Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rounding Up

We are on the threshold of Tishrei, the beginning of a beautiful month of Jewish holidays. It is the New Year, a time for self-reflection and thoughtful resolutions, as well as my seasonal penchant for list-making.

True to human nature, my first list details the blessings I'd like for the coming year, requests that rarely vary: health, gainful employment, happiness, nachas from my boys, and that perennial favorite, fitting into a size 6 pencil skirt.

A second list itemizes what I hope to improve in myself. These are challenges that involve overcoming inveterate personality traits, but I really try to tackle them anyway.

There is a third list, a compilation of the sins I remember committing as well as a few transgressions I suspect I may possibly have committed. I throw those in just in case. Who wants to play games this time of year?

And then there is the fourth: a detailed list, by meal, of what I will be serving to friends and family. Let's face it. We may all be praying and repenting in earnest, but when we have a free moment, we are also thinking about holiday food.

So I am busy planning impressive meals, even if the only thing my children will eat is challah and schnitzel. Hence the onset of exhaustion levels concomitant only with yom tov preparations. As such, I tend to goof in the kitchen here and there under the strain.

Like the time I was so distracted by other tasks that I ignored the oven timer. I ended up overbaking the potato kugel to the point of disintegration, forcing me to toss it along with the pan from which I could not extract it.

For the Shabbes of one three-day yom tov, I zealously added so much barley to the cholent that I was roused in the night by the sacrificial aroma of a burnt offering.

On yet another occasion, I forgot the sugar in our favorite cake, the one I have baked so many times that I no longer (so I thought) need to glance at the recipe. And I have done this, too: oiling the Bundt pan for an apple cake with the garlic-flavored baking spray.

Sometimes I am lucky enough to catch my mistake in time to remake the dish. Other times, however, my gaffe comes to light too late in the game. But I know soon enough what has happened -- oh, I know -- because I catch my dear husband pursing his lips as he chews, too afraid to tell his sleep-deprived, overextended wife that something is terribly, horribly wrong.

Lord help me when it is my children who are the first to make the discovery. Guests tend to be more gracious, hoping to spare me the embarrassment.

When it happens, I try to shrug it off, but I am human and nonetheless turn beet red. And yet, when I am so very exhausted that I haven't the energy even to blush, I begin to laugh a slap-happy sort of laugh. It starts small, then expands to consume all the air in the room. It is genuinely cathartic. Sometimes it ends as a snort.

This year, I girded myself for an entirely new batch of culinary faux pas when I set to cooking. Not wasting any time, I baked enough challah to get us through Simchat Torah. I was so proud to have that big ticket item crossed off my list a full two weeks before the start of the holidays that I brazenly wrapped the loaves and went to bed, planning to stack the freezer early the next day.

Alas, when I returned to the scene, I discovered that I'd braided them all. Not a round challah in sight. I shook my head in disbelief, throwing a one-two punch in my own direction. When was I going to get everything done? How could I have been so off the mark? I crossed off the check next to challah on the menu, sprinkled on a little more self-deprecation, and with a sigh of exasperation, began pulling ingredients out of the cabinet.

Then something inside me made me stop short. Luckily, I'd caught the error of my ways before anyone -- myself included -- had time to taste its bitterness. The shape of the challah really made no difference. What I needed was a do-over on the message I'd sent myself.

So I sat down and neatly rewrote the menu on a clean page, adding ROUND in big letters next to challah. After all, I am as entitled to a clean slate and the sweetness of the season as the next girl.

Sure, I rebaked the challahs, not because I had to, but because I longed to reshape that regrettable moment.

Which leads me to think I should keep a fifth list. This one would track mistakes that at first seem to spell the end of the world but soon lose their edge, thanks to a little faith, some hearty humor, and a bite of what is on list number four.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Driving Lesson

In accordance with our family's summer tradition, we took the boys on a meticulously orchestrated two-week road trip this past August. Because the experience is by design less about our destination and more about the adventures along the way, we are always thrilled to integrate pleasant but unexpected detours into the plan as we go.

Like every family hitting the highway, we happen upon less than desirable digressions as well. While these range from petty annoyances to more problematic inconveniences, they tend to serve up some of the most memorable moments of the trips. Sometimes, they even provide meaningful life lessons that we bring home like souvenirs actually made in the U.S.A.

We felt the full impact of that sentiment just outside Pittsburgh last week as we were preparing to head home.

My husband took the van for a little pre-trip snack while I walked with the boys up the street to a Get Go, a well-equipped convenience store. With the tank full, he soon joined us, parking the car in the lot. The boys hit the bathroom, bought drinks and selected RedBox movies for the ride.

We all moved sluggishly, dreading the return to our scheduled, busy lives. Vacation was over and it was time to go home.

But the car had other plans. It, too, was not quite ready to head back to New Jersey. Like its family, it had little interest in revisiting the days of shuttling to and from school and lessons and practices or wrestling with oversized shopping carts at Costco. Who could have imagined that a Toyota Sienna had feelings?

I took the boys back inside -- out of the heat and away from all those moving cars. We took note of the ironic Get Go tagline: Get In. Get Out. Get Going. My dears, we weren't moving. Under my breath, I uttered a quick prayer that it please, please, please be nothing more expensive or complicated than the battery.

Deep down, though, I understood the van's emotional response to our vacation's end. I shared its eagerness to get back on the open road, to chase the wind and allow the insouciance that travel affords to consume us.

Yes, I called AAA anyway. Meanwhile, my husband ran up the road to a conveniently located AutoZone, from which he returned with battery-powered jumper cables (the very same ones we'd forgotten at home). As my youngest hovered nervously, he set them in place and voila! The car turned over.

Then it died....again. The next attempt produced nothing but a screeching sound that signed the battery's death certificate. I called AAA back to confirm that their roadside assistant had a battery on board.

"Yes, ma'am. Our trucks are always equipped," the agent assured me.

After a not unusual wait of slightly more than an hour, we giggidly greeted the repair man as he parked astride our van. The gas fumes combined with the sweltering heat sent the boys back inside once again for drinks, making themselves comfortable at the little tables in the airconditioned store. One played with his Rubiks cube. The others investigated which snacks were kosher.

I just held my breath, then bought a scratch-off lottery ticket.

The good news was this: It was, in fact, just the battery. The bad news was that AAA trucks are, occasionally, not always so equipped. The repair guy had used the last one on his previous call. But our roadside hero left and returned in a flash. We were set to leave in no time, finally fulfilling the Get Go promise to Get Going.

Our automotive delay left us with the odd sensation of hovering between two states of mind: vacation and reality. Though of the less desirable sort, this unplanned distraction surely had us thinking. We began to wax nostalgic as soon as we left the parking lot, already missing the freedom of the journey while supressing our anxiety about what awaited us at home.

While the boys watched their movies, my husband and I gathered our composure and compiled the lessons learned while packed in a van with the boys for two weeks as we made our way more than halfway across the country.

Here is our list:

Whether at home or on the road, always have in hand what you need to keep your battery -- both the one under the hood of your car and the one that sits somewhere between your heart and your stomach -- charged.

Every break from the every day, be it long or brief, local or remote, is a gift.

Don't leave the wisdom garnered on a journey behind in the hotel room.

Family adventures are limited and priceless, so take too many pictures, especially if your children insist you should not.

Never speed up time. It passes quickly enough without human intervention.

And finally, this pearl: Pay your AAA bill on time.