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Song in my Hands: A Reflection on Playing Guitar, by my Dad, Mark Leach

In 1969, what 14 year old didn’t want to try to play the guitar?  Ever since 1964, when “The Beatles” played on Ed Sullivan, the guitar driven “British Invasion” began to rule the airwaves.  By 1969, I was ready.  Jimi Hendrix flying fingers at Woodstock and many other great guitar players inspired me to try. 

I had some money from mowing lawns and my dad offered help because my birthday was coming up.  I got an off brand Electric Guitar and used a Sears Amplifier; I was ready to ROCK!  I had a friend, Rusty, who learned to play from his older brother.  Rusty passed some of his skills on to me and that’s how it all started about 41 years ago.

Tender fingertips and thin steel strings seem to make playing clean sounding chords a real challenge for a beginner.  It seems when you start, you try to press the strings down with the power of Hercules.  Clumsy fingers seem to be playing the game Twister as they manipulate around the frets.  Finally, with perseverance, you get a good sounding strum.  That was about the time your hand was cramping up from excessive effort.  After the first good sounding chord, others followed.  Now, this didn’t happen overnight!  I have only been speaking about my left hand so far.  My right hand is holding a pick and so far only making a single stroke down the strings to look for the “Holy Grail” – a good sounding chord.  My right hand’s job is to know where my left hand is.  I think after awhile the two hands develop a brain of their own so they can communicate with each other.  The right hand has to pick single notes, strum in many different rhythm patterns and eventually finger pick like James Taylor.  Quite a colossal feat.  Let’s start strumming something short without many chord changes.  How about Row, Row, Row your Boat?  Just like a baby, your hands have to learn to crawl through a song before they are ready to walk, and then to run.

My hands have gotten better with age.  They can change chords quickly and finger pick.  Although there is much more my hands could learn, this is my hobby and it’s not my job.  I hope my hands can give the enjoyment of songs to many people in the future and can teach anyone to play guitar that would like to challenge their hands.

The Power of Touch: A Reflection by my Mom, Kathy Leach

From as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved holding babies. I would be the first to ask, “Can I hold the baby?” 

I remember when my two younger brothers–Pat, born in 1963 and Kevin, born in 1966–were born; I was between the ages of 7-10.  At that time, our family of eight lived in a small 900 sq. ft. house with only three bedrooms and one bathroom.  When Pat and Kevin were babies, they slept in my parents bedroom in a small port-a-crib.  I recall sneaking in Mom and Dad’s room to lift them out of the crib, even though my mom told me I was too young to take them out alone.  I remember holding them, rocking them, and loving the way they smelled of pink baby lotion.  

Now that my three daughters are grown–27, 25 and 21–I had the time and the desire to start volunteering.  I had always wanted to hold and rock newborn babies at a Children’s Hospital.  I applied and I got a volunteer position in the NICU – Neonatal Intensive Care Unit over 2 1/2 years ago.  It is quite a privilege to hold babies in the NICU and of course, everyone wants that volunteer position. 

I usually hold the babies that don’t receive as many visitors.  For various reasons, parents aren’t able to be at the hospital as frequently as others. I arrive at the hospital and scrub from elbow to fingertips for two minutes with iodine scrub.  I walk the hallways and listen for babies crying. 

It is so important for babies to be touched.  What is the power of touch?  Research shows that newborn babies survive better and progress faster when given this attention.  With premature babies, they heal more quickly when they are touched. “We are all creatures that survive life in many various ways. But survival is greatly enhanced when we are ‘touched’ on a regular basis.”

I often hold babies that are born to mothers that have used drugs or alcohol while they were pregnant.  One of the symptoms of a drug-addicted baby is a low birth weight.  Also, babies can also be extremely irritable.  They get frustrated easily, have a short temper, get startled at the simplest sound, and some of the babies also have tremors. They often have an irregular sleep pattern and can be hyperactive despite their lack of sleep.  Due to these conditions in such a young baby, medical staff and caretakers must have patience as the drug or alcohol works its way of the baby’s system.

When I hold a baby, they are usually swaddled in a blanket. The blanket can bring security and comfort. It also helps prevent over stimulation which can aggravate the baby.  Most of the babies love to be on their bellies upon my chest.  I gently pat their backs and bottoms, stroke their faces, massage their legs and arms.  Just a simple SHHHHHHHH….when they are crying helps to calm them.  I downloaded baby lullabies and play them on my iPod in their rooms…a welcomed distraction from the beeping sounds of the monitors.  I can honestly say that I have been 100% successful getting the babies to stop crying or to fall asleep.  There is something about holding a newborn that makes me so happy and peaceful, the babies in the NICU, especially.  Even though these babies are ill, some very critical, I get a peaceful feeling knowing that I can comfort them for the short time I am with them.  I have been privileged to hold the same babies week after week – babies that were critically ill and don’t receive many visitors. 

A sweet baby boy, that I will call John to keep his name anonymous, was very critical and not expected to live much longer.  John was on life support and connected to many lines and drains.  Each week, I would go to John’s room to hold him.  John was blind and deaf, but I could still touch him, rock him and comfort him.  As this dear baby became more ill, we no longer could hold him.  The last two weeks of his life, I could only stand next to his bassinet and touch him.  I learned that dear John passed away the following week, but near the end was detached from all of the machinery and was able to be held and touched until he passed.   John’s primary nurse who cared for him since his birth held him for hours until his parents arrived.  When I saw his nurse the next week, we both cried because we really grew to love this sweet baby.  Now, little John was in God’s hands, free of suffering and pain.  I was so fortunate to be a part of John’s short life.  

As a woman, I think we are good examples of touching. We are willing to walk up to almost anyone and put our hand on their shoulder, arm or hand. Most women don’t mind being touched, hugged or embraced. Of course, some people are not comfortable with touch.  Personally, I love to be touched and hugged.  I learned from the  best, my Mom!  My Mom never knew a stranger and her arms were always open to family, friends or even a stranger at the grocery store.  My Mom also loved, loved, loved to hold babies.  I guess she did since he had six children of her own.  Rest in peace, Mom.  Thanks for teaching me to “love those babies.”

My Mom and I

Sister, Sistah: Mary Provides a Helping Hand

To preface this blog entry, I must tell you that I am Allie’s older sister Mary. I often gave her the most trouble growing up because of her “unskilled” hands. I would see her trying to fix her hair or put on makeup and then give her a disapproving look as if saying, “Um, you’re not seriously going out like that, are you?” Then she would become self conscious of her effort, hand over the tools to me and then we’d both look at each other and say, “Not good with the hands,” while making a motion opening and closing our hands clumsily. I would completely take over until I was happy and then send her on her way. I thought I was being helpful, but really I was disabling her a bit with my constant need for perfection with my hands.
Here’s a list of things that I always did for Allie growing up, whether she wanted me to or not:
–Fixing her hair
–Putting on her makeup
–Plucking her eyebrows
–Sewing her ribbons and elastic on her pointe shoes
–Anything involving sewing
–Making friendship bracelets
–Baking
–Even taking over the pastry set-up at Bread Co. when we opened together in the mornings saying,
“AL-lis-Son! You’re laying it out wrong, here let me do it!”
Man, I was bossy. Allie didn’t even play the piano very long and of course we just accredited to, you guessed it, “Not good with the hands.” Pretty soon she was so convinced that she was bad at using her hands that she just starting handing over all hands-on projects to me, which pleased me very much. I was proud of my handy skills and I thought, why should you do it if I can do it for you, better? Little did I know that Allie would decide years later to take charge of her “disability” and start her own “hands-on project” in which I could not interfere.
When Allie first told me about her idea for her project I thought it was perfect. Finally, she can prove to herself she is handy and I’ll be far enough away that I don’t have to sit on my hands to resist helping. Many people would never guess this but Allie was actually really shy before about the age of 14; therefore, it still amazes me to this day when she tells me, “I just walked into the mechanic’s shop and asked if they could teach me about cars!” Our Mom would always be telling her to look up while performing a dance routine because she always seemed embarrassed to look at the audience! I can’t believe all the new things she’s been learning to do with her hands. I have never worked on cars, planted a garden, had my palm read or baked a loaf of bread to name a few. I may still offer to fix her hair or makeup but now she has handy skills to teach me! I can’t wait to see where this project leads. I can already see a new confidence and hear excitement in her voice when she is talking about her adventures. She has turned her weakness into a strength.
As for me, I still very much enjoy my painting and baking; always getting my hands smudged with something as I add the last touch perfection. And as a nurse, my hands are an integral part of my job as I start an IV, give a back rub, give a shot, hold a hand or gently wipe away tears. My patients often remark on my soft touch and I feel honored to give them my love. Work of my hands=labor of love. At least for the most part!

