Finding the Vegan Worcestershire Sauce

2043_AnniesNaturals_P-300x300I was at a large store. I don’t often go if I can avoid it. So many boxes, and bags, all that extra wasted packaging. I prefer to go to the farm and get a carrot. But there are some things the farm doesn’t have, like King Arthur Bread Flour and vegan Worcestershire sauce. Besides, the farm is blanketed in snow. There are no carrots in the winter, only eggs and meat. And farms don’t grow vegan Worcestershire sauce.

Even living the simple life, there are things I can’t make. I’ll never completely live the dream of ridding myself of bottles, boxes, and bags. I’m resigned to the fact that being a food extremist is just too–extreme. I’ll bring my iced tea in mason jars and get locally roasted coffee. I’ll rid myself of processed sugar and look with disdain at grocery carts filled with Captain Crunch, for a moment allowing my feeling of superiority decrease my overall daily dose of karma. Who’s better, really? I’m at the big store with everyone else hunting down a product no one can identify or spell. I have to ask a helpful employee.

“I know you probably don’t use this every day. You can make up an answer if you don’t know…” I say to the friendly employee sweeping up a mess in aisle 5,430. I phrase the question to give him an out should he not know. “Would you happen to know where I can find vegan Worcestershire sauce?”

He blinks two times. I continue, “Do you know where either the regular condiment aisle is or where the vegetarian stuff might be?” He blinks at me. He furrows his brow. Just when I think he might give me directions to the store where people like me usually go for things no one but second-generation hippies and world-saving sustainability nuts can identify, he speaks.

“Oh, I never make up answers. I always tell the truth. God will bless you that way. The truth will set you free. It’s done so for me,” he says. He pauses. Good. If anyone can guide me to the vegan Worcestershire sauce, it’s the Almighty. You might not think vegan Worcestershire sauce is worth the hunt, but it’s very helpful in soups, dressings, and stews.

“Go down this aisle. Look through these products here.” He waves his hand back and forth over the aisle. I look. “If it’s not there, check on the other side. Then follow the helpful green arrows to the next aisle. Check there…” Great. Vegan Worcestershire sauce is close by. Right around the corner. I start to thank him and go.

But he’s not done. “If it’s not there, look up. You’ll see another green arrow that’ll take you to the next aisle over. Follow that one and look on both sides until you find it. If you don’t, check the green arrow at the end of that row and then…”

Is he busting my prepackaged canned beans? He’s sending me row by row through the megastore. This happened to me once in Boston. I was running late for my sister’s concert.

“Yeah, it’s close by,” said the Bostonian. “Go to the end of the block. Take a left. Then, go to the end of that block and hang anotha left. Go down to the end-a that street. Take a left. When you get to the stop sign, take a left. You’ll be the-a.”

We did. Four lefts. A perfect block. Right back where we started. I wasn’t falling for that trick again.

I smiled and thanked him. He God blessed me, looking deep into my soul through my eyes. As quickly as if I’d never seen him, his gaze broke away. He continued sweeping aisle 5430. And just like that, the connection was broken.

I never did find the vegan Worcestershire sauce. The soups, dressings, and stews will have to do without. But I didn’t get sent down the wrong road this time–a lesson in and of itself. There are lots of things we think we need in life. Like vegan Worcestershire sauce. They’re superfluous. Clutter.

The important thing is staying on the right road, even in the face of distraction.

I succeeded. For once.

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The Death Smell of Compost in the Joy of a Warm Winter Day

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 6.55.46 AMSeed catalog season. They started coming last month. I really should be planning the garden. I can virtually smell it around me…

Wait, that’s compost. It’s been a couple weeks and a few feet of snow since I took out the compost. That little carbon filter in the top of the pail’s done its duty. Can’t smell it at all. I pick up the pail and collect the mountain of fruit peels on the cutting board in the kitchen. I trudge through the mud.

It’s beautiful outside–a break in the winter that tempts me to get out there and plant something I know will subsequently die. A January thaw–a break in Winter’s show. He got off the couch to get some snacks and a beer, letting Spring fill in for a bit. Still, I can’t plant now. The Farmer’s Almanac would be horrified. It predicts much more snow in February. Not long odds in Vegas. It’s New England.

