Sunday, December 27, 2009

Looking for a House is Like Dating

My landlady informed me three days before Christmas that she intends to sell the house I've been living in for more than three years.  It was a bit of a surprise--I had assumed the place was a steady source of income for her and so she wouldn't sell it out from under me--and the timing, needless to say, left something to be desired.  She is giving me first dibs, so there is an option for me to own the space I've inhabited.

This house is a lot like a guy I dated on and off for a year.  There was a lot to like--I found him pretty attractive, we looked good together, and it was nice to have someone in my life when I felt like going to the movies or needed a date for a party.  He was, in short (actually he was kind of short, come to think about it), appropriate.  But when we finally called it quits for real, I was bummed because I had yet another relationship behind me that hadn't worked out, but I certainly wasn't heartbroken. 

This pretty little brick house is across the street from the elementary school where my youngest child has only one more full year to attend.  I left my old neighborhood when I got divorced, and it was a safe place to fall, with lots of supportive friends and the undeniable advantage over my ex that when the kids were at my place  they could go for a bike ride and visit their classmates.  I love seeing people from school when I am out walking, and I adore the old houses and even the old, unsteady sidewalks.  I socialize with my neighbors, and they are kind enough to treat me like a homeowner already.  The house is charming and comfortable enough, because, well, I am just dating it.  But what if I commit?  Will all of the little things that just kind of bug me suddenly make me decide to pick a fight with it when friends are coming over for dinner?  

If I buy this place, all the things that I've been able to live with--the handyman special bathroom, the deck that is well past its best years, the unpaved driveway (yes, you read that right), the teeny tiny living room--will not just be things in a place I'm renting.  I will be married to this pile of bricks.  Every newlywed couple has a pivotal fight where they both experience a degree of panic.  In the immediate aftermath, thoughts run along the following lines: I married this person?  I hate the way he chews, for God's sake! I've made a terrible, terrible mistake!  Sometimes it really does mean that a major error has been made.  But most often it just means that the gravity of the commitment has finally dawned upon the people who signed the contract.

So right now I'm feeling the itch to see other houses and am sinking my desperately-needed time off into on-line searches and drive by looks through neighborhoods in the right school district at a price I can handle. I'm basically at the Match.com phase.  I've texted a realtor friend and asked if she'll show me two or three I think I'd like.  So I'll be going out for a drink with a few 3/2's this week.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Question Four: Do I Have the Energy to Do the Things I Wish I Could Do?

I'm frequently described as energetic, although there are plenty of mornings where I am, as The Happiness Project's Gretchen Rubin would say, acting the way I want to feel

Over the years, I've figured out a few ways to maximize energy:

Know your temperment.  When I do my best to put out energy, I get back lots from the people who interact with me, which then gives me more, since I am an extrovert. A few years ago, I learned a distinction that rings true: extroverts get energy from being around others, whereas introverts build up energy reserves by spending time by themselves. (If you're unsure about your own temperment, try this quiz.)  Because I am an only child I can retreat when I am feeling overwhelmed, but I've learned that once I overcome this and call a friend or two and see them things are a lot better.  From the other perspective, if you find being around others exhausts you after a while, don't feel badly about turning down a social invitation.

Figure out what gives you energy. Blogging properly takes lots of time, and I didn't start because I don't have anything else to do.  My life, like most people's, generally feels a little too full.  But much of my day involves scheduling, lists, making sure things get done.  The time I spend doing creative things (and writing is my favorite among them) gives me more energy because I get "flow" and let go of my daily worries while I am engaged in the activity.  Determine which activities give you that feeling, and make time to do them.

Understand what drains your energy reserves.  Work is called work for a reason, so of course it's going to use up energy, but if you hate what you're doing all day, every day, it's much worse.  Are there things that wipe you out that you can control?  A long commute is not so bad for some people (I actually love to drive and don't mind traffic, so mine isn't as bad as it might be for others) but for others it's torture.  I get overwhelmed by a to-do list that's too long, even if the things on it are small.  So I've realized that taking care of a bunch of little things gives me the same sense of straightening up my house.  I don't have to dust the baseboards (literally or metaphorically) but staying mentally tidy gives me a sense of calm. 

Know who drains your energy.  We all have them--friends, co-workers, family members--who bring us down.  Energy is contagious, but so is pessimism.  Sometimes the glass is just half-empty for these folks, but other times we let them drag us into their personal dramas.  This is good for them--that way, we own at least part of their mental baggage, which maybe makes their load lighter--but we have our own bags to carry.  So be supportive, but make sure you're not the caddy.  As for the truly toxic folks, unless they gave you life, tell the truth and run. 

Schedule rest.  Don't wait until you bottom out to take time to rest, or your health will inevitably suffer.  Block off time to do nothing, and apologize to no one.  If you've got children and a spouse, make sure they know that when the bathroom door is locked, you're in the bath.  When you take off to play a sport, make sure your phone is off.  If you've got dear friends who live in other cities, get on a plane and go and see them. And don't feel guilty.  That's the biggest energy drain of all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Five Questions, Continued: Are There Rituals in My Life That Consistently Bring Me Fulfillment?

When my kids were little our weekly pre-weekend routine involved a trip to a wine and fine foods store called Ronnie's.  For a couple of toddlers, going to a wine store might not strike you as an appropriate outing.  But there was something special for them about this place:  the best ciabatta ever, with samples aplenty.  Or at least that's how the children remember it.  When Central Market moved in up the street and crowds flocked there, Ronnie's soldiered on but eventually was out of business.  CM has good bread with samples, too, and I can often coax one or both of the kids to tag along on my weekly trip.  But though my daughter and son are into their second decade, they have a wistful recollection of our Friday morning ritual.

I know this because they always mention it when we are enjoying another ritual, a weekend breakfast at Yogi's, which is across the street from where Ronnie's was almost a decade ago.  As enjoy our food  (always the same: they have "everything" bagels and chocolate milk, I have migas or a Greek omelet) we talk about the week, say hello to the friends we inevitably run into, and then one of them sighs and says, "remember how good that bread was?" 

Since my teenage years I've learned that to stay grounded I need to do a few things every day.  Exercise, even if it's a half-hour walk with the dog, is critical because I blow off nervous energy. If I don't do this, I get irritable and brood more than usual.  I also need to read, not just the news but also something with language that satisfies me, usually a book but sometimes a blog or a magazine, because it helps me remember the beauty in the world. And nearly every night I take a hot bath, which tells me it's nearly time for bed and rest.  Most important, I need to make time to see friends in person, not just electronically.  As a busy person with an inclination to put ticking off my to-do list ahead of human interaction (I confess I just don't understand people who make friends at the gym--how can they waste all that time?) I need to book appointments to see my friends.  It doesn't just happen as part of my day, but if I don't schedule it I spend way too much time in my own head, which gets pretty stuffy and rather bitchy after a time. 

Rituals are touchstones that help us remember who we were and understand who we are now.  They keep us grounded when life changes rapidly.  My kids have those breakfasts and reading time with me, and Saturday night is always movie night at their dad's house.  These things have helped sustain them through a huge and irreparable change in their young lives.  

Eating a meal with them at a place we've gone for years is sort of like the pencil marks on the wall in the kitchen in the house where they've grown up.  I lived there with them for eight years, but don't anymore (their Dad is the keeper of the pencil marks) and sometimes feel as though I've lost part of their childhood because many of the familiar places in their lives are no longer where I belong.  But when we go into Yogi's and I see parents there with their teenagers and college-aged kids, talking with friends and enjoying each other, I know we're sharing something that feeds us all in lots of ways.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Word From Your Fifty Year-Old Self

"Open your mouth a lot.  This means you will eat a lot of foods, kiss a lot of men, take deep breaths and say what you want to say.  And it will mean by 50 you will be spared the closed lip look of a woman who doesn't like what she sees.  Avoid pursed lips."

--From the post "Fierce at 50.  When you are 20. Or 30." on Privilege: A High WASP Stops to Consider, a blog by "A 53 year-old executive and mother, brought up in a life of privilege."  (She finds great shoes for $24.99, too.  A woman after my own heart.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cards With Character


As many of you are undoubtedly working furiously to get your holiday shopping done (and, for the organized and old-fashioned among you, are perhaps sending out proper cards to friends--my hat is off to you) I'm sending a useful link your way.  In the era of Tweets, everyone still loves to get a card in the mail, especially if it's on stationary that is also art. 

My friend and neighbor Susan is a gifted artist and illustrator.  Among her projects is BowWow Cards, where you can find whimisical and unique designs for your own correspondence or to give as a gift.  My kids' teachers have been happy recipients of packages of these in the past couple of years--the blank ones are perfect to use as thank you notes for all those other presents from students--and they are great to have around to use as birthday cards to children and (fun) grownups. 

