Jul 1 2012

A Slow Read

A crowd of people – family and friends – descended on Paris at the end of June and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to visit with them and catch up, host them for aperitifs and dinner, take them to my favorite cafés in this city where I’ve made my life. I’m truly happy for each and every visitor, but why is it they all arrive at once, with overlapping itineraries? It’s not that they become my responsibility – all these people are grown adults (or in the care of their parents) and have navigated their lives perfectly well to get themselves to an airport and get on a plane to Paris, so they can get themselves around here – but there is a mild but haranguing sense of duty, perhaps, but also desire, to help with the trip, to enhance their experience, maximize their time in Paris, a city with so much to offer and yet if you don’t know where to look, you can miss the best of it.

There were, as well, more shows to attend: Buddy-roo’s tap-dance recital, in which she had five minutes on stage in a red flapper dress, with two young men in black and white tuxedos flanking her, all three tapping their heels and toes together; and the final viola recital for Short-pants, the last of a litany of end-of-school-year performances and activities. Not to mention several beauty-nurse type appointments of my own, to put my person in order prior to going away for most of July.

Part of me was screaming for all of it to stop, such a jolt to my Camino-quieted system to have to ramp up and run at this pace of scheduled events every night for weeks in a row. This is why it was my first instinct to say no when my friend invited me to use the gallery where he was showing his artwork to host a soirée for my friends and talk about my Camino experience.

The theme of his show was This Here Now, a collection of odd objects he’s literally picked up in different places in the world, mounted on distressed zinc plates and framed, each one commemorating the place and the moment where the object was found. It was very much in sync with my walking experience, the sense of slowing down and noticing what’s right in front of you, here and now and acknowledging the beauty and story within it.

On my way to I meet him for lunch and to look at his exhibit, I was sure that I shouldn’t do it. My back-from-the-Camino self was determined to walk slower and take on less, to leave stretches of time, time for me, and time for my family. But standing in the gallery, his constructed paintings surrounding and delighting me, I heard from another self, a voice who whispered to me often during my long walks. It’s your writing, it’s art. Do it.

I remember my parents returning from their voyages – their treasured vacation in Greece the strongest memory of this – and they’d put together a slide show and invite people over for a dinner party. My mother would conjure up a menu of the featured country’s cuisine, and after dessert the guests would assemble in our living room for slides and stories about the trip. I’d yawn through it, convinced my parents’ friends were far too polite. This is why I thought it’d make sense to skip the pictures, and to excerpt a few key passages from favorite blog posts and do a very short reading. If I picked the right passages, the audience could picture it on their own. And otherwise we’d ply people with wine and have a nice time.

~ ~ ~

Little by little it slips away, my newfound rootedness giving way to the daily duties that call me, and I don’t know how not to answer. To some things, yes: I have unsubscribed to a dozen Internet newsletters. I refused paying work because of my out of town guests. I didn’t sign up to accompany Buddy-roo’s class on their day-long end-of-school sortie. I’ve said no to fundraising events and lunch invitations with people who aren’t mission critical. I haven’t looked at my Twitter feed in weeks (and I don’t miss it). Nonetheless, it felt like my energy was getting scattered from all the running around and doing more, when all I want to do is less.

But how? Every time I clear something away, a new task replaces it. We left the eye doctor last week with a prescription for Short-pants to see an orthopiste, a kiné for the eyes. This will require two visits a week for six weeks in a row. So next fall – it’s impossible to start this summer between our July vacation and every French orthopiste’s August holiday – on top of everything else we’ll be traipsing around twice a week to these appointments. It’s important and necessary, and in itself it’s not such an enormous task. It’s just that every little thing like this adds yet another detail to remember, to organize and execute, and I can’t not do them. After the Camino, I wanted to do less. But less of what?

~ ~ ~

Turnabout is fairplay, I suppose, so just as I’ve rallied for Short-pants’ and Buddy-roo’s performances, they showed up for mine. (Rallied is perhaps too exuberant to describe Buddy-roo’s reaction, but once she got there she didn’t mind.) My mother-in-love was in town too, a poet who’s done her fair share of readings so she had a few tips for me, accepted gladly as the time I had to prepare was minimal and a seasoned pro’s advice gave me comfort.

