choices and philosophy

Recently, I finished reading “American Philosophy: A Love Story.”  It was published on October 11 and was written by a friend of mine from high school.  I obviously pre-ordered it.

We’ve long since lost touch ~ that’s the way of things when you head off to college and begin living your own life.  But Facebook always brings people back together (sometimes whether we want to be connected or not) and now, we are connected on the internet and can glimpse into each other’s lives.

I have good and clear memories of our brief friendship in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.  One night, after we’d gone out to dinner, we sat on bleachers in a neighborhood park, and while staring at a perfect sky filled with stars, John said to me, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

We were on the eve of college, both our young minds filled with the potential the future held.  He’d always been a philosopher ~ trying to make sense of chaos.  I’d chewed on that little idea for much longer than I ever intended.  I chew on it still.

I’d registered for a philosophy class my freshman year.  I bought Plato’s “The Republic” with absolute intimidation in my soul.  I didn’t finish that class.  Philosophy never really gripped me.   But I was young, and I hadn’t really faced down true pain and disappointment yet.

My childhood angst — if you could even call it that — was the angst of a child with parents who loved each other and loved her.  It was the baby angst of someone who had never known hardship.  A person who has never faced hardship could be forgiven for not having an interest in philosophy.

I cracked open the fresh hardcover book, and felt the weight of the paper that comprised the pages.  I looked at John’s photo on the back cover flap. He hadn’t changed since high school.  He looked exactly the same.  I started to read it standing up in the front hallway of my home.

It is an absolutely stunning book.  It snuck under my skin, filling my conscious and unconscious mind with questions, abstract ideas … thoughts and theories and more questions.  American philosophy, in my incredibly rudimentary understanding, is the quest to answer this question: Is Life Worth Living?  As I stare down my thirty-seventh birthday, this question seems much more interesting than it might have at eighteen.

As John writes about finding William Ernest Hocking’s library in New Hampshire, and the intellectual and spiritual journey that lead him on, he also teaches his reader about the foundations of American philosophy.  He teaches, but he also inspires his readers to learn more, to continue the quest for knowledge, and for answers.  For understanding.

There are a few things in my life that I studiously avoid sharing on this blog.  I’m sure there’s a good reason why, but I don’t really know what it is.  Maybe I’m ashamed.  Maybe not speaking about it makes it less real.  Maybe I’d like to forget.  But those things have probably informed more of my life than I’d like to admit.

My first (very brief) marriage broke me.  It changed me down to my DNA.  It devastated me because divorce devastated me.  It left me lost, and afraid, and alone and without any hope.  It made me question everything I’d ever been, everything I’d ever believed.  I lost myself after my divorce and it has taken me years to find myself again.  But out of that absolute desperation came my relationship with my husband.  With my best friend, the man who is the other half of my soul.  If the bad hadn’t happened, maybe the good wouldn’t have happened either.  So I have to settle into that, I have to figure out how to live with that.  Forever.

On January 25, 2015 John and I went to an open house.  We’d been toying with the idea of buying our first home.  And his job had finally made it a real possibility.  There were snow showers.  And as we sat in the car, reading our emails, my whole world fell apart again.

My mother’s cancer was back.  She would have to begin chemo again.  Maybe radiation.

I don’t remember all the details.  I remember John driving home to get Lucy and pack overnight bags.  I remember heading back to Chester County to see my parents.  To see my mother in person.  We stopped at a new townhouse community on the way ~ still in development. The next day, we put down a deposit.

I will never not associate our home — buying our house and moving down to Chester County — with my mother.  With the feeling of utter desolation that came when reading that email in the parking lot of a house we didn’t buy.  With the feeling of wanting to be closer as soon as possible.  And now, we are twenty-five minutes away (it’s 23! I hear them saying in my head).  We can be there if they need us.  I can see my mother all the time.  For as long as I can.  That feeling, of family and home, can’t be put into words.  Out of the most terrible things came beautiful things.  Like phoenix rising from ashes.

So when I picked up John’s memoir of his academic journey, but also his personal one, I began to understand why a person would dive into the abyss of philosophy.  To help heal wounds, to help restless minds settle, to help understand that which cannot be understood.  It not only comforted me, but it woke up a part of my brain that has long been lying dormant.  The part always thirsty for knowledge, for explanations, for questions without answers.

