Sunday, May 31, 2009

Road Trip: Saint Louis–New Mexico


In the summer of 1993, my ties to St. Louis were growing thin, though they were also at their strongest then, too. I had left law school during the spring semester, had trained as a volunteer with the Sexual Assault Response Team, and had also landed a public relations internship in a boutique-style marketing firm. I was fortunate to work for and with incredibly generous people, and together we did amazing things in the city. During the day, I learned how to write press releases and good industry newsletters; I helped plan special events to boost awareness for local businesses, and to raise money for charity. (The year I was there, I got my first taste of NASCAR culture, when the racing association teamed up with Northwest Plaza for a flood relief fundraiser.) At night, I stayed on call at home in the event I was needed in one of the area emergency rooms to comfort survivors of assault. It was a busy, intense time. My former law school colleagues were, many of them, away for the summer. But some stayed in town. Among them, my friend-who-mistakenly-became-more-than-a-friend. He was working for a professor, helping with a research project in international law. At some point, despite being basically happy with our work situations, we both started burning out—also we were circling each other uneasily within the deteriorating psychic space of our relationship. Was this the time to take a road trip together? I'm not sure, but we did. I don't remember the details exactly, but for some reason I ended up with an unexpected three-day weekend, and in that moment I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to get out of town. My friend decided he needed to do the same, made whatever arrangements he needed to make, and we planned our spontaneous getaway. I believe it is a bit more than 1,000 miles between St. Louis and Albuquerque. A good sixteen hours or so, assuming a legal highway speed, which we may or may not have respected. We started driving on Friday afternoon after work; rather, I drove. We decided we'd barrel straight through, and we did. We drove all night. Drove across Missouri, down to Oklahoma and across that long, lonely, flat state, across the top handle of Texas, and finally, mid-morning of the next day, we rolled into the center of New Mexico. It would be inaccurate to say that the trip didn't break us further; it did. But we were also buzzed on adventure, mainlining the open road beneath the tires, and we stopped often for fuel, coffee, and so I could splash water on my face. We listened to music: the radio sometimes, but also mixed tapes. We were still making mixed tapes then—it seems so archaic now. We ended, exhausted, in Albuquerque. From there, for the next two days, we'd drive south through the desert, traversing reservation land near the Rio Grande; we'd head north on the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe, drink frozen margaritas in perfect leisure on a restaurant terrace, and return to our no-frills motel under a sunset sky of electric O'Keefe colors. We talked a lot, navigated a tense physicality, and gave ourselves (and each other) the most we could muster in thirty-six hours. The drive back to St. Louis was longer, boring, the elastic of our daily lives snapping us back to routines that were starting to wear on us. We didn't talk much about what we'd seen, preferred to remember the beauty in silence. It had been that, anyway: a landscape of beauty we'd wandered for a short while; the last beautiful thing we'd share as a fading, almost-couple.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

St. Louis


I remember quite a few things about St. Louis, but the quirk that after a while came to represent the city to me, like shorthand, is this: in St. Louis, no matter how old you are, no matter your professional standing or the other details of your life, your resume, or your CV, when you meet a new person there is a single question you are almost certain to be asked (really, without fail if I recall), and that is, "Where did you go to high school?" Your answer matters. Pretty much says it all.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Buying Bulk


One thing you do not do when you live in New York City is buy bulk; well, some people might, but generally not those of us who are renting cramped apartments. I have lived in big cities almost all my life, and mostly in small spaces. This suits me fine. Yes, occasionally I would really like to have more room to eat, sleep, breathe in. There are problems with clothes not fitting in the closets and where to store things like in-line skates. Only recently have my husband and I managed to upgrade to a place that has, while not really a dining room, at least something resembling an alcove that's reserved for meals; it's more than just a table in the corner of the living room. Living and eating are, in terms of spatial relation, finally separate in our home (psychically they still often seem the same, though). This is luxury. Anyway, the point is that there's just no room to store extras, and even the one box of . . . let's say cereal . . . had better be the small and not the "economy" size, because otherwise it doesn't fit in the cupboard, and there's not enough counter space to leave it sitting out. You get the picture. While I was growing up, it was often the same situation, and even when it wasn't—that is, when we had enough space to store extras, backups, spares—still my parents never bought bulk. I guess it's also typical of families with only one child. So I was clueless about such places as Costco or Sam's Club, until I moved to St. Louis. I remember that a friend—male; someone who should have stayed just a friend, but who ended up a botched boyfriend for a while (one of those mistakes you know you're making but that you are powerless to stop)—this friend found out that there was a Sam's Club not far away, and he convinced me to become a member with him. There were rules about who could join. I don't know if it was that we were supposed to be a household, or we were allowed to join because of his student status (I had left law school by then, but he was still enrolled), or what the deal was. We had to be judicious in how we filled out the forms, though, that I recall. However we joined, we joined. I remember signing at the membership or customer service desk, remember getting our Sam's Club cards. We were proud of ourselves. We thought we'd scored big, because we could save a lot of money when we shopped, which is of course a prime concern for anyone on a grad-school or a paid-in-experience intern's budget. But there was one problem: there were a lot of items we couldn't buy. Nothing perishable, that was for sure, though I marveled at the huge containers and packages of everything from chicken to Cool Whip. We simply couldn't go through any of this fast enough, not even when we split the take (don't remember why freezing wouldn't work, but it wouldn't). So we stuck to things like paper towels, toilet paper, and the other item I remember: giant boxes of Corn Flakes. Never before, never since have I eaten so many Corn Flakes, bowl after bowl after bowl. The box contents never seemed to be depleted, and I think that was the last straw for me. I saw myself projected into the future, living with the same person (we may as well have been living together, we were always at his place or mine), having the same conversations and the same arguments, eating from the same box of cereal and eventually—because at some point the box was going to be empty, right?—heading back to Sam's Club to shop for more. I saw a nice, Midwestern, domestic routine of bulk groceries, space to store them, plus the children most likely necessary to make the jumbo packaging worth it, and I just knew . . . I'd never be happy like that. No, guess I'm just a small-batch kind of gal.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

New York Taxi Moment


This week, friends are coming in from out of town. They, too, live in urban environments, so instances of city rudeness are not unknown to them, especially on the road, I imagine. (How many times a day does someone in Southern California get exposed to a dose of road rage?). But when it comes to rude, New Yorkers—especially the cab drivers—have earned a reputation over the years, not wholly undeserved. Actually, I think that people in the city (including the cabbies) have trended much more toward nice in the past decade, though maybe "nice" is just a relative term. Certainly there was a post-9/11 shift. Of course I hope that my friends have only the best experiences in public transportation during the next few days, but in case of any rudeness, I thought I'd share a story to convey that it happens to all of us sooner or later, even the locals—so it's not necessary to ask whether you, when you visit New York City as a tourist, are a target; odds are, it's nothing to do with you whatsoever. As for me, I have only ever written down a cab's medallion number once, and, unfortunately, it wasn't the time I lost a wallet on my way home one evening. No, I wrote down the number of the most obnoxious cab driver I've ever had  the displeasure of having—plus the locations and time of day of pickup and drop-off. I was on the West Side, on or near 57th Street and Ninth Avenue, close to my apartment at the time. This was a couple of years ago at most. I don't remember exactly where I was heading, but it was way across town; I think my journey had something to do with appointments for kindergarten admissions for my son. (If you don't know about the hellish circus that is the NYC kindergarten admissions season, I'm sure it'll turn up in some other post, but trust me: this time of your life is really not the time you want to cope with surly, insulting, incompetent cab drivers!) Things started out all right. We zipped across Central Park to the East Side, then we started hitting the red lights and traffic congestion. I had started my trip slightly on the wrong side of running late, and I remember being concerned about the time. If you're not familiar with the New York grid, the blocks that take you East-West are double or triple the length of the ones running North-South. Crosstown blocks are not really where you want to get stuck. So we're moving at what is now a snail's pace, and then there's a break in the traffic; we can advance. The driver speeds up for several car-lengths, then skids to a halt. He rolls down the front passenger side window and starts talking to a young woman and a man who are standing on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone building, two huge rolling suitcases between them. It takes me a second to realize that he is prowling for his next fare. Is it me, or does it seem completely inappropriate to you, too, that we've stopped in the middle of the street, the meter still running on my ride, so that the driver can negotiate a trip to JFK or LaGuardia or Newark? At this point, we weren't all that far from where I needed to be, but, given the time, it was too far—too many long blocks—for me to get out and walk the rest of the way. So the driver keeps up his wheeling and dealing. Had there been anyone driving behind us, the situation would have taken care of itself: horns would start blaring, and we'd be moving along. But isn't that the way? When you don't want gridlock, you've got it bad. When you could actually profit from some impatient horn-blowing behind you, there's no one to be found. I had to goad the driver on myself. All right . . . I mention to him that the meter's running, and could he continue on, because I'm about to be late for an appointment. I'm sure there was more than a hint of irritation in my voice. If it had just ended there, I wouldn't have thought more about it. Unfortunately, the driver then proceeded to trump me in rudeness beyond belief. Because I dared speak up, he gives me this hostile look in the rearview mirror, then keeps talking to the people on the sidewalk. I tell him he's got to move on, at which point he starts swearing at me. F---ing b----, what the f---, and so on. But he does accelerate. Does he ever. He's now mad at me for queering his next (more lucrative) deal, and I start to wonder if his solution is to do everything possible to put me in harm's way, hoping I'll break something in an accident. I wouldn't put that kind of twisted logic past him; he was also continuing his stream of cursing. But we do arrive at my destination, at which point he indicates the full fare to pay. I had my wallet out already—I had used my pen and the back of a business card to write down the cab's identifying numbers—and I pulled out the fare minus a dollar. I knew he'd really start shouting at me then, but I didn't care. I told him that was all I had, that the last dollar could be paid by the people on the sidewalk if they were still there when he circled back around, and that was that. I jumped out of the cab, for the first time refusing to give even a penny's tip. He gave me more of his tongue lashing, but screeched off, leaving me in his dirty exhaust. I looked at my watch: right on time, and actually I was feeling not bad at all. In the end, I threw away the information I'd written down. After all, what was I going to do, call up and complain that some city cab driver had been rude? I'll leave that to others (some tourists maybe), although, as I've said already, I certainly hope that my visiting friends have no reason to complain this week. "Welcome to New York, and may all your cab rides be safe and pleasant! Have a nice day."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Self Defense


