Murphy's 5th Birthday Cake - And Leftovers for the Chickens

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I don't like looking back on our time in California. A lot of it feels like failure to me. I'm learning to see it through different lenses, but that's an exercise I have not mastered yet. But I like looking back on our early years with Murphy, because I know that wasn't a failure.

We got Murphy the very night I finished my last final. It was Contracts law and I finished 20 minutes early so that I could drive to Los Angeles and pick him up. Small and crying, I held him in my hands and he was beautiful. He sat in the passenger seat, so tired from the adventure. I sang the Carpenters, I remember. I cried a little, I remember. He gave me a feeling of purpose when I didn't know if things were falling apart. He gave me something to dedicate my time towards; the question of returning to law school was still up in the air.

And for five years, I have loved Murphy with my whole heart. He's gentle. The sweetest dog I've ever met. He wants to be by my side for hours. He finds small crevices to tuck himself into. He has a tooth that's longer than the other and so his smile is a little crooked. He has a sweet tooth, too. And I know Murphy is the reason I changed five years ago (or started to, at least). I wanted to be better because of him. He, as well as Elsa and Milo, gave me the purpose I had been missing - a family. That love was not borne from opportunity, but a requirement for happiness and I have tried to live this more as I have gotten older.

I am lucky. I am lucky to love my dogs so much and I am lucky to have had Murphy as our first. Five years have been perfect with him and I am grateful for many years more.

And it's hard to wrap all of this up in one post, let alone one cake, but every day is a devotional to putting their needs before my own. The cake was impromptu, using ingredients from around the kitchen, but I made sure it has a little sweetness to it for him. And when they got sick of having cake for breakfast, I scraped off the icing for my other family, the chickens. I don't own anything on this land of ours, but I'll be damned if I don't want to make sure everyone's happy.

Ingredients for Cake:

  • 1 cup AP flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour (can sub for another cup AP)
  • 1/4 ts baking soda
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1/4 whole milk 
  • 2 egg
  • 1/2 ts cinnamon

Recipe for Cake: 

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. Prepare a 13x9 inch cake pan with oil and parchment paper
  3. In a bowl, sift flours and baking soda
  4. In a stand mixer, beat all remaining ingredients
  5. On low, add flour until incorporated 
  6. Beat on high for one minute
  7. Transfer to prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean

Ingredients for Icing:

  • 1 c yogurt
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup marshmallow fluff
  • 1/2 cup confectioners sugar 

Directions for Icing:

  1. For icing, mix all ingredients and apply to cooled cake. I also topped mine with Girl Pow sprinkles 
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A Little Company and a Little Cake

He's a small thing, bashful when I first met him.  He's a smoke ring of huffs and puffs, circling my feet and licking my calves when I get out of the shower.  Fearless, he kisses me before bed.  His tongue curls up and his tail curls to the left.

I found a dog this weekend, in the trashcan by a Bud Light, his nose rooting through some cardboard.  He was whining, a whine I heard before.  A desperate wheeze that, if I weren't so lonely myself and recognized that same desperation for a connection, could have gone unanswered.  There's no reason to wax poetically on the ethics of abandoning a dog so violently, because he is mine now.  A pug mix, salt and peppered, I named him Milo.

I call him monkey.  He's slept on my chest the last two nights and sometimes his usual pant slows down to my breath.  He falls asleep and wakes up on my chest.  Maybe I don't toss and turn so much with him around.  I used to sleep with a Bible when I was scared shitless of being so alone.  A clover tucked in my sock would have had about the same efficacy.

Milo.  Milo is in this interim period of my life, the in-between.  The unknown.  The unknowable shifting of my tectonic personalities and desires.  I bought so many hollow things from Ikea, from second-hand stores and off of Craigslist.  I didn't want permanency to this place, my little apartment in Texas.  I wanted to be able to drop it all and leave, burn it if I had to.  Use the dumpster behind a 7-Eleven and drive fast if I had to.  Now I'm looking for a dog sitter who can take this small thing in while I'm in California next week.  Now I'm waking up an hour early and walking him in small athletic shorts that belonged to my sister and a cardigan two sizes too big.

Milo.  His permanency is in question, but his presence is appreciated.  Even the small scratches on the door while I'm taking a bath, the heavy snores when I wake up from a bad dream, the loose puppy tooth that I find bloody on the white sheets--they're all signs of the beautiful. living world that I've shut myself away from for more months (years?) than I care to remember.

