Beluga Fever

Beluga Fever

My girlfriend has become obsessed with meeting a beluga the way most people become obsessed with yoga or British television shows, only she never took a beluga class or saw a dashing British-accented beluga on TV—it was genuinely out of nowhere and I have no idea what triggered it.

One morning, in that weird muffled dream space where she says the funniest things, she sang part of the song “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music and said, “Guess what I’m thinking of!” And I said, “What do belugas have to do with The Sound of Music?

She was thinking of elderflower macaroons, which she wanted to try at our local hipster tea house, but she got the name wrong.

Edelweiss flowers are actually poisonous and will kill you.

Most of her waking thoughts are devoted to “How can we see a beluga?” And not just one in an aquarium—actually encounter a wild beluga on its beluga way  to wherever belugas go.

She found out that if you can get to Churchill, a town in the far north of Manitoba known as “The Beluga Capital of the World,” you can take a boat excursion where they actually tie you to the boat by the ankles with a bungee cord and then they pull you along and the belugas follow you and you get to sing to them and talk to them (belugas really like human singing, apparently) all while being dragged behind a boat in freezing cold water.

A was all ready to book this trip and buy us matching wetsuits until I said, “Wait, how do we get to Churchill?” First, we would have to fly to Winnipeg, which isn’t exactly a daily route. Then the only way to get to Churchill from Winnipeg is a train ride that is only 47 hours—yes, just 60 minutes short of two days.

Not having that extra hour would make the trip really fly by.

“We could play card games!” said A. “I have a travel chess set with little magnets.”

“We would murder each other,” I said.

To prove it, I began to recited the 2002 Oscars ceremony, from memory. A counterattacked by rattling off all the finer points of contract law.

“And then Tom Cruise exited to a round of applause and Whoopi Goldberg descended from the ceiling in a Moulin Rouge costume,” I said. “This is what all 47 hours would look like.”

“I’m a contracts law expert,” said A. “I’d outlast you.”

“I’ve seen every Oscars ceremony,” I said. “Before YouTube, I taped them.”

After looking up the train ticket prices and realizing that if we didn’t pay for first class seats, we would have accommodations that did not include a shower, A grudgingly accepted that there are other ways to commune with belugas.

“We can go see the belugas at the Shedd Aquarium. But we won’t get to swim with them, and they’ll be incarcerated,” she sighed.

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We drove all the way to Chicago to see belugas at the aquarium, and we got up extra early so we could get to the aquarium the moment they opened.

Our cashier was somewhat lacking in the warmth and welcoming aspects of customer service. Actually, she was outright mean to us. Normally, I give people the benefit of the doubt, they’ve had a long day, the people before us might have been jerks, etc, but the aquarium had only been open for three minutes. I wish I knew what had happened in those three minutes to make this lady say, “Fuck everybody, I am done with this day.”

A proudly showed the cashier her coupon for being a teacher on her phone and this lady snapped, “You were supposed to print that out. That’s what it says.”

It took her fifteen seconds to take down A’s information by hand, but the entire time she just kept digging in, “You were supposed to print it out.”

A gets especially  stressed out when accused of not following directions, because 99% of law school is just learning how to follow increasingly complicated directions. She tried to explain that the directions to print out the coupon weren’t clearly stated and that most places don’t require you to print coupons out so she hadn’t failed to follow the directions at all, and then this lady barked at me, “Are you an Illinois resident?” and I almost started crying.

A valiantly defended me. “I brought her here! This is her first visit!”

I managed to choke out, “I’m from Michigan,” and the lady scoffed, typed something, and then barked a second time, “ARE YOU AN ILLINOIS RESIDENT?”

“I’LL TALK! I’LL TALK!” I cried.

The lady rolled her eyes and asked if we wanted to add any shows to our tickets.

A said, “Can we see the show with the baby beluga?”

The lady snapped, “The baby beluga is not guaranteed to be a part of the show.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I managed to stammer.

“We’d like to see it anyway!” said A, with giant Tiny Tim eyes pleading for mercy.

I wanted to say, “Lady, we’re lesbians, we know wild animals don’t exist for our entertainment. If the baby beluga isn’t up to performing, we totally understand,” but this point, I was prepared to hand over my watch in order to get these tickets, just to get away from this lady.

Finally, after a concluding scoff, she threw our wristbands at our heads and we booked it out of there.

A always assumes that if we get less-than-stellar customer service, it’s a homophobic thing, because she grew up Catholic, whereas I always assume the person isn’t being paid enough to care about their job, because I’m a socialist. But we agreed that this lady was neither homophobic nor underpaid, she was just over that baby beluga.

A hustled me past the turtles and the seahorses and even the bioluminescent jellyfish, and when the first beluga reared its adorable earless head, she actually screamed. We got to see the belugas do all their behaviors and vocalizations in the show (and the baby beluga was part of the show!) and then we got a front-row seat to watch their vet checks and training session. After that the belugas swam right up to us in the tank with their toys. They were so close we could’ve touched them.



“The wild ones would never get this close,” I said. “This is a much better deal.”

A stared into the tank like Captain Ahab and said, “I intend to be dragged behind the boat.”

I insisted on taking a picture of the information placard with the map of the belugas’ geographical range to prove that they only live in Arctic temperatures.

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“It’s not that far from the rainforest,” said A. “The water wouldn’t be that cold!”

