Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Springtime Gardening

I've killed a lot of plants in my life. When my daughter does some house and pet-sitting for me, she laughs and says at least there isn't anything to water. I've grown to see myself as a capable cook, an amateur decorator, and a tidy person with some occasional cleaning help, but that is the extent of my domestic capability. Only two green things, in my office, have survived over a long period of time, making my record over five years. They aren't thriving by most standards, but I have kept them alive. I figure between those and my kids and pets, my track record isn't bad. But still.

So when T built us a beautiful raised garden bed in the backyard, I was nervous. He's here, but not all the time. A large part of keeping these plants alive will be on my watch. T set up a little mechanism consisting of small posts and yellow tape, as the large canine toddler (now a teenager) was bounding through it with abandon before T planted this past weekend. It really doesn't look too much like a crime scene, and so far it seems to be working.

We've had a tunnel dug under the deck, where a pipe has had a habit of bursting and now has been capped with plans to reinforce and bury the line. Above all, we need water back there, but it's been a bit of a trial getting it done. The past several summers have seen rain at drought levels, and we've lost a couple of small trees and our ground cover appeared decimated. But the little bit of water we've gotten in there via nature and through the watering can, there are signs of life. 

Watching T this past weekend, with his absolute pleasure at digging in the well-heeled dirt, I felt some envy.  My feelings about my yard have been to keep it up appropriately where the neighbors can see it. Last summer, I felt so bad about the dead plants and the overwhelming weeds, I didn't spend much time on the wonderful deck. There is just so much to do, and yet T seems to enjoy it so much.

This evening, I pulled some weeds and made plans to get out there this weekend and tackle the rest, and maybe trim the hedges and fertilize the lawn.  Knowing I have an expert who will be around regularly helps me feel like I can handle it. 

After doing some watering, I strode out in my apron with my kitchen shears looking for herbs. I used to do this when I lived in my little rental house next to my Fort Worth mom, who keeps a fine garden of these and was always generous to let me raid her stock. But now I am moving beyond the little pots I've kept in subsequent years on the front step and into the real thing. This time I got onion chives, basil, and loads of thyme to stuff tonight's chicken. 

It felt satisfying to grow things with which to cook, and maybe this is my window into the world of gardening.  Texas isn't an easy place to grow things, but who knows? Maybe those eggplants and peppers will actually make it.  That will be a big win, if my black thumb turns green.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Memory in Midlife

Memory in middle age is a tricky thing. I repeat myself more often than I wish. I've been forgetting since my early thirties where I parked my car at the grocery store; part of that is because I moved to Texas and the vehicles are so huge that it's not easy to see my sedan behind the Tahoes, but mostly it's because I am thinking about what I'm going to cook that night and not paying attention.  Between the Central Market parking lot and the ones at the DFW airport (thank you to the nice people who patrol those lots in a Prius and help us lost souls find our vehicles two rows away from where we were looking in the first place) I could get a year of my life back. I've made peace with this and now write things down, but only because I attribute it to a character defect and not encroaching age.

Lately I notice the elasticity of time.  Things that happened five, ten years ago seem like they were last week.  Fairly routinely, usually during my brooding hour around 4 in the morning, I have a vivid recollection of a law firm event I organized when the office manager looked over my shoulder for days ahead and the whole evening, and could barely contain her satisfaction when we nearly ran out of wine, only rescued by my sending the catering company owner to his nearby shop to pick up another case. She was a nice lady but her desire to be the only indispensable person in the joint annoys me yet. Then the band snaps back and it hits me that she died four years ago from a brain tumor.  It's on me to get over that one.

It's also selective. The baby who lived down the street and was born two weeks before my son?  I remember talking to his mother in the driveway, a couple of years ago, and the child was bald and large-eyed and resembled ET.  Now he's over six feet with a gorgeous head of hair and heading off to high school. I also have a fuzzy yet distinct recollection of my former husband baking bread with a friend in Toronto and then deciding, quite logically, to race each other down the street to the Madison Avenue Pub, naked.  There was bemusement on the part of the other wife and I, and no frostbite transpired, nor were there arrests made. It is a fun memory, but what I can't quite recall is the woman who experienced it.

