Hello from the depths of a yellow note pad! Please pardon the mess. My handwriting's awful. Especially so when hastily undertaken, twelve minutes before pick-up, on a Thursday afternoon. But sometimes one must re-assess the state of things, spit-spot, piping cuppa on the left, sharpened pencil on the right, twenty-eight fine teal lines, dead center. So yes, I know it's cramped. And cluttered. And a bit harried, here on this yellow 8 1/2 x 11" island. But boy, is my brain a more orderly place.
Brevity—no surprise here—has never been my strong suit, with one resounding exception. My weekly plan. Every Sunday, I dedicate a sheet in my battered black Roaring Spring Compositions to the week ahead. I scrawl the dates across the top, haphazardly split the page down the middle, divide the right column into sixths (M-F, plus Sa/Su), and give the left over to my list. Within that list, lurks volumes.
They're mostly mundane volumes—laundry, Costco, library, swim lesson sign-ups, sleep (I need reminding)—but they're my volumes. They're also, sometimes, exercises in understatement. Small exercises, mostly. Permission slip signing might receive, for example, the same shelf-space as an oil change, never mind that one takes all of five minutes, the other, the better part of a morning. What matters is that they need my attention, and dark ink on white paper is my method of attending.
But sometimes, my method breaks down.
Sometimes, I get too concise. Or optimistic. Or in denial. Or most exciting, all three. Sometimes I allow in real whoppers, whales of projects, masquerading as tasks. I love a good whale, don't get me wrong, the scale of the thing, the preparation, progress, finish line. The trouble lies in the squeezing of a whale into one little line on a long to-do list. The trouble lies, as I re-remembered last week, in under-estimating the sheer darn size of the thing.
To wit, excerpted from last week's left column: "tidy hallway" and, a few lines down, "fix Z's room". Innocuous, no? Particularly sitting hands-folded, as they did, between slam-dunks like "return books" and "ride bikes" and "call mom". I actually even believed myself, at least through Thursday, at which point my head spun off.
One of the upsides of 18 married years is this: you can borrow the brain of your better half, when your own goes on strike over unreasonable demands. Additionally, you can channel the sage words and sound advice of a mind wired beautifully, differently from your own. Even in absentia. It rubs off, after awhile. I know this because, shortly after twitterpated hit, I had this thought: sit down, grab some coffee, pencil, paper, and write it out. All of it. Every step, no cheating.
Left to my own? I would never. I power through, battered nose to the grind-stone, come rain sleet or snow, head down, ever-onwar... Well, the coffee's classic me. But not the rational rest.
So I did. Grabbed a yellow tablet—important, because as we all know, a yellow tablets' top-binding invites flippage and honest lists, the kind that oop over page after page, in a way side-bound Comp books just don't—and got to writing. And hoo-boy, did I pick the right paper.
Turns out I might as well have originally written "tame grizzly", and "amble up Everest". See, that room switcheroo from last summer? Never got past the rough draft stage. Behind that diminutive "fix Z's room" lay a baker's dozen additional tasks, things like "find and build new bed," and "patch, wash and paint walls and ceiling". For starters. The untidy hallway, meanwhile, held not only its usual population of dust bunnies, but half the former office, piled high along its length, awaiting re-location to a non-existant new home. Holds, actually. The job's still not past-tense. But it will be, soon, because yesterday was spent mining IKEA for solutions.
A good rule of thumb? If your weekly to-do list includes the four letters I-K-E-A, the undertaking of which involves nine hours and three children and the heart and soul of a Sunday? Parse your list. Unload all the unspoken dependencies, in print. Itemize the assumptions. Outline the steps. Give voice to the also's and and's and but before's. It's illuminating. And anti-crazy-making. And justified procrastination.
Also? Glance at your week, the warp and weft of it, the hiking and creeking and rock-collecting and coal-testing and play-dating and apple-sauce-making and painting of rocks and acorns and paper and everything under the sun, save walls. A week is a wide, well-upholstered thing. Most of what happens is strictly off-list.
Also? Snag a couple of those kids, and take them to the park, and while you're there, brain swimmy still with tasks and logistics and paint tins unopened and halls still hazardous? Push them, per their request, on the tire swing and four minutes in, when you'd usually cry wolf, and beg off the pushing and shoo them away to work their own muscles already by golly, notice: the roiling giggles, the unqualified happy, the instant success of the task undertaken. It's that simple, there for the pushing.
