Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New Traditions

Years ago, when I was living in Boston, I found a recipe for pesto that I absolutely needed to try. I probably spent half a paycheck getting the ingredients for it at Star Market, but I made it and loved it. Penne with pesto became my signature dish for entertaining, and everyone I made it for loved it, too. Eventually I introduced it to my parents, who received it equally well, and for whom it was probably as much an earthy, economical, practical dish as it was Italian gourmet. With everyone in my family on board--my parents, my sisters, their husbands, and later my niece and nephew-- a new family favorite was born.

Every summer now for the past ten or so years, my mother, my oldest sister M and I--or some permutation of the three of us-- make pesto when my mother has an abundance of basil and parsley in her garden. Because basil grows back after my mother picks the leaves, we usually make it more than once. We buy olive oil and garlic and pine nuts and Parmesan and Romano cheese and make as many batches as we can, using my original recipe-- now a tattered, blue index card. Of course my mother does the majority of the prep work. Before M and I show up at a scheduled day and time, she spends hours picking the leaves, then obsessively rinsing away every grain of grit (this usually takes three soaks) and drying the basil and parsley. We simply measure and puree, then divvy the batches into one-cup portions, using yogurt and margarine containers that my mother saves, and freeze them for use during the year. Aside from always having an easy meal in the freezer, I am glad we make pesto because it is a new tradition.

Despite the fact that I see more and more of my mother in me--when I'm browsing through produce "reduced for quick sale" or day old bread, packing up my leftovers (because like my mother I usually cook for an army) to freeze or share with friends and family, or seasoning with a freefall of kosher salt--we don't cook together. At nearly 70, it is still rare to visit and not find her in the garden or in the kitchen canning pickles, shredding or ringing cabbage to make cole slaw, or pounding dough.

As a girl, I begrudgingly responded to her calls for help to lay out Polish linen dishtowels on every square inch of available counter and table space on which she arranged rows of pierogi after she pinched them shut to rest while they awaited their boiling water bath. I would rather have poked needles in my eyes than sit with my sister L and snip the ends of bushels of green beans in the summertime. I have not once wrapped a boiled cabbage leaf around palmful of cooked rice and ground beef. I love all those things she makes-- pickles and pierogi, kapusta, babka, gołąbki--but know how to make none of them.

At least we have pesto.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Happy Halloween

Lemons and oranges don't have much to do with Halloween or Jack-o-Lanterns, but the sun and the trees outside my window today made a pretty backdrop for them both.

Swirling Spaghetti on a Spoon

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend at one of my sister's, where I watched my niece, M (9), light up while she was learning to eat spaghetti with a spoon and a fork. At that moment, nothing else mattered. She will remember forever the night I was there for an overnight and our annual pumpkin adventure, and her dad invited Italian friends--who made the BEST meatballs she's EVER eaten--over for dinner.

The next day, her brother, my nephew C, couldn't have been happier to wear an apron with his sister's name on it and stir a bowl of homemade lemonade. Later, he napped with the plastic spoon beside him. Earlier in the day he was just as happy to play Picasso at a local farm where we painted pumpkins.

I have shared similar moments with my niece A and nephew J, my older sister's children, both a little older that M and C. When J (15) was 3, C's age now, he greeted me at the sliding door of my parents' family room when I moved back from Boston. "You're not going to live in Boston anymore!," he said, with a smile as wide as his eyes and big as his cheeks, as he set my mind at ease about that life change. Moving home provided me with many more opportunities to spend time with him, and later his sister, A ( now 11), who still likes to play word games with me in the pool, and who now keeps a journal--which she was sure to let me know when she was over for pizza with her parents and J last weekend.

I have no children of my own, but I am blessed with my nieces and nephews, with sisters who trust me with their children's lives and have allowed me to spend time with them. My sister L sent an email after the pumpkin adventure thanking me for making memories with her children. I wrote back that it was my pleasure, that I made memories, too. What I didn't write in my reply was that I have learned some of the most important lessons in my adult life from her children and M's children, from the children of friends. That is, I didn't say that I am the grateful one.

