Once upon a time in a neighbourhood just like yours sits a woman staring out her office window. It’s a dreary day — cold enough to snow, but it’s not snowing. It’s not even windy. It’s not anything. If the weather app was honest the day would be described as “blah.”
The woman feels like she pressed pause on winter two months ago and misplaced the remote. She is so, so, bored.
Working from home is a privilege. Working from home right now, though, in the middle of the longest winter, stinks.
an Invented drama
This woman (OK, it’s me) is so bored of her own company that she not only knows her neighbours’ schedules, but has become weirdly invested in their routines and creates elaborate narratives about the goings on that take place outside. You’d be surprised at how the smallest variation in her view excites her.
For example, this week there was a plumber’s van parked in a neighbour’s driveway. Did the hot water tank burst? Were they installing a heat pump? Did someone drop their hearing aid in the toilet?
It was anyone’s guess, really, but she spent a full hour speculating.
This morning Larry walked by at 9 am on the dot with his Jack Russell terrier, Molly. Larry and Molly always walk by at this time, so there’s no news there. But this morning, something was up.
Larry is in his late 70s or so. Molly looks young for her age, but with small white dogs it’s hard to tell as they don’t show the grey. Larry always wears a red ski jacket. This morning, however, he wears a StormRider jacket (circa 1996), and it is in pristine condition. The woman recognizes this jacket because her high school boyfriend wore the same one (albeit his was drenched in Cool Water cologne). When Larry walks by in this new get-up, she’s baffled. “What Rubbermaid tote did you pull that vintage piece out of,” she says to herself, coffee cup paused in mid-air.
What will Larry wear tomorrow? High tops? A bandana? This show just got interesting! Literally anything could happen!
people really are watching you. and judging
This is work-from-home entertainment: Invented dramas enacted by near strangers who have no idea that they are currently on set. There’s the couple across the way who perplex her: He’s retired, and she isn’t quite retired yet. They own a car, yet she runs a block to catch the 7 am bus to work. Why doesn’t he drive her to work? What’s his deal? Is he awful, or does she enjoy her morning sprint and subsequent city tour via public transit? Why would one casual observer make judgements about the state of her neighbour’s (presumably) happy marriage based on their transportation choices?
Years ago, an older, wiser colleague said: “Danna, stop worrying about what other people think of you. They aren’t. Most of the time, they’re thinking about themselves.”
(In actual fact, this older, wiser colleague might have been Oprah. And it might have been a segment from her talk show. Danna has never worked with Oprah #regrets)
For a long time she believed Oprah, but then the pandemic hit and she found herself staring out the window watching the most boring show ever produced, and it dawned on her that Oprah was wrong. People think about you all the time. They’re looking at your heaping recycling bin and wondering if you have a drinking problem. They’re noticing that you’re still going for afternoon walks and speculating about how long you’re going to stick with your New Year’s resolutions (and frankly, they’re impressed that you’ve lasted so long). They hear you yell at your kids every damn morning, shouting at them to zip up their coats, and put their toques on their heads and not in their pockets, and they wish you would just go a little easier on those sweet boys, who are trying so hard (even though, reader, they are really not trying. Not at all).
Working from home is a privilege, certainly. But let’s be honest, this show is getting old and there is a very tired person writing the script.
This is my first (and perhaps only) food post, and guess what, I’m going to post recipes, too, but in order to get to the recipe you have to read the entire post, where you’ll discover the complicated history of the sugar cookie and learn about how these cookies have become the soothing balm needed to heal my broken heart. Kidding! These are cookies, not tattoos!
I love baking. It’s something I’m decent at, and I’m a tiny bit proud of that.
Hands up if, as a kid, you thought your mom, or your grandma was the world’s most accomplished baker. I know I did. What I’ve come to realize, however, is that the reason their baking tasted so good is because we loved them so much. We associate the foods they prepared with the way their hands looked as they kneaded the dough, or the way we felt standing beside them on a stool us as we cracked our first egg.
But if there was a blind taste-test between samples of my baking and my moms, mine would win, no question. I don’t like to brag, but there it is. Sorry mom. You use too many raisins.
Mince? But why?
The first rule of Christmas baking is understanding what to bake vs. what to buy, and the second rule is understanding what to avoid entirely, like mince anything, or anything with candied fruit.
The only candied fruit that is allowed in my kitchen are red and green candied cherries. And the only place candied red and green cherries are allowed to exist is on top of a shortbread cookie.
My mom likes mincemeat and fruitcake. She also likes the hot cross buns that you buy at Easter with the colourful fruit inside. My problem with all of these baked goods isn’t necessarily taste, but texture. With mince and candied fruit there is an element of surprise that disturbs me. Take a bite, chew, chew, flavour is OK, and then BAM! weird unexplained crunch. It’s unsettling.
What to bake vs. what to buy
Another rule is to not waste time baking something complicated when there is a store-bought version that tastes almost as good and is significantly cheaper.
Like Nanaimo bars, for instance. You can buy an entire flat of delicious Nanaimo bars from Costco for $10. To purchase all of the ingredients to make your own you’re looking at $30 and about 2 hours in the kitchen. A person who makes $25 per hour just paid $80 for Nanaimo bars that would have cost $10 from Costco. This is what I refer to as “baking math.” It might be fundamentally flawed, but it’s worth considering.
Furthermore, you can buy Forty Creek Nanaimo Bar Cream, which is the booze version of a Nanaimo bar that you can sip while you’re baking. Discovering this delightful concoction blew my mind, and if you haven’t heard of it yet, you’re welcome.
Let’s not get too fancy
Some of the most delicious baking is the simplest. Faux Almond Roca with a saltine base? Fancy? Heck no! Delicious? Absolutely! If you’re baking for family and friends, and for kids especially, these are the treats that get gobbled up, year after year.
These recipes are not complicated, because 1. It’s been a hard year, and baking shouldn’t stress you out, and 2. You might be drunk baking, in which case, simple is safe.
Sugar cookies with simple glaze (head over to Pinterest for some cute decorating ideas)
This is the best sugar cookie recipe because it tastes amazing, and the dough is easy to work. Do not refrigerate the dough, just get busy rolling it out.
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
5-6 cups powdered sugar
¼ cup milk (more or less, depending)
¼ tsp almond flavouring (optional)
Gel food colour
Preheat oven to 350F
Cream together the butter and sugar with a mixer until smooth
Beat in vanilla and egg
In another bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder
Add dry ingredients to wet a little at a time, continuing to use mixer until everything is combined and the mixture is crumbly
Wet your hands and knead the dough by hand. Separate it into 2 dough balls. Cover one with plastic wrap while you are rolling out the other (don’t chill the dough)
Place the dough on a floured surface, sprinkle flour on top to prevent the rolling pin from sticking. Roll out until it is about ¼ inches thick (don’t roll too thin!)
Cut out shapes, and transfer to parchment-lined baking sheets
Bake at 350F for 8-10 mins
Cool completely before icing
Dump ingredients into a bowl and mix together with a metal spoon or fork. I never actually measure out the powdered sugar. I usually just put about 5-6 cups into a bowl with about ¼ tsp of the almond flavour and maybe ¼ cup of milk, but slowly. You need the glaze to be relatively thin, so it comes out nicely from the piping bag. The glaze will harden after a few minutes. If you’re working with kids, I recommend avoiding piping bags to save your sanity and just giving them a bowl with a spoon and butter knife for spreading.
Haystack cookies (AKA chow mein noodle cookies)
My mom makes these every Christmas. Eat them over a plate because they’re a mess to eat, but so yummy.
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup butterscotch chips
½ cup chow mein noodles
½ cup salted peanuts (you can use whole, or crush)
Note: Mess around with these. You’re going to want to double or triple this recipe. Also, if you’re like me and prefer chocolate over butterscotch, switch up the ratio, or replace the butterscotch with chocolate entirely. If you like butterscotch a lot (which just seems weird), toss the chocolate. These are YOUR cookies, so you do you! Try using pretzel bits, add a bit of coconut, or throw in mini marshmallows just for the heck of it. You really can’t screw up this recipe.
In a microwave, melt chocolate and butterscotch chips, stir until smooth. Stir in noodles and peanuts until well coated
Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate for 2 hours, or until set
I am convinced that living through a global pandemic is making me less smart dumber.