Susan and her husband, Jay, have a wonderful house that they restored from what was evidently horrible condition, so they are sort of neighborhood celebrities.  Susan especially is an animal lover, and it comes through in her playful renderings of various creatures, especially those of horses in the Rodeo grouping of cards.  Check out the website, where you see all that is available and shop, too, or contact her at bowowcards@aol.com.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is There One Thing I Look Forward to Every Day?

It's not when I try to back out of my driveway at 7:40, when the school across the street is in full arrival force. I rented this house so my kids would be across the street from their school, which means I not only have to deal with the people who park in front of my driveway because it's just easier for them but also the fact that as fellow parent I can't berate them. Well, not really.  But that's another post.

And when I leave the office at the end of a workday?  Well, that's a commute of at least an hour, with more people of a certain ilk on the highway.  When I pick the kids up from my nanny's house, that's pretty good.  They get in the car for the two-block drive, and I love hearing them talk at the same time about the exciting moments in their respective days. Then we get home and arguments ensue over who took the dog for a walk yesterday, whose turn it is to use the Mac, and so on.  It's fleeting. 


My favorite time is a rather selfish one. But it makes me do something that keeps me healthy, which I suppose is not selfish since it's in the best interests of the kids that I stay alive.  It's the few minutes after I get back from a run or the gym.  If my field marshall self has won the argument with the stay in the warm bed self,  I get to carry my endorphin rush back into my quiet house.  I turn on the coffeemaker, which I've stocked with freshly-ground beans and filtered water the night before.  Then I turn to my laptop and have a quick look at the day's news on Twitter (okay, the NY Times and, for you locals, the Star-Telegram, too) and take a breath.  Then I wake the children and get into a very hot shower. 

It's short but sweet, with the smell of coffee and the feeling of hot water after a good sweat.  As the days grow colder it is sometimes a little tougher to remind myself the reward is worth heaving myself out of comfort and into exertion.  But when I do, I find it easier to back out of my driveway.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Five Questions, Part I: First Thought of the Morning

When you wake up, what's your first thought about the day?  Some people wake up happy always. I don't understand them, but they do exist. After I get past it can't possibly be time to get out of bed, is there a way I can exercise later in the day so I can skip the gym and go back to sleep and is it raining, (which may be yet another excuse to skip the gym) what pops into my head is the most important thing I have to do that day.  Which can inspire nervousness, excitement, happy anticipation or, on occasion, dread.

The latter is an unpleasant emotion.  At certain points in my life--following a huge move, in the aftermath of a miscarriage, during the process of a divorce--it dominated my first moments of consciousness for what seemed like a long time.  Getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other took all I had, and yet through those times I gained a brief understanding of the strength of those who engage in a daily struggle against long-term depression.  It felt like dragging around a wet, heavy coat on a March day by the lake, and I am grateful that darkness eventually passed for me.

But dread is also useful, if we listen to it.  If it persists over a long time and you know in your gut you aren't in the grips of clinical depression, then something in you is telling you it's time to go. Time to leave a job that is soul-deadening because of what it entails or because of a boss who is mean, crazy or both.  Out of a relationship that is dead or abusive, a living space that is too expensive or too big or too cramped, a city that lacks opportunity or the weather you want.

Life has taught me to listen to that nagging feeling.  Once I recognize it, I am almost subconsciously propelled towards change.  It doesn't mean quitting my job that very day.  It does, however, recalibrate my thinking, almost subconsciously, into resourcefulness. What job do I want next?  How do can learn some of the skills I need for it in my current spot?  Where might I find such a job?  Once I start formulating a plan, the dread becomes bearable, because I know it's transient.

But some changes are much easier than others.  Breaking up with someone you've dated for a few months is different than upending a marriage of a few decades; leaving a dead-end job when you're in your twenties is easier than jettisoning a career in which you've invested a lifetime; moving out of an apartment you've outgrown after a couple of years doesn't compare with leaving a house that once held cherished hopes for a family history.  Dread is the canary in the mine, warning us of the inevitable.  Contentment can often show up after we've come out the other side and haven't yet looked up.

About two years after my husband of sixteen years moved out, I had an odd moment, just about mid-way on my hour commute to work.  It was early spring and the sun was out, which it usually is in North Texas.  I was listening to music and motoring along in my 2001 Honda Civic, dents and all.  An unfamiliar feeling came over me, and I wondered, what is that? I think I feel...happy? Happy!

Now, not every day.  But once I manage to get up and put on my running shoes (or my work clothes, if resolve has lost out to a warm bed)  it's usually not bad at all.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Your Life Replete? Five Questions to Ask.

Life is noisy and invasive.  (See this month's Wired for an account of how one reporter tried to disappear.  For real.  Fascinating.)  It's hard to manage when so many things are coming at us--I often feel like I spend my days trying, generally in vain, to mark things off my list.  A week can hurtle by and I wonder what exactly I've done. 

In an effort to wring some meaning out of my days before I spend my mornings grunting at the newspaper (not the print version, but I fear, after a week with my parents, the senior citizen impulse will persist) about how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, I've devised a few questions I ask myself on Friday evenings as I pour myself a glass of grape and ponder my activities, if I can recall them, from the past seven days.  I'll share my perspective on each in the posts to follow.

  • When I wake up in the morning, what is my first thought about the day before me?
  • Is there at least one thing I look forward to doing every day?
  • Are there rituals in my life that consistently bring me fulfillment?
  • Do I have the energy to do the things I wish I could do?
  • When I think about my goals, are they something I can reach within two years, or are they "someday" ideas?
I hope you'll share your ideas with me, even before mine are posted.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Saving the Words

"Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and old words best of all." --Winston Churchill

The Oxford English Dictionary has been around since 1857 and is updated annually. In the past decade, however, its sales have been declining as those of us in search of definitions have headed to sites such as Dictionary.com rather than get up and pick the hard copy up from its place as a doorstop. The team dedicated to reviving the OED brand wasn't just trying to compete with these sites, but rather had the mandate to "..make people fall in love with the English language."  Lofty that, but for those of us, like Churchill, who adore language, we may be grateful for a treasure.

Save the Words is an interactive patchwork quilt of what the team calls "archaic but mysterious" words.  Among those I ran across today were:

Rhodologist: one who studies and classifies roses.  The rhodologist introduced a species of roses that smells like leftover sardines, thus disproving Shakespeare's quote.

Jobler:  one who does small jobs.  To celebrate my pathetic pay raise, I'm going out to drink with some joblers. 

No English stuffiness here, but lots of delicious irreverence.  Readers even have the option to "adopt" a favorite. Should those of you who don't spend your days immersed in Victorian novels know the meaning of any without a double-click, my hat is off to you.  For those who love words, prepare to entire the opium den.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Home Cooking Celebrated

If you saw Julie and Julia, you'll remember the pivotal scene when the food critic from the New York Times comes for boeuf bourguignon at Julie's apartment.  Amanda Hesser, who plays herself in the film, went back to her laptop and wrote a piece about Julie's blog that made Julie famous and changed her life completely. 

Hesser, despite looking scarcely over the age of twenty-five, is an accomplished writer of books on food and its place in her life.  Together with her Times colleague Merrill Stubbs, she started Food 52, a blog for and about home cooks.  In addition to weekly recipe contests (among the most delicious recently was "Your Best Autumn Salad") where readers are both contributors and judges, they have amassed a fabulous database of dishes. 

Home cooks, say Hesser and Stubbs, are resourceful and inventive and can come up with dishes that rival those of professionals.  But they cite many other great reasons for making food in our own kitchens.  A couple of my favorites: "If you cook, you'll make your home an important place in your life." and "If you cook, people will remember you."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Secrets, Posted


Postsecret is the the largest advertisement-free Blog in the world; with 180,000 secrets posted, it's the most riveting bit of human drama to be found in the digital realm.  The site invites people to mail their secrets on postcards, and now the founder, Frank Warren receives 1,400 a day.  He keeps every single one, according to someone I know (he or she will remain anonymous, naturally) who went to a live event where he spoke.  The example above is the one that grabbed me from the current page, which updates at midnight every Sunday morning.  Each of these postcards is a gem.  There is art because it's beautiful in language and often aesthetically so as well.  There is shock, humor, and sweetness.  And, as in the post above, sometimes there is something unsettling.  We wonder about the whole story--what the hell is this about?

In his speech, Warren said the second most common statement he receives is, "I wish I had someone I could share my secrets with."  (The first, which I will leave to the experts, is "I pee in the shower".)  There are several paradoxes at work here.  People wish they could find someone with whom to share their secrets, yet they can only express this cry from the heart to someone they do not know.  They read a blog dedicated to secrecy--and read it rather obsessively, which I now understand after a half-hour on the current post--yet the live gatherings where Warren speaks are sold out regularly.

