All posts by Robbie Fultz

Blueberry RFD

Lately there’s been an unexpected influx of time in my life. My work is grouping together, concentrating into smaller and smaller blocks, leaving gaps between work sprints rather than one long daily grind.

It feels weird, mostly. Like something’s creeping up behind me, and I know it’s there but I keep forgetting about it. Surely something must be happening that requires my immediate undivided attention. That itchy feeling at the back of your skull that makes you check your phone for urgent messages, you know?

Maybe you don’t know, and I should relax a little more. Believe me, I’m trying.

“You should bake more,” a friend told me. “You like that, right? You always seem so calm when you’re baking.”

That advice isn’t difficult to take to heart.

There’s something about baking — a combination of science and art and immediate gratification — that is inherently peaceful to me. You measure some things with teaspoons and add the others by feel; you judge the correct amount of cinnamon and sugar based on color and texture, not exacting standards. You follow the recipe, but always add a twist — usually because you’re improvising ingredients.

Over the weekend I made a cake, melting chocolate chips into a blueberry sauce for a sweet juxtaposition of flavors. I borrowed a recipe from a friend and made pumpkin chili — a savory, unexpected soup that is even more delicious than it sounds. I made blueberry muffins, a few days before; I’ve been googling the ingredients I have in my kitchen, finding recipes I can make with a few in common — and then googling replacements for the ingredients I don’t have.  

Side comment: I set off the fire alarm twice on Saturday night. If you’re my parents, reading this — yes, I have a fire extinguisher; I also have a baking tray I wave in front of the fire alarm to trick it into turning off.

But even the fire alarm didn’t make it stressful. More than anything else I know, baking quiets the voice in the back of my head that says, Really? Don’t you have something you should be doing right now? I can read, and drown it out; I can talk and listen, and silence it; but baking makes it easier to relax, almost like breathing. Minus the smoke.

For relaxation, my friend also recommended yoga.

We’ll see.

Advertisements

5 Tips for the Last-Minute Christmas Shopper

It’s the week before Christmas — time to realize you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping!

Sure, there are 12 smug people who’ve had all their gifts in a closet since June, but the rest of us are scrambling.

I know I’m one of the worst, but I’m certainly not the only person who spends a month thinking of the perfect gift, and 20 minutes frantically searching for it on the 24th. I’ve delivered a vast number of “Your gift is on the way!” cards, and Christmas packages from me tend to arrive mid-January.

I come by it honestly. My family used to send out our Christmas letter in March.

So if you’re like me, and winding up for a frantic sprint through the aisles of your nearest department store, here are five late Christmas shopping tips for the procrastinator.

  1. Keep wrapping paper on hand at all times. Possibly in your car. You’re inevitably going to forget someone on your list, like your mom, sorry Mom, and spend the early hours of Christmas Eve pillaging the nearest bookstore for something suitable.

An unwrapped gift is a blinking neon sign shouting, “I just bought this! Right now!” Of course, the people on your Christmas list know you. They know you forgot about them. You still need to pretend you didn’t — it’s part of the game, so they can tear off the wrapping and say, “Just what I always wanted! How did you know?” and you can pretend you’re not panting from exhaustion, having just sprinted three-quarters of a mile while frantically trying to flatten down tissue paper with tape.

  1. Food. If your gift is late, a plate of brownies and a jug of cider can go a long way. If you play your cards right, you may be able to provide a distraction long enough to move the conversation forward. A word, though: this is only a temporary measure. If your hopeful recipients are under 10 years old, this will likely be an effective but short-lived solution. And they had better be good brownies.
  2. Quality is better than timing. If you think of the perfect gift too late to get it in time for Christmas, order it anyway. “Your gift is on the way!” cards are an admission of guilt, yes, but they’re not as tacky as getting your sister a pack of dollar-store chewing gum and a Happy Meal toy. Bite the bullet and handle the smug looks like the professional procrastinator you are. Remind yourself time is an artificial construct and most holidays are arbitrarily attached to calendar dates. Let me know if it helps.
  3. Holidays aren’t about the gifts, right? They’re about making sure the people you care about know it. Remind the people around you that selling out to the commercial spirit of the times is leaving a foothold for evil and depravity, or something like that.

This approach is most impactful if you are homeless and adopt stray puppies, sheltering them under your threadbare coat. Also if you’re a monk.

Really though, take a deep breath. If the only way your friends and family know you care is the gifts you do or do not deliver — you’re probably doing it wrong.

  1. Promise yourself you’ll do better next year.

Just like you did last year.

There’s something to be said for consistency, after all.