When you read your words out loud, they change. It’s not like what you hear in your head when you write them, or read to yourself. The words become truer. When you say them out loud their meaning is enlarged and magnified. You have to slow down and treat the words deliberately. Each time I practiced reading my selections, making small edits and changes along the way to suit a live occasion, I appropriated the words even more. With every read-through, I took back a little of the groundedness I’d felt slipping away. I needed to be in the this here now to be able to do the reading, and reading out loud was just what it took to get there.

De-facto bought wine and my good culinary-inclined friend prepared for me, generously, an array of pintxos and a gateau Basque, regional eats in the spirit of the reading. (My mother was smiling down at her, I’m sure.) A small group assembled, but it was just the right group. We took our time. I read one piece, and then we waited. An hour later, I read another piece. In between, a quick hint from my mother-in-love: “You could read even slower if you wanted.” So I did.

After the readings, the guests lingered at the gallery until nearly midnight, making a dinner out of the hors d’oeuvres and stretching out the evening with wine and laughter. I had a chance to visit with everyone, falling into long and meandering, meaningful conversations that affirmed for me how this reading, which felt at first like too much to do, turned out to be exactly what I needed. Note to self: do more of these.

All the images in the post are by Dan Walker.


Apr 1 2012

By the Book

I sliced the eggplant into medium-thin slices, slimmer than the recipe suggested, but more to my bite-sized liking. De-facto would appreciate the efficiency of it; I’d only used one of the eggplants he brought home from the market. Not that our budget is so tight but rather he appreciates an intelligent economy of things.

The recipe called for baking the slices after they’d been breaded. After ten minutes in the oven they looked dull, melancholy. I quickly pulled out a frying pan and lined the bottom with olive oil. When it was hot, I dropped each of the austere eggplant slices in, smiling at the percussion of popping oil. I could sense the vegetable’s heavy sigh of relief, almost stunned at how close it had come to giving up its life to be a flavorless, mediocre meal. The infusion of fats would satisfy its desire to come to a tasty end, and frying made the house smell heartier. Now I was cooking.

Lately, though, I haven’t. The string of extended voyages placed De-facto as the primary care-giver for long stretches of time last fall and winter, and even though I always returned ready to roll up my sleeves, somehow the wooden spoon had been handed off like a relay baton. He’d gotten used to cooking dinner. In the absence of me taking the reins – or one of the reins as we’ve always shared this household task – he kept hold of them. Six o’clock would roll around and I’d ask not, “what do you want for dinner?” but instead, “what do you want to do for dinner?” A distinctly different question. If he’d answered with, “what I want to do is for you to cook,” I’d have complied without complaint. But since he seemed to be on a streak in the kitchen, I didn’t mind one less responsibility.

Except I missed cooking. He’d be at the stove braising a whole chicken before stuffing it and besieging it with potatoes and onions and vegetables. Short-pants would be standing on a small stool on the other side of the kitchen island, slicing mushrooms. I’d want to elbow my way back into that world of salt and butter and herbs, to cover my hands with flour and wince at the just-chopped onions on the cutting board. I didn’t complain, it’s a lovely thing to be cooked for and De-facto’s food fills the belly well. But I missed conjuring up my own culinary creative juices.

Reading Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is what stirred the pot. My friend the Pastry Ace, who also happens to be a pâtissière and chocolatier – I’m sure she could cook anything but those are her current specialties – loaned me the book last fall. As a chef, she loved the story of this woman’s kitchen history, and the detailed tales of meals well conceived and prepared on the route to opening the restaurant Prune in New York city. As an avid reader, she loved the wordsmithing and thought that I might appreciate the writing, too. Having now finished the book I can attest – it’s a delicious read.

It took me months to get into it, though. Not that the first words and chapters aren’t appetizing. But I think many mothers might appreciate this syndrome: little or no time to read for pleasure during the day when the brain is actually alert. Once the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, the laundry folded, and I’ve slipped between the taut white sheets of my bed, it’s pure pleasure to switch on that reading light and open one of the books on the pile. But not even two pages later, my eyes droop and I’m startled awake as the book falls open on my chest. I’m always disappointed not to be able to read further, but the intoxicating serenity of sleep descending makes me smile with my eyes half open as I lean over to shut off the light.

