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Newsy! My Year In Review + Brisket + The Stranger In the Woods (v.52)

June 13th, 2017

Consider this:

A Very Newsy! Year In Review

Like sands through the hourglass … (photo credit here)

Thursday June 15th may seem like an odd day for a year in review, but since it happens to mark the one-year anniversary of Newsy!, I’m going with it. As I look back at all the past newsletters, I realize Newsy! serves as a time capsule of sorts, one that provides a darn good opportunity for me both to reflect on the last year – and think about what’s ahead.

I’ll bet my past year looks, in many ways, a lot like yours did. I laughed and cried about the oys and joys of parenthood, trying (and failing) to impress my teenager, ranting about screen addiction and insisting we engage in Forced Family Fun. I noted a few relationship oys and joys, too, as my beloved husband completed a months-long comparative analysis of coffee machines, snored like a bulldozer (or a bulldog) and then failed the Mother’s Day gift-giving test.

I tried a few new things: I brewed kombucha (yay!), boiled bone broth (boo) and discovered Nia dance (double yay!). I did my best to show up for dear friends with love, support and food when their sweet boy underwent a life-saving procedure (best news ever: the lad has made a remarkable recovery). I hung out with some awesome folks, like my activist teenage cousin, an inspiring neighborhood organizer and an amazing octogenarian.

Like many of you, I had the wind knocked out me on Election Day. I took a time-out before trying (sometimes desperately) to find humor in the horrible. I debated the Ivanka Challenge (thanks, y’all, for weighing in) and suggested @realDonaldTrump might want to edit his tweets (clearly, he didn’t heed my covfefe).

While all this was happening, I suppose I got a year older, too. Which explains my laments about mammograms, belly fat and insomnia (surely there’s a hormonal link to this somewhere).

Any of this sound familiar? From the comments I’ve received from friends, acquaintances and strangers during this Newsy! year, I’m pretty sure it does. So many folks have offered kind and supportive feedback all along the way. As a writer usually holed up alone in my office, working in silence (except for the chatterbox in my head), your comments mean a lot. When I get an email from the outside world as simple as loved Newsy! this week, I’m truly thrilled.

That’s why I’m grabbing this moment to say thanks. Thank you to the woman who every week sends me a detailed email explaining what she can (or can’t) relate to in the newsletter. Thank you to the pal who surprised me at a dinner party by cooking the Newsy! recipe of the week, which happened to be my great-grandmother’s Hot Milk cake. (I’ve never eaten this cake anywhere besides in a house inhabited by Olders, so the gesture nearly moved me to tears). Thank you to the folks who drop me a line to say, I delete everything in my inbox, but I always read Newsy!. Thank you to the dedicated reader who confessed she just doesn’t have time to let me know if she enjoys a particular issue. We decided sending a random number – 11! 4! 19! – would suffice. (Friend, if you’re reading this: 28!)

Thank you to the librarian I’ve never met who took time out to say how much she appreciates the articles and the book reviews (shout out to you, too, esteemed regular reviewers Leigh Ann T., Jules O. and Victoria from Vermont). Thank you to Vicki, my editor at the Marin IJ who publishes so many Newsy! articles the county is probably getting really sick of hearing from me.

On that note, here’s one more thank you, plus a funny little story to go with it: For years, I’ve watched a cashier at my local supermarket engage in warm banter with just about every customer who comes through her line. As eggs and carrots move down the conveyer belt, this friendly lady chats and laughs with shoppers like they’re enjoying an evening out at a great party.

I am definitely not invited to this party. On numerous occasions, I’ve tried to engage the cashier in casual conversation. I’ve been met with a stony, albeit professional, chill. Why does she hate me? I lament each time I buy my milk.

Two weeks ago, it was my turn to checkout. I got my usual cool hello before the cashier turned to the screen to verify my credit card. Then she looked at me. “Are you the Willow who writes for the IJ?” she asked. Her face lit up, and she smiled at me the way I’d seen her smile at other, far more special shoppers. “I always read your column,” she continued. “Did you know I’ve got two boys, too?”

With that, we were off, chatting like old (okay, new) friends about school, summer plans and what we were cooking for dinner that night. I left the market reflecting on the power of a byline to turn a stranger into an acquaintance, and, maybe one day, a friend.

