The Specter Family Blog

Matt -- Steph -- Faith -- Mari -- Robby -- Hannah -- Salsa -- and........

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Steady Progress,,,and Orlando's Rat

I can not believe I have gone almost four months without posting here.

As in my last post, the silence again did not mean a major disaster had taken place.  It's just been busy around here.  You'd think that being underemployed would leave a person with lots of time but it never works out that way.  So, what's been happening?  Well, pretty much and nothing at all.  Let's try to recap:

I took an interview for a communications internship with Cincinnati Children's Hospital, thinking it would be good to get the interview experience.  It was my first professional non-teaching interview...well, ever.  To my  complete and total shock, I got the position.  So now I am working 10 hours a week helping one of the divisions within the hospital to communicate better within its various parts, and outward to the world.  The physical environment in which I work is "nightmare corporate" but the people are great, and I am able to overlook the cubicle atmosphere, knowing that beyond those walls is a children's hospital, which is something I can feel good about.  As I said, the people are wonderful, and I've been able to put some of my class skills into practice, along with actually being able to be creative and weird.  God bless these people for letting me express myself.  It's making it very fun.

My birthday came and went without any major life disasters, which is a major step up from the last two years.  I even managed to put together a small celebration at a local bar, and had a wonderful evening with my friends from various parts of my life.  When it comes to friends, I quote R.E.M. and say "I may not have much, but what I have is gold."

All in all, I continue to leave the past far behind.  And perhaps that's what has caused this gap in posting more than anything.  For so long this blog has become a dumping ground of negative thoughts, or at least a sounding board for seeping ruminations (way to mix metaphor there Matt).  And lately I have not felt any reason to complain.  The present is really pretty good.  The past no longer has a hold on me, I have meaningful, even if part time, work, I really like my classes and am being challenged just enough to make them enjoyable but not stressful, I love my classmates and enjoy working with them, and the future is once again tinged with hope.

A big milestone was reached last week.   While sitting at the office, chipping away at a work project, I randomly started thinking about my former colleague who even as I type this is teaching my former students at my former school.   And for the first time, this thought was not filled with bitterness, jealousy, envy, sadness, or even neutrality.  For the first time, I actually felt glad that it wasn't me doing that job any more.  For the first time, I was truly glad to be where I was, even with all I've given up.  The choice I made is feeling more right than ever, and every day brings me one step closer to closing that process for ever.

And what now?  Well, now, it's time to leave reality behind.  The kids are on spring break, and mom and dad are taking the family to Orlando for the week - it's theme park mayhem, supersaturated and overkilled.  I'd like to think I can post some updates here, but no promises.  Haven't been back to Orlando for a lot of years.  Probably no time this trip to drive up to the old stomping grounds and reminisce...but then again, what meaning does the place even hold for me as a former home any more?  I haven't lived there since...1989?  Still, it will be good to get away from here for a while, even if it will be insane.

Thanks for stopping by.  God Bless.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Never fear, loyal readers (both of you)! All is well.  I know that often a big gap on the blog indicates a major disaster but this time it was just a case of a steady routine which didn't allow for much time for reflection.  But now I have a few minutes and have been meaning to say a few words at the year of 2012 which is finally laid to rest.

2012 started out with the pain of job loss still fresh in my mind and the hope for a new job still tangible and real.  2012 started out with me as a teacher.  And even as late as June or July, if you had told me I would have walked away from my previous career by year's end I would not have believed it.  Things really did happen that fast.  And now, as if cresting a hill, or going around a corner, that part of my life is no longer visible at all in the rearview mirror.

And where do I find myself?  In a good place.  Still a transition place, but I'm embracing that now. Finally.  Because at last I'm in a transition that is looking forward rather than looking back.  I posted a while back about the painful process of becoming something new.  I said that once you make the decision to change something fundamental about yourself, you are a dead man walking, because the new you hasn't been formed yet, and the old you is terminal.  Well, I can finally look at myself and say that the old me is dead, and not say it with bitterness or drama or even sadness.  Because the new me is forming, taking shape, and I can live there now.  The new me also still has a lot of unanswered questions, but that also means a lot of mystery and possibilities.  Odds are, 2014 will ring in without much change for me...but I think that by the end of 2014 I will see amazing changes and things happening, and this time it will be on my terms.  So this year is a year of consolidation, preparation, and continuing to grow and learn.

