Friday, July 31, 2009

Fantastick!


I remember lyrics to musicals; I can't help it, they get stuck in my head. I have mentioned this fact on the blog before, but I decided that there is one musical that merits its own post. I am willing to guess that many people today, certainly outside of New York City, don't know the show, and that's too bad. With Broadway musicals being what they are today, well . . . I don't want to be a snob, because pure entertainment without much thought required does have its place, but the show I'm thinking of is no Disney production. It has, in fact—despite my fear that it may someday sink into oblivion, at least in terms of any sizable audience—the distinction of being the longest running production in the history of American theater: more than forty years, a lifetime (mine anyway). Welcome to something amazing: a show called The Fantasticks. The musical opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in 1960 and closed in 2002 (its last curtain on my father's birth anniversary that year); it had a run of more than 17,000 performances. You can see its original cast, which included Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, here. I first heard the songs of the show while living in Chicago. I was perhaps eight years old. My parents had the album, but I don't know if they'd seen the play on stage. I remember the album cover: white with purple spiky-script lettering, no illustration or photo. The back of the sleeve had a black and white shot of the cast. I remember thinking Rita Gardner looked impish, sassy, in control; what an odd pose, I thought, her fingertips pressing down on the heads of the men in front of her. She plays "the girl," a rebellious daughter in a story about supposedly forbidden love. It's a very sophisticated story—too sophisticated, perhaps, for an eight-year-old to follow, or to fully understand. What does a child know about the movement from "scenic" to "cynic"? What can she know about a cardboard moon? It's a coming-of-age play, a play about innocence and disillusionment. Take away the golden moonbeam. But it's also very humorous at the same time. For me, the best songs were the ones that made me laugh. In particular this means a song called "Never Say No," which I memorized in short order and loved singing over and over again, performing it for my Mom at our kitchen table. It's a song that captures perfectly a parental technique (and dismay) we are all familiar with: reverse psychology, the power of negative motivation. Make it forbidden and drive them to it. "To manipulate children, you merely say no." Here are the lyrics to some verses I remember verbatim (you'll see why they appealed to my eight-year-old self):

Why did the kids pour jam on the cat?
Raspberry jam, all over the cat!
Why should the kids do something like that,
When all that we said was "no."

My son was once afraid to swim,
The water made him wince.
Until I said he mustn't swim—
been swimming ever since . . .

Why did the kids put beans in their ears?
No one can hear with beans in their ears.
After a while the reason appears:
They did it 'cause we said no.

The other song I remember really enjoying was the one that opened the disillusionment act. The beginning of the song contained a series of disgusted, angry statements and insincere apologies that I found hilarious, particularly the last complaint:

Girl: This plum is too ripe.
Boy: Sorry.
Boy: Please, don't watch me while I'm eating.
Girl: Sorry.
Father 1: You were about to drown that magnolia.
Father 2: Sorry.
Father 2: You're . . . standing . . . in . . . my . . . kumquats!
Father 1: Sorry!

Did I know what a kumquat was? Had I ever eaten one? If I hadn't yet, then I'm sure my piqued curiosity resulted in a mission to find kumquats somewhere to taste. (They are an interesting fruit I devour when I can find them: bitter peel eaten along with the ultra-tart flesh.)

Other songs from the musical became popular, especially the opening number by the Narrator character, "Try to Remember." There were also "Much More" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain." All of the songs can be found online and sampled here. I encourage you to have a listen.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Toast of New York


I am not a makeup maven. I've never worn foundation, except the professional "pancake" kind for those handful of times I have performed on stage (a lifetime ago!). For everyday, it just feels like a slow toxic suffocation of crud in my pores. Ditto the blush. No fuss, no muss. Definitely no mascara; the wand is a serious hazard. The most I could cope with: eyeliner, some shimmery nude color on lids, and lipstick. The lipstick used to be bright red. At some point, I realized that my olive skin tone is hard to match to the right shade, though—all the reds I like when I see them in stick form end up making my skin or my teeth look yellow. Now, I opt for more tawny and brown shades, when I bother. I remember, though, a time when I loved to browse the cosmetics aisles and look at lipsticks and read the exotic, trumped up names of the colors. I would laugh at the outrageousness. Of all the hundreds of names I've read, and the dozens of tubes I've owned, I remember the name of exactly one lipstick, though. It was not the jazziest, sexiest name. It was a lipstick I found by accident, but it's the only one I ever went looking for in a store when it was time to replace the tube: Toast of New York, by Revlon. A creamy brown with undertones of red. I don't know whether Revlon still makes it—nor do I know if I'd still wear it (probably, but tastes change so who knows). Why I remember it is circumstantial, nostalgic. When I say I found it by accident, what I mean is this: In the bathroom of an infamous, grungy New York punk club in the late 1980s, I saw a black tube with a flash of gold trim rolling on the floor. The bathroom door opened and, after a blast of the band, closed again. I was with a friend—we were drunk, I'm pretty sure—and suddenly we were the only two there. Whoever dropped the lipstick was gone, not that it would have mattered much. I picked up the tube, dialed up the color, and thought it looked pretty good. And it was free: a five-finger discount, but completely legal. Did I even wipe off the end of the stick before applying it to my lips? I'm sure the thought never crossed my mind. To say that I was not concerned about germs in those days is a mild understatement. I pocketed the lipstick, and it was the only one I used for a long time. As I said, I replaced it when it wore out. I replaced it because it was a good color on me after all, but mostly because it reminded me of my friend, of our combat boots and scrappy, Guns-of-Brixton attitudes; our "finders keepers" mentality that grasped at any castoffs the world chose to let us have. Toast of New York. The name was, no doubt, meant in a high-society way, a socially acceptable way. To me at the time, though, it was just plain old New York—and a part of the city now closed down—and we were, if not the toast of the town, then certainly toasted. We left the club with mosh-pit bruises, voices hoarse with screaming and too much smoke exposure. But those hungry, youthful mouths of ours? They were at least well painted, beautiful—even if the beauty was not rightfully ours to begin with. Then again, isn't that what all makeup is: borrowed beauty? We can still toast to that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Safe Light


It's a faraway memory, nearly lost in the tide of zeroes and ones that shape our new digital world. Sometimes, though, I do remember the calming effect of a safe light: the soft red glow that spilled through the darkrooms of my adolescence. Years ago (decades now, I'm amazed to say), I pursued photography as a serious study. I didn't go far with it, never approached anything near a professional level, but I took it a tad farther than just a hobby. For a time. I was still in high school, and the darkroom was a comfortable place to be—hidden from sight, engaged in the act of creating something, seeing images develop from nothing. I remember the smell of chemicals, the eddy of the water bath, but most of all the light in darkness. Red is usually a stimulant—to passion, to action, to anger—and it's associated with all kinds of vice. In the darkroom, though, it was none of those things. I did not meditate when I was a teen. I had no informed opinion of meditation. Still, what I did in those hours standing in front of the enlarger, the trays of developer and fixer, was just that: meditate. My mind worked, and I observed its working, but I never over-thought anything in that space, and it was a relief to me. I remember especially being an unhappy girl on a medical leave from school, and my mother would take me to an art center in Norwalk, Connecticut, where there was a darkroom available for rent. I am not doing a very good job at identifying exactly what it was like, or really focusing on the memory. It is late now, and I need to be in a different sort of darkened room—one without light; one with only sleep. But I lost myself in that scarlet artist's space when I could, and no matter if there were others in the darkroom with me (sometimes yes, sometimes no), the safe light made me feel relaxed in a way that was like solitude. Peaceful and hypnotic.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Home for Boys: Tricky Plumbing


A rhetorical question: What is it about boys and plumbing? It's not a question I will answer, except to sympathize with mothers of boys who have hit-and-miss aim or an aversion to flushing. You know what I'm talking about; I know what you're going through. But really, this post is not about those sort of plumbing issues. What I've remembered is something else. Namely, the fact that when I was in college I lived in Rhinebeck, New York (off campus), on Montgomery Street. My landlord was a veterinarian, and the apartment I rented was in a light blue house across the street. The house, I recall now, was at one time a home for boys. I never did learn what that meant exactly. Were they orphan boys? Was it a sort of reform house, where discipline cases were sent? What I did learn was that my living room was at one time the shower room. This explained the defunct spigots (Is that what they were? I confess I do not know my plumbing terminology) that you could see around the perimeter of the room, exposed where there were small square notches cut out of the hardwood floor. These never posed a problem. They were inactive, nothing leaked or clogged or anything. I did like to think about the room, though, the way it must've been: steamy and full of strapping, towel-snapping, naked young men. I didn't think of boys, of course; not little ones. I imagined teenagers, which was normal, since I myself was still one. A former boys' shower room was an amusing place for a college girl to entertain friends, I can tell you. The not-so-entertaining thing in the apartment was also related to plumbing—it was the day that I came back from a weekend's trip to visit my parents one summer and found my bathroom ceiling on the floor. A plaster mess covered the black and white tile; filled the very 1950s-looking pink bathtub; lay strewn in the sink. I don't know what caused it. There didn't seem to be water anywhere, or none that I recall. No active leak. It just looked like someone had tossed a grenade in my bathroom. Exaggeration, sure—but not much. To the veterinarian's credit, it all got fixed in short order. Maybe that same day, or the next. Nothing else eventful ever happened in that apartment; not in terms of the structure itself. Neighbors were quiet, too (except in the house next door, where the pot-bellied guy in the wife-beater shirt yelled at his kids a lot). No issues. It was just a nice place to live for four years, a unique place with history. Perhaps, of all the places I've lived, the place with the most charm . . . though not of the kind you'd experience if you were living in it when it was, still, a home for boys with tricky plumbing (modifier left intentionally ambiguous)!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sleepy Sleepy . . .