Uh oh. Is this Newsy! starting to sound a bit maudlin, like the farewell chapter to a year-long adventure in Ideas, Recipes, Books and More? It’s not! But it is the last issue before summer kicks in, and my usually predictable schedule goes a bit haywire. For starters, soon I’m heading to my Antipodean homeland where I’ll be surrounded by a few of my favorite things (including my sister, my nephew – and, yes, scones, Afghans and Millionaire’s Shortbread).

When I get back in the swing of things, I’ll have Newsy! – perhaps in a slightly, moderately or even radically different form – on the brain. I hope you will, too.

Until then, happy summer and …


P.S. One more thank you: Every writer should have a trusted editor who catches typos, dangling participles, missing commas and more. I’m lucky enough to have two. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Cook this:


I don’t eat a lot of red meat, but when I do, I prefer it cooked slowly for so long that it’s fall-apart tender and, frankly, no longer really resembles an animal product. If that sounds good to you, I think you’ll like this recipe for brisket, which has been a family-favorite ever since my dear friend Carol shared her recipe. I’ve tweaked it slightly: The original calls for packaged onion soup mix, which essentially adds salt and a delicious dash of MSG. I think beef stock adds plenty of flavor without the chemicals.


Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll need a heavy-bottom pot for browning the meat and another large pan (I use my turkey roaster) for cooking in the oven.

6 pounds of center-cut brisket (this makes enough to have lots of leftovers, which you can eat or freeze)

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes

½ cup dry red wine

½ cup beef stock

Salt and pepper for taste

In the heavy-bottom frying pan, brown the beef on all sides (I ask for the meat to be cut into two pieces and then sear them one at a time). Transfer meat to the roasting pan. Pour in tomatoes, half the stock and half the wine. Spread the garlic on top of the meat, plus a sprinkle of salt and a grind of pepper. Cover tightly with a lid or foil and bake for 3-4 hours. After about two hours, check the liquid and add remaining wine and broth as needed. I always add plenty of liquid. I love having extra sauce, and it thickens up quite a bit during cooking. If it’s not falling apart on the fork after four hours, cook it a little longer!

Read this:

The Stranger In the Woods by Michael Finkel (a Jules O. review)

If you were advising a writer on what not to write about, you might have said something like this to Michael Finkel: “Let me get this straight. You’re thinking of devoting an entire book to a hermit who’s not only lived by himself in the woods for nearly three decades but has not spoken with another person in all those years. Mike, you might want to rethink that.”

Sound advice. But wrong advice. Finkel, like Alice Walker, writing The Color Purple in the voice of an illiterate teen talking to God, somehow pulls it off.

And the hermit’s tale is as unlikely as the book’s success. At age 20, smart, self-reliant, shy Christopher Knight decides to give up on civilization and disappear into the vast Maine wilderness. Why? No reason he can articulate, then or 30 years later. He drives his new car farther and farther into the woods until it’s just about out of gas. With no plan, no food, no outdoor gear, he leaves the keys in the car, gets out and starts walking.

And stops talking. He walks, climbs, trips, falls and repeats until he finds a place he likes. Though near a small lake’s summer cabins, it’s all but impossible to spot and even harder to penetrate. So thick are the bushes and brambles that surround it, even animals stay away. Knight steals a tent from one of those cabins, along with food and flashlights, and withdraws from the world.

He lives in his hidden camp through bug-infested springs, sweat-humid summers and bitter-cold winters. Though he comes close to freezing and starving to death, he never gets sick, probably because there’s no one there to give him a cold or pass on the flu. He reads stolen books, listens to stolen music and keeps to himself. In meeting Knight after his hermitage time ends, Finkel manages to pry powerful words from the man who may hold the world title for silent retreat. Among them:

“What I miss most in the woods is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness. … Thoreau was a dilettante.”

If Knight’s withdrawal is inexplicable, Finkel’s connection to him pretty much matches that. Fascinated by a news item he spotted on his phone in his Montana home, he sent Knight a handwritten letter. A week later, he got a reply. Five letters later, Knight broke off the correspondence, closing with, “Your friendly neighborhood Hermit, Christopher Knight.”

That’s the point most writers would say, “Well, I tried.” But Finkel jumped on a plane — actually a series of planes on a series of trips from western Montana to central Maine. Out of those trips, plus a blizzard of research on the history, motivations, cultural influences, neurology and sanity of hermits, came The Stranger in the Woods.

In his fascinating story, Michael Finkel not only wrests quotes from the reluctant hermit, he comes up with a number of quotable lines of his own. Here is his reflection on his subject’s subjective point of view: “It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed. Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising. What did Knight do for a living? He lived for a living.”

This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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