Wednesday, May 27, 2020

May 27, 2015: In Memoriam, 5 years on

dad, circa 1942
me and dad, circa 2015

Five years ago today, my dad died, at home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. He was 92 and had lived a long and full life. And it had been his decision to stop dialysis after 7 years and mounting health crises.

He knew it would only be a matter of days after his final dialysis session, so he waited until the family could gather, so he could say goodbye. He died, as he lived, on his own terms.

My father wasn't always a patient man (he was a NY business man, after all!), but in his last years, found a kind of acceptance and gratitude and quiet wisdom that enriched everyone around him. And while he grieved for my mother after her death in 2012, he also made deep friendships with his neighbors in the senior living facility where they had moved to in 2010.

5 years on, and there isn't a day where I don't miss him.

He married my mother, after a long courtship in the 1950s. They were both considered old - they were in their 30s. They had their first child - my sister - a year later. Then my mother had a series of miscarriages and wasn't able to have another child. After years of being told they were too old to be adoptive parents, they were finally able to adopt me as a 5 day old infant in 1963.

My dad - in his early 40's - flew by himself from NY to San Francisco to bring me home, while my mother stayed home with my older sister.

This was the "Mad Men" era. Fathers, as a rule, didn't do much childcare, certainly not fly cross country on their own with a tiny infant!

My sense is that he was not daunted by it, not even for a minute. He was utterly devoted to my mother, my sister, and me. And when his 3 grandchildren came along, he adored them and his role as grandfather.

He died before I found my birth family a few years ago, and I think he would have been thrilled for me to have made those new connections. He was a man who understood love to be expansive.

His pragmatic wisdom continues to be my guide and over the past 5 years since his death, I often dream of him and am always comforted by it.

He was many things in his life - short order cook, stickball player, sonar operator in WWII, a business owner, a gardener, grill-master of summer barbecues,  a crossword puzzle aficionado, a baseball fan, a teller of tall tales - and my beloved dad.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

In a Liminal Space

"Terminal One" by Smaku is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2008, my son's favorite movie was The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks. It's an odd movie for a then-12 year old to love, but that was the year he got stuck alone overnight in Denver coming home from visiting his best friend in Oregon.

We have been stuck in all sorts of places (sometime our entire family together, sometimes just one of us) waiting on transportation - bus stations, train stations, airport terminals, subway cars, an elevator, and even a ski lift once. For a stretch of time, it seemed that every journey we took had an unexpected delay. What we discovered was a kind of routine for waiting.

It starts with anxiety. What's happening? Am I safe?

The fear gives way to annoyance. I have a connection to make! Or an appointment! Or a meeting! This is so irritating!

If the waiting continues, especially if there's no way to know when it will end, it shifts to frustration and anger. Maybe you pace. Or curse at the never ending phone queue with its relentlessly cheerful hold music interrupted by a disembodied voice assuring you that your call is important. But you know it isn't. Not to them.

As the minutes turn into hours and nothing happens (other flights board and leave, buses pull out to other destinations, the voice at the other end of the emergency phone just repeats the technician is on the way), there's a curious acceptance. You have always been in this elevator, stopped between floors. There is no day or night in the waiting room: the lighting never changes, the televisions flicker in an endless line down the corridor. Thankfully, the sound is off.

This is where you are now.

You have little control over anything outside of the room with the hard plastic chairs and the half-empty snack machine.

You dig through your carry bag and find a blank envelope and the stub of a pencil. You open it up at the seams, carefully, so you have more usable surface and you begin to write. Or sketch. Or create little origami animals. Or play tic-tac-toe with yourself as a crafty opponent.

The occasional announcements on the loudspeaker are unintelligible and at some point, you tune them out. Instead, you start to hum, and then sing. You realize that you remember a ton of show tunes and start to belt them out. You don't even like show tunes, but the acoustics in this elevator are perfect - like in the shower.

Eventually, your breath becomes deep and wide. The quiet is no longer something to dread. You're not even sure what you're waiting for. The graffiti on the wall behind you resolves into messages from your past and future selves.  They make sense in the way dreams do.

You know things will change, just not how.

And for now, that's enough.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

And now, a break for sourdough bagels

Sourdough Bagels, version 3.0

One of the things I've been spending my days doing is baking bread. I've always turned to cooking in times of stress and bread is one of the things I find most satisfying of all to make.

I actually used to bake most of my own bread. When the kids were young, I would bake several loaves of sandwich bread every Sunday for their weekly lunches.

When we bought StarField Farm - our home in central Massachusetts - we discovered Rose 32 Bread - an amazing bakery that made some of the best sourdough bread I've ever had. And for the past three years, I haven't made a single loaf. I just can't compete with their wood fired brick ovens and their magical sourdough.

About six months ago or so, the owner was kind enough to give me some of his starter so I could use it for pancakes. So when Covid-19 came, causing the bakery to close for the time being, and causing massive shortages in yeast, I was in a good position to resume making my own bread.

But it had been many, many years since I had worked with sourdough. My first attempts were mediocre and frustrating, with the dough hard to handle.

With my writing brain on indefinite strike, I started obsessively reading sourdough baking websites and collecting recipes.

I found The Clever Carrot, which has become one of my favorite resources.  In studying a myriad of recipes, I have come to understand the *why* of sourdough instructions, which, for me, was key to making good bread.

I'm stubborn when it comes to following strict directions. I'm like this with yarnwork, too. I'd rather understand the reason and rationale for any instructional steps then just follow a pattern for a garment. So, too, with sourdough bread.

And that leads me to bagels.

I have been working with several different (but similar) recipes:

1.  New York Style Bagels at Sisters and Spice (sourdough with added dry yeast)
2. All sourdough bagels at Baking-Sense
3. Clever Carrot's bagels (shared with permission from her book) and
4. This recipe from the archives of The Fresh Loaf

There are minor differences among all the recipes, but each of them makes really good bagels. Here are some of the lessons that I learned that really helped me master sourdough in general and bagels specifically:

  • Test your starter before you use it. While you can tell if starter is ready by look and smell, a good trick is to gently lower about a teaspoon of sourdough starter in a cup full of room temperature water. If the glop of starter floats, it's ready to use. If it sinks, give it another feeding and try again in a few hours.
  • Use a food scale rather than cup measures Different flours have different volume to weight measurements. That can knock off your hydration level significantly. Weigh your ingredients if you can. Your bread will thank you.
  • Different breads require different degrees of wetness and different handling methods.
    • Highly hydrated doughs are best for classic boules where you want a light, airy crumb with a lot of holes. But wet (also called slack) doughs are impossible to knead. Instead use the stretch and fold technique. (I recommend you watch a few youtube videos) 
    • Drier doughs are best for sandwich breads and bagels. Particularly with bagels, you want a stiff dough. But you definitely can knead it by hand. (See the 4th recipe above.)  
  •  Sourdough requires patience and a lot of waiting. There are 3 basic waiting periods:
    • autolyze (where you add the flour to water and let it sit for 20-30 minutes. There are variations of this where you also add the starter.) This helps boost gluten development and is really important. I autolyze just the flour with the water, even if the recipe doesn't specifically call for it. 
    • bulk fermentation This is where your fully formed dough will need to rise. Sourdough will not rise until double in bulk the way yeast doughs will and it will take a lot longer to do its rising. Be patient. The slower the rise, the more sour the resulting bread. But let it rise too fast (especially under warm conditions) and it will overproof, giving you a doorstop when baked.
    • second rise Once you shape the bread (loaf or bagels), it needs to rise a second time. Again, don't expect your dough to double in volume and the time it takes to rise enough will depend mainly on ambient temperature. 
  • Retarding the rise Because sourdough develops slowly, you can slow down the fermentation and rising either at the bulk fermentation step or the second rise step. I have baked bagels both ways, and it works just fine. Bulk Fermentation step: I have placed the kneaded dough ball in a lightly greased and covered bowl in the fridge for over 2 days before taking it out to shape, then boil, then bake. Second Rise step: I have also shaped the bagels and put them in the fridge for a day or two before boiling and baking. 
My next experiment is to form the bagels and freeze the dough for later boiling/baking. I'll keep you posted! Feel free to post questions or links to your favorite sourdough recipes.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Seven weeks: A status report

Seven weeks.
I've been at StarField Farm in essential isolation for seven weeks now.

Someone yesterday called me and asked me how I was doing. It was hard to answer that question. I told my friend *what* I was doing and that's a window into the how.

For the past week or so, I've found a rhythm to my days centered around discrete tasks. On the nice days, I walk the dogs in the woods and clean up in the garden. Our fruit trees have never looked so well pruned.

I spend a lot of time working with sourdough starter and baking different kinds of breads. Because it still gets cold at night, I regularly need to replenish wood, which means getting on the tractor, loading a bucket, and ferrying wood into the kitchen.

I'm not doing well at keeping to a normal sleep cycle, staying up too late and waking up late. Nor am I keeping to normal meal times. Despite baking, I'm not hungry most of the time. My friends and neighbors have been the lucky recipients of my sourdough obsession.

So, how am I?

I feel myself slowing down, letting the time stretch out without trying to exert much control over it. Do I feel depressed? Not really. I'm far too familiar with anxiety and depression and this just feels like I'm in a powered-down state. Like the sleep/energy saver setting on the computer.

Leaving the house to go to the post office (we don't get delivery at the house) or my occasional replenishment trips to the market no longer feel frightening. I have a routine with my masks, hand sanitizer, and clorox wipes. This is just what needs to be done.

I've moved from panic to caution in my day to day life. The extreme fatigue that flattened me for several weeks has eased. There seems to be a limit to how long a body can function in a heightened alarm state. I do realize that whatever balance I've found is likely tenuous at best.

My husband is still in the thick of treating covid-19 patients. When we spoke last night, he told me he felt sad. I think he, too, is shifting from the initial emergency response to a more reflective one. In a lot of ways, it's simpler to be in emergency-mode. All the painful emotions are put on hold and there's an outlet for adrenaline and fear. Afterwards, there comes a reckoning. And I worry for my husband, his colleagues, and my friends who are first responders. The risk to their mental health is likely higher now than the risk to their physical health.

Hearing the news of the NY ER physician who died from suicide this week felt like a personal blow.

How am I?

Physically? Safe. Emotionally? Weary. Overall? Heartsick for all who are suffering and will continue to suffer. Powerless in the face of knowing that what comes next (and I believe there will be a next) will not be easy.

But today is sunny, warm, and dry. My dogs will revel in the smells of the rich earth as they snuffle in the underbrush. The kitchen will be filled with the scent of baking bread. For today, that will be enough. 

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