And in any time of celebration, between emails and cups of coffee, I baked.  I revisited an old favorite, Heidi from Apples Under My Bed's One Bowl Chocolate Cake.  I spiked the frosting with orange blossom water, I topped it with small flowers I found growing on a branch during a walk this morning.  This cake, the orange-scented water, the flowers--they're all signed of the beautiful, living world I never knew I missed until now.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Orange Blossom Royal Icing

For the cupcakes: Use the link above for the ingredients.  Add 2 teaspoons of almond extract, substitute the milk for buttermilk, and add a 1/2 tablespoon of instant espresso powder.  Grease or line a cupcake pan.  Bake at directed temperature for 12-15 minutes.  Allow to cool completely.

For the icing:

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
  • 3 cups confectioner's sugar 
  • zest of half an orange

Directions:

  1. In a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites until peaks begin to form.
  2. Add vanilla and orange water
  3. When peaks begin to stiffen, gradually add sugar in parts and turn mixer to higher speed
  4. Continue to add sugar (more than directions may call for, if need be, for desired consistency) until thick and holds on a spoon
  5. Add zest and beat until combined
  6. Pipe onto cupcakes and decorate with flowers, if desired.  Icing will continue to harden and hold shape after decorating




Giving Thanks.

The theme this year was burlap and wheat.  Tactile, scratchy.  It irritated the skin, the colors were mute.  The vase full of weeds and blooms were foraged on the morning walk.  There were sprigs of rosemary in jars, next to the salt.  For garnish and for earthiness.  For authenticity, for aromatics.  Rosemary steeped in hot water can speed recovery.  I think we can all use a little of that.  The table was beautiful, simple and connected.  It was crowded.  The windless day would sigh a breeze, and the grapevine would rustle slightly.  It was alive.  Every moment was electric in that brick and mortar kitchen.  We ate outside. It's hard to reflect, I get lost in my thoughts.  i'm like Narcissus, lost in that reflection.  Thanksgiving is hard for me, it seems silly sometimes.  I never appreciated my parents; I still don't, fully.  When I was young, my mother would stay in her bathrobe until three, when the turkey was done, and she'd change into jeans and a black sweater.  Every year.  Every year, it was her formalware.  She cooked for seven hours, we'd be done in twenty minutes.  Never appreciated.  No one ever thanked her for her meal.  No one ever told her she was beautiful.  She told me she wore her pearls this Thanksgiving, the ones I got her last year.  The ones I bought in June, waiting, anticipating, happy to make her feel special.  And she did.  I am thankful she wore them, thankful she smiled as she clasp them around her neck, feeling beautiful and not having to cook for three ungrateful children.

I am thankful for my father, who tells me every day he loves me.  I reflect on the Thanksgiving I called him from Italy and told him he needed to send me more money.  He said the banks were closed and I hung up.  I ignored his emailing until I saw my bank account.  I'm thankful he was patient, patient in a way I know I couldn't be.  He loves me more than I realize.  It's jarring when you realize how one-sided that love is.  I'm thankful he's waiting for me to catch up, to appreciate him.  Appreciate the times he took me to school.  Every morning he'd buy me coffee and ask me about my day.  Most mornings, I was too asleep and too annoyed to answer back much.  Now, I want to go to the Legion and drink a beer with him.  Ask him how his life is.  Tell him I'm growing up and I love him, too.

I'm thankful.  I'm reflecting on this.  I was called ungrateful more than once in my youth, and I don't want to be that same asshole anymore.  I try to say thank you for everything.  It's difficult sometimes.  When you feel so deserving of love, and you still have to stop and realize that someone is willingly letting you have it.  Nothing is for free.  I've given it my all this year.

There were five of us for Thanksgiving, and I cooked for everyone.  I did it out of love, as a challenge to see if I could.  I wrote it all down on paper and used our neighbor's oven as a back-up.  I roasted vegetables and thought about terms like umami and emulsify.  I've grown a lot as a cook, and today I wrote down all the things I could do with pasta.  I've seen a change in me, and I like it.  I'm thankful for that.