I told my husband (also John!) I needed to read the book again.  And then I needed to learn more about these people — men and women — who helped define American Philosophy.  He told me I should wait six months.  Let it sink into my brain, really ruminate on it.  Reach out to my friend if I felt so inclined.  He’s probably right.  (After all, his first major in college was philosophy).  My mind has been full for these past few weeks, full of questions, full of the history of my life. Full of the decisions I’ve made along the way.  Full of the things which brought me to this moment in time, this person I am.

And even now, tapping away on this blog post, I can’t begin to articulate everything that has happened since I opened that book.  But I know one thing for certain, and that is that I am grateful.

 

legolas

It was January 2002.

I’d come home from studying in Italy and my brother — in his infinite wisdom and willingness to help — had secured me a room for spring semester in a sorority house.  Possibly important to note here, I am not in a sorority and never have been.  But he’d met a girl in Italian class who was headed to Rome as I was coming back, so he snagged her room for me.

I have memories of my parents coming up to move us both back in — but I must have driven, too, because at the time, I was the proud owner of Helen, my shiny red Honda Civic.

It wasn’t snowing when we arrived and carted all my boxes into the room that would be my home for the next few months.  We might have gone out for lunch.  I don’t remember.  I do remember that after everyone left, and I was alone, it began to snow and I listlessly began to put my things away.  I was living in a house full of women I didn’t know.  Back in a town that — until that point in time — had not been very kind to me.  I wasn’t in Rome.  I was alone in State College.

It’s hard to remember all the details, this many years gone, but I know that I was terrible at feeding myself (I didn’t really start to cook until I was nearly 30) and I was very sad.  I remember meeting the girl in the room next to me — far too chipper, far too happy about life.  Her hair fanning out like a fountain from her high pony tail.  She seemed nice enough (and we are friends to this day!) but I wasn’t very enthusiastic about anyone at that point.

I think I suffered through the entire next day putting my room together.  I don’t think I went anywhere, because the snow had come fast and furious, and the roads weren’t inviting.  It was probably dusk when i decided I couldn’t possibly stay in that house for one more minute.  I bundled up, locked my door, and headed out to walk the streets.

It was bitterly cold.  The wind was wicked, spreading the already fallen snow across bare surfaces, numbing any exposed skin.  The snow was like powder, a fine dust in the twilight.  The streets were fairly empty; both of cars and people.

When I went to school at Penn State, there were two downtown movie theaters.  By this time, the small, one screen cinema had closed and was in the process of being turned into something new.  But the multi-screen one across from the metered parking lot and next to the Gingerbread Man (also, sadly, extinct) was still there.  When I couldn’t bear the cold anymore, I stumbled into the lobby, hoping to find a movie that was starting soon.  I’d seen “Ocean’s 11” over Christmas break, and I would’ve watched that again.

But absolutely nothing was starting within an hour except for “Fellowship of the Ring.”

I remember taking a keep breath and weighing my options.  Go see a movie I had absolutely less than zero interest in ever seeing and be alone, in the warmth, for a few hours (and thus avoiding returning to the sorority house).  Or continue to wander the streets, and have to go back to that house.

I bought a ticket.

The movie theatre had multiple screens, but some were very small, with only ten or twelve rows of five or six seats.  It was playing in one of those, and I shuffled into a seat near the back.  There was a smattering of people in the seats in front of me.  I peeled my coat off, and tried to warm up.  I think I’d bought myself a soda and some popcorn.  It wasn’t long until the theatre dimmed.

There were no previews.

I sunk low in my seat, wondering if I could possibly sleep.  I was tired, and that house was so unfamiliar.  It was so cold.

And then the movie began.  And I was completely transported from the first moment.  I found Hobbiton endearing, and the Riders in Black terrifying. I loved Merry and Pippin and the dogged loyalty of Samwise.  I loved the stoic nobility of Aragorn and the majestic beauty of Legolas.

In a strange, surreal sort of way, “The Fellowship of the Ring” saved me.  Those first few weeks living in the DZ house were rough.  But I didn’t care anymore, because Tolkien and Peter Jackson had completely transfixed me with the story of One Ring and Middle Earth. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to be back at school, that I felt as though I had no friends. None of it mattered, because I had Frodo, and Merry and Pippin and Samwise.  I had Gandalf and Gimli and Aragorn and Arwen and Legolas.