Nora Ephron wrote in I Remember Nothing that her life was wasted on her because she remembered so little. Yet in the subsequent essays, she writes evocatively of her parents, screenwriters who drank, and how she met Lillian Ross and tried carefully to determine if her mother's old story about kicking Lillian out of a party at their house was true.  Nora died at 76, right before which she wrote she'd missed punch lines, failed to recognize her own sister in an airport, and had to look up movie titles on Google.  But thankfully, she had not reached the "nadir of old age, the Land of Anecdote".

I seem to preface many of my conversations with, did I tell you this before?  And yet I hope to stave off the nadir to which Nora refers.  I suppose for many people the best stories live in the past, and they hope to share these to reassure themselves that they've had some fun after all. 

Reinvention in midlife is much better than many imagine. At forty, single again, I remembered the young woman I was and learned that nobody much cared if I was respectable, that I'd put it all on myself.  I found a real career, read and traveled (under the auspice of work, mostly, until I met T) and decided to write again, all things I'd dreamed of when young.  The memory came from my soul rather than my mind, and there have been giddy moments of rediscovery.  My kids still love me and my friends do as well.  I am my own worst judge--what's wrong, after all, with reinhabiting my real self?

I'm only on this side of fifty, with a resolve to have many anecdotes to tell when I am 80--but from last week. I will remember stories of my new adventures. If only I can find my car.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Dear Fort Worth: We Have to Talk

I've fallen in love. The beginning was innocent, I swear. I just wanted to have a little fun. Back in 2011, a handsome man invited me to San Francisco with a promise of a drive to Napa.  A woman of a certain age doesn't think she'll be taken in by these things. Surely it was lust, I thought, a seduction by sunshine and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes, by a region where even in dodgy places a good glass of wine can be had. I rationalized it was the man, not the place.

He continues to be the main draw, but it's becoming clear that I can't stay away from his habitat, at least not for long.  The first glaring sign: Saturday mornings at the Ferry Building, with the local vegetables, Mary's chicken, and the eggs that are still barely warm. Also, waking at T's place meant a view of the Bay, the water shining early in the morning and the smell of the sea coming in the windows, which can be open at night all year long. Even working at five in the morning (I still have my East Coast colleagues) was precious, the Bay Bridge shimmering out the window.

Fort Worth, you've been steadfast towards me all these sixteen years. Our relationship has deepened over time. You started out pretty scruffy and unsophisticated, with only steak houses and Tex Mex and some pretty good barbeque in the way of dining out.  Now you've given me Ellerbe and Pacific Table and Sera, and the trails by the Trinity River are lovely, especially with a stop afterwards for lunch at the Woodshed.  I have the dearest friends here. It's not that I don't love you, but you're like a favorite sweater I've put on to find the sleeves are too short and the hem is frayed.  I got a little bored and felt hemmed in.  Then temptation reared its head.

Napa turned out to be pretty easy to resist. Sure, there's the wine and food, but so far it doesn't quite live up to the hype. I can certainly find good wine here with you these days, Cowtown. San Francisco was wonderful, but between the exorbitant cost of living, the ominpresent pot and the naked people (note: most of us look better with our clothes on) I had rationalized that bit away. Fun to visit, but not a place I could really commit to.Then T moved to the Monterey Pennisula. 

Our new little town is sleepy, like you, and there are plenty of good places to eat. Carmel is pretty but much too precious for me, Pacific Grove too preachy, Monterey just right. The Naval Postgraduate school is just down the hill.  At dawn, we hear reveille; at dusk, taps. Sea lions bark every morning. Still, I've tried to hold fast to my love for you. You, who took me in as a lost Canadian soul and gave me kindness and a soft place to fall. Then we went to Big Sur. It became a full-blown affair.

The rugged coast, the sun going down at Nepenthe, the hikes in the redwoods--all of it soothes my soul and relaxes me in a profound way.  No wonder everyone looks so happy there.