Not because kids bring zen clarity and peace and dewy-serene cue-the-angels perspective. Not even. Had you seen our awkward all-ages parade, as we bicycled-scootered-walked our way there, herky-jerky, more stopping and starting (and stumbling and scraping and tear-wiping and encouraging and saddle-resuming) than going, well. Zen would not be your first thought.
No, it's just that this one very small discrete thing, this creating with the aid of an old tractor tire the temporary giddy illusion of flying is, as it happens, a simple task. No pre-requisites, seven layers deep. No footnotes, no clauses. No contingencies. A start-to-finish accessible thing, uncomplicated, a one-liner. Petting a cat is probably comparable. Prodding damp earth. Casting a fly. Satisfying boxes, easily checked.
This is often, more often than not, what I want when I come up hungry. Three minutes, outside four, between me and my face full of food. I could say especially during weeks such as these, but that would be fibbing; especially always. I am an impatient, greedy eater, wanting fantastic, ASAP. Toasted buttered maple pecans are among my quickest tickets to instant gratification.
Nuts, simply toasted, hold a regular role in my standard salad cast, which follows the fairly predictable script of greens + seasonal fruit + strong cheese + chopped nuts. Within these four variables lie infinite variations, the depths of which I never tire of plumbing. The nuts, for their part, add flavor and protein and spunky, muscular bursts of crunch. These nuts, quickly magnificently pampered, amplify everything I just said, exponentially.
It's like this: In a large skillet, melt a knob of butter and a splash of syrup (the darker the better, and definitely the real deal) with a good pinch of salt and double that of sugar. Toss in two cups' roughly chopped pecans, and stir, absently, over low heat. When the liquid looks less like water than treacle—five minutes, maybe—scrape the contents onto a lined pan, tuck into the oven, and toast for 7-10. Done.
What emerges from the oven, and after a brief cooling, are pecans in possibly their highest and best form. Glossed with browned butter, deeply mapled, ever so slightly sweetened and salted, they wear their new duds less like candied nuts, claggy and thick and stoically clunky, than like a handsome burled veneer, barely there, unforgettable. Not bad for fifteen minutes' work, mindless enough to make before school on a Monday, thrilling enough to transform two weeks' meals. Because a batch keeps for ages, stored airtight, and dazzles up every quick thing in sight.
Scatter several over oatmeal. Pile beside pears and cheese. Drag a peanut-butter-smudged apple through a bowl, crushed and crumbled. Make a sweet potato's day. Flick over last night's leftover brussels. Eat out of hand. Set out with drinks. Or do as I do, more often than I'll admit, and pile a bowl high with fresh greens and machete'd fruit and chuck a mahoganied handful over all. Toss with the week's vinaigrette and ba-da-bing, happy taste buds, happy belly.
You could, of course, gussy these further, think minced rosemary, a pinch of cayenne, ginger, nutmeg, black pepper. These pecans could take it. These pecans would love it. But that would complicate matters somewhat. And sometimes? I just want it that simple.
Mapled Butter Pecans
adapted from Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home
The rough initial pre-chop is genius, upping as it does the nuts' surface area, meaning more toasty edges, more snap and crunch, more interesting caramelized amber crevices. If your buttered nuts somehow soften—you leave a tray to cool before school, say, and forget them utterly until after—just return to a moderate oven for 5 minutes or so, and let cool again (but not all day!). This restores their crisp brilliantly.
2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons salted butter
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 375°. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
In a wide, heavy skillet (I use our 10" cast iron), place butter, syrup, salt and sugar over medium-high heat. Warm until butter is melted and sugar dissolved, and stir to combine everything well. Reduce heat to a low-medium, add chopped pecans, and stir well to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, 3-4 minutes, until liquid reduces slightly, thickens, and coats nuts well. Remove pan from heat, scrape nuts (and any residual liquid) onto prepared baking sheet, spread into an even layer, and toast in preheated oven until fragrant, about 7 minutes. Remove and let cool completely, until dry, an hour. Store airtight at room temperature for several weeks.
Serve in salads, alongside cheese, over oatmeal, with drinks, and out of hand. Repeat.