This is what I am, once again: sleepy. Bone tired. The kind of tired you are not sure you will recover from, and the kind that makes you feel like a child no matter your age. My memory of the moment springs from this feeling, which my son apparently shared tonight. This depth of fatigue is no problem when you are able to lie down and drop immediately into a profound sleep. Sometimes, however, that's not possible, which is when you'd be glad for someone to rub your back. For years now—since a particularly tortuous transatlantic flight with my then-toddler—my son has asked for someone to "rub my back and count to twenty." Counting to twenty is getting off scott free: the whole ritual took form on that cramped airplane, when the only way I could get my son to sleep was to start counting . . . and count all the way to two hundred before it had any effect. Now it's either one of us (my husband or I) who counts at night, but there's another thing that only I do; I was asked to do it tonight. It's something that takes me back to my own childhood in a heartbeat, since my mother would do it for me when I had trouble going to sleep or just wanted a little bit of extra company. She did this at home, but for some reason the most vivid memory is of a time when we were visiting her parents, and I was in a spare room, bundled under one of my grandmother's crocheted afghans (black background, granny square style with fluorescent colors that clashed horribly but somehow worked when all of a piece). I remember lying on my stomach while my mother patted my back gently, in time to a rhythm she created with her voice: Slee-py, sleep . . . go to sleep . . . nighty night . . . I love you . . . slee-py sleepy . . . Her cadence was slow, low, close to a whisper. This went on for who knows how many minutes, usually until I dropped into slumber—it worked nearly every time. Now the same is true of my son. When he is having the most trouble falling to sleep, counting to twenty is not quite enough. There'll be twenty, but then the lullaby of sleepy sleepy. I'll rub circles on his back, under his shirt. On those nights, I'm pretty sure that I myself—no matter my own state of exhaustion or agitation—will have no trouble when lights are out. I will curl up on my side, close my eyes, and remember the soothing lullaby of childhood. It still works like a charm, all these decades later.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Soupe au pistou


I remember one year—was the baby born? only just, so it must've been around six years ago—deciding to test myself in the kitchen with a recipe from the series of books: Grand Livre de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse. Not sure why exactly I would do this with a baby in the house—what, is plain old post-partum not enough torture for a lady?—but I set myself the task. I remember the heft of the cookbook, its silver jacket and the pages of exquisite photos, daring you to reproduce the color, the reflections of light on each fruit or vegetable. I went easy on myself, selecting the Bistrots, Brasseries, et Restaurants de Tradition volume. A sleep-deprived home cook without even the luxury of an automatic dishwasher, let alone other intricate culinary tools, I figured that tradition was more my speed than gastronomie. And even then, I selected what seemed to be the easiest recipe: Soupe au pistou, a lovely pesto soup. The pesto already made (that was easy; I make pesto frequently, though it's true I cut corners and do not use a mortar and pestle to pulverize the basil by hand), I remember the next challenge: "La découpe de tous les légumes doit être uniforme." Oh, did I fail to mention? I was also cooking FSL (French Second Language). I was to dice all vegetables uniformly. This should have been no problem, but I remember that it took me forever. It was an exercise in monumental patience for me not to give in to the temptation to start chopping faster and more irregularly. Not being a professional chef, and not having proper knives, generally I just chop whatever way gets the job done and if it all looks, well, not uniform, then who's to criticize? Imperfection is often a sign of home cooking and has its own charm. Yet, if I was going to cook Ducasse, then damnit, I was going to cook Ducasse; I would pass perfectionist Michelin-star muster. So, as I said, it took every ounce of patience I had; it took much longer than it should have. But eventually, my carrots, potatoes, turnips, and zucchini, plus the rounds of leeks, celery . . . all was diminutively sized, sized the same. And I have to say, neatness counts: the bowl of vegetables looked incredibly appealing, if more fussy than my usual melange. I don't really remember much else about preparing the soup. I do remember that when it was done—when the kitchen was quiet and the baby asleep—I was both tired and deeply satisfied. I remember that the recipe was a success, a wonderful comfort food, and that I wished the pot was bottomless. I could just feed on the soup all year. It was a shame how quickly it disappeared, in some inverse relationship to the time it took to prepare it. I have not made the soup since, but perhaps I will again. I will do it when I need an excuse to be alone in the kitchen for hours. I will treat it as meditation practice, and I will love every slice of the knife, every uniform cube of vegetable that results.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vintage Baskin Robbins


I've always loved ice cream. Always. Like many children, my first love in the frozen dessert category was Baskin Robbins. Blame it on my youth. In matters culinary as well as matters of romance, we are all a bit indiscriminate at first blush. By the time I reached age ten, however, I was outgrowing their allure—outgrowing them in both age and sophistication. I have, I confess, become a bit of an ice cream snob. And now that I make my own (and what a rude awakening: how many egg yolks?! how much cream?! yet it doesn't stop me), well . . . if I'm going to eat ice cream made by someone else, it's got to be sensational. All natural, intense taste, unique flavors. No plastic. I had heard once (was it true?) that Baskin Robbins used plastic in their ice cream, but maybe it was a vicious rumor; maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but I could swear I once did see something like a shaving of white plastic in my scoop of—what was it, rocky road? And yet . . . I do have a soft spot in memory for those "31 Flavors," a purely sentimental attachment. Baskin Robbins stores exist pretty much everywhere I've lived in the U.S., but I only associate them with one place, Chicago, and with one time in my life, ages five though nine. This is when my parents (mostly Mom) would take me out for ice cream and that's where we'd go. There was a Baskin Robbins in the Lincoln Park neighborhood that we would frequent: was it on Clark? I think it was. We'd go in, and here is what I remember: Those little chairs with attached half-tables, like a certain style of school desk; the chairs (the tables, too?) were pink. The waxy cups had pink and brown polka dots, and the tiny plastic spoon you were given to eat your treat with was also bright pink. If we got cones, I remember that I liked chocolate-based flavors, sometimes pink bubble gum or rainbow sherbet. My mother liked Jamoca Almond Fudge. My father, lemon custard or rum raisin. Someone liked Cherries Jubilee, probably also my dad, since there was a hint of rum in this one, too. But we didn't always get cones or simple cups. I remember that sometimes, my mother and I would share a hot fudge brownie sundae, and that seemed like pure decadence. I recall my mother letting me have the cherry, always. That she simply did not like maraschino cherries did not matter; it was still, to me, the ultimate act of maternal kindness to let me have the one-and-only anything. The hot fudge was sometimes not hot enough, often too thick, but it usually satisfied the craving anyway. And then there were those treats I sometimes picked from the refrigerator: ice cream (I always got the mint chocolate chip) slathered thick between two thin chocolate wafer cookies; clown cones, those goofy upside-down treats that made me laugh. So, while my tastes have gotten more complex, still there's a part of me that remembers the child's delight and manner of being easy to please. How could you be judgmental about something as giddy as ice cream on a hot summer day? Impossible. The dilemma now, though, since I know what goes into commercial ice creams (plastic aside), is whether to take my son to a store like Baskin Robbins. We've done it once or twice, but at six years old, he's already way more sophisticated than I ever was. His favorite store-bought flavor? Red bean ice cream from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Barring that, the Mr. Softee truck—so I guess there's hope for a classic American childhood yet.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Recurring Dream


