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trapped under something heavy*
On Putting Down My End of the Couch
About two years ago, I moved my calendar from online only — I use a Google calendar which backs up to my iCalendar, which syncs my phone to my computer and my iPad and my Apple Watch, and they all talk to each other — to online and paper, specifically, the Filofax I bought in 1983 at Heffer’s in Cambridge, England, the semester I spent studying there.
It’s a simple thing: paper, pen. The end.
The problem with online-only seemed, ultimately, to be a neurological one: I found myself actually feeling a little dizzy every morning when my phone, computer, iPad, and watch all started to ping at the same time to tell me that I had something happening in an hour or two: a Zoom call or an interview or a deadline, or a doctor’s appointment, or Susan’s doctor’s appointment, or my mother’s doctor’s appointment, or the dog’s doctor’s appointment. This pinging of course doesn’t include the internal gong that wakes me up at 3:23 am with panic every day to remind me about: hitting my next book deadline, an upcoming big birthday, Susan’s upcoming big birthday, our anniversary, money, a final and medically-required breakup with my thirty-five-year dinner habit of wine with my wine after an on-again/off-again, bad-sexy-boyfriend-style abusive relationship, my mother’s safety and having absolutely zero control over what is going to happen with her. Or that Charlotte — our geriatric Maine Coon who rescued us while we were on vacation in 2007ish — is more gum than tooth at this point, and trying to get her to swallow her thyroid meds every day is like trying to thread a needle in a taxi during rush hour on the FDR.
I finally dropped the drinks.
It’s hard to include nuance and human emotion in a digital calendar, which is why I moved back to my Filofax, which I bought when I was twenty. I get to say things like Oh shit, and Are you f**ing kidding me and STOP ENOUGH ALREADY. But there’s another reason: over the last week, I finally hit the wall.
You might have noticed, and if you have, I beg forgiveness. I didn’t expect to simultaneously have to field the upshots of my mother’s top secret doctor’s appointment — she doesn’t tell me when she makes them on the fly, by design: then I won’t know, and if I don’t know, I can’t call the doctor and follow up — or the replacing of her laptop (my old one from 2011) when the operating system wouldn’t upgrade any longer and she couldn’t get her email which she concluded was my attempt at further isolating her and keeping her from being a Hollywood starlet, or her crashing the system on the almost-new MacBook replacement which necessitated the likelihood of giving her passcodes to Her Man Friend who would ride in to save the day (I didn’t and neither did he), or her developing a sudden dental emergency requiring Susan drive her five hours round trip to her (amazing) dentist, all while finishing my book in time to hit my July 1st deadline, completing the recording of my second memoir, Treyf, for audio, getting ready to teach a month-long June workshop, and simultaneously planning an in-home medically-supervised detox — it’s actually a good thing; it’s just apparently a really bad idea to stop drinking wine when you’re fifty-nine, have high blood pressure, a crappy liver, and long Covid, and have had several glasses with dinner every night, pretty much, since Reagan was in office; doctors take this kind of thing very seriously especially if you’ve started and stopped and started and stopped dozens of times — which requires the organizational skills of The Allied Forces on D-Day, or Susan.
Which is to say: I finally dropped the drinks, as it were.
A lot of pinging.
Delegate, delegate, delegate my uncle, the Army-Corps-of-Engineers Captain used to bellow when life became overwhelming. And I used to be terrific at it because, for many years, I was a corporate person. I had a great assistant, a bunch of terrifically smart people reporting to me, digital calendars that fed into a master database that kept me on schedule and where I needed to be, and some level of life predictability. But Man plans and God laughs, as my grandfather used to say, and I got a whiff of what my future eldercaregiver life would be like, one day in 1992 — I was twenty-nine — when my mother, who was two years younger than I am now, called me at work to yell: I’ve fallen in the street and I’m sitting in a wheelchair about to be xeroxed, and my boss, seeing the color drain out of my face, said GO, TAKE CARE OF HER, IT’S YOUR MOTHER. I distinctly remember running down to the NYU Langone emergency room and finding her in said wheelchair about to be taken down to the xerox room, wrapped in a full-length mink coat, not a hair out of place, her fingers laden with important diamonds, and there was her tired face — she suddenly no longer looked fifty-seven, but thirty years older, which is where we are now — radiating a future of helpless need and rage at the passage of time, the lack of attention, the increasing illness, the struggling-like-a-drowning-man who submerges those who try to help him, and drowns them first.
But Man plans and God laughs, as my grandfather used to say, and I got a whiff of what my future eldercaregiver life would be like, one day in 1992.
I always assumed this: that I would remain exactly where I was back then. Twenty-nine, playing squash three times a week, maintaining a bunch of calendars without anything falling through the cracks, getting promotions on five hours of sleep a night, able to eat and drink gargantuan quantities of whatever I wanted without my body or spirit changing, or flagging, in any way.
