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.