I feel great satisfaction when I use my hands and I’m so happy that Allie is feeling this now too! I can’t promise that this will end the teasing about her hands but it will make me pause before just taking over. The phrase, “Not good with the hands,” will be just a silly saying from our past.

Mary is my awesome older sister.  She’s been a nurse for six years and lives in Golden, Colorado.  She loves to hike, rock climb, play with her dog Buddy, and make banana pancakes with her husband, Brian.

A Reflection on Working with your Hands by Jean Dempsey

For as long as I can remember, my mom, my dad, and my grandma (like a third parent) have made things with their hands. My mom made us dinner every night, made pancakes for breakfast every Saturday, made clothes for our dolls, did needle point, and patched holes in our clothes. And of course, as a nurse she constantly used her hands; even my dad went to her every time he had a splinter. She always knitted, but recently she’s become very dedicated to it. She makes scarves, hats, mittens, gloves, socks, and sweaters to keep her kids and grandson warm and cozy. She follows complicated patterns, knit-purl-knit-purl, that seem to be written in code. She uses straight needles, round needles, sock needles. She starts with a ball of yarn and ends up with sweater! Also, over the past few years she has become a “hooker.” She hooks beautiful, intricate rugs that now adorn the walls of her house. She hooks smaller patterns, which she turns into pillows. She constructs footstools out of plywood, and covers them with rugs. There seems to be no limit to what she can make!

My dad also worked with his hands. As an artist, he assembled pieces of scrap metal and junk that he collected along the railroad tracks and made sculptures of the sun and the moon. He painted pictures too, that now hang in my apartment and my sister’s and brother’s. He also used his hands around the house and garden. I remember my mom and dad spending weekends in the yard, planting flowers and bushes. My dad even grew tomatoes one summer, which we used to make BLTs. My parents built us a two-story tree house in the backyard and they built the deck, allowing us kids to help with small tasks.

Then there’s my grandma. What hasn’t my grandma made? She made clothes for her children and her grandchildren. She built a wall down the middle of the single bedroom in the small house where she raised her children, so that her son could have his own room. She finished a section of the basement and turned it into a room for her daughters. She worked many jobs to support her family, including one job decorating cakes! For as long as I can remember, she has crocheted afghans and doll clothes; every member of our extended family has received one of her signature afghans, whether as a birthday present, wedding present, graduation present, etc. She makes food for every occasion, specializing in baked goods. Even now, when she’s lost feeling in her hands and it hurts to walk because her knees or so bad, she hobbles around the kitchen making deviled eggs and potato salad and inventing new cookie and cake recipes.

So you would think that I’ve had more than enough inspiration to work with my hands. You would expect that I’ve learned the tricks of the trade. Well, I have learned a few things. Once, for Father’s Day, my mom, my sister, and I made my dad a birdhouse from scratch and painted it blue and white. The other day, when I ran past my old house, the birdhouse was still in the tree; my mom didn’t take it with her when she moved to the new house because she didn’t want to deprive the birds of their home. My mom taught me how to needlepoint when I was young, and I made a few pillows. But now, I don’t own a needle and thread and I probably couldn’t even stitch a hole in my sock if I had one. She’s taught me how to knit a few times. I made one scarf that only looks pretty because I used that yarn that changes color, making it look like there’s a pattern, when really there’s not. I started another scarf; a more sophisticated one. She showed me how to knit again, and this time taught me how to purl (which is another kind of stitch). I got halfway through, and then let the half-finished scarf sit on my coffee table for months. Now, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I’d remember how to finish it.

As I sit and reflect on this, I can’t help thinking, “What’s wrong with me?! Am I completely helpless?” If I have a flat tire, I call AAA. If I need a skirt hemmed, I call my mom. Is there anything I do with my hands, other than cook dinner? Then it occurred to me that cooking for myself is something I do with hands. Now, most people probably take it for granted that before you eat, you cook or assemble your meal. But there are plenty of people who don’t do this. Often, as I sit in the staff room eating my lunch, I notice that many of my co-workers are popping Lean Cuisines, Hot Pockets, and other frozen meals into the microwave. So maybe cooking my own meals, or even throwing together a salad, isn’t something to take for granted. I know many people eat out multiple times a week; it’s easier to go through the drive-thru or order a pizza than it is to make a meal. So for the time being, at least, I am proud of the fact that I cook my own food. And not only that, I enjoy cooking for my friends as well. During the winter I invited about a half dozen friends to dinner every Sunday. For the first several weeks, I made a huge pot of soup for everyone to share; but as the tradition grew, my friends took turns cooking too. But one thing was constant: we always had soup, we tried a new recipe each week, and we always started from scratch. I can’t wait for winter to come again so Soup Sundays can start over again. However, even over the summer and in the fall my friends and I have regular dinner gatherings. Sometimes we go to the Farmer’s Market together on Wednesdays and then through everything on my friend’s grill. Once this summer I tried “Sorbet Sunday.” It doesn’t have to be a special occasion, it’s just a nice thing to come together with friends and make something that we can all enjoy together.

So in answer to your question about being inspired by my mom: yes, I am inspired. As I’ve reflected, I’ve realized that there is very little that I make with my hands, other than soup. Maybe it’s part of my generation; maybe we have become a little helpless and lazy. Or maybe I just haven’t discovered my talent yet. Just because my mom knits, or my dad was an artist, doesn’t mean I have to follow their example. Maybe I’ll build birdhouses or take pictures or make pottery or learn how to repair my bicycle. Who knows? I may discover some hidden passion one of these days. But yes, I definitely feel inspired to start working with my hands! You inspired me!

 Jean Dempsey is one of my best friends (since 7th grade!)  She currently teaches at an Elementary School while getting her Masters in ESL.  She loves France, running, and watching movies.  She and my other friend Alicia initiated “Soup Sundays” and “Wednesday Dinners” as a way of gathering friends together for homemade food and potluck fun.  She lives in St. Louis.

Soul-Food: An Interview with my amazing Aunt Diane

 

1) Can I hear your version of the dream that inspired “Soul-Food?”

I started college with the intent to become a veterinarian.  I graduated with a BS in Business and knowing 9 computer languages.  I got a job as the only female programmer at Ozark Airlines.  I worked in IT ever since. 

Phil died in his sleep on a Monday morning after I just kissed him good by and talked to him.  He said, “See you at 4 o’clock.  Love you.  Have a great day.”  An hour and a half later I got a call from Augie telling me he can’t wake up dad.  I didn’t go back to work for a month.  I began having dreams that I could smell and taste about muffins made with the freshest ingredients and scriptures used like fortunes in a fortune cookie.  Night after night the them was the same but recipes started coming, “Soul Food Inc, – a little taste of heaven” came in a dream, roasting fresh coffee beans came in a dream.  The dreams would wake me up and I’d write down things I thought were important.  Before I knew it, I had 40 recipes.

2) Had you been a prolific baker/cook before you started your own business?

When I was in 4th grade, my mom got a job outside of the home for the first time since having kids.  She worked at Northwest Plaza at Stix Baer and Fuller or JC Penney in the Better Dresses department.  Both Debbie and Dorie were in college at the same time and that was pretty expensive.  When that happened, Mark and I were the only kids left at home.  So we got more chores.  I became the family cook and made the brown bag lunches for school for my dad, Mark and me.  I also washed the clothes for everyone (but didn’t iron), and cleaned the house.  I didn’t mind at all.  I got to experience reading cookbooks for the first time to make whole meals, not just cookies.  I made things that I’d never seen before.  One night I worked very hard to make twice-baked potatoes…..baking potatoes (before microwaves), scooping out the centers, mashing them up and mixing them with butter, shredded cheese and chives) Then I carefully wrapped them back in foil and kept them warm in the oven until my mom got home from work.  My dad taught night school back then, so some nights he ate dinner at a restaurant with other teachers before starting night school.  He would get home at 9pm.  I remember when my mom got home that particular night; I filled her plate with everything I made and making the presentation perfect.  I left the potato in the foil to surprise her.  I remember being on pins and needles waiting for my mom’s reaction.  She said everything looked good.  Then she opened the foil of the potato and saw the green specks and said, “Oh no, this one is spoiled!”  She wrapped it back up and threw it in the trash.  I was STUNNED.  Mark got up and got the potato out of the trash and put it back on my mom’s plate and told her it was a twice baked potato.  He explained what was in it and how hard I worked on it.  I knew I was ahead my time if my mom had never even seen some of the things I was making.  My dad had a pad of paper with a hole drilled through it on the kitchen wall. This is where you wrote down what you needed from the grocery store.  He was very cool and just bought whatever was on there.  I put all kinds of ingredients we didn’t normally get.