I dump the compost in the bin. It smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced, having done most of its composting in the house. The death smell chases me half-way across the yard, laughing the moment I take off the lid. I can’t leave it like that. It smells worse than the time I left the chicken in my trunk for a week during summer. That one forgotten bag…

I stop breathing, reopen the bin, and stir the rotting compost into the fireplace ash. I toss a few oak leaves on top. Better. I sniff. The worms will rejoice just as soon as they thaw all the way.

I step into the garden. Mud. Enough to swallow me. I realize I haven’t been outside–really outside–in months. I stop. I listen to the birds who welcome me back. I think about walking around the garden. The mud plots to enshrine me. I sink. I take a step. I sink further. We come to an agreement. The mud releases its hostage. I’ll take my tour some other time.

The seeds will be calling soon. I’ll scatter them everywhere. Many will die as a result of my overzealousness and impatience. The laws of nature don’t bend for one good-weather day. Seeds in the garden–like in life–must be planted at the right time, then nurtured consistently to grow.

I take out the recycling and go to the farm. Eggs are in the red cooler out front on weekends.  Put in some money, take out some eggs. The cooler’s blown over. Scrambled eggs. I manage four dozen good ones. I toss in an extra buck–I was short last week. I still have eggs in the fridge. I stack these on top–always overbuy, over plant, overestimate when nature is involved. Plan well when you can and appreciate nature’s bounty always. It’s better to have just a little too much when it comes to growing, cooking, and eating. Dieters and zen masters have it all wrong.

I take off my muddy boots,  put the compost pail back onto the mantle, and sit back down to work. 

Spring will be here soon enough.

 

A Practical Proverb

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” –Proverbs 4:23

This verse was posted in a New Year’s message in which I was tagged. I know it’s a Bible verse, but I’m going to calligraphy it all nice and big and put it in my classroom somewhere visible. People need this advice at eighteen rather than forty-something.
I’ll explain to students it isn’t merely about romance–it’s barely about that at all. It’s about following our path, our passions…every moment of our lives.
We feel our passions, we ignore them. I’ll point out the many ways we’ve refused to be put into boxes this year–and how bringing that thought process into real life leads to victories…
Finally, I’ll remind them this truth is my story too–everyone’s story, really…we’re all traveling the same path…when we follow the heart in all things, the path goes much more easily. When we do not, we struggle through the brush without a machete until we come upon it once again.
It’s that simple–for all of us…I never know why we insist on making it difficult.

(You Don’t Have to Guess) What You’re Getting for Christmas

I wanted to simplify Christmas. I’m feeling crafty. I stole my friends art ideas, manufactured things using their concepts and mailed the finished stolen-idea products back as gifts. They’ll never guess I totally plagiarized the ideas because my art is terrible. They won’t recognize it as their own. They’ll think Declan helped, and no one can hate a gift that a six-year-old made from the heart.

He actually did help with one or two. Only he didn’t make all of them from the heart. He made one gift with love–that was the freebie, made out of the Spirit of Christmas. Soon, though, the Spirit of Christmas got drop kicked by the Spirit of Entrepreneurship. After that, he charged for his efforts. As usual.

“I’ll draw these dinosaurs for two dollars and all the change in your jar.”

“It’s for YOUR teacher!”

“I’ll take a handful of dollars instead.” His price is going up.

I give him a handful of pennies and two cookies.  He draws a dinosaur for his teacher.

The boxes of gifts I have to mail are filled and addressed. Only one person, a friend in Wisconsin, will get a late gift. The Boy stole the boxes for a fort. An envelope won’t do.

I venture to the post office and plop the boxes on the counter. It’s the kind of village post office where they’ll soon know my name in the middle of a town that Rockwell painted on the map.

“This one can get there Saturday for nine dollars or Monday for seven.” The postmistress smiles.

“Monday’s fine.”

“This one can go parcel or first class.” Decisions.

“First class would be great.”

“Oh, this one needs a customs form.” Simple enough. I take the form. I read the form. I frown at the form.

What’s your blood type? What are you sending? Did you send anything that could blow up? Did you mail any drugs, plants, exotic animals or your mother-in-law? Does it come from a rated R catalog? Do you like kittens? Are you a terrorist?… List the entire contents of this box and the value of each item.

