Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Melancholy, Episode CXIV (with recipe!)

It is the bittersweet season. The maples are shyly streaked with red, dinnertime needs candles again, the grape smell is everywhere, and the kids are gone, gone, gone. Some of you have emailed to say that you’re thinking of me, remembering how hard September is. Thank you for that—for knowing me so well, for so long. For feeling this with me.

I think this is technically called foreshadowing.
Ben started middle school at the performing arts charter school nearby. I know I often forget to tell you things like that—like what’s actually happening around here. It must sometimes feels like one of those Look Again! books, with a close-up so close you don’t even know what it is: you thought it was the uneven parallel bars but really it turned out to be a katydid’s antennae. 

I write a lot about the heart-flapping thrill when that fat toddler hand reached up to take mine, that same heart-flapping thrill ten years later when it’s a happy middle schooler’s gangly paw reaching out, but maybe you don’t know where we’re actually going, or what it is that’s actually going on. 

Exposition is, perhaps, not my real strength. But it always seems like what we have in common, you and I, is that hand in ours—more than the personal details of whether or not Michael and I are married, whether or not we drive an elderly Subaru wagon with its saggy engine dragging along the ground like an automotive representation of my bosom, whether or not we have sent our kids to private elementary school, whether or not I have done various sleazy things to pay for that school (less pole dancing than eyeshadow-for-sale writing, don’t worry). But then you don’t always know what’s going on.

My tea was a little dry, but otherwise I heartily recommend the Yum-Yum Castle Restaurant.
So: Ben is starting middle school at the performing arts charter school. It’s going to be so great, it is, you can just tell by the positive energy of the kids, the smiles and guitars and piercings and frantic hugging all around. I just drove him to school in the rain, and we had to listen to Aretha Franklin singing “Rock Steady”—but really loud, so that Ben can pick out the piano part he needs to learn. Not bad, as far as homework goes. But part of one day last week was hard for him and oh, I am about as thick-skinned as a soap bubble. I think about that thing everybody talks about—“helicopter parenting.”  That’s not me. I’m more like “velociraptor parenting” crossed with “retired submarine” parenting. I don’t care if the kids make the ski team or play the violin or go to college, and I’m too busy lying on the couch with a beer to hover around pressuringly—but if you interfere with their happiness, I will come at you with claws and teeth and furious, scaly, flapping tail. At least in my imagination I will.

Maybe a puffball that doubles as an airbag will help!
I am, in sum, happy, optimistic, and a little raw. I was renewing my library card over the phone, and the circulation guy was looking at my account, and he said, “Oh, while I’ve got you, I’m seeing that Why Women Have Sex is overdue. Are you ready to return it?” “Not yet,” I said, and he said, “Okay, okay… Why Women Have Sex. It doesn’t look like anyone else has requested it, so you can go ahead and keep it, Why Women Have Sex. If you still need it. And when I laughed and said, “It’s something I’m writing a piece about for work,” he said, serious, “I’m sure it is.” That’s the kind of week I’m having.

I am not recommending that you fry it in butter and eat it. It's a mushroom, for God's sake, and could be poisonous.
Here’s a recipe that makes a perfect, nourishing, easy, unpoisonous back-to-school supper: a rich, unctuous, wildly herbal pasta dish that takes a handful of walnuts and turns them into a divine, lilac-hued cream sauce. My kids love this dish, scout’s honor.

But first, three free-thrills recommendations:

1) The customer reviews of the “BIC Cristal for Her Ball Pen” renew my faith in humanity—and in the fact that the roots of feminism run deep and funny. "Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I'm swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga. It's comfortable, leak-proof, non-slip and it makes me feel so feminine and pretty!"

2) I challenge you to watch this and not end up saying “Don’t. Punch. Our car.” a hundred times a day. Also, I challenge you not to binge-watch the rest of them. Episode 4 is our current favorite. (Thanks, Launa. You owe me a million hours of my life.)