To this day, my husband puts on “Fellowship” when I am sad, when I am tired.  When I need comfort.  We have watched it more times than I can count.  I know most of the lines.  It feels magical, even fifteen years later.  Literature – creativity and imagination — those are the things that have always saved me across the years.  When I’ve been alone, deserted, lost.  Something that lifts you up and takes you somewhere new.  Somewhere exciting and unknown.  Something created from nothing.

funny women

I am currently curled up on my couch, in my comfy clothes, and we are watching a recording of the most recent SNL.  (So far, it’s pretty good!).

Point being — I’m home.  And it feels glorious.

I spent much of my flight out and my flight home reading both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey’s books.  They are both wildly fantastic.  Reading their books — those funny, savvy, smart and powerful women — it’s been sort of phenomenal.  It’s inspiring, encouraging — and best of all, hilarious.

***

I have been staring at this blog post, completely unable to form sentences due to fatigue.  Traveling really takes it out of me.  I really wish I could keep writing about strong female role models and successful women.  But I am so wiped, I can’t even focus.

I guess the thing I wanted to say — with many more words than I’m using right now — would be that strong women who have made a difference are the coolest.  I go to work every day, the only female upper management in my company, and it can be challenging on many levels.  There are things that are nearly impossible to explain to male counterparts, or even my husband. (Not because he doesn’t want to understand, but because he just can’t).  Reading those books, about two seriously talented and incredible women — it helps keep the humor.

And man, did I laugh a lot.  Much better than reading things that bring you down.

contrary

I’ve been in quite the mood today.  So let me get a few things off my chest.

Watching Pittsburgh play last night was agonizing and heartbreakingly frustrating.  I’m sad their playoff run ended so soon — but I couldn’t have watched that team struggle through another game.  It was painful.  I will miss the veterans on defense whom I am assuming will not be re-signed next year (Kiesel, Harrison, Taylor … dare I say Polamalu?)  I will not miss watching the defense struggle when the Steeler’s defense shouldn’t struggle.  Ever.

Next up:  Whenever I begin watching one of “The Hobbit” movies all.I.want.to.watch is “Lord of the Rings.” I’m sure I’ll get over that one day and really crave returning to Bilbo’s adventure with the dwarves.  But right now — I just really need a little Frodo and Sam — with some Strider and Legolas thrown in.  Essentially the entire feeling of “The Fellowship of the Ring”  — none of which “The Hobbit” films have.

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane …. Hopefully it clears up some of my love for the LoTR films.

In early 2002 I’d just returned from studying abroad in Italy.  I’d wanted to stay another semester but circumstances (and finances) prevented it so I found myself back in State College, half-way moved into a room my brother sublet for me in a sorority house (sidenote: I am not, nor have I ever been, in a sorority). My parents had driven the two of us back to school on a cold January afternoon and nearly instantly headed home — for fear of getting stranded by the impending snowstorm.

The snow hit, and I unenthusiastically tried to put my room together.  I was sad, and scared and not at all happy to be back at school.  I felt alone.  Really, fully, in my bones, alone. So — after meeting the girls who would be my housemates for a semester (one of whom is still my great friend, so it all ended up working out!) I decided to go for a walk.  I bundled up (it was cold cold cold) and shuffled around State College (where the sidewalks weren’t all shoveled yet and no one was really out and about). After some walking and far too much introspective thinking, I found myself outside the movie theater and decided to see if anything was playing.  I’d seen Ocean’s 11 that break and had really loved it — I thought watching that again was vastly preferable to returning to my new ‘home.’

Ocean’s 11 had begun half an hour earlier, and wasn’t playing again for quite some time.  In fact, everything in the theatre had start times in over an hour, except The Fellowship of the Ring.   I had absolutely zero desire to see JRR Tolkien’s epic.  As in — none.  I’d read The Hobbit during middle school and enjoyed it.  But I had failed to be even slightly intrigued by the density of The Lord of the Rings.  (That’s the nicest way I can think to describe trying to read Tolkien).

