Radishes. I was going to write about radishes.
I may still.
Not today, though.
I was also going to build shelves in the hall closet. The coat closet—probably, properly—but, we never use it for coats. We could use a place for games, though. And circuitry kits. And crafts and toys, and odds and ends, and so: re-purposing. Project. Shelves.
I bought boards, mid-April.
I brought them in, Monday.
And by in, I mean finally out of my trunk and heaped high behind the closet door. Which I guess, technically, constitutes "shelves in the closet". But drills, screws, and seven hours would improve their functionality, significantly.
Also, I was going to see my mom on Mother's Day. Because we live in the same city for the first time in eight years, and so: obviously.
I so didn't do it.
And so, instead, I was going to see her the next weekend.
That was two weeks ago.
Haven't seen her, still.
I didn't bother to plan for last weekend. Superstition. Experience. Call it what you will. We wound up calling it Strep. (At least we didn't have to call and cancel.)
I was going to do a great many things. Fifty-two, give or take. (Humorous. Hubris. So close, these two words.) Things which were Urgent and Critical, a month back, when I sat tensely taut between single-spaced, double-columned lists of All That Needs Doing Before Summer!!, and the countdown of days, between here and there. And then, our sickest Spring on record. None of it serious, all low-grade nonsense, all mercifully, easily cure-able stuff. In other words, no big deal. Just an ongoing deal. Which, if you're a tiny bit focused, can mutate into or-deal.
Or, unexpectedly, not.
I don't even know where those lists landed.
And, oddly, I don't much care.
What is weird, what is odd, is the lack of desperately-behind, must-catch-up wall-crawling that isn't currently happening in my head. It is my habit, when curve balls come, to dwell on the delta between goals and reality. To zero in on the yawning chasm of un-done to-do's. To mourn time lost. Assess the damage. Analyze, in the wake, how to increase output. To re-engineer future days and minutes to course-correct for what went missing. To maintain that tenuous balance between maximum productivity and those pesky, prevailing headwinds called Life. I can, in this way, be wildly efficient. Also, the tiniest bit intense.
In college, I learned a fully optimized factory runs best at 80% capacity. Theory being, the planned 20% downtime will absorb line shutdowns, employee absences, and any and all other unexpected glitches. As I recall, decades of widespread Fortune 500 research backed this finding. As I also recall, my instant and enduring reaction was, "absolute bunk". 110%, maybe. On holiday. Down from a running 127% average. But an effort in the mere high double-digits? Patently, egregiously wasteful.
By rights, then, by now, after six sidelined weeks, I ought to have the heart rate of a hamster, just off a joint spinny wheel session. Instead, all week, as we've inched back toward routine, and toward summer, I have this bizarre carefree levity. Is that the right term, even? Spring-ier step? Fewer jungle drums? Strange void where the Impending Finish Line/go!Go!!GO!!! once lived?
This makes approximately no sense to me.
I mean, the goals/achievements gap has rarely been greater. And yet. That list got lost, and weeks with it, and with those, all the urgency. (To be clear: the urgency didn't just up and walk away. There was no WHOOSH!, no insta-enlightenment, no Buddha under the Bodhi. More a foot-draggy, fuggy-minded, long-drawn-out, begrudging ok-lungs-you-win resignation. Nor was it exactly peaceful. Unless you consider grumbling, eye-rolling, harrumph-ing and intolerably whiny "peaceful". Wouldn't insta-enlightment be grand, though?)
And yet. Levity.
It's as though, by removing all potential for productivity, expectations slunk out the window, alongside. I think it was Anne LaMott who said, "Expectations are resentments under construction." I think it was Brené Brown who then built on this with "stealth expectations", and their sneaky knack for undermining happy. And calm. And so, ironically, productivity. Dang it.
Actually, I know it was Brown, because somewhere in that early May "wasteland", I listened to Rising Strong. All of it. Also, Big Magic. Also start to finish. (Five stars, both.) Also, I finally figured out how to request, reserve, download, and listen to audiobooks. For free. From my library. This hadn't even made my list, because who would prioritize such piffle?
And that's the thing: throughout those "lost weeks", so many things happened. Maybe not the things I intended. Mostly not the things I intended. Different things. Other things. Things I could either reject as Not the Right Things, or receive as New and Interesting Things. I would like to report that I made the switch, stat, and welcomed the New and Interesting, warmly. I would also like to retain some shred of moral credibility, so more truthfully: hahahahaaaaaaa!! I wish. So not my style.
Obviously, the right answer was (A).
I clung to this answer, fiercely, for weeks. There are fingernail-dents in my mark sense form to prove it. But at some indeterminate point along the way, I became a little confused on my position, on why I was fighting Not Doing so hard. Or rather, on why I would so willingly consign weeks to the waste bin. As if weeks were rubbish. As if time were trash. As if this idea of "time lost" were anything other than a fiction I'd fashioned myself, and a dangerous one, at that.
And then, the other day, I was listening to Krista Tippett, interviewed by Pico Iyer on her own show. (Ample time + zero energy = perfect podcast algorithm. I was so very far behind on On Being, because, you know, it didn't merit a To Do.) "I like the language of surprise," she said. Whereupon my head promptly pulled one of those needle-hits-record-scratch full-stop screeches.
Who puts "like" and "surprise" in the same sentence? I thought. Surprise = Interruption. Surprise = Disruption. Surprise = Not What I Planned. Ergo, Surprise = Bad. SIMPLE MATH. Then again, I so respect Krista Tippett. I kept listening. "The willingness to be surprised is a great virtue," she added. "It opens possibilities."
[ ?!?!?!?! ]
[I have typed and deleted so many interjections, and acronyms, and punctuation points, in an attempt to capture my thoughts on this concept. No words. Mind. Blown. Clearly, clearly, I lack virtue.]
For you flexible, spontaneous, fun-loving types, I'll just wrap here, because: DOH. Surprise = Possibilities. Of course. Of course. (Why did I not know this?) (?!?!?!) And for the rest of us—i.e., me, myself and I—maybe this New Math explains so much? That weird levity? The exhale of plans, abandoned? The odd profound quiet created by "No"? The strange terrain of allowing Surprise and its many possibilities free admission?
And by admission, I do not mean ushering Surprise through the palace gates and down the cellar stairs and to the stale inky dungeon below, to be corralled and quarantined and kept until such time as She either surrenders or expires. Whichever comes first. No. (Wouldn't that be lovely, though?) I mean greeting Surprise at the front door, maybe even with a smile (oh, who are we kidding?), showing Her to the rickety kitchen table, sharing tea and biscuits, the good ones, even, and conversing, face to face. For hours. And not just politely, either, but with genuine curiosity and keen questions and, yes, even ardent cross-examination?
What if, when Surprise knocks, be it six weeks of sick or Serious Situations, we bravely (or kicking and screaming, whatever works) fill in the bubble for Answer (B)?
What if, when we write our days in our minds, we pluck different verbs, and speak not of time lost, but instead, invested elsewhere? Time re-directed? Cleverly re-deployed? Inventively, unexpectedly, irreverently re-purposed? What if we see this for the terrible system it is, chaotic and messy and totally not to code, and have filed appeals with appropriate parties, but know in the end that Surprise is Life's first and favorite synonym? Life, actually. Life outside my lists.
And now, pardon me while my brain explodes.
But first, lunch. I say this not as the worst segue ever, but because it is true, and constant, my unswerving fondness for food. In sickness and health, in good times and bad, brain intact or otherwise, I am hungry. Always. I have heard some lose their appetite when they're ill, or excited, or nervous, or... ? Help me out, here? Maybe there's a Venn Diagram whose AB includes "loves surprises" and "loses appetite"? I don't know. I cannot imagine.
What I can imagine is wanting to eat well while expending approximately zero effort. Those radishes, up top? They required very little effort. But little was more than I wanted to muster. So when push came to shove, and my belly became grumbly, what I found myself craving—and, in fact, making—was this lightning fast Spring Thai curry. Over and over and over again.
There was a grocery store endcap involved, one with coconut milk and curry paste and the provocative tip that these two ingredients alone, plus protein, could somehow yield curry. How charming, I thought. How cheat-y, I thought. How totally against The Rules, I thought. (Rules, of course, being Plans' kissing cousins.) I've made good Thai curry many times, sourcing galangal, bashing lemongrass, pounding ginger and dried shrimps and chilis. It is always heady. It is always delicious. It is always a lengthy, elaborate mess. Which is why "always" doesn't happen anywhere near as often as I'd like.
So even as I scoffed at the notion that one can + one bottle could = true curry, I uncharacteristically impulse-bought both. Maybe I was already flirting with a more welcome posture toward surprise. Maybe I was exhausted. Probably, I was under the influence of prescription-strength cough syrup. Either way, I did a rare thing and let raw marketing guide my lunch.
I'm so glad I did.
For even though I embellished in the end, I was properly impressed by that jar of curry paste, and serious lack of mess, and the gob-smackingly good soup a mere 15 minutes could make. This soup—and I've settled on it as soup, a looser, slurp-able, spoon-friendly thing, though you can omit the broth and serve it up, slurry-style, over rice—has come together differently each time. Still, a few common threads prevail. Alliums at the outset, which melt and slump and become a sweet foil against the spice. Fish sauce and lime juice, and a spoonful of sugar, all (to my tastebuds) key counterpoints to the curry. Ecumenical protein—halibut, shrimp, tofu, chicken—all of which I've tried, all of which I've loved. And finally, and telltale me, alllll the Spring vegetables.
At heart, the recipe below differs little from what is printed (I just noticed yesterday) right there on the back of the bottle. Except, this: "1 cup vegetables". That would be theirs. Mine reads more like "1/2 lb. asparagus, 1/2 lb. zucchini, 1/2 lb. greens, fistfuls peas, peppers, herbs". I would add that I've since included corn, sheared straight from the cob and added at the end, and it, too, is completely fantastic. So maybe 6 cups veg? Maybe 8? Maybe so many they're the main event?
Because that is the beauty of this broth, its versatility, its backdrop abilities, its Abbott to the vegetables' Costello. Its spice and warmth and sweetness and verve are a gorgeous context for all Spring's things. It is where I turned after a dozen dances with my usual Spring Mess, when I was ready for new flavors, new accents, new drawls, but still squarely seated in Spring's bounty. It accommodates every last vegetable I throw at it, whatever's abundant, with grace and ease. It accommodates, equally, Tuesday's extra steamed zukes, Thursday's leftover asparagus, Sunday's unused greens. Not to mention those random crisper drawer orphans always rolling ignominiously about. Made from whatever the market offers up. Made from the week's odds and ends. Made from serendipity and scraps, of food and of time, alike. Practical. Flexible. Fantastically good. And fast enough to fool a person into thinking they'd not really cooked at all. Which so often is what a life needs. And what, so often, makes for lunch (actually).
Lightning Fast Thai Spring Curry
My current curry paste is standard-issue Thai Kitchen, available at any major supermarket. If you find yourself in an Asian market, you'll find half a dozen. Try them all. But the supermarket stuff is just fine, a mash-up of chili, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and little more. Hello, easy. Green curry paste would also be swell.
The steps below are a little loose, as is my method. The overall idea here is to start the broth, then add the "bits" in order of hardiness, i.e. chicken first (if using), then hardy veg, then tender things (seafood, peas). I find cooking and prep time complement each other beautifully, if you work and add in this order. In other words: no mise-en-place needed here. This is purely slice-and-add, 15 minutes start-to-finish.
As to veg: play. I especially love leeks, here, as their silken layers love the spiced broth. Beyond these, any and all Spring staples are excellent, here. Asparagus, zucchini, anonymous greens, also carrots and cauliflower, not listed, but lovely. Add whatever looks good, from your fridge or nearest farmer. As summer comes, I'll swap in eggplant, green beans, tomatoes and local peppers. And once winter hits, kale, kuri squash, maybe mushrooms, definitely storage carrots. I cannot imagine a bad combination.
1 Tbs. peanut or olive oil
3 leeks, halved and sliced (or 2 shallots, or 1 onion, sliced)
1 Tbs. red curry paste (+ more to taste)
1 (14 oz.) can coconut milk
1/2 cup water (optional)
1 Tbs. fish sauce (+ more to taste)
1-2 tsp. sugar (to taste)
1/2# (6 thick spears) asparagus, relieved of tough ends, then thick-sliced (1/2")
1/2# (2 small) zucchini, halved horizontally, thick-sliced (1/2")
1/2# greens (slivered kale, spinach, turnip greens)
1/2# tofu, halibut, chicken or shrimp, cut into 1/2" cubes
1-2 cups additional veg, chopped (red pepper, tomato, snap peas, fresh corn, mushrooms)
1 Tbs. lime juice
to top: fistfuls of mint/cilantro/basil (any/all); fried shallots; chopped peanuts; scallions
In a medium saucepan, add oil, and warm until shimmering over medium heat. Add leeks, stir well to coat with oil, and cook over medium heat until soft, slumped and melted, 5-7 minutes. Add coconut cream from top of can (if you think of it; it easily announces itself as a thick cap of white at the top of each can), and stir briefly to melt. Add curry paste, and fry in the leek-y fat for 1-2 minutes, until slightly darkened and fragrant.
Add remaining coconut milk, water (if using), fish sauce and sugar (start with 1 teaspoon), and stir to combine. While broth heats to a quiet simmer, add embellishments in order of vigor. If using chicken, slice and add first, allowing 5 minutes to simmer. Halibut or tofu can jump in alongside hardy veg (zucchini, asparagus, greens), and will want around 5 minutes to cook at a slow burble. Add shrimps, as well as any/all tender veg (snap peas, tomatoes, corn, peppers) at the last, allowing 2 minutes to heat through.
Add lime juice, and stir well. Taste. Consider. More salt? Spice? Sweet? Add more fish sauce for salt, more curry paste for heat, more lime juice for sour, and sugar by pinches for more sweet. This is the mad wizard part of the process, and the most crucial, and the most fun. Add dashes and splashes, stirring well to melt and mix, until you hit that happy salty/sour/salty/sweet high point. When done, your veg will beam. Your protein, also. And best of all, your belly.
Serve over rice, or any good grain, or straight-up as soup, topped with herbs + other bits.
Keeps beautifully for 3 days.