On our way out, we considered going back to that cashier and saying, “We’re in love and we want a joint membership! Can you take care of that for us?” but we were too afraid.



I have now taken two bread making classes thanks to whatever entrepreneurial genius is running things at the best deli and bakery in the area (and possibly the world).

IMG_7753 copyDo I know anything about baking bread? Absolutely not.

Do I feel confident enough to attempt to bake bread on my own? Certainly not, which is not good because my sister is expecting an assortment of challah rolls that spell out her name for her birthday.

What did I learn instead? That baking bread is actually super fun, provided someone else measures out all the ingredients ahead of time, preheats the commercial oven for you, and cleans up afterwards. Trust me, whatever it costs to take these classes is worth it for that alone.

My first class was called “Hooray for Challah!”

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The bakery provides everything, from an apron to a multi-page handout with all the recipes you’re about to learn, even a pen for taking notes. I had a name tag written in the official font of the entire business, and I may have shrieked a little bit.

We went around the room to introduce ourselves, and the very first lady in the class was a professional chef. She already knew how to bake bread, because that was part of her actual paying job, but she just liked good challah and wanted to learn a surefire recipe.

That was kind of intimidating. I can’t boil water without panicking.

But there was also a family with two young teenagers, and I knew for sure that I could bake a better loaf than those kids.

I didn’t understand algebra in ninth grade. I wore overalls in ninth grade. I could certainly make a loaf of bread better than any ninth grader.

The dad in this family very loudly proclaimed that he was missing a football game to be at this class, and ordered everyone not to spoil the score for him.

I rolled my eyes at the chick next to me in a silent “Oh masculinity, why so fragile?” exchange, but she didn’t notice, because she was transcribing her recipe handout into Mandarin.

Did you have to be that smart to learn how to bake bread? If so, I was in trouble (but the teenagers were in more trouble, so at least I had that).

We spent a good 45 minutes learning how to braid a challah loaf with these handy rope tools that the real actual bakers use. Since I have wasted many valuable minutes of my life wondering how challah braids work, it really freed up some good brain cells to learn that it’s a six braid strand, you need a diagram to figure it out, but the braiding won’t work unless you intone to yourself, “1 becomes 6 and 5 becomes 3 and 3 becomes 1” and so on until you have a loaf of bread. Or a loaf of rope.

We made two challah loaves: the braid, and the turban. Everyone got a tub of rum-soaked raisins to put in their challah turbans. The teenagers got chocolate chips. They were smug and awkward about it in the way that only ninth graders could be.

In ninth grade, I wore overalls because that’s what Julia Roberts wore in the movie Runaway Bride, and she was really into hardware projects and ambivalent about heteronormative marriage ideals, and I thought that was great . . . for reasons that would not become clear until many years later.

I should have asked for chocolate chips in my turban, but I wanted to seem cool in front of the professional chef.

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The secret to a good challah is the egg wash. That’s what gives it that color. Most bakers are strapped for time and do one layer of egg wash, but if you want to do it right, you have to do two.

My two challah loaves were so well-received, even by my raisin-hating sister, that they were gone within a day. They were pretty delicious, but they were also baked in a professional oven and monitored for the correct internal temperature.

I have the correct internal temperature written in my notes. I think.

My second class was “Rockin’ Rye!”

IMG_8339-1 copyThis class was a higher degree of difficulty, and when everyone introduced themselves, I was the only one who wasn’t an experienced bread baker. One guy had come all the way from California to take this class, because there’s no good rye bread in California and he’d been having the rye from this very bakery shipped across the country to his home for years, so why not learn their recipe?

Other people had come from various parts of the state, driving two or three hours just to make rye bread. I felt kind of guilty because I only woke up an hour before the class started and I was still early.

During our four-hour class, we made three different loaves of rye bread: pumpernickel, onion rye, and vorterkaker. No, my keyboard did not just sneeze.

Vorterkaker (it’s so fun to say!) is a Scandinavian flatbread. You’re probably thinking, “I love flatbread! Naan, pita bread, tortillas, I’ve never met a flatbread I didn’t like!”

I ate a little piece of the demo vorterkaker (as in made by the professionals! They all have degrees in baking!) and it had the essence of a really good cardboard.

In fact, go bite off a corner of the nearest Amazon box, and you can say you’ve tasted vorterkaker.

Baking rye bread requires two things that my brain does not like—”old,” which is a term for crouton-sized chunks of stale rye bread soaked in water, and rye starter, which is mold. Or it’s essentially mold, it’s more like yeast, I guess?  Either way, it looks like this, and does any part of my brain like things that look like this?

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This particular starter came from a culture that was 27 years old—older than our instructor. He seemed very excited about that. I was much less excited.

If a lifetime of watching evening news bumpers has taught me one thing, it’s that mold wants to kill us all.

I put my gloppy rye starter and gooey stale bread in the bowl and tried not to flashback to all the times in kindergarten that I came home crying from papier-mâché day. And I went to hippie school, we had a lot of papier-mâché days.

I took a deep breath and pressed on. The flour made quick work of drying things out, thank goodness, and I was ready to knead.

Kneading bread is super fun, but it requires a lot of muscles that I don’t use very often. There’s a very precise technique to it—you want stretch the top of the bread so it naturally forms a smooth skin that’s just tight enough to hold its shape, but not so tight that it’ll crack in the oven.