But I also REALLY didn’t want to go back to the sorority house.  So I paid for a ticket, and after taking off several layers of snowy clothing and buying some popcorn and a soda, I settled into the last row of what was perhaps the smallest movie theatre I’d ever been in.  The previews had already begun (I remember thinking forlornly that I’d missed the best part) and I watched and waited for the film to start.

And — not to be overly dramatic — it completely swept me away.  And continues to do so to this day.

That movie, on that day, at that time — something about it was so magical, so transporting — that all the sadness and loneliness of being back at Penn State seemed to melt away into the background.  And strangely — it was also a turning point.  My college experience began to change then — school seemed less dismal, and I made new friends — friends to go drink margaritas with at Mad Mex, friends who came to see me in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, friends who brought me to cross training classes at local gyms  … and so many other things! — sometime I’ll have to revisit the day Minda and I drank White Merlot and watched an entire season of Buffy while the fraternity next door did mud slides on their front lawn.  The next year I became a total theatre school nerd, did lots of shows (both on stage and on crew) and made more friends who are still in my life today.

I know it probably sounds hokey, but there’s a part of me that feels as though that movie saved my life.  Certainly changed my life.  And maybe it did, maybe it didn’t.  But it feels like it did to me.  So a lot of times, when things feel a little overwhelming, all I want is to drift away into Middle Earth and forget my woes.

As I’ve written this, I’ve sort of marveled at how strongly things have marked time in my life.  I can remember so many clear details of opening the door to the movie theater in downtown State College (that no longer exists) and being overwhelmingly disappointed that not a single other movie was available for me to see.  And I also remember walking home in the blustering wind, still halfway in Middle Earth — plotting to buy the books (which I did) and read them from cover to cover (which I did not).  Totally transported to a place of imagination and wonder.   I saw the movie another two times in the theatre, and the subsequent sequels on opening night (Return of the King —midnight showing with my roommate at the time — nearly killed me!  I was so tired by the end and I swear — the sun was coming up when we left the theatre!).

So I stared this post with a completely different intention.  But I enjoyed walking down memory lane.  I am glad of the significance this film has played in my life (just ask the man — we both completely love it).  I’m glad I remembered the story of how I found it.  It’s been  a crazy trip down memory lane.  Insane to think it was 12 years ago.  Time is an amazing thing.

 

reading

As I was driving home today, the roads thick with traffic, my mind started to wander.  I’d begun my audio book of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” for the second time (I haven’t found anything new on audible recently, which is a huge bummer) and I began to think about the magic of reading.

When I was younger, I was a total book-worm.  There was something so incredible about getting lost in a good book ~ a world somewhere else, that totally took you away.  I’ve had moments in adulthood when I’ve been completely overtaken by a book.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I loved the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy and theDivergent’ trilogy.   I also was completely enamoured with Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘The Signature of all Things.’  Stunningly beautiful.

We moved a lot when I was young, but I remember libraries.  My mum always took us to libraries and I would get completely wrapped up in the young adult section, piling up the titles I wanted to take home, only to have to weed through and pick a select few (which I would read in a matter of days).  Books were my salvation, but they were also my teacher. So many things could be learned by reading books, exploring faraway people and places. Igniting the imagination to infinite possibilities.

When life gets crazy, or stressful, I find such beautiful relief in my audio books.  I miss that I don’t take the time to read ~ that I haven’t taken the time in so long because life seemed to get in the way.  I’d like to get back to it, get back to myself.  I read a brief newspaper article today about MS, and remembered when the numbness in my feet first started.  Remembered thinking and wondering if I would ever feel them normally again.  The answer, sadly to this point, is no.  But so much has happened since that day and I’ve lost little bits of myself because of stress and work and the ebb and flow of life.

I’d like to get back to reading.  I guess that’s my point.

good mornings

Some of my most favorite moments include the gray early morning, when Lucy hops up on our bed and curls up down between our feet.  I’m usually still half asleep, but those minutes before the alarm goes off, with our whole family snuggled together, count as some of the most precious of my day.  Lucy’s breath evens out and she begins to snurfle and I feel completely contented, safe and warm.

This morning the man disturbed this loveliness by heading to the gym.  Me and my bum legs stayed at home and enjoyed sleeping in a little longer.