I write “Christmas gift.”

“Oh, no, you can’t do that. You have to fill it out. ALL the columns.” How can a Christmas gift be a surprise if I’m listing the contents on the front of the box? And if I list the value, my friend will realize I’m a cheap ass who not only stole art concepts but didn’t even spend a lot of money on her gift. 

The post office lady’s tone is serious. Customs people and IRS agents are both hired for their lack of humor. I thought post people were okay…lately. I’m told the job interview for the others consists of watching Monty Python, old Carlin, and the Redneck Comedy Tour. Anyone who considers cracking a smile isn’t hired.

I never mess with customs people at the border. It’s not wise to mess with postal workers during Christmas, either. She interrogates me. I crack.

“It’s a mug I made after stealing my friend’s idea. And some soap made by a twelve-year old entrepreneur who’s awesome. The cup’s value is practically nothing, and the soap could have been expensive but she gave me a volume discount. This gift has no value!” To make myself feel good, I put “$5” on the customs form. I list the two items, forgetting the third. I hope I don’t get caught.

Do we need to be surprised to enjoy the magic of the season? The government says no. Should we lie on the customs forms to make our gifts look more valuable? I’d like to try. I consider putting “Crack, value $6,000.” Wonder if it’d get there faster.  Perhaps, but I’m too afraid of The Man to write that. 

I fill out the form. She tapes it to the box. I say “Merry Christmas.” I pay much more to mail the gift than it’s worth. On the way out, I make a mental note to apologize to my friend in Wisconsin who’s not getting her gift because the post office is out of little boxes.  I make a note to apologize to friends who got cards this week. If you did, it was last year’s I never sent.  

Boxes gone. One more thing helping me gather momentum for the Spirit of Christmas–which keeps getting crushed by the boy and the Spirit of Entrepreneurship.

Who knows. Maybe both can live copasetically. All year long. 

 

 

 

Nobody Bought the Farm

farm1“I like what you’re doing to the place,” I say to the man working at the farm stand. I’m getting a couple of onions and putting in my order for B Grade tomatoes. It’s what I do. Forage, trade, find, and pick food, and then preserve it. I ate the tomatoes I grew so I have nothing to can for the winter. I don’t like the tin-can taste of the stuff from the store.

I’ve been coming to this particular farm since I moved to Rhode Island two decades ago. I look around at the decorations. There were no decorations when I started coming here for the local fresh food. Just a shackish outbuilding with a simple old-school butcher shop and produce stand where the farmer sold pies he made that morning, made sandwiches to order, and cut you a nice steak for dinner if you weren’t a vegetarian like me.

I snap a quick picture of the artfully arranged bins of local in-season fruits and vegetables. There are now shelves of maple syrup, maple sugar, local honey, and little gift-baskety type things. This place is emerging as a New England boutique roadside farm stand. It has all the nuances of a shop that would attract locavores, GMO haters, store avoiders and foodies. There used to be time for a conversation when I came in. Now, I often have to wait in line.

It makes me smile, to be honest. I like waiting in line because someone who deserves success has a lot of business in front of him.

“Thanks,” he says. “But in ten years, places like this won’t be here. Everyone will shop in billion dollar businesses.
“I disagree,” I reply. “I think there’s a market for this, and it’s growing. I’ve been coming here forever. Back when shopping for boxed and frozen food in the grocery store was what cool people did. People laughed at the way I got my food. But now everybody will come here because it looks so beautiful…you have such a selection. Farms are cool these days. A lot of people don’t want to shop at the billion-dollar industries where food tastes bad.”
I’m not trying to make him feel better about his hard work. I’m simply stating a fact. Food freaks like me who used to live on the periphery are nearly mainstream. I’ve just come from another farm. There were lines out the door for both.
“Well,” he says, “I hope you’re right, but let’s look at this town. When I moved here, there were four Mom & Pop pharmacies. Now, there are other none. They don’t make it illegal, but they make it so difficult that you can’t pay. You have to be networked in. You have to get your discount. Otherwise you can’t keep pace with the prices. Stores are the same. Nobody who’s not a billion-dollar industry can do this. Just look around…”
Pause.  His voice trails off.
What he says is the truth. I can’t argue. We’ve built small businesses. I’ve lived this. Between building and fire codes that change a smidgen but cost a ton for no understandable increase in safety, tax regulations that reward big business outsourcing  production to underpaid labor elsewhere while ignoring local places with eight or ten employees, and new health insurance regulations, it’s really tough out there.
Some of today's fresh offerings