I am optimistically calling this memory—pushing it safely into the past—which is not inaccurate. I haven't had the dream in a long, long time. Used to be frequent, this recurring dream of mine. I remember that it never failed to freak me out. I would wake from one of these dreams and feel diseased, tainted, unkempt in a mud-hut, Third World kind of way. I would experience a vague dread and need to take a cold shower to wake up and shake off these feelings. Before I could get up, though, I would have to check my teeth to make sure they were all there and none of them loose. The dream was simple: I would lose or be on the verge of losing my teeth. Often, the teeth would just be loose and not fall out. Sometimes, I would find them in my dream-hand. I remember one time, in the dream suddenly my teeth were rocking violently in my mouth, the gums giving way to them, unable to hold on. I clamped my jaws tightly together, knowing that if I opened my mouth to speak—if I let up the pressure keeping my teeth in place—the teeth would fall out and I'd be left without a smile at best; at worst, unable to chew or speak properly. When I woke from that dream, my jaws were truly locked together, sore from grinding. I don't know what the dream is supposed to mean. I remember that at one point I looked up the symbol in some sort of dream encyclopedia, but I no longer know the proposed significance. I think it did make some difference (in terms of portent) whether the teeth fell out or were only loose. I had both versions of the dream many, many times, particularly in my twenties. As I said, I haven't had it in a while, which is good. It's interesting, though, how deeply this dream experience always affected me; how it got at some archetypal fear, made me think of ruin, of my own mortality (though as I age the dream happens less). I wonder how much of this is cultural. Probably a lot. I know that Americans rank very high on the global chart of the teeth-obsessed, and that I'd be rich if I had a dime for every time I heard that "Europeans have bad teeth." To say nothing of people in places with neither orthodontists nor basic dentistry. It does sometimes seem frivolous to worry about teeth, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. I try to keep my twice-yearly preventive appointments, but don't pay for services or products to whiten my teeth. Still, I am concerned. I want to keep my teeth; keep them in my mouth where they belong. I don't know what's prompted this memory tonight, but there it is. Now, it's time to sleep. And hopefully to dream of something entirely different—no insufficiencies, no gaps, no gaping black hole where a smile should be. A world where smiles come easy and complete.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shut Up and Jump!


Nine years ago today, I sat in a trailer, wearing a fluorescent green nylon jumpsuit and watching a "safety and risk" video along with my then-fiancé and two friends. The trailer was parked to the side of an airfield, where Sky's the Limit offered people like me—ordinary, I promise—the thrill of falling thousands of feet through the air. I was about to perform my first-ever parachute jump. Outside, I remember, the sun shone bright: the sky beckoned, clear and blue. Inside the trailer it was dark. And it was dark inside myself. For months I'd been fighting depression. As anyone who has ever been depressed can tell you, a dose of guilt attaches, especially when by external measures your life seems full of good, happy events. Six months earlier, I had completed a Master of Fine Arts program, gotten engaged, and had found a job with a great group of people who would stay friends long after we went separate ways. But I found the transition devastating. After years of relative solitude, listening only to an artist's call, tracing out ideas and images that came to me from a mysterious process of patience and paying attention, my new life came at me noisily, from all sides, shouting down the inner voice that needed quiet and stillness in order to be heard. I was overworked, overextended, overwhelmed with the needs, demands, desires of other people. Inside the trailer, I signed the disclaimer form acknowledging that, put bluntly, what I was about to do could kill me. I did not want to die. I was by no means suicidal. And I am not a thrill-seeking fanatic: skiing of the most benign sort terrifies me. Yet we'd been talking about it for some time, my fiancé and I—he'd jumped once before. I was intrigued and, with life on the ground seeming so flat and heavy, maybe not as scared as I should have been. Plus, as a sort of rally cry, we all had Sky's the Limit bumper stickers to contemplate: "Shut up and jump!" they commanded. So there I was, strapping on a harness, climbing into a tiny plane with a gaping egress, a tandem instructor behind me, ready to push me out if I got cold feet. I jumped. Freefall. Knowing you are falling at hundreds of miles per second, exponentially faster, but perspective so distorted it feels like floating. You imagine, before you experience it, that it will feel like a rushing, forceful pull of gravity, all adrenalin and blurry vision and wind howling in your ears. But in the moment when you first fall, everything is suspended: space, time, activity, thought. I have never in my life experienced such complete silence. Not one sound. I wonder if I will ever again experience as much awe, as much peace. It is different once the parachute opens; it brings you back to yourself. you are aware of your relief (it opened!), aware as you get closer to the ground that, indeed, the land does rush up to meet you. But right then, in that first falling moment, everything falls away. It is not unlike falling in love: you lose yourself, in a good way. You find a new way of being. And if you can do this, you can do anything. Years have passed. I am now not only a wife but also mother to a little boy: I assess risk differently. I know that I will never again make that jump. Never again will I fall like that, physically, feeling weightless and full of wonder. But I carry the memory of perfect silence in the world, and often it helps when the buzz of the quotidian seems too loud. A framed picture of me and my husband hugging right after the jump—After the Fall—sits in our living room. Anyone can see I am more than happy; I am glowing. And this is the thing: although that willing fall did not itself fix anything, did not make depression disappear in an instant, my life is forever divided by it, just as it is by my marriage, by motherhood. There is before, and there is after. I will forever after be, nothing can change it: a woman who fell through the sky.

(Written in response to a prompt from the literary magazine, The Sun.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sparks


Seven years ago this evening, I was in a New York steakhouse with my husband, enjoying a rare dinner out. Somehow he had managed to unshackle himself from his four-star job for a night, and we went to Sparks on East 46th Street. I am pretty sure that my sommelier husband chose Sparks due to its wine list—a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner many times over. It was all the same to me. I like a good steak on occasion, but I confess that I have never really understood the steakhouse concept. Meaning that while I get that it's all about the cut of beef, behemoth-like on your conservative china patterned plate, I have always been offended that the vegetables are ordered on the side, charged separately. When you pay top dollar for a slab of meat, can't they just include the side dishes? And can't they be more inventive than sauteed spinach or a baked potato? Truth be told, I would have preferred going out for sushi, or to a great Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. But meat and potatoes suited my husband just fine, and since it was a treat for him to be the one served instead of serving, I deferred to his choice. I don't mean to suggest that the food was anything less than delicious. The steaks were cooked precisely to our specifications; they were tender and bloody within reason. But there was something about the experience overall that made me feel out of place. Maybe it was the decor: staid burgundy, dark wood, white tablecloths; very conservative indeed. I am much more excited about modern design—or else the kind of place with sawdust on the floor, where you can drop peanut shells as you swill a beer and wait for your table to be ready (a table that, if it sports one at all, sports a red and white checked cloth). Maybe it was just the feeling of being a skirt in an all-boys, old-boys network sort of place. I will say, the magnums of wine on display were interesting. The other factor I consider is this: our wedding had been less than a month prior, and really, the whole wife thing was still a bit odd. Or I was just still coming down from international wedding planning stress, which our honeymoon only partially alleviated. But on top of wife, as it turns out, at this dinner I was also asked to think about filling another role, that of mother to a hypothetical child. Something about sitting in a conservative restaurant with a slab of bloody meat alone on a plate in front of me . . . well, it just didn't reconcile with any notions I might have had about parenting—notions that were blurry at best, totally alien in fact. Meat is easier to eat when you objectify it; when you divorce it cleanly from what you know it is, or once was. Our society is so sanitized, really, so protected from the meaning of the blood and muscle and fatty tissue there for your chewing enjoyment. Maybe some part of me sensed that parenting would be the same: that my view of it could only be a sanitized view, protected from the harshness of birthing a separate body that would have a will of its own; shielded from the reality that there'd be a thousand ways blood could be spilled. And you would be responsible, always, forever. It's not that I didn't know these things intellectually. I am not a naive person; I know what's what. It's the "who" I couldn't wrap my head around: who, me? And yet, I remember the eagerness with which my husband started talking about creating a family (as though two people together can't make a family all on their own). I remember, practical me, thinking that I had exactly a week and a half left on my dial-pack of contraceptive pills and no refills remaining; I'd have to get another prescription if I wanted to continue. And it seemed so easy to capitulate—particularly since "common knowledge" held that it routinely took a year to conceive when coming off the Pill. So we talked about it, agreed to "leave ourselves open," and tucked into our beef. I bit, rolled the buttery meat around in my mouth, and didn't think any more about all the things that could—that would, nine months later, forever have to be—ordered on the side, in small portions, if at all.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chicago Fire Memory #2