The Chipmunk Lifestyle

Wednesday was a long day, all tension and tight corners. I walked against the wind wearing a thin coat, teeth chattering and knees knocking as the temperature dropped. I slammed into the wall of others’ inefficiency, jaw absently clenching as simple jobs stretched into grueling ordeals. I ran errands and painstakingly clicked off items on my checklist and, like it had a schedule to keep, the 4 p.m. Wednesday headache came to build its home in my right temple, banging around happily with its hammer and running its power saw and possibly herding a flock of angry pigeons wearing tap-dancing shoes across my frontal lobe.

I’m told that such a headache — religiously punctual about its time of arrival — is caused by stress, and how the brain releases tension all at once rather than incrementally. I’ve tried to combat the problem, armed with a toolset of breathing techniques and muscle relaxation tips from my dad.

And yet these all-useful tools are surprisingly difficult to practice. I sit down to begin — comfortable position, focus on timing my inhale, exhale — and five minutes later find myself across the apartment, folding laundry. Try again, but everything I need to do comes rushing to my mind and to my hands — checking emails, watering plants, slicing green peppers into stripes.

When I get home from work I begin to bake a tray of scones. They have to be kneaded by hand. It’s hard to think about inefficiency and stress and headaches while flour and butter wend their way into the crevices of my skin, clinging to the lines across my palms, trying to gain grip in my cuticles.

Busy work, time-filling unnecessary effort, cuts across my nerves like a pocketknife sawing at guitar strings until they snap. It’s the sort of flaw that only bothers you in others; I don’t seem to notice my own doubled efforts. When I have a project and a deadline I turn into a computer, goal-focused, analytical and fully compartmentalized. Human things — sore muscles, headaches, small talk — seem more like barriers to overcome than parts of being, you know, human.

Which brings me to my kitchen counter, grains of sugar pinched between my fingers and the Oh Hellos playing quietly across the room. It’s a grounding practice, fully integrating.

I’ve been reading a theology cookbook — I can’t think of another way to describe it — written by an author intent on enjoying the good things life has to offer, because they were crafted for us. Rich meals, glass running over, nothing half-tasted. My scones go into the oven; I forget to check the clock.

In Paradise Lost, Milton’s retelling of the first days of humanity, it’s efficiency that leads to the Fall of Adam and Eve: Eve suggests they work separately in the garden, so they’ll get more done and won’t distract each other. When she’s alone, the serpent offers her the fruit. It’s just a story, mind; Milton isn’t truth. But I think about it sometimes.

(The professor who taught me Paradise Lost now teaches a class on leisure. If there’s a better way of matching your actions to your words, I don’t know it.)

Waiting for my scones is a perfect time to practice breathing, I think; I’m distracted by the construction party in my brain. (Someone in there must have a nail gun, I think.) My to-do list for the day is nearly done, but not quite; I can do a few of these from home, while I wait for my scones. I get up to wash dishes, restart the music that has fallen silent, wipe up the spilled flour on the counter, organize the files spread out across the kitchen table.

My dad tells me that chipmunks hibernate above the frost line, blood pressure dropping just low enough that keeps sluggishly flowing through the subzero temperatures, keeping it alive through the winter months. They are such frantic creatures, all summer long; it’s hard to imagine them motionless, frosty and nearly dead, living longer than they would aboveground.

I remember my scones and race for the oven; they emerge slightly toastier than expected, but none the worse for wear. I breathe in the aroma that fills the kitchen, breathe out. Breathe in again. I have a list of things to do tonight, tomorrow morning, and a new one for the next day.

I turn out the lights as the heat kicks on, burrowing under my cold covers and closing my eyes, headache still hammering, muscles still strained, and enjoy the feeling of being almost asleep.

Four Reasons Why You Should Vote

“I don’t think it’s worth voting this year.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it — and honestly, I can hardly blame the sentiment. While every election year is fraught with drama and accusations, this one is definitely closer to reality TV, with accusations flung left and right and scandal lurking around every corner.

It’s a disaster, honestly. I can’t fault anyone for being rather cynical about the process.

But you still need to vote.

Here’s why.

 

  1. Local elections. Most government work doesn’t happen on a national scale; it happens in the state, the county, the city, the township. Vote for your council members, your school board, your commissioners, your state representatives. I’m willing to put money down that these people will affect your daily life more thoroughly than most national laws and changes.

There are also many items on the ballot that have nothing to do with elected officials. All Minnesotans have a state constitutional amendment on the ballot this year. Everyone who lives in Worthington will have the school referendum on the ballot.

If you’re not sure what’s on your ballot, you can type in your street address and find out at myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us. If you don’t know anything about the candidates, you can find out fairly quickly — the Globe is running a simple Q&A from each candidate to help voters out.