The lights in the studio were cut. I stood in one darkened corner, then walked diagonally across the padded floor toward a man who approached me from the other end of the room. No one else was there. Every nerve in my body tingled with the anticipation of attack. He started a patter of trash talk that began with "Hey, baby, where you goin'?" and ended in four-letter obscenities. His wiry body advanced quickly, and I called up the tactics of self defense I'd been practicing for weeks. Let's call this a final exam. Let's say I flunked it miserably, right from the words "called up." It is an illusion, the idea that in a moment like this there is time to remind yourself of anything; your moves must be without thought, swift and accurate. The man approaching was the teacher of a scrappy "street style" self defense class offered in St. Louis in the spring of 1993. Since I'd been working for S.A.R.T., the Sexual Assault Response Team run out of the YWCA (see yesterday's post), I got to thinking naturally enough about my own ability for self defense. I don't know where I got the info for the class I signed up for, but for weeks I'd been practicing defense tactics. Some of them I still remember to this day, like the side-to-side rolling to destabilize someone who's knocked you to the ground and is sitting on top of you. Even better, you perform the three-pronged move (still standing, with someone behind you) of elbow-to-gut, fist-to-crotch, and then, when the attacker is doubling over in pain, elbow brought back up to crack the assailant under the chin. Then you run like hell. After a certain number of classes, we students felt we'd made good progress, felt ready to be tested, and therein lies the lesson: you're never ready. Never. The evening of the test, we waited in the outer reception area, where we could not see into the studio. One by one we were called in. I remember hearing the women who went before me; I could hear them struggling, fighting, screaming. It was definitely unsettling—it sounded pretty real—but it also felt informative somehow, though I'm not really sure what that means in this circumstance. I guess I told myself that having heard them, I had some idea of what to expect. I expected the approach, the trash-talk confrontation. I did not expect to be facing my teacher, certain he was the only other person in the room, and then be grabbed roughly from behind. Where had this second attacker come from? None of us had any idea of a door near the corner where we'd all been asked to start our walk across the studio. It was a dirty trick, but effective; it was as close to a real attack as could be managed in a controlled setting. And, as I said, my weeks of training were basically useless. I was disoriented and overtaken immediately. I can replay the scene like it was yesterday, except that, oddly, I also can't; it's devoid of detail—and that is not a function of passing years. Many whodunits exploit the unreliability of a witness's report; even, or especially, when the witness is the victim. It's just a different matter altogether to realize that you are the unreliable one, that if you had to describe the man in the shadows, you were likely to make mistakes. We all tried, and largely failed, to name the physical traits of this rigged perpetrator, before he came out to introduce himself to us. Even that evening, sitting in the vestibule with the incident fresh in my mind, the only things I remembered with clarity were the walk across the studio floor, the shock of a person behind me, and then my instructor's hand over my mouth when it was over, telling me not to say a word to anyone else.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

S.A.R.T.


It's late at night, and you're alone in your apartment, tired but on high alert, unable to sleep. In the dark, you pray. Despite the fact that at this time in your life you would never describe yourself as a "religious" person, it is definitely a true prayer, not the bargaining offer of an exchange (I'll reform, if only . . . ); you are not the one in need. You are the one whose job it is to help those in crisis, and although you signed up for this gig, you wish desperately that your job didn't exist, wasn't needed—not tonight, not anytime. Not while you are the volunteer on call, committed to driving at whatever hour of the night to whatever hospital emergency room phones in a case of sexual assault. Given that a possible career in criminal law was what brought me to St. Louis, it's easy to see how I found my way to S.A.R.T., the city's Sexual Assault Response Team. The program was (still is) based out of the Metro St. Louis Y.W.C.A. For volunteers, the program involves intensive training, education, role playing, and support meetings. For survivors of sexual assault, it offers a non-judgmental presence in a moment of need, plus access to individual and group counseling, case management, and coordination of services to help with coping and recovery. In 1993, I served as a volunteer crisis counselor for several months before I left St. Louis, and I have to say it was a harrowing experience—one I admit I was as relieved to end as I was committed to beginning. I remember, on those nights when I had the "graveyard" shift (we never called it that, of course), how lonely and terrifying the world outside my windows seemed. Under night's opaque cover, someone was screaming or not screaming; someone was scratching, clawing, spitting, struggling, or choosing the path of least resistance in order to survive. Daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, young or old, all races; nor was it unheard of to receive a call about a male (man or boy) in the E.R., though it was not common. For S.A.R.T. to receive a call, the case had to be reported, and the fact was that for every call we received, there were untold numbers who suffered without help or treatment, who endured a private hell and refused a chance to put the wheels of justice in motion. The assumption of stigma in cases of rape is well known, the fear that the "victim" would be blamed—often a real problem, still, despite some solid public education efforts made by those in law, medicine, social services, the arts—fear that the legal system would fail those it's meant to protect . . . We never called them "victims," that was another thing I remember. They were always "survivors," which was a more empowering designation, one that put emphasis on the fact that whatever the person did or didn't do to get through that moment of deepest violation, it was the "right" thing to do, since they were still with us, alive. Broken perhaps, but not lost. Three in the morning. Staring at the telephone and willing it to stay silent. Sometimes it did, and all I endured was a night without much sleep, if any. Other times, the three o'clock call would rip through the apartment—who knew that the sound of a telephone could be so loud, so jarring, like an assault in its own right? On those nights, I'd splash water on my face, clip on a hospital I.D., drive wherever I was needed. Sometimes it was the well-off hospital with superior resources and a luxe interior, other times it was the under-funded, stressed and strapped regional hospital servicing the city's underprivileged population. I drove into good neighborhoods and blighted ones, car doors locked and my nighttime street-smarts at their peak. I checked in with the E.R.'s triage nurse, who briefed me on what was going on. After cardiac arrests and shootings or other lethal emergencies, a rape survivor has priority in the E.R., but nevertheless that can sometimes mean a long wait (mercifully in a small, private room, the "rape room"), during which you are often the only chance at comfort that a survivor has. In all the times I was sent out, I never saw a family member or friend present, although I know this must have happened, too. I remember faces and bodies, equally shattered, equally small in the shapeless, thin hospital gowns. I remember phone calls made, receivers slammed down on the other end of the line. I remember women wanting a shoulder to cry on; others wanting nothing, not any form of comfort or conversation at all. I remember doctors, police, and evidence collecting. I remember women who had no way to get home, once they were dressed in the spare clothes that S.A.R.T. kept in a closet on site. I was not allowed to give rides, and I never did. I don't remember any rule about taxis. If there was one, I confess I ignored it: more than once I paid out of my pocket for someone to get back home. And I would go back home myself, following the same deserted streets, trying to resist the urge to follow in my imagination the survivor I'd just seen; trying to disengage, because sooner or later you had to. You had to go back to your own unbroken life, your own safe haven, and try to feel good not guilty. You had to try to get some sleep. And you had to pray, again, that the next time you were on call, the phone would stay silent and you could tell yourself that it meant a quiet night in a world of violent crimes.