 

I made Salisbury steak with mushroom gravy because I thought it sounded fancy.  I made beef stroganoff…it sounded like it was from Russia.  I went through the whole Betty Crocker cookbook picking out things I liked being careful to build balanced menus with veggies (always canned corn, green beans or baked beans…that’s what we always ate).

 

When I was first married, I got more cookbooks and tried lots of new things on Phil.  Twice, I gave him food poisoning (I never got sick). Once, I gave him the Heimlich maneuver after he took a big bite of a homemade pizza with thick crust that was not quite fully baked.  He began choking.  Since he was 12 inches taller than me, I stood on a chair to accomplish my mission, but it worked.

3) How does this side job add “soul” to your life?

You wouldn’t believe how rewarding it is to pray for other people.  Soul Food is not just about baking, but it is about sharing the highs and lows in other people’s lives who entrust you to pray for their loved ones.  I also get to hand deliver boxes to dying people and pray with them.  I get to hug people and I get to hear about how much people LOVE my cooking.  I’m convinced that the prayer is what makes so many people cry over my cupcakes and muffins.  I can’t tell you how many times that has happened…..even getting ready for Mary’s wedding, she and your mom and I cried in the basement of the cabin in Colorado as we looked at all the love from me, grandma, Aunt Dorie, Uncle Rick, Julie, your mom, your dad, Brian’s mom and Brian’s grandma that went into the hundreds of cupcakes that covered every surface of the basement tables.  Soul Food has helped me address my fears in life…fear of failure (what if I leave my great paying executive job and start my own company and I don’t make enough to pay the bills….well, that happened and that great paying company called me back and offered me a promotion to come back!), fear of the unknown (what if I ask a question that sounds stupid when I’m trying to negotiate a lease on a retail space in a shopping center…I m negotiating a restaurant space now and no one has laughed at me yet)…fear of following my own will instead of God’s will for my life (how do I know that God is giving me these ideas and not my own greed or pride?)  I live and breathe Soul every moment of my life.  I firmly believe the 23rd psalm when it says….”surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”…I praise God for everything that happens to me because even though it may not look like a blessing (having my dog, QD, bite one of my foster kids and get all the kids taken away and the police officer that arrived to take QD away sat at my dining room table pouring out his heart about Vietnam and his sick wife…I gave him a box of Soul Food and laid hands on him and prayed for him…he cried and then said, “I don’t know why I just told you all of that.:  I told him that it happens more than you might think.  QD didn’t get taken away) I know everything is a blessing (God touched those children even more by allowing them to remember the good times they had and calling me, telling me what a difference I made in their lives.)  I know that was God, not me.

I’ve had a credit card company call asking why I was late on my credit card payment.  I told the gentleman that my husband died suddenly of a heart attack, my young son started having panic attacks and migraines every time we were separated and felt responsible for his dad’s death.  Then I started having dreams about muffins and a company called Soul Food Inc where I used scriptures like fortunes in a fortune cookie and pray as I bake.  Then the recipes started coming in my dreams.  I baked them for neighbors who said they were the best they ever had.  The dreams wouldn’t leave me alone.  The notebook by my bedside table grew to 40 recipes.  The dreams were waking me up at night.  So I got a business license, wrote a resignation letter to a company that I loved and told them I was quitting to follow my dreams and work for nothing for awhile and one day be on Oprah.  I started the company and it’s doing great, but not well enough to support itself and my family at the same time.  So I got behind.  Then my former employer called me and offered me a raise to come back.  So I just started back and now I’m trying to catch up and work both jobs.  ….There was silence on the other end.  The gentleman bill collector said, WOW….I’ve always wanted to quit my job and follow my dreams.  You have inspired me.  I asked his name again and asked if I could pray for him for guidance.  He agreed, so I prayed for my bill collector and he wrote something nice in my file and everything worked out!!  No one has taken my house yet or garnished my wages or any of those things I used to fear.  I gave it to God because I didn’t know how to handle it.

4) What do you love most about “Soul-Food?”  How does it compliment your life as a banker-by-day, and your role as a mother? Also, can you trace a typical day-in-the-life of Diane Oberkrom for me?

 

When I first started Soul Food, I also became a foster mother or two girls (for a year) and two boys (for a week).  That was in 2006.  One of those boys was 13 at the time.  His name was Christopher.  He was one of those kids that was touched by God at my house.  He remembered where I lived from having lived here only a week four years ago and found his way back to our house on July 3 of this year.  He just showed up and said HI.  I asked if he wanted to shoot off fireworks with us the next night.  He said he did.  He also asked if he could spend the night.  I told him that was fine as long as he called his mom.  What I didn’t know is that in the four years since I had seen him, he had been bounced between a depressed alcoholic mother to a drug addict father to grandparents with prison records (even grandma) and foster homes.  He walked away from the basement his mother was renting from a lesbian couple and had no where to go.  I have since petitioned to be his legal guardian.  The paperwork will become final once we can prove who his biological father is….it doesn’t appear to be the guy named on the birth certificate.  In the meantime, Chris is my new son.  He’s 17 and taking some junior classes and some sophomore classes.  He is in the special education program even though he has normal intelligence.  He has a history of anger issues and poor attendance.  He has chosen to be a changed man.  He wants to finish school and make a difference with his life.  His whole life has been around people who have modeled addiction, untreated depression and hopelessness.  He miraculously does not drink, smoke or do drugs.

 

I also rent my basement to my good friend, Mary and her 16 year daughter, Becca.  My family now has 2 sons, 1 daughter another adult to talk to who loves to clean my house and her boyfriend who spends the weekends with us and fixes things.

 

Here’s a typical day for Diane: 

  • 4:40am alarm rings
  • 4:45am out the door walking four dogs without leashes
  • 5:05am back in the house, make coffee, start a load of clothes, fold a load of clothes, empty the dishwasher, make lunches for 3 teenagers and 2 adults, finish packing Soul Food orders
  • 5:30am 4 minute shower
  • 5:34am jump into whatever is clean and jazz it up with funky jewelry, minimal make-up, blow dry hair into whatever it’s going to look like that day….it’s always a surprise to me
  • 5:45am grab a yogurt, top with raw almonds, put coffee with cinnamon creamer in a TO GO cup
  • 5:50am drive to bus stop
  • 6:12am get on the Express bus for a 25 mile trip downtown
  • 6:50am walk 6 blocks from bus stop to the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta
  • 7:00am turn on my PC at my desk, meet with auditors, attorneys and banking management to ensure my department is complying with all Federal, State and internal regulations and policies when it comes to touching our members funds.  I am the Compliance Officer for the bank.
  • Noon walk the treadmill at the Bank’s gym
  • 12:45pm eat my brown bag lunch (Weight Watcher approved, of course!)
  • 3:30pm put on my walking shoes and walk to the bus stop
  • 5pm get home and start dinner while helping with homework for Augie and Chris.  I love remembering how to do algebra and geometry and chemistry from high school. 
  • My slogan for dinner is, “Eat the Rainbow” sounds silly, I know, but I plan meals to include every color of the rainbow.  Like last night, I made Chicken Parmesan with my famous Bolognese Sauce.  I take Ragu spaghetti sauce and “doctor it up” with finely chopped Vidalia onions, crisp celery, fresh carrots and fresh garlic all sautéed in olive oil.  I mix it with homemade tomato sauce from the tomatoes we grew this summer.  I use high fiber whole grain pasta, whole grain flour and crackers to bread the fresh cut chicken filets and shredded parmesan cheese and mozzarella on top.  I also hit the clearance section on whole grain bread at the grocery store this weekend and got 4 loves of bread for $.25 each.  So I made whole grain crudités (pan toasted bread cut into fingers and sautéed in olive oil, garlic, Italian seasoning and a little butter.
  • 7pm check www.thesoulfoodmarket.com for orders.  Call customers, take orders. Help with homework
  • 8pm bake for tomorrow, talk to kids about their day, load the dishwasher, throw in a load of clothes, prep salads for lunches tomorrow, make home made dressing for salads.
  • 10pm pray with Augie and Chris, tell them good night.  Lay on my bed and see if anything is good on TV.  Read a magazine…..dream of muffins

5) Can you list some examples of what you cook/bake?  What are your most popular items?