All of them smiled in the mirror at the sight of themselves. They were completely enamored of themselves. I'm not sure I have ever seen any child, blood relation or otherwise, walk away from a mirror with a grimace or a frown. Children are delighted by their images. They love themselves. And seeing themselves in the mirror makes them interested in examining and loving others--even people who look different. When I have tired of holding a niece or nephew up at the mirror-as-toy, I would sit down with him or her, only to find him or her touch my nose and pat my face and smile as they examined my features--just as they had observed their own features at the mirror. Children are inherently curious about themselves and other people, intrinsically loving and affectionate.

What we teach or model, i.e., teach by modeling, what they see in this grown-up world makes them unsure of people, and insecure about themselves. I know this, and so I have wished at countless moments to freeze my nieces and nephews and friends' kids in time, while they are still young and loving and perfect and unaffected. I have wanted to protect them from the awfulness and hatred that lives around them, but I can't.

I can, however, hope that they get enough positive reinforcement from their parents and grandparents and other grown-ups like me, to counter any less than kind or generous messages they get from the outside world. As the world chips away, I hope that they are filled with enough of the simple things in life--word games in the pool and swirling spaghetti on a spoon-- and love to make up the difference, to still feel like the perfect people they are.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Feasting My Eyes

Despite the fact that I filled my gas tank for less than $40 today (I can't remember the last time that happened!), eating out isn't really an option for me this weekend. But it is the weekend, and I really wanted to treat myself to something special. So while I was doing my bargain grocery shopping--lists and coupons in hand, I put a few things in my cart that wouldn't break the bank but would make me feel special.

Crostini, made with a few slices of baguette (that was on sale for 84 cents); a scoop of olive-bar, pitted olives (I hate to pay for the pits); a quarter pound of deli roast beef (also on sale, of course); a few slices of a $2 (read: already small) piece of smoked Gouda; and some Laughing Cow light garlic and herb cheese (if I'm going to count pennies, I may as well count calories) arranged on one of my favorite olive motif plates (from C&B, of course) made me feel just that. Once I poured a glass of wine, I may as well have been sitting on the Arno or Seine. (Especially since I had my camera.)

And to think, I could have stopped for a subway sandwich or gone through a drive-thru....

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Swirl and Swing of Words

I love writing. I love writing more than I love arugula, and physical therapy and flowers and my patent leather shoes. Well. Maybe that's going overboard....But I do love writing. I love the clickety-clack of the keyboard, and I still love the feel of pen on paper--certain pens, certain papers. I rub my fingertips on the pages of a journal before I buy it. And I test pens before they end up in my cart.

I have been writing for a long time. For most of my life. "How long have you been writing?" people have asked, especially once I began seeking writing mentors for fiction and met serious writers, published authors, who are generally interested in such things. My knee jerk answer was to say "after college," when I started reading again. A more thoughtful response was to say that I had been writing since high school, when I entered the commencement speech contest to deliver the graduation address--and won. But later it occurred to me that was wrong too. That was simply the first time my writing was recognized in a formal way, not when I started writing.

When I had more time to think, I remembered in second grade I wrote a story on stationery. At home, at night I wrote a story on paper with a pink and green floral design in the left hand margin. I showed it to my teacher, who was nice to invite me to stay after school so that we could go through the punctuation and capitalization. I was jumping the grammar gun, I guess. (Hence the internal editor?) She didn't dismiss me or my story; she asked me to work on it with her. She told me, perhaps unwittingly, that my story was good, it mattered and was worth the extra work. So I kept at it.

In fourth grade my classmates and I could earn the privilege to sit around giant wooden spools, turned on their sides to double as coffee tables, on a carpeted area in the back of the room if we were done with our work early. There I sat one afternoon and wrote a story for extra credit. A couple of days later I was called to the Principal's office. How I made it there without passing out or soiling myself on the way, I don't know. The Principal's office was a place where kids in trouble were called; I had never been in trouble and couldn't for the life of me think of what I did wrong.

