Monday, January 26, 2009

A New Venture

On more than one occasion I have mentioned my friend, Amy, with whom I teach--but with whom I share more than a common profession. Teaching at the same school was simply the universe's way of introducing us, I believe, putting us in each other's paths. After chaperoning several dances and proms together, as most newbies will, it still took several years to cultivate our friendship, and a vacation in Rome to solidify it.

We enjoy going out for drinks and dinner, sometimes just drinks (but never just dinner). And because we both love food-- both preparing and experimenting in our own respective kitchens and enjoying other people's culinary creations--our dinner conversations have never been simply about the day, or her marriage, or my relationship, our mutual discontent with goings on at school, or plans for the weekend. When dinner is presented and it is time to eat, we start by taking our meals in with our eyes, then leaning over our dishes and breathing in the aromas. We eat, eventually we share samples, and we talk food. Foodie talk.

Is that nutmeg?

I like the earthiness of the cumin in that dish.

I think the shrimp are a little overcooked.

This steak is like butter.

I'd offer you some, but there are mushrooms in it. I still can't believe you don't like mushrooms. (Amy, not me. How could I not like mushrooms when my mother forages in the woods for them?...)

Since Amy blogs with her husband about their food adventures in the kitchen and beyond in A Couple in the Kitchen and I am blogging, too, it seemed like a natural outgrowth to begin a blog together. One day, back in the fall, when my creative juices were flowing, I started Restaurant Report Cards. Amy loved the concept as much as I did (and didn't mind that I pulled the first couple of reviews from "Couple"), and so we've been working on it together ever since.

While it is a labor of love, and it feels natural now to come home after a dinner out and write about it, we do hope that someone will take notice, that it might lead us elsewhere-- a column maybe, or a book. We'd even settle for free dinners! To that end, later this week we hope to create a buzz. (Shameless self-promotion I call it.) We will be sending postcards to family and friends and foodies, introducing ourselves and our restaurant reviews, inviting people to log on to Restaurant Report Cards, or what we call RRC, and read. I hope you'll click there as well.

Looking Forward

Here in New England it is cold and it is only January. I certainly have more snow days in my future and I want to enjoy them, but already I am feeling the effects of lack of sunshine. Days are getting longer, but not fast enough. It will be months before my self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder melts away. So last weekend, when my social calendar was blank, I wasn't comfortable just hibernating. I wanted to look forward, to make plans that would get me through these cold days of January, that would enable me to say tee hee when my next snow day call comes.

When I talked to Deanna, during our (almost) weekly Sunday call, I revisited a conversation about the possibility of her visiting this summer for a week. Although my home is not a vacation destination, I do have a pool, and as Deanna has said in the past, "we vacation well together." We will eat out and go shopping and sit out together by the pool. We'll watch movies, read books, take naps, and visit Boston--our old stomping ground. We're going to narrow down a couple of options for weeks that work for both of us, and go from there. Perfect. Spending time with Deanna, though more sedate--if you will-- than a certain vacation in Orlando back in the day, is always a lot of fun.

But honestly, I need something a little sooner than July to look forward to. So after lots of conversations with Jill over the holidays that invariably elucidated how (ridiculously) long it has been since we've seen each other, I logged onto Orbitz and looked at fares to San Diego. $278?? Really?? I can handle that! With an income tax refund in store I can handle $278. I love San Diego, and I miss Jill. I can go to San Diego during April vacation!

Bring on Wednesday's Winter Storm Watch. Tee hee, tee hee, tee hee.

Peace and Quiet

Every morning I take a half hour to sit quietly with my coffee, watch some morning news, sometimes check email, before I get ready for work. Often, it impresses me while I sit there that it feels a lot like nighttime, after work, when I am settling down and have time to myself. I suppose that is precisely why I take the time in the morning. I like to sit in peace before I move on and rush through a day with bells that signal when class ends and begins, when I can make a mad 4 minute dash to the bathroom, and when I can take 20 minutes to prepare and eat my lunch. The nature of a school day makes me feel rushed all day, so I don't like to do that to myself in the morning.

Also, perhaps because I spend a good part of my day in hallways full of loud teenagers, whenever possible I avoid loud noise. I have admitted herein to having a hearty laugh, and have been to dozens of concerts in my lifetime, but I'm talking about noise. Especially screaming.

A couple of years ago there was a commercial in which someone cuts his tongue off in a blender [cue the horror flick screaming here]. I used to change the channel. Currently there is a commercial in which a swarm of hysterical women runs screaming after a truck full of 100 calorie Oreo "cakesters". Okay, this ad offends me on many levels, but the screaming assaults me. It's loud, and unpleasant, and it sounds like people are being tortured. It sends shivers up my spine. I can't stand it. As quickly as I can, I hit mute.

Fortunately, I have not seen that commercial in the morning when I am trying to center myself and prepare for a day in the trenches. Still, you can rest assured I will not buy any Oreo 100 calorie packs.