Between the three loaves of bread, I kneaded for two hours straight. I felt ready to open my own bakery. My muscles would catch up after a few days of non-stop kneading, right?  IMG_8344 copyThe vorterkaker (it sounds like a swear word but it isn’t!) was pretty easy—more rye sour, some fennel and anise seeds, flour and water. The Scandinavians aren’t exactly working with an ecological bounty up there. The teacher explained that vorterkaker is a very old bread, always made in a disc shape with a hole in the middle, so that farmers could hang them up and eat them throughout the winter, and the Vikings would tie them to their boats and just rip off chunks with their teeth during a voyage.

The Vikings did not care about dental health.

After all that work of kneading and shaping and deciding whether or not to sprinkle poppy seeds on top of the onion rye, we got to relax . . . by making our own rye starter. Yes, this bakery is so hip and on top of it that they will even teach you how to make mold.

It’s just flour and water and onions and magic. Nature is horrifying.

We were given detailed instructions for how to care for our starters. People take this really seriously. A told me that in Denmark, there are bread starter boarding places that will take care of your starter while you’re on vacation.

You have to water your starter and feed it once a week with fresh flour, and then it grows exponentially. You know, like a monster.

The guy from California looked really sad to have to give his rye starter back to the instructor. “It’ll never get past the TSA,” he said.

These loaves came out huge. For scale, the vorterkaker is 16 inches in diameter.


I sent this picture to my parents, and my dad texted back, “I just bit into my iPhone.”

The next day, I took the two loaves and rolled the vorterkaker to my parents’ house for everyone to try (hoping to unload most of it). The vorterkaker got the most attention. My sister’s boyfriend, who will eat anything, loved it.

“Is there fennel in this? I can taste fennel,” he said.

“Me too!” said my mom, and they high-fived.

“Are you sure you like it?” I said. Maybe they were just being nice.

“It’s like hardtack! Like what the pioneers ate on long journeys,” said my mom. “Here, you eat some!”

I have played enough Oregon Trail that I sometimes hunt animated buffalo in my sleep to this day, and even that wasn’t enough to get me to eat this thing.

“How did you do the little dots?” asked my sister. I explained that we each got a special rolling tool covered with metal studs, like a massage roller, or a Play-Doh toy for adults. No wonder it was so satisfying.

So, even though it’s a ton of work and sometimes requires interacting with mold, I’m getting the itch to bake again. There’s a Danish pastry class coming up right after the holidays. Between that and my Scandinavian doorstop bread, we should survive the winter just fine.


The Apocalyptic Succulent Sale

The Apocalyptic Succulent Sale

Confession time: I am a crazy plant lady. I take good care of them and they make me happy, so it’s okay, right? When I’m a little down, I repot a plant or two and I feel great. When my anxiety is ramping up, I buy a new plant. Or two. Succulents are like five bucks. They’re cheaper than ice cream and they don’t have any calories.

I may have too many plants.

So when I drove past one of my favorite spots in town, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and saw this sign, I did the full cartoon slam on the brakes and shouted to no one, “Put that on my calendar!”


This sale kept me awake at night for two weeks. When it finally arrived, I got to the gardens at 10 on Saturday morning, because I wanted to see the good plants before they got sold (anxiety!). I wasn’t planning to stay long, or even buy more than one (or two) plants. I’ve been to the orchid sale and bonsai sale and the flower basket sale so I know these events get crowded, and then I get nervous, so my trusty strategy has always been “get in, get plant, get out,” and it’s never let me down .

But there’s regular crazy and then there’s succulent crazy.

At only a few minutes past 10 in the morning, I found myself at the end of a rapidly growing line that had already spilled outside the actual building.

Now, if you’ve read my previous post you know that I’m a Disney veteran who does not get thrown off by a line—but they don’t sell exotic plants on Peter Pan.

People on their way out were passing by every few minutes, carrying giant boxes full of plants that. I. wanted. A man the size of a linebacker hustled by with his arms full of air plants. A girl with a giant Amazon box full of plants said, “Can’t wait to get them home and introduce them to their brothers and sisters!” and I almost cried.

MY plants needed new brothers and sisters!

This was not the usual plant crowd either. Sure, the requisite elderly ladies in sun hats and purple sweatpants were there (aka my heroes) but there were also hipsters with too many tattoos and questionable blue hair stripes, people with kids who were not psyched to be dragged to a plant sale, babies in strollers, and college kids excitedly planning where to put their plants on their single windowsill.

I texted Stella, “Good news! I’m not the only crazy plant lady. Bad news: the crazier plant ladies are going to take all the good plants.”

“Yeah man, you gotta get in there,” she said. “The plants need you!”

The young couple behind me were in full complaining mode. “We don’t want to spend our whole Saturday waiting in line,” they agreed, and bailed.

Those people wouldn’t last long on New Year’s Eve in Epcot, I’m just saying,

I was now about halfway to the entrance.

I focused on my phone so I wouldn’t have to look at the people leaving and the plants they had bought, but still, I was consumed with anxiety. What if they run out of plants? What if I get in there after all this effort and all the plants left are gross and dying? What if my dream plant is in there? I don’t even know what my dream plant would be, but what if I have one and it’s in there and someone’s buying it right now who won’t know how to take care of it and it’ll die

An elderly woman with pentagon-shaped glasses—yes, pentagon-shaped, five sides—brushed past me and stopped to address the entire line.

“It’s worth the wait!” she said. “They won’t run out of plants, I promise. I’m only leaving because I have too many. But it’s worth it!”