Only the principal greeted me with a smile and an outstretched arm, not a stern look and a beckoning finger. He told me to open my hand, so I did. Into my palm he dropped an eraser in the shape of a sneaker. He made a joke about a stinky sneaker award and congratulated me on my story, encouraged me to keep writing. And I did. I still am. Thanks to Miss DellaQuilla and Mrs. Bostrom, and Mr. Lanati, I am.

I wonder now what I wrote about then. Did I use writing as an outlet for my fears and disappointments? Was I giving teachers insight into my home life? Was I simply dreaming on paper? It doesn't keep me up at night wondering, mind you, but I would love to see those stories, to remember myself better then. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. What matters I know is that I still write, I still enjoy putting words on paper to tell a story--be it my own or that of a character I have dreamed up in a story, in a part of my novel that continues to evolve.

My new favorite quote about writing is by James Michener. My friend Amy gave it to me, on an ornament of a sort, a writing fairy (that we are both pretending is an angel) wearing the quote on her skirt. It reads, "I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions."

Enough said...for tonight.

Rainy Night Reading: No Shoes Allowed

Yesterday my premier issue of Food Network Magazine came in the mail. Today, my November issue of Gourmet arrived. I love magazines. I love writing a check for 10 or 15 dollars and getting a magazine to read every month for a year. I also have a stack of catalogs (some good, come cheesy), that I've been accumulating--Crate&Barrel, Talbots, Current, Catalog Favorites, and a few others--for a night just like tonight.

I'm tired and not very ambitious. I had a busy weekend and have been up late the last two nights watching the Red Sox (lose) and the Patriots (win) in that order. 5 o'clock am always comes early (for my liking), but it's almost brutal when bedtime doesn't happen until after 11. Good news for me tonight is that it's raining, so I won't feel guilty about not being productive. I plan on flipping through aforementioned periodicals in my comfy sweats and fuzzy socks--against the recommendations of my podiatrist and PT who recommend supportive shoes, i.e., sneakers, even at home. (I'm sorry, but how can I possibly put my feet up on the couch and pull a cozy blanket on my lap with sneakers on?) Tonight is about Rainy Night Reading. No shoes allowed.

After dinner I'm going to shut off my ringers, mute the TV, and leaf through free catalogs and magazines whose subscriptions cost in many cases less than a book. Chances are I'll have microwave popcorn by my side, and a glass of wine on the coffee table.

Ah, the simple things in life.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Physical Therapy

I know. It's odd. Not what one would include on a list along rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But lessons are learned in the oddest of places, usually where we aren't looking to be taught anything.

In a room with a dozen table beds arranged around the perimeter--with a treadmill and an exercise bike in one corner, a couple of portable e-stim machines between beds, exercise balls and resistance bands in another corner--sit people from the same geographical area but different walks of life. While we are not stripped down to hospital johnnies, some of us are barefoot, others have shirts baring their lower backs or sleeves pulled up; all of us are stripped of the things we think matter. My cashmere sweater and the tattoos on the neck of the man across from me mean nothing. It doesn't matter what we do for a living, or what kind car we have parked in the lot out front. What matters is that we are there.

Our being there says, I am in pain; therefore, I am human. We are strangers, but we are connected by our humanness.

I have had some engaging and entertaining conversations with these connected strangers in this open room. We have talked about the debates and the candidates and the Tina Fey skits on SNL, about pumpkin patches and apple picking and leaf peeping--while we wince and grunt and share how much we hate a particular exercise.

After an hour or so, I leave feeling better. Not because I feel any immediate relief in my feet. I don't. I know that it is a process and will take time.

Still, I leave feeling better than when I walked in.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


When I was young I used to love to go to the library with my sister L and a neighborhood friend P. We would go on Saturday mornings, and we'd each take out a stack of books. I'm not exaggerating. We'd go home and devour them, and we'd do it all over the next week. Whenever possible, if we could scrap together a few dollars, we'd go to Friendly's afterward, for Fribbles and fries--our first experiences with the unique ability of alternating sweet and salty to lift the spirits as it calms a raging sea of hormones. But that's another entry.