Some of today’s fresh offerings

It’s tough to be the little guy, even if you have a product the community loves, the best team in the world, and a business that makes the world a better place. He’s right. I can’t argue. There are no more Mom & Pop drug stores in town.

I’ve got nothing to reply, because who wants to say, “You’re right. It’s tough to hang on to the chin-up bar, but I hope we both do,” so I nod, take the onions, and say I’ll return Wednesday for the tomatoes.
I really love going to the farm. I’m secretly glad the tomatoes aren’t ready, because I get to go back when it’s slower and have another conversation, not only about produce, but about Yankee ingenuity and life.

End of Summer Blues: Things I Failed to Accomplish

Teachers–ever feel that you need a vacation to recover from summer? That’s how I feel today.

I had a list, “Things to Accomplish This Summer.” Nothing is done.

First, I promised my friend Claudia I’d finish “The Book I Wonder if Anyone Will Read.” It’s not done. I removed spelling mistakes, inserted paragraphs and line breaks so my other friend won’t cry, and added a ton more sarcasm. Progress.

I planned to clean out the cellar. Also not done. In the spirit of good intent, I rummaged through a couple of boxes, consolidating and repacking them. I see a small dent in the pile. The size of dent that’d require the “f” word if a carriage dinged your car, but wouldn’t cause you to fix it.  There’s a path to the holiday decorations. Progress.

I failed to do my canning and preserving. To be fair, some of this was Mother Nature. The B-grade (irregular shaped, end of season, cheap) produce conspires to be ripe when I’m back in school. Something about harvest season which cannot be changed, even with the addition of global warming. School starts Monday. I’ll be moonlighting making your jams and salsas. I’ve contacted my farmer at least. Progress.

Some other things I didn’t do this summer: I didn’t see my sister’s new house in DC or visit my brother in Virginia. I wanted to, but I was tired. Not running around the universe seemed like the better deal. Teachers never listen to the urge to rest–there’s always 26 hours of work that must be done by tomorrow. When the calendar appears to give us a break, we insert something else. This summer, at the risk of being a bad family member, I didn’t travel much. Cutting down the schedule…progress.

Declan rides a stegosaurus.

Declan rides a stegosaurus.

We did fun, local things like Dinosaur Park in Connecticut. It has dinosaur statues, a water sprinkler park, maze, and a playground, and gem mining if you mortgage your house. Grandpa paid because he lost a bet to Declan, something about “You won’t eat a string bean.”  Never bet against six-year old in a high-stakes bet. This was a classic “house always wins” for Declan. Not that he’s eaten a string bean since. Eating veggies, having fun…progress.

We came back, driving under the biggest full moon I’ve ever seen. Turns out, it was a blue moon, a rare occasion–a concession from Mother Nature apologizing for the fruit delay. I unloaded the car, blue sky fading into black outlining the silhouettes of the trees, bats circling overhead. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a bat, other than the ones that live in my own belfry. Stopping to enjoy nature…progress.

Bats were always a favorite of mine. For four years, we lived in an old Victorian with a cracked attic window, where bats slept out the day. I enjoyed watching them hang upside down an inch from my nose. I love watching them fly more. Flying bats remind me of…me. Never flying in a straight line, they always look like they’re going to crash into something. They flit from place to place, in a zig-zags, and circles, avoiding trees. I wonder how they can survive. They look so scattered.

Yet, like me, they seem to get everything done–they eat, they fly, they sleep. Nice to see them flapping around at the full moon preparing for Halloween like a stock clerk setting out pumpkins and witches for the American consumer long before Labor Day.

Kripalu Center, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. You should go there.

Kripalu Center, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. You should go there.