The person who introduced me to the site--he/she has been reading it since 2005, which means I am late to the party indeed, so there are no doubt readers for whom this is old news--told me today that "..the best [posts] are..gut-wrenchingly honest admissions of fault in some way.  What better way to say you're sorry, and provide an apology to a random person out there who so desperately needs an apology from another stranger?  It's closure for two unrelated [people} who happen to be reading the same website." 

How cool is that?  Sometimes our apologies are rejected, or they come too late.  Other times we wish we had been open to someone's reparations, but our hearts weren't ready.  Maybe reading the words we need from a stranger who has had a common experience can take us to a place where we can heal.

What we really want, according to Warren's anecdotal evidence, is someone who sees us for who we really are, secrets and all, and loves us anyway.  While there are many who claim cyberspace is dminishing our humanity, Postsecret provides plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Once you see it, you will find it very difficult to look away.    

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stories in a Distracted Age

"The internet has evolved a new species of magpie reader, gathering bright little buttons of shiny knowledge, before hopping on to the next shiny thing."  So writes Ben McIntyre in a recent article in The Times. In the essay entitled "The Internet is Killing Storytelling," McIntyre argues that stories are central to any evolved civilization, and that sustained narrative--central to which is plot--is lost in a culture where we are all pulled from second to second by Outlook, Tweets and texts.

As a reader, I like to think I am outside of this, but recently I read the forward Maggie Jackson's  Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark AgeIn it, Bill McKibben, who authored the forward, asks the reader when the last time was that he or she sat in a car without listening to the radio.  I tried hard to remember when I drove home without changing stations perpetually and stealing glances at my Blackberry.  As I write this blog, I have NPR on and am fielding questions about tomorrow night's fourth grade play and whether we should get New Moon tickets on-line for Friday night.  The dog is barking, and I haven't started dinner yet.  The sound of a new text popping up on that Blackberry makes me lunge for it--why are reactions to that noise a textbook case of conditioned response?  If Jackson's dark age is indeed approaching, I'll be a pioneer. 

But McIntyre's stance isn't all dark.  He writes that the human desire to hear a story will ultmately make us stop and listen.  While NPR is arguably part of old media, one of it's strengths is the story.  Try turning off the engine in the middle of This American Life.  The driveway moment, as NPR calls it, is what I believe will help it transform itself into a new media format.  Our house is wired, but we still love our books.  They give us an oasis of silence in a very noisy world. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Someday

On his blog The Someday Syndrome, Alex Fayle writes that the three things preventing us from reaching our goals are disinterest, inertia and fear.  To my mind, these are three increasingly pervasive levels of resisting change, since typically when we say we want to do something it's about changing ourselves: we want to be in better shape, save money, get a better job, move to our dream city. 

Disinterest is when we say we'd like to do something because we think others want to hear it.  We're going to apply to MBA school, maybe go after that promotion, start dating online.  When our heart isn't in it, we are just not going to do it. 

A journey of a thousand steps begins with one.  This is usually directed to people as an affirmation, but the truth is that the path of change is long and tedious. Overcoming inertia and altering one's lifestyle as far as, say. eating and spending (the things the vast majority of people say they want to change) means saying no to lots of little things every day. As any parent knows, it feels better to say yes than no.  But do it too often, and those affirmative answers will come back to bite you.

So inertia applies to routine things that are just unpleasant, which is of course subjective.  When I don't feel like cleaning out that closet or filling out any form or unloading the dishwasher--no idea why, but it's a task I put off routinely--I try to remind myself that I'll get rid of that nagging feeling and enjoy a brief moment of satisfaction.  Sometimes it works, but usually it's a deadline or the imminent arrival of houseguests that lights a fire under me.

Fear is the most resistant because it's what we're least likely to acknowledge.  People who've lost large amounts of weight and keep it off frequently say that they've only kept it off as a result of cognitive therapy, since the change in the way others react to them is a shock. They've always been the overweight, funny best friend, for example, rather than the hot guy.  When a guy like this meets a woman he likes, he might have a hard time understanding why she might want to date him, because his perception of himself is rooted in who he's always been, in his mind, rather than the new person he's become.  Sometimes that's so scary he just heads back to food, which not only comforts him but takes him back to his comfort zone of being the fat guy. (And yes, she should see his inner beauty, but the world is what it is.)  He knows being fit is better for his health and energy, but it's easier to go back to his old habits. Change means having the strength to move past perceptions of ourselves that prevent us from becoming who we dream of being.

Growth hurts and it's scary as hell.  That's why we talk about how we want to move to Paris or become a novelist or get rid of personal debt rather than just finding a practical way to do it. Twelve years ago, I got on a plane and moved to a new country, because I'd wanted to for a long time and the opportunity arose. A friend who'd already done it told me it would take two years to adjust, and she was right, not only about a big move but about any major life change.  Being in a completely new place means you lose your bearings.  Nobody knows your name or cares how they do things where you've come from, so don't bother telling them about it.  You need directions to the grocery store, or even the bathroom.  Often you feel very, very alone.  But that also means when you get there, you own it. As that same friend told me, "It's so hard and it takes a long time, but then you look back and you don't even know who that scared person was, because you've changed so much and you're proud you did what you said you were going to do."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Focus on What Matters

"Every task and project has consequences--but consequences don't matter in and of themselves.  What matters is how much those consequences mean to us....If something doesn't mean anything to you, then regardless of how important it is to others, how impressive it may be or how important it may have been in the past, it may be time to let it go."

--from How to Focus on What Truly Matters, November 13, 2009 post by guest blogger Sid Savara on Zen Habits.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Home, Part II

When friends stop by my house, especially if it's during the day and when I am on my own, the word they use to describe my living room is "peaceful."  The beautiful elementary school my children have attended is across the street, and my front window directly faces the original part of the building, which was constructed in 1922.  In my foyer, I have a lovely little picture window and the branches of a flowering tree fall partially into view, so that for much of the warm months I see pink blossoms and now, in the autumn, shades of yellow and orange. 

My home is a refuge from a rather frenetic life.  My commute to work is an hour each way, and my job is what most people would consider challenging, although I am certainly not curing any diseases or changing any lives.  My children keep me busy, though this phase of parenting seems mostly about driving them from place to place. 

The small things make my house feel this way.   Although most of my home decor comes from Target and Ikea, it's carefully chosen.  (My daughter tells me I veer into an overabundance of red in my living room, but I have to do something to overcome the bland carpet my landlady installed too many years ago. Plus red makes me happy.)  When flowers are on sale at Central Market, I buy the yellow ones and put them in a beautiful crystal vase.  My bedroom has nice linens.  I have fluffy white towels and launder them every couple of days.  I buy wine that costs ten dollars instead of six, and I cook a good meal every evening I am home. 

For many people, these are extravagances, but in my defense I call upon Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.  One of Gretchen's rules for happiness is this:  what you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while.  Having a comfortable home with some nice things--and I pick and choose according to what I really care about rather than spending for instant gratification--gives me a space where I can regenerate.  Yes, I could save more money, but I'm not in debt and I have a decent cushion financially, though I don't have a title on a house.  I do my best to walk the line of responsibility while still finding ways to make life delicious.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Slowing Down

I started running when I was fifteen, motivated by a group of interesting people in my tiny hometown.  They were professionals, mostly in their thirties, and I looked at them as the kind of people I hoped to someday become.  But I didn't have a lot of confidence in my athletic ability.  I'd been the tiny girl picked last in gym for dodgeball, volleyball and pretty much every other game.  So I started running after school in November, and used the early dark (yes, where I grew up the sky grows black around 4 as winter approaches) to pick up the habit without embarassing myself. 

That spring I ran my first 10K race, and felt like I'd found something I could do.  It didn't involve coordination or strength, just determination.  I lost weight and got plenty of compliments, but for me the real thrill came from feeling like I was tougher than most people: I could go out and run eight or ten miles when it was twenty below.  Okay, so maybe I was a little crazy, but it was where I first understood the warm glow of smug superiority, not to mention how great an endorphin high feels.  I put my head down and went as hard as I could (was there another way?) and ended up with a persistent stress fracture in my first year at university.  I had a bone removed from my foot, and decided I wasn't destined to be an athlete after all. 

Maybe because I grew up in a place where there wasn't a gym, I shied away from joining one.  I became a mom and a walker, and it kept me fit enough.  Then my son decided to run a 5K with his school team, and I thought, for this, maybe I can run again. It felt amazing to propel my body forward at speed again.  But after a couple of months, my Achilles tendon bothered me quite a lot and, long story short, has continued to do so for over a year. In an effort to keep up a serious level of fitness, I broke down and joined a gym, got on the dreaded machines, and then discovered through my facility I could access treatment for my injury as well.