NOTE: If you are, or know someone who is, a survivor of sexual assault, there are people who can and will help. Nationally, you can contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), which Worth magazine calls one of "America's 100 Best Charities". They sponsor the NATIONAL SEXUAL ASSAULT HOTLINE, which is a 24/7, free, confidential service, both online at www.rainn.org and at 1-800-656-HOPE. Their site offers resources and education for survivors, their families and friends. In St. Louis, S.A.R.T. also offers a 24/7 support hotline and basic information on their Web site, here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Drawn to Law

What was it, apart from a secondary satisfaction to ride out the 1992 recession in the shelter of graduate school (not that incurring additional expense made sense), that had me moving through the Gateway to the West, settling in St. Louis, Missouri, for a doomed attempt at law school? Was it because I'd been told numerous times in my life that I'd make a good lawyer? (And why was that? For a logical mind or an eye for detail? Because I was good at arguing?) I remember that during orientation at Washington University (a.k.a. Wash U), I quickly came to dislike the getting-to-know-you chitchat at social events, because I'd be asked first where I went to college and then what my major had been. Coming from a small liberal arts college with no official pre-law program (we got taught how to think across subjects), I got used to the incredulous looks I received when I said I'd majored in French Language. It was obvious, too, from my urban, "updated Annie Hall" style of dress and my eschewing of foundation makeup and neatly coiffed hair, that I wasn't exactly a cultural match for my new setting. But despite the skepticism of those around me (including friends who knew me as more of a hell-raiser than anyone prone to law enforcement) I felt I was there for a reason, and at the time, that reason was to pursue a J.D. degree with an eye toward a lock-'em-up position in a district attorney's office. I remember two main influences that put me on this path, though I probably had other reasons, now lost to me. First, I was friends with more than one teenage girl who had been the victim of a violent crime for which there never seemed to be a remedy (legal or psychological). Second, I'd had a fabulous criminal law instructor during the summer before my senior year in college, who provided the encouragement (and recommendations) I needed to launch my applications. What I remember about my girlfriends is how fragile and guarded they were as a result of what had happened to them. What I remember about my criminal law class is that I wrote my final paper on the logical inconsistencies and ironies of the statutory rape and martial-rape-exception laws. My instructor thought the paper was as good as some published law review articles (an indication of my actual future career as a writer, I suppose), and he always reassured me if I had doubts about my aptitude for legal work. I remember him saying that if a "thick-headed cop like me can get through law school, then you certainly can with flying colors." He'd been a police officer in New York City before going to law school and eventually joining the EPA. I applied to a lot of law schools, almost all ivy league, and got into one (wait listed at another). As congratulations, my mother gave me a ring she'd had for decades. In fact, I'd been with my father when it was purchased in a small jewelry store in Chicago in the 1970s, and I'd always loved it. The ring is gold with an openwork design, its single emblem a set of hanging scales. The ring was bought for my mother because of her birth date, which makes her a Libra. She gave it to me for my pursuit of justice. (I also happen to be a Libra, so I can still claim the symbol, even though its legal significance is no longer relevant to my life.) In the end, it wasn't meant to be. I knew it fairly early on, in part because my body sent me signs of discord: I ended up taking a medical leave during my second semester. Sometimes the body loosens by its own force the grip your mind has on a self-appointed task or role. I remember feeling guilty for "quitting," but now of course I see the domino effect of my life stemming from the decision to leave law school for something that was as yet undefined—and it's all for the best.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Commencement 1992

 
Seventeen years ago, the mortarboard cap and gown put away and the parties over, I closed the door on my undergraduate years, boxed up my affairs in the Hudson Valley (things and relationships), and prepared to move on. On this day in 1992 (a Sunday then, as now), the New York Times reported on weekend commencement ceremonies that had taken place the day before. My college was cited among them. "Bard College held its 132d commencement yesterday on the main campus lawn in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. William Julius Wilson delivered the commencement address to the school's largest graduating class [. . . ]. Dr. Wilson, a sociologist and a professor of race relations and public policy at the University of Chicago, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters." It was not an uplifting ceremony; I was wilting throughout. First, it was hot—or anyway I was hot, sitting under the white tent, shoulder to shoulder with the two hundred plus seniors, doing my best to stay hydrated with Snapple Raspberry Iced Tea. Granted, my impressions were filtered through a wicked hangover from all-night partying the night before, but still. In 1992, the country was in a recession crisis. (Plus ça change . . .) Nothing compared to the economic ills that have battered our country over this past year, but it seemed threatening enough. People feared for their jobs, if they had them. The presidential race of that year reflected the public angst, generating catch phrases such as "It's the economy, stupid!" and, later in the year, independent candidate Ross Perot's "giant sucking sound" of jobs falling away—his comment in reference to the perceived threat of NAFTA, but appropriate for general sentiment about the economy, too: it sucked all right. In that commencement moment, though, with family and friends in attendance, all I really wanted to do was to feel a sense of accomplishment, not fear or worry. I didn't really want to hear how we were being released into a job market that was a disabled mess. Dr. Wilson's speech didn't spare us a thing; it was was a serious harsh on the mellow of the graduating class, at least to my mind. I have to say, though, that I had a great psychic cushion: my immediate future did not involve resumes and job interviews. I was heading to graduate school, riding out the economic turbulence in continued academia; at least, that was the plan. I remember being glad that my familiar lifeline—student status—was not yet severed. Today, I think about all the seniors who have graduated this weekend across the country. I want to say to them that I understand what they may be feeling: that mix of self-congratulation and anxiety; the feeling that this moment in history trumps whatever honors may have been bestowed, and that the prize they are reaching for (if it is a plum job anyway) may elude them for some time more. I hope things turn around soon. I hope this year's graduates keep an optimistic eye on their future, see the opportunity for something better to come out of the recent period of collapse and disillusionment. While life may not be all Pomp and Circumstance . . . I hope that for most, it's still celebration and forward motion.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Grape Milkshake


It seemed like a good idea when I first thought of it. Of course, when you're six or seven (or even much older), lots of things seem like good ideas that aren't, including conning a babysitter into letting you wobble around the neighborhood wearing your mother's high-heeled boots, many sizes too big and in any case off limits; or else sticking a tiny seashell up your nose, far enough so that a couple weeks later—because you'd done this on the sly and were afraid to say anything when it got stuck—the shell had to get vacuumed out at the pediatrician's office. You know, stuff like that. (What? You mean to tell me you never put a shell up your nose when you were little?) Anyway, this was no big thing, didn't have any serious consequences. No getting in trouble, no trip to the doctor. Still, it marked me for its foulness, and I've never forgotten. To give some background: I don't know whose idea it was, mine or my mom's, but together we started a mini tradition of kitchen experimentation when we were living at 345 Fullerton, in Chicago, so I was probably in first grade at this time. I'm guessing on timing, but that's close if not accurate. We picked a day of the week—I think maybe it was Wednesday?—and after school on that day, we'd make up special drinks. I believe I had free rein, could choose any ingredients and my mom would help me mix them up. I was really into it. You'd think with a mad-science style of interest in culinary chemistry, I'd end up a bartender or something—excuse me, a "mixologist." Lucky for barflies everywhere, this would not turn out to be the case. I thought it made perfect sense: I loved milkshakes. I loved grapes, grape juice, grape-flavored anything. They had to be a winning combination. Bless my mom, she never judged my choices. Who knows, there may well be a way to make a good grape milkshake. (And of course, having just written that sentence, I had to do a search online to quench my curiosity. There are quite a lot of grape milkshake recipes out there, actually.) But our effort was not good enough, the gap between expectation and reality so huge, there was no way to scale the divide. The "milkshake" was one of the worst things I ever tasted—and I have to say I was disappointed with myself, since it had been my idea. I put the word "milkshake" in quotation marks because, now that I think of it, I'm not sure we made it according to a normal milkshake formula. I'm not even sure there was any ice cream in it, so it may just have been grape-milk. For sure there was purple grape juice mixed with milk, and that alone was enough to turn our stomachs. It was at once a first and a last, for both of us. I don't remember any of the other concoctions we made on "drink day." Our weekly project may only have lasted a very short while (and if so, I suppose it was with good reason). But I have always kept the adventure, repulsion, and humor of the grape milkshake filed away in memory. Now, I have a weekly cooking date with my six-year-old son. We're a lot more ambitious than drinks, but I hope to create similar memories for him. I hope that when he's older, he'll remember us together in the kitchen and remember that I let him make choices. We're only two weeks in. He hasn't gotten crazy yet, but he might. I've explained the grape milkshake to him, so I'm sure he won't try that, but I assume there'll be something else along the way; it's only a matter of time. There'll be something I know will be disgusting and a waste of ingredients, and yet . . . I hope that when that happens, I will have the same spirit of indulging creativity that my mom had. I hope that I will let him learn from his mistakes and reinforce the message that without trying, you just don't know. And really, who does know? He could come up with the next great invention. He could end up a mix master of ingredients one day. I just hope that between now and whenever, I don't have to swallow too many milkshake-like mistakes!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Catfish Hunting