This afternoon we have plans to attend Chestnut Hill’s Second Annual Harry Potter Festival.  One of my girlfriends found a House Quiz, and I will be decked out in HufflePull colors this afternoon, while the man will be Gryffindor.  Cheers to fun things to do on the weekend with friends!

a little thought

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
― Pema Chödrön (** bold is my choice ~ I love the image of leaning in)

 

Just a little share today ~ Marissa (my amazing yoga teacher) read two quotes from Pema during class yesterday and they really stuck with me.  Unfortunately, my copy of the book won’t arrive for a few days, so I chose the quote above to share.  I will say that researching Ms. Chodron made me aware of how wise her words are.  I’m looking forward to further exploring her ideas when my copy of “The Pocket Pema Chodron” arrives.

Until then, here it is again ~ the idea of the strength of language.

I like it.

from the depths

Today, Lucy had her lady surgery (my way of saying she got spayed, which I think sounds so ugly …).  We got up early, had a bath (Lucy was quite good in the whole scheme of things) and headed to the vet.  It’s a little bit of a drive, so we listened to “A Clash of Kings” on the way, because currently, I am completely enthralled.

When I handed her over to the extremely friendly vet staff, she was shaking so hard that I knelt down and wrapped her up in my arms, telling her over and over again that I would back soon, and she would be okay with her friends at the vet while I was gone.  Telling her that I loved her and everything was fine.

I cried a little on the drive home.  Not hysterically, but my heart was filled with worry.  For Lucy, for the man who journeyed to Nicaragua yesterday, for all the uncertainties of life which felt huge at 1oam this Friday, the 10th of February.  I called my mother-in-law, who kindly assured me that the man was fine, despite having not heard from him, and that Lucy would be fine as well.  We talked about lasagna, and pierogi casserole, and stuffed pepper recipes.  I felt better when I arrived at Starbucks to purchase my daily addiction of a soy Chai Latte (no water, extra hot).

I spent the afternoon doing numbers and data entry, and was relieved when the vet tech called to say Lucy had done very well, and was currently in recovery.  Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.

I heard from the man, and we were able to talk for a bit.  Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.

It put into very stark perspective for me, however, that my love for both the man and the pup plumb the depths of my heart and soul.  Their well-being, happiness, safety … all of it ranks so much higher than my own.  Wondering and worrying about either breaks my heart into a thousand tiny pieces.  Such is love, I think.  Real love is so uncontrollably self-less … so completely pure, and good and amazing.

On a lighter note, now the Beatles’ “Real Love” is in my head.  It will keep me smiling as I tuck the Peanut into her bed, wearing her ridiculous blue collar, and climb into my own to drift to dreamland.

Good night my friends! Sweet dreamin.’

 

in my head

Last summer ~ meaning 2010, which is crazy, because it feels like yesterday ~ the man and I ventured to try listening to ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ on audio book.  It was part of my birthday present to him, because I was stubbornly insisting that he read the final chapter of HP before the film came out.  (He subsequently claimed, mostly in jest, that I “ruined” the last two movies for him … but I think what I really did was introduce him to how utterly wonderful the books are).

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an advertisement in Entertainment Weekly magazine (my favorite periodical that I read cover to cover in one sitting … because I can’t put it down once I’ve opened it!) for something called audible.com.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, Stieg Larssen’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was proving to be utterly elusive to me and said advertisement said that one could get an unabridged audio version of the book with a trial membership.  I figured maybe if I couldn’t get into it by reading it, I could get into it by listening to it.

Obviously, I checked it out.

Only, I couldn’t find a free version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  Instead, I found a free audio version of “The Game of Thrones.”  Which I thought was utterly marvelous.  I imagined the man and I listening intently while driving to work in the bitter, endless cold of January.

And then I got impatient.  And began listening on my iPhone instead.

What a great book!  I mean, seriously, it’s so much easier to follow than “Lord of the Rings.”  And I made several valiant efforts to read the trilogy cover to cover.  Several. I got through “The Fellowship of the Ring,” (over a 12+ month period) and began “The Two Towers,” but when I realized that the stories were not intertwined with each other, but rather told as two separate adventures, my attention waned.  I have yet to finish “The Two Towers” or even crack the binding of “The Return of the King.” And I began reading them in the snowy January of 2002. I know, I know.  So many people think they are amazing books.  I feel as though I let the story down by not plugging on through. But “Harry Potter” they are not.  I did not find, not at any time, that the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was eminently readable.  I just think that certain people were able to get past the pretentious prose and pages of exposition to enjoy the heart of the story, while I could not.