I don't know how long it will go on.  The man, for as long as the Universe determines; things are as permanent as they can be. As for the place, every time we have an interlude it gets more passionate.  As for you, Fort Worth, I'll stay with you for the sake of the kids, but once they are grown, all bets are off.  Maybe the thrill will be gone by then, but I don't think Big Sur's hot will wear off.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Stop Grieving Your Kids' Childhoods

I found some Legos in a closet a couple of weeks ago. We're integrating households and it seems all T and I have done for the past three or four months is clean out closets and put items out at the curb.  A little over a year ago, my firstborn, at sixteen and with a newly-minted driver's license, decided quite abruptly (or so it seemed to me) that she wanted to live full-time with her father and stepmother. Cleaning out her room took me six months to work up to--her brother had been squatting there for quite some time and I realized I needed to get past the hand-me-down phase--and one evening when I was alone in the house with the dog and the cat I took a box of tissues in there and sorted through the closet.

She'd taken all she wanted. What was left were items from phases of her childhood she had discarded like a hermit crab with shells she'd outgrown.  Soccer trophies, an American Girl Doll, and a homemade bulletin board with photos from her sixth-grade science trip, which included photos of her with a dolphin. There were former favorite t-shirts she'd outgrown, and essays she'd written in elementary school. At this point, I felt rather tossed upon this particular pile, so the exercise took pretty much the whole stash of Kleenex.

My beloved has many wonderful qualities, among them good taste in furniture, or at least compatible with mine, and fortunately for him I don't have a passion for chintz. We've had no When Harry Met Sally wagon-wheel table moments, and he's helped me manage a transition towards living as a couple and letting go of our house as a shrine to my kids' childhood, though he always checks before we throw. The man organizes my utility closet and my garage. Sometimes I can't quite believe my luck.

This transition must be hard for every parent contemplating an empty nest, but I grieve it particularly because my children have been living between two homes for the better part of a decade. Every favored stuffed animal or once-coveted piece of plastic I unearth reminds me I've been saying goodbye to my kids every other Monday for as long as they can remember. What did they have at their other house? Early on, they decided to leave things in each of their homes.  How did they feel when they came back to half-familiar surroundings every week? 

We put the family heirloom girly bed in the storage shed and T moved a nice California King from his San Francisco house into the boy's room; the child sleeps like the dead and he and his friends enjoy the new, big couch and the larger television now in the family room. On weekends when they are all hanging around, we have our kitchen and civilized living room where we can eat and read and stand sentry until the boys, relishing their own space, finally come in to forage for more food and water. 

As for the Legos and bulletin boards, the very few things that are particularly memorable to me have gone in boxes, no doubt to be moved around in my households of the future until the kids have to pack me off the nursing home. If the kids left the rest without a look back, it means they won't miss it later. I personally have a box of school awards and yearbooks that mean not a thing to me, but I will keep them because packing them up made my parents cry.

In the end, it's just stuff.  Until recently, I thought of myself as a keen thrower, but this latest stage has given me an understanding of wanting to hold onto the past. Then I remember the peanut butter-smeared outfits, the innumerable soccer games, the grocery store meltdowns, the focus on avoiding broken limbs at the playground and the parking lot, and it all makes me exhausted and I'm amazed all involved lived through it. Now all we have to consider is driving, college sex, drinking, drugs and post-education employment.  No wonder I am nostalgic.

These days, I see our daughter fairly often, but even though she lives blocks away it feels like she's already gone off to college, which she's planning to do next fall. She blows in and out without notice, full of news and excited about her future, working and studying and getting ready for her new adventure. I miss seeing her every other week, but now delight in every moment of her company. In some ways, we may be closer than if we had to live in the same house. Her brother is gearing up for high school and we love it when he and his posse descend upon us.

Our family was blessed in the early years with a wonderful caregiver whose kids were nearly out of school by the time she started watching ours after school.  She is among the most devoted mothers I know. One day she said to me, "I'd do it all over again." In the middle of the fray, I know I looked at her like she was crazy.  A few weeks ago, her comments came back to me as I felt the pull of nostalgia. Would I do it all over, even with what I know now? There are new adventures ahead for them and for me. I'll just keep the sweet moments in my heart.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Some twenty years ago I worked with a young man whose determination to be right about everything overtook every conversation we had.  It was annoying and revealed the sin of a genuine lack of curiousity, but he was bright and handled a lot of technical issues well, so generally we got along.  One day the conversation turned to reading, and he said he only read business books.  I offered that one of the greatest pleasures in life is a good novel or memoir.  "Why would I waste my time on just reading a story?" He stated more than asked this.  You, I thought, are truly a lost cause.