The good news is that I’m not alone. The bad news is that I’m not alone. The American Council on Science and Health confirms (because I Googled it after the week that I’ve had) that The Coronavirus is Making us all Stupid. Friends of Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychology at Cornell, confirm they are feeling “ tireder and dumber.” Years from now, when official research results roll in, I expect that we will learn that social isolation as a pandemic control measure has resulted in a stupider populace, however, I suspect and hope that when these controls lift, and when life returns to normal, we will regain our lost cognitive capacity. I certainly hope that the pandemic isn’t destroying brain cells, rather, that it is just rendering many of them dormant and ineffective.
You’re all getting dumber, too
I make this observation in part because every time I turn on the TV or read the news I see and hear people saying and doing really dumb stuff — and they’re not even trying to be sarcastic or ironic, they’re being serious. People are refusing to wear masks, believing that in doing so they’re jeopardizing their hard-won freedom to become ill and make those around them ill. There are more conspiracy theories circulating now than there have ever been, and people I know, like, and respect are buying into them.
But mostly it’s just me. Probably.
I make this observation mostly, however, because I keep doing really dumb things. What is interesting is that I can accomplish highly complicated tasks with ease, but the simple things trip me up. To combat this brain fog, the bottom of my computer monitor is dotted with Post-it-Notes, reminding me to do the basics.
“CHECK NAME SPELLING,” one note shouts, and yet already once this week I added an s to someone’s last name, and for no good reason.
The notes, it seems, are only effective if you read them before you do something dumb.
Yesterday, I needed to send a message to a colleague. He is someone I speak with at least once a week. Scrolling through my Microsoft Teams contact list, I became frustrated. Where was he? Where did he go?
It took several minutes of searching for Chad before it dawned on me. His name is Todd. It has always been Todd. What’s worse is that I don’t know a single Chad. Zero Chads orbit my sphere.
And then it was dinner time. For two nights in a row I’ve made Greek salad for dinner, and for two nights in a row I’ve sat down to consume the salad and thought: “What’s missing?”
As I was standing at the sink brushing my teeth before bed, I paused, stared at myself in the mirror, and yelled: “GREEN PEPPERS!”
As you may be aware, there are five basic ingredients to a Greek salad, not including dressing. It took me 48 hours to troubleshoot this mystery.
Let’s keep the dumb moves in check, for a little longer
However, while we might be tempted to attribute our stupidity to pandemic-induced dumbness, that’s not cool. I eventually figured out what was missing from my salad. I eventually connected with Todd. My brain fog didn’t result in a mass spreading event and jeopardize the lives of those around me.
There’s a time and place to be dumb, and maybe in a few more months we can be really dumb once again with minor impact on those around us.
Our brains are melting due to this pandemic, however, if we ensure our stupidity is reserved for unsent emails and blasé salads we will get through this. Together.
And then we can go back to having intelligent conversations with new and interesting people and reverse the adverse side effects that this pandemic is having on our collective intelligence.
I’ve been thinking about my massage therapist a lot these days.
I wonder how he’s doing, and how he’s keeping busy, and I’ll be honest, I’m a little envious of his wife who had the forethought to marry an RMT. Was he an RMT when they met, or did she direct him toward his career path? Either way, I consider her an absolute genius.
I did not pick my partner based on the skills he could bring to a pandemic. I mean, his sense of humour has been a blessing, and he is wicked good at making Excel spreadsheets, but he is not an RMT, or a chiropractor. Neither of us are particularly good teachers, either, as it turns out.
Who makes the team?
Determining my fantasy quarantine team has taken up quite a bit of my imagination over the past several weeks as I itemize specific skills and discount others. Until recently I didn’t realize how handy it would be to be socially isolated with a hair stylist, or an esthetician.
And I would trade all the Excel spreadsheets in the world in order to add a fitness trainer and a nutrition coach to my roster, as all this self-isolated snacking is getting decidedly out of hand.
I also wouldn’t mind adding a bartender and a barista to my team, either.
There is room on my team for a pet groomer. I was eyeing up my husband’s electric moustache trimmer recently and noted that it was the PERFECT size for trimming the fluff around my doodle’s backside, but after a few moments of reflection I opted against it (because I’m a good person, and that would be a mean thing to do).
Mostly, though, I just miss my massage therapist. Being socially isolated with someone of his talents would be wicked handy. My home office is not ergonomic, and this momma has a neck kink like nobody’s business.
