Sunday, December 20, 2015

Good Grief.

Grief is a funny thing.

It reminds me of when you're going out and you can't tell what the weather is going to do, so you bring a coat just in case. Some of the time, you're happy you have that coat -- you put it on, zip it up, thank yourself for bringing it. But the rest of the time, you're just lugging around this extra piece of clothing and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't set it down anywhere and it's very present and sometimes you catch other people looking at it and you want to say, "I didn't know what the temperature was going to be, okay? So I brought this and honestly, I'm probably going to need it later."

"But Emily," you say, wondering if there's going to be a recipe at the end of this post (spoiler alert: no). "A coat is ultimately a good thing and grief is terrible so what the hell are you trying to do with this clumsy analogy?" First of all, calm down, don't be mean. It's the holidays.

Second... grief is not terrible. Grief isn't terrible when you are absolutely required to feel something. Losing someone so close and so important has turned me into a ball of feelings -- like a holiday cheese ball, but filled with sadness and loss and coated in anger instead of... nuts? You guys, I love cheese, but I don't like or trust a cheese ball. Is that insane? Are they, in fact, coated with nuts?

There is no emotional outlet. I drive around the chain of lakes in Minneapolis -- the same familiar route I've taken countless times to process everything from college applications to relationships to improv shows -- I drive around the lakes and my eyes fill up with hot, stinging tears and my throat tightens. In the past, I could be various shades of sad and mad AT something -- Northwestern University, Peter, a pretty rough improv set, for example. But this time, there is no target. Just feelings. Sometimes they come out sideways, and I get mad at my cardigan for being wrinkled or the driver in front of me for not pulling over and letting me pass when they want to go 5 mph around Lake Calhoun.

And that's when grief isn't terrible -- it's welcomed. Because I can take a deep breath and say, "Oh, this is grief. What I'm feeling is grief. Here's a label and a box for it." ...Like when you finally learn what a cheese ball is and you can identify it on a table of hors d'oeuvres and move on.

You never choose grief, because it follows closely behind a great loss. But when it's chilly, it's pretty nice to zip up that coat. I'm thankful I brought it. It's only a burden when I have a rare moment of unexpected joy or laughter -- because there's that fucking coat, and the reminder that I had to bring it in the first place, and the temperature is probably going to drop later.

(#thankful and #blessed to be writing from a cold climate where I can really settle into this winterwear metaphor!)

My heart physically aches and I don't recognize myself. I feel quite literally supported by the good friends who have emailed and texted to send their thoughts and love. So, yes, I'm not falling over, but I'm not okay. The only thought that helps a little bit when it's extra cold and I can't stop doing that special kind of sob that feels almost primal, it's so guttural and deep -- the only thing that helps a little bit is this incredibly vivid image I have of my dear friend Samantha tapping my arm and saying, "Sweetheart, it's okay. I'm fine and actually? This place is really neat!" This could be grief working its magic OR Samantha IS right there, in my ear, there but not. I'm putting stock in the latter because... how cool is that?

I'm helping to plan a party for Samantha on her birthday, December 28, at HUGE Theater. If you're in Minneapolis, stop by!

Wrapping this up for now. In the words of Samantha, how she ended every improv class, "Questions, comments, complaints? No? Praise and adoration!" <3

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Upturned ducks.

This doesn't go here. But I don't know where else to put it. Some would say it belongs in a private journal, but I don't really keep those. I'm a sharer, always have been.

My phone was ringing loudly on my nightstand, which was weird because the volume on my phone wasn't supposed to be all the way up, I hadn't set an alarm in hopes that I would sleep in and sleep off the end of my tonsillitis. But my phone was ringing loudly and I saw that it said "Mom" so I groggily swiped it and anticipated a short conversation in which I could say, "Remember? There's a time difference and I'm sick and I'm sleeping." Instead, my half-asleep greeting was cut off by panicked sobs on the other end, and a situation that had been familiarly disorienting suddenly twisted into a reality I didn't recognize at all and I just wish I had taken a second to wake up before I had all of the air knocked out of me.

Samantha Pereira died. I didn't think that's a phrase I'd know or say for a long, long, long time. But here we are -- it's 2015, and she was supposed to turn 47 in a few weeks, and we were supposed to get tres leches cake at Cafe Latte when I was home for Christmas, and we were supposed to finish a text conversation from two days ago where I sent her a picture of my tonsils and she sent a lot of alarmed emojis back.

She was one of my very best and oldest friends. She still is?

Dinner in Vegas last year, attempting a selfie

When I was 12, I watched too much "Saturday Night Live" and became fascinated with improv. My parents took me to see Stevie Ray's Improv in the Park -- a summer tradition in the Lake Harriet Rose Gardens, shortform improv over lav mics between two trees, for families on blankets. Samantha was hosting that day, as she often did -- with this effortless and genuine playfulness that simultaneously made an entire audience and a few nervous improvisers feel safe. I introduced myself after the show and she suggested I sign up for classes, that she would be teaching a new teen class in the fall. Did I know it was going to change my life? ...Actually? I kind of did. Because when you talked to Samantha about improv, there was a spark that made you know very certainly that improv was magic. SHE did that. She was the first person to tell me to "yes and" and listen. She taught me zip zap zop and 2-person scenes. She made me feel safe and okay when I wanted to throw up from nerves before my first show and she was the one to give me my first notes afterwards.

I know I'm not alone in this experience. While Samantha was a quick and masterful improviser, her greatest joy and proudest moments were as an improv teacher. There are so many Minneapolis improvisers -- at Stevie Ray's, and later at HUGE -- who walked into a classroom absolutely terrified and excited and sooo green and came out in love with improv magic. She met each student with a warm smile and twinkle in her eye. No one got to sit on the sidelines in Samantha's class. Everyone was present. Everyone was a genius.

I wonder how many servers at the various restaurants we brunched and drank at over the years signed up for a class? She sold every one of them on it by the end of our meals. I can hear her so clearly in my ear, "Take a class! You'd be fantastic."

Crock Pot

Samantha started as my improv teacher and biggest comedy advocate, and then she became one of my truest forever friends. We shared the stage together at the Bloomington Sheraton with Stevie Ray's. She was on my first "indie" improv team, Crock Pot (with the incomparable Maureen Tubbs and Cristi Rumpza). I remember our first run at Improv a Go-Go in the old Brave New Workshop space. As many Minneapolis improvisers know, winning those three consecutive Sunday slots in the IAGG lottery is a real treat, and we savored those opportunities. We were giddy to play and I don't know that three people have ever made me laugh so hard. Those IAGG sets were like getting on a rollercoaster -- fast, full of delight, and the blackout always came too soon.

At the Brave New Workshop

When I told her I wasn't going to go to my senior prom, and that I was going to come watch the Stevie Ray's improv show in my dress that night instead, she (along with Maureen) secretly planned Improm -- and there aren't enough positive adjectives in the English language for that night. Samantha picked me up in a limo and took me to a fancy dinner with Maureen and a few others, then brought me to the fully streamer-ed, glitter glue-decorated space where an unsuspecting audience and all of my improv friends were waiting to do a prom-themed improv show. Samantha was incredibly thoughtful and always up for something fun. That is what Improm was, totally and completely. When people do something like that for you when you're 16, it changes how you see friendship. If I'm a good friend now, it's because women like Samantha and Maureen taught me what friendship is -- in those grand moments like Improm and also in the 3am phone calls and birthday dinners and shoulder squeezes on the backline during tough improv sets.

Improm surprise

She was wise and dependable. She was firm and compassionate and her advice was somehow practical and whimsical at once. When I was 12 and I thought about the woman I wanted to become, it was Samantha. And now that I'm 27, that still holds true. She's still the woman I want to be, for 10 million reasons. I have a hard time understanding that she won't be a bridesmaid in my wedding and that she won't know my kids. She always joked (although she would claim she was serious) that whenever I got on "Saturday Night Live," all she wanted was for me to hold a cue card during the goodnights that said, "Hi Samantha!" I don't know about SNL, but I do know that she has and will continue to be in every script I write and every improv show I do. How could she not be?

Summer Sunday evenings were dedicated to Improv in the Park throughout high school and college, and Samantha and I would often spend those warm afternoons hanging out at the Rose Gardens after improv class. I used to have these little duck earrings, and Samantha would laugh every time they were upside down. "Sweetheart! Your ducks are upturned!" It stuck for years. "How are you doing?" "Oh, I've been better." "Oh no, upturned ducks?"

Well, gosh, Samantha, if my ducks aren't upturned now.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Aunt Shirley's Orange Jello "Salad"

Oof. It has been awhile and I'm truly sorry. I have been baking, and I have been writing, but the two haven't come together on this blog in quite some time. But I'm still here!

The holiday season is upon us and I! Am! Stoked! For some reason, I'm feeling extra festive this year -- I've got a jolly lil spring in my step, for better or worse. My roommates and I purchased a real, live tree! I'm gorging myself on holiday beverages from Starbucks! I'm sending over 70 handmade holiday cards! Could it be that I'm... procrastinating other projects? Oh, that's certainly part of it, but basically, the holiday spirit is IN me, and yes, it's nearly sexual.

I have many Christmas memories, and most involve visiting my grandparents in Chicago, which we did every year until they passed away. There was the year Santa gave me rollerblades, and I lost my goddamn mind -- the next several years were spent choreographing rollerblade routines to Shania Twain's B-side hit, "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under" in the garage, a song with a message I knew but didn't really KNOW, ya know? But not all Christmas memories are jolly -- like the one year in high school my mom's "big gift" to me was a blender, so that I could "make healthier choices for breakfast." :( :( :(

Another Christmas tradition the Schmidts had in common with many suburban Minneapolis families was the downtown Dayton's* 8th floor Christmas display. *For most of my childhood, it was Dayton's. Then, Marshall Fields. And by the time it was Macy's, we didn't go anymore.

Who remembers this??

Dayton's really knew how to put together a department store floor of pure magic. Every year, a different story would be told with elaborate props, animatronic figures, sound and music... it was a delight. They did Beauty and the Beast, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, other very memorable tales that I just can't remember right now... And maybe I'm only remembering it this way because I was a kid who didn't understand money, but I'm pretty sure it was free? How is that even possible? We'd wait in line with other families in strollers and coats before slowly snaking our way through the display, older kids pushing through the crowd to read the accompanying story placards aloud. There were probably at least 20 scenes to the story, each one intricately designed and aptly fantastical (sometimes terrifying -- I don't know that I've ever needed to see an animatronic Voldemort thrusting at me). And when you reached the end of the story, what was waiting for you (besides a gift shop, obviously)? SANTA. That's right, this whole enchanting scenario ended with 1-on-1, let's-get-down-to-business conversation with the big guy himself, where you could address your Christmas wants and get a picture, too.

I was 8 years old in this picture. God help me.

As if this night wasn't already the best thing to ever happen... you could wrap up your whole familial night-on-the-town with a HOLIDAY PARADE, right through the center of downtown, a real festival of lights called the Holidazzle. If your parents loved you, you wouldn't watch from the street, where it was often below zero and a frozen tundra nightmare. If your parents cared about you at all, you would watch the parade from above the riff-raff, like royalty, in the skyways. Skyways are what Minnesotans use to avoid exposure and frostbite when trying to simply move between buildings in the wintertime. They connect buildings downtown, about three floors up, and make it possible for you to seamlessly move across the whole neighborhood without ever going outside. Fun! Necessary! Winter is a scary time!

I've heard since Macy's moved in, the 8th floor holiday display isn't as magical. I think I'll skip it, lest it tarnish my good memories (of fighting with my sister over Santa's lap-space and being sweaty in snowpants).

Another tradition on the Schmidt side of the family is my aunt Shirley's orange jello, present for every family function, and eaten primarily by me. I made it for my friends-giving this year and it delicious, and again, eaten primarily by me. But it's so tasty! And jello is ALWAYS fun. Give this simple recipe a try the next time you need to attend a particularly Midwestern potluck -- it will always be welcome there, and probably called "salad."

Aunt Shirley's Orange Jello "Salad"

1 large box of orange-flavored gelatin
2 cups orange sherbet (just now learned there isn't another "r" in that word!)
Boiling water
2 cans of mandarin oranges, drained

Boil water according to the directions on the Jello box.
Whisk the gelatin powder and hot water together until well-mixed.
Add the sherbet and stir quickly until melted/fully combined.
Pour this mixture into whatever container you want the jello to live in. I used a traditional bundt pan, but I don't know that I'd recommend it. If you have a jello mold, that's obviously going to be your best and most fun bet.
Let sit for a few minutes until the mixture begins to solidify. Then, add the mandarin oranges and stir to ensure equal distribution.
Refrigerate for 4+ hours.
Some throw a whipped topping on there -- I don't. I don't think it needs it. This jello is delicious and I would eat it every day if I could.

Happy baking!