I watched her head out the door, wondering what adventures awaited her.

“I want to befriend this person but I can’t leave the line,” I texted Stella.

I have worn glasses since second grade and I have never seen pentagon-shaped frames. They were tortoiseshell. Where does someone buy pentagon-shaped tortoiseshell glasses? What experiences has this person had that made her go, “You know what? Rectangles and ovals are boring. Life is short. I’m going with pentagons.”

I would buy her whatever drink she wanted to hear her life story.

After a good 25 minutes (which as my dad will tell you, is not that bad, especially for a big ticket ride. We could do 25 minutes for Toy Story Mania in our sleep), I was at the entrance to the sale. My muscles started to tense, ready to run in as soon as the young volunteer who got the job of “bouncer for the succulent sale” deemed me worthy.

“This is pretty crazy,” I said, flashing my best smile.FullSizeRender-12

“It always is,” she said. “You can go in now.”

I swear I heard a choir sing.

There was a table full of cardboard boxes and I made sure to take the smallest one, as an attempt to counter my hoarding tendencies. At this point, I swear I was only going to buy one plant, maybe two. Stella wanted a little succulent, and A needed a new hanging plant for her office, so I had two missions to complete.

I ventured into the fray, carrying my little empty box in front of me for protection, and a third mission made itself imminently clear: survive.

If you’ve ever been in a crowded elevator and then the elevator stopped and another dozen people got in, and the elevator was also full of plants and also an actual greenhouse with glass walls that, you know, conduct sunlight, you would understand the vibe of this sale.

In other words: claustrophobia officially triggered.


There was a line around each plant table, a line to get into the line for each table, a line to pay, and plenty of people were in a line but had no idea what the line was for so there was a ton of confusion and “Is this the line to pay or the line for air plants?” “I don’t know, i just got in it!” and people jostling for position and it was far from the chill and relaxed ambience that you usually get in a botanical garden.

This was Black Friday for succulents.

A woman behind me loudly complained that she had just set down a plant she wanted to buy for two seconds and someone had grabbed it. No one around her looked sympathetic.

It was every plant person for themselves.


I don’t remember when I transitioned from “buy two plants” to “buy every plant” but it must have been somewhere around the time that a guy tried to sell me this rare little beauty—for 45 dollars!

I put that sucker right back. Do I look like I started buying succulents yesterday?

Of course, I almost bought a rare plant from Indonesia that depends on ants colonizing its root pod for nutrients. I almost bought three.

I thought A might like one as well, and then I would have to get one for Stella too, because who wouldn’t want a super-cool ant plant?

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When I told A about this, she was horrified.

“If your plant lived that would mean you had ants! In your house!” she said.

“I thought they looked cool!” I said. “And they were only 7 dollars!”

“You’re paying 7 dollars TO GET ANTS!”

Fortunately, sanity prevailed in the moment, and I put the ant plants back.  Still, I was in frenzy mode. I picked up a plant that I just had to have, then put it back a few minutes later. I grabbed a plant for Stella, fell out of love with it, then got her a different one. All the while I’m weaving in and out of endless lines of hot, sweaty people, their faces all dawning with the realization that humans are indeed animals and we will resort to our most primal instincts in mere seconds.

Perhaps the more evolved being is . . .the humble succulent?

Fortunately, Disney trained me well, and I worked my way through the crowd with a minimum of panic symptoms. I did have a quick fantasy about bumping into my first anxiety therapist and saying, “I did it! Look where I am right now!” But then I would have had to shove her aside to get to the plants.

And then, I saw it—the Holy Grail of the succulent sale—the only hanging basket left in the entire joint. I grabbed it before I could even read the tag to know what kind of plant it was. And not to brag, but I read very quickly. That’s how heightened my reflexes were.

“That’s a really nice one,” another seller told me. “Just don’t overwater it, and it’s almost indestructible. Hey, and it’s my last one! You were lucky.”

I clamped down on this thing so hard that you’d think I was trying to sneak it out of the country. And getting it out of the sale was almost as hard.


Now that I was struggling to make my way through the throng with this basket on my arm, people were whipping around to look at me and loudly ask if there were any left.

When I squeaked, “Sorry, this was the last one!” they looked at me the way my cat does when he’s hungry and about to bite down on whatever skin I’ve made the mistake of exposing to get me to feed him. The narrowed eyes of, “You have something I want. Prepare to die.”

My box was now stuffed tight with six little plants—one for Stella, one for A, and (cough) four for me. A volunteer very kindly offered to get me a bigger box and that’s when I realized, “I gotta get out of here.” You know, the way that Dorothy or Coraline or whoever is having a great time in the other universe until something makes them realize, “This isn’t right! I have to go home!”

This was my Auntie Em moment. But getting out was even rougher than getting in, plus I had this hanging basket on my arm, and it was the last hanging basket in the entire sale.

I finally understand the expression, “People were on me like I had the last bump of coke at the party.”

It took three different attempts, but I finally got in the right line to pay. It took all my strength not to duck out and take one more look-around or grab one more teeny tiny plant that was only $2 and needed a home where it would be loved . . . anyway, I cashed out, and honestly it was cheaper to get seven plants than to go out to brunch, so I did really well.

As I made my way to freedom, past the now even longer line, people looked at my hanging plant with envious eyes. “Did they have a lot left?”

I hustled past before anyone could offer me money for it.