May 1992. Might have been during Memorial Day weekend. I was closing in on the last weeks of my undergraduate education, and I had a bad case of "senioritis." Not that I had classes to blow off, even if it had been a weekday; spring of my senior year, I had only my thesis to work on, and it (translation of a novel from French into English) had already been submitted to my advisor. I was pretty much home free. On the May day in question, the sun shone over the Hudson Valley. It was a perfect day to be out on the wide river, part of a flotilla of small rowboats rustled up from who knows where, catfish hunting. I don't know who was responsible for this annual tradition—in fact, there are more things I don't remember about this event than things I do, but it comes to mind from time to time, like tonight, so I guess there's a reason. I was invited by a local guy, some years older but not many, who had connections to people at my college. The connections involved alumni who had stayed in the area, and also involved the college softball teams (one of which, I now recall, was named the "Cunning Linguists"). Ours was a small campus, with small towns on all sides, so the overlap in communities made sense. We set out in the early afternoon, a dozen or more of us—mostly locals, mostly men. My host, with whom I had for some time shared a mutual but unacknowledged attraction, rowed us away from shore. He was at one end of the tiny boat, I at the other, and a couple of six-packs sat between us. I never imagined we'd be out on the water that long. Never stopped to think that we had no food, only beer—well, and some worms we used as bait, purchased at a run-down house with a sign, "hubcaps and worms," facing Route 9-G—and that the triple-threat of alcohol and sunshine and gently rocking boat would be all I needed to create a humiliating emergency. Still trying to make a catch (some others in our hunting party had dredged up some prize-winning bottom feeders already), I figured it was just not possible to row back to shore and try to find a bathroom. I couldn't imagine asking, not wanting to be the buzzkill girl on board. And also I thought I could just hold it. Big mistake. Next I remember this really horrible, secretive squatting in the bottom of the boat—I have no idea what excuse I found to be down there, rather than on the narrow seat I'd been perched on right along. I remember sitting on a water-wet aluminum boat floor, thankful for the puddle there that would, I hoped, mask any other suspicious damp spots on my pants. I peed slowly (and lightly, thank god; my jeans absorbed it all) then drank another beer. Unbelievably, no one was the wiser. I was just privately mortified, promising myself that I would not ever let pride come between me and a proper bathroom (or at least a bush on land) again. The outcome of the afternoon, for which I sacrificed my comfort and sense of good hygiene? No catfish. We didn't catch a thing, but we did have a darn good time, especially later that evening, at the fish fry that followed—after I went home to change my clothes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pistachios

What is it with pistachios in the middle of the night? I have always loved these tree nuts with their mottled purple-green color and their use in savory and sweet dishes from the exotic east. I have come across some sublime uses of pistachios in Europe as well: a recipe for a red grapefruit-pistachio tart that I found in the company of a French chef friend, plus the creamiest Italian gelato . . . makes eating the typical pistachio ice cream here in the States pretty much pointless. I won't even mention the time that I decided to make my own and used salted nuts in the frozen custard base instead of unsalted. (Except that I just did mention it.) Could've been a happy accident, as many culinary discoveries are—but it wasn't. I ate the stuff anyway, because I can't bear wasting food. There are two memories I have, though, of pistachios past the midnight hour: one funny, the other incredibly unfunny. The not-at-all funny moment involved my pregnancy. I have to say that I got off easy those nine months, really didn't have "morning" sickness at all. Had a couple moments of mild nausea—literally a couple—and that was it. Eating a Saltine would resolve whatever queasiness I felt, instantly. I wasn't turned off to any foods or smells, didn't particularly have cravings . . . except once, for pistachio gelato, but that can strike me at any time. I don't remember where I went if I went to an ice cream shop; don't remember, if I bought a pint at a grocery store, what brand it was. I'm sure the product itself was fine, but that night after eating it, I was decidedly not fine. I passed the single most miserable night of my pregnancy (and it topped the list of all-time miserable nights, pregnant or not) thanks to my pistachio indulgence. I thought it particularly cruel that the one sudden urge I got in pregnancy to eat a particular food, and it was exactly the thing that the baby inside decided to veto completely. I was on the bathroom floor all night. But enough of that. The funny middle-of-the-night pistachio memory involves my parents' fax machine. For a time, while I was staying with them during graduate school, the global pistachio trade became a source of daily entertainment. It started with one fax coming in at a time when all of us were sleeping (or trying to), the machine making its beeping and sheet-feeding noises in an otherwise silent and darkened apartment. In the morning, wondering who would have been sending faxes in the wee hours, we discovered a stack of pages transmitted from India—an apparent shipment confirmation for a large order of nuts. Wrong number. We recycled the pages. But then more faxes came, and still more, all at odd hours and getting increasingly urgent in tone. Because of the nut content, we began to call the sender of the faxes "Pistachio." We'd hear the machine, check it, and say, "It's Pistachio again." We started looking forward to the transmissions. We'd read the cover pages, and it must be said that they were hilarious in their non-native mangling of English idiom. I wish I remembered some of the expressions, but sadly I don't. For a long time, I saved a stack of pages, knowing that if I didn't it would be impossible to remember or invent them. They were priceless, but somewhere along the way I let them go. The sad part, though, was that the faxes were starting to sound distraught. The level of language was very formal, very polite and businesslike, but the frustration of botched communication began to add new layers of difficulty to the language barrier. For all we could tell, the success of the business may have depended on this single order. We considered calling India or faxing back to explain that we were not the clients they thought we were. Before we did, the faxes stopped. Hopefully this was because someone who loved pistachios (and cashews) received their order from India and put them to good use. Maybe even in making a stellar pistachio ice cream. I can still dream . . . or try my own (unsalted!) hand at another batch this summer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Read About It


One thing I have always known and will always remember about my mother is that she is a voracious reader. I see her now in my mind's eye, sitting at my parents' long dining room table, a stack of newspapers and magazines piled up to one side. Here are the publications I remember her reading over the years, most of them simultaneously: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, USA Today, the New Yorker, PeopleTime, MoneyNewsweekBusinessWeek, Inc., and the Economist, along with assorted trade magazines and investment newsletters. I'm not sure I ever saw her flipping idly through, say, Vogue or Cosmo—sometimes Vanity Fair, for Annie Liebowitz's photos—but occasionally she did pull a copy of the National Enquirer from the rack in supermarket checkout line, add it to our groceries, and absorb its sordid content in the privacy of our home. This, mind you, is a list of just the periodicals—and I know I am missing some important ones. My mother would also alternate between fiction and biography titles. All the reading consumed a fair amount of time, but she was always efficient, and still always available to me if I wanted to talk to her about something. As a result of all the reading, my mom gathered vast knowledge; she often had exactly the right insights into trends, be they in finance, culture, or politics. Also, it must be said, she collected some pretty odd tidbits. Two in particular I will always remember, especially as they got reported around the same time: dwarf tossing and toad licking. They are both exactly what they sound like; the former as some kind of warped entertainment, the latter for a hallucinatory high, provided you got the right toad, somewhere in the desert. I generally assumed that these juicy bits came from sources like the Enquirer or the Post (in my most highbrow mode, I used to tease that there didn't seem to be much to choose between those two). And I was particularly skeptical if, after telling me about some item, and after my asking how she knew such a thing, my mom said in an elusive way, "Oh, I read about it." The implication was that she didn't quite remember where she'd read it—conceivable with the volume of reading she did—and also it was her way of asserting that no, of course she was not making it up, whatever it was. If it was found on a printed page, then there was some shred of authority behind it. (This was in the pre-Internet era, when the publishing industry still had control over information, plus time and standards in the production cycle to do thorough fact checking; we were all more trusting then.) But eventually, my father and I cottoned on to the fact that "I read about it" could also serve as code speak for "Yes, if you must know, this particular piece of information was found while reading tabloid trash, but no I am not going to admit it." The four words "I read about it" became a catch phrase in the family—one we still pull out from time to time as a gentle way of teasing if we're at all incredulous about someone's assertion of obscure fact. I am happy that my mom provided this model, though. And amazed. Now that I am a mother myself, I have no idea how she ever found the time to read as much as she did. It takes me a full week to get through the Sunday newspaper alone, and most weeks I don't even manage that. I scan headlines, mostly on the computer, often on the go. I keep pace with a different world. But still, no matter how busy I get—no matter how far from the constant image of my mom spending the morning with the papers, turning pages at leisure with a cup of coffee at her elbow—the information-gathering impulse is still strong in me, the compulsion for self-education, and it serves me well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kissing Mr. Roarke