What did I learn from my physiotherapy sessions?  That I needed to do all those core moves I'd avoided forever.  But most important, I must be mindful about my form--in putting my head down and going as hard as I could, I wasn't thinking about using the major muscles that keep our bodies stable--to keep from getting hurt.  So going like hell without thinking about it isn't going to take me where I want to go, which is to be fit until the end of my life. 

This life I live like a race.  So many of us do, and yet we never feel like we get to the finishline.  Last weekend I ran a very slow six miles, but I did so paying attention to my posture and my breathing.  It was really hard work.  Not physical pain, because using the proper form means I can run fairly fast without killing myself.  But the idea that I have to slow down and think is really, really difficult.  This seems to be a lesson I must learn again and again.  But when I got home?  No pain. 

Now I am intrigued by the idea that slow get me back to a serious level of fitness, at least as base training. In today's Globe and Mail, there is the first Article in a series by reporter David Ebner, where he learns that training slow might eventually pay off.  He is two months away from a backcountry ski trip that will last six days.  Translation from Canadian:  he will basically climb Whistler Mountain in a week.  If he thinks slow works, maybe I need to tell my Type A brain to give it a rest, too. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Readers

On a blog called Read All Day, a former environmental lawyer named Nina Sankovich writes a review of the book she's read in the past twenty-four hours. There are a lot of posts--she's made it through one every day of 2009 so far, and plans to do the same through December 31.

At a dinner party last week, I brought the topic up, and we agreed that would be a bit much for any of us. Yet I realized that everyone at the party was a serious reader, and when I thought about it afterwards it occurred to me that almost all of the people I like to be around are readers. We talked about our book habits. A couple have electronic readers, but only use them when they travel. We all agreed we enjoyed the tactile sense of turning a page made of paper, although there was divergent opinion about whether we could read a newspaper on-line. This is the only way I read news, mostly because it's faster, which arguably isn't a good thing at all, but I read widely and feel my universe is larger because I gather information this way rather than leafing through the local paper with my coffee in the morning.

Afterwards, I wondered what percentage of American adults actually read books. In my research, I found a 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts which contained a survey showing that readers of literature had fallen below 50 percent. The NEA proclaimed it a crisis. Think about it: in 2004, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. A good many of the heavy users of these have taken time away from television, but more than likely it's further eroded, probably drastically, the numbers of people who sit quietly with a book.

Does this mean the demise of our culture? I'd like to think not. Yesterday Penelope Trunk argued on her blog, Brazen Careerist, that the Internet is creating a generation of good writers, mostly because the kind of writing younger people do--Facebook and Twitter posts, for example--is for an audience, and one with a short attention span. Brevity is key if they want to get people's attention. And they read a lot on-line, although not traditional material. But to say they don't trade ideas may just be, to borrow a baby boomer phrase, a manifestation of a generation gap.

I am passionate about books, and my house has plenty of them. Yet I don't subscribe to any print publications. I regularly hit on a half-dozen blogs and digital news outlets a day, and listen to podcasts from my favorite NPR shows because my life is too packed to remember to catch them when they are on. I'm on Facebook, and obviously I am a blogger. So the two worlds are not mutually exclusive.

This week my son finished a History Fair project on William Shakespeare, and we talked about how some stories have pretty serious staying power, if they are told very well. And he, like his older sister, has caught the reading bug in fourth grade, to his mother's great delight. Last night we sat in companionable silence, all three of us, our noses in books until we stopped to proclaim some insight we'd gleaned. I got tired and got them off to their rooms. Mom, my son asked, how long can I stay up and read? As long as you want, buddy, as long as you want.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Referendum


On my usual Sunday call today with my parents, they mentioned they'd been at the Liquor Store (in Canada, this is a government entity, so there is only one retailer of hard booze; the current name is an improvement on the original, which can only be temperance-based or deeply Socialist: The Liquor Control Board of Ontario) near their house, and they ran into a guy who works there and recognized them because he'd gone to high school with me.

I've lived more lives than I care to contemplate since high school, and when they described him I had only the vaguest recollection of who he was. Laughing, I said, imagine, I could have dated him and now I'd be married to the guy who works at the Liquor Store. Well, they responded, in Canada it's a great job, and he'll have an excellent pension. Okay, then.

In a recent article (yes, in the Times again, but for the record I read a lot of other things, too) cartoonist and writer Tim Krieder talks about something he's dubbed The Referendum: "..a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers' differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt."

Krieder writes that looking at our peers' choices is the the closest we can get to a glimpse of the roads not taken. He is a middle-aged man who has never been married, never had children--nor the desire for them, he makes clear. Most of the marriages he sees would, he says, have him discreetly hanging himself within twenty minutes.

A bit over the top, but I get what he means. Having been married for a long time, much of it quite unhappily, I now see plenty of unions that have a familiar glint of misery to them, though certainly I see a good many that have weathered time well. The vast majority of people in my demographic are married, and that makes me feel on occasion rather a square peg. But often there is also a little envy on their part. It may be because they imagine the life of a single person to be full of adventure--an idea a single person of any age or gender could disabuse them of over of the course of a single drink--but also because I have, at least every other week, a space that is strictly mine, and at least some leisure time that is mine to spend exactly as I please.

As time goes on, I wonder if I really ever want to give up this rather lovely life I've carved out for myself. As I write this, I am in my relatively small but serviceable kitchen, cooking an organic chicken I paid too much for and then seasoned in a way that I like. This morning I took a two-hour walk, then ate leftovers from a fantastic chowder I made yesterday. Then I went to my daughter's soccer game. After that I went and bought a pair of boots I've been deliberating over for a week or two, and in the course of that trip I ran into two of my good friends, one of whom I saw at dinner and a play only a couple of days ago. And now I am listening to Diana Krall and looking around my comfortable, orderly house, where everything is as I wish it. I don't have to negotiate with anyone about money, laundry, dinner, in-laws, or who took out the bloody trash bins.

Of course I have moments where I wish for a spouse--not just when there is a crisis, or at a school play when everyone but me seems to be paired off in happy families--but in odd moments, like when I am on my way home from a party and wish I had someone with whom to compare notes, or on a Friday night when I've had a productive week at work and want to share my trivial victories.

Should this person ever arrive (and if he does I may ask him to keep his own house so we can still like each other as time goes by) he must be: smarter than me, take care of himself, adore me, do something he cares about most days, and still be curious and adventurous no matter what he's experienced to make him feel the contrary. It would be nice if he loves New York and Paris, but these are negotiable. Because if he loves me, he'll encourage me to go on my own and listen to my stories when I get home.

In the meantime, I am going to enjoy the life I have because it's mine. And I like it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leaping

The NY Times website has a preview today of the Sunday Styles section--go to the Fashion and Style section on the site.

Ann Hood's essay is entitled "To Nuture Again, With Courage." After losing a child to a sudden illness, the author and her husband adopt another, and Hood articulates beautifully how we must overcome fear in order to love fully. Read it, but close your office door. This essay stopped my heart.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Community Ties

Last week I walked a mile and a half with my fourth grader for a Walk-A-Thon for his school. All six hundred kids donned their red school shirts, and they, their teachers and a good number of us parents did the same. It was one of those fall days in North Texas when the sky is so blue it hurts, and we walked through a neighborhood of houses with graceful lines from the 1920s and 1930s. As has happened to me before, I felt like I was in a Norman Rockwell painting--with multicultural bent, I must mention--because we have a very special place in a school where a good many kids can walk there, and because the event reminded me that the school is part of the broader community. Given that on four days out of five someone is parked across my driveway (I live across the street from the school) when I need to leave for work, it's a good thing I love the place so much.

At any rate, it didn't just feel good: the school raised more than twenty thousand dollars through donations, and we all went out and enjoyed a bit of exercise. It reminded me that once upon a time I was really involved in my broader community: I got to Fort Worth and, having been gainfully employed and now finding myself at home with a toddler, I immediately sought out a non-profit that I might do some things for. I found The Parenting Center and went on to write a monthly column in a local parenting magazine, taught some classes, and then, when I became a full-fledged professional again, ended up serving on the board.

Then I went to work in Dallas. In addition to the distance--about 40 miles--there is a huge cultural difference between Fort Worth and its fancy pants Big City counterpart to the east. Finding volunteer opportunities there is an unpalatable option to say the least. The time commitment has made it easy to pass off my lack of engagement in my home city as a natural thing, and since I am a single mom I can easily beg off, but I still wish I could find the time to be involved. And yet not really.

Being really, really involved in community projects means you are incredibly engaged in your local world. When I was a teenager, my father was adamant that I do something the community, because in his volunteer experience, he got much more than he gave. Happiness studies tell us that we are better off when we feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and of course doing communuity work takes us out of our self-involved little minds. But here's the rub: once word gets out who we are and that we can be effective volunteers, the requests keep coming.