 

  1. Votes add up. If you don’t show up to vote, the numbers won’t show you took a stand for or against the available options. You’ll be invisible, then. If you’re not willing to vote for the lesser of two evils, you can vote for a third-party candidate. Independents, anyone? Constitution? Green Party? If you reach the presidential portion of the ballot and write in “Cinderella,” at least you said something. (I don’t recommend voting for Cinderella; I don’t think she paid her tiny dressmakers. The point stands.) That said, you really should consider voting for the lesser of two evils; it could prevent the greater.

 

  1. The right to complain. This is practically a national pastime. Don’t miss out on your chance to join in! If you are able to vote but have done absolutely nothing to impact an election, you don’t get to complain about the results. You do not have the right; if someone terrible gets elected and you didn’t vote, the outcome is, in part, your fault.

Harsh? Maybe. Honest? Definitely. And if it stings, it leads right to my last one.

 

  1. You care. If you’re disillusioned with American politics enough to declare you’re not voting, you care about the outcome. You probably think our country isn’t living up to its potential. Newsflash: “We the people.” We are the country. American politics is a majority-rules system. We got us into this mess — by our silence, by our apathy, by our foolish choices — and it’s our responsibility to get ourselves back out. If we don’t vote, we’re giving up our voice in the system.  

It’s not making a statement; it’s keeping your mouth shut and letting everyone else speak over you. “I’m standing against the drama by not voting!” you proclaim, as throngs of people rush past you to actually stand against the drama.

In an election, we vote for far more than a president. We vote for the schools our kids attend, the quality of the roads we drive on daily, the equality represented by our communities, the quality and availability of water, the taxes we pay, the money we make, the possibilities for new and growing businesses.

If you don’t care about any of that? Feel free to stay away from the polls and, in fact, away from all the things listed above. You may want to find a cabin deep in the woods, stock it with canned goods and salted peanuts and practice your bowhunting skills.

Everyone else — vote.

God and the Dishes

Sometimes I think God sits beside me on the counter as I wash dishes.

It’s annoying, really.

Most house-related chores are boring, of course — that’s why they’re chores — but washing dishes is the worst of them.

Necessary, but not evil — it can’t be conquered, it isn’t peaceful, it doesn’t feel like success, just a never-ending stream of stained porcelain and scratched iron, soppy scraped particles floating in dirty water. Skin wet and wrinkled slimy with soap and grease and residue of whatever food you’ve eaten in the past week.

I once met a woman who said she liked washing dishes. Perhaps she lied out of kindness. It’s an impossible claim. If you don’t think washing dishes is the dullest of the already dull, the center choice on a spectrum of beige-colored paint chips, I’ll place a bet that in your house, someone else does it.

So why would God choose then?

I can think of so many better times to show up — even an hour earlier, when the tortillas were warm and soft, eggs steaming and cheese melting, company laughing at poor jokes at my table. Or tomorrow morning, when the sun rises; mornings are always terrible with a little wonder thrown in, a good time to visit; or next week, maybe Thursday, when I’m frustrated, wound up like a spring with no energy to cook, when I could use the company.

If he talked, I couldn’t hear him, anyway, over the sound of the running water.

It makes me wonder, in a blistered sort of way, what kind of person you have to be — what kind of message you have to want to send, to show up not in the exciting or difficult, comedy or tragedy, but in the moments I’m likely to forget because they simply matter least.

Maybe it’s because I can’t be distracted then — my hands are wet, the drain is loud, I can’t listen to music or check my phone. My sink faces a wall; I can’t look out the window. Perhaps it’s the closest thing I have to meditation, chipping burnt cheese off trays and collecting lukewarm coffee molecules under my fingernails. Everywhere else is prone to interruption, but here, at my sink, fingers wrinkling in cloudy water —

That can’t be the whole of it, though. A God smaller than distraction can hardly claim the name.

Maybe it’s because the religion I’m a part of is layered with so much drama, politics, catchphrases that are utter nonsense if you’re outside the circle, questions no one else has any interest in asking — and being on the line only means you distrust both sides — maybe he knows I won’t listen if he talks, anyway. How would you respond if God sat down on the chair next to you?

Look, I don’t mean to be crude about this, but we are a conceal-and-carry state, and historically speaking, we have already executed God once. We don’t have the best track record.

Or maybe he’s just filling the gaps between things. Maybe he thinks I’ll need the company more then, in the most banal moments of the daily grind, than in the hard weeks or the hard days or the days when I already have company. Maybe it’s just a reminder. Maybe it’s just foreshadowing — that odd plane scene that explains why John McClane is barefoot for the whole film. Maybe it’s just showing up, being present and accounted for, at the times when no one is ever going to bother taking attendance. In him we live and move and have our being.

If anyone wants to challenge my claim that washing dishes is a tin of flour in the spice cupboard, you’re welcome to test it in my kitchen.

You may have company.