I accomplished one thing on my list–another Kripalu yoga retreat. The retreat helped reconcile my failure to accomplish everything else with the true meaning of life.  Just as not accomplishing my summer list is an annual event, a yoga retreat to forgive myself will become one. Cyndi Lee presented “Strength, Stability and Clarity,” three things I can use in life.

I have three days to finish everything on my list and contemplate the beginning of the school year. I’m filing this under “Not gonna happen.” What will happen–I’ll take a minute to contemplate balance, so I can better understand the blessings my family, friends, and students bring to me, and save the extra time for them. Progress.

“Don’t You Have To Be Organized to Talk about Organizing?”

Screen Shot 2013-07-25 at 6.36.00 AMIt’s time to declutter. Decluttering is an art. It’s not the same as cleaning or arranging. It’s getting rid of the piles of crap that stifle your life. Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the crap. We’re busy and we need to let go of things so we can have room for freedom and new experiences.

Truth is, I’m a disaster. Years back, I discovered a website that gives people fifteen minute tasks to organize their lives (flylady.net). It’s sort of fun and addictive, because it gives numbers of things to toss, small areas to clean, and little goals. I’m self-competitive, which means if there’s a goal out there, I usually want to beat it by one or two, so the little games became a bit of a healthy addiction. The site talks about “CHAOS–Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.” and is mostly dedicated to “Sidetracked Home Executives.” I’m not a home executive…I work, and I’m not really sidetracked. I’m off the tracks. I blew up the tracks. Sometimes the pile in the corner just doesn’t seem as critical as lesson planning, writing, or, well, eating, so I let it get out of hand. You have to be careful with clutter… if you don’t get rid of every last piece, it multiplies. It’s like mice or cockroaches…if you see one, you have a million. Clutter breeds.

And so, it’s time to declutter again. The little piles have taken over their respective areas.  I think it’s fair to say that after six months to a year, I’m not going to finish that book on my nightstand or that half-done project on my dresser. I’ve lost interest and moved on, but the piles have not.

I’m certain beyond a reasonable doubt that I will not need the freshly pressed 90’s track suit that matches the sneakers I only wear when I’m mocking students. When I don a dress people ask me if I have a wedding or a job interview–they don’t need to take up real estate in my closet. I really use a few things on a regular basis.  If I had to pick seven or eight things to keep in the case of home confinement, I could do it.

What I can’t do–sort through a pile that is threatening to take over the corner of a room.

So, I created a Learnist board to embarrass myself and show off my show off my clutter corners to the world. In a day or so, there’ll be a victorious “after” photo to show off, too, showing those corners shiny and new. If I get distracted, this could take a week, but with an audience holding its breath waiting to see the surface of the corner bookshelf, there is a much greater chance of victory.  I’ll do it for the paparazzi.

But there will always be critics.

“Don’t you have to be successfully organized to give organizational advice,” emailed my friend.

“No.” I replied. Who’s really organized besides Martha Stewart and God anyway? The rest of us are inferior by design. No one wants to feel like a lesser human being. That is precisely why you need a disaster like me telling you how to organize. If you fail, you can say, “At least I’m not like her.” You might even look at my chin-up on the bar of organization and be inspired. “If she can organize, I know I can be successful.”

We’re all on this journey together. I set up a low bar and a low-risk environment for the world.

Organizing is no different from anything else at which I suck. I’m a terrible athlete. In order to improve, I had to study and practice.  I shot a million shots, I came hours early, and worked on the fundamentals. Most of all I tried to avoid falling on my face in public. I was so bad in high school basketball I had a fan club. “We just come watch you because you’re funnier than The Cosby Show.” In my day, that was about as funny as it got. LouisCK wasn’t even around yet. He was home watching The Cosby Show.

Organizing is no different. It’s a struggle to practice and learn. Our ineptitude frustrates those good organizers who live with us. It falls under the “Don’t you have any common sense?”

So, to answer my critic, who I’ll call “Jen,” I do not have to be organized to teach about organization. It’s actually better that I’m not. It makes everyone feel they can do it, too. If I can help the nation to simplify by embarrassing myself on a Learnist board then redeeming myself later, so be it. If not, I’ll add some photos of the mountains of papers escaping the corner and swallowing up my town. Lets hope it doesn’t get to that.