So what's better, from the standpoint of personal happiness? If we put ourselves out there, we get that nice feeling that we belong, that maybe as part of something bigger we can make the world a little better than how we found it. But then we find ourselves in the position of saying no an awful lot, which makes most of us feel badly, even if we understand intellectually that there is only so much we can do. I do what I can for my children's school, although clearly the bulk of the work there is carried out by the parents (and let's face it, they are mostly moms) who don't work outside the home. Guilt is a useless emotion, yet there it is again.

When that voice in my head tells me I'm not doing enough, I respond in the following way: when I get past the intense years of child-rearing and that my work life is ramping down rather than up I can find a way again of making a contribution and engaging in a world beyond my office walls.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Twelve-Year Old Self

My friend Julia found a set of questions--I know not where--to designed to generate discussion. These were better than the usual ice-breaker things I have seen in the past, and did in fact generate some discussion in her chosen group via email and in person, especially when a little wine and good food was involved.

The one that gave me most pause was this: if you could take your twelve year-old self to lunch, what would she or he think of you and the way your life has turned out? Perhaps it's that I've reached middle age and I also have children around this age, but I had to really consider this idea.

My young self was living in a microscopic town in the Canadian hinterland and didn't know much beyond Friday night hockey nights, but she was lucky enough to be considered a "good kid" who babysat for people with university degrees and a world view outside the mypopia of life in a sleepy berg. (When I moved to bigger cities, I was shocked to meet people whose views were just as provincial, and realized that keeping the circle small allows most people to feel they belong, not to mention to keep tabs on where exactly they stand in the social pecking order.) But she was a practical girl and looked to the immediate next steps. I got the best grades I could, and managed to get into my dream school, Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, which was only three hours away but might as well have been on another planet, since I was surrounded by kids from fancy Toronto prep schools whose fathers were diplomats and investment bankers.

It was my first experience with imposter symdrome, and overcoming it has served me well, since I've been able to scale the kind of career cliff I'd imagined, although I thought in those days that I'd be working in some sort of industry like publishing. I thank my lucky stars I didn't end up in that racket and therefore likely unemployed, but I did wind up working with really smart people from around the world and get to use my mind most days, so that's worked out rather well.

What else would my adolescent self asked me about? The fact that I'd gotten to Texas would have floored her, as it still does my older self at times. Where I'd traveled to would impress her, although I feel my two trips to Europe and most of the major cities in the US are pretty standard for most people I now know. I would be sure to tell her should time and money allow in the future, I've vowed to go further afield, and that she should do so before doing what is expected of her gets in the way.

She would also wonder about my romantic life and if I'd had a family. She envisioned a big life in work and then marriage much later, to an older man who would have already had a family. (I don't think she'd worked through how complicated this might be, but she thought of him as relatively unfettered and supportive of her work and intellect, a dream to be sure and not one I've yet to realize.) To know she had children might have horrified her early feminist sensibilities, although I could certainly assure her that it was the most satisfying thing I'd found to do.

She might also wonder if what I was doing made the world better in any way. Here I would express regret and urge her to do more. When I worked for a smaller company here in Fort Worth, I had time for volunteer commitments, but when I got into the global world and started commuting back and forth to Dallas (at least six hours a week on the road) it fell off my schedule. It's not that I feel guilty, exactly, but that I miss feeling I am part of my community. My children's school gives me a lot of that, but I don't do nearly enough to keep up my ties here. So what I would say is, figure out what you care about, and find the time to do it. You will get more from it than you give.

It's a good question for those of us who have become, in our minds, who we are: what did we expect to be, and have we achieved it? For me, the answer is almost all yes, although it reminds me how much more I have left to experience and learn.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Last Chances

This holiday weekend I found myself knocked out with a cold and wasn't up for much beyond a movie and a good read. The movie I chose, Last Chance Harvey, and the novel I was finishing, That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo, turned out to have a lot in common.

Both protaganists are men of a certain age, and they have reached a time of reckoning. It sneaks up on them. Both have complicated relationships with the women in their lives. For Harvey Shine, played by Dustin Hoffman, it's his daughter he doesn't quite know how to relate to. For Jack Griffin in Russo's novel, his mother makes his life difficult, both when she's alive and even once she's not.

Hoffman's Harvey has had opportunities to succeed in life, yet he seems to always be getting in his own way. He arrives in London for the wedding of his daughter, Susan, and turns up at the rehearsal dinner in the wrong suit and spends much of the evening trying in vain to salvage a project at work, where's he's been told he's at the end of the line. The reunion between he and Susan is touching but painful--they both love each other and want desperately to reconnect but there is so much distance between them that it's almost impossible. When Harvey sees his former wife and her new husband acting as a family unit with Susan and her husband to be, he feels as though he has no business being there at all. The parallel plot of the life of Kate Walker--played by Emma Thompson--intersects with Harvey's at various points in the film, and finally they converse at length and find themselves changed. Kate helps Harvey to finally take action to repair his bond with his daughter, and in turn he helps her open herself up to possibility again, even if he falters at some points. Kate sums up her life and her reaction to him when she says, "It's just that I'm so accustomed to disappointment. I guess I'm angry with you for trying to take that away from me."

As for Jack Griffin, his story begins and ends with weddings, with the year between them almost doing him in. As he returns to Cape Cod, he is flooded with memories of visiting there each summer with his parents, who are the sort of people who should have never had a child. His father is an emotional teenager who takes out his rage at his overbearing, narcissistic wife by becoming a serial adulterer. While it hurts her, she gets even, and then some. Young Jack is the real casualty in this drama. Although he outwardly deals with his mother with humor and perspective and even manages to intellectualize the most painful parts of his childhood, when his father dies he loses his bearings. His wife, Joy, is from the opposite kind of family: he is an only child, while she one of five; his parents are liberal academics who move around constantly, while hers are bedrock Republicans who live in a gated community. He is attracted to her stability, but eventually resents her for what he perceives as a fixed view of the way their lives should be lived, and things unravel quickly.

Both Jack and Harvey are outsiders. We don't know exactly why Harvey is so, although it's painfully clear from the first scene that he is always a beat off, and his spotty career as a studio musician serves as a perfect metaphor. As for Jack, he is a bit player in the grander story of his parents' marriage, which for all its flaws is still the most important narrative in both of their lives, far exceeding any interest they have in their son. Both protaganists spend a tremendous amount of time inside their own heads, and it's not until they turn outwards that either of them have any hope of finding their way. Both stories are difficult to experience, yet in the end they demonstrate we can all find our way back to what matters if we are brave enough to try.

Bar Food

In this month's issue of Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten, the magazine's food editor, writes about the virtues of eating at a bar. Not a beer and a shot bar, but at the bars in some of the best restaurants in New York. Although Steingarten professes to have disliked bars in the past (as a result, I find it difficult to take him seriously as a journalist of any sort, but he does write awfully well about food) he decided to tackle the project in the spirit of the economic moment, although eating upscale food and washing it down with single-malt scotch in Manhattan restaurants isn't exactly what most of us call slumming.

In the years since I started traveling for business on my own, I have become a great fan of eating at the bar. Before this, I don't suppose I had ever been in a bar all by myself, but I wasn't going to fritter away an evening in a new city with room service. Sitting at the bar made me feel less conspicuous than at a table alone, and usually bartenders are interesting and like talking to patrons. I've also learned since that it's a great way to eat at places where reservations are hard to come by. So here are a few of my favorites.

Bistrot Zinc, Chicago. This is a lovely little spot on State Street just far enough from the tourist and shopping area known as the Miracle Mile. On the July day I visited, the front windows had been thrown open and there was a perfect breeze. I arrived after the lunch rush and a long morning of walking the city. I'd bought something to read at the bookstore across the street, and took up a stool at the very pretty bar, covered in decorative tin. I enjoyed a glass of Sancerre and a sandwich of sliced leg of lamb with some lovely aioli, homemade mayonaise, and listened to bits of conversation that floated my way while I read. The bartender kept a respectful distance, as I think it was clear I was enjoying my reprieve from the rush of a Saturday in a big city.

Sapristi, Fort Worth. This is a neighborhood spot in a strip mall that between the food, decor and staff manages to conjure up Northern France. The space has expanded in the past couple of years, but before that it was difficult to get a table on a weekend evening, so I wound up sitting there more than a couple of times. (Note to single women: the dates who went there with me always seemed impressed that I wanted to sit at the bar. I think they took it as a mark of a low-maintenance woman.) I still often will grab a stool if I am only with one friend, because the full menu is available--even though I always have the same thing, the yellow mussels--and because the staff is friendly and very knowledgable about the excellent wine list. Full disclosure: John, the sommolier, dates a good friend of mine. But even before I knew him, I always enjoyed what he recommended and liked his unpretentious manner.