Along with sunshine and the reggae beat of UB40 coming from a friend's boom box by the lake at my Michigan boarding school, late spring in 1985 brings another memory: the first "real" kiss. I was fifteen years old, school would dismiss for the summer in a few short weeks, and when I came back in September, I'd be another couple weeks shy of turning sixteen. Sweet sixteen and . . . never been kissed? I remember feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, I didn't much care. On the other, I knew that I was supposed to care, so it began to bother me. And springtime conspires to create young love. And there was this one guy who seemed kind of interesting, a little different—though it's hard to remember now exactly what it was that struck me as unusual. Maybe it was the way he dressed. He was tall and slim, and clothes draped nicely on him. He had very blond hair, and the brightness of it was emphasized by his choice of wearing mostly white. He wore linen, I think; he wore long pants and nice shoes and I think he had a jacket to go with it. One never saw him in jeans or shorts. I don't remember a skinny tie, but it's possible; it would have fit the picture. He was in the music department of our arts-intensive school, played the saxophone. That was another draw. Who can deny that a saxophone is cool? I'm not sure what he saw in me: short, dark, dressed in god knows what, we didn't look like much of a match. Opposites attract? Back to the wardrobe for a moment. Because of the long, lean, formal whites, he was referred to as "Mr. Roarke." I'm not sure if anyone ever directed this at him directly. It was not mean-spirited to my knowledge—or anyway, it was just too accurate to be offensive. People of a certain age will get the reference immediately: Mr. Roarke, the suave host of Fantasy Island, played by Ricardo Montalban, was also known for his white suit, black tie, and elegant manner. On this popular television show, Roarke was the director of a mysterious island located in some uncharted area of the Pacific, where people could come to play out their life's fantasies (and where they often discovered that what they thought they wanted wasn't worth the price). I can still hear the opening of each show: "I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Fantasy Island." And of course there was Roarke's midget sidekick, Tattoo, played by Hervé Villechaize. Tattoo would announce the imminent arrival of guests by shouting "The plane! The plane!" from the top of a tower. With his accent, it sounded like bad Franglais: "Ze plane!" I used to watch the show with my mom, and we'd be holding our sides laughing in anticipation as Tattoo made his way up that tower. That and the way he said, "What's her fantasy, boss?" cracked us up. But I digress. This is not relevant to a first kiss—or is it? Maybe the allusion, its humor, and the way it called up my mother all worked together to tamp down teen romance. Except that I'm pretty sure I only learned of the nickname after my "host" and I had gone our separate ways. The romance, such as it was (or wasn't), didn't last long. Mercifully, it was unaccompanied by any drama: we both knew things were not working out, and really it was because of the kissing. And the fact that there was nothing beyond kissing. The first kiss—my first "real" one (you know, open mouth)—was nothing like I expected. I remember one evening after dinner, after hanging out down by the lake and then making our way back toward the main part of campus. We stopped at the school's open-air amphitheater. He sat in a red metal folding seat and pulled me onto his lap, facing him. And then we kissed. I remember thinking that his mouth was like the lake: wet, warm, home to a tongue that felt like muscly marine life. I can't say I was taken with the experience, though I did my best not to show it. Poor guy. I disappointed him I know, with my late-bloomer's lack of passion, but he was nice about it, at least publicly (who knows what he told other guys in their dormitory at night). As for me, my mission—not to say my fantasy—had been fulfilled. I was kissed, not yet sixteen, and by a kindly teenage Roarke. We would act a little embarrassed around each other for a couple weeks, then summer would come; we could both escape the "island" that was school, hop our respective planes, and lift off with the knowledge that life was somehow different, even if things hadn't quite worked out like we thought they would.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Teen Spring Sun Days


It's mid-May and gray today. Unseasonably cool temperatures. Hard to recall days of sunshine and nothing doing, but that's really all I'm fit for in my wishful-thinking mode. So what I remember is this: Warm sand between my toes, finally. Fifteen years old, the thaw of my first real Michigan winter; snow and icicles gone, rain and mud gone, and the sun working its late-spring magic on my sour, pale-skin self. My school at the time was situated between two lakes, adjacent to State Park property. In the spring, shanties for ice fishing gave way to calm blue water, gentle waves carrying sparks of light. Between or after classes, I would head with friends to a two-story, yellow-painted structure by a small patch of beach—the boat launch location for summer camp students. Throughout the year, we'd head there to talk or not talk, to smoke or not smoke, to sulk or to smile as our mercurial moods demanded, and very often to listen to music. We listened to a lot of classic rock like the Beatles, the Doors, the Who, Pink Floyd; we listened to folk rock such as the Grateful Dead, Simon and Garfunkel. But when I think of that year I was fifteen going on sixteen, when I think of the spring fever season of 1985, I only think of reggae. I think of Bob Marley, of course, but also the dub reggae/pop band UB40. Their hugely popular album, Labour of Love, had been out a couple of years, but it still seemed fresh to me; regardless, it was the perfect cure for what ailed us: the long months of being cooped up inside or huddled under too many layers, shivering. Who didn't want to imagine the island life that reggae brings to mind? And although, at the time, I'll bet none of us could say where the name UB40 came from (it represented a British government form for claiming unemployment benefits), we could nonetheless relate to its leisure. To its laid-back, do-nothing-but-dance-in-the-sun mellow. There was "Red Red Wine," of course (link here)—a song I later discovered was first recorded by Neil Diamond (see my post on N.D. here; link to N.D. version of "Red Red Wine" here). But more than that tune of drowning your sorrows, I loved "Cherry Oh Baby" (found here), with its more optimistic take on new, hoped-for love. What I heard, despite mildly conflicting versions of printed lyrics, was: "I will never let you down/I will never make you wear no frown/If you say that you love me madly/Oh babe I'll accept you gladly." And to my not-yet-kissed, fifteen-year-old self, that song with sunshine and sand, with bare legs and shoulders—that steel drum and horn sound—was all I needed to pull me from my winter doldrums.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Good Humor/Popsicle


Some of the best memories are simple. Nothing profound, nothing to analyze at all. Just the bliss of a sunny spring day in an urban childhood. A day for shedding winter layers, for walking in sandals in the park, hand in hand with Mom—who agrees that, yes, it is a day made for ice cream. I remember being in Central Park with my mother, seeking out the ice cream wagons, looking for their boxy white freezers and striped umbrellas. Before the roll-out of the Chipwich, before the advent of the Dove Bar—each of these brands appearing in the decadent 1980s, the first boom decade of "pay more, you deserve it" (these ice cream bars broke the $1.00 barrier of the times)—there was just Good Humor and Popsicle. Simple, affordable, artificial, but still good. I remember Toasted Almond bars (my favorite of the genre now), Chocolate Eclairs, King Cones, and Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches. I enjoyed Fudgsicles, red-white-and-blue Bomb Pops, and the packaged ice cream treat I loved perhaps the best back then: the original Creamsicle. Sitting on a bench, sucking on the icy orange outer shell, trying to resist the temptation to bite through right away to the creamy vanilla center. I always lost that battle with myself, still do. In my world, ice cream knows no patience. I'd sit there with my Mom, do my best to make it last: the ice cream, her company, the rush of cold on my teeth, the sun on my face. Years later, I'd chase down that comfort in the cafeteria of my boarding school. I remember (calories be damned in my dancer's world, I'd shave them off somewhere else) ending up with bowls filled half with orange sherbet, half with vanilla ice cream. I remember closing my eyes, letting a mix of sherbet cream melt on my tongue, and it was bliss. It tasted just like a Creamsicle, tasted just like when I was little, when life was simple, and my mother's hand in mine led me to an ice cream cart on a warm spring day.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Geneva Food Coma