And I'm thankful for friends.  I grew up lonely, and it's a human condition I can't shake.  I laughed with friends and called more that evening, we made dinner and I wrote little Thank-You cards, totems of gratitude for sticking around.  Sometimes I can be desperate, I'm always playing aloof and then begging for love.  But we ate around candlelight, drank the red when we ran out of white, and created a small family that night, and I'm thankful for that trust.

Thanksgiving is not the hand-traced turkey holiday of my childhood, it's not that line drawn in the proverbial sand between autumn and "The Holiday Season" where it's more appropriate to have a Christmas tree up.  It's is living, breathing, steeping yourself in that gratitude and calling your parents, saying you love them.  Saying you'll change every year a little bit and love them forever.  Loving everything a little harder next year.  Nothing is for free.  I've given it my all this year.

Here are some pictures of the table and our guests...

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Goodbye to Him

He was gone by Monday evening.  He was determined to die in his own way, and it's been understood by us all that it had to happen.  It's always inevitable, isn't it?  The way seasons come in confused rushes, the way you're never quite nostalgic enough to move back home.  He died on his bed with his family next to him, with his breathing heavy, then soft, then not at all.  He panted and looked my mother right in the eyes, probably apologizing.  Probably wanting her to hold him tight through it all. The last picture I took of him.  Two years ago, on a polaroid.

My childhood dog died.  His name was Charlie, he passed away of natural causes.  He was fourteen and my family had him since I was nine.  Three months before my brother had cancer, a year before I started middle school, a decade before I left for college.  I thought he was a girl at first, so delicate and beautiful.  He was bought in the rain and was scared of the thunder.  He was special, different than our dog, Humphrey.  He was needy and my sister would dress him up in baby doll clothes.  She painted his nails.  He ate a library book and a hundred dollar bill once.  He had a developmental disorder where we had to baby-talk to him for years and years, so he felt safe and understood we loved him.  He had a scratch under his right eye where it always cried a little.  He was beautiful, strong.  He was afraid of the basement and never went in there.  Not even when there was a storm and the television said to go somewhere safe.  He refused, that stubborn dog.

He one time starved himself to bones when we left him at a kennel, when we went to Florida for a week.  We were charged $200 to fix the fence he broke trying to find us.

He one time starved himself when Humphrey died, too depressed to play ball.

He loved the snow and even when he was arthritic, he still jumped head-first into the first fall of December.

He was special, he was different.  He was delicate like a girl dog.  Beautiful in his own way.  He was blonde, he shed a lot.   He didn't know any tricks.  He was stubborn.  He was perfect the way all dogs are perfect and special the way the small quirks of age make you special.

He was home to me, but he had creaks in him, too.  He stumbled, he fell.  He growled if you touched him when he was sleeping.  He would kiss your hand, then ignore you.  He couldn't walk down steps, so they built him a ramp to go outside.  He couldn't walk up steps, so my parents moved their bedroom into the library on the first floor.  Every morning, my mom would walk him around our fenced-in yard, the whole circumference so Charlie could smell and hear and remember he was still loved.

He died in his sleep, he wanted it to happen.  He panted, then slowly let go.  He lived for fourteen years, and it was greedy to ask for any more.

My mother called me the other day and said she was lost in the mornings, with more free time.  She said she wasn't going to get anymore dogs.  She said they would move the bedroom back upstairs when it didn't hurt so bad.  She said she's waiting for a sign that he's happy now.  I asked her what the sign would be and she said it was too soon to know.  She'll know when she sees it.

I don't think the dreams I've been having are a sign that he's happy.  I keep dreaming he's in pain, that we had to make the choice ourselves.  I dream about being a senior in high school and holding onto Humphrey as we put him down.  I remember crying until I threw up.  And I wonder why I haven't cried this week.  Why Charlie was different.  I'm waiting for a sign now, too.  To know it's okay that I haven't cried yet.  And when that sign comes, I hope this dam inside me breaks.

Phoenix

What do we think of, collectively, when we think of the desert?  Is it desolation or promise?  Does the Golgotha remind you of death or rebirth?  The moat of Sonoran Desert that leads to the kingdom of California.  We took this path, I-8 for three hundred and forty-four miles, and the end goal was the two-bedroom apartment of our friend, Marion.  A weekday weekend, a respite from mundanity, from puppies who wake you up at five in the morning, and you sleep on an air mattress in the living room so you're lower to the ground for the baby. We left Monday night after my third day of working in my new job.  We made the plans months ago and I couldn't handle a quiet house for another day, another vacation Nolan was able to take without me.  I hurried home with no food in my stomach, but filled with the tingling sensation of anticipating an adventure.  I washed my face (as I always do when I first get home), threw on a nondescript white tee, and we dropped the dogs off at a sitters for the following nights.