Lupa, Soho, New York. On my first visit, I was with my friend Julia, and we had a marvelous lunch that more than put back all of the calories we'd burned off walking in Soho, which is one of my all-time happy places. The wine recommended by the fashionably rumpled waiter with the British accent (who managed to make us feel like he would have been even more condescending had we not been so charming and attractive, quite a gift I must say) was outstanding, and the veal and wilted greens I had were simple and perfect. On my next visit I was in town to work, squeezing in a late lunch before running back to prepare for an event later that night. I sat at the bar that day and ate and drank just as well, and also got to enjoy conversation with the young woman behind the bar, who didn't make me weak at the knees but was friendly and highly enthusiastic about the menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner.

The Setai, South Beach, Miami. This hotel is a restored Art Deco building on Collins Avenue and looks unassuming from the outside. It was the tiny plaque that designates it as one of the "Great Hotels of the World" that drew my friend Tammy and I in out of a rainstorm one afternoon. One look at the hushed, dark, Japanese style lobby and bar and we vowed to come back before dinner that night. We ended up eating some appetizers at the bar, where the chisel-featured bartender from Rhode Island told us that rooms start at $550 a night, and that for those of us who don't need complete privacy the bar is the best part of the place. We got out of there for thirty bucks, but felt like we'd had an authentic look into how The Beautiful People live when they visit South Beach.

Lonesome Dove, Fort Worth. Again, this is in my hometown, but it is also home to Chef Tim Love, whose celebrity is well-justified. It is far and away my favorite place to eat here, although the cost and half-hour drive mean I only get there once or twice a year. It's always hard to get a table without a reservation, and I have found that eating at the bar with a friend or two means not only getting to eat whatever is on the menu--try the kangaroo nachos and the wild rabbit--but also a great conversation with patrons from out of town. The Stockyards is a destination, and Lonesome Dove is where people who know about really amazing, five-star food in a relaxed setting. The bar is dark and rustic while still elegant, and the cowboys in starched shirts and pressed Wranglers usually have some oil in their backyards if they can afford it. It's Cowtown perfection.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Dead Beat

When my parents sit down in the morning to read the newspaper, the first thing my Dad looks at is the sports page; my mom's first look is at the obituaries. She grew up in the Ottawa Valley, where everyone knows everyone, and most people of her age consider it incredibly poor form to miss a death and to not send a note to the family. My Dad and I of course have given her much grief over the years, but her habit has rather taken hold of me, although, I confess, really only for people I don't know but know about.

There have been some really significant deaths of late. In addition to Michael Jackson (a topic I'll not deal with here) there have been journalists--Don Hewitt and Walter Cronkite--as well as that of a political icon. Despite some pretty lurid episodes in his past, Ted Kennedy did live to respectable age and died in what can only be called a dignified way, so the tabloids have pretty much stayed away.

But John Broder wrote a beautiful, balanced piece about Kennedy last Wednesday, and one of the paragraphs absolutely took my breath away, because he captured his subject in the space of three sentences:


"He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life,instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy figure who perserved, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy."

If you were not a fan of the late Senator, this might seem a bit over the top, but it is a perfectly crafted paragraph. In her enormously entertaining book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries, Marilyn Johnson compares the obit to the Haiku. There are expectations of the writer--the facts, for one--but Johnson argues that the form imposed on writers makes the obituary the most creative of all reporting. She loves the English, especially, and at one point on a visit to London holes up in her hotel room with a stack of papers so she can read about who died the day before.

It sounds morbid, but it's not. We all get there eventually, and obits are how we will be remembered. Reading many of them makes one realize what kinds of things are important. In terms of our choice of work, it had best have a purpose, at least for ourselves but better if it's for others also. Our family is most of what we leave behind and is comprised, unless we are a lion of the Senate or a rock star, of the people who usually get to write it, so we had better get along with them. Although Mom is practicing good manners, she also gets something: it's not that life is short, but that we're dead for so long. And the obit is pretty much the last word, so what goes into it is pretty darned important.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Language

My daughter started seventh grade yesterday and was thrilled to see she'd gotten into the French class she had requested as an elective. Today she had her first class and determined the teacher to be "awesome." This pronouncement no doubt derives to some degree from the fact that most of today's time was devoted to a discussion of the class trip to Paris in March. I can certainly understand this. If someone spent a half hour telling me about what we would be doing in Paris for a week, I'd probably be ready to marry him before the bell rang.

But then I've already been there a couple of times, although alas the last was two decades ago. At that point, I was unquestionably going to be heading back for many visits in the next twenty years, although I hadn't quite worked out how I was going to do so in between being a good wife, having babies and making a living. So instead I get to anticipate the trip with my daughter, who is really excited about learning the language beyond the basics she picked up last year. This really is as much fun as thinking about going back myself.

My own experience with the French language wasn't in a classroom but in my front yard when I was preschooler trying to make friends. In those days there weren't playdates--you played with whatever kid was around on your street, and on my street in Eastern Ontario pretty much everyone was speaking French, so I learned it without really thinking about it and now it's a part of my brain, so I am quite lucky.

On the rare occasions when I actually hear French spoken, when I visit my parents in Ottawa or at home in Texas--never in Fort Worth, but every once in a while when I am in a particularly tony spot in Dallas--I understand it perfectly. But last spring at a company meeting in Atlanta, there were a couple of Belgian lawyers at a cocktail party who were determined to get me to speak it, and I was paralyzed by a fear of making a mistake. Likewise when a friend took me to a lovely party in Chicago to meet the parents of her children's classmates at the Lycee Francaise. Now I get to practice it with my daughter, and won't worry about being perfect, but it's occurred to me that I do need to get comfortable with it again, just in case there is an explosion of Francophile culture in Cowtown.

The Alliance Francaise has great programs and classes in cities in almost every state in the US, as well as in 137 other countries. The cost is reasonable, but for me to get someplace once a week for an hour regularly is not really a possibility with full-time work and two kids. But I've decided I might download some lessons from iTunes or maybe go to Half-Price Books and pick up some audio lessons to brush up during my two hour commute.

If I were really practical, I'd learn Spanish, which clearly would serve me much better in Texas than would French. But that seems like the linguistic equivalent of eating my peas and carrots. I'd rather have some smelly, politically incorrect foie gras.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Big Night

Last night two delightful women friends and I ate at an upscale place that popped up in our neighborhood a year or so ago, and enjoyed some beautifully prepared fish. In pursuit of something a little more exciting afterwards, we headed downtown, which was pretty quiet at 11:00 (we hear things start hopping later, but we need our sleep) so we headed to a local wine bar for a nightcap. I enjoyed my first glass of Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, all that it is cracked up to be. On the television above the bar, the film Big Night was playing. I hadn't seen it in years, and it was on mute, but I'd been thinking about it recently because Stanley Tucci, who wrote the screenplay and also stars and directs, charmed me so in Julie and Julia only a few weeks ago. It's about brothers who own a trattoria in New York in the 1950s, and they are trying to keep their enterprise afloat through whatever means possible, even if it means violating the principles of at least one of them at any given moment. It culminates in a huge, decadent dinner.

Which got me thinking about dinner parties. I saw a good number of long-time friends over the summer, and I remembered one of the things I really love about them: they have dinner parties often. They don't worry themselves silly about whether the house is immaculate or what kind of table linens they'll use, but they say, "Hey, I was thinking we'd invite the Smiths and the Tannenbaums over tomorrow night..what do you think?" And they pick up the phone and, not surprisingly, people accept, and everyone has a lovely evening.

I used to do this sort of thing when I was a married person. We had many memorable meals--several people have confided recently they wish my former husband and I were still married if only for his divine chimichurri steak sauce--generally washed down with lots of decent wine. There was great conversation and inevitably a marital argument the next day over who did more work and who took whom for granted.

Despite this last bit, I realized this summer that I miss having people over to eat. So what's stopping me? Well, someone to bounce things off of, for one. Not to mention someone to do part of the work. This is, however, as my friend Julia would say, crap. I've got plenty of people who would be happy to come over and set a table or pick out wine or shop with me for ingredients. So it's time for me to get past the idea that because I don't have a spouse (the truth is I fear having a dinner party throws my very much alone status into high relief) and have a tiny house that I can't entertain. The other stumbling block,though, is that I have a lot of friends, more than I can sit down in my house at one go. So this may be a series of dinners. Stay tuned, and feel free to send any menu ideas you've got.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Beyond Perfectionism

What's the difference between high standards and unhealthy perfectionism? We all get messages every day that it's an ideal worth working for. Perfect attendance in school! You'll get an award. Get a bikini body! Men will fall at your feet. Have a living room that gets into Architectural Digest, and you have made it. After years of struggling with perfectionism, life has taught me that achieving it is not only impossible, it actually gets in the way of meeting high standards.