Back to the summer of 1990, between my sophomore and junior years of college. I was working at the 9-G Diner (see post, here) and was also wrapping up some Human Biology coursework at a local community college—the credits would transfer over to fulfill the rest of the "interdisciplinary" requirements I needed in my own school's science department. I thought that the community college's biology class was more appealing, and hoped also that it would be easier to complete, than the offerings during the regular school year. This was pretty much confirmed, though I did have a lot of studying to do regardless. But the class was coming to an end, and as the summer ground down also, I found myself with a bit more time on my hands. Which is when a spontaneous opportunity arose: my parents were on their way to Geneva, Switzerland, for a few days, and they asked if I wanted to join them, on their dime. Of course I did. I remember asking N. and R., the owners of the diner, whether I could take the following weekend off, and I explained the chance I had to travel. I felt a bit embarrassed asking—after all, who would airlift them out of their daily routine for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Europe?—but I didn't let that stop me, of course. I was giving them some notice, and they seemed more excited for me than irritated, which is to say that they didn't seem irritated at all. So, I went. My parents and I took an overnight (short night) flight from New York to Geneva. We arrived in the morning, which is a flight pattern I don't really like much, because then you're really tired, short on sleep, and have to confront an entire day ahead of you, hoping to get on local time. We were relieved when midday rolled around, and we could easily pass some time on a meal. For lunch, my father led us to a restaurant that we have always referred to simply as "Entrecôte." There are, however, a few restaurants with variations on that name in Geneva, so I'm not entirely convinced of which one we visited. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure it was the Swiss outpost of Le Relais de l'Entrecôte, a chain in Paris. In Geneva, the restaurant is located at 49, rue du Rhône; the Web site for all Relais de l'Entrecôte is here). Whether this is the definite location, the experience was as follows: We were seated at a row of tables in the center of the dining room. We ordered—entrecôte steak of course—and all that was left to do was wait for the waitresses, wearing traditional black dresses with white aprons, to come by with their silver platters and serve it up. And did they. The steak was, it must be said, carnivore heaven. Well, maybe not heaven exactly (or maybe it was), but anyway awfully good. The waitresses came by with their dishes of pre-sliced steak—tender, juicy, and cooked perfectly for everyone's taste, because you could select the pieces you wanted from the well-done ends to the "saignant" middle, and they would deftly be served to you, pan juices or sauce ladled on top. Then there were the fries: crisp, perfectly golden, and a slap-in-the-face reminder of how Americans in general have no clue about fries (and I'll take French over the god-awful "freedom" fries any day!). Did I mention that this was a menu "à volonté"? That you could enjoy as many servings as you wished and that the waitresses did not stop circulating to tempt you with more? I am sure that we did not make tourist pigs of ourselves, but we really didn't deny ourselves anything either. We were all quite sated when we left, multiple servings later of steak and fries, plus dessert included in the prix fixe. In fact, we were pretty much in a food coma, a total jet-lagged and meat-and-potato stupor. So, what did we do? Did we walk it all off, enjoying the sights of a new city on our first day there? I am embarrassed to say we did not. We went back to the hotel room—big mistake—and looked over guidebooks, and did so while lying on the bed, and then it was all over. We passed out. Anyway, my mom and I did. My dad took a picture to prove it, before (I think) he joined us in our travel-weary sieste. And what's worse (but makes for a more humorous moment of family legend) . . . I'm not sure what time it was when we woke up—our hopes for being truly on local time may have been shot—but I think it was more or less dinnertime, and I know that, although probably we could easily have skipped it, we went out on the town and, wherever we went (fondue this time?), started all over again. Bon appétit, and santé!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Classic Photographs at MoMA


Edward Steichen's 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson (cropped detail at left). I would stand in front of this photograph in the Museum of Modern Art for long periods of time. The first time I saw it, I was fifteen years old, and my parents had just moved back East from Los Angeles. We were staying in an apartment that was owned by my father's employer (Pan Am). The small one-bedroom was located in the Museum Towers building on West 53rd Street, next to MoMA. Because the museum was, essentially, my back yard, I went there a lot, often alone. I was with my mother, though, the first time I saw this print. We walked through the galleries, and I was immediately drawn to this photograph. At the time, I didn't know who Gloria Swanson was, but I fell in love with her veiled face, her hypnotic eyes. In them I saw the kind of mystery and sensuality that I longed for—that I hoped to possess one day, when I had come into my womanhood. I also admired the challenging stare, straight into the lens, a look that suggested confidence. I wanted to be that woman behind the black lace, and not the confused, fragile girl I felt I was. I remember it was around this time that my mother, who was getting serious about photography herself, took a portrait of me, also black and white, that showed such youth and vulnerability, it is equal parts lovely and terrifying to look at. I was far from Swanson's direct and masterful femininity; mine was a sideways glance, uncertain, from behind the bangs of my blunt cut hair.


The other photo I have always remembered from those early visits to the museum was taken by Richard Avedon (1923–2004) and shows a model posed elegantly between two elephants. The photo is titled "Dovina with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris" and dates to August 1955. It's a gelatin silver print—this was the first time I noticed the language of master printing; until this time, film was film, a print was just what you got back on Kodak paper from the local processing shop—and it was given to the museum by Avedon himself.  Although he produced other acclaimed portraits, Avedon was best known for his fashion photography, especially from the years he worked for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. He pushed the genre to new heights, created narrative in fashion photography—something we now take for granted, but it was novel then. This photo was interesting to me at the time (as now) because it was so full of unanswered questions. It also resolved seeming contradictions between the traditional ideas of grace and mass, delicacy and power. The model's pose is all glamor and poise, her figure long and lithe, from upturned profile to a perfectly turned out toe. She, like the dramatic dress she wears, is all drape and flow (you can see the full photo here). And with her, the towering elephants, big and gray, wrinkly and hardly subtle. Yet they, too, sway and curve their bodies in a way that mirrors the model—you can see that beauty and grace are indeed in the eye of the beholder. This photo hinted to me again that perhaps (though I was hardly an elephant) I could step out of awkwardness and into elegance myself, some day. With the right dress.

The seductive beauty in these two photographs—the desire they fed—stayed with me always, as did the impression of elusiveness, of untouchability. In my mind, I came back to these images many times over the years. I do not know if either still hangs in the MoMA galleries. Today, though, at I.C.P. in New York, an Avedon retrospective begins, which will last through September 6. I'd like to see the show, hopefully with my mom. I'd love to have a more profound conversation than we ever did about beauty, its push and pull, its myths and realities. About what it suggests that Swanson is veiled behind lace, that she was a silent picture star . . . and that, according to a New York Times article (May 14, 2009) introducing the I.C.P. show, Avedon saw the tragic, destructive element of beauty and of the fashion industry that made his career—and he had empathy for it, especially as his own sister was frequently told things such as, "You're so beautiful you don't have to open your mouth."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

9-G Diner


1990: spring, summer, and fall. Closing in on my twenty-first birthday, I was studying French in college and, on weekends, working in a podunk diner at the intersection of Routes 9-G and 199 in Red Hook, New York. The diner is no longer there—I'm not sure what's taken its place—but I remember it well, and fondly. I was dating a "townie" at the time (since I lived off campus, I ended up knowing more locals than students by my senior year), and he's the one who introduced me to the diner's owners, N. and R. They were a hard-working couple, solidly blue collar, of Italian-American background. N., the cook (to say chef would stretch things a bit), had learned his trade in the navy mess (or the marines?), and was a reservist. He was a big brawny guy, but a sweetheart most of the time. R., his wife, was a woman with painted fingernails and frosted hair, who looked her age or older due to a smoking habit, a penchant for sun exposure, and what I guessed was a wearying life. She was always there, sitting at a table toward the back, up on a shallow platform where the order pick-up window was—except of course when she was waiting tables herself, which was frequently. I went in on Saturdays and Sundays. I don't remember what time I had to be there, but it was pretty early. Often, as I turned off Route 9-G and into the diner's gravel driveway, the sun was only just coming up. I think N. and R. were wary of me at first. Maybe even deeply suspicious, though they didn't do anything obvious to betray such a feeling. I believe I was the first person from the college to ask for a job there, though many students found their way in on the weekends for a late morning (or afternoon) "hangover breakfast." Or else I wasn't the first, but they'd had other bad experiences. They made assumptions, I'm sure: that because I went to college, because the college I went to was expensive, I was likely to be ill-suited to their environment. Which is to say, they were waiting for me to reveal myself to be a snob (intellectual or material), or spoiled, or somehow "above" the work they asked me to do. I was none of those things, and I was reliable. I showed up on time, got the work done, made decent tips, and was down to earth in my manner. I was polite to customers, but I also didn't take any crap. This was one thing I loved about working in the diner, actually. Unlike in upscale restaurants, where a certain level of service—sometimes outright obsequiousness—is expected, and where the customer is always right no matter their abuse of the wait staff, in the diner I was not expected to be a doormat for obnoxious diners to wipe their figurative feet on. There were, as there are everywhere, some horrible customers. And I could pretty much sass them back, to a certain degree, if I knew I was within rights. N. and R. would back me up, because they had no tolerance for offensive people either; they'd rather toss them out (though I don't remember anyone being asked to leave). But mostly, the customers were great. I remember a few groups of guys in particular, lots of them in construction-type jobs. They were the earlier crowd, the eggs-and-bacon-and-pancakes-and-hash-browns (with black-and-white shakes!) crowd . . . or else they placed coffee-with-an-egg-sandwich-on-a-roll-to-go orders. The milkshakes were a pain, I remember that, and invariably they'd be ordered in the middle of a rush. The ice cream was rock-hard, and it took so long to scoop that if I had to do it, I'd easily fall behind on other drinks or on ordering or writing up checks. There was a local kid who was in high school and working as a general helper in the diner—kind of a busboy, but he did more than that. He was always there to bail me out of my milkshake hell, and to give me good-humored grief for it later. He had a girlfriend, listened to The Grateful Dead, liked to play pool and drink beer, liked to smoke pot. His nickname was "Billy the Kid," though I'm not sure why, really, other than for his age. He was into forestry, if I recall, and I wonder what he's doing now. I wonder what they're all doing. I only worked regularly in the diner for about a year, then picked up some shifts from time to time to help out. I made fresh peach custard pies that they sold by the slice in the summers. When I graduated, they wished me well; when I came back to visit, the diner was closed. I was sorry, and I hope that the decision to close was theirs, for good reasons involving a happy retirement or some other change for the better. They were good people, fair employers, and they set aside any prejudices they might have had about people of (relative) privilege—their concerns about white collar college kids—in order to give me the chance I earned: to be just another waitress, a hard worker, and, I like to think, a friend.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Joy of Cooking