I have enjoyed the audio version of “The Game of Thrones” so much, that I’m going to start at the beginning with the man, so he can listen, too.  Just as all great authors do, George R.R. Martin has created his own world, with his own language, geography, animals and titles (just to name a few things).  There is a mythology that expands with each chapter, and Martin tells the story from multiple points of view.  I’m sure that watching the HBO series has helped me keep characters organized in my head, but reading it is just really fun.

Today is one of the coldest days we’ve had so far this year, and I’m feeling a little under the weather (which is such a drag), so I’m looking forward to a night cuddled under blankets reading.  Happy Reading to everyone out there, as well!

new year’s resolutions and the best mac & cheese ever

Last night, as the man and I sat in the Indianapolis airport and the daylight waned and the snow swirled, I realized that I was not one, but two days into the New Year, and it didn’t really feel any different.

I know that nothing really changes when the calendar flips from one year to the next.  But for most of my life, the new year felt like a clean slate; a chance to start over and really get it right.

Recently, I’ve just felt tired ~ a little overwhelmed and worn out; as though exhaustion has set up residence in my very being.  Sitting and waiting and trying to get home yesterday was a moment of calm in the otherwise hectic existence my life has somehow become.  Maybe it’s just me, but snow storms allow you to just be; in one place, at one time.  Yes, I was mildly worried about getting home, but mostly I was enjoying the peace that the snow provided ~ the quiet that it seemed to imply.

For one small moment, I wasn’t rushing to get anywhere, and there was nothing I could do to change my situation.  It was such a relief.

We spent four days in Indy with one of my close friends, her hubby, and their absolutely precious little man of eighteen months.  It was great to see them, and it also allowed the man to get to know them a little better ~ they’ve been in Indy a little longer than I’ve been with the man, so he’s only met them briefly a few times.  We made, and ate, far too much food.  I mean, far too much food.  It’s completely possible that I gained ten pounds.  Seriously.

We had jalepeno poppers, cheesecake stuffed strawberries, fondu, stuffed mushrooms, jumbo shrimp cocktail, baked brie, filet mignon, brussel sprout hash, and homemade baked mac & cheese.  And that list doesn’t include breakfast!  Luckily, my clothing still fit for the ride back!

I have also been working my way through “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  I’m still getting used to reading on the nook ~ one weird, quirky frustration of mine is that I can’t page back and refresh my memory about something I read earlier without it being somewhat of a pain in the behind.  I know there are controls to do it, but it’s a little harder doing it electronically than physically ~ usually I can remember where on a page something was, or if it was the left or right side ~ that doesn’t really exist on a nook.  However, I will say that I love having different reading options at the touch a finger, so I will get over my obsession with flipping through a book and reading out of sequence.  It’s really only a problem because I have been reading “Dragon Tattoo” in bits and pieces over such a long period of time … I’m sure with something that I read consistently, I won’t feel the urge to flip back and refresh my memory as often.

We made it home safely, albeit after several re-bookings of flights, and we even got in over an hour earlier than we’d originally been scheduled.  In addition to all that, we flew on quite a little plane from DC to Philadelphia, which was a pretty neat experience.  This girl broke down and borrowed some dramamine from the man though ~ the flights were a little bumpy the whole trip, and I was nervous that such a small plane would be too much for my tummy.  Turns out ~ it was the smoothest take-off and landing of the whole trip!  Just goes to show me ~ don’t judge a book by its cover!

I don’t have a lot of resolutions for 2012, but I have a few goals, including saving a certain amount of money over the next twelve months, getting myself into a routine that allows me to de-stress, stay focused and cut out some of this intense fatigue, and run the Broad Street in May (10 miles through Philadelphia).

My resolution? Get up earlier to get ready for work.  Hopefully that will eliminate the stress that begins every morning as we rush to the city to get the man to work on time.

And … for those cold winter nights when all you want is some good, comfort food, here’s my Mama Bear’s Baked Macaroni & Cheese.  You can tell me you’ve had great mac & cheese, but there’s nothing better than this recipe!