We indulged our love of reading before school distracted us from it.

I know that sounds antithetical, but it's the truth. We were all good students, honors students, tracked through rigorous courses with plenty of required reading, which didn't leave much time for pleasure reading. Unfortunately, the required reading--Thoreau and Shakespeare--wasn't much fun for teenagers and, sadly, didn't leave us thirsting for more.

And so I didn't pick up a book to read for pleasure again for years--until January of my senior year of college.

I'd like to think I read again because I had a mature, lucid moment, during which I took stock and wondered what I would do with myself after I graduated, when I would no longer have to read text books and science journals, write papers and study for exams. Honestly, it is more likely that a dorm mate asked if I had read a certain best seller of the time and I felt inadequate as I reported, "no I haven't read that," while vowing to myself that I would. I'm not certain. But I remember the book. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather, whose My Antonia I had read by my own choosing and liked when I was young and whose short story "Neighbor Rosicky" I enjoyed in sophomore English. The day I read it I remember like it was yesterday.

One snowy January day I made a conscious decision to skip class and read. I was senior at Simmons College, with a coveted senior single on Brookline Avenue in Boston, almost directly across the street from a giant spruce near the entrance of Emmanuel College. I brewed a pot of coffee, then pulled up a chair to the window. I took with me to the window the book, a cup of coffee and a pastel afgan that my aunt crocheted. I alternately watched the snow fall on the spruce and the city street below, and read the book. The entire book. When I put it down I knew that I would read more when I finished my senior research and graduated, and I have. In fact, once a year, usually in summer though, I devote a day to reading an entire book: my homage to that day I rediscovered my love of reading.

I don't remember when L got back into reading, but know that she does read again. Voraciously. If she were paid to read she'd be a millionaire. It's her respite. After my niece and nephew--and her husband--are asleep, she sits and reads in a quiet house. We share suggestions and books. More importantly, we share again a love for reading.

I see P on occasion but, when we run into each other, our conversation doesn't turn to pleasure reading. But I hope that, like L, she finds some evening peace and solace in the pages of a book when the dishes are done and her girls are in bed. I hope that she, like L and I, has reignited her love of reading and has been around the world through books; has met friends who have made her laugh and cry, heroes that inspire her, and underdogs for whom she has cheered. I hope that reading has affirmed her strength as a woman and humbled her as a human. More than anything, I simply hope that she reads.

When I am feeling particularly ambitious, I wish for a world in which people--children and adults alike--despite technology, continue to take pleasure in holding a book in their hands, in feeling the paper between their fingertips and smelling paper as they turn the pages.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008


At first glance I am not much of a nature girl. Yes, I went white water rafting in the Pacific Northwest where I also did some hiking in the gorges, I even wore Tevas that summer, but for the most part the closest I get to camping is staying in a 2-star hotel. Yet I love the outdoors.

I love, after a long winter and a usually uncertain spring when the buds have finally opened and trees are full of leaves, when a breeze blows that makes the leaves look like they're clapping, applauding Mother Nature for a banner day.

In the summer I love the way the sun feels on my skin. I loving being on the beach in the late afternoon, when the breeze off the ocean picks up and the sun changes just a little--as if it has decided it has worked long and hard enough for the day and is ready to rest with the rest of us.

Then, once I am done mourning the end of summer vacation, and am in the routine of relaxing in flannel pants and a sweatshirt with the windows open, I love to watch the leaves change colors. I love when the colors are so beautiful and vibrant I want to pull over and take pictures so that I can have proof that they really were a spectacle. Words fall short; simple words like red and yellow and orange don't do them justice. Today I will put my camera in my purse, in case there are scenes I cannot pass without stopping to get proof of their magnificence, because I know that winter will follow.