I was driving back into downtown Chicago from Midway Airport: Cicero Avenue to the Stevenson, which is I-55, connecting to 90/94 West. Friends from Saint Louis had come up for the weekend—my girlfriend, T., and the man she was dating at the time, whom we called Mr. Zima (though not to his face). Remember that drink of the 1990s? Alcohol that wasn't beer, wine, or hard liquor; a clear, citrusy, malt-based drink with an identity crisis. It became known in most circles as the ultimate wussy drink, so really I salute my friend's boyfriend, for being able to ask for it with a straight face and no shame. People can say what they like. But this is beside the point . . . unless we want to contemplate the potential value of Zima as a wet blanket to a fireball. On the expressway back from the airport, before the exchange with I-90, traffic slowed nearly to a standstill. Up ahead, the right lane was blocked, so cars were merging to the left. We saw black smoke and, when we got close enough, could see the burning shell of a vehicle on the shoulder, emergency workers establishing a safe zone around it. I don't recall anyone actually doing anything to douse the flames; I guess this was a case of police being the first responders, and perhaps they don't carry extinguishers in their squad cars? Anyway, fiery tongues licked the car clean, or if not clean then empty. The thing that stayed with me—the kernel of the memory—was the intensity of the heat as we drove past. Even with the car on the shoulder, the right lane empty, and everyone driving on the left, as we drew parallel with the blazing vehicle we felt a blast of heat that brought our hands reflexively to our cheeks, made us turn our heads as much as we wanted to look. We didn't know how anyone standing any closer could bear it, and I remember wondering, as I always do when disaster strikes somewhere: what if that were me? What if it were my car on the side of the road, or what if I were the car, so to speak? What would it be like to feel not the intense July sun or the first sunburn of the season on winter white skin; not the kitchen burns that blister fingers and wrists as you take sweet treats from the oven, but rather a searing conflagration of hungry flames? We all know that fire burns. We all know that burning hurts. But driving past that car and feeling firsthand, physically, a heat so strong it was as though the air had become solid, I remember in that moment being awed by the power of the elements. And then, silence. No one spoke, and I am quite sure that we were each unwilling to put words to our vulnerability, to this sudden reminder that our bodies—these fragile, earthly shelters for our worries, dreams, and myriad shortcomings—might as well be wisps of gauze or sheets of the most delicate tissue; no match for fire. No match at all.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Chicago Fire Memory #1


No, nothing to do with Mrs. O'Leary's cow. How old do you think I am? But I do have two memories of Chicago blazes, each seen from my car while driving city streets or highways. The first was late at night, in Cabrini-Green, notorious breeding ground for all of America's urban housing-project woes. This was in the mid-1990s. I had just moved back to Chicago, alone, and I still had a car, although I lived in the downtown Streeterville neighborhood and really did not need one. I will mention the make of the car, only because it really does make a difference to the story: imagine a single, young, white woman driving through the projects in the middle of the night . . . in a Saab. What the hell? you might well ask. Well, I was returning home from a late-night excursion in Bucktown or Wicker Park, probably the latter. I really wasn't thinking about where I was, only about where I wanted to go, which was back to my apartment to crash. I was tired. But not too tired to be completely oblivious to my surroundings. Crossing the Chicago River, on West Chicago Avenue I believe it was, and suddenly I was stopped at a red light. To my left, I remember seeing blighted housing, hearing a sudden chaos of noise in the cross-street about a block and a half away, or its equivalent. The streets did something strange around there, didn't go through, so it was hard to judge a block—these were the literal and metaphorical dead-end streets of the city. Suddenly, more shouting, and flames shooting up into the night sky. A blaze of orange heat. Not a building on fire; this was in the street. Did someone ignite the contents of a trash can, or was it a car on fire? Worse, I imagined, a person? I saw shadow-cloaked figures running, and although the traffic light was still red, I stepped on the gas. I needed to shake the feeling of being a sitting duck for who knows what violations. And really, what did the red light matter? I remember, more than anything, thinking that if a patrol car wanted to pull me over for running the light, I'd be more than happy to pay a ticket in exchange for a police escort out of the neighborhood. Without incident, I made it home. It was not the first and not the last time I'd find myself in the "wrong" section of a city; this was not even a close shave, not really. Only in the realm of the hypothetical, perhaps. I have never considered myself a skittish person, but call it intuition—on that night, sitting in my luxury car at a red signal, a guiding voice told me to "Gun it!" and I did, before someone else could work their own gun magic in the middle of this agitated night.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walking With the Dead


When I was young, someone told me of a superstition: as when going through tunnels, if you pass a cemetery, you are supposed to hold your breath. I don't remember who told this to me, but I know we were in a car. It made some sense to me at the time. People are (perhaps rightly) a bit squeamish about cemeteries. But—at least while living—I actually enjoy them. Which is not to say that I seek them out in some morbid thrill; I am not in any way obsessed with them. But if I am passing by, especially in a foreign country, I will almost always wander in. And there are some that really do merit a visit for their landscaping and the ornate sculptures of tombstones and mausoleums. The marble cutting is often exquisite. I have never visited The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, nor have I been to Woodlawn, which is in the Bronx, although I have driven past them countless times. I do, however, remember two cemeteries that made impressions upon me: one is famous, and people do make pilgrimages there; the other is humble and not on any map so to speak. The first is Père Lachaise in Paris, and the second is adjacent to a church in Donegal, Ireland. I remember being two times in Père Lachaise, once with a good friend from high school. She and I were photographers then, and we wandered around the grounds on a cold January that conspired to give us a spectral fog we did our best to capture on film. The mysterious vapor drifted through the plots and gave its airy, ethereal embrace to the sculpted figures that lined the cobblestone paths. We saw the final resting places of Jim Morrison (where votives and other trinkets were left) and of Edith Piaf (buried under mounds of bright bouquets and floral wreaths). The other time was with my father. That was also January, I believe, a year later. But the weather was clear and bright that day. He and I paid tribute to Molière and Oscar Wilde. Going to the website linked above, you can take a virtual tour, such is the beauty and curiosity of the place. In Donegal, I remember Celtic crosses at the tip of the yard, looking out across the bay. I remember sunshine then, too, but also a hailstorm that passed as quickly as it arrived, which is the way of the weather there. I remember the graves of two sisters, Isabella and Mary Virtue. Yes, Virtue. I thought that name intriguing: were they virtuous ladies? Spinster sisters (there was nothing to suggest they were the beloveds of anyone but each other). The sisters died a little more than one year apart, at the end of the nineteenth century. Did I imagine in the breeze coming off the bay, a whispering woman's voice? I thought I heard it distinctly, but I was quite alone. I remember wondering, in case the spinster-sister theory was true, about women's bodies laid to rest, having never known a lover's touch; never having experienced the swelling of life played out daily around them, mirrored in the rising tides. So many stories in the stones, all over the world. Some true celebrations, others tragic tales, but all beautiful. I enjoy the contemplation, the reminder that descends upon me in these places, of my own mortality and of the blessing of life while I have it to live. Yes, I think the poet Michael Coady was right when he suggested that graveyards are not morbid; rather, they are celebrations of life for the living. Giant monuments to Carpe Diem.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unexpected Bliss


I am elbows deep in dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, lost in my own thoughts while keeping time with Collective Soul, a CD played for the first time in what must be ages—loud, or loud in comparison to the usual silence. Two small hands reach around my waist from behind, squeeze in a little-boy hug with muscle to it. A hug that hangs on. I hadn't even heard my son enter the kitchen. Then his six-year-old voice tells me, a mom who feels on the edge much of the time: "You rock!" I do? I don't recall using that expression around my son, so I figure it's something he's picked up at school or at camp. This cool-kid slang invading my son's speech makes me smile. It's so unexpected. Also, I am instantly high on this praise. How did I earn it? Was it the ice cream base we just made together and put in the refrigerator to cool? Was it the music I put on? Or was it the promise of going outside once clean-up was finished so that we could squirt each other with water, chase around in the summer heat? Maybe all of the above. The memory is just hours old. We've added others in the course of the evening, too: finishing the raspberry ice cream (the best I've ever tasted; my son says it's because of "teamwork" and I don't doubt it), dancing in the living room, making a homemade pizza and tossing the dough in the air, shouting "Pizza Italiano!" for no reason other than to be silly. I wanted to write this down tonight, because although they're the most recent of memories—they may well be among the very best. Life is still unfolding, memories being made every minute.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Dancing with J


Lifting, bending, touching, twisting. The sensuality of dance with a connected partner, with a man who knows how to move. The shifting energy of give and take, fluid in the open air around us. The expanding and contracting distances, the invisible cord tethering our bodies, so that no matter the steps taken in opposite directions, still we could only describe a set circumference, an orbit we could not break. I remember only once in my life dancing with a man in a perfect rhythm. It may be significant that this was not someone I was involved with at any time, romantically I mean, and this was long after I had abandoned as lost my almost-career of professional dance. That world—professional dance and ballet specifically—was one I left before achieving any training in partnering, in pas de deux. That was a milestone for us adolescent ballerinas in training—a symbolic awakening to the adult world of coupledom—and I often wondered what it meant that my dance pursuit ended before I could achieve that marker. It has seemed to me often enough that maybe this fact, this lack, had broader implications: as though my life (dancing or not) was meant to be performed as a soloist only. But this man I danced with; he was a friend. We danced barefoot on the worn floors of a converted haybarn, barn doors open to grass and the smell of baking earth in July. We danced to Dead Can Dance. And I felt so alive then, not dead at all.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Are You Afraid Of?