In 1931, one year before my mother was born, a fifty-four-year-old woman named Irma Rombauer predated the current DIY approach to book publishing and self-published a collection of recipes and kitchen knowledge for $3,000*. That book, once commercialized, would go on to become the American cooking classic, the Joy of Cooking. More than fifty years later, I would cook the first meal I remember making completely on my own from this book: at age thirteen or fourteen, I used my mother's yellowing edition (the fourth from the top in this post's photograph; the aqua colored one with no dust jacket and a bright red ribbon to mark your place, which I think was the sixth edition that appeared in 1962) to prepare a special breakfast of "German Apple Pancake" for my family. We were living in Los Angeles (or my parents were—I don't recall whether I made this dish before going to a boarding school for the arts in North Carolina, or if I made it during a vacation), in a two-bedroom condominium on Eastborne, off Santa Monica Boulevard. I remember being alone in the kitchen, nervous yet hopeful as I peeled apples and readied the giant skillet that would go first on the stovetop, then in the oven. I remember having no second thoughts about the volume of butter that melted in the pan to sautée the sliced apples (a luxury of youth, to think nothing at all of melted butter); I remember the cinnamon. I remember the milk, flour, and eggs, pouring the batter over the cooked apples then putting the pan in the oven. I remember the pancake puffing up high, then falling once it cooled on the table. It was wonderful, light, and boosted my culinary confidence. I've made this pancake several times since then, and think someday I'll do it again, or teach my son how. Unfortunately, if I want to replicate it truly, I'll have to check out the new, 75th anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking and hope that the recipe is still included. I could kick myself now, because although I inherited my mother's battered copy once I went to college, eventually, in one of my move-inspired book purges, I got rid of it. I just didn't have room—or rather, I was more apt to use my seductive, full-color, modern cookbooks, and so decided that the recipes were too outdated and the book so worn, that it was not worth keeping, even for sentimental reasons. But in fact, I am somewhat sentimental about this old edition of the book. Maybe I'll track one down. If I do (or even if I don't), one thing's certain: there's a German Apple Pancake in our family's future. For old time's sake, and to tip my hat to that determined, enterprising home chef, Irma.

Notes: A Joy of Cooking timeline, which I've used as the source for this post's image and publishing information, can be found at Simon & Schuster's site, www.simonandschuster.net (click here to go directly to the Joy page).

* Using the Consumer Price Index, $3,000 in 1931 would be in the ballpark of $42,410 in present-day monetary value. This estimate was provided by Measuring Worth, at: http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Don't Eat Donuts (in Lima, Peru)


This is not about food. It's about homework. It's about parents helping kids, about adding a dose of levity to assignments that seem dreary or overwhelming. And it's about instilling confidence and boosting a student's trust in his or her own capacity to remember vast amounts of information, or else minute details—which may in and of themselves be helpful or not, but they are anyway necessary for the process of learning how to learn, learning how to think. The mind is a powerful machine, but sometimes it needs a little jump. Like the one I gave my son yesterday, as he worked on a weekly spelling assignment. (As an aside, let me point out that my son is a kindergartener. Spelling tests? I have mixed feelings about this. The copy editor in me knows that good spelling goes hand in hand with literacy. I lament the general downward spiral of spelling skills in our electronic age, so I'm glad his school cares about it. Still . . . in kindergarten? I don't think I had homework at all until maybe the end of elementary school, although I did read a lot.) My son was having trouble and getting frustrated enough so that even some words that seemed as though they should be fairly simple for him were not. He was tired, and I started thinking of ways to make the job easier, or if not easier, then at least entertaining. Enter the donuts. My son was having trouble with the word "don't." Even a single day later, I don't recall what the hang-up was—something about the sequence of d-o-n-. So as he was heaving a sigh, I said, "Don't eat donuts!" He looked at me like I was crazy. I asked him if he had any idea how "donut" was spelled. I sounded out two very distinct syllables. He spelled the beginning of the word with no problem. I told him it was the same with "don't" and suggested that he could use the similarity to help him remember. He asked me to say it again, which I did. "Don't eat donuts!" I told him in an exaggerated, fake admonishment that made him laugh. The next time we went over the word list (we're supposed to do it twice), he spelled "don't" correctly, and did it with a smile on his face. Silly, but completely worth it. The use of mnemonics is nothing new, of course. Not for anyone who's ever had to memorize anything. Even my son was already familiar with the device: he's known for a while that the colors of the rainbow are ROYGBIV, for example. And understandably, we are much more apt to remember something funny than just a rote rule (although those get drilled in, too: i before e and so forth). In helping my son yesterday, I had another, older memory: it was of me in middle school, needing to learn the capitals of all the countries in South America. Why was I having trouble with this? Well, it was a lot to remember—we were making our way across the entire globe, actually, and it got a bit overwhelming. Memory triggers can be so many things: acronyms, phrases, sometimes sing-song melodies. It was this last that did the trick. I don't know how it started, but my mom was helping me study, and somehow she came up with this little chant, using the one pair of names I was most blocked on as a refrain: Bogota, Columbia . . . Lima, Peru. Caracas, Venezuela . . . Lima, Peru. And so on. There's nothing particularly funny about this, but it made us both laugh. On the day of my test, it also helped me remember all the material; I sang in my mind and wrote to a rhythm. I don't recall the grade I got, but I'd bet it was an A. Close to thirty years later, I can still list out all the South American capitals, but only if I chant them the way we did when I was twelve. Will my son remember "Don't eat donuts"? He won't need to—spelling the word "don't" will soon be something he'll never believe he ever needed help with—but maybe he'll retain the phrase anyway, just for fun. If he doesn't, I know I'll have countless more opportunities to work with him on developing study skills throughout the school years; to give him tips and tricks and hopefully more laughs along the way. It is likely that he, too, will need to memorize the world capitals (I hope he does, but not for some years!) and we could find ourselves singing. Regardless, I know how it feels to have a parent (or two) assist with homework, to have them lighten your burden just a bit. My mom and dad always made themselves available, didn't pressure me about the end results but did help me with the process, and I hope that when all is said and done (and sung) my son will have the same memories of me . . . whether or not he heeds the warning about tempting but lethal fried dough rings.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tattoo


When I was much younger, still a teenager—when danger held an allure, and when I thought my outward appearance was the best defense against a vulnerable heart—I wanted a tattoo of an ornate dagger on my arm, up close to the shoulder. And yet, I knew better than to mistake myself for someone ready to make a permanent commitment; I'd have to grow into that mentality. The urge subsided, then returned years later. Older, I became more discriminating, and less defensive. I became a social pacifist. I was intensely relieved I had not inked the image of a violent blade on my body. But I still wanted a tattoo. I began to do what my adult self has nearly always done when confronting a decision: I started researching. I was living in Chicago at the time, and I remember my quest for finding the best (and cleanest) tattoo parlor, though I don't remember the results of the search. I never even got to the point of meeting any tattoo artists, though (the research was by reputation), because I had trouble selecting not only the "what" but the "where" of the matter. A dagger was out, naturally, but so was the upper arm. Something about the arm suddenly seemed too obvious to me. Back? Ankle? Hip? I had pretty much decided on an ankle, but then could not make up my mind what image seemed right. I kept imagining myself as an octogenarian, wondering what would seem interesting but not too far beyond dignity in later years. I remember looking at pattern books, considering something birdlike, remember some attempt to work the Latin words "rara avis" into the design (though I quickly abandoned that; I worried it would come off as pretentious). I fiddled around with the idea of a Greek key image. Nothing stuck. Then, a very good friend revealed the tattoo she'd gotten of wheat shafts on the small of her back. The spot was perfect, and I knew that if I ever got a tattoo (it was now "if" and not "when"), that would be where I'd get mine, too. It took nearly a decade for me to come to the right image, and the right moment, but when I knew, I knew. In 2002, I'd gotten married, gotten pregnant; in 2003, I was thirty-four years old and had a newborn to look after. It had all happened in a bit of a whirlwind—although I'd known the man who's now my husband for some years before we married—and frankly, I was feeling a bit lost. That is, my deepest self felt lost at times, subservient to the new roles of wife and mother—roles that, if I dared personify them in those early months, would oftentimes resemble hijackers who tossed burlap bags over my head and strapped me to a lullaby rocker from Pottery Barn. It was a comfortable rocker, but in it I was very aware of moving without going anywhere. I started thinking a lot about who I had been, who I was becoming, and how to make peace with the differences between these selves. And in the thought of peacemaking came the image: a graceful olive branch. No fruit clinging to it, just the branch with long slender leaves. Of course the olive also worked as a symbol of my Greek ancestry, and I loved it for that reason as well. It was, at last, decided. This is how, a few months into motherhood, I ended up with a babysitter in my apartment, a sketch of an olive branch in my hand, and a wad of twenty dollar bills stuffed in my pocket as I walked, sleep deprived, along West Twenty-Third Street in search of a tattoo artist called Dragonfly. She did a good job. The tat took a little under an hour, felt like persistent scratching, sometimes deep but not too painful, and then it was done: the one Mother's Day gift I gave to myself, a little belated but just right. I still love it, especially if I happen to glimpse it in a mirror, perhaps as I zip the back of a dress. It's a reminder of where I've been, where I come from, and it provides a visual sense of continuity with my pre-parenting persona. It also serves to remind me to keep the peace between my sometimes warring inner factions. None of us is a single self: we all have the "once was-could be-should have been-will I ever" selves inside. The olive branch is my shorthand for treating them all with kindness. A good reason to put ink not only to paper but, finally, to flesh in permanence.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day


