Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What to Read Before You to go Culinary School: Blood, Bones & Butter

I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerines, cigarette smoke.  While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished.  I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth, and felt the treble of her voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head.  She cracked walnuts from the Perigord and picked out the meats, extinguished her occasional cigarette in the empty broken husks, shifted my weight in her lap; she squeezed the tangerine peel into the candle flame and we watched the oils ignite in yellow and blue sparks.  I sat in that woman's aproned lap every single night of my young life, so close to the sounds and smells of her that I still know her body as if it were my own.

--Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones & Butter

Not only does this woman own a restaurant in the East Village, one with a good and growing reputation.  But she's getting great reviews from venerable media sources, not to mention fellow chefs who write: Mario Batali has offered, with characteristic hyperbole, to burn everything he's ever written and apply to wash dishes at Prune, Hamilton's place of business.  Anthony Boudain, thankfully, is just choked with envy.  Did I mention she is slender, blond and really pretty? Take a number, Tony. 

Then I heard Hamilton's interview on Think, Fort Worth/Dallas' local noontime NPR show--I'll not apologize for being a slavish lover of public radio, let it be said here, though I am well aware of its recent collective gaffes--and I really liked her.  She is incredibly accomplished, yet not haughty.  Better yet, I could detect not a smidge of false modesty.  So I ran out to buy her book, and found it sold out.  Yes, I need an iPad, but that's a wrenching decision and an entirely separate post. 

Eventually I found the book.  Hamilton is as thoughtful and considerate to her readers as she was to her interviewer. She tells her story as if you are a really good friend who doesn't blink at the fact that she shoplifted and stole cars and drank and did lines of coke when she was fourteen. She writes about her family--a divorce left her, the youngest, essentially on her own from adolescence--in an intimate way that doesn't make the reader squirm.  And yes, she writes about food.  Her take on the business around it? Read this before you go to culinary school.

You don't need to be a foodie to enjoy this book. If your family lived off the grid in their own minds or in those of others, if you ever rebelled, if you wound up in a place you didn't ever imagine you would or didn't think you deserved to be, read this.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

Are You a Builder, Explorer, Negotiator or Director?

I get bored on vacations, unless I am someplace new and interesting.  A few weeks ago, off for spring break, some things got done around here, but then I stumbled on one of those dating articles that pop up beside Hotmail and decided I needed to know my type

There was a tantalizing description of each of the types in O Magazine (to see the article, click here) a while back, and I read it with interest, though it led me to believe I was, as I'd been tested in Myers-Briggs, a director.  These people are logical, forthright, detached.  The sort who pick up the red phone, issue an order, and don't look back. 

Then I watched an interview with Helen Fisher, who is the brains behind  She says that half of who we are walking around is based on our experiences, and that we adapt based on our circumstances.  But in the area of love, chemistry rules. It's based on our inherent traits, the ones we'd have, I surmise, if we didn't  find ourselves the head of a household or driving carpool or taking care of an ailing parent.  Turns out the kid in us picks the people we want to shag.  This, I have to say, does cause some trouble for a good many of us, but it explains a lot.

And yet the notion of discovering why I am attracted to certain personality types and not others was too enticing, especially on a Tuesday afternoon at three when I wasn't answering email or organizing a meeting or trying to track down a deal list.  So off I went to to take the test.  (Dr. Fisher is also an excellent marketer, I must say.)  And here is what I learned was a surprise. 

I knew I wasn't a Builder.  These are the people who keep institutions around for generations and stay married for life.  They don't mind living in the same city from cradle to grave and love that everyone knows their name and their business when they walk down the street. Also, they don't like it when someone moves their cheese.  They also have longer lives.  Did I mention they tend to stay married? 

And the Negotiator.  They have great compassion and love to talk to people.  This leads to rather boring conversations, if you pick the wrong person.  Yet if you find someone who has traveled the world or made a big pile of money and then found interesting ways to give it away, well, then, that's different.  Still, I've certainly met more than a few strangers.  And I run the other way. 

Spontaneous.  That's the first word associated iwth Explorers.  Well, I have a whole pile of crap to handle, and as much as I'd love to run off to Paris tomorrow, I'm thinking Child Protective Services, the people who pay my salary, and the bank might have a little issue with that.  There are also a lot of forms to fill out.

However.  Took the test, and it turns out I won't be Secretary of State any time soon.  I may not be able to charter a jet, but I am energetic, spontaenous, and always looking for something new.  This is true of my work (I always have a five-year plan, because if I don't know where I am going I get stuck and miserable) and of my reading, which has served as vicarious travel in the times of my life when I was sitting on the tundra and too young to flee and later when I was reading Moo, Baa, La La La and in love with my babies yet thought the walls might fall in at any moment. 

Explorers are the cowboys of the world: don't fence us in.  This is why I don't ride commuter trains or buy more than one session of yoga. We also find the idea of spending the rest of our lives doing anything, no matter how good, akin to beng assigned to a padded cell.  

Some of us are explorers dow well with builders, as long as they give us a very long leash.  I know an extraordinary woman in her sixties who makes documentaries in politically unstable countries; she is married to a former pastor who is equally fierce in his intelligence and conviction but is thrilled to see her off on her missions while he keeps the homefires burning.  But most explorers are looking foir playmates.  Not a great track record for long relationships, but we sure have good stories. 

Now I can name the restless feeling, the one that strikes me especially when I've had enough sleep and there is a little free time on my hands.  It's not competitive---I don't burn for a more prestigious job or a larger house--or guilt-inspired, though often it manifests as a sense of not getting enough done. Yhe hand against my back that's always been there, turns out to be push of time combined with the big world out there.  There is so much to see and do and eat and read.  There ae all those interesting people to meet, if I don't get stuck talking to the lady in the middle seat.  My constant worry is that  I've squandered my brief time on earth. 

It makes for one long Peggy Lee moment..."Is this all there is?  Then let's just keep dancing.."  Hope I can find a good partner. If not, someday I will charter that jet and look for one.

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Argument for Heat

This past winter, a friend was at a family gathering in California.  They were staying at a hotel that included a large rock fireplace in the lobby.  My friend with with her grand-nephew, who was in the early stages of language acquisition. 

They looked together at the fire.  "Hot," said the toddler.  "Yes," agreed my friend emphatically.  They looked a beat longer.  "Marshmellows," he said, nodding knowingly. 

There's the rub in life. Get too close to the flame and you might get burned.  Never close enough, and you'll be stuck with cold marshmellows. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Privileges

"For the last six or eight years, every sight of her daughter has caused a certain look to cross Ruth's face, a look of just-you-wait, though the question "wait for what?" is not one she could answer so she keeps her mouth shut...self-satisfied women are often brought low in this world, and for years now, mostly by frowning, Ruth has tried to sneak her insