By and large, I've got the hang of the black hole that is back-to-school.
The idea those first weeks will yield great productivity and clean cupboards? Myth. Busted. The dream that bedtimes will resume and evenings before eleven again be mine? Pfft. Hello parent meetings. And piles of paperwork. And the scooting of homework until the bitter end. Because summer's a hard habit to break. The on-hold-since-April fantasy of a rhythym, re-established? Right after the pet unicorn. First weeks are just code for germ fests, and invariably, someone succumbs, and whole weeks pass with kiddos home, heads hot and hacking, poor things, and so add to those papers several "Please excuse..." slips. Which, weirdly, somehow sport my signature. The scrawling of which definitively makes me feel older than laugh lines, magenta ankle veins, and scrolling down through three screens to find my birth year. Combined.
But I know this. I've done this. I've got this.
All but the pictures.
Good grief. The pictures.
It's a back-to-school ritual, this innocent "bring a photo!" routine. Details vary. This year, for example, for one child, it was old family photos. "Just four or five shots. Nothing special; just family. Great aunts. Parents' grandparents. Great great grandparents. People like that."
As if we have Great Aunt Maude's selfie, just laying around. (Do you?). As if eighty-year old originals are backpack-friendly. (Right?) As if we've scanned anything all summer. (All year?) As if, once we've finally re-acquainted ourselves with the machine, and it with us, said scanner doesn't bury said hard-won images in an undisclosed hard drive bunker so secure, it's zombie-apocalypse ready. As if, once said secure locations have (at looooong last) been uncovered, there isn't then an inexplicable hiccup, pushing the pictures into the printer. And onto the page. And out the paper tray. Because just hitting "print" would be, you know, boring.
But it's cool. We got it.
Or the other child. Who needs one family photo, plus a favorite summer pic. So current! So easy! But wait: family photo? Like, entire family? Because we have lots with three out of five. Some four out of five. Several, even. But five out of five? Does cut and paste count? Photo montage? Because, really? Five out of five is a steep bar, people. That's like sweeping a tournament. Like Serena Williams. Like Brady Bunch. Like, who has that?
This leads me to swear (and I mean that in the "hand on heart" sense, in the polite sense, but only just barely) that this year, this year, this will be The Year that I anticipate the annual September Need for a Family Photo. In advance. That I will search out photo opps all the year long. And probably pay strangers to snap random shots. And figure out some portable tripod-thingy. And wouldn't it be clever to schedule something, say every fourth Saturday at 4:00, all proactive-like, that instructs, "Snap Family Photo! NOW!" Yes! Yes it would!
I think I've thought this very same thought every year for fourteen years. Check back with me, September 2015.
For you resolution-fiends: I eventually found a phone photo from Spring Break, 2013, with the five of us, hatted, bundled and mittened, on a frigid 12° Montréal street corner. It didn't check the family AND summer photo boxes. But: one down, one to go! But: not so fast. Because unlike the ancestors, this summer did not go down in black and white. Regrettably.
Suddenly, I see the geneology ask was easy. Ancestors prefixed by "great" lived in monochrome times, those wise old birds. This summer, and that Spring, were all CMYK, which was all good and vivid while we were in it, but now, oy. One must print the proof.
But I've got this! I do. See above. And below.
Because, remember! I've been around this block! I know to expect photos, even in denial! I finally broke down last year and bought a color printer, for this very purpose! One which we've created strict safeguards around, so that it's precious color cartridges are intact, when the time comes!
Error message. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, check, check, check! But the black... the black seems to be empty. And because Murphy is alive and law-full and apparently very, very well, black is mandatory for printing. All printing. Even color. And no shops in town stock said black cartridges, because "the printer's too old". (One year old, precisely. Last September. Remember?) And—improvising madly, now—the photo store that prints my square photos has just closed its doors. Forever. And the company that bought them, left good tidings on the door, invited us to carry on business as usual down the road? All business save prints, so sorry. (I do love irony. This is better than Shakespeare. But really, I also love a little resolution.)
And the other other child, well. He's still waiting. His photo's been pending two weeks, now. But I've only known about it for one, so that's something. Also, it was particular in ways I couldn't have anticipated, so there's that. Also, I now have ink cartridges. Black! Two extra! For next year! I've got this!!
For all that? It's been a really, genuinely good start of school. Enterovirus notwithstanding. Rising mostly on time. Homework generally in. Systems and schedules slowly getting sorted. Angels disguised as teachers, yet again. (They're so not to blame for the photo thing. I own that bad. Case in point: after the color printer saga, the kind teacher in question offered to make prints at school, if only I e-mailed the files. DONE.) And? In the throes of all this photo-hounding, I got to re-live our summer. A bargain, really.
Phones have a sneaky way of swallowing up so many small moments. Those very first diving board jumps. Those late evening walks. Those hard-won geochaches. Pancake mornings with kids so tall they reach the counters. (Since when?) That day we decided to go to the zoo, even though it was way too late, then hit the rides adjacent, which we'd never done, then learned that two of my three are absolute fiends for rides. (Who knew?) The ride-riddled State Fair that (necessarily) followed. The Munchkin rounds in Maine that were many, and still not enough. The temporarily-orderly towel cupboard that was so thrilling, or so rare, (really: both), that it apparently demanded documenting. The foot on the leg that finally, finally pumped hard enough to touch the tree. That alone was years in the making.
They didn't answer the assignment, any of them. But better than any posed shot, any official record, they capture the impromptu, the unplanned, the in-the-moment that was, for me, the best of this summer. I love them for that.
Much as I love this salad, which I've made often enough in recent weeks to instigate running fig jokes. Figs and I are friends, but not fast ones, Ohio not being a figgy state. But late every summer, we see a spike in beautiful, flown-in figs, and I jump. Mostly, I take them down savory paths, as I find their stark sweet too much to accentuate. Exhibit A: Basque green bean, fig and basil salad. This year, though, there's this Exhibit B, that's threatening to take the lead.
I first threw this together in mid-August, in the heat of hunger, from fridge remnants. Fresh arugula, from a near-here farm. Two ears of corn, stripped of their kernels. A huge fistful of pecans, toasted to the brink, coarsely, unceremoniously "hand-crushed" over all. And then, a dozen bruise-black figs, quartered, cast in at the last. That first night, I added creamy jade cubes of ripe avocado, for plush. Lovely. The second time, I added instead shreds of ham, the sweet, dry, very good kind. Lovelier. I've since tried it both ways, several times, and can definitively say: both bring me running.
The results, either way, are everything I want in a salad, all contrast and complement. Peppery meets sweet, crunch against tender, honeyed fruit on mapled nuts on sharp greens, all mitigated by bits of rich, be they buttery avocado or meaty hits of ham. It is sometimes a side, sometimes a light lunch, sometimes scaled up or down to suit. What it isn't, I realized the other day, is the impromptu one-off it once was, but a part of my canon, my cast of regulars. And since this is where I store such essentials, I'm tucking it here. For the both of us.
And now, I do beg your pardon, but I have a photo to print...
Fig, Arugula + Sweet Corn Salad
I love Niman Ranch ham, here, which is sweet, nutty, dry, intense, and deeply hammy. Lacking that, I'd opt for an ounce or two of prosciutto (La Quercia is fantastic). Watery, slippery pressed deli ham will make you sad; opt for avocado.
8 cups arugula
2 ears of corn
10-12 fresh figs
1/2 avocado (optional) *or* 1-2 oz. excellent ham or proscuitto
1 cup pecans, toasted*
2 Tbs. good vinegar
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
I begin this salad by shaving the corn kernels directly into the serving bowl: place cob upright on one end in your salad bowl, and with a sharp paring knife, run blade top to bottom, removing kernels. Repeat until both cobs are bare. Add arugula to bowl.
Chop toasted pecans roughly, and add to bowl. Trim stem ends from figs (bases as well, if thick or tough), then quarter figs (or cut into sixths, if especially large), and add to bowl. If using ham, shred into bite-sized rags, and add to bowl. Alternatively, if using avocado, cut into 1/2" dice, and add.
In a lidded jar, add vinegar and salt, swirl to dissolve, then add olive oil. Replace lid, shake vigorously, and drizzle over salad. Toss salad, gently and thoroughly, to combine, then raise a glass to summer's showy self.
*Toast pecans in a preheated 350° oven for 12 minutes, or until the the kitchen smells of maple and the nuts are a twitch darker. Set a timer and stay close. Five extra minutes, and incredible becomes inedible. Allow to cool before adding to salad.