What you Need:

1 package thick cut bacon

approx 1 lb sharp cheddar,  coarsely grated

grated Swiss cheese, to taste

Cooper Sharp cheese, to taste (it’s a deli cheese and as I add it during the recipe, I just rip pieces apart, so there’s no grating necessary for this one!)

Milk

1 – 2 medium, yellow onions

Flour

Mustard** (optional)

White Wine (technically optional, but I’d advise against skipping it)

Tomatoes**(optional)

Bread Crumbs

Grated Parmesan Cheese

Hickory Smoked Salt**  (optional)

Large saucepan

Large casserole dish

Prep Work:

1.  Grate your cheese, and mix together.

2.  Coarsely chop your onions ~ as my Mama says, you want the pieces ‘not to big, and not too small.’

3.  I make my own bread crumbs by putting 1 and 1.2 slices of bread in my Mini-Quisinart and chopping it up.  Then I mix in about 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup grated Parmesan, about a teaspoon of Hickory Smoked Salt and that’s the topping.

4.  If  you’re using tomatoes, slice them on the medium-thickness side.

Now, you’re ready to start!

What to do:

Preheat oven to 350.  Cook macaroni according to box directions, and drain well.

***Some little side-notes ***Pour yourself a nice beverage, because this is a long process, and you have to have a little patience and intuition along the way.  Don’t wear a sweatshirt while making this, because you stand over a hot stove for quite awhile, and it can get uncomfortably warm if you’re overdressed!

1.  Cut the bacon into bite-sized pieces (I’d say about an inch across, give or take).  Using a large saucepan, cook the bacon over medium heat until it’s crispy on the edges, and chewy in the middle (or, however you like bacon!).  When it’s cooked to your liking, scoop out the bacon and put on a few layers of paper towel to drain.

2.  Leave at least three tablespoons of bacon fat in the pan ~ if you have an abundance, drain some of it.  (It’s hit or miss for me ~ but I would say I more often than not don’t drain any bacon fat, but my Mama Bear does, so it’s really up to personal choice and intuition).

3.   Add onions to bacon fat, and cook until they clarify.  Lower the heat.

4.  Sprinkle in flour by the tablespoon, making a roux.  The roux should be fairly stiff.  I would say ~ depending on how much bacon fat you leave in the pan, you can estimate using between 3 and 5 tablespoons of flour.  But add one at at time, and mix thoroughly before adding in more.  The texture, when it’s ‘done,’ will remind you a little of that white paste that used to be used in grade school … is that stuff still around?

*** Mum’s Greatest Piece of Cooking Advice: You can always add, but you can never take away ***

5.  Once the roux is good and stiff, begin adding milk bit by bit, to create a sauce.  I probably went through about a pint of milk, but I just had the container sitting stove side, and added a little at a time.  The consistency you’re going for is on the thin side, but with some substance.  It should definitely be liquidy, rather than creamy, if that makes sense.

6.  Once you achieve the desired consistency, take a big dollop of mustard, and mix it right in.  You can, in fact, add two, if mustard is something you love.  OR, you can skip adding mustard at all, because you loathe it, or have a deep aversion.

7.  Now!  It’s cheese time!  Stir in cheese by the handful, making sure it’s melting fully. Use about three or four slices of Cooper Sharp, added bit by bit.  Once you have created a superbly cheesy sauce, add a little white wine (to taste) to thin out the cheese a bit. *** Once you add the pasta, it will thicken the sauce, so you want a really cheesy, but not.too.thick sauce, or it will be hard to mix in the pasta completely.   I would say that  I douse my sauce with a few heavy pours of whatever white wine I have in the fridge.

8.  When you’re satisfied with your cheesy, oniony mix, stir in the bacon pieces.

9.  Then, add in the pasta.  Mix fully.

10.  Transfer the whole shebang into the casserole dish.  Lay slices of tomato across the top, and finish by covering the entire top with your breadcrumb/Parmesan mixture.

11.  Bake in the oven for approximately 20 -25 minutes, or until it’s bubbling.

*** Some advice *** Bake it on top of a cookie tray lined with aluminium foil, so that if it bubbles over, you have an easy clean up.

Try and tell me it’s not the best Mac & Cheese you’ve ever made.  🙂