The line was easily three times longer than when I went in—instead of extending just outside the building, the line now went around the building and into the parking lot. So if I waited 25 minutes, those people were in for about 90. That’s a Space Mountain during spring break wait.

I made my way to my car, which was parked a full nautical league away, carrying this box and heavy hanging plant. My arms were shaking by the time I made it.

I had been at the gardens for two and a half hours.

When I got home, my cat was waiting for me with an expression of, “What did you bring home this time?”



Mickey Mouse and Hurricane Matthew (and me)

Mickey Mouse and Hurricane Matthew (and me)

Now that Hurricane Irma has passed, and everyone I know who was worried about folks in the path of the storm can let out a sigh of relief, I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the time, almost exactly one year ago, that I got stuck in Disney World because of Hurricane Matthew. This past Sunday and Monday were only the fifth and sixth days in the forty-six year history of Walt Disney World that the parks have been closed, and my dad and I were there on the fourth day, in October 2016.

We try to get down to Disney every fall for the Food and Wine Festival (we don’t like the wine, but we sure love the food). We go for only two full days, and we have our schedule down to a science—no wasted steps, no detours, we spend maybe an hour in the hotel room every day and then only use it to sleep. We hit the parks early and we don’t leave until Jiminy Cricket comes over the loudspeaker to kick everyone out.

My dad is in his 70’s and has survived open heart surgery, and he is immensely proud of the fact that he can dash around the Magic Kingdom at 2 in the morning when teenagers are hitting the wall.


So when we landed at the Orlando Airport on a Tuesday and  saw this cloud heading right towards our plane, we were undaunted.

“No ominous clouds can stop us!” said Dad.

We landed just in time, because we weren’t even off the plane yet when the rain began. I noticed right away that the airport was not nearly as crowded as usual, and the bus to the hotel was maybe a quarter full.

The sky was dark grey and it was pounding rain as the bus pulled away. Being a Disney diehard, I immediately checked my favorite message boards, only to see that the top threads were not about the new rides or the Food and Wine Festival at all.

“Hey Dad?” I said. “Did you know there’s a hurricane watch for Orlando?”

“Get out,” said Dad. “I checked the weather every day! The forecast just said there’d be some thunderstorms!”

“There’s a Category 4 hurricane coming right for us,” I said. “People have been canceling their Disney trips all week. That’s why there’s no one on this bus. On the boards, they’re saying they might even close the parks.”

“Oh, they’d never do that,” scoffed Dad. “Walt was prepared for this. Hurricanes never make it as far as Orlando. The entire state could be underwater and the parks would still open on time.”

I always take a picture of the official Disney entrance sign, but I couldn’t see it through the pouring rain. This was not your usual Florida cloudburst. IMG_2425

“I hope I packed the ponchos,” I said.

“It’s not stopping us from getting on Soarin,'” muttered Dad.

We got to our hotel, and were relieved to see that the 91-year-old man who greets people in the lobby was a) still alive and b) still working. He tipped his hat to us, and we stopped to say hello. He didn’t seem worried about the weather, so neither were we.

The rain let up just as we entered the parks. It was the perfect set-up to a trip. The parks weren’t crowded at all, we made great time getting around, and we got Dole Whips.

“Hurricane or bust!” said Dad, eating half of mine.

We started flagging just a bit before Epcot closed for the night, so we went to Morocco and split a chocolate baklava. I had my doubts that the singular Disney baklava could be improved upon with chocolate, but the chocolate baklava was kind of like having a firework go off by your head, in a delicious way.

Dad said, “That baklava made me feel like I could walk to Disneyland.”

We only had eleven minutes until the park closed, but now that our feet were attached to rockets, we walked on waves of euphoria to Nemo.

We were totally alone on the ride—there were empty clamshells as far as the eye could see. FullSizeRender-6Some cutesy hurricane-related signage in the aquarium area caught our eye. But surely this hurricane wouldn’t be a big deal, right? The dolphins were swimming around and the manatees were sleeping! They weren’t worried about this storm, and they live in the ocean!

Listening to the chatter of the crowd as we made our way through the exit, it was clear that people were already switching flights and telling family members from other parts of Florida not to make the drive to Disney. The message boards were ramping up—people were now fully freaking out about the Halloween parties on Thursday and Friday, while enterprising folks were grabbing all the dining reservations that had been popping up like crazy as people canceled their trips.

“Are you worried about this storm?” I said to Dad. He replied with a broad smile.

“It’s adventure time! Everybody’s going to be worried about us—this is cool!!”

Back at the room, we had a voicemail from the front desk informing us that normal operating hours were still in effect—for now—and that they were monitoring the hurricane situation and would keep us updated.


I turned on the local news to find a lot of wide-eyed weathercasters talking about this storm.

Dad stood in front of the TV and said, “Where was this thing yesterday?! This wasn’t on my weather report!! Whoosh whoosh whoosh!!”

The next morning, I woke up to a frantic but cheerful voicemail from A about staying safe and having fun, but mostly staying safe.

On the TV, the governor of Florida said, “We have to prepare for a direct hit.”

There was a very nervous-looking bride in a wedding dress in the hotel lobby.


The Muffin Lady’s Last Stand

The Muffin Lady’s Last Stand

The world is a very uncertain and frightening place. We all have our little things that get us through the day, or the week, or the winter. Mine was muffins. A certain kind of muffin, made by a certain lady. Maybe I took those muffins for granted, because even with my tendency to imagine the worst, I never imagined a world without a muffin-shaped vessel of sugar, flour, and pure home-baked comfort.