You stay in your comfort zone. When articulating their beliefs, perfectionists frequently say that if they can't be the best at something, they don't see a point in doing it at all. This fear of failure--by which a perfectionist means making a mistake of any sort--keeps them from becoming good at much of anything, which one can only do when one accepts that failure makes the best teacher and that what matters is how you get back up.

Nothing gets done. I work in business development for lawyers, and they have been trained to believe mistakes are lethal. Which, if they are writing a contract or trying a case, is true. But if they overthink a webinar presentation or a client alert, the latest issue of importance gets addressed by the competition. Many of us end up paralyzed on day-to-day decisions for fear we'll make a mistake. Not doing anything is in fact a decision. Ask the IRS.

Perfectionism is the enemy of self-discipline. I haven't been to the gym in three days, I've blown the week, so I won't go today, either. I'm not posting more than twice a week, so I'm just going to quit blogging. Even though we might say we're giving up because we aren't doing something well, it's important to ask ourselves if it's really that, or if it's just easier to quit.

You hate yourself. So, telling yourself you are fat and lazy might get you out of bed and to the gym, but only for a little while. Using this tactic only makes you feel rotten, which makes people around you feel rotten, which makes them relate unfavorably to you. That makes you feel even worse. Which makes you not want to get out of bed and get on that treadmill. It's just not a sustainable strategy.

Perfectionism is seductive because we think it makes us more attractive to other people. But in fact it makes them like us less. I once took a personality quiz that told me, "Even your best friends sometimes would like to see you trip and fall or wear the wrong thing to a party." Really I was just trying to quiet that critical voice in my head, which is much harder on me than any external influence, but I see now I probably had that effect on people.

Then my life felt like it was blowing apart and I had wonderful friends who were there for me when I was a complete mess. And I realized they didn't care how clean I kept my kitchen or whether or not I remembered to wear lipstick. They told me I had resilience and sense of humor. When my critical voice gets loud now, I call a friend and ask them how they are doing. Because the best way out of perfectionism is to remember it's not all about me.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On The Media

George F. Will has many fans, but apparently he doesn't drink wine with any of them. Although he is pithy during the Sunday morning roundtables, he does get to write a proper column of 750 words. I, on the other hand, have been asked by two of my readers to make my posts shorter. Oh, and to be funny. Well, not bloody likely on the latter, but I'll do my best on the former, since I am not the national treasure the Bow-Tied One is, although I am sure such a characterization would elicit a wry denial from him. A pithy phrase, I have no doubt.

So, a recommendation. My very favorite National Public Radio show is On The Media. It's criticism in the traditional sense of the word, in that it takes apart the big machine feeding all of us information 24/7. It doesn't make fun of media, although the host, Bob Garfield, whose official bio states that he is "...not a media whore, though he is quite promiscuous," is hilarious. The most interesting bits, at least for me, are those speculating on the new media model. One thing is for sure, from listening to OTM and from reading Garfield's book (the first several chapters of which are not incidentally available for free online) the Chaos Scenario, is that print media, radio and television, at least as we know them now, will soon be gone for good. NPR included, he does not hestiate to write.

So, if you haven't stopped reading because you've skipped over to You Tube and are watching Miley Cyrus pole dance for the hundredth time, have a look at http://www.onthemedia.org/. Download a podcast and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Home

A cool family we know from the neighborhood is renovating a Craftsman bungalow on a nearby street. The house is lovely and it is really more of a restoration. The other night my daughter and I ducked in through the not-locked front door (we knew they wouldn't mind) and I nearly wept at the beauty of it, mostly because I had a moment where I thought how much I'd love to own it, but knowing I can't possibly afford it, or at least that the opportunity cost wouldn't be worth it. It made me think again about what home means, and that led me to a delicious little book by Julia Reed.

The House on First Street is about Reed's "homecoming" to New Orleans. She grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, but her memories of becoming a grownup are from crazy roadtrips to the city. For the first time in her adult life, she starts to get settled. At forty-two, she marries for the first time, after having what sounds like a pretty good time. The first weekend of Jazzfest in 2003, she went to her favorite city: "It was not much different from any other really fun, fairly debauched weekend I'd spent in New Orleans, except that by the time it was over I'd fallen, hard, for a man I knew I shouldn't have. At one of the wild parties, I heard myself saying I was coming back in the summer to cover what promised to be a historic governor's race. It was three o'clock in the morning, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true."

So she does, but then the affair and the campaign end, and somehow she winds up with a very nice husband, whom she is finally sensible enough to adore. They find an old gem of a house that's endured a partial and very bad renovation, and start work to get it where Reed wants it to be. Since she's been carrying around fabric swatches and paint color names for two decades, she's pretty specific about what she wants, though frustratingly romantic about it all. The contractor she decides is cool turns out to be, not surprisingly, completely inept and then, a couple of months and only partway through, Hurricaine Katrina hits.

Then someone who really hasn't put down roots in her adult life, having lived in New York but never really feeling like she wanted to stay, having rented places all over New Orleans but not ever getting involved in her community, has to make a choice. She decides this is home and throws herself into it in the only way she knows how: with food. She buys barbeque for 800 National Guard without regard to the cost (were that we could all be so generous, but evidently they appreciated it); participates with gusto in every restaurant re-opening in the Quarter; and holds a huge Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family only weeks after Katrina. She remembers the details of every decadent meal, complete with which wines she drank, and it's a delight to be with her. To say Reed writes with a sense of place is a vast understatement, for she loves her city like a person and lets us peer into a window on her life.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Heat

A movie based on a book about cooking is getting huge coverage these days, and I have plans to go and see it tomorrow with my friend and neighbor Judy, a food lover and an accomplished cook and cookbook writer herself. I've not read Julie & Julia yet, but the hype around it has reminded me of a couple of books about cooking that I enjoyed enormously.

The first, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School, is by Kathleen Flinn, who was also inspired by Julia Child. When she found herself suddenly jobless in London, she was encouraged by the man who would become her husband to pursue her dream of following Child's path to the Cordon Bleu in Paris. (For some reason, all of these women who write of their dreams to cook have wonderful men in their lives.) In addition to recipes at the end of most chapters, it's a great peek inside the acclaimed school, and the institution's adherence to classic French cooking--try pigs' trotters glazed handmade foie gras on toast--is admirable in the face of food trends that come and go. Then again, they are the French.

Even better is Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. As the breathless subtitle suggests, it's a wild ride, beginning with Buford cooking, not terribly well, for a a friend's birthday party when he learns that one of his guests will be the famous chef of Babbo. As Julia Reed writes in her fabulous May 2006 review in the New York Times, when Batali arrives at Buford's apartment, he is "toting an armload of wine, homemade grappa and lardo, strips rich of pork fat he's cured himself and that he lays directly onto the tongues of guests. By the end of the evening he's playing air guitar and trying unsuccessfully to salsa with women who can no longer stand up." Buford ends up working in the kitchen at Babbo. Batali proves to be a lot less fun as a boss than as a party guest, but Buford emerges from that experience and three years in a trattoria in Italy a cook first and a writer second, although he is highly gifted as the latter. After making his way through a lot of Tuscan women, he then meets his wife. It's just a great story with characters who are stranger than fiction.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Averted Vision

"In 1996 I rode the circus train to Mexico City, where I lived for a month pretending to be someone's husband. (Don't ask.)" So begins a post by Tim Krieder today in Happy Days, the New York Times website's blog dedicated to perspectives on happiness. Krieder is a political cartoonist. He is also a gifted writer who spins the stuff of life into gold. This post is lovely and makes me want to lock myself in a garret until I learn to craft decent prose.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learning to be a Travel Companion

I've been in Chicago for nearly a week. Although it's not my first trip, it is for my children. They are almost thirteen and nine, and, as time goes on, they teach me more than I teach them. I've learned as much about myself this visit as I have about the wonderful city we're experiencing.

We started off in Evanston, seeing a dear friend of mine who was my housemate in university some two decades ago. She and her husband and two young daughters have made a lovely life in that beautiful town on the North Shore. We have been here during the most perfect week of the summer--Chamber of Commerce weather, my friend's neighbor called it--and spent our first days on the beach and having dinner outside. The kids also went to an (indoor) swimming lesson and later, ice-skating of all things. It was my younger child's first experience, and he says he's not sure about it, although he had fun.

We got to the city and arrived at an apartment in Wicker Park, generously loaned to us through a connection from my parents. It's a perfect spot in what I think of as an ideal urban neighborhood. We've travelled to the Magnificent Mile and to Lincoln Park and made a quick trip to Hyde Park to the Museum of Science and Industry.