But this does not happen — not to any of us. My mother is older; I’m older; Susan is older. So yesterday, I threw in the towel and finally did what all the books and meetings tell you to do: I asked for help. A beloved cousin will swing into action if my mother needs me next week. I will keep up with my deadlines best I can. I will rest my body and my spirit, and I will not forget to do this, because I’ve written it down in my Filofax, in indelible ink.
* Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron, 1989
INSTANT POT CHICKEN PHO RECIPE
by the great and brilliant Andrea Nguyen
I have no idea why this is, exactly, but: when I am undone by the world — by my mother’s needs, by the abysmal news, by my overpacked schedule, by my body saying STOP, ENOUGH — all I want is Asian food. I love Nina Simonds’ clear-steamed chicken soup, and Hetty McKinnon’s anything — but when my stress level becomes, as my doctor told me this week, catastrophic, I just want Andrea Nguyen’s chicken pho. The fact of the Instant Pot is not, as we say, a shanda, but a lifesaver, especially during the summer when you really don’t want your kitchen to be steamed up for hours, and when you should be in the garden.
Yield 4 bowls
To cook in advance, partially cover the unseasoned broth and let cool, then refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months; reheat and season before using. The cooked chicken can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months; bring to room temperature to use.
1 (4 lb) whole chicken
1 rounded tablespoon coriander seeds
3 whole cloves
Chubby 2-inch section ginger, peeled, thickly sliced, and bruised
1 large (10 oz) yellow onion, halved and thickly sliced
7 to 7 ½ cups just-boiled water
1 small (4 oz) Fuji apple, peeled, cored, and cut into thumbnail-size chunks
3⁄4 cup (.7 oz) coarsely chopped cilantro sprigs
2 1⁄4 teaspoons fine sea salt
About 1 1⁄2 tablespoons fish sauce
About 1 teaspoon organic sugar, or 2 teaspoons maple syrup (optional)
10 ounces dried narrow flat rice noodles (banh pho or pad Thai noodles)
About half the cooked chicken from the broth
1⁄2 small (2 oz) yellow or red onion, thinly sliced against the grain and soaked in water for 10 minutes
2 thinly sliced green onions, green parts only
1⁄4 cup (.2 oz) chopped fresh cilantro, leafy tops only
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
2 or 3 tender lime leaves, cut into fine threads (omit spines)
4 handfuls beansprouts
4 to 6 sprigs mint
4 to 6 sprigs Thai basil
2 limes, cut into wedges
2 Thai chiles or 1 jalapeno, Fresno, or serrano chile, thinly sliced (keep seeds intact)
Sriracha and/or hoisin sauce
MAKE THE BROTH
Rinse the chicken and set aside to drain. Put the coriander seeds and cloves in a 6-quart Instant Pot. Use the Saute and More functions to toast the spices several minutes, stirring, until fragrant. Add the ginger and onion. Stir until aromatic, 45 to 60 seconds, to coax out a bit of flavor. A little browning is okay.
Add 4 cups of the water to arrest the cooking process. Put the chicken in the cooker, breast side up. Add the apple, cilantro, salt, and 3 to 3 ½ cups water to barely cover the top of the breast (it will cook by the steam in the IP). Lock the lid in place.
Program the IP to pressure cook (Manual) on low pressure for 15 minutes. When done, unplug the cooker and let the pressure decrease naturally, about 20 minutes. Remove the lid, tilting it away from you to avoid the hot steam.
Let settle for 5 minutes before using tongs to transfer the chicken to a bowl; if parts fall off in transit, don’t worry. Add water to cover the chicken and soak for 10 minutes to cool and prevent drying. Pour off the water, partially cover, and set the chicken aside to cool.
Skim some fat from the broth before straining it through a muslin-lined mesh strainer positioned over a medium pot. Discard the solids. You should have about 8 cups. Season the broth with the fish sauce, extra salt, and perhaps the sugar (or maple syrup.
Use a knife to remove the breast halves and legs from the chicken. Set aside half of the chicken for another use (a Viet cabbage slaw or chicken sandwiches!). Reserve the remaining chicken for pho bowl assembly.
PREP AND ASSEMBLE THE BOWLS
While the broth cooks, or about 30 minutes before serving, ready the ingredients for the bowls. Soak the noodles in hot tap water until pliable and opaque. Drain, rinse, and drain well. Divide among 4 soup bowls.
Cut or tear the chicken breast and leg into pieces about 1⁄4 inch thick. Place the onion, green onion, and cilantro in separate bowls and line them up with the noodles, chicken, and pepper for a pho assembly line.
Bring the broth to a simmer over medium heat as you are assembling the bowls. At the same time, fill a pot with water and bring to a rolling boil for the noodles.
For each bowl, use a noodle strainer or mesh sieve to dunk a portion of the noodles in the boiling water. When the noodles are soft, 5 to 60 seconds, pull the strainer from the water, shaking it to drain excess water back into the pot. Empty the noodles into a bowl. Top with chicken, then garnish with onion, green onion, cilantro, and pepper.
Check the broth flavor once more, raise the heat, and bring it to a boil. Ladle about 2 cups broth into each bowl. Enjoy immediately with any extras, if you like.