This Saturday marked the end of an era.

A woman named Mary (who my family has always called “The Muffin Lady”) has been selling the most amazing muffins the world has ever tasted at the farmer’s market in my hometown since 1982. My dad has faithfully bought muffins from her every Saturday since before I was born. Recently, he did some calculations, and came to an incredible conclusion.

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Ever since, his goal has been to get to 5,000 muffins. He talks about it all the time. Instead of “How’s the family?” or “What have you been up to lately?” his friends ask him, “How many more muffins until 5,000?”

When we were little, my dad and my sister and I had a ritual of going to see the Muffin Lady every Saturday, then grabbing a spot on our favorite bench in the park and playing the car game, you know, guessing what color car is going to roll down the street next. With a giant double chocolate muffin with extra chocolate chips slowly melting in your hands and the sun shining and the whole weekend ahead of you, it’s pretty much paradise, especially when you win because you know more people have blue cars than your idiot sister who always picks purple.

The Muffin Lady has always had a special bond with our family. She knew both of my late grandmothers by their first names. She welcomed A as a member of the family the first time I brought her to the farmer’s market, and last fall the Muffin Lady actually hugged me while we both cried over my parents’ favorite dog being put to sleep (since he was a faithful visitor every Saturday as well). We all thought the Muffin Lady would be there for us forever.

Well, the Saturday before last, I got there at my normal time, ready for my hardest decision of the day to be “Do I get one of my favorite muffin—cinnamon chip—or two? I should get two, because I like to stress-eat one during Game of Thrones,” and what do I see at the Muffin Lady’s stand? The same stand that she’s occupied in rain, shine, sleet and snow since 1982?

A sign that said, “Our last market will be next week. Moving to Texas. Thank you for 35 wonderful years.”

I was gobsmacked. I didn’t even notice the line forming behind me of fellow freaked-out townies, all asking questions like, “Can we order the muffins online? Will you be my Facebook friend? Will you ever come back?”

Mary’s assistant, Robin, said to me through tears, “How are you going to tell your dad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not emotionally prepared for this.”

I never call my parents unless someone is dead, but I called my dad from the market.

“No more muffins?” said my dad. “Oh the humanity!”

“And your parents’ new dog just graduated from obedience school too,” said Robin. “He’ll hardly know us!”

My parents have always kept the Muffin Lady updated on everyone’s academic achievements.

I was so thrown off my game that I only bought one cinnamon chip. My dad went to the market later, and I asked him to get me one, if they had any left.

I did not tell him to say this, but my dad inquired, “Do you have any cinnamon chips left? Elizabeth needs one for Game of Thrones.”

“Do we have any cinnamon chips left?!” cried the Muffin Lady. “Elizabeth needs one for Game of Thrones!”

And Robin gasped, “We’re out of cinnamon chips! Will Elizabeth be okay for Game of Thrones?!”

No, Robin. No, I wasn’t.

So, last Saturday was the final farmer’s market for the Muffin Lady. I put on my sunglasses and my little farmer’s market bag like I was going to a wake.

My dad made the Muffin Lady a card with our family’s picture on it, along with pictures of all our family dogs that the Muffin Lady has befriended, and a letter thanking her for being a part of our lives and our town.

We weren’t the only ones getting emotional—people were posing for selfies with their muffins, taking pictures of their kids with the Muffin Lady, giving her lots of hugs and well-wishes.

In the midst of all the tears and the commotion, I grabbed the last five cinnamon chip muffins in existence, with all the stealth of Indiana Jones stealing a priceless artifact from a tomb. I mean, I paid for them, but still, what a rush.

My dad was only 42 muffins short of 5,000. He considered buying 42 muffins in one swoop, but immediately thought better of it, since that wouldn’t be fair to all the other people getting their final muffins.

He’s always put other people before himself. I really admire that. Did that stop me from grabbing the final five cinnamon chips? No way in hell.


By Sunday, we were still grieving. My sister announced her plan to freeze two of her muffins—one for a year, “So we can eat it next fall like people do with their wedding cakes, and then we’ll freeze one muffin forever.”

“Why would you want to freeze a muffin forever?” I said.

“What do you mean?” said my sister, like this was a silly question.

“If you freeze the muffin, you can’t eat the muffin. That’s a wasted muffin,” said A.

“I know a guy with a vacuum sealer,” said my sister’s boyfriend. “We could borrow it.”

“I could keep it in the freezer,” said my mom. “Ooh, what if the power goes out? We’ll have to get a generator.”

“You could always bury it,” I said. “Worked for Otzi the Iceman.”

“And the mastodons!” said my mom.

“We’re not going to bury it,” said my sister. “Just freeze it forever. Why do you have to hate on my plans?”

“We should vacuum seal multiple muffins and put them in different locations,” said my sister’s boyfriend. “Just to be safe.”

“I don’t understand anyone in your family,” said A, later on. “Your sister wants to freeze a muffin just so she can hold it up in twenty years and shout ‘MUFFIN LADY!’ at the sky. But you can’t eat a frozen muffin!”

“It’s more like a symbol,” I said, mentally counting how many cinnamon chips I had saved.

“It’ll be a doorstop that takes up space in your mom’s freezer,” said A. “Until your dad accidentally eats it.”