When the weather gets cooler (my baked goods get very sad when they get too hot), I’ll send you a box of goodies so you can see some of the most popular things.  People love the Blueberry Streusel muffins (Phil’s favorite) That’s why they’re called “Blue Speckled Heaven.  I created Diva’s Delight for my graphics artist friend who designed my menu and website.  I call her the web diva.  She is a huge Fancy Nancy children’s book fan.  So I made them “fancy” with blueberries, raspberries, oatmeal, pineapple cream cheese and topped with white chocolate and fuchsia coconut. I have lots more made especially for people close to me.  Pecan Dainties are also very popular and soooooooooooo easy…graham crackers, butter, brown sugar, pecans and chocolate.

6) Can your trace your business from it’s beginnings to now?  How has it changed significantly?  Have you taken away/added new foods during the years?  Have you gotten more help?  At your peak, what’s the most hours you’ve put in during any given week?

My menu and prices have been the same since I paid the web diva to design my menu in 2006.  The look of the muffins has changed from being traditional (no paper liner), to having a French Couture look of having the muffin cup lined with a square of parchment….to it’s present look of a Texas sized white cupcake liner.  The colors of the ribbon and box filler have changed after I got feedback from an artistic focus group.  I have added catering and wedding cupcakes to my portfolio since I started.  Last year, we catered Christmas breakfast for 1000 customers of a large construction/engineering company (they build banks, hospitals and high rise buildings).  God gave me this gig through my leaving a small “thank you box” of week-old pumpkin cream cheese muffins on the doorstep in the pouring rain of a woman I met on Craigslist who gave me a used bathroom vanity.  She just happened to be the wife of the executive of this huge construction company(I had no idea!).  He ate one of my old muffins and the rest is history.  God works in mysterious ways!

Christmastime is by far my busiest time of year.  The first three weeks of December, I work 19 hour days, 7 days a week.  Last year I hired 5 people to help me.  Each year seems to double in business.  By the last week, I can’t remember what type of muffin I’m baking…I ask my helpers to write it down on the refrigerator instead of calling it out.  I move very fast and get impatient when I’m tired.  Sometimes I bark at those that I love the most…I’m not fun during this time.  With the help of Augie and my five hired helpers last year,  we baked and shipped 2100 lbs of muffins and cookies, catered 17 breakfasts for a total of 1000 people, catered three luncheons for 50 – 80 people each and had catered one formal dinner for 50 in 3 weeks from my home kitchen!  I also worked full time at the bank during that time.  I cried at everything during that time!

 

7) Do you think having great motor skills is essential for what you do?  Does being a baker/cook take a lot of hand practice?  Have your hands ever gotten injured, sore?

I’ve had multiple sclerosis since the 1980s.  Because of that, my upper body has been pretty weak.  After the very first Christmas season I had with Soul Food, I could barely lift my arms to the steering wheel to drive to St. Louis for Christmas.  I called it Rice Krispy Treat arms!  I make Rice Krispy Treats in a huge metal bowl.  When it’s full and I’m stirring it by hand, you actually work up a sweat.  Your shoulders get a little sore and your arms ache after about 5 pans of those.  One really great thing is that this upper body workout from baking has improved my muscle tone and given my arms a little bit of definition even though I’m proud to claim that I have wiggly lunch lady arms!

 

8) What do you love most about this job?

I love to watch or hear people enjoying food that I make.  I LOVE to cook.  I LOVE people.  I LOVE talking with customers and feel privileged that they feel comfortable enough to share their secret pain or joy with me and ask me to pray for them.  I LOVE when my path crosses with someone else’s and later on down the road our businesses partner into something incredible.  I’ve had my story told in two local magazines and a newspaper, was named Entrepreneur of the Month by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and had a story written about me in a national magazine.

 

9) Do you have Augie help you with your job?  Has “Soul-Food” been a bonding process, time for the two of you to spend together, for him to learn from you?

Because I took 18 months off from work to start this company and get Augie the therapy he needed to get his mental health back together after Phil’s death, that has brought us even closer than we already were.  Augie is my protector, my worrier and my thoughtful one.  I adore him.  I have since before he was even born.  August means great or magnificent or revered, “Ian” means God is gracious. 

 

10) What’s been the biggest challenge of this job?

My biggest challenge is to keep up with what God wants me to do.  My dreams continue to be prolific.  I have dreamt of a huge farm, which happens to be ¼ mile from my house in reality.  The silos were freshly painted in Soul Food colors, the barn iwas a fresh market with produce from local farms, the tractor barn was a cooking school complete with a stage for the teacher (me) and overhead cameras to show what’s cooking in the pan and flash it up on the JumboTron on the wall so everyone can see.  The public was invited in to pay $4 per ticket to eat the food prepared by the students.  The egg house became the bakery and processed the gift box mail orders and retail customers milled around tasting samples.  The second tractor barn became the conference center for corporate retreats and wedding receptions.  The silos and grain bins became the “farm to table” restaurant so everyone could eat the rainbow.  The fields became the organic garden grown especially for the restaurant and cooking school.  The cooking oil from the restaurant fueled the biodiesel trucks (recycled old diesel trucks)that ran the business of picking up the produce from the local farmers and selling it to local restaurants, including mine.  Some of the power for this complex came from solar panels and windmills.  The organic waste from the fruits and vegetables was used for compost for the garden.  Local schools had field trips to the cooking school and garden and learned to eat the rainbow.  The school district changed their menus to fresh selections from local farmers.  The construction waste of shingles, drywall and concrete was the start of another company (2WN – Waste Not Want Not) to recycle the shingles into asphalt additives for roads, drywall into organic soil additives and crushed concrete into concrete additives for new construction…..the dream continues…

 

11) What’s your favorite thing to make?

I love to make something gourmet from nothing.  Have you ever gone to the fridge and you have a doggie bag from a Mexican restaurant with SOMETHING mixed all together, but the sprigs of cilantro and the one tablespoon of pico de galo looks good,  a half jar of salsa that you didn’t really like, half an onion, a wrinkly green pepper, some garlic and a freezer burned steak that you can’t even remember buying because it slipped behind a drawer in the freezer months ago and you just happened to find it when you were cleaning? 

I would put the salsa in a bowl and recycle the jar.  Then I’d chop up the onion and throw it in the salsa, then cut out the bad parts of the green pepper and put those in my compost bucket, chop up the rest and throw it in the salsa, snag the pico de galo and cilantro from the carry out meal and put those in the salsa and give the rest to the dogs and recycle the container, add a scoop of fresh garlic, salt and pepper (FABULOUS SALSA)

Then I’d take the freezer burned steak and thaw it in the microwave for a minute or two.  Then I’d cut into fingers and then slice it again by cutting the steak fingers to make them thin enough to put on skewers easily.  I would make a marinade of soy sauce, maple syrup, olive oil and fresh rosemary from my garden….throw all of that in a ziplock for 30 minutes.  Put on skewers and grill or pan fry with a little olive oil.  Find some tortilla chip remnants from the carry-out box or from the pantry.  An AMAZING dinner from things you would normally throw away!

 

My Aunt Diane and her son (my cousin) Augie

Hand’-ling the Pole

** This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts.  This first guest post is brought to you by writer, teacher, actress, and friend: Tarah Cantrell Brown.  Enjoy! **

Have you ever considered the sensuality of your hands?  Really touched them so that you could feel their softness?  Run your dominant hand over your other hand and feel them.  Feel the movement of your dominant hand as it strokes the other hand sensuously… roll a few fingers over the crevices between each knuckle.  Feel every curve.  Feel free to imagine someone else touching you, but remember that you’re always in control.  Now, use your hands to touch your body.  Anywhere on your body will suffice, but make sure you touch a place that makes you feel good.  This is where my story begins.
A month ago, I was asked to audition for a burlesque show and, after an hour and a half of dancing in one inch heals and sweating from head to toe, I was offered a position as a solo dancer as well as a chorus girl for a few other routines.  I was very excited because, well, I’m an overweight non-dancer who’s never done burlesque.  It became apparent very quickly, however, that I was the only non-dancer in the show.