I once heard (or more likely read) the best way to get to know someone you meet at a dinner party is to ask them to tell you about the last time they fell in love.  It's not something I have tried, but I do believe almost everyone is interesting in some way, and I never tire of hearing the personal narrative of years unfolding. I suppose I learned this from my mother, who draws people out and remembers the most astounding details, even years later, about people she has known or even met just once. 

The best memoirs aren't vulgar tell-all stories, but they do offer up the details, the reasons behind questionable decision-making, the run straight off the cliff, the particular wrong turns taken in those lives not of those who follow convention, but those of the ones we want to read about. 

..maybe it was the monkfish liver, the trippa Milanese, the marrow bones--he lightly scratched me from the shoulder to the wrist, one long, slow light scratch with his fingernail the long distance of the tender back part of my arm and I, electrified, turned around to finally take a look at this guy whom I had barely registered until now.  It was ballsy and accurate, that scratch; two qualities I find particularly appealing.

--Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter. 

David Isay is the creator of StoryCorps, one of the most compelling spots on NPR.  He's been at it for ten years, recording conversations between people who are connected in profound ways.  I'd say he has my dream job, except that if I did his work I would probably never stop crying.  A husband tells his wife about being the only survivor of a disastrous shipwreck on Lake Huron.  Two women who have been best friends for three decades talk about what they mean to one another.  The connection and discovery of her authentic self by an 80 year-old woman through her deep bond with her grandson is another recording. 

When asked in a recent interview whether the kinds of stories he was hearing had changed over the past ten years, Isay was categorical: absolutely not.  When asked about their lives, he said, people talk about love, about death, about meaning.  I hope that the world has knocked the corners off my once-young friend's certainty and he now has enough humility to understand that our stories are what give shape to our lives. The themes are universal, but the details make us unique. They are what make us human.   

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My Favorite Autumn Blogs

It's almost rain, not quite snow, close to sleet.  As I walked Jack, our flat-coated retriever, for our customary hour today, there were plenty of headshakes from  the scant number of Texans driving past me on their post-church treks home.  No doubt they felt intrepid even going out today, as Fort Worth is in the grips of the typical panic ahead of freezing precipitation.  The local rag featured a report where the nice young man from my local Ace Hardware store was interviewed yesterday.  He said there had been a lot of rock salt and some firewood purchased. 

The Canadian in me kicks in at times like these, and dressed in a proper coat, boots and thermal gloves, I felt pretty comfortable, and pride that I could stride through this. Although with Jack, bred for such weather and his energy boundless, a day off isn't optional anyhow.  I grimaced in the drizzle, and he jumped around, wishing in his very blood that he could go find a herd to drive. Although I know in two days we'll be back to t-shirt weather, my three decades in the north mean my bones instinctively decided it's time to hunker down for winter. 

I started with stew on Friday, and yesterday made a pretty fair gumbo ahead of T's trip back in a couple of days, when I plan to reprise it with improvements. He's in California now and in a completely different mode, thinking of a bike ride on a mild day beside Monterey Bay.  The gumbo warmed nicely and went down well with the last of some Sextant Pinot left over from earlier in the week.  There are some wonderful blogs that pair well with this kind of weather, and as I look out across our kitchen table over the resplendant autumn leaves on the street, I'm inspired to look for online comfort through the few weeks of winter in North Texas. 

Food52.  Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer who made a cameo appearnace in Julie and Julia, has partnered with her colleague, Merrill Stubbs (who, naturally, lives with her family in Brooklyn) for a wonderful blog that keeps getting better.  This week, you can learn all about brining, should you wish to pursue that for your holiday turkey.  There are great contests for various types of recipes, so it houses all kinds of ideas that are approachable for home cooks.  It's also very appealing in its layout. 

Manger.  Mimi Thorisson pretty much stole your dream life, at least on the face of it.  She and her rugged husband, Oddur, have repaired to a country house in Medoc, France, after living in Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland and Paris. They have a couple of  children, who run attractively in rumpled clothes around the French countryside. They cook a great deal in their stone-floored kitchen, which appears to have pedigree of several centuries. Also, Mimi looks like a Ralph Lauren model.  But she does have 14 dogs, which leads me to believe her life might be quite a bit messier than I would prefer for myself. I have my hands full with one dog. At any rate, it's an absolutely gorgeous blog, as Oddur, a professional photographer, handles all the visuals. And it seems in Medoc to be perpetually overcast and perfect for picking wild mushrooms. No practicality here, but highly aspirational.