“Then he’ll be closer to 5,000,” I whispered.

I have three cinnamon chip muffins left.

I shall guard them like I’m guarding the last three dragon eggs in all the known world . . . while my family is taking a different approach.


A said, “They’re sacrificing my FAVORITE muffin to the muffin gods?!”

Every Doll Needs a Hot Air Balloon

Every Doll Needs a Hot Air Balloon

I started grad school just before the recession, which is a horrifying thing to both say and experience. I went to school in the Twin Cities and I didn’t have a car, and the thing they don’t tell you about Minneapolis is that it’s uninhabitable for half of the year, so to escape the snow and constant threat of frostbite, I liked to take the bus and then the train to the Mall of America.

If you need concrete proof that we live in a dystopian capitalistic hellscape, go to the Mall of America during a recession. That shit is bleak. But once you have a smoothie and ride a few escalators up and down, it’s actually kind of relaxing.

My friend Maggie and I would hang out at the American Girl Store on Friday nights. We always had the place to ourselves. There’d be one lonely employee braiding a display doll’s hair—in bountiful times, they’d hired three or four hairdressers just for the dolls, but I guess the dolls were cutting back too.

No one looks this happy at the American Girl doll salon. Well, the doll has the same expression no matter what.

At one point we saw a double stroller facing a wall, and Maggie assumed someone had abandoned actual children.

“Oh my god! Someone left their babies!” she cried. “What is going on in this country?”

The babies were actually display versions of the twin baby doll set that cost one hundred and fifty dollars. Because we teach little girls that having twins is the most magical experience a woman can have, because you get to dress two babies identically and push a sweet double stroller, but then you grow up and realize that twins would destroy both your vagina and your life savings, but that’s another post.

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Now, if I had twins, I would put overalls on both but with different shirts that would complement each other and darn it, what have you done to me, American Girl?

Maggie would always rail against American Girl dolls for being materialistic and giving little girls unrealistic expectations. She grew up really poor (and not just poor for a grad student, she was below the poverty line. Her family’s phone was the pay phone at the gas station), so it was understandably offensive to her that the dolls that were supposed to represent the “girls of today” always had fancy clothes and bunk beds and gymnastics equipment and at least one horse.

Even the historical dolls had too much money.

“This doll is supposed to be an immigrant in 1914 in New York and she has a full bedroom set?” I said. “She’s supposed to live in a tenement.”

“Is that like a duplex?” said Maggie.

“My grandma grew up in a tenement that was two rooms big, with ten brothers and sisters,” I said. “She didn’t have a four-poster bed, she had ringworm.”

If my grandma had lived to see this, she would have laughed and then told a story about how her pajamas and bedsheets were made from old flour sacks.

I was excited to tell Maggie that the new doll for 2009, the year after the recession, was going to be a homeless girl named Gwen Thompson.

Maggie was pumped up. She said, “Let’s go the mall right now!”

We went to the American Girl Store, empty as always, like the entire mall, with desperation and pop music leaching from the walls. There is an aquarium underneath the Mall of America—how much money does it take to keep the lights on all night in that thing?

Maggie was very gregarious—she befriended a sniper once, but that’s another tale—and she walked right up to the lone employee, braiding a doll’s hair, and said, “Where’s the homeless doll?”

“She’s not homeless!” hissed the employee.

I should mention the fact that at this very moment, the American Girl Company was getting serious Internet flack about selling a doll for over one hundred dollars that was supposed to be homeless. None of their dolls are ever going to see the inside of a homeless shelter. Not unless Daddy Warbucks starts hanging around.

“Doesn’t she live in her car?” said Maggie.

“She lives in her van, and for only a few days,” said the employee, who I should mention was probably not making enough to buy anything from this store, because capitalist hellscape.

Gwen Thompson, the doll who lived in a van by the river

She pointed us towards the doll, and Maggie was dismayed to find that Gwen Thompson lived in a van that by all standards qualified as a camper—the roof was high enough to fit a loft bed, and the side of the van folded out into a nice picnic table, and there was a cute little wardrobe for her accessories, which included a laptop.

She was actually doing very well for a nine-year-old. Her van was more like a tiny house for grade-school hipsters going off the grid. She even had the means for outdoor activities.

Maggie was not happy.

“How did she get a hot air balloon?” she said. “She can’t afford that!”




A Tiny Piece of the Biggest Wheel of Cheese

A Tiny Piece of the Biggest Wheel of Cheese

A and I consider ourselves to be on top of the local food trend—just the other day, A and I rescued some tomato cages from someone’s curb.

“Pull over! Put your flashers on!” she cried, nearly spilling our leftover Thai food, because some lesbian stereotypes are true. Then she just jumped out and grabbed them, and now we have tomato cages. The circle of life continues.

My point is that we like locally grown food. And we like supporting local businesses. Especially the greatest deli in the world, right here in our little college town, a deli and bakery so great that President Obama and Oprah have praised their sandwiches, so renowned that people are all over the world order their food through the mail while all we have to do is drive into town and find a parking spot (which to be fair, sometimes takes longer). A has been hinting with all the subtlety of a hammer that I should take their regularly offered breadmaking classes. I’m 100% into it but I’ve been pretending to mull it over just to hear her attempt to pronounce “challah” correctly.