Thus, I found myself walking into Brick House Fitness last Thursday to attend V Fitness, a class that focuses on sensual movement and hoisting yourself three feet in the air and supporting yourself primarily with your arms, wrists, and hands while performing elaborate feats of gravity.  Can you guess the activity?  Yes, I am referring to pole dancing, that oh-so-tantalizing and scandalous of arts.  And I gotta tell ya, my hands have never felt sexier.

If you’ve ever seen Gravity Plays Favorites, a well known pole dancing duo, then you understand just how incredibly athletic pole dancing is.  Not only is it an artistic outlet where, if you can get around that pole without snapping in two, you will typically become your own choreographer since very few professional choreographers ever cross the barrier, but pole dancing also requires very strong wrists–the sort that body builders envy.  Because I did my research before hand (and I’ve been trying desperately to lose some weight and gain some muscle for the burlesque) I pumped two pound weights every day leading up to the first class.

When I got there, I was happily surprised to see that a couple of the women were my size or larger and three of them were actually first-timers as well.  I am not a nervous person, but two of the women taking the class with us clearly were pretty frightened to be there.  “Is it hard?,” asked one of the ladies.  The other’s hands were shaking a bit as she began to turn pale.

“Don’t worry girls,”  said the instructor, Desda Moana, a leggy brunette with long, voluptuous eyelashes to match her figure.  “We’re going to warm up with some yoga, jazz, and other fun stuff.”

Let me first denote that this ain’t your mom’s yoga.  Desda put the music on and immediately began moving sensuously to the music, emphasizing her hips, touching her stomach with her hands.  We started with a belly dancing roll of the hips that lasted almost the entire song, followed by leg stretches and the cat pose.  Any time our hands weren’t supporting us, Desda encouraged us to “use your hands, ladies!,” at which point, we would touch various spots on our bodies, moving them across our sweat-soaking skin as though we were rubbing in the most lavish and luscious cocoa butter we’d ever used.  By the end of the warm up, every one had the urge to decrease their own personal spaces, even those that had been nervous initially.

That is, until it came time to spin on the poles, but we’ll get there in a moment.  First, we took a walk to the surrounding walls and picked spots.  For those of you at home, TRY THIS.  Desda put some Lady Gaga on and instructed us to lean against the wall on our hands, which would become our supports in the process of practicing.  We then bumped and ground, twisted around, and moved up and down without removing our hands from the wall.  It doesn’t look nearly as silly as it sounds; in fact, each lady had their own spin on the dance, and this made the process wonderfully unique for everyone there.

We then turned around, facing one another, imagining our own nakedness.  Or perhaps I should say nudity, because no one felt ashamed or vulnerable.  We were women, and we were in control.  Our backs against the wall, we thrust and bobbed against the wall some more this time working our hands, not as support mechanisms, but as vehicles of sensuality, touching ourselves as we explored.

Then came time for the polls.  Sources said I was a natural, but in my opinion we all looked amazing despite feeling tremendously silly.  The nervous ladies, however, decided to have one go and then call it quits.  They did just as well as the rest of us… I guess they just weren’t ready to admit to themselves how beautiful they were.  The rest of us, however, understood our fire.  I think I’ve found my new passion, and it all started with my sensuous, beautiful hands.

What I Learned from the Mamacitas in Mexico…

The year after I graduated from Butler University, earning my “what-do-you-do-with-a-BA-in-English?” degree, my boyfriend Rick and I headed for the border.  Well, Michoacan, Mexico, to be more precise.  Nestled in a small mountain village called Los Reyes–located in the central part of Mexico–we taught English, honed our Spanish skills, met some lovely people, and ate the best food I’ve ever had in my life thus far.  In addition to all the aforementioned above, I also observed and learned a lot from the Mexican women in my town (and in other towns in which we travelled).  Some of what I learned I took to heart, took to action, while for other things I said, “Better you than me.”  So, without further ado, I’m going to list for you today the top five things I learned from my Mexican Mamacitas; I’m going to share what stuck like a chili powdered lollipop (that’s right, that is a popular candy in Mexico) to my cerebro.


(our friend, Inez, making her famous tortas)

 

1) Cut your onions muy chiquita

Even now, as I type this sentence, I can taste those white onions in my mouth (but more than likely it’s because I ate some onions today).  And as I chopped those onions, even today, my boyfriend reiterated what my Spanish teacher, Mary, told me: “Allie, you should cut those onions smaller, muy chiquita.”  Dicing the onions into these pequena pieces is useful because 1) eating big chunks of onion isn’t always desirable and causes bad breath 2) chopping the onions into tiny specks shows that you care, that you’re an attentive cook.  And in Mexico, attention to detail is everything, especially in the wide world of food.  Take tacos for example.  When served tacos in Mexico, you are not simply thrown some shredded lettuce and tomato on the side like they do in American Mexican Restaurants.  No way.  You see, in Mexico, the servers give you a big tray or individual bowls that include the works: cilantro, onion, tomato, radishes, cucumbers, white lettuce, purple lettuce, salsa verde, guacamole, pepper, salt, and limes.  Limes?  Yes, limes.  Squeeze a couple of those bad boys on your taco, and you will melt.  The combination of all these tastes on top of your meat of choice (I prefer pastor or pork in mine) makes for one mean mouth manifesto.  Addendum: a la pastor tacos are also served with cooked pineapple that will knock your rocks off.  So, in summary, what I learned: don’t cut corners, cut em tiny, and be a detallista (in other words, pay attention to all those little details).

(our boss, Cecilia, ready to man-handle the grill)

 

2) Gotta Mop

My Dad only mops the floor once every few months.  So you can imagine, when I saw that Mexican women mop the floor not just everyday, but multiple times a day, I was shocked!

“Why do you mop that much?” I asked a student of mine.

“Outside is dirty, no?  But inside, our homes are spotless: white, shiny, perfect.”  She also threw something in that stunk of class division: “That’s how you set yourself apart from others–by how clean your house is.”

The well-worn as blue jeans phrase “Cleanliness is close to godliness” inevitably creeps inside my ears.  One blessing about my experience in Mexico was that I had such a wide-range of friends: from Danny the ice cream man and his humble family to Liliana and her gracious and wealthy family.  And within this spectrum, you inevitably see the class lines through cleanliness: Danny’s house was tiny, cluttered, and dirty, while Liliana’s family had a maid that never failed to leave the house spanking clean.

But why this perfectionism?  Why mop the house each time a foot-print passes through?  Isn’t that a little anal, a bit much?  As a woman living in Mexico myself, I often found myself defending women (and men) who don’t partake of this custom.  

“Women in America,” my student nodded her head at me, “they mop everyday?”

“No, absolutely not.  My Mom cleans houses for a living, but she hardly ever mops our house.  My Dad does most of the time.”

“Queeeeeee!!!!!” my students sung like a soprano chorus.  “Tu padre?  No!”  This caused quite a ruckus, and they all exchanged looks and lines like: “My husband?  Mopping?”  and “Only in Los Estados Unidos!”

This judgment invariably carried through into my own home in Mexico.  I’d have friends over and would look at the grimy, gray on top our orange tile.  “There’s  no way I can leave it like this,” I’d think to myself.  “What would my girlfriends think?”  Therein, I started becoming a bit of a Mexican woman myself.  After that first manic mopping session, I got hooked.  Something about the thoroughness and the satisfaction I felt when I was finished got me off.  What can I say, I’m a little anal myself.

But after awhile, I started getting angry.  There I’d be, dipping my mop for the umpteenth time into the bucket’s stagnant gray water, while my roommates were watching E.R. re-runs and my boyfriend was reading.  By that time, I was mopping every week, so they probably just thought I liked doing it.  And I thought I did.  But soon a very disgruntled housewife started to come out, and as they laughed at “Two and Half Men” or whatever stupid show they were watching, my figure eight motions became rough linebackers, instead of graceful ballerinas.  I’d look at my hands: my once soft and smooth palms were now covered in callouses and blisters.  I’ve had it! I’d scream in my head.  Why won’t anyone else in this house mop! After that, I only mopped every couple months.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  After I disclosed this anecdote to my students, many of them admitted they hated it, too: “I feel like it’s just expected of us women,” one student said.  “My husband doesn’t help me with anything: cleaning, cooking, laundry, nada!  I wish Mexico were more like the U.S. in that respect,” another lamented.