What have I determined from our few days? First, watching my kids and my long-time friends interact is even better than I imagined. My friend adores my children, and they feel the same for her. I love watching her daughters, though they are younger and so a little more shy with me than mine are with her. But they love playing with my kids, and hearing their laughter drift through the kitchen screen door was delightful.

I've also seen how my travel style isn't for everyone. I like to think I roll pretty well when I am on trips, but now I see I tend to cram in more than the average person might enjoy. As I said to my son, "When you grow up in a series of boring small towns, a place like Chicago is more thrilling for you than for other people." My kids live in a perfectly nice town of about a million people, and they have grown up knowing good grocery stores and great works of art around the corner, so they don't feel the push I do to make the most of every visit to a major metropolis. Consequently, they also don't understand my enjoyment of walking for six or more hours a day to Enjoy the City. I've spent a little more than expected on cabs as a result.

When I relax, good surprises happen. Today we wanted to get to the museum in Hyde Park and then had to make it back for an architectural boat tour I'd paid $84 in tickets for, and then were supposed to meet a former colleague for dinner afterwards. We didn't get up particularly early, then got turned around on the way to breakfast. I am still not that confident navigating public transit here, so we ran even later, but then found our bus stop just fine.

We waited about ten minutes as a few different buses passed, and finally ours arrived. As I turned back to tell the kids to follow me to the rear seats, I saw my daughter hugging a girl about her age. Turns out one of my daughter's soccer teammates was on the bus with her dad. She has spent the summer with him in New Mexico, and they are taking a similar trip. The kids had a great time, and then after our boat tour (which I highly recommend) we met them for dinner, my colleague having cancelled via email while we were on the boat. We had a huge, if expensive, Italian dinner on Rush Street, and rode the bus home happy and full.

Today we are packing up and heading back to Evanston for a short visit before we fly home to Fort Worth tomorrow. I am doing my best to fend off thoughts about the work that awaits at the office and at home. I want to enjoy our last bit of time here. So today and tomorrow morning, I'll be sitting in the kitchen of an 1897 Victorian three blocks from the lake, talking to an old friend and listening to our child laugh together. The office will be there on Monday.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Minimalist

The most-read article on the NY Times website this week is "101 Simple Salads for the Season," an installation in the series entitled The Minimalist, which is the creation of food and travel journalist Mark Bittman.

Mr. Bittman also writes a blog entitledBitten http://bitten.blogs.nytimes.com/on the Times site, and he's the author of a number of books including How to Cook Everything and Food Matters. He is one of the lucky three who get to travel with celebrity chef Mario Batali on the PBS series Spain: On the Road Again. His eponymous website has links to all of his work.

He refers to his lifestyle as "Vegan Before Five," avoiding animal products until dinner. He became an advocate of this approach because he discovered he could still eat fish, cheese, and some meat and yet by limiting them in this way he enjoyed many health benefits. His weight and blood pressure dropped, and his cholesterol is now at a recommended level. Additionally, he cites the major implications of this lifestyle for the environment: if all of us in the developed world ate half the meat we do now, our impact on the earth would be vastly reduced.

What I like best about his philosophy, though, is that he believes cooking is not a complicated thing, solely the province of those with fully tricked-out kitchens. Keep a decent pantry and have the most rudimentary kitchen (he is clearly addressing New Yorkers in this regard) and you can make a healthy and delicious dinner, so he believes. The 101 Salads article is divided into several sections---vegan, vegetarian, salads with seafood, salads with meat, and salads with pasta. They are all short recipes. Even better, he's got a number of basic salad dressings detailed on the sidebar, along with a video on how to make a good dressing with three elements: a fat, an acid and a flavoring. Do check out his website and the Times article. Contrary to the celebrity culture, we don't have to be chefs to enjoy the kitchen: we only need to be cooks with appetites. Dine well!

Monday, July 20, 2009

What's Changed


This is a photograph of the Flatiron Building in Toronto, one of my Dad's favorite structures in the city. There is of course one--the famous one--in New York, and oddly there is also one like this in Fort Worth, where I now live. Odd because in my city there is a pride in making buildings that reflect our own culture rather than that of Back East. Anyway, when I walked by it after I'd made my way through the Saturday crowds at the St. Lawrence Market, which used to be one of our favorite places to go at lunch during the year we worked in the same office at the police force (or,police services, as they are now politely called in Canada) headquarters, I thought of him and smiled.

My Dad and Mom grew up in rural Ontario and we stayed there as a result of my Dad's work through my entire childhood. Then, when I was in second year at university and much to my delight, he received an offer to work at General Headquarters in Toronto, and my parents decided to take a leap and go off to the Big Smoke, as the city is known in Canada.

This meant when I went home from school it wasn't to a town of 1,800 very boring people--only those who grow up in cities think small towns are filled with interesting and tolerant people--but to the city which at that time represented everything I aspired to be. I was thrilled, and I spent most of the first several months walking everywhere I could, up from the shore of Lake Ontario past Bloor Street. This habit continued for much of the decade I lived in the area.

So my trip was about seeing friends, and walking. The first night I met my friend who is in the money business, and we had drinks at a bar in the financial district, then continued to tony Yorkville to see and be seen, and catch up on several years of personal history. But since we used to go for a beer almost every evening when we were in university and pretty much grew up together there like brother and sister, our friendship is such that it felt like we'd seen each other only last week.

Before I met him, I skipped along Queen West, which has changed from a very grungy strip to a slightly gentrified strip the locals lament. That said, The Rex still has blues playing all the time and, as I can confirm from walking past the doorway, still smells like Molson Canadian lager.

My second day included a walk past the University of Toronto and a recollection of the graceful lines of the architecture on the campus, followed by helping a woman find Women's College Hospital, where my daughter was born almost thirteen years ago.

I got past Bloor where University becomes Avenue Road, and could not resist heading towards the apartment where I lived for several months with the man who would become my husband. I got to Davenport and looked at the spot where he had parked the 1971VW bus when he rolled into town from Arkansas two months before we married. I remembered the bus at 45 degrees on the tow truck coming down when we bribed the driver with a partial fee, and then moved the vehicle I remember not where. I continued along the street to look for the Idler Pub, a place intended to subsidize a literary magazine owned by the same man, where we'd gone for pints and fries afterwards. The pub was demolished and replaced with a small but ugly concrete building. Back I went to see the doorway to the staircase up to the apartment where we lived. The flower shops downstairs still smelled lovely, and as I approached, one of the current tenants happened to be coming home from her workout, and I had a brief glimpse up the narrow passage where we once tripped over a homeless man someone had let in on a night when it was thirty below.

I met a dear friend where a storied bookshop has now become a Starbucks, went to Chinatown, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and had a beer at another favorite pub that remains intact on Madison Avenue. Then to The Beaches for dinner with another friend and met daughters who had not yet been born when I left. Saturday I went with the first friend with her family, sitting on a lovely deck looking at the sailboats on the lake at the National Yacht Club. I ate fish and chips to compensate for the Malbec I bought at the LCBO the evening before. Then I headed to the suburbs on the GO-Train to see still other friends who've known me since I lived in that town of 1,800, but were well and truly the exception to the boring rule.

The entire time I looked to see what was different. Some things, like the demolished pub, the slight reconfiguration of neighborhoods, were. But the city's spirit was the same. It is still impossible to sort out the tourists from the residents (apart, to my chagrin, to a few Americans who clearly do not live in walking cities) because there are so many languages being spoken. I found myself comparing Toronto to other big US cities I've visited in the intervening years, and although it's still wonderful, it didn't awe me the way it did when I first stepped out of Union Station in 1987. And evidently I sound (and perhaps look) differently, since the waitress at a pub on my first evening said, "Wait! Let me guess: you're from Mississippi. No, Georgia." When I said I was from Ottawa, she said she didn't believe it.

The Yacht Club friends, who are also both expats to Canada and in addition spent several years in Texas, told me I have a Southern drawl. (My Texan friends will find this uproariously funny, with good reason.) Then they asked me what had changed the most in my Toronto visit. "Me," I answered without much consideration. It's a good thing, one of them said. And I must concur, although this trip I remembered fondly the girl who walked out of Union Station in 1987. She really knew what exploring meant.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Off to Toronto


I am looking forward to my trip to Toronto tomorrow. It's infernally hot in Texas, and I can't wait for the cooler temperatures, even though my friends who live there deserve a warm summer after a dreadful winter. The picture attached to the post is a sculpture that's part of an addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario.* It, along with some trips to funky walking neighborhoods (or should I write, neighbourhoods?) and a couple of pints of Sleeman Ale are on my to-do list. I've got several visits with friends on tap, too, and know my long-time peeps will remind me of where I came from. More to follow..
*Have been informed by a loyal reader that the photo is in fact at the Royal Ontario Museum. And now that I've in fact made a visit, I know this.