Today is Mother's Day. My fortieth as a daughter—as a mom, it's my sixth. As a nation, we are celebrating the ninety-fifth official Mother's Day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which says that Congress designated the second Sunday in May for this holiday in 1914, at the urging of one Anna Jarvis, who organized the first observances as early as 101 years ago today, on May 10, 1908. (There are some interesting statistics on mothers in America—married, single, employed or not, all age groups—at the Census Bureau's "Facts for Features" page, here; you might want to have a look.) What do I remember today? It's been hard to focus on any one memory. This may be because there are so many to choose from. Or it may be because, to be honest, I'm really rather tired (a condition chronic for mothers of small children). Today has been lovely, though. I was treated to two beautiful handmade gifts: a colorful card and a draw-it-yourself decorative plate. The card this year actually shows me as having some physical substance and not just sketched as a stick figure—although my son's stick-people are adorable, too, and I've become kind of attached to them. On the card, I am wearing a fancy, polka-dot dress and sporting a huge, open-mouthed smile. My hair is black (ignoring all the salt in my pepper!). Around me flaps a butterfly. It's a very cheerful picture, and the message inside tells me I am special and loved. I must be doing something right, thank god. The plate is abstract and also colorful. There's a yellow shape that reminds me of a saxophone when turned a certain way, and with that association the rest ends up looking like a visualization of upbeat, jazzy music. Lots of spring colors. My son has written "I love mom" on the plate, and also the number "39" (my age), which I find an interesting touch. I love each gift and the time and emotion that went into them. We went out for breakfast this morning and later enjoyed a mild, sunny afternoon along the East River, my son on his bike and I following along on roller blades. Board games at home, reading, and, thanks to my husband, a dinner that I did not have to prepare or clean up after. Still, I am tired, and the fatigue reminds me of my first-ever Mother's Day, on May 11, 2003. That day marked the end of the first full week of having a baby in the house. Mother for exactly one week—talk about exhaustion! I remember seven days of trying so hard to learn the cues: what do the cries mean? I thought that if it was supposed to be intuitive, I was failing miserably. I was on autopilot only: change diaper, feed, burp, sterilize bottles without benefit of a dishwasher (the use of bottles had not been the original plan, actually, but the battle of the NICU nurses and the lactation consultant is a story for another day) . . . then try to get some sleep before the cycle started up again. Slowly, though, I started to learn the language of noises and gestures my son had at his disposal. There was a sweet-sounding "ah-ah-ah" for hunger, accompanied by a sort of head-butting motion against my body when I picked him up, and, if the response wasn't quick enough, a full-on cry. There were other noises, other movements, and then there was silence in sleep, which he did mostly in his crib but often on my chest. I remember the clean baby smell, the softness of skin, the typical baby things that keep you going when otherwise you're little more than a zombie. I remember the intensity of my son's stare, right into my eyes when I fed him, and how it was utterly impossible to look away from him in those moments. I also recall a particularly difficult day—with difficulty digesting, sleeping, everything amiss—leading up to that first weekend, and then, on Sunday, finally—an easy day, lots of peaceful sleeping, and I wondered if this was my first real Mother's Day present. That day, my husband and I went to Kate's Papery to pick out birth announcement cards that we could complete with our laser printer, and suddenly, it all seemed so real. Ink on paper; a name, date, hour, weight. Pleased to announce the birth of their son . . . The other gift to me that first week, though, was my own mother's presence. She moved into the city for the whole week and was on hand morning, noon, and night to help. I don't know what I would have done without her. And, really, that's it: that's what sums up a mother, or should. That total support and love—the stuff of legends—the gift you never can appreciate until it's your turn to give it to the next generation. As a girl, I thought that everything my own mother did came naturally, but I know now that couldn't possibly be the case. As a mother, I am often adrift but doing my best, and it is perhaps because of all the uncertainties and perceived failures throughout the course of a year that a hand-drawn card by a six-year-old boy—one that shows a woman bursting with happiness and love—can make all the difference.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Greenwich Village, Early 1970s


During the first few years of the 1970s, when I was three, four years old, my parents and I lived in Greenwich Village, New York City. We lived at Two Fifth Avenue, which sounds like a ritzy address, and is in fact rather gentrified now, but at the time it was not. The building was (still is) a low-rise apartment building across the street from the arch that marks the entrance of Washington Square Park. We could see the arch and park from our living room, and I remember spending long moments watching life pass outside the windows. It was some life. The most flamboyant memory from this time is of a tall man on roller skates who, on weekends, donned a pale orange chiffon dress and glided around the park waving a wand (at least, I'm pretty sure he had a wand). He was the "Peach Fairy," though I don't know if the name was neighborhood legend or just our own description. I remember thinking he was the greatest and being really envious of the flowing chiffon. It was a time of artists and outcasts, drug-addled bohemians and bums on the park benches. You couldn't go through there without someone hissing to see if you wanted to score some dope (actually, that was still the case in the 1980s). Today, in our post-Giuliani/Bloomberg metropolis, the park is quite clean, and parents think nothing of letting their kids play freely there. Back then, however, it was the turf of derelicts, and for the most part my mother avoided it, especially during weekdays. The sandbox, after the first attempt, was out of the question; it served as a giant latrine for the drunks. Perhaps this is why, to hear my mother tell the story (which she has many times over the years), the movers who had come to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where we were previously living, took one look at my mom—an articulate, well-dressed white woman who looked "normal" in every way—and at toddler me, and told her she was "nuts, lady!" because didn't she know, everyone else was moving in the opposite direction, out of the city in record numbers. But the thing was, living in Ridgefield at the time, my mother (who was born and raised and spent every year through her thirties in Detroit) was getting fed up. Fed up with homogeny, and as the last straw, with local book banning (or was it burning?). I thank her profusely for going against the tide and pushing to move into New York, despite the grit and grip of hard economic times in the city, plus attendant crime and social crisis. I remember being happy in the city, having friends of many colors and cultures, and I know these years were crucial in forming my world view. I don't really remember much about my preschool, other than the name: the Gingerbread School. I believe it was run as a co-op, and I know it was housed in the Westbeth complex on the extreme west side of the village—a utilities building acquired by a nonprofit organization for the purpose of creating an artists' community, where the likes of Diane Arbus and Muriel Rukeyser lived and worked (and, in Arbus's case, died). In this sense, I had illustrious neighbors and the beginnings of a true artist's pedigree by association. Who knows who else was around—not just at Westbeth, I mean, but sharing our space at other daily haunts; we went to Sutter's (no longer in existence) for ice cream, for example, and likely sat next to a struggling writer hunched there over coffee each day. Now things are different, very. We left long before the changes, thanks to an executive search that brought my father his job at Playboy and all of us a move to Chicago, but we looped back around eventually, and it became clear pretty quickly: the old New York of my early years is lost. Still, there is a mix of personalities to be found if you know where to look, a blend of eccentricities and lifestyles. When my son was born, a lot of people asked if I had plans to move out of the city. It's still an automatic question, and not without some merit. But despite how hard it is financially to live here—and now, economically, the city may well rival the nadir of the seventies—nevertheless, I think back to my own family's decision when I was a bit younger than my son is now, think back to the Peach Fairy and try to imagine him skating in the 'burbs (I can't fathom it), and I know that for now, this is still the place to be.