Sea Change, Take 2

I was in a wedding of a dear friend on Sunday — she was stunning, and smiling steadily. I expected to cry through the service, but I couldn’t, because I was so happy. I kept laughing. I wore red lipstick and looked good; I kept stopping in front of mirrors to smile at myself, and then realizing what I was doing and making myself laugh. We filled the couple’s car with balloons and cheered, sappy, at every kiss; it was a good day.

It’s amazing how much work goes into planning a wedding. It’s a 30-minute ceremony, but the coordinating, the organizing, the making sure everyone is on time and making eye contact with the musicians when they start to walk — that takes longer.

My new job is a lot of that — planning, setup. I spend a lot of time troubleshooting process rather than focusing on results. Instead of a few lovely front pages, an error-free evening starts to feel like success. Once, maybe, I had a dream about email chains, which was an indication that I needed the weekend off. Sometimes it feels like I spend more time making sure people understand each other than saying any of my own words.

There are some things I like to ignore. Wrestling through my relationships, sometimes so angry I could scream, sometimes so happy I can’t stop laughing. I always want to simplify things, reduce to the lowest common denominator. I want to accept Occam’s Razor because it’s so neat, so clean, so easy. It’s still frustrating to step forward, stutter toward progress and be yanked backward, to think I’ve taken steps — forgiven, forgotten — and found myself behind. Behind schedule, increase speed, my brain tells me. Some things take longer than we would like.

I’ve been blaring twenty one pilots while I fold laundry, staying up late to read a sad, aching book that’s going to end well, I’m sure of it, it has to. Making cold coffee and ordering pizza, trying new recipes, keeping my plants alive. Waking up early and lunging for the alarm — then pulling up the covers up to my chin and deciding to try again tomorrow.

Listen, some days you feel like an adult, and some days you have a grasshopper trapped under a pasta strainer and two heavy books on your dining room carpet. I have pictures, if you would like. Yes, I am 24.

One basic tenet of Christianity is that God doesn’t change — it’s plain in worship songs, creeds, psalms. I don’t think it means what we think it means. God became human; God died. Breathing in, breathing out — that’s change. Growing, boy to man, learning — these are changes. God seems more comfortable with the idea of change than we do.

And things have to change — you grow, or you stagnate. And it is amazing to me, the amount of planning, of study and focus and repetition and sheer words that go into change, into growth. I’m tired of tossing things behind me and finding they’ve landed on my metaphorical kitchen table. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Some things take longer than we would like.

Probably still worth the effort.

15 Things to Do Before You’re 25

 

Every year around the time of my birthday I stop for a year to take stock — see where I am, where I was last year, what I want to do or be or think about for the next year. I make a list of things I want to do this year — goals I want to reach, experiences I want to try. Things I want to strike off the bucket list.

A few weeks ago I celebrated my 24th birthday. Some of the things on this year’s list are fun — if I get excited about it, I’ll probably knock out No. 2 within the month. (Will be looking for samplers.) Some are quite hard for me, though, and I know I’ll be more likely to finish No. 4 or No. 6 if I’ve told people I’m going to do them. So without further ado, here’s my list for the coming year:

  1. Visit a country I’ve never set foot in before.
  2. Learn how to make Baked Alaska.
  3. Get a pet, maybe. Maybe.
  4. Run a 10k.
  5. Go scuba diving.
  6. Write at least 300 words a day, five days a week, for one month.
  7. Manage investment/long-term accounts. I think by the time I’m 25 I should have the basics worked out — how to handle investments, retirement accounts — the decimal details.
  8. Practice another language. I’ve never been good at languages — I can barely speak the ones I studied in school — but the world is growing, more and more, in languages. I support language classes for schoolchildren; it’s time I applied that standard to myself.
  9. Find a better way to stay in touch with people far away. Many of the people who are important to me are quite far — across the state, across the country. Across the planet. I’d like to find a way that these people don’t slip through the cracks for me.
  10. And relatedly — be the sort of person who remembers birthdays and anniversaries. I don’t know how to be this sort of person, but I aim to find out.
  11. Read 52 books. That’s a high number, but it’s an average of one a week. Some I’ll tear through in hours; some will likely take a month. I’ve got enough books on my To Be Read list that this goal will, hopefully, make a dent in it.
  12. Learn to make several meals without recipes. Preferably some with meat — I’ve got to learn how to cook it, sometime.
  13. Keep playing music. I used to play piano & guitar and sing in a choir, but I stopped, mostly, when I started college. This year I’d like to pick it up again — whether through lessons, fresh music or something new.
  14. Go on a blind date. Admittedly, I caved to peer pressure on this one.
  15. Buy heels that I like to wear. I hear these exist — somewhere — and I aim to find them.

Year 24, bring it.