3) This song makes me cry. (OMG. Did I link to it last September too? I hope not.)

Pasta with Red Beans and Walnut Sauce
This is based on Red Beans with Walnut Sauce from the incredibly useful Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. My girlfriend Deobrah Madison adds scallions and walnut oil; I add marjoram and pasta. If you don't have or like all these herbs, use an equal amount of herbs you have or like. Crunchy, buttery breadcrumbs would be great on top.

Kosher salt
1 pound whole-wheat pasta shapes (I like bionaturae chiocciole, which I actually do buy from amazon in packages of 6!)
½ cup walnut pieces
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil (or walnut oil!)
Black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
3 cups cooked kidney beans (or two cans, drained)
3 tablespoons each finely chopped parsley and cilantro
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
1 tablespoon finely chopped marjoram

Put a large pot of water on for the pasta and salt it heavily (it should taste as salty as the sea).

Make the walnut sauce: whir together the walnuts and garlic in a food processor, then add the vinegar, oil, black pepper, cayenne, and ¾ teaspoon of kosher salt. Drizzle in 3 or 4 tablespoons of water (or use bean-cooking water, if you cooked them yourself—but don’t bother with the canned liquid) and process until you make a smooth, creamy sauce. Taste it for salt and vinegar, and add more of either if it’s not perfectly balanced.

Meanwhile, cook and drain the pasta and heat the beans a little bit in the microwave or a small pot.

In a large bowl, gently stir together three quarters of the pasta with the beans and walnut sauce and half the herbs. Top with the rest of the herbs and serve. (That last quarter of the pasta is perfect for anyone who wants “plain seconds.”)


  1. You are so kind and generous to share your life with us, so wittily and wisely.
    What a cool sounding school Ben gets to go to. Beginnings are hard.
    Funny that there could be a whole book about why women have sex. I think you might be able to sum it up for men in one chapter.

  2. I love the Bic for her reviews, too. I spent one evening reading them, and laughing until tears flowed freely.
    Oh, middle school. My oldest starts next year. And, I know what you mean by the bittersweet season. All the arguing and irritating of one another made me so ready for the kids to get back in school. Now, I'm so sad that they're back in school. Sigh.

  3. Erin K.6:13 PM

    What is that big white thing that got sliced and fried? Is that really a mushroom? Do they grow on the West Coast? Are they always so big? I'm fascinated.

  4. I just laughed for 10 minutes straight reading those comments on amazon! Thanks for the link! I just wish I could order some of those pens for myself, but shopping online is too complicated for my feminine mind...:)

  5. Kitten8:52 PM

    I've never commented before, and somehow I'd gotten away from your blog, but wanted to say hi. I started reading Bringing Up Ben when I was pregnant with my oldest, and went back again recently to reread some of the archives now that I'm expecting my third. I had to google to see what you all were doing, and oh my god, they are so big...

  6. Anonymous10:37 PM

    I have followed you since your Babycenter days but have never commented. This post helped me see that I too am having these feelings. I've just been so "busy" with work and kids and life and stresses that I've failed to stop and really experience the melancholy. It is inspiring to me how connected you are to your emotions and how beautifully you capture them in writing. So I'm going to spend a little time wallowing-- being midful that in so many ways it is reallly reveling -- in the bittersweet (to borrow your word) beauty of my kids' rapidly passing childhoods. And I'll be better for it.

  7. Angela7:12 AM

    Thankyou for a lovely post! That wistful sadness of September, even as you look forward to frosty mornings and Making Things With Leaves And Acorns, and the smell of bonfires. I watch my 5-year old walk in front of me, with the braids in her hair that she has been waiting a whole year for, and even while I am excited about what the future holds for her and so proud of all that she achieves... I wish I could keep her just like this. And her 7-year-old brother with his notably rudimentary understanding of the structure of a successful joke, but so much enthusiasm that I have to laugh anyway. That sounds like a great school choice for Ben, I hope he thoroughly enjoys it there, and I bet he will. We also chose a private elementary school, and it is truly great for our son (who'd find it hard to fit in if he wasn't allowed to be himself, quirks and all, which is sort of exactly why he is there)... but it does cost a bit. I bet those were the best eyeshadow adverts ever written :)

  8. Wishing Ben the best of luck! and to you too, with your September blues. Your blog is so heartfelt, it's truly a pleasure checking in to see what's going on.