It means I’ll go months before finishing a book, although at any given time I’m in the middle of five or six. And when weekends are too busy, the books gather dust. Until this weekend; I sat in bed for hours devouring the pages of Hamilton’s memoir. Short-pants, who’s reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea for the tenth time – she’s an avid re-reader – climbed in next to me and we turned pages in tandem, wordless side-by-side as we consumed voraciously the words of our novels.

There are several passages in Blood, Bones & Butter that made me close the cover and hold the book close to my heart, like I had to savor it before I could read on. I’d open the book again, re-reading the paragraphs, admiring the combination of words that blended together, comma after comma, phrases pieced together to convey what happened to her and how she felt about it in perfect measure.

My sister gave me a cookbook for Christmas,
The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià, celebrated chef of El Bulli. I’d thumbed through its pages, treasuring the images of the ingredients, and the pragmatic rationale behind each menu. But it went on the shelf, with the other volumes of recipes, because as I said, I haven’t been cooking. That is until I was in the heat of Blood, Bones & Butter, when I pulled that new cookbook off the shelf, determined to use it. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” I told De-facto, stretching open the binding of the unexplored book. I flipped through its pages, again admiring the artistry of these simple meals – or so they were designated: the menus weren’t for Adrià’s Michelin-starred cuisine, but for the meals served to the restaurant staff prior to the dinner service.

And here it happened, what always happens. Inspired by a cookbook dish – in this case a menu – I realize too late that my kitchen is not properly stocked to prepare the recipe. I lack too many key ingredients even to fudge it. Cooking at this caliber requires advance planning, and my spontaneous return to the fold of kitchen service hadn’t include such a plan.

The most creative cooking is probably conceived when we must work with the limitation of what’s left in the pantry. The box of more-than-a-year-old lasagna noodles deserved some attention. There were two eggplants and just enough tomatoes to make a sauce. I called De-facto, who’d run out to do an errand, pleading with him to pick up some mozzarella and parmesan. I turned the oven on and pulled out that wrinkled apron.

The systematic chopping and dicing, the attention needed to carmelize something perfectly, the on-the-spot decisions to follow a recipe or improvise, it’s like an active meditation. Even when things go wrong and the pan is too hot or the croutons don’t transform into breadcrumbs as easily as you’d hoped, the problem solving required forces a mood of concentration and creativity that can be terribly satisfying. It’s nourishing for the soul.

At the table De-facto raved about the aroma and celebrated the novelty of something different to eat. The girls weren’t as inspired. Buddy-roo pushed the large noodle around her plate, eating the steamed broccoli that accompanied it, but laying her fork down on the rest.

“It’s just a big pasta,” said De-facto, “you love pasta.” She scrunched up her nose at the eggplant. It made me think of something my father used to say, when I refused his favorite delicacies, Welsh rarebit and pig’s feet. “You don’t know what’s good,” he’d say.

My lasagna wasn’t by the book, but it was good. It was a tasty change of pace from our habitual menus. It was good to be in the kitchen again. It was also good to finish a good book and return it to a good friend. Now if I could just open that new cookbook again, before I make the next shopping list, maybe there are a few good meals ahead.


Jan 31 2010

Missing Everybody

In case you didn’t catch it, our little Buddy-roo’s name is derived from JD Salinger’s famous high school reading list title, Catcher in the Rye. Salinger happens to be De-facto’s favorite author, inspiring the nickname and prompting his email to me this weekend reminding me of its source.

I wonder how many people in the world, when they heard that Salinger died, walked to their bookcases and reached up to pull this dusty book off the shelf and skim through its pages. That’s the first thing I thought to do when I heard the news. How propitious to be at my mother’s house, I thought, where I lived during my high school years. Immediately, I pictured the thin paperback, the design of its cover and its exact placement – third shelf up, to the right – on our bookcase.

Except it’s no longer there. My mother didn’t even save it for the damn yard sale. I think she donated it to the AAUW book sale last year, or maybe the year before. The shelf where it used to rest is now barren.

I picked up the phone. Dialed a number I know by heart, still, all these years later. The man who answered was one of five boys who lived across the road, our earliest childhood friends. Now he has children of his own who are growing up in that very same house, a house filled with stories and mischief and crocheted blankets. A house that gave me my first sense of other – their books, their objects d’art, their print of the Peaceable Kingdom – where I got my first notion of the world outside my own family’s universe. It was other, and yet it was as familiar and comforting as anything I knew from our side of the road.