ImageA five hour ride can be deafening or it can read like a poem.  The only agonizing moments in that car ride was stretching my legs in the front seat of the Mercedes.  It was nice to fall back into place with Nolan again, to have moments of clarity about past issues, to be open with one another and not have to punctuate conversations with television, phones, or dogs that need outside.  We created an atmosphere, a mood to fall into.  It was comfortable, the silence when it was necessary, the lazy way he held my hand on the winding roads that curved into bends where signs read "Ice Cream --  40 miles ahead".  If we missed the turn for Taco Bell, we missed the turn for good.

And we drove on.  We drove for three hours before our first stop.  It was a McDonald's that blinded us with its white lights.  We had come from desert roads, where light refracted into the mountains.  Everything out there was a soft hue of muteness.  This restaurant plastic, but we were starving.  If we missed the turn, we missed the turn for good.  And it was in the silence of eating our hamburgers, sharing the fruit punch and getting more and more ketchup that I realized how lucky I was to be able to have a friend.  How rare it was for me to ever appreciate that, being usually so turned off by the thought of dependence.  But in the halogen lights of this roadside McDonald's, it felt comforting to know who I'd sleep with that night.

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And when the meal was done, the trays dumped and the paper mats crumpled, we got back in the car and followed the nascent blood moon to our destination.  The sweat on my shirt had grown cold in the air-conditioned fast food joint and it clung to my skin in patches.  I put a sweatshirt on and fell asleep, curled up into myself like a circle that can't break itself open.Image

And as we rolled into the parking lot, looking for Marion's space, the blood moon rearing its prophetic head, I looked up to a cat on a balcony and knew we were at our temporary home.  And I fell asleep almost instantly that night, balanced on the air mattress with Nolan, sweat still clinging to me like nightmares.

On Tuesday, we woke up with Marion already gone for the day to work.  It was up to us to fend for ourselves in the Valley of the Sun.  With the morning breaking, we got our showers and stopped at a coffee shop for a quick breakfast, the McDonald's from the night before laying sideways in our usually-healthy stomachs.  Outside on the patio a woman told us about her dead son and how our cologne reminded her of him.  We sat in silence until she left and felt uncomfortable about the alienation of boundaries with the information she shared.  Nolan is Eastern European and I am reserved by nature--any emotionally-laden story is usually unwelcome to us.  It's in our nature to be stoic, self-preservation and distancing ourselves from other's responsibilities.

The day was spent at the pool instead, to make up for all the houses we didn't rent with pools included.  We were there for hours, the only ones there.  It was midday on a Tuesday, even the pump echoed in the apartment complex.  We took our time relaxing, enjoying the heat and how dry the wind felt (something we're currently experiencing here in San Diego).  We curled up under towels in the lounge chairs and napped, careful to hide the keys and our sunglasses, careful to not make tan lines and so we stretched our bodies akimbo.  We did not waste the sun, a whole city was built on the economy of it.  We worshipped Ra and studied the way steam came off our fingertips when we stepped out of the pool and stood with our sunglasses on, the deep-end being only four feet.

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We stayed in the water until it was time to meet Marion, to see the Lana Del Rey concert and drink a little.  It was exciting to be outside in a new town, a new city that looks both built-up and torn-down at the same time.  We waited in a bar, drinking beer and cranberry-vodkas until the ticket takers let us come in.  It was fun to open up, to relax, to not have to be in any workplace setting and laugh with old friends, recreating moments from Pennsylvania, recreating feelings of belonging again.   The night ended at a waffle house and we were stretched out on the air mattress by midnight.

By Wednesday morning, it was time to go.  Nolan and I packed everything up and retraced the 8 all the way to home, stopping for coffee and nothing else.  I work for a large hotel business and never take the vacations I witness, so it was nice to have a break in my week, to see an old friend and to feel loved again.  By three, I was back to cleaning the house, doing a load of laundry, and picking up Elsa's messes.  I was back to reality, back to home.

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PS, A few recipes will be coming soon!