The best thing any writer can have is a great teacher and mentor. This person could be a more experienced writer, a teacher in a writing program, or an editor—maybe someone who is a combination of all those things. Someone, anyway, who reads your work and does not praise it ceaselessly because you are related by blood or marriage, though there's a place for that in life as well; sometimes we all need an ego boost, however biased it is. But you need someone who will be both encouraging and brutally honest. I have been fortunate to have many such people touch my writing life, but today I remember one startling example in particular: one teacher, one moment. This was in my MFA program, perhaps midway through. I had worked hard all semester, and during a residency in July, there was a student reading. I participated, and I remember that in the audience sat a faculty member I had not worked with directly, but who was a person I respected greatly. After the reading, dinner in the cafeteria. I sat near a window, looking into bright sun, still strong in the long days of summer. This teacher sat down next to me, at the head of the table, and she opened up a conversation about my piece. She said it was good, but then paused. After a beat, she looked me in the eye and said, in a voice that was challenging but not at all aggressive: "What are you afraid of?" And I knew then that she'd intuited something about my writing, about my relationship to the creative process and the careful—too careful—placement of words on the page. It was the best question anyone ever asked, and I try to ask it of myself on a regular basis. I am not sure I ever found a satisfactory answer. Artists are so often made to fear everything about their craft. I wish I could say that even if I feared some unknown element of my writing life then, I am free of all that now. It's not entirely true. Creativity is still frightening in its mystery; it demands so much faith. But the fact that someone cared enough to ask—that question itself still goes a long way toward dispelling the grip of whatever fear lurks at the crossroads of creativity and the inner critic. It's good to ask, to know, each day: what are you afraid of? And how to you get down to work to spite it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dream in Naxos


Exactly seven years ago, I was on the island of Naxos, in the capital town of Chora. My husband and I were enjoying the second leg of our honeymoon, having traveled from Crete to this smaller island, following Ariadne's trail. We stayed at a charming hotel, the Anixis, located in the Old Town area, where cars are not permitted and where you get hopelessly, fabulously lost—for just moments at a time—in the maze of narrow, whitewashed streets that turn every which way and bring surprises of hidden doorways, bright red potted geraniums flashing against blue painted doorways. (Perhaps we did not escape Crete's labyrinth mythology after all!) The night before today's anniversary—that is, July 14—we were celebrating at the harbor: not Bastille Day, but the festival of Aghios (Saint) Nikódimos. A splendid display of color streaked through the black night sky. There were fireworks, their red smoke lingering over the docks after each screeching burst of light. Never to be outdone in pageantry, the Church paraded the saint's icon through the town, lifted high under a gold canopy covered with red and white carnations. We sat on a sea wall and watched the procession on one side of us, the moored boats rising and falling in the explosive haze. The next night, we discovered a wonderful restaurant up in the Kastro district, where the Venetian castle dominates the hilltop. Or maybe this was the second night we dined there, as I know we were so pleased with it that we elected to return at least a second time rather than try anywhere new. The restaurant, a taverna called Oniro, which means "dream" in Greek, had a rooftop terrace where we could see the sunset colors washing over the ancient gate, the Portara. We loved the food, though oddly I don't remember exactly what we ordered. Seafood, certainly—and the ever-present horiatiki that I could never get enough of (as at La Miranda in Nice, tomatoes in Greece always tasted divinely like tomatoes). I do remember we drank wine, white and chilled. I also remember eating small-plate mezes to the accompanying duet of a couple's passionate lovemaking, their uninhibited groans and screeches coming from a house slightly downhill of us. Either no one else paid attention, or everyone did; it was hard to tell which. Of course, I provided my own public distraction when I leaned to far into my wooden chair and toppled backward. One sip of wine too many, to top off a lazy day of sun-addled beach combing? Certainly. Sloshed American newlywed tourist—lovely way to earn a stereotype. But despite a moment's mortification, no real harm was done. Actually, none at all. Nothing really mattered anymore, and certainly not ego; we were just living life, in the moment for a change. A perfect set of summer days.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wasabi Chips and Black Licorice


It's Bastille Day. I could write about the French Tricolor; about Marianne, berets, baguettes, and pétanque. Or about champagne; champagne's always good. But today was just another day of long hours and feeling depleted. Am I getting one of those rotten summer colds going around? I've got no real symptoms, but there could be something to it, since I'm craving licorice. What does licorice have to do with anything? With Bastille Day? Well, nothing except that I ate half a bag of it at lunchtime: deep, black, gooey, stick-in-your-teeth licorice. And it now brings to mind an odd home remedy from nearly twenty years ago. I was back from college for a stretch—I suppose it was summer vacation—and I had the beginnings of a cold coming on. I remember my mom and I driving to Westport, to a health food store there. I don't know what was originally on the shopping list (if we even had a list), but I do know what we came home with: a bag of hot wasabi chips and a box of black licorice. The wasabi chips at that time were a new discovery for us. They were white, flecked with seaweed, and laced with wasabi mustard that you couldn't actually see but that had a way of sneaking up on your taste buds, knocking them out with all the subtlety of a lead weight in a tube sock, and then going on a rampage up the nasal passages to do a little dance and singe your nose hairs. Being a bit of a masochist, I loved them immediately. I'd feel the sting and eat some more. And then soothe myself with licorice. My mom and I agreed on the oddness of the combination, but we both indulged. And, lo and behold, the next day, I never felt better. Symptoms completely gone. For some time after that, we were convinced we'd found the perfect remedy for any under-the-weather feeling. And it worked more than once, though not always. Today, I ate the licorice. Maybe tomorrow I'll go in search of wasabi chips, just to make sure.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Little Misses Mary Mack and Lucy


My son is back in camp after the weekend away. Sometimes when I pick him up, he has a repertoire of chanting, singy-songs he goes through. Often these are unfamiliar to me, but sometimes I am stunned to hear the same words sung by him and and his classmates that I sang when I was in grade school myself, all those years ago and in a different city. The latest one is "Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack; all dressed in black, black, black" with those silver buttons down her back. How do kids all end up with these same songs? I have a hard time imagining parents teaching them. How do these silly, nonsense songs survive generation to generation? Who knows. But now that I'm thinking about these songs (and the clapping games that went with them), here's another I remember from when I was perhaps a couple of years older than my son is now. I haven't heard this one from him yet. Maybe you'll remember it, too. If you do (or even if you don't), hope it brings a smile.

Miss Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell.
Miss Lucy went to heaven and the steamboat went to—
HELL-o, operator, please give me number nine,
and if you disconnect me, I will paddle your—
BEHIND the 'frigerator, there was a piece of glass
Miss Lucy sat upon it and she broke her little—
ASK me no more questions, I'll tell you no more lies.
The boys are in the bathroom, pulling down their—
FLIES are in the city, the bees are in the park,
The boys and girls are kissing in the
D-A-R-K dark!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Water Into Grape Juice, Bread into Cardboard


It's Sunday. For reasons I will not go into, I spent two hours in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral this morning, for the second Sunday in a row. Yes, two hours. Orthodox services are long—double what I am accustomed to. My mother was baptized in the Orthodox Church, but I was not. I was raised, baptized, and confirmed in the Presbyterian denomination. I was married in a Catholic church but did not convert. Because I am not Orthodox, I am not allowed to take communion in the Cathedral. So, I watched the others in their solemn procession up the main aisle, watched them cross themselves, watched the priest administer the sacrament on a spoon. No individual shot glasses of sacrament here. My Protestant and very American mind kicked in: Was the spoon being wiped off each time someone used it? I couldn't tell, but I suspect not. Hygienic neuroses are a relatively modern thing, and the Orthodox Church is definitely not what I'd call modern, though they've progressed. Maybe I'm wrong about the reuse of the spoon. One thing I know for sure, though, is that the parishioners were not swallowing grape juice. I remember being young and thinking nothing of it—of the grape juice, I mean. It was just what you got in church, sometimes. In the Presbyterian faith, you do not have communion every week. Actually, I remember really looking forward to Communion Sundays when I was young, because it was like snack time. I loved deep purple grape juice, and the bread was real bread. I realize this may seem appalling to some non-Presbyterians, but I was a child. Grape juice seemed normal. And even now, to my mind, the "looking forward to" seems normal. It's supposed to be a celebration, too, isn't it? But I do have to wonder now: why grape juice? I mean, it's true, the Bible does not describe Jesus turning water into grape juice. The disciples certainly did not celebrate their Seder supper with plain old grape juice. I remember the first time I participated in a non-Protestant service and took communion. I was in Notre Dame, in Paris. I was twenty-one years old, living in France for several months and getting college credit for an internship program. I don't know what drew me to the Sunday Mass. At that time, I had long stopped going to church. Perhaps it was Easter, though I don't remember any extraordinary pageantry. But there didn't need to be; it was Notre Dame! I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. And when it was time to partake of the body and blood of Christ, I did. I didn't think twice about it, though maybe I should have. It was Easter (yes, I'm pretty sure now), and I lined up with everyone else. The actual procedure is fuzzy. It's weird that I can't remember whether we drank out of a communal cup or not. Did we even drink at all? Maybe it was only the priest who both ate and drank. But whether by firsthand experience or not, I knew it was not grape juice, and I was surprised. I just assumed all churches used it. That maybe wine was too expensive or something. But of course this was France. There would be wine. Which is why the Host was such a let-down. I feel flames licking my heels as I write this, but really, in France, I didn't expect papery, tasteless, super-thin "bread." What was this wafer placed on my tongue? Where was the blessed baguette? This morning, I couldn't help thinking that maybe the Greek Orthodox have got it right: they drink wine, not grape juice; they eat bread, not cardboard. Unless I want to convert to Orthodoxy, this is not something I will experience. But somehow, just watching the Eucharist and having these questions and memories of my own very different experience come up made it well worth two hours in a somewhat uncomfortable pew.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Light Headed