Welcoming winter is always difficult, transitioning to short days and long cold nights does not compel me to go outside, where for a time things look bleak and unwelcoming. But there is a stretch of tree-canopied road, tall trees on either side of the road who try to touch in the middle, on my way to work that is stunning after a snow storm. The white branches glistening in the sun take my breath away and make me wonder, how can it be so brilliant? When the answer comes to me, I am inspired to pray as I drive along.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Soft Sheets and a Comfy Bed

Until last year, I had carried around lots of furniture hand-me-downs from place to place. Then, after 10 years in the same place, without replacing any of those hand-me-downs, it was time. I was overdue. And I was moving.

In addition to custom ordering a sofa set in red, I bought a pillow-top queen size mattress. My old full size mattress, with broken springs threatening to make Swiss cheese out of me, I left on the street and called Public Works to pick up. The moment was bittersweet. Okay, minds out of the gutter! It had nothing to do with memories in the bed. It had to do with the fact that I had accumulated a linen closet full of wonderful, full size sheets. High thread count, washed and worn sheets. Soft sheets, acquired over time, with a bargain shopper's diligence to indulge my champagne taste on a beer budget. I knew buying new ones would be an expense and getting them worn in, a daunting task....Unless, of course, I only have one or two sets that I wash a lot to get them worn in...and since that's all I can afford...Brilliant. Win win.

Even before the sheets had enough washes to feel worn-in soft, my new bed was infinitely more comfortable than the old one. (Why I wouldn't swap out a few pairs of shoes and dinners out for a new mattress years before, I don't know. My only defense is that my old bedroom would not have fit a larger bed well. Weak argument, I know.) Now that the two sets of sheets I have are perfectly soft, sleep is a new experience. Not only do I wake up feeling restored and rejuvenated, but also I get into bed as if I am doing something beyond decadent--without a bonbon in sight. I look forward to going to sleep: tucking in, turning my TV on and setting the timer to go off in a 1/2 hour or so.

Last night, I caught myself doing something I normally reserve for snow days. (And do I love snow days!) At 5:30 or so, when I am normally getting into the shower, but my call has come down the phone tree that we have a snow day, I get back into bed and giggle like a school girl. Literally. I smile and say tee hee hee as I crawl back in bed. Last night, I closed my windows to keep out the frosty air, set my alarm clock, turned on the TV to watch the last bit of the debate, then got into bed and said tee hee hee. I reminded myself the forecast called for frost, not snow. Then I said it again.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Patent Leather Shoes

Patent leather shoes make me happy. For that matter, so do patent leather hand bags. I have 3 pair of patent leather shoes--boots, open back shoe boots, and loafers. I have one patent leather tote bag, and 2 patent leather purses.

I don't know where my love of patent leather comes from. I think, like any little girl, I must have had standard issue Easter shoes: patent leather Mary Janes in white or black. Yet I can't pinpoint a particular childhood memory that has given rise to my adult love of shiny shoes and bags that make me smile. I do, however, have memories associated with some of my current shiny items. With one pair in particular.

My open back shoes were an acquisition after a long bout with chronic foot pain during which time I could hardly find shoes to fit. Pretty wasn't the goal then. My needs and desires were far more basic. Criteria for shoes at that time in my life were: Can you get them on your feet? Can you walk in them? The fall after my surgery, just months after I walked the streets of London and Florence and Rome--without pain, but mainly in sandals-- I went shopping for new shoes. And there they were: sleek and sexy and stylish. They're pointy, on a stacked heal. From a "Western couture" collection. Expensive, but worth it. Certainly not meant for a wall flower. They represented all the shoes I couldn't have before and the new freedom I had to walk in style, without limping. They said, look at me. Look at my shoes. Look at me go. I have worn them now for 5 years, and they are getting a little beat up. I can't imagine not having them to slip my feet in--to wear with dress pants or jeans, anytime my outfit needs a little something extra, anytime my spirits need a boost.