Friday, January 23, 2009


Last week, my colleagues and I were given permission by the principal to watch the swearing in of our 44th president at noon. All other coverage, the parades, for example, were deemed inappropriate to watch. Conveniently, I was not feeling well on Inauguration Day, and at home I was able to watch coverage all day. So I did.

First, I listened to commentaries--flipping back and forth between NBC and msnbc--while President-elect Obama and his wife went to church, then to the White House for coffee. I cheered when Tom Brokaw said, "[...] and to those bigots and rednecks [...] I met along the way[...], Take this!" in much the same way one might cheer at a touchdown during the Superbowl. Next I saw the ceremony followed by the parade. When the anthem was played I stood, despite the fact that I was alone at home and in my pajamas. I texted back and forth with my friend Candyce, and I called out names of senators and justices when I saw them arrive as if it were a Who's Who Quiz Show, proud that I learned so much while so involved in the election. And when the crowd of millions cheered or waved their flags, I'd well up. I felt like all those people on the mall were my friends. I felt a kinship with a hopeful world on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, while I cried on and off all day, overfull of emotions.

That night I went to bed with my TV on, watching coverage of the Inaugural Balls. I made it through 5 of the 10 and enjoyed watching the President and the First Lady dance at all 5 of them. Even more, I enjoyed calling them that.

President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama. How awesome is that?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Cinderella Story

For me, a salad just isn't a salad without croutons. Well, if it's a schmancy salad served in a restaurant where croutons don't belong--like my fave arugula tossed with lemon juice and olive oil, salt, pepper and shingles of Parmesan-- I wouldn't necessarily adulterate that or embarrass myself by asking for a side of croutons. Meantime, most good salads include some sort of crunchy component--pine nuts maybe, or pecans--anyway. But asking for croutons--say on baby greens with beets and warm goat cheese, hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds tossed in a blood orange vinaigrette-- I think is worse than asking for A1 at Morton's. It may be akin to asking for ketchup at the Capital Grille. I trust a restaurant's judgement on whether or not croutons belong. But at home, I don't think I've ever passed on croutons. I may be incapable of eating a salad without them.

Imagine my disappointment and desperation when I went to make myself a salad for lunch--during a snow storm--and discovered I was out of croutons. Clearly, it was a crisis. (Even more clearly, I understand how fortunate I am that being out of croutons constitutes a crisis in my world.) But I am creative, and I am my mother's daughter, and I had a bag of stale bread, which I was saving to make bread crumbs, in the freezer.

It wasn't quite a MacGyver moment; I wasn't jerry-rigging my toaster to double as a Ron Popeil food dehydrator or anything, but within a half hour, the almost-freezer-burnt-beyond-recognition-after-being-stale hot dog roll and heel of a baguette were warm and crunchy croutons, seasoned with a little olive oil and Italian herbs and better-tasting than any croutons I have ever gotten out of a box.

So making croutons is my new thing. Not just because I can be cheap (especially if I'm in the market for new shoes or have dinner with Amy on my calendar), or because I love a little crunchy goodness on my salad. There's just something about taking something mediocre and making something extraordinary from it, about seeing the potential in something seemingly without.

Who doesn't like a good Cinderella story?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Belly Laughs

It's Friday night and it's past my bedtime, but I just got off the phone with my friend Tamara and have a second wind. For the second time this week we talked (what a treat!) and we belly laughed. What a gift.

For me a good laugh usually starts with a big wind up, an extended wheezy exhale. Then--just as I never sneeze the same way twice and have a humorous repertoire of ah-choos (ask my students; I give them permission to laugh at my sneezes)--sincere laughter is similarly unpredictable. After the initial gut punch, I either continue with a series of short wheezes while unable to speak (think Deputy Dawg, or was it Mumbly?) or a succession of progressively louder honks. Much to my mother's chagrin, I have never been much of a giggle girl. There is nothing "ladylike" about my laugh but it feels good. It feels even better when it makes someone else laugh, when someone else feels better too.

I laugh the same way with my friends Deanna (whose eyes always tear), and Jill, and Amy (ditto on the tears, especially when she's holding it in, say... at a faculty meeting). Every time I see Jodi (who turns purple when she gets going) and Mandy, we belly laugh. And nearly every day, as we eat our 20 minute lunch, my friends and I in the science department have a good laugh. I know that's not unique. I'm sure you all laugh with your friends, too. In fact, I believe laughter is the universal language of friendship. It is also a main ingredient in my family get-togethers. Served right alongside plates of meat and bowls of potatoes, but requires no prep or cooking, is a big platter of laughs.

It's one thing to keep one's sense of humor, and another to be able to laugh at oneself, if only on the inside. But when you can laugh out loud--at yourself or something else entirely--in the company of others is truly a gift, especially when the circumstances are difficult and there's something hanging in the air that is the furthest thing from funny.

86 the kapusta. Bring on the laughs.