No, the title does not refer to another fainting episode, despite what you may have read earlier in the week. It refers to the burden—rather, the unburdening—of long, thick tresses. It's summer now, and still a difficult period economically. I have started explaining to people who comment on my growing mane (mostly to say it looks nice, but still) that it is "recession hair." I've used the term in this blog before. It means, basically, that I simply cannot keep paying to cut it short the way I prefer. Every six to eight weeks in a salon—though I never went that frequently, no matter how flush my wallet—is not something I can permit myself. Actually, it's not just the expense of money but of time. Who has time for flipping through magazines as a stylist pumps you up and down in a padded chair? Definitely not I, not this summer. But, I have to say, I am getting very sick of the length, which has grown mightily since the last whack job. My head feels heavy. I am simply remembering now, with longing, the last time my hair looked like it does in my profile picture. If I could, I'd cut it short again. Perhaps not that short, but short. Short enough so that I don't have to think about drying it when I get out of the shower. Short enough so that I don't need any accessories or products. Short enough for someone to notice I've cut it and say something about it. I remember the first time I cut my hair short enough to qualify for "buzzed," though it wasn't really. I remember showing the stylist a picture of Jean Seberg, the doomed American actress who played in the French new wave film Breathless with Jean-Paul Belmondo—the one tragically married to Romain Gary, himself a tragic figure in the literary world—and asking for something to make me look as "chic gamine" as she did. Audrey Hepburn in the post-Paris part of Sabrina would have done nicely, too. "Are you sure?" the stylist asked, scissors in hand, timid, not knowing if I would soon become hysterical. "Absolutely," I said. "Cut it off." I wanted to see it come off in a couple of swift clips, right up close to the scalp, very dramatic. The stylist went in tiny, inch-at-a-time increments. But finally, the desired result was achieved, and I felt strangely light headed. It was a great feeling. That's what I'd like to replicate now, a lightness of being that's anything but unbearable. Of course, I'll wait. Knowing the historical pattern, I'll wait until winter, when it's too cold for short hair, and cut if then anyway. Or maybe not. Maybe I'll let it grow and grow. I hear Locks for Love can accept hair that's got noticeable salt in the pepper. But to do that, I've got a long way yet to go. Guess I'll see which is deeper come fall, my patience or my purse.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New York Banking


Another entry in the annals of public embarrassment: I remember very well the first several months of the year 2000. I had just graduated from an MFA program; I was newly engaged; I had found a job that paid decently and that was not, I hoped, incompatible with my writing life. Really, I should have been on top of the world. And sometimes that is in fact how I felt. The rest of the time, though, it seemed I was trapped underneath it, and it was unbearably heavy—the sudden rushing in of worldly obligations and expectations. In March, my fiancé (now husband) and I went to France to visit his family, a trip I'd negotiated with my employer before I began work in January. By the time our vacation rolled around, I was very much in need of the break. My immediate supervisor kept telling me, in those first weeks on the job, that my early mornings, my very late nights, and the general frustrations I experienced daily were nothing more than a steep learning curve and that things would settle naturally. (They never did.) In the meantime, I was commuting an hour and twenty minutes to and from work, into and out of the city from Connecticut. My husband was living with two other bachelors in an apartment on East 92nd Street; the goal was to look for an apartment together, as soon as possible. Distinctly I recall being on a MetroNorth train with my husband, talking about searching in earnest, once the whirlwind visit with Gallic relatives was over. I explained—I know I did—that after our trip, I was coming up against an even busier time in my office, and that with details such as leases and logistics of moving, I would need as much support as possible. And I recall, just as distinctly, how one of the next conversations we had included his telling me how he subsequently agreed to take on additional shifts at his job, effective immediately. Cut to the week of our lease signing. Cut to phones ringing in the office, my juggling more than my share of tasks all around, coordinating a four-location move to consolidate my and my husband's physical belongings, and having to take a call from an insulting real estate hack. I don't remember what he said to me, but do recall it got me fuming. He was arrogant and nasty, rude and threatening. This was Manhattan in flush times, before 9/11, before the housing bubble burst, when it was a seller's (or landlord's) market, no question. I was stressed, overextended, and the latest development was this: lunch hour, when I could only spare thirty minutes, and I needed to get cashier's checks to cover first month's rent on a one-bedroom we'd found, plus security deposit and broker's fees (this was the last time we ever paid a broker, by the way). My own bank was a small, local bank in Connecticut, where the employees knew all the customers by name. From the bank, I had somehow managed to withdraw the money I needed (or more likely, I wrote a check to my parents and they gave me the cash), but I couldn't get cashier's checks there because I was in the city before the bank opened during the week and home way past closing hours every night. I guess this was naive of me—a thing I never considered myself as being—but I didn't anticipate having problems giving cash to a teller in exchange for the checks we needed. Think again. This is where the public embarrassment comes in. I tried Citibank first. There was one on Broadway, down in the mid 50s, not far from my office on Columbus Circle. I had a Citibank credit card, so figured I could pass as a customer if need be. Did I have a cash account in the bank? No. "Sorry, ma'am," the teller said. (She was calling me ma'am! Had I aged that much?) "But it's cash," I said. "Why would you need to cover it with an account balance?" I was turned away. Time was ticking, paperwork piling up back in the office, stomach growling but no time to think about food. Where else had I seen a bank? There was, at that time, a Chase branch on the southwest corner of 57th and 8th Avenue (which later moved a block or so farther north). I went in there, stood in line. "Do you have an account with Chase?" the teller asked. "No. I have cash." Again, all I got were condolences. Overwhelmed with a sense of urgency, with the frustration that can only come when you are thwarted by bureaucratic rules that seem to fly in the face of logic (a bank won't take cash?!)—exhausted with the sense of pushing boulders uphill, I gave out in the lobby of the bank. I tried to prevent myself from crying, but really, it was hopeless. The tears just came. And I remember thinking, I'm thirty years old, crying in a bank in front of everyone like a child. It felt unjust, humiliating. But sometimes there are mortal angels who step in and come to your aid. I felt a hand on my shoulder, saw a proffered tissue. A portly black woman in a neatly pressed jacket, wearing a brass name badge with the bank's logo on it, asked me to follow her to her desk. Her voice was gentle, but she didn't say much; she listened. And then she asked me for the cash I'd been carrying around, disappeared with it, and returned with forms I needed to fill out for the cashier's checks. I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and a huge burden lifted. I wanted to hug that woman. Maybe I did, I don't know. I do know that I returned to that branch once our move was complete and opened an account. I've been a Chase customer ever since.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fade to Black