    On an unrelated note, this recipe looks so delicious I want to make it ASAP. :)

  9. We're not at the middle school stage yet--my oldest is just starting preschool two days a week--but I am experiencing the September blues also. It is so bittersweet to watch your children grow up and spend more time away from you.

    Any suggestions on what to use instead of walnuts if you husband happens to think that they are the most disgusting thing on the planet?

  10. Anonymous10:21 AM

    Ah Catherine, I get you. I am also fighting a strange and strangely powerful fall depression, my first child just started kindgergarten. I can't even write that without tearing up, how lame. I have 40 pounds of hutterite cucumbers to can, and equal amount of green beans, laundry, and a cake to make....So those candle lit dinners, maple leafs and small cruelties at school all feel especially poignant. Sorry, sorry, sorry......and also, congratulations for big kids, continuing on, making dinner...I pat both of us on the back. thinking of you alot..Laurell

  11. Alison12:52 PM

    I LOVE the fall and winter theyare me favorite seasons, but just this morning i told my daughter "I really really miss taking you guys to camp already" (they went to day camp this summer) and she said, "Why?" I said "i just miss being with you." They Love school (6th & 4th grades), I love that they love school, but it's just a little less tight that i get to hold them close.

  12. Remember when you wrote: "I really feel like he should take piano lessons, but he doesn't want to..?" I always wondered what happened with that. Now he's at a performing arts middle school - time flies! Great news for Ben!

  13. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Oh, Catherine--I know how you feel about those times when your claws come out and you fantisize about what you'll say or do the next time someone hurts your child's feelings. The really terrible thing for me is, when I'm out for blood (in my own mind)--it isn't even the parents I'm after, it's the kids. How mature of me, I know. And it's true it's just a moment in a bunch of happier moments from the week and all, but it stings. It really does. I'm sorry about it. A hug to you. --Cathy K

  14. Okay, I'm crying, I'm laughing so hard at those "BIC for her" reviews!

  15. Anonymous6:02 PM

    I'm on a new place where the signs of fall are different - no maples, no chill to the air - but my heart too is raw with the signs of my little ones growing up and away. Thank you for the words, and for the company you give us.

    And: do you know Edith Pearlman's short stories? I think you'd love them. They're perfect: in themselves, and for this season of melancholy and noticing.


  16. Anonymous7:09 PM

    I love your writing and it makes me feel less alone in my confusion to let go or hold third grader started a new school today and because we don't live in the district where our "community" is, we chose private school. And, I'm an adult (?), and yet I still think to myself I'm kind of a public school person in a private school...does that make any sense? Anyway, I miss my kids, but I want to let them be and grow, but he doesn't like it and I never know, do I encourage him or say "then let's drop out..." anyway, thanks for making me feel like I'm not crazy for wanting to protect when kids tell him he didn't bring the right pencil.

  17. Oh September. Wonderful, sucky September. I am as comforted by your recurring September melancholy as I am (always, every year) surprised by my own. But fall is my favorite season! I like having my regular routine back! Apples, pumpkins, rain, fall colors, for goodness sake! And yet, here I am again, crying on my (now 3rd grade) baby's first day of school. It's almost funny how I don't ever see it coming. It's probably also a little bit that I used to be a teacher, and I really do miss it. But it's just as much the whole change-and-the-little-one's-growing-a-year-older thing. Thank you for letting me not be alone in it today. And I hope it helps a little that we are trying to help you not be alone in it, too.

