You’ll think this is a post about dogs because, well, mostly it’s a story about a dog (though not the dog in the picture; he’s new). But it’s actually about how to listen to yourself, not the pressures around you, as you work and grow and achieve great things. Later, of course, it will be about dinner, and since this week we’ll be having salads followed by dessert every night, you may want to stick around and see how that works.
If you’ve been with me for a while, then you’ll remember Ella-dog, my first dog companion. Ella was majorly black Lab and minorly Other (we said the minor part was border collie when she was good and coyote when she was bad). Because I got Ella before I got Bernard, Ella slept on the bed with me. She nestled in the crook of my knee and scarcely moved from lights out until dawn. In the daytime she loved going to the park to retrieve tennis balls from the lake.
Better said, she loved chasing them until she didn’t. She’d retrieve a dozen or so with exploding enthusiasm. Then without any warning, she’d watch as I hurled the ball toward the water and shrug off in another direction instead of going to fetch it. I tried to spot signs that the shrug was coming, but Ella was a trickster and I’d invariably have to appeal to another dog walker to send his or her retriever into the lake to fetch Ella’s last ball. When she was on, she was on. When she shut off, there was no bringing her back.
Shortly after I moved to Omaha my sister, her husband and I met up in the Black Hills for a camping weekend. Those of you who know me in real life are wondering if I am making this up, because you know that my idea of camping is a weekend at the Four Seasons. Yes, I’ve twice been camping, meaning that I slept in a real sleeping bag in a real tent in the great outdoors. This particular weekend was the first of the two times. There will be no third time.
Anyway, I brought Ella with me, and my sister brought her dog, Dayla. We arrived at the camp site on Friday afternoon, set up tents, let the dogs play in the water while we cooked hamburgers and drank beer, and then went to bed. During the night Ella leveraged her position at my knee to maneuver me off the Therm-a-Rest and onto the ground. I woke, reclaimed my territory and went back to sleep. Four times. I like dogs. I do not like camping.
The next morning we rose early to hike Harney Peak. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not hot. After several slugs of coffee and some stretching, I felt almost human again. We arrived at the trailhead around 9:00, leashed the dogs (not what they were accustomed to, but a trail requirement), and headed out.
We were all in pretty good shape in those days. We were seven-day-a-week exercisers and high achievers in our day jobs. We had drive and stamina, and so did our dogs.
We marched at a good clip. Halfway up, the dogs started panting. We gave them water and pushed on. By the time we reached the top, they were pooped. We lingered a bit, took some pictures, then turned around. The trip down took forever. It seemed like the dogs needed to rest every 10 minutes, which was strange because they had been our frequent companions on harder, steeper hikes at the higher elevation in Jackson, where we all lived before I moved to Omaha. At one point they actually plopped down in the middle of the trail and refused to walk any farther, so we moved to the side and all took a little break.
When we got back to the camp, the dogs went straight to our tents and passed out. They were still wiped out the next morning when we packed up to head home. Ella slept through the drive and wasn’t much peppier come Monday morning, so I called the vet to see what damage I’d done.
“You had her on a leash?” the vet asked. Yes, I told him, it was required. “You know, dogs aren’t really made for 10 miles straight at four miles an hour,” he said. “They sprint and they rest; they run and then stroll. They’re actually better at pacing themselves than we are.” Hour-long brisk walks or 30 minute jogs were fine for a leashed dog, he advised, unless the weather was too hot. For anything more strenuous I could find an off-leash venue, let Ella lead the pace, or leave her at home, my choice.
We humans, particularly in the U.S., fail astonishingly at listening to our inner pace monitors. We push ourselves, our children, our employees. We push until we’re so exhausted we either get sick or check out for a few days to recharge. When we do think about balance, we often try to schedule the intervals: run here, walk here, recover there (but not for too long).
How much more could we accomplish, and how much happier would we be, if we worked like dogs instead of humans?
Those bright mornings when we woke full of energy and vigor, we’d race like hell and enjoy every minute. Then when we were tired of retrieving soggy yellow tennis balls, we wander a different path, smell some different smells, think some new thoughts. Sometimes we’d rest. And if anyone dragged us around on a leash beyond our capacity to keep pace, we’d flop down and refuse to get up until things got better. Ah, the dog’s life.
This week our four current dogs (yes four, we’re nuts) are busy eating tender spring grass shoots that are finally appearing in our yard. This is not help-me-throw-up kind of grass eating but rather a spring ritual and odd delicacy for the canine palate. I can’t really blame them; I’m exactly that excited about the tender young arugula and lettuces growing on our porch.
To celebrate the end of a long crummy winter, and in honor of a dog’s life, we’re going to have salads followed by dessert all week. We’ll start with my favorite pairing, arugula salad/chocolate soufflé, and work our way toward spinach salad/lemon mousse. I promise, it’s an easy and delightful way to mark the start of a new season. With big servings of greens and modest servings of dessert, it’s also more balanced than you might think.
Happy week. May you wag more than you woof.
Soufflés are much, much easier than you think they are, I promise. And if you’ll give up on the picture in your head of that perfect magazine shot, you’ll be much happier with your results. The are plenty of recipes online, but it you’re looking for something a bit different I recommend this one from Saveur or, if you have her book At Home in Provence, Patricia Wells’s Chocolate Gourmandise (p. 300). For the salad, I will literally toss baby arugula in Brianna’s French vinaigrette and top with shaved Parmesan. C’est tout.
Caesar Salad | Vanilla Ice Cream with Bordeaux Cookies
Once upon a time my children, when asked what they wanted for dinner, would respond “chicken fingers and apples.” They’re much more agreeable these days, but they still love a simple kid-friendly dinner. This is the new alternative: a plain Caesar salad, followed by vanilla ice cream (we like the 100% natural Turkey Hill vanilla bean – or salted caramel) and Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies.
Although cucumbers and bell peppers won’t be in high season for several months, I’m buying the imported ones from the grocery because chopped salad isn’t really good without them. I chop the cukes (peeled and seeded), peppers, red onion, and carrots, toss them all together and serve with ginger dressing over a bed of crisp lettuce or shaved green cabbage. Crêpes are another intimidating-sounding food, easier to prepare than you think, although a bit trickier than soufflés. This recipe from Alton Brown/Food Network is a good starting place. Letting the batter rest for an hour is, in my experience, essential. Kids have fun helping with the cooking; they also like licking the Nutella spoon.
Pear & Walnut Salad | Lace Cookies with Berries & Whipped Cream
If you’re short on time or don’t like to bake, you can substitute any cookie (or none at all) for the lace cookies. But I do love lace cookies, and my all time favorite recipe is from Sarah Leah Chase’s Nantucket Open House Cookbook. Here’s the link to the Google books version, if you want to give it a try. If not, then just wash some berries, whip some cream, and be happy. The salad, at our house anyway, is sliced pears, chopped walnuts, and green leaf lettuce with crumbled Gorgonzola on the side because my silly people are in denial about how good Gorgonzola is. For dressing I’ll make a simple balsamic vinaigrette (or use Newman’s).
My tattered recipe journal, christened in 1988 and now held together by rubber bands, opens with a lemon mousse recipe from Bon Appétit created by Michael McLaughlin (RIP, Michael McLaughlin). It’s labor intensive and requires a careful hand in cooking. I mention it so you’ll know how long I’ve loved lemon mousse. I found an easier, very similar recipe on Food Network that’s good, although not as rich. The mousse can chill while you’re making and eating a simple spinach salad, with or without eggs, red onion, bacon and mandarin oranges (why on earth would you make it without, though?).