It's getting late. Not later, really, than my usual posting; maybe I'm just more tired today. I have a lot on my mind, mostly time-intensive work projects. And really, I feel empty of memory. I am having a hard time remembering even my name at the moment. Just a big, black void that—hey!—that reminds me of something. Reminds me of a big, black void, in fact. One I experienced when I was sixteen years old (though I suppose a person could argue that simply being sixteen is enough of a black void in itself). This, though, was physical. I remember it was a summer day, and hot. Not middle-of-August-and-humid kind of hot, but hot enough to be uncomfortable. I was home from school and home from the hospital. I've posted about my Sloan-Kettering experience already, so won't go into details, but will just toss out a bone to those who don't know (a reminder to those who do): I was, in the summer of 1986, subjected to surgery followed by nine months of a fiberglass cast on my right leg. For most of that time, it was a full leg cast, toes to top of thigh. Cumbersome, itchy, hot, heavy—I grew tired of lugging my own weight around on crutches. I tired easily. Especially when I forgot to eat, or just didn't eat enough. I am never very hungry in the summer. So, I remember this time when I went with my mom out to the grocery store. What was it? A Grand Union, I think. I see a red logo, some kind of white detail (dot?). When was the last time I saw one of those? Must have been when I lived in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Odds are likely that my mom requested that I go with her—I was not one to volunteer my company that often in those days—but maybe I was stir-crazy enough to have suggested going along. Regardless, there we were, the two of us. Mom with the cart, I hobbling along. I stood behind her in the checkout line. I remember, I felt fine, more or less. And then I didn't. The first thing that happened was that my hearing went. It was as though suddenly someone had stuffed cotton in my ears. I could almost hear, but not really. My own voice sounded very far away to me. I remember saying, "Mom?" and I must have had a wild look in my eye—a very raw, animal sort of fear—because when my mom turned to look at me, she could tell immediately something was wrong. The concern etched itself on her face, which alarmed me even more. I think I told her I couldn't hear. No sooner had I said that, then my vision started giving out as well. I remember like it was yesterday—how this grainy, shimmering pattern, like a moiré effect, or maybe more like television static, came in from the periphery, zooming toward the center of my focus. Then that, too, was extinguished. I remember being scared. I remember not knowing what was happening to me. I had never fainted before. I wish I could tell you what it was like, that actual moment of falling unconscious in a supermarket checkout line while on crutches. I can't. I suppose my mom caught me; I don't think I hit the ground. I know some strangers helped. I was sitting on a wood bench on the exit-side of the cashiers, just underneath the plate-glass windows that faced the parking lot. A stranger, a woman, was sitting next to me as well as my mom being there. Did she say something about God? I don't remember being embarrassed, but being sixteen, I may well have been. I remember being comforted by my mother's presence, and I remember being too stubbornly adolescent to tell her so. Hopefully she knew anyway. I guess my mom paid for the groceries while I waited, seated on that bench not six feet away. We went out to the car, drove home. This was not an event that ever repeated itself, and in the grand scheme of things, the incident was small. But it made an impression I will never forget. Not even in my mind's duller moments, like now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Beach Bum Ballet


A memory from early teen years. I was in Los Angeles, and it was the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school. During the academic months, I was attending North Carolina School of the Arts, boarding there, chasing the passion—the obsession—of professional dance; of ballet. It was a profession with strong skin-color barriers, preaching an aesthetic, for women more than men, that did not embrace dark skin. Who could imagine a bronzed Odette? At that time, no one it seemed. In Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, even the Black Swan with her thirty-two fouettés was always white. Insulting (and I suspect largely unchanged, with mostly segregated dance companies)—and yet I didn't overthink it at the time. Now, remembering all the things it seemed permissible for the ballet teachers to say to us students, I am surprised that no one mentioned explicitly that we should stay out of the sun. That particular summer, though, it wouldn't have mattered. I remember going to the beach near the Santa Monica Pier more often than in any other year. A friend from the Bay Area came to visit, and the two of us would spray Sun-In on our hair, squeeze lemon juice on our long tresses, and bake in the midday heat, scorching our feet on the sand to get to the water's edge. I wore a one-piece suit with a plaid pattern of white, black, and two shades of gray. If we put anything on our bodies, it was baby oil, which would supposedly accelerate and deepen the sun exposure. We tanned—the darker the better—hiking up the hip edge of our suits to check the demarcation lines. We tanned smooth, even, and it seemed we never burned, ever. I wonder now how that was even possible. How I went out without sunscreen, and it all seemed fine. No one chased me down with a bottle of lotion. We laughed at the Coppertone ads, but didn't buy the product. Now? SPF 40, thank you very much. I'm a couple decades and the opposite coast away from that girl. Now, my legs are so white (even in July!), I would be the perfect model of a ghostly tulle-draped sylph en pointe, if only for the loss of motherhood's added pounds. Back then, though? Pointes traded for flip-flops, we were California beach bums through and through.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Watermelon


July. Time for watermelons, which I'd always eat right down through the white and palest green of the rind, all the way to the very skin because I didn't want the sweetness to end. I remember someone telling me that swallowing the black seeds meant a watermelon would grown in my belly—I never was that gullible, not even as a child. Still, I spat those seeds out, held contests to see which friend could spit them the farthest. The white ones, thin and soft, I usually ate along with the red flesh of the fruit. There was never anything so good as a watermelon when summer was reaching its hottest temperatures and the sun sapped your appetite for anything substantial. Adulthood has done nothing to curb my summertime watermelon cravings. In fact, my husband brought a giant one home last weekend, cut it up and stored it in four large Tupperware containers in the refrigerator—I have nearly eaten every piece, all on my own, since my husband is not home much and my son for some reason does not like watermelon (or anything that is watery, like cucumbers). I remember, too, linking to earlier honeymoon posts, the sweet, round melon we purchased from a farmer on the side of a road that led down to the beach at Istro, on the island of Crete, where we were going (on the hellish moped) so that we could sunbathe for an afternoon. We saw the man's vehicle first. I call it a "vehicle" because I really don't know the proper word for it: not a truck, not a jeep . . . really it was more like a giant, souped-up tricycle; a seemingly self-made contraption with farmland dirt caked in the treads of the three thick wheels, nothing so fancy as a hubcap in sight. A blue tarp covered the open-air bench seat, the long skinny handlebars protruding right behind the exposed engine. The back was boxy, with some kind of high railings; it, too, was covered with a tarp, this one white. Most of the watermelons were under this tarp. But others were displayed on a folding table at the roadside, under an umbrella for shade. The farmer's chair a few paces away, in the shade of a tree. The man himself wore pants with the cuffs rolled high, as if in anticipation of some flash flood his mind invented in a stunning act of wishful thinking. He wore sandals. He wore a striped polo-style shirt, with his deeply bronzed neck and head poking up above the collar like a turtle craning out of its shell to take a look around. Except that this makes him sound timid, feeble in some way, when he was neither of those things. To contrast with his dark skin, a white brush mustache. When his lips parted, the mustache expanded, smiling with him. He smiled in the way that most Greeks smile at strangers: tentatively, probably thinking that tourists with broad grins are idiots. But there was no judgment in his eyes, only appreciation of our patronage, and maybe a touch of pride that we wished to take his picture. I am with him, and his arm is around me. Together we cradled the watermelon I purchased, holding it in front of us. It strikes me only now: we held it at the level of my midsection, so it does look a bit like the watermelon baby that friends threatened me with if I swallowed those seeds. Climbing back on the moped, my husband and I took this fruit-baby to the rocky beach at Istro. We split it open on those rocks, sucking the juice from each other's fingers, slaking our thirst with it in the hot, Cretan sun.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Cretan Moped Excursion


My logical mind that likes order, my Presbyterian upbringing that makes me prone to sober reflection, taking things seriously . . . These aspects of my personality would have me believe that travel from point A to point B on the island of Crete would actually correspond to kilometers measured on a map. I am here to tell you: the one has nothing to do with the other. In July 2002, my husband and I honeymooned at the resort-heavy town of Elounda, a small dot in the northwest sector of the island. As it turned out, many of the things I wanted to see were at the opposite end of Crete. It didn't matter. We were adventurous, newly married, two for the road—on my husband's preferred mode of transportation, a motorcycle. Correction: it was not a motorcycle we rented but some kind of moped that had seen better days, but was serviceable. It put-putted along, my husband driving and I clinging to the back. I don't remember where we were headed for the first leg of our day trip, but we looked at the map and calculated the distance, and completely ignored the way the thin red line squiggled back and forth in serpentine folly. Or we saw it, but knew then that we were taking the most scenic route before hitting more major roads, and we had no appointments to keep. Indeed. It was lovely, that road we took out of Elounda. I remember going up into the mountains, making sharp turns and leaning into the curves together; we'd come around a bend and be awash in the smell of wild thyme, the sight of blooming, prickly pants. And then there'd be another bend, and another. Used to speed, my confident-biker husband had to slow himself down considerably. It didn't take long to figure out that distance on a map is like measuring travel by a crow's wing, no basis in human reality. Though the route was not long in kilometers, it was much longer in time. Space-time relationships as we knew them did not apply while in Greece. Marveling at how long it was taking us, we realized also that our itinerary for the day was in jeopardy from the get-go. Still, we pushed on westward, stopping for iced frappes and to stretch our legs in Heraklion, in Rethymnon, and eventually we ended up all the way in Chania, a good 200 kilometers from where we began that morning. Because this post is not a memory of sightseeing, not a memory of the gorgeous sea views, the fabulous cuisine (Tamam in Chania, in an old Turkish bath house, was excellent when we were there), I will end the musing on Cretan Moped transportation by saying that we did our best to drive straight back before it got too late, on the major road that bisects the island laterally. I will also admit that I was near tears halfway back, so sore was my backside from banging around on the purgatorial seat, so tired and cranky was I from burning my bare leg on the exhaust pipe. The next day, I remember making my first wifely demand: that we stay put, do nothing but lie on the beach and leave the cursed moped right where it was. Did we? I think we did—at least for the next morning.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tomatoes at La Miranda