Several months ago my cousin Donna was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. As she battled this monster of a disease with strength and grace, I cried. The first months I cried every day, at least once a day. I couldn't mention her name without welling up. Yet every time I spoke to her, I laughed. Because she laughed. Before or after reports and medical updates, sometimes about them, we laughed. I laughed with Donna, and with my cousin Debbie (her sister). I laughed with Liz, my sister. And this summer Donna, Liz, and their daughters and I laughed together on vacation. As Donna responded remarkably well-- miraculously even--to chemotherapy, we all sighed relief and we all kept laughing, as we have since we were kids. Laughing is how we know, how best we know, to love each other...

I heard somewhere that laughter is a sign of being close to God. Makes perfect sense to me--letting go, feeling joy even when there's grief. Feeling joy period.

So next week when I get together with Donna for dinner, I think I'll ask for a table for three.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Romantic Comedy

I am not a channel surfer. I lived for decades without cable television (seriously) and now that I have it, I do like it, but am a fan of a few networks. I mostly watch NBC, the Food Network, and msnbc--channels 04, 39, and 45, respectively--and am familiar with their schedules and programming. But after spending a little time this week with a member of the opposite sex, for whom channel surfing is somehow genetically encoded, I found myself following his lead and looking around for something to watch last night. I had seen FN's line up umpteen times, wasn't into the college bowl airing, and msnbc was showing an episode from their prison series or Caught on Camera, I can't remember which, but both--depending on my mood--I can find too violent and disturbing to watch. So there I was, clicker in hand. As fate would have it, just as I began my search, Sleepless in Seattle was beginning on ABC.

Lucky me! I loved that movie!

For two and a half hours I watched what I remembered was one of my favorite movies at the time and I remembered why I loved it so. I smiled again at the witty dialogue, the relationship between Hanks and the son, the relationship between Meg Ryan and Rosie O'Donnell-- the quintessential, nonjudgmental friendship. And, like Rosie, I cheered Meg on in this crazy pursuit of a man whose voice she heard on a radio show. I laughed at the dining table scene when Rita Wilson is mocked for breaking down in tears recalling An Affair to Remember, and I cried at the end.

In addition to enjoying it all over again for the good romantic comedy it is, I was also transported back to 1993 in my own life. During commercials (it was on network TV, after all, and I haven't turned into a clicker junkie...yet) I thought about my favorite outfit of the time and how I wore my hair. I thought about the business trips I used to take when I was a text book editor, the first time I went to Pike Place Market, and the first time I ate PNW salmon. I thought about my love life (or lack of therein) at the time and my own romantic notions past and present, how some have changed over time and others remain the same.

This morning I couldn't help but think that it was not at all coincidental that as I set goals for the new year I was reacquainted with romantic comedy and thought about my own romantic notions. I have been reading great books lately by great authors like Chris Bohjalian and Ann Patchett and Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Haigh and Ruth Reichl, and they are all noteworthy. But what really gets me, the kind of books I especially like to read, and which I have been attempting to write on and off for the past twenty years is "romantic comedy for intelligent readers," as Elinor Lipman, one of my favorite authors and my old writing mentor and teacher (whose new book will be released in May 2009), identified her genre.

Last night, when I picked up the clicker, the universe directed my thumb to find a movie that would lead me back to my love. Who am I to argue? I am on my way.

A New Year, A Positive Start

I try to be a good person, and to do things because they are the right things to do--not for fear of retribution in doing the opposite (need I mention I was raised Catholic?). I try not to judge other people and to live positively, to see the glass as half full, not half empty, which is not always an easy task. That is, it doesn't always come naturally.

It's more instinctive to say ugh, I am so broke, than to think, based on my budget, I should be caught up and feel better about my budget by the end of January. But I'm trying. And I do have a budget. I also tend to complain a lot about work, and commiserate with my friend Amy about it, but there too I am trying. Recently I started a new venture with her--as both a diversion and a way to begin exploring other career options. And while we haven't given up hoping for snow days and wearing pajamas inside out as our students do when snow is predicted, we also plan a December getaway to Boston, to make those snow day prayers not our only option for a well-deserved break. This blog, too, is another example of trying to put my energy in a positive place. I can't become an author if I don't write, after all. I remind myself and my friend Tamara of that nearly every day. We need to show up at the page; showing up at the page affirms us as writers.

In addition to heeding Julia Cameron's advice to "show up at the page" and espousing other ideas presented in the The Artist's Way, I have also long been a Shakti Gawain fan. Before Oprah found The Secret, there was Creative Visualization, and for years I have started my day by saying my positive affirmations on my way to work. I shut off the radio and talk to myself. The days of hitting pause in my mental affirmation track at stoplights, or pretending to be singing along to the radio, are over. It doesn't matter what people might think if they see me talking to myself in my car. What matters is that the positive affirmations work.

Today, as I enjoy my last day of vacation, sipping mimosas in comfortable new pajamas, after showing up at the page here, I will sit down with Shakti again knowing that I will find inspiration in her pages as I start the new year with intentions to be a better person and to try even harder to live positively. As I move forward in 2009, while happy and grateful for what I have and who I am, I will behave in ways that demonstrate and affirm my belief in myself and the brighter future within my reach.

Here's to 2009. May it be all you need it to be and may you, too, believe it is within your power to bring that to fruition.
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