Stella and I went there for her birthday one year, and I bought us a piece of cake to split, since their cakes have six layers and a half slice is enough to put you in a sugar coma. We were mulling over which flavor to get (we went for “Death by Chocolate” of course, because we live dangerously) and a skinny college girl behind us, wearing one of those cute floral dresses that only young and skinny college girls wear, said to us, “The hummingbird cake is my favorite, that’s what I’m getting.”

“That does look good,” I said, since the hummingbird cake is toasted coconut, bananas, pecans and pineapple covered in the best cream cheese frosting you’ve ever had. These people know their frosting. There are classes where they teach you the secrets of their frosting.

We ordered our chocolate cake because we are old, post-college ladies who are stuck in our ways.  Stella went to the bathroom while I waited for our single slice, and the girl behind us stepped up to order.

“I’ll have the hummingbird,” she said.

“Just a slice?” said the cashier.

The girl thought for barely a moment. “No, the whole cake.”

“The whole cake?” said the cashier.

“The whole cake?” I whispered.

“The whole cake,” nodded the girl.

Both the cashier and I were genuinely impressed. When I was in college, I had to work up all my courage to ask for extra onions on a sandwich.

Stella and I had already started digging into our one measly gargantuan slice by the time the girl’s cake had been all wrapped up in its fancy signature box (this business has its own font and loves to show it off). The girl put on her sunglasses and strode out, confidently holding the box with one hand.

“Did she get a whole cake?” said Stella.

“She got the whole cake,” I said reverently. “It cost forty-five dollars.”

“But it’s Monday.”

“I know.”

“Is it exams week?”

“Some of the classes must have finals around now, don’t they?” I said. “I mean, what else could make someone go, ‘To hell with everything, I’m getting an entire cake on a Monday at four in the afternoon.’”

Anyway, our local internationally famous and beloved local institution was celebrating its 35th anniversary last week with an evening street fair in the farmers market offering samples of the best cheeses and meats from around the country—all for free!

cheese copyI got a sample from a gigantic wheel of Parmesan cheese, which was honestly the best Parmesan cheese I’ve ever had. It was just crumbly enough to melt on the tongue, had a nice little flavor kick to it, delicious. And I’ve never seen a bigger wheel of cheese, so I feel some sense of accomplishment just knowing that I’ve both seen and sampled a wheel of cheese the size of a car tire.

popcorn copyWe tried some artisan salted popcorn made Pennsylvania Dutch-style (I think it means that the person making it has to wear a jaunty farmer hat), and it was delicious.

A had some acorn-fed prosciutto that was well-worth the wait in line. Even the line for crackers was at least seven minutes. The farmers market was genuinely stuffed with people, including all the requisite yoga moms and tattooed dads calling for kids named “Sterling.”

The gay dudes in front of us in the line for balsamic vinegar samples were already talking about the after-party at the gay bar across the street. We looked at each other hopefully, but A said, “Oh, that’s after 10, we’ll be asleep by then.”


But the hottest ticket by far was the 20% off coupons at every stall—anything at the deli, from a meal to groceries to the hardcover books written by the super-hippie awesome owner of the whole business about how he runs his company with kindness and groovy vibes—was 20% off, for one day only.

One. Day. Only.

A was already strategizing. She could lead an army if their sole objective was to take over an organic produce store.

“If we each get a sandwich and I get all the groceries I’ll ever need, we’ll save so much. I’m going to try a bunch of new things. This is my chance to make this place my official bean purveyor.”

So A got two bags of beans: small bags, the size that you could comfortably hold in your hand, but they were still like twelve bucks. She also got some coffee and tea and I got some ten-dollar graham crackers (they’re worth it, trust me, you’ve never tasted a more amazing graham cracker).

We waited a good thirty minutes just to order our sandwiches (A busied herself by running around looking for more beans to try) and then another thirty for our sandwiches. The joint was jammed.

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Because the founder of this business is a hippie, the employees are actually well-paid and taken care of, and as such they are always exceptionally cheerful and eager to help. But the girl who brought out our sandwiches was uncharacteristically flustered. She apologized for the wait and I said, “It’s no problem, we knew what we were getting into by coming tonight!”

“We weren’t expecting this many people,” she said, in the hush tones reserved for hospital corridors.

I really felt for the staff, but if they hadn’t prepared for this level of insanity, they shouldn’t have tossed 20% off coupons to thousands of people like Evita Peron throwing money from the train car.

That night, in a graham cracker-induced frenzy, A realized that the heirloom beans she’d bought were a quarter of the price on Amazon.

“I gotta return these beans,” she said gravely, as if she’d just decided to storm a beach.

I was skeptical, but like I said, this business is run purely on groovy vibes and exceptional customer services, so the very next morning, A was able to return her bags of beans.

We weren’t the only ones in line to return something. In the light of day, people had re-evaluated their purchases and realized, “I can’t eat this entire slab of cheese, I’m lactose intolerant.” “Why did I buy a full side of ham for two people?!” “I can’t keep a 200 year old bottle of balsamic vinegar in my dorm!”

“I exchanged my beans for bread, butter, and cheese,” reported A. “It’s a good trade.”

“It is a good trade,” I said, like a reverent Amish farmer. “It’d be an excellent trade on the Oregon Trail.”

God, I loved that game.

“Their bread is so expensive,” said A, through a mouthful of bread. “You gotta take that bread class.”

Long story short, I am taking a bread class. If all goes well, I’ll be just like Evita, handing out loaves of bread to random people on the street.