Another food memory, once again in France. I would wonder if readers are tiring of this cycle of posts, and yet . . . who could tire of the undeniable romance of French fare? Done simply and well, certainly not I. This memory is of tomatoes. Other things, too, but mostly tomatoes; some very particular ones. Deep crimson and full of taut tomato flesh. Not the pale, dry, mealy disks that pass for tomato slices in many places. No, these were real, juicy tomatoes with more meat than membrane and seeds. Sliced and served up in a perfect rustic arrangement of a tart, with a quintessential French butter pastry crust, simple. I don't remember ever before (or since) tasting a tomato that was the epitome of tomato; a tomato in which you could taste the earth it was grown in, the sun that ripened the fruit, the farm freshness, the . . . terroir. Does anyone talk terroir when talking tomato? If they don't, they should. And these would definitely be AOC tomatoes. Where were they? Served at La Miranda, a tiny restaurant in Vieux Nice. The restaurant has an extremely limited menu, dictated by the chef's whims of the day—by the market of the day, certainly. Only the freshest ingredients, prepared in such a deceptively simple style. Tomatoes that are allowed to take center stage as what they are, no fancy foam of this or reduction of that. Simple. Maybe five or six ingredients in the tomato tart (ingredients for crush from scratch included). Yet somehow I know that if I tried to replicate it, it would not be the same. The restaurant was small, simple, and stunning for all that. The menu is presented on slate with chalk. There are no reservations allowed, and in fact there is no phone number that any customer can call—at least there was not at the time I ate there with my husband, during the first week of July 2002. We were led to the restaurant by ex-colleagues of my husband; people in the restaurant business, so it's no surprise they'd know where to take us. I don't know if they are still there, but I hope so. I hope that I might have the chance to return. Until then, I keep tucked away like a soft-skinned treasure, one of the best culinary gifts I have received: the memory of what a tomato tastes like when it's just a tomato, ripened to perfection and served up simply. A tomato as tomato. A slice of summer, luscious and bursting with flavor.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day Picnics


The hiss and boom of fireworks are tapering off. Another Independence Day in the United States. Today, I think about all the reasons why I feel lucky to belong to this messy community of free thinkers and loudmouthed discontents. News in recent weeks is enough to remind us: we do have basic freedoms of thought, speech, and action that people (especially women) in other parts of the world can only hold in their hearts as hope. I don't have the strongest record as a patriot, but there are not many other places I'd rather be at the moment, barring the need for serious health care (knock wood). Well, on vacation, yes, but that's different. So this day of anthems and outdoor grilling is coming to a close, and what do I remember in this moment? Really, because of the fact that this afternoon our family did nothing to mark the holiday (traditional plans fell through), I am remembering the picnic we would have had—the one that we've had whenever possible, in the years since I came back East to be closer to my parents and start a new chapter of life in New York City. Our sort-of-annual picnic in Connecticut, when we coordinate it well, involves my immediate family (parents, husband, son), plus two groups of family friends from way back. When we started the picnics, none of us (other than my own parents, of course) had children. Then, in 2003, babies arrived on the scene. I am remembering a loose collage of memories, then, because since becoming a mother that's how everything seems: a loose (or maybe it's tight?) fabric of activity and intentions, things done accidentally or not at all, and a triumph when normal events like July 4th picnics manage to come off without a hitch, without anyone passing out from exhaustion, or dishes of cobbler getting knocked off the wooden picnic table. Yes, let's start there and dispense with it. It was, I think, in 2005, when my son was two—not a "terrible two" at all, but he wore me out nonetheless. I'd stayed up late the night before to make a cobbler, peach I think, and had cut pastry star shapes out for the topping, in keeping with the flag theme that would wave across our paper goods. I remember showing my son the top of the cobbler, and he was in awe of the stars. The cobbler was in a white dish and sat upon the bench of the picnic table; that was the mistake, too low. I am not sure how it happened, but one minute the cobbler was fine, and the next, our dessert lay among shards of broken Corning Ware with blades of grass run through it. I couldn't help being upset. It had taken most of my inner resources to get the cobbler done in the first place, but still, accidents happen. And I couldn't chastise my son when I saw a new kind of hurt in his eyes: the weight of responsibility that settled on him as he understood that "Mommy's beautiful cake [was] gone," and that he was the cause of it. The blame he took upon himself was punishment enough, and I wish I could undo the incident if only to keep him from that feeling (perhaps his first ever) of guilt. But there've been other desserts: the frosted cookie cut-out stars, the vanilla cake with cream, strawberries, and blueberries to form the flag, a peach-poppyseed cake, some shortcakes . . . I am the go-to person for the desserts, but here's what I remember of the rest: my father always the grill master, with some help from the other guys; the parboiled, fresh buttered corn, sweet and slightly charred over the coals; burgers, hot dogs, chicken breasts; chips and dip, fresh veggies brought by one family; salad provided by another. I have to pause on the salad. The woman who usually does the salad brought one year a simple but delightful combination: fresh baby spinach leaves, roasted pecans, blueberries, and (I think) blue cheese. I don't know why the blueberries took me by surprise, but they did. They provided just the right tangy sweetness to offset the oil-rich pecans, the bitter greens, and the pungent cheese. I also remember the wooden salad servers she used, which were not the typical set of long-handled fork and spoon, but rather a pair of little paddles shaped like bear claws, which my husband later gave me for my birthday. My husband would always bring wine—often a chilled rosé, of the sort I never drank until I met him. I thought rosé was for wimps, until I tasted some really fine French rosés (there, it's true, they are accorded more distinction). Out in a park near the water's edge, we'd talk and eat and drink in the sun, put the kids to sleep in Pack-n-Plays when they were little, but later we'd run them around the lawn, playing Frisbee or tossing balls. The other French twist to the Fourth (besides the wine, because it's only fitting; we do owe a debt of gratitude to them for our independence, after all): pétanque. Like Italian bocce for those who don't know, but the balls are different, probably the rules vary as well. Like a group of retired Frenchmen in the town square, we'd set about tossing the "cochon" (the target marker), do our best in teams to perfect our form. Thuds and clacks, shouts of friendly competition. The sun would slant down in the sky, and we'd pack things up, content. Drunk on sunshine and good humor. I am nostalgic for the experience this year, bereft as I am even of the colorful fireworks display since we moved to the East Side, while the fireworks were moved west, over the Hudson this year. Ah, well, there'll be July 4, 2010. And in the meantime, there are memories and enough thankfulness for independence to carry through to next year.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Remembering Meals


At some point, a marriage becomes a matter of routine; taken for granted. It's something that, being human, we are all guilty of at some point or another, despite the folly of the practice. We tell ourselves that it's just a comfortable sort of being together, worn like a favorite shirt that's fading at the elbows but still intact; more often, though, it's stagnation. It's our duty, I believe, to fight against complacency. Some people do this with reminders of those early days, however long ago, when everything seemed new. Others seek to replicate the newness by seeking future adventures, possibly crazy ones (depending on how prone to midlife crisis one is). Past, future . . . the best way is of course to pay attention to the now. And when you do that—really pay attention—you can amaze yourself with the power of your memory. My husband and I seem to be people who look back on the first blush when we want to rekindle. And our collective memory, I must say, is all about food and wine. We don't really play this game anymore (too many nights around our own table, with too many rushed meals of lesser consequence?), but we used to test each other's memories as we made our way through romantic, gastronomic meals. We'd really pay such careful attention to each detail of the food presented to us; we'd dissect everything together, talk about it and quiz each other later, routinely—years later, I mean. Of the more complex meals (let's say five or more courses), there are probably two I remember in full—at least, remember what each course was, if now many finer points are admittedly lost—and they were both experienced at restaurants in France, much as I hate to perpetuate the national arrogance in matters culinary. One of these meals we ate before we were married (but we were there scouting possible locations for our reception), and the other was during the first days of our honeymoon. That's the one I'll reel off here, as it's an anniversary to the day: July 3, exactly seven years ago. Dinner at Restaurant Lou Cigalon, in Valbonne. Here goes:

– Champagne (because every meal started that way, once upon a time)
– "Gazpacho" of crayfish and tomato confit
– Salmon "declension" (a description which the linguist in me appreciated): variations on theme of a single ingredient; it gets fuzzy here, but there was a salmon mousse, salmon tartare, garnishes of cucumber, thinly sliced dried mango, lemon confit, with sauces of sesame, soy, honey
– A trilogy of shrimp with roasted squash, squash blossoms; something combining crab-mango-lime; a portion of mussel-saffron-kiwi (yes, kiwi!) soup
– Roasted squab with peach and fig, a phyllo-type envelope around pigeon with dates
– Soft chocolate cake with lemon confit
Deconstructed Napoleon with raspberries and "fraises du bois" (wild strawberries)

Because my husband remembers wine, I let myself forget. If I ask him, I'm sure he will remember, or else will find it written down someplace. We fall into our ruts like any couple, but we are probably more sentimental than most. I'll post the wine here in a comment if we come up with it. And if not . . . maybe we're more complacent than I thought.