I still have some personal demons to work through, undoubtedly.  I talk about the past receding in the mirror, but the truth is, I haven't been looking in that mirror.  I avoided it for a long time, which is fine if you're making a beeline out of town.  But you can't drive safely without using those mirrors.  So I'm going to have to start looking back, not out of wistfulness or nostalgia, but because we can't move forward without having some knowledge of where we came from.  I am a new person, independent of my past and yet still a product of my experiences.  Riverside sings "With open arms I'm standing out against my past" and I needed to do that for a while.  But even the protagonist of their Reality Dream Trilogy eventually realized the need to incorporate that past self into the new present.  I'm feeling very close to being able to let the past back in, without it being a source of pain.

So.  Onward to 2013.  God bless all of you in the coming year, and thanks for reading!


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Parenting DOES Suck that Much

Parenting can be tough.

Robby and Hannah have been struggling a lot this year at preschool.  And Steph and I know it's totally our fault.  I take a lot of the blame upon myself.  When life got turned upside-down 19 months ago I became a computer recluse, out of necessity.  In my mind, I had to spend every waking hour on the internet searching for jobs, applying for jobs, figuring out the finances, salvaging our future.  And to an extent, that was true.  But as is often the case in these situations, doing so led me into some bad bad habits.  I got used to letting the kids entertain themselves while I did "important" stuff.  And they got used to only getting attention when someone started screaming so loud that I couldn't concentrate on my work any more.  Basically I became a Steve Reich parent, which is to say, minimal (music geek joke).

And now we're seeing the result of that with the twins unable to cope and emotionally immature.  Hannah is totally unpredictable in her moods and her reactions.  Robby has a temper unlike any of our other three.  And they're both stubborn enough to give me a run for my money at times.  

We've been trying to get back on track, but for a while we thought that "clamping down" would work, and in our defense, it worked with the first two kids.  But these two are different, not just in experience, but in their nature.  They don't respond the same way Faith and Mari did, and so we're having to learn to parent all over again.  We're in a system now of organized rewards and positive reinforcement, which is a great change from the typical "loss of privileges" program we were using before.

Is it working?  Maybe.  Hard to tell.  Hard for me as a parent to be patient.  But our house feels better lately, as I've been making a concerted effort to be more understanding and less vocal.  

Part of my problem has always been that as a kid I was able to get away with stuff.  I was sneaky and sly and always sort of amazed how gullible some grownups could be.  And so I think I project that onto my own kids, always assuming they're up to something.  And maybe sometimes they are, but I'm becoming aware that I'm overdoing it and accusing them of having motives that just aren't there.  

I guess I'm terrified of my kids pulling one over on me, and so I go out of my way to imagine every possible trick they're up to.  I need to get over it and realize that they WILL get away with stuff, and they WILL do things without me knowing it, and probably already have.  And when they do, I'll be no better or worse than any other parent out there.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vegetarianism Doesn't Suck That Much #2

More on having a vegetarian in the house.

Lunch.  Lunch can be your undoing if you're trying to eat healthy.  You're busy, you didn't plan ahead, you're hungry, and you just want to grab something and get back to the day.  This is where fast food thrives.  And in our house it's worse, because Steph hates lunch.  You may not understand how someone can "hate" lunch, but she truly has a deep seated, burning animosity towards the middle meal.

It's not pretty.

But she did come up with this healthy and addictive solution to the lunch dilemma, which is good for vegetarians and carnivores alike.

First of all, you need to learn this:  Hummus is your friend.  It's delicious, it's pretty good for you, it's relatively lo-cal, and it can save lunch.  Not to make this a commercial for Sabra, as I'm no hummus expert.  But I know that they have a ton of flavor varieties to keep things interesting:

Yes, currently, a rather absurd amount of fridge space is taken up with the mighty chickpea mash.  It's sad, but beautiful.  Anyway.  Here's your lunchtime solution.