Saveur. The online version has excellent recipes, but get this in print if you can.  The children gave me a subscription last year for Christmas, and I am thrilled to see it in the mailbox each month.  The photography is spectacular, and the articles transporting.  Among my favorites this year was one by Toronto author David Sax about the dying art of a real lunch in Buenos Aires.  As the world becomes interconnected, it seems that cities around the world become more alike.  I thought of it when T and I were in Hong Kong last month and we saw the money-shifters increasingly making everything shiny and new. Chanel and salad bars will soon rule no matter how far one flies, it seems, so I have determined we must get to the Paris of Latin America post-haste.  And when it's winter here, it's summer there. 

The Marion House Book.  Emma Reddington parlayed her success on this blog into her dream job of home editor at Canada's Chatelaine magazine.  She writes about design, food, travel and generally beautiful things.  Her restaurant reviews and recipes are great, but my favorite regular installment is the hello, neighbour! bit where she talks her way into houses she sees in her walks around her area streets in West Toronto neighborhood (where many years ago, I used to ride the streetcar on my way to work in the Tip Top Tailors Building from a little basement apartment on Lakeshore Drive in Etobicoke) and it's so neat to see inside these funky spaces.  Here's her latest restaurant review, of Noma in Copenhagen. 


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Where Are All the Tiger Moms in Singapore?

If the state of a country's political health can be judged by its food, then Singapore is a great argument for a benevolent dictatorship.  T and I recently spent five days there and, between work commitments for me, we did some pretty great eating.  We'd wandered past a little French place in Chinatown during one of our quick walks, and one night we enjoyed an epic meal at La Maison Fantien.  Owned by the eponymous vineyard in Bordeaux, the food was lovely and the wine better, and the warm and romantic dining room upstairs is housed in a building which is a former and by all appearances a rather grand house back in the day. 

We marveled at the architecture, the flowers, genial nature of  almost everyone we ran across, and thrilled at how orderly and clean the entire city appeared.  But what really captured our hearts were the happy children.  Everywhere we went, we saw smiling kids, with their parents looking on delightedly.  On the subway, we saw a group of middle school girls get on.  They talked quietly and giggled a bit, but there were no loud outbursts and they kept their circle wide to include everyone. 

This was also true in Hong Kong, where we spent a weekend following our Singapore excursion.  All over the city, we saw little kids jumping, running, and generally having a wonderful time.  Late in the afternoon, we stopped at a light behind a father and his daughter, aged about 10.  She was speaking animatedly to him, and he was entirely engaged in conversation with her.  It was clear they completely enjoyed one another's company. It made me so happy to watch the love between these parents and their children, and I thought of the evenings when my kids were young and I failed to turn off my Blackberry.  But then I remembered those that I did, and the books we relished together and music we sang to in the car.  I did enjoy my kids. It just went by so fast.

In restaurants, we saw very young children sitting happily and eating all manner of food.  Like the absence of pain, I'd not noticed the lack of temper tantrums until I went to the restroom at a German place in Kowloon's tourist district by the Harbour.  A child was on the floor, screaming, because his mother had gone for a potty break and he couldn't follow her in.  The father stood by, looking hopeless.  As far as I could tell, they were American. God, I've been there, I thought, and wondered how the parents I'd seen in the last week pulled it off.

Singapore's safe and orderly presentation is largely as a result of a strong government presence in all aspects of the country.  Rob someone and get caught, and you can be caned.  Recently an American woman brought over a million dollars of crystal meth into the country, and she is now sentenced to execution.  They don't fool around, and maybe it trickles down somehow to the toddlers. I liked being there, but was glad I didn't visit as an undergraduate.

Still, the happiness I witnessed stayed with me.  A few days after I got back, I went to Central Market, my favorite grocery store in Fort Worth.  As I walked in, I saw a little girl of about four, walking behind her dad and chatting away.  He was pushing the cart, but might well have been a hundred miles away, staring distractedly ahead and paying his daughter no mind.  Who knows what burden he might have been carrying?  Still, it took everything in me not shake him and to tell him to enjoy every minute.  They are gone before you know it.