3) Watch it on the A-a-a-a-a-al-co-hol, Ladies

Maybe it was because I lived in a small Mexican town, but I rarely witnessed women drinking.  If they were, they’d be girls in the 18-30 bracket, usually floozies wearing daisy dukes and cleavage spilling tank tops.  I can remember going to one of my student’s, Andrea’s, wedding and noticing that I was the only woman drinking beer.  The waiters at the wedding were overly eager and attentive, placing and fresh, cold Coronas on the table as soon as you finished the one before.  I thought the fast service was pretty unusual, but my boss, Eloisa, sitting across the table from me, said: “They do this at almost every Mexican wedding,” taking a sip of her Coca-Cola.

Speaking of Eloisa, I’m pretty sure she was judging me.  After my second and then third Corona, I could tell by her laughter that she was amused.  But after my fourth one, I could see her eyeing me as she took lady-like sips from her glass bottle of Coca-Cola.  She continued, throughout the night, to laugh at the boys at the table–Rick and our roommate Alex–but started giving me hard stares as I guzzled down la cerveza numero cinco.

The following Monday, we discussed our drinking endeavors with our Spanish teacher, Mary.  This time, though, she laughed at all of us saying: “Oh, you crazy Americans.  You like to drink and party so much.”  

I quickly corrected her stereotype: “We’re not always like that.”

“Oh, but Americans don’t know how to handle themselves with alcohol.  Who are the craziest people on the beaches in Cancun?  Not the Mexicans, but the Americans.  Girls Gone Wild!”

It struck me that my behavior was exactly what Eloisa and Mary needed to verify this stereotype of the drunken American fool.  This made me angry though.  Framing American women in this light made us seem like dumb bimbos, while the Mexican women were the classy ladies.

Simultaneously though, the stereotype made me proud, but for a different reason.  Seeing American women as free to drink, free to binge in our bikinis if we please, represents a sort of liberation.  We are free to do what we want, when we want, and how we want it.  To frame it in a positive way, the “girls-gone-wild” image says: “We’re free; we’re uninhibited; and we’re here to have a good time.”  And wouldn’t you rather be that girl than the stiff, judgmental wallflower who sips from the same Coca-Cola bottle the whole night?


4) Don’t Forget your Makeup

When I was living in Mexico, I noticed that the women around me wore fancier clothes and much more makeup.  In fact, some women in Mexico even permanently tattoo their eyeliner and lipliner because they wear both so frequently.  Some even tattoo their eyebrows (we all know that’s not a good look).  When I brought up the topic, the Mexican women would say, “Yeah, American women wear more relaxed clothing, and they don’t seem to care for makeup.”  I could agree with that to certain extent.  The women that I hang out with certainly comprise a large part of that demographic: Midwestern and Western girls.  If the phrase “girl-next-door” means your average blue jeans and T-shirt girl, that was us.  Nothing fancy.

In Mexico, I noticed a plethora of shoe and clothing stores for women.  Seemed like on every block, there were at least three shoe stores and a couple clothing stores.  Some of these stores were fancy, but most were outdoor flea-market stores called tianges.  It soon became evident that my Mexican students took full advantage of these stores.  Many of the girls (and some guys, for that matter) had a new out-fit and a new pair of shoes for each class.  I noticed that many girls also color-coordinated their shoes with their outfits.  Not that American women don’t do this, but I mean they literally color-coordinated: a hot pink outfit with hot pink slip-ons, a canary yellow dress with canary yellow heels, teal blue shorts with teal blue sneakers, and so on.  The shoe producers match the high demand by buying (and making) shoes in every imaginable hue.  As a side-note, I also noticed an exorbitant amount of salons in Mexico.  Seems like everyone there knew how to cut hair.  And, likewise, seemed like I was always asking my students, “Did you get your hair cut again?”

So why the obvious preoccupation with appearance?  Why the heavy makeup, constant hair-cuts, and hoards of clothes and shoes?  I asked some of my students this question in class one day.  One of them said, “It’s like that in any country: women like to look good.  When you know you look good, you are more confident.”  So true, I thought.  We do the exact same in the United States, as do women everywhere.  Why point the finger so strongly at Mexican women?  Was it just because I felt out of place?  Was it just because I was the minority: one who applies only moisturizer to my face every morning.

“Wearing makeup, nice clothes, and getting haircuts  just means you take care of yourself,” another student remarked.  “Plus, you get more attention from guys,” she giggled.  All true.  Looking good makes you stand out from the crowd.  But does make-up always make women look better?  One of my good friends, Liliana, would put on so much make-up before going out that she looked like a birthday cake.  I lost her in the layers of icing.  I remarked to Rick one day, “Liliana looks so much better without all that makeup.”  He agreed.  Why hide behind such gunk and gook?  Why paint your face like clown?  So many of the women I knew looked better without it, I was convinced.  If only they’d let go of all the layers they were hiding under.

5) Gossip, Girl

“Que chismosa!” I’d often hear this phrase sprinkled amongst my Mexican girlfriends and students.  Chismosa simple means a female gossiper.  And let’s just say there are many in Mexico.  I mean, you figure with all the hair salons, right?  Friends gossiping about friends, bosses gossiping about employees, employees gossiping about bosses: gossip is everywhere.  Indeed, gossip is everywhere, not just in Mexico.  However, I seemed more prone to it there.  Maybe it was because Los Reyes is such a small town.  I got whistled at and was called guerra or whitey for the first week or so I was there.  After that, though, I was just that white girl in town.  Everybody already knew who I was.  I lost my uniqueness, in a way.  I often wondered if I stuck out like some albino there.  It wasn’t until someone once asked me in Spanish what part of Mexico I was from while on vacation that I felt better about myself.  I could pass for Mexican, I told myself.

“Por que tan callada?” my Mexican friends Liliana and Cindy asked my British roommate, Amy.

“I just don’t feel like talking,” she’d say.  Having Spanish as our second language, it was a chore sometimes to speak in Spanish.  We would headaches.  But on a two day trip to Guadalajara with girlfriends, you better be ready to gossip.  I would try to make the effort, leaning on the edge of my seat, my head poking between the driver and passenger’s seats where Liliana and Cindy sat.  What often worked for me was asking lots of questions.  That way, it seemed like I was talking, but really I could just listen to my friends’ rhythmical answers.  

“Tienes que platicar en Mexico,” my Spanish teacher, Mary, would say.  Hanging out with your neighbors and talking for hours at a time is very common in Mexico.  In a country where everything can wait until manana, why leave so soon?  Let’s talk all day!  I can remember having friends over at our house, and by 2am I was ready to collapse on my bed.  I rarely stayed out that late at parties in the U.S.  My guests were flabbergasted: “You can’t go to sleep with your friends still here!”  True, but I had two other roommates, from England no less, so they wouldn’t be left alone.  When I woke up the next morning, my roommates told me how our Mexican friends gossiped about Rick and me.  How we were such rude hosts.  Ay, yay yay.

As I reflect on everything I learned from my Mexican Mamacitas, I realize that many of these observations apply to women everywhere, not just in Mexico.  In every country, there are women want to be fantastic cooks, who wish for clean, presentable homes, who don’t want to make drunken fools of themselves, who wear makeup everyday, and who gossip…endlessly.   

Gardening: Take Two

Garden update!

It’s been ten days since we planted the garden, and the seeds are growing!  

“A garden is kind of a miracle, when you think about it,” my friend Daniela told me a few weeks ago.  She was the first one to encourage me to plant my garden.  She herself has planted (and succeeded) several fruits and vegetables.  And it is a miracle: to go from tiny, delicate seeds to green stalks and leaves, to bearing the fruit of your labor. 

We live in one of the hottest places in the U.S., and we have the beginnings of a garden!  All it has taken is lots of sun and watering with the hose three times a day.  Rick has done more than his share of watering, and so I’ve been reprimanded to step it up.  Especially since he’ll be leaving at the end of August, and it will be my garden to tend.  It’s kind of like taking care of a cat: minimal responsibility, but if you don’t remember to give it food and water, it’ll die on ya.  No fruit or veggies yet, of course, but there are little green stalks sprouting up with leaves everywhere (even some in spots we hadn’t thought we’d planted seeds).  It’s been fun watching them go from just pokes of green to actual stems.  Kind of reminds me of third grade when we grew bean seeds in styrofoam cups.  I think mine grew pretty high, too.  I remember being impressed.  I was resigned to having a flop, but turned out, with the right amount of water and sunlight, I made something thrive.  It’s a good feeling.  Plants are the first step.  Animals the second.  Then babies the third.  If you can have A and B survive and be happy, then you’re only a few steps away from C.

Gardening is reminiscent of the stages of a baby: from embryo, to a heartbeat, to forming little appendages, to the first kick, to a full-grown eight pound baby.  Just like a garden, we human beings grow watermelons inside ourselves.  And like gardening, we tend to our fledglings with water, food, vitamins, and lots of visits to the doctor.  I have yet to have a baby, of course, but have seen many aunts and cousins go through the process.

And besides the joy of the little miracles that gardening provides, it’s really just a lot of fun, I think.  A former English teacher of mine, Mrs. Ivers, reminded me of this: “Isn’t it fun,” she said “to plant and see the results?”  Yes.  When you go into gardening for the first time, you don’t really know what to expect.  Will anything grow?  Will it look like a real garden?  Will it die on me?  The speculations are endless.  You just have to be persistent: keep watering those little fledgling plants.  They’ll become something, someday.  I get excited thinking about their progress, too.  I often imagine: what will these plants look like in ten more days?  Ten more weeks?  Six months from now?  Will I have watermelons and cantaloupes growing over like Cinderella’s pumpkins by Halloween?  Will I have sunflowers that grow taller than me?  Will the fruit and veggies be ripe enough to eat one day?

It’s all just a matter of time.

So in the meantime: We water.  We watch.  We wait.

And we (well, Rick) also diligently collect these:

What are those?  Mesquite bean pods.  They’ve been falling off the mesquite trees like crazy this summer.

It’s Rick’s hope to collect pounds of these guys, and then I’ll take them to be a Millgrinder around October or November.  There the mesquite beans become mesquite flour, which you can use to make mesquite pancakes (yum) or bread.  Just in time for Rick’s November visit to Tucson. Rick just said today, “We should go around our neighborhood and pick these up.  It could be a date!”  What can I say?  It doesn’t take much to entertain the man.

Palm Reading

“Give me both hands,” Margarita, the Palm Reader, commands.  I’ve been highly anticipating this moment for months now.  That moment where you give up your control, where your past and present, your fate and future lie in the mind of a psychic.  I promise myself that I will leave my mind unlocked and open to her thoughts.  I promise myself that I will stop myself when I start sniggering.  I promise myself that I will just listen and not ask too many questions.  Having never had my palm read before, I have no idea what to expect.  I tell many of my friends and family members that I will be doing it soon.  Their responses range from excited to frightened.  “Tell me how it goes!  I’d love to do that one day,” a friend of mine says.  My mom and future-mother-in-law are a little less enthusiastic: “I just don’t know if you’ll like what you hear” and “She could tell you something troubling.”

“I’m not too worried,” I tell them.  “You take it all with a grain of salt, ya know?”

*

“Are you right handed or left handed?” she asks.

“Right handed,” I say.

“Okay, you’re a worry wart,” she quickly snaps without a second thought.

“I’m a worry wart?”

“Yes.  And this never turns off,” she says pointing to my head.

“My brain?  Er…I guess that’s true.”

“You have small hands.  You fret a lot.  Stop analyzing things, and just let them be what they are.”

“How can you tell all that just from my hands?”

“That’s what people with small hands are like.”

I try not to ask her many questions, but sometimes (most of the time) I can’t comprehend her logic.  Why?  What?  How?  Where?  But I refrain from asking, and just let her continue.

She traces with red pen on my hand.  She presses into my hand, drawing out the three lines that stream like three red seas in various directions.  “Here’s your life line, your head line, and your heart line,” she says drawing a small heart to indicate.


“This freckle on your hand…has it been there for long?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Hmmm.  We’ll talk about that later.”

What the hell?  I think.  What’s going on?  But she doesn’t stop; she’s on fire!

“See this groove down here in your life line, it’s very deep, something happened to you when you were fifteen?  What was it?”

Feeling severely on the spot, I search for something simple: “Well I was in high school…that was a pretty hard time…you know, feeling insecure about yourself, friends moving away, making new friends.”

“Yeah, back to that freckle.  That means that at some point in your life–probably when you were fifteen–you tried to take you life.”

“What?!!  No, I definitely didn’t do that!”  I mean, I don’t think I did.  I can’t remember.  But isn’t that something that you would remember clearly?  Who is this woman?  All I know is that she’s named after my favorite drink.

I find her on this website: (http://www.readersandhealers.com/) there’s a little bio about my reader, Margarita:

Margarita – Palmistry, Astrology & Tarot Cards supported by her gift of Clairvoyance, Margarita guides you to a quick and straightforward resolution of problems as well as offering guidance.

I shift around in my seat, wiping the sweat from the creases behind my knees.  She’s making me really uneasy.  She’s saying a lot that I really don’t want to hear.  My Mom’s voice echoes back to me:

She could say something really troubling.  Indeed, I think.

*

The Mystic Messengers Psychic Fair takes place the first Sunday of every month in a conference room of The Windmill Suites Hotel in the northwestern part of Tucson, Arizona.  And there are not only palm readers here.  While I was waiting, I was stopped by a variety of women and men who wanted me to try out their services (and give me lots of brochures).  Everything from Pet Psychics to Colorpuncture (the application of colored lights to promote healing of mind, body, and spirit) and from Reiki therapy to Tarot card readings.  In addition to all the spiritual stuff, there are also women selling jewelry, clothing, and decadent desserts.  I’m tempted to spend the twenty bucks for the palm reading on some tasty chocolate eclairs.  Outside of the building, Sunday’s Farmer’s Market simultaneously takes place in St. Philip’s Plaza.  There you find everything from seasonal fruits and veggies to tamales and beef jerky.

*

Back in the conference room, I think, “I’d rather be outside buying some tamales.  I don’t like what I’m hearing.”

“What do you and your boyfriend do?” she asks.

I told her we were both in Non-fiction writing programs at different schools across the country.  

“Hmm.  This is interesting.  You are going to be more commercially successful than him.  And sooner.  This is something you’ll want to sit down and talk about.”

Cool, I think.  Now I like what I’m hearing.  But when she continues, her logic, again, seems kind of off.

“Your thumbs are flexible.  This means you are a flexible person.  You are easy to work with.  When you’re writing screenplays, you’ll be able to work well with the other people around you.”

Screenplays?  What?  I don’t write screenplays.  Is she even listening to me?  Or is she really a psychic?  Will I be writing screenplays one day?  Does she know something that I don’t know?

*

A few hours later back at home, as I let her words sink in and settle and rise like yeast, I start getting angry.  I think back to something she said that really struck me:

“You have been depressed for two years,” she said.

No, no, no!  I’m a happy person.  I’m positive.  I’m cheerful.  I lighten the mood.  But then again, her assumption is pretty general.  No one is completely happy, everyone has their something that grates at them day in and day out.  Heck, I can remember getting upset when someone would ask, “Why aren’t you happy today?”  As if I need to be happy everyday, as if it’s expected.

But depressed for two years?  Really?  I wanted to yell at her!  I love my life.  I worked with third graders and lived with my boyfriend in Denver last year.  I was so happy!  Yes, it’s been harder this past year with us being long distance and all.  But not two years!  F-you, Margarita.  You don’t know me.

*

“Well that went in a completely different direction than I was expecting,” I say to Margarita.  We share a few final lines regarding her final conclusions before she looks at her clipboard and calls the next person’s name off as if we’re all waiting at the Post Office.

I walk out feeling distraught and confused, quite the opposite of how I intended to feel.  I was expecting to feel uplifted and rejuvenated; I even imagined singing out “I’ve seen the light!” as I walked out into St. Philip’s Market Place in the Sunday afternoon heat.  I race back home on my bike so I can vomit all my thoughts and memories onto the page (the recorder I used turned out to be useless; it was too noisy in the conference room).

*

After conversations with Rick, my Dad, my co-worker, and my sister Mary, they all reiterate what I said before: “Take it all with a grain of salt.”  Yes, a cliche.  Yes, well-worn as your favorite T-shirt.  But still true.  