There will be other pretty shoes, but none will be these and so I will keep them. Even after they are beaten beyond repair and no longer make a positive impression, I will keep them. I will tuck them away in their special felt bag, in their original box. As I reach for other shoes to wear, I will see them and remember how far I've come.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Grammar, Words and Meanings

Lately I am addicted to cable news political programs. Especially to msnbc. This is an historic election, and I want to make an informed choice. I also want to be able to speak intelligently about this presidential race. So every night I tune in and listen, and while I listen so that I might walk away more knowledgeable, I listen also with great pleasure, to professionals who know when to use objective pronouns and when to use subjective pronouns. I revel in knowing, despite signs to the contrary, that there still are people who love facts and words and know how to string them together. I love my daily respite from those who overuse I because they think it sounds smarter and use me inappropriately. I love that the journalists who fill me with important information about the campaigns do not litter the airwaves with adverbs where there should be adjectives. I take great comfort in knowing that people walk amongst us who know when to modify the subject, not the verb, when it is the subject that calls for description. If one more person feels badly I may scream. For God's sake, it is not your act of feeling that is impaired. You feel bad! Repeat after me: I feel happy, I feel sad, I feel good, I feel bad. How hard can that be to remember?!?!??

This grammatical obsession is my cross to bear. I admit it borders on sickness that I cannot simply listen to people without my internal editor rearing her smart-ass head. I long to give her leave, but as long as grammatical errors are made, my editor will take note. Given that some repeat offenders who keep my internal editor well employed are administrators in the school district in which I teach, I fear for the future of America. And I haven't even touched on vocabulary yet.

Since I love words as much as I love grammar, my love of words deserves as much time and space as my rant on grammar. Alas, I haven't enough time tonight to do justice to the topic of words , but promise to get back to them.


Lest you think the only thing I love is food, I thought I would share with you that I also love flowers. I will not downplay my passion for food and cooking and wine and dining, but I need you to know that those loves are balanced with others, and I hope eventually to write about them all. Today I turn my attention to flowers.

Whenever possible, I have at least one vase of fresh flowers in my house. Sometimes they are from my mother's garden, sometimes they are from the supermarket. That is, they are always beautiful, and they are never expensive. From my mother's garden and around her house my favorites are lilacs and peonies and hydrangea; from the supermarket, alstromeria.

Obviously my mother, with her green thumb, deserves some credit for my flower habit. (Need I mention that my love for cooking and food comes also from her? Clearly, I am my mother's daughter.) Just as I cannot walk away from her house without a sack of fresh produce during summer time, or a recycled margarine tub full of cold slaw or sauerkraut or pierogi, when flowers are in bloom in her yard, she will follow me outside with kitchen shears to send me home with flowers.

Yet I have loved flowers longer than I have had a place of my own in which to showcase them. When I was a young girl, my grandmother (my father's mother) used to call my sisters and me over to her house, just two houses away, early on the morning of our last day of school to give us roses from her bushes for our teachers. In bloom in June, we would each bring a bunch of roses, whose stems were wrapped in wet paper towels and covered with aluminum foil, to our teachers as a thank you gift. All the way to school I would breathe in their beautiful scent. I can trace, therefore, my love of flowers to my youth, to my mother and grandmother. My desire to surround myself with them I attribute to an unlikely friend.

When I was in college, the mother of my heart's desire, an unrequited high school love, sent me a poem. She was going through a divorce and in a letter she shared a poem, one she probably read daily. The author and origin are disputed. The poem was Comes The Dawn; the line that stayed with me is "so plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to buy you flowers." Any C student would assume from the poem that she was sharing the story of her divorce, the journey of her heartbreak and healing. But somehow, maybe because I was in love with her son who she knew didn't return the favor, maybe because I was a freshman at an all women's college, when I read the poem, she unwittingly implored me to Be a woman who doesn't wait for a man to learn her worth, who doesn't need a man to feel worthy. Years later, when I had a place of my own, I kept the line about flowers alive by filling vases with flowers.

I still do.
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