Start with your favorite hummus variety.  I'm partial to the Supremely Spicy, or sometimes the Chipotle (totally ethnically confused but fusion can be yummy).  Get yourself a whole-wheat tortilla.  Slather it on to your heart's content.  Go ahead, pretend it's mayo or something.

Happy yet?  Okay, let's put some super-food on there.  Add some spinach leaves.  

Roll it all up.  You're done.

I used to think I needed cheese or some kind of meat on there too.  But I truly don't any more.  If you feel like you do need something more, go ahead.  Shredded mozzarella works nicely, or just pop a piece of string cheese in there.  Some shredded chicken would work, as would sliced turkey.  But at some point, try it as is.  A couple of these things is great.  Trouble is, I sometimes can't stop with two, because they're so dang good.  But if I dust off more than two I don't feel too guilty because...there's nothing bad in them.  

It's a simple way to keep lunch healthy.  Try it.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Time-out on veggie posts

Pause the vegetarian rant for a post here.  Just updating things in life.

All in all, things are going very well.  Steph is adjusting to being back at work, I am adjusting to a new career path.  Looking back at some negative posts in the recent months, I am glad to say that I am no longer in that dark place.  Not saying there won't be relapses from time to time, but the sharp pain I was feeling back then has receded into a distant, vague discomfort which I truthfully don't even feel that often any more.  It creeps up and nags at the back of my memory from time to time, and there are certainly triggers, but I am feeling better and better about my choices and the path ahead.  I'm finding myself able to daydream about possible futures again, which is something I hadn't done for a long long time.  And it's good.

Also I need to take this time to give another shout out to my amazing wife.  Steph showed the patience of a saint in sticking with me through my trying times, and it just makes me fall even more deeply in love with her.  She's an amazing woman, and an amazing human being, and I am truly blessed to have ended up with her.  It's not self-deprecation when I say I can't imagine what she's doing with me - I'm an okay guy, but she's just so incredible...I'm the luckiest guy there is.

And my kids are pretty amazing too.  Steph and I have redoubled our efforts to be there for them, and it already seems to be paying off.  It's an unfortunate thing when life throws a negative lens in front of your face, and you start to see your own children through that lens - for a while all I could see were the problems and the troubles, which all kids have but I imagine always seem worse when they're your own kids.  But finally I'm being able to let go of these perfect expectations and see how wonderful and cool my kids are, despite all their flaws.  They deserve a much better dad than I've been and I'm trying to fix that.  I hope they can see it and that they will forgive the doofus I've been for a while.

So, life marches slowly on towards a still-unknown future.  But it's a good life as long as we're all together.  Thank God for all I've been given.  I'll always be grateful for those amazing gifts.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Vegetarianism Doesn't Suck that Much, #1

Now, don't let the title fool you.  I am not a vegetarian nor do I have any immediate plans to become one.  But Steph's commitment to that lifestyle and my role as primary food-preparer in the house has forced me to delve into that world.  And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I make it my business to only cook for her what I would eat myself.  So I've had to find ways to make food that doesn't completely suck for a life-long carnivore.

It's not as hard as you think.

There are a few guidelines to be explored here.  If I was organized and had time, I would present a well-organized list of things I've learned, but this is a haphazard blog from a haphazard life, so here goes the throwing of ideas against the wall, starting with meat substitutes.  I think I will do a series of my thoughts on vegetarianism as I think about them.

Meat substitutes are hit-or-miss.  Boca Burgers, Morningstar, Gardein, Quorn, Smart Sausage, there are a lot of brands, as well as a lot of varieties (tofu, seitan, etc) of ways to sub "stuff" into your recipes.  There is often no way to tell what will be good and what will not, and everyone's tastes will differ.

The first thing to realize is that any claim (from a recipe or the back of a box) that the "stuff" is indistinguishable from the real thing is a flat-out lie.  The best black bean burger is never going to fool you.  And usually, it's a matter of texture more than anything else.  That said, a lot of them are really pretty good, as long as you're not expecting the real thing.  Almost any veggie burger is going to be passable...especially if you load it up with lettuce, onion, tomato, and your other favorite toppings.  Morningstar does a lot of flavor varieties on their burgers and these are good for, well, variety.  Steph and I both are also big fans of the Morningstar buffalo wings (in actuality more like spicy chicken nuggets).  Again, often the key is to immerse them in something else.

I can remember back in my first successful weight loss regimen back around 2002, that one of my favorite lunches was a bowl full of romaine lettuce, a handful of crumbled up baked tortilla chips, 4-5 chopped up Morningstar buffalo wings, all tossed with salsa.  Buried in the other flavors and textures, the fake chicken blends in, just as it would in any restaurant salad.

But back to the original point - some you'll like, some you won't.  We tried Morningstar bacon and ended up throwing most of it out.  Maybe some things just don't translate.  But first of all, the darn thing looked like a child's drawing of bacon.  Secondly, the consistency reminded me more of a dried out Fruit Rollup...kind of a Meat Rollup gone horribly wrong.  But...the Morningstar breakfast sausage works great in a breakfast casserole, and is even perfectly edible by itself.  Again, not the same as real sausage, but it's pretty good as its own thing.  I just now tried Quorn for the first time and I'm very very impressed.  Consistency very close to chicken, with little flavor (meaning it will accept the flavor you give it and blend in).  Steph has had good experiences with SmartSausage, and I think she had some Soyrizo at some point.  But, she's never been a big fan of the crumbles that are meant to simulate ground beef.  There's no pattern to it, you just have to get out there and try everything, knowing that you'll be throwing away some food at some point.

And of course, there's the raw material.  Tofu just is never going to work in our family...or maybe I just haven't figured out the right way to do it yet.  All I know is Steph can't seem to choke the stuff down.  But, she has eaten tofu at a Thai restaurant and liked it very much.  Once again, it seems to be about drowning it in enough flavors to distract your mouth.  Seitan is better but still problematic.  We found a great recipe for fake meatballs using minced seitan, but when we tried to use it as a fajita "meat" Steph couldn't handle the slightly off flavor.  Experiment, be willing to try things in different contexts and preparations.

Recipes are also great - and the internet is full of an infinite variety of veggie burger and other substitute ideas.  Some will say that they're better than the real thing.  Whatever.  But some are so good that I usually end up having one "real" burger and one veggie concoction, just because it's good.  In the past year, I've discovered online several recipes that have become staples in our house.

BBQ Cheddar Chickpea Burgers
Black Bean Edamame Sliders
Veganomicon Chickpea Cutlets

None of these taste like real burgers or chicken breasts, but each is good enough that I have to admit, I decide to make them because I want them too.  They're just good.

So...discoveries like this tell me that even though I have no intention to stop consuming meat, I am to the point now where I can truthfully say, I COULD do it if I had to.

The other thing to realize is that sometimes, veggies can be enough.  More on that in the next post.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How your hobbies can save your life

Not gonna say too much here, but wanted to just mention this while I was thinking about it.

You may have noticed an uptick in the amount of food-related posts lately.  Not that this is ever going to become a food blog (I just don't have the time) but this is an important point to make.

One of my biggest struggles the past few weeks has been in re-establishing my personal identity.  I've been a music teacher for 13 years, and prior to that, for 4 years I trained to become one, and for 3 years before that I knew what I wanted to do.  20 years is a long time to wipe away in a single afternoon.  I created quite a big vacuum in my sense of self, and we all know that vacuums...suck.

Yes, I'm now in a program to become a "professional writer," but I still don't entirely know what that means yet.  And judging from the readings in our intro class, most professional writers don't know either.  And even if I did, I've only been on this path for a month or so.  You can see the imbalance.

There is always a particularly difficult thing about transitions in life.  There's a moment when you know that the person you are now, with the recent memories, experiences, and the subtle ways that your job has shaped you...that person is about to be replaced by someone else, a new you that no one really knows yet.  (And yes, I know that changes like this happen every day, but I would maintain that most of those day to day changes are so small as to go unnoticed over a period of many years - they are not stressful drastic changes.)  But the difficulty is that this new person isn't here yet, so the old you is still the only person you have to fill the self.  It's very hard to go around being this person who's about to disappear, this dead man walking.  It's surreal, it's painful, which is why I managed to rip that person out of myself and stuff it in the storage room.  But what are you left with?

Ah, now we get back to the post title.  I have found my hobbies to be suddenly massively important to me in the past month.  I've always been interested in learning new techniques and trying new ideas in the kitchen, but all of a sudden it seemed vitally, critically important to do so, as if my very being depended on it.  I had dabbled in songwriting, but suddenly the ideas were pouring out of me, and I actually took that horrifying step of passing my work on to someone to collaborate with.  I developed new hobbies - I'm becoming a respectable amateur mixologist, and I love it - there's a lot to learn about there.  Steph has been flustered with my sudden obsession with the fact that I was boring and needed to have something interesting for her to say about me.  Well, I think I get it now.  Those hobbies are bridging me through a time when I am empty of an established identity.  My self image is being filled by these side interests.  And...I really think this is a good good thing.

I had an epiphany recently that if I were to list my top 10 favorite activities in this world, sauteing onions would make the list.  Such a mundane thing to do,'s about beginnings, possibilities.  Everything is just getting started, and it's go time.  It's a transcendent thing.  I've always loved cooking in my own amateur way, but I never viewed it as being so spiritual before, and I never would have, if the absence of the rest of 'me' hadn't allowed my cooking 'self' to expand to fill the shape of my soul.  And I'm grateful for that.  And if I didn't have these hobbies to dive into and explore...I don't know how I could have made it through the past few weeks.

So I'll keep posting about food because I need to.  I might even some day share thoughts on songwriting.  I'll for sure start talking about the drinks I make.  Might even dabble in album reviews - been thinking about that for a long time.  Because right now all that stuff is who I am...and maybe it always was.

God bless,

Friday, September 14, 2012


It's the little things sometimes.

I made my first roux tonight.  Actually, I should say, "we made our first roux" because I had a lot of help.

Mari was my assistant chef, and yes, she stayed and stirred almost the entire time.  She has always been the most interested in the kitchen.

That said, for most people I would not recommend your first experience with a roux be a double-barrel roux duet.  I seriously would have probably burned them both without Mari's help.

But I'm pleased to report, it worked just like it's supposed to.  Got brown and thick and chocolate-looking, and when the veggies went in there it just turned into a brown, buttery, sticky gooey mess of freaking deliciousness.

Why did I have to do two?  Well, because my wife went vegetarian a year ago...and I like a challenge.  Thanks to Ivy's Feast for the recipe idea, adjusted for our family.

Soy sausage and tofu for Steph

Chicken and Andouille for the rest of us.

Let it not be said that she hasn't tried to love it, but Steph just can't get past the texture of tofu.  I get it.  It's not my favorite, but I've made it a personal mission since she went vegetarian that I won't cook her anything I wouldn't eat myself.  

The flavor of everything was fabulous, but Steph wasn't keen on the tofu in there.  I tried it, and it really didn't seem to fit with the etouffee but it was okay.  Steph has since told me that she would be happy just loading the darn thing up with veggies - I'll do that next time.  The meaty one was great, though.  And Mari was so proud to have been such a big part of our first attempt at cajun cooking:

She even helped make dessert - a family favorite, bananas foster.  She has always loved helping cut up the bananas.

This part is my job, though:

I hate that picture.  I look like someone took my head off and then reattached it too tight.  The point is, however, if you look close you can see a little blue flame going on.

Anyway, a fun night in the kitchen.  And fun to have a child who is so interested in cooking.  There's hope for us yet.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Another day

Steph has survived the first day of school and is doing fine.  And I have survived not having a first day of school.

Have I mentioned how amazing and wonderful my wife is?  She's being so kind and patient and helping me through the maze of emotions.  There are obviously good days and bad, and while I do feel pressure to pull things together sooner rather than later, I can assure you that all that pressure is self-applied.  Steph is showing the patience of a saint in helping me deal with the loss, and I will never be able to repay her.  I know if I was forced to deal with myself, I'd have been fed up long ago.

So I'm back into the mode of keeping myself busy.  Cooked some Moroccan tonight.  Things got crazy at the end, and I'm not used to being in food blog mode, so I forgot to take a photo of the finished product, but it was definitely a keeper.  Recipe can be found here:

Quick Moroccan Tagine

First time working with leeks.  Nothing to worry about.  They're kind of like giant green onions with no real flavor.  All the kids liked this meal, with the exception of Mari who simply will not accept chickpeas as the gift of heaven that they really are.  But they all loved the sauce which is great, because it was definitely exotic for them.  This one will be making more appearances at our house.

Which brings us to the next point.  I'm officially going to have to surrender my man card, because I'm starting up on Pinterest to help me keep track of recipes.  Yeah, that sentence has layers.  But seriously, I don't use cookbooks - who needs them when you have the internet?  But when I try to remember which of 25,000 spinach lasagna recipe I used 5 months ago, it's getting ridiculous.  So I need to get it all organized.  Steph will be helping me with that too.  I am not a choice cut of masculinity.  Ah well.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


I am happy to report that things have calmed down since my last post.  I made it through the first assignment, and was able to find at least a couple of intelligent things to say.  I was also comforted to find out that several others in the class had the same sort of difficulties I did.  Knowing you're not alone helps quite a bit.

In the meantime, I continue to adjust to my new life.  Being back at grad school and walking around campus with all the young people makes me feel weird.  Training for a non-musical-non-teaching career feels very foreign still.  But it is making connections with enough parts of me to tell me that this is still probably the best option available, that there just may be a latent skill that I can market buried somewhere in here, and that this may be something I can enjoy.  In some ways I am glad that the classes are progressing slowly, but I also want to really have a chance to see what this is all about and stop discussing the theory.  The sooner I try my hand at the real thing, the sooner I know if I'm cut out for this.  So I'm trying to be patient.

I am also adjusting to having assignments and homework, and having 4 kids.  Time is at a premium.  And it's very hard for me to get an assignment on a Tuesday and know that I likely can't even touch it until Friday.  I am the opposite of a procrastinator.  I hate that feeling.  If it were up to me, I'd come home, get the assignment done by 3 in the morning, and relax the rest of the week.  I can't do that.  It's difficult for me.

As far as the emotional side...I've had talks with several people lately, and the fact is, I am only getting through the emotions by not thinking about any of it.  Not the healthiest way to deal with it but I'm afraid it's what I have right now.  I don't have the luxury to think about a Plan or a path.  All I can do is look straight down and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I can't look forward and I can't look back, one is too scary and one hurts too much.  All I've got is the present, and the present is actually okay right now - ironic that in previous posts I've lamented being stuck in the present.  Now it's saving me.  

I know that time heals, but I've never had to heal this big a wound.  I'm getting used to the idea that it might never actually heal, but that I'm going to simply learn to live with it.  There's a sadness that lives at the edge of my awareness and I can't see that anything is ever going to defeat that.  There was so much lost, stolen, given up...and really none of that can be replaced, ever.  Again it's funny how life has flipflopped.  I would say that teaching as a career is a collection of miserable moments that add up to feeling good about what you do.  Now, I'm entering a time of my life where the moments themselves aren't that bad at all - my day to day life is pretty pleasant.  But it's not going to add up to much.  Nothing is going to be as rewarding and satisfying as the last 13 years.  So again, I'm focusing on the moments.  The moments are all I've got.

I know this all sounds pretty grim.  Maybe it is.  All I know is that I'm managing the sadness, and I will continue to do so.  It should also be said that this blog has again become the repository for the negative feelings.  In some sense I have to vomit the sadness all over the screen here so I can function in the real world.  Exaggeration?  Hyperbole?  For sure.  But a kernel of truth.  Just accept anything you read here with a disclaimer that it's going to skew to the hopeless and is not a fair representation of my mental state at any given moment.

The fact remains, that life should be enough.  I may never again be as rewarded and as satisfied as I was previously, but I'm still alive, and that's a gift.  I will continue to try to remember that.