Open to trades
What do I have to trade? I’ve got a couple of budding comedians and fashion critics on the block. One of them can tell you just about everything you will ever need to know about Pokemon, and can also relate any aspect of your life to a Garfield comic. The other one will regale you with ego-boosting observations like: “What are you even wearing? Your shirt is super wrinkled and looks weird, but your hair is the worst part.” When he’s not offering up unsolicited comments on your attire, he will just jump out at you with a surprise high kick, or tackle you into a mid-afternoon wrestle-hug, which is another reason I’m on the lookout for an RMT.
I had just completed my weekly rage-clean when I paused to admire my hard work and also to reflect upon whether this style of cleaning is typical.
Am I the only one who uses anger as detergent?
Certainly, my husband and I both rage clean to different extents. I rage clean the parts of the house that people see. He rage cleans places that are used so infrequently that you forgot they were even part of the house. Like the closet under the stairs that contains our stash of gift bags, loose tissue paper, buckets of unused paint and one red hummingbird feeder. Or he’ll clean the furnace room, or the shed. I’ve even seen him rage clean a fish tank.
During pandemic season when we’re all cooped up inside, shedding our hair and skin cells, and dirty socks in the same square footage 24-hours a day, seven days a week, I have more opportunity to observe the personal hygiene of my family, and I am frankly appalled, which means there is more rage with which to clean than ever before.
The cycle of rage cleaning
It starts with a clean house; the floors are vacuumed and mopped, the kitchen sparkles, the bathroom mirrors are free of toothpaste and fingerprints. And then little by little it starts to happen.
First, maybe there are just a few crumbs under the kitchen table, which you sweep up because at the beginning you think you’ll be able to stay on top of it. Then there’s the single sock in the middle of the family room; beside it on the table is a partially empty water glass, and before you know it a plastic cup joins it. And then you turn your head and there’s a hoodie just lying in the middle of the floor with a granola wrapper beside it. You shout. Things get picked up, but never everything, and never in a timely fashion.
Then you walk into the bathroom, and what was clean yesterday is now covered in beard trimmings and when you look down all you see are pieces of your own long brown hair on the floor; look up, and you’ll likely even find it up there attached to the ceiling. What is the hair sticking to? Nobody knows.
You Lysol wipe the counter, but those wipes are hard to come by in a pandemic. And you think about vacuuming but to vacuum you have to pick up the 700 Nerf darts and 35 dog toys that are currently scattered around the house. It all seems impossible, so you just pour yourself a glass of wine because it’s 3 pm on a Wednesday, and you head outside because at least it’s clean out there, or sort of clean, because that’s where the dirt lives, and you’re basically just visiting the dirt at its own house, which is calming.
Eventually, however, you have to come back inside because that’s where the food is. Then you decide to make dinner, but to make dinner you have to find some counter space.
They break you
And that’s when it happens. You snap. It’s taken days to get here, but your family has finally broken you, and if you don’t rage you’ll cry, and dammit, you are NOT going to be bested by these little jerks that you birthed, so you slam the cupboard doors, toss plates into the dishwasher (thanking Jesus that you bought the ugly Corelle because it’s the only thing that stands up to a rage clean), and these sounds give notice: Everybody better pitch in or get the hell outta the way, because you have lost your ever loving mind, and the rage clean has begun.
The music is loud, but the house that was filled with animals, people and noise moments ago is now empty. Children who wouldn’t leave you alone long enough to take a 20-minute teleconference have all but disappeared into the mist. They have read the mood and scattered to the winds, giving you free reign to curse them loudly while they’re out of earshot. “They are SO GROSS! How are they so DISGUSTING! They are worse than ANIMALS! GAH!”
The heart rate monitor on your smart watch is pumping, because your rage burns calories; your rage gets shit done. Your rage is ALIVE!
But it’s for the greater good
Eventually it fizzles though, and you look around and realize that your house is clean again. You’ve ordered take out. The sound of the washing machine going through its final spin cycle is a lullaby. The vacuum hose gets wound up and tucked away in the closet, the floors are now dry, so the chairs come down from on top of the kitchen table. The gangsta rap that Alexa had pumped moments ago is suddenly Jack Johnson. You can hear the birds sing outside, and when your family returns from their sudden field trip to the driveway to play basketball you greet them with a smile and a “please hang up your hoodie.”