remember the leaves out west. I think this might be the first time in 20 years I’ve been in Mineral in October and the colors! They’re amazing! So mom and I drove up to Paradise today, where it snowed. We went part way up the West Side Road, but it was washed out prior to the closure. The passes were closed, so we couldn’t go through. Then we went Skate Creek, which had the most phenomenal colors but also had a minor road washout. We didn’t have the clearance to make it, so we turned around and got the colors a second glorious time. On our way back we heard Highway 7 was also closed due to a slide, but we couldn’t get up to see it.
Right now, there is only one bridge you can use to get out of Mineral. Happily, it’s a pretty tall one and also in the direction I need to go. The mountains are so beautiful, and the colors are so glorious. But we forgot how tenuous our connections can really be.
You can see all my pictures here. The colors were far, far more vibrant than my poor phone could capture!
So my thirty loyal readers may have noticed I missed last week’s post. This is hardly so surprising, since my cadence lately has been more fortnightly than weekly. (Crazy to think at one point I wrote blog posts daily, or even more than daily! They were shorter, and not amazingly well thought out or written. As opposed to these posts… um, yeah.)
I often have really good excuses of why I’m too busy to do something. Sometimes I go through these periods where my schedule bounces between insane and crazy with only period stops at out-of-control. But I have to be honest with you – last weekend it was the video game Skyrim.
Lots of people are having a hard time right now. Across the Caribbean, there are folks who are struggling to keep body and soul together. Many are leaving homes they may never be able to return to, in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other smaller locales. Houston and Florida are still drying out. The West is burning. The air is unbreathable and the flames have claimed more than 35 lives. We refuse to even admit that global climate change is a problem, so it feels like there’s little hope of fixing it. The Dreamers wonder if they’ll be sent to exile in countries they do not know, whose language they do not speak. And there is fear, anger and hatred on every channel, Facebook check and news article. Heck, even the sports news is bad around here. The US Men’s Soccer team won’t be going to the World Cup, the Red Sox went down early and easily and the Patriots are not looking quite like the machine they once did. Also, football nastily kills or maims the boys who play it for our entertainment, so good luck enjoying that.
I’m a gamer, and we describe the characters we play using attributes. So for instance, your Cleric might have a 16 wisdom, a 13 charisma and a 10 strength. You would roll a 20 sided die to try to do something, and if the number is under your attribute you succeed. If it’s over your attribute, you fail. Sometimes, you get things that temporarily modify your attributes (like poison damage) that make it easier or harder by increasing or decreasing your attributes. So instead of a 16 wisdom, if your character say gets drunk, they might have a -2 modifier that means there wisdom is temporarily only a 14.
That’s a really long digression to say – I feel like everything I’m doing right now has a -3 modifier for the state of the world. Sure, I still usually am fine. But things that used to be easy are harder. And hard things feel almost impossible.
Generally I try to be a good steward of my time. When the weather is beautiful, I try to drag my kids on hikes. I exercise. I read. I make time for friends. I cook meals from my farm share vegetables. I LIKE video games, but I don’t really play video games because I carefully write thought-provoking blogs posts instead.
But man, these last few weeks my coping skills have run out, my well has run dry, and I’ve wanted nothing so much as a problem I can solve with a few fireballs and flame atronach. Grey had a sleepover for his friends last weekend where they mostly played video games together. And honestly? There were a million things I probably should’ve been doing. But what I was doing was getting my character up to level 29. I feel guilty. I actually think video games are a pretty bad way to recharge. A good book, exercise, clean living… much better ideas. But I’ve just run out of the will to keep making these healthy choices as often.
So if you’ll excuse me, I heard from a guy who used to be an adventurer like me (until he took an arrow to the knee) that there’s a dragon near Ivarstead that needs my attention.
How about you? There must be some people out there pleased at the way the world is going – are you one? If you’re not, what are some of the coping skills you’re using to face your every day?