  18. mongolmeesh8:23 PM

    Oh my god, the Bored Shorts thing. I found it last week, and nearly hyperventilated watching the basketball one. Have you seen it yet? Great bonding experience with my middle schooler - a kid who still comes home from school, sits on the couch, wraps his arms around my neck and says "I love you!" What did we do to deserve this continuing sweetness? I hope it never ends.

  19. Angela3:47 AM

    PS. The pen! I need it! THAT is clearly what is missing in my life, and then I will be the perfect lady, wife and mother!!

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. "Dragging along the ground like an automotive representation of my bosom..." Oh, Catherine. This is why I come here. This year the first day of school slapped me silly as it always does. Such an undeniable reminder of time passing. I really want them to grow and thrive and become just as long as they can stay 8 and 10 forever. Sigh.

  22. Anonymous10:03 PM

    Hi Catherine. I'm down here in the office laughing hysterically (but quietly) at your conversation with the librarian. Ah. I'm sorry Septembers are hard for you. They are hard for me, too, but I try to embrace the newness, the beginnings. Every year, it's something new. Glad Ben has a great school. I worry about middle school years and if I'll have to break down (sounds awful) and home school for the good of the children. Rambling here . . .thx for another great post.

  23. Okay, A. That's a mushroom?!? Holy cow. Do you live near a nuclear reactor or something? And B. Before you have kids and everyone tells you parenting is hard, you think it's because of the sleep deprivation and colic. But it's not. It's the now part, when you realize you can't bitch-slap a kid for being mean to your kid. And you really *want* to. And that's hard.

  24. Oh, I'm *loving* your links today. The BIC For Her reviews and bored shorts videos were just what I needed tonight. Laughter IS the best medicine.

  25. Me, too...I'm feeling so lonely now that school has started. Today is an early dismissal day, and I'm WAY too excited for the extra time together! "Want to go to the library? Walk on the beach?" "I was thinking I'd like to play with my FRIENDS," he replies.
    Oh. Right.

  26. The pasta looks delicious but I am most excited about those Kid History videos you linked to...a wonderful diversion from work and other tedium!

  27. Catherine, first, wonderful post. Ben's school sounds awesome! And you are just so entertaining.

    And not to fuel your September sadness, but have you heard the Rosanne and Johnny Cash song "September When It Comes"? So beautiful, so sad, so fitting, since he did actually pass away in the month of September, and not long after recording the song. Reduces me to tears every time.

    There's a cross above the baby's bed,
    A Saviour in her dreams.
    But she was not delivered then,
    And the baby became me.
    There's a light inside the darkened room,
    A footstep on the stair.
    A door that I forever close,
    To leave those memories there.

    So when the shadows link them,
    Into an evening sun.
    Well first there's summer, then I'll let you in.
    September when it comes.

    I plan to crawl outside these walls,
    Close my eyes and see.
    And fall into the heart and arms,
    Of those who wait for me.
    I cannot move a mountain now;
    I can no longer run.
    I cannot be who I was then:
    In a way, I never was.

    I watch the clouds go sailing;
    I watch the clock and sun.
    Oh, I watch myself, depending on,
    September when it comes.

    So when the shadows link them,
    And burn away the clouds.
    They will fly me, like an angel,
    To a place where I can rest.
    When this begins, I'll let you know,
    September when it comes.

  28. This recipe looks awesome! I'll try it soon.

    My Julian started 6th grade, and in his school, that means middle school. The other day I was watching a video of him dancing that I made about three years ago. We laughed and laughed until I was crying, mourning the growth of my little boy. Not that I don't enjoy having a pre-teen in the house (haha!), but I miss my little guy--the one he used to be.

    PS: dang! Some of those comment verification images are real creepy!
    At least, we still laugh together over the Kid History videos. They made those really close to my house and we've crossed the guys from the videos a few times. When I first discovered them I sent the link to a friend who asked, "you thought that was funny?"
    In fact, I was they were so funny I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe! We're always quoting them, especially the "completos" one ":-)

  29. great it's just yummy delicious look and tomorrow after come to office change uniform then go to cook it.....