Twenty minutes later he rang the doorbell. He is as handsome as ever, an older version of his original self. He handed me his high school copy of Catcher in the Rye. “It’s red,” he said, laughing, “when you called, all I could think of was it had a red cover.” He also knew right where to go to retrieve it.

I loved that his memory of the book, like mine, was so visual and spatial. Maybe this ranks with questions like, Where you were when JFK was shot? or What you were doing on 9/11?
This major milestone of modern literature merits the questions that probably most of us can answer: What color was your copy of Catcher in the Rye, and on which shelf was it kept?

I handled the old red paperback with care, its pages more than yellowed, but still legible. Then, on page 28, halfway down there it was:

Be a buddy. Be a buddyroo, okay?

The satisfaction of finding this slightly obscure reference in the book was too soon replaced with a bittersweet longing for my own Buddy-roo and her sister Short-pants. De-facto is a most capable solo pilot, so I do not worry (much) about how things are going at home in Paris. But that does not keep me from missing them.

I think of all the stories I’ve told about being frustrated or fed up, about missing my freedom, or about how good it is to have time alone and time away from my children. All those tales are true, just as true as this: I miss them so fiercely right now. I wish they could be here, so I could get that little hit that comes when their faces light up to see me after being gone, even for just an hour. I wish they could be here, to comfort me in that unconscious way that they do, just by being who they are. I wish they could be here, just one more time, to see their Grammy, to crawl in bed with her, like they so love to do.

And so it is, then, just as Holden Caulfield says in that famous last line of Catcher and the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”


Feb 28 2009

Ordered to Read

“Pick-up!” This was one of the mantras my mother was forced to repeat throughout my childhood. She spent a fair amount of her valuable time and breath telling us to put things away. It seemed ridiculous to me, when clearly it was just going to get messy again. Tomorrow toys would be pulled off of their shelves, shoes pulled from the closet, blankets unfolded and draped over the TV-trays to recreate the same cave I’d played in today. But she was insistent.

On Fridays, when the cleaning woman came, I found this request to be especially futile. Why would we hire someone to clean our house, and then clean it ourselves before she comes? When I shared this rationale with my mother, she dished out some mumbo-jumbo about how picking up is different than cleaning. Two tasks that, to me, seemed indistinguishable from each other. I did as she asked, but not without shrugging, grumbling, and promising myself I would never terrorize my children with this prodding to pick up all the time.
mess

This promise I have broken, again and again, since my children could understand the spoken word. Not only do I ask them to pick up, I use the exact same language as my mother. Yesterday, before our cleaning guy arrived, I found a big mess upstairs. Then I heard these words coming out of my very own mouth: “I pay him to clean the house, not to pick up after you.”

Oh, fate laughs so cruelly at me.

But, it turns out, as much as I may be annoying my children (and planting seeds for the further annoyance of their children), all this business about picking up could be helping them learn to read! Researchers at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Ohio State University conducted a study to measure the associations between household chaos and early childhood reading skills. (Who thought this up?) The results are noted in an article called “Order in the House!”

If you think that once my house is all picked up I spend my spare time reading academic journals, guess again. I stumbled upon this via Slate columnist Emily Bazelon, who does a nice job of condensing the results of the research in her recent article, “Messy House, Messy Minds.”

The researchers created two groups based on the mothers’ reading skills: above-average and average. The participants in each group were asked about their reading habits with their children, and then the mothers were also asked about how ordered things are at home, probing for responses to statements like “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

Bazelon notes:

A shout-out to all my endearingly, creatively messy friends (but not to my husband, who still shouldn’t leave his shoes in the middle of the front hall): It’s clear that by an “ordered home,” [the researchers] do not mean a spotlessly neat and clean one.

I appreciate her important clarification, and I second the comment (are you reading, De-facto?) about leaving shoes in the middle of the hall.

The take-away from this research:

Results suggest that the degree of household order is significantly and positively associated with early reading skills among children whose mothers are of above-average reading ability. These results suggest the potential for new approaches to encouraging literacy development in the home.

Aha! A point for merging the desired aesthetics of my adult life with the vigorous imagination of my children. Now I’ve got a new angle. The longer I can keep the new couch in clean condition, the more they’ll read, and the better their chances of going to Harvard Brown.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer