New Year. New Start. New Project

Right now, millions of people are hugging and kissing and popping bottles of champagne as they ring in yet another new year. I’m sitting in my living room, my hubby and hound dog beside me, my babies sleeping soundly upstairs as I listen to fireworks popping off in the distance.

And I’ll tell you the truth, folks, there is no place I would rather be.

I mean, I get why people get so crazy as they count down the seconds and watch that big ol’ ball dropping in Times Square. It’s a new year, a brand new beginning…even if it is really just another day, another tick tocking past midnight, another series of moments that might pass as quickly and unceremoniously as the rest. It’s really nothing more than a symbol, a man made tradition to mark the passing of time and the turning of another calendar page. But what it gives us is hope, and hope is really the most important thing we have to hold onto.

I’ve never gotten really crazy about celebrating on New Year’s Eve. When I was a kid, it was an excuse to stay up past midnight. In my teens, I often spent the night babysitting kids in my neighborhood while their parents went out to party. During my years in college and living in New York, I hung out with friends and rang in the New Year cheering on my hubby (then boyfriend/fiance) as he tried to bring home the coveted beer pong championship belt and drinking champagne on the roof of Romoser Hall.

And as for resolutions…I’m not really a big believer in them. Most people don’t even manage to make it out of January with their resolutions in place because, let’s face it, anything you think you’re resolute about when the clock strikes midnight and you’re shit-faced and singing and feeling rather invincible tends to get quickly forgotten or modified when you wake up the next morning with a wicked hangover and a whole long list of the same old responsibilities. So no, I don’t really go for New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I tend to start each year with a couple challenges for myself, or a few goals I’d like to reach in the next year, and as long as I keep making strides in the right direction, I consider it a personal victory.

A year ago, I challenged myself to reach two goals: 1) Figure out how to make NY-style pizza and 2) Finish my memoir. I crossed the NY-style pizza off my list a couple months ago (and I have to admit, I’m pretty damn proud of myself for that one). As for the memoir…well, that’s still a work in progress, so I’ll roll that one right over to 2016.

So, here’s what I’ll be working on in 2016:

1. My memoir – I’m still in draft stage, and need to dive back in and really commit to the project. With so many other things happening in my life (my job, my family, a new baby, travel, housework, sleep), it has gotten way too easy for me to just put the project aside. So my goal this year is to work on two chapters a month, and to post at least once a week on the project’s Facebook page. If you’d like to follow along on Facebook, you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/InASeaOfStrangers

2. My writing – Outside of the memoir work, I really need to start writing regularly again, whether it is just journaling, freelancing, writing letters to friends/family, or blogging. To help keep myself motivated (and keep writing, keep writing, keep writing), I’m committing to another 365 Project here on my blog in 2016. I’m going to post something every day. It might not always be the most interesting read or the best photo, but it will be something that captured my attention and that I want to share, even if it’s just one word or one photo. And it starts right now.

3. My body – After two babies and a whole lot of slacking on even the most basic fitness, I’m seriously out of shape and hating it. Finding balance when it comes to my body image and self-esteem has always been a huge challenge for me, and I know I need to be mindful about making healthy choices to achieve my weight loss and fitness goals. So, to help ease myself into it, I’m jumping on the fitness tracker craze. I’m sure there will be more to come, so stay tuned.

4. My connections – There is really nothing more important to me than the people I love, but sometimes with all the other plans and obligations and distractions of daily life, I feel like I fall short in showing these people just how much they mean to me. So, this year, I’m also challenging myself to be a better wife, a better mother, a better sister, a better friend…hell, I’m challenging myself to be a better person. I’m challenging myself to be more present, to connect and reconnect whether it is through a face-to-face conversation, a text, an email, a handwritten note, or even a smile and a quick hello to the people I pass on the street.

It’s been one helluva year. All in all, I’d have to rank 2015 as one of the best so far. It certainly wasn’t without its hardships. There were plenty of those, believe me. But maybe I’m a little older, a little wiser, a little less concerned with the penny ante bullshit and a lot more focused on the things that really matter, because all those difficult things just sort of faded away and made all the really great things that much more amazing. And as I sit here in my cozy living room, listening to the fireworks, surrounded by the people I love the most in the whole, wide world, I am so very thankful and excited to see what 2016 has in store for me.

Bring it.

And here’s a little hound dog selfie to help ring in the new year…

Hound dog selfie

The New York Pizza Quest

Once you’ve lived in New York, it’s hard to ever feel totally settled anywhere else. New York is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s the kind of place that just sort of seeps in and becomes a part of you if you let it.

I moved to New York in August of 1998 as a college freshman and spent the next nine years falling in love with everything about it from the people to the culture to the food.

When Stevie and I left New York in 2007, we left behind a lot. We left family and dear friends. We left pieces of ourselves. And we left a helluva lot of really amazing food.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s good food everywhere. There’s this dish called Pollo Fundido at a little family-owned restaurant called LB Cantina in Florence, Arizona. It’s a homemade chicken chimichanga topped with jalepeno cream cheese and pepper jack cheese, and it will change your life. No joke. I may have eaten my weight in Pollo Fundido the three years we lived in Arizona, and every time I go back to visit, LB’s is one of the first places I go while I’m there. And here in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’ve got a bunch of really great restaurants serving some seriously amazing stuff. Take the Full Leaded Jacket from this little place called Leadbelly for instance. It’s a fresh hamburger patty served on a homemade cinnamon roll and topped with white cheddar, chili, sour cream, scallions, chopped tomato, red onion, fresh jalapeño, crisp tortillas, and a queso sauce so awesome they actually call it queso awesome. I know, it sounds like some stoners got together after a night of heavy smoking and just dumped together everything they saw in the fridge, but let me tell you folks, the Full Leaded Jacket is so freakin’ amazing it’s damn near a religious experience when you take your first bite of that flavor combination.

And yet, for all the great food we’ve had in Arizona and Nebraska and every other place we’ve traveled in between, there’s one craving we just haven’t been able to truly satisfy since we left and that’s good ol’ New York style pizza.

In Arizona, the first time Stevie called up the local pizzeria to order a large pie, the girl on the other end of the phone started to stutter.

“Um…sir…we sell pizza here.”

It took every last ounce of strength for my dear hubby not climb through the phone and shake her. Instead, he cleared his throat and tried again.

“Uh, yeah, I know,” he said. “I’d like a large cheese pizza, please.”

Luckily the pizza was tolerable. Not great, but not the worst we’d had in Arizona by a long shot.

When we moved to Lincoln, we embarked on what became known as The Great Pizza Quest, meticulously working our way through every pizza place in town, searching for something that could fill the void.

Sadly, it was an utter failure. Sauces were too sweet, toppings too heavy. Real pizza dough/crust was nowhere to be found and in its place, a dense bread that soaked up the oil from the overabundance of cheese and left a puddle on the plate. While places like Yia Yia’s and Momo’s had some really great flavors, the crusts were all wrong. We thought we might have gotten close the first time we ordered from Lazzari’s, but then the sauce got sweet and they started overcooking the pies, and there’s nothing worse than burned cheese and brittle crust.

Well, nothing worse except pizza cut in squares. I mean, what is that about anyway? Stevie got to the point where the first question he would ask when he walked into a new pizza place here in Lincoln is whether they cut the pizza in squares. If the answer was yes, he would do an abrupt about-face and walk right back out again.

Each visit back East only exacerbated our longing for some real, authentic NY-style pizza. And after our visit to New York last summer, where we spent 10 days gorging ourselves to get our fill before we flew back to our pizza-less lives in Lincoln, I decided enough was enough.

If I could teach myself to make Black & White Cookies that tasted every bit as good as the ones in New York, then damned if I couldn’t learn how to make NY-style pizza too.

And so, I set a little goal for myself and I put it right out there on Facebook for everyone to see, hoping that broadcasting it might help make me accountable.

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I’m thinking, after all this time, a lot of folks probably thought I’d forgotten. I mean, it has taken me almost 11 months, but here’s the thing…anyone who knows me well, knows that’s sort of how I operate, at least when it comes to big projects. Back when we were both students, it used to drive Stevie nuts. See, I’d get an assignment in class, say for a 20-page research paper. The deadline would be a month away. For a good 3 1/2 weeks, it might appear to the untrained eye that I was doing nothing. Then, a couple days before the paper was due, there would be a stack of books on my desk and a few scraps of paper with some notes scribbled here and there. Then, the night (or sometimes even a few hours) before the paper was due, I would sit down at the computer and begin to type. Then I would hand in the paper and the assignment was complete. Stevie always hated that I could do so well when it seemed I was always doing things last minute, but that wasn’t really the case. All those weeks when I was doing “nothing”, the idea was growing in my mind, the details marinating. I could “see” it coming together in my head. Every now and then I would jot down an idea or a few sentences that I could come back to later. By the time I finally sat down to hammer it out, it was all there.

So no, I hadn’t forgotten about my great pizza making resolution. And while it may have seemed like the idea was lying dormant, it has been on my mind all these months since I first challenged myself to do it. I’ve been going over the plan in my head, researching methods, reading blogs and articles and reviews, plotting just how exactly I was going to do this and do it right. (I was also waiting for the morning sickness to subside, and then for my aching pregnant body to return to semi-normal after Henry was born, so yeah, it has taken awhile).

By time time I finally purchased the ingredients and mixed up that first batch of dough in my kitchen, I’d spent 10 months making pizza in my head.

And I’ll tell you what, ladies and gentlemen, those were 10 months very well spent, because I’ve done it. Stevie is a self-professed pizza snob–he has no problem admitting it. Being a born and raised New Yorker who probably has pizza sauce coursing through his veins at this point, he is very picky when it comes to any pizza that claims to be NY-style. My first attempt last Friday was okay. The flavor was there, but I’d gotten way too overzealous stretching the dough and it ended up being so thin in the middle that it tore right through. Even so, Stevie declared that very first pizza the best in Lincoln.

But I knew I could do better.

I made another round on Saturday when we were at my parents’ apartment watching the Husker game. Again, the flavor was right, but after stretching the dough too thin the night before, I erred on the side of caution and the crust ended up being a little too thick.

Back to the drawing board.

Monday, I gave it another go, only this time I made the pizza way too big for the peel, and I had to try and cook it on the aluminum pizza pan I’d purchased for serving. The crust ended up cooking too fast on the edges, but was still underdone in the middle, so I had to cut slices and throw them back on the stone in the oven to crisp, which meant the outer crust was way too crispy.

So, I asked Stevie and Cadence if they were sick of pizza yet and when they both said no, I pulled out another piece of dough and went through the process again meticulously with Miss Cadence helping and Henry keeping a close eye on us from the living room.

And tonight…tonight Stevie folded his slice in half, took a great big bite, and gave me two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

And while I’m still planning to keep on practicing until I’ve honed my newfound skills to the point where I can make a pizza in my sleep, I’m satisfied, and pretty damn proud of myself for bringing another piece of New York here to my home in Nebraska.

Mission accomplished.

What’s next?

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Well, Hello 2015

Stevie and I have pretty much accepted the fact that our lives are always going to include a certain level of chaos.

It’s okay. We’re learning to embrace it.

Because somehow, things always have a way of working out. Things might not always go according to plan (in fact, they rarely do). And sometimes the end result is quite opposite of what we originally intended, but still, there always seems to be some order in the disorder. And sometimes the things we never knew we wanted turn out to be exactly what we needed.

Funny how things work out.

For us, 2014 was a year of self-discovery. New jobs, old jobs, new opportunities, new life. In the last few weeks alone we found out that we have a new baby on the way, decided to sell our house, accepted an offer, celebrated Christmas, rang in the new year, and decided to put an offer in on a new house.

It’s been one helluva ride since Thanksgiving.

We’re rolling into 2015 on a wave of possibilities, and we’re excited to see what comes next.

Stevie and I aren’t really big on New Year’s resolutions, but I have two personal goals that I plan to accomplish this year, in the midst of all the other happenings.

1. Finish my memoir. It’s been sitting around in this “draft” stage for long enough and, come hell or high water, it’s time to move forward. I already started a Facebook page for the project, and I need to get back in the habit of writing regularly (and hopefully blogging regularly) to finally get it done. If you want to follow the project, you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/InASeaOfStrangers

2. Make NY-style pizza. Stevie and I are tired of the lack of true NY-style pizza here in Nebraska. So, I’ve been researching some recipes and dough-making methods and I’m determined to master making NY-style pizza before the year is out. With my mother-in-law’s sauce, some freshly grated mozzarella, and the right dough, it’s going to be epic, and I’m determined to do it.

How about you? What are your plans for 2015?

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