Also, I start thinking about how palm reading is similar to going to a therapist, and the advantages and disadvantages of a third party’s perspective.  Yes, it’s a fresh perspective, one without previous knowledge or bias.  And no, they’re not your close friend, so you don’t have to worry about burning bridges, as the saying goes.  Conversely though, it is a problem that both the palm reader and therapist really don’t know you; they don’t know much of your history.  In both instances, I butted up against assumptions made about me.  

“I haven’t been depressed for two years,” I said to Margarita.

And I often found myself disagreeing with my therapist, especially when it came to his thoughts about my relationship with Rick.  “He’s doing this to you, Allie,” he’d say smooshing his thumb on the arm of a chair.  “And you just take it and take it from him.”  

“No, that’s not true.  You don’t even know him.”

The criticisms, the questions, the advice: it can all be too much sometimes.  I often find myself rubbing against third parties that tell me what my life and relationships are like.  What my past was like.  What my future will entail.

*

In the end though, Margarita did impart some wisdom that still sits with me as I type right now.  She said, “You won’t be fully settled and happy until you’re forty.”  Yes, quite depressing, right?  But it was what she went on to say that really struck me: “But the thing is” she said “you can find joy at any age.  It’s just up to you when you find it.”  True, I thought.

That night, I logged on to Facebook, and received a message from Paula, a college friend of mine. She said: “Just watched this movie, and I thought of you.  Made me feel like I was a little less crazy.”  The movie’s called “Happy-Go-Lucky.”  A great little film by famous director Mike Leigh (whom I hadn’t heard of until Rick mentioned he’d seen one of his other movies, “Secrets and Lies.”)  As I watched the extremely cheery Poppy (played by the effervescent Sally Hawkins) I thought, “If Poppy’s any reflection on my personality, then I think I have found joy.” (Heck, I have a tattoo on my hip that I got when I was eighteen that says “joy” in Chinese script!)  And I’m going to keep on finding it.  I’m already there with a margarita in hand.

I’ve Got one Hand in my Pocket, and the other one’s clicking on YouTube

After writing my little ditty on hand associations, I got a number of additions from Rick and my Mom.  Many of my Mom’s suggestions, I realized, were songs.  New idea: write about “hand” songs, that is, songs that sing about hands.  So here I go.  Starting with no other than Alanis Morissette’s “One Hand in my Pocket.”

“One Hand in my Pocket” came out when I was in fifth grade, I think.  I remember my older sister, Mary, being really into Alanis–she was in seventh grade–and had the long, straight hair, big sweaters, and baggie jeans.  Funny how crazy our sense of fashion changes with the times.  Just a few years later, she’d be wearing tight jeans and sparkly halter tops.  Alanis symbolized all things bad-ass and bad-girl for me.  I was a little too young to be one of her grungy, moody followers, but I can remember wailing out her songs with Mary and my younger sister, Jane (who, by the way, was only seven).  When we sang “One Hand in my Pocket” we probably had no idea what the lyrics meant.  We just liked her attitude and the confidence that she projected (plus, I was always trying to remember the order of the hands-in-the-pocket verses.  Is it peace sign now?  No, it’s the cigarette, right?  Or is it the  piano?  To be honest, I’m not sure I really understand the song even now, fourteen years later, but I’m gonna wing it: 

I‘m broke, but I’m happy

I’m poor, but I’m kind

I’m short, but I’m healthy, yaaaaa

I care, but I’m restless

I’m here, but I’m really gone

I’m wrong, and I’m sorry baby

And what is all comes down to

Is that everything’s gonna be quite alright

Cuz I got one hand in my pocket, and the other one’s flicking a cigarette

Alright.  I can break this down.  She’s a young twenty-something who is full of contradictions.  Does she contradict herself?  Yes, she contains multitudes (thanks Walt Whitman).  I can feel this.  This is a good representation of the “Me Generation” that I’m apart of.  A lazy, restless bunch that “hasn’t got it all figured out just yet” like Morissette sings.  And do we still have it all figured out?  No, no we don’t.  Alanis was a wise woman, even in her twenties.

But what about the “one hand in pocket” refrains?  What do those mean?  She sings, for example, “Cuz I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one’s giving a high five.”  These refrains serve as explanations to why she doesn’t have the answers, why she’s so contradictory.  One hand is in her pocket (i.e. not doing anything), while the other is busy doing something (i.e. giving a peace sign, flicking a cigarette, playing the piano).  In all actuality though, all these things that she’s doing are not really related to work of any sort.  These things that she’s doing with her hands are, for the most part, lazy things that we doing every day without much effort at all.  She hasn’t got it all figured out just yet because she’s taking her time, not really ambitious, not doing much.  And doesn’t that speak to the “Me Generation” (and especially at the time the Grunge generation)?  Yes, I think so.

Jewel’s “Hands” projects the opposite sentiment as Alanis’s “One Hand in my Pocket,” encouraging many of her young peers into action:

We will fight, not out of spite

For someone must stand up for what’s right

Where there’s a man that has no voice, there I shall go singing

My hands are small I know, but they’re not yours they are my own

No, they’re not yours, they are my own

And I am never broken

The music video features Jewel walking all angel-like (isn’t she an Angel?) into the aftermath of a fire.  She curiously floats around, and helps save a bunch of peoples’ lives.  What a woman!  Her final message in the song is that: “in the end, only kindness matters,” showing that she has kicked that apathetic age to the curb, and is all like, “Uhh, we need to care about each other, people!” Nice shift there, Jewel.

Probably one of the most annoying songs in the world (especially if you’re over the age of five).  What can I really say about the “Hokey Pokey?”  We’ve all performed it so many times in our youth, at weddings (do they still do the Hokey Pokey at weddings?), and while babysitting.  I actually didn’t find it annoying for a long time, but now I put it on the same level as doing the chicken dance.  Oh, goodness, not that one again.  

But how did the Hokey Pokey become what it’s all about?  According to Wikipedia, the inspiration for the song’s title, “The Hokey Pokey”, came from an ice cream vendor whom the song writer had heard as a boy, calling out “Hokey pokey penny a lump. Have a lick make you jump”. He changed the name to “The Hokey Cokey” at the suggestion of the officer who said that ‘hokey cokey’, in Canada, meant ‘crazy’ and would sound better. A well known lyricist/songwriter/music publisher of the time, Jimmy Kennedy, reneged on a financial agreement to promote and publish it, and finally Al settled out of court, giving up all rights to the number.  Another fun fact: before the invention of ice cream cones, ice cream was often sold wrapped in waxed paper and known as a hokey-pokey (possibly a corruption of the Italianecco un poco – “here is a little”)[2] An Italian ice cream street vendor was called a hokey-pokey man.  And even to this day, people still do it and make fools of themselves.  I mean, that’s what it’s all about.

I’ll admit, I’d never heard of “Put Your Hand in the Hand” until my Mom emailed it to this morning, but I find it rather catchy.  It’s religious yes, but it’s also fun.  I mean, I wish we would’ve sang this song when I went to church. The message is kind of reminiscent of those “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets:

Take a look at yourself, and you can look at others differently

By putting your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee

But I like this song.  And I like Joan Baez, too.  I don’t know many of her songs, but in honor of this song, I made a new Joan Baez station on Pandora, just for her.

Obvious choice, yes, but you gotta include the Beatles.  It should be a rule that everyone has to talk about or listen to the Beatles at least once a day because they are so great.  And isn’t this just a great song?  It’s so innocent in what it asks: he just wants to hold her hand!  I like how these romantic songs from back-in-the-day weren’t so presumptuous and gratuitous about sexuality as they are nowadays.  What about love?  

Lloyd Bank’s “Hands Up,” featuring 50 cent, is quite the opposite of the Beatles’ sentiments.

Take this line as an example: 

I’m good in the VIP

I’ve got my dick right here with me

Uh, sounds like he wants her to hold more than his hand.  This video is everything I hate with rap and a lot of pop songs nowadays.  Guys who are not cute getting a lot of attention from too beautiful, practically naked women.  The men admit to being “crooks” and “chauvinists” in the lyrics of the song.  And these girls just go along with it.  What kind of image is this projecting to all the shorties of the world? And I don’t know how I feel about the endearment shorty.  I am a shorty, I agree, but it rings and reeks of condescension.  Kind of like when a guy rubs your head like you’re a dog, “Good girl!  Good girl!” is what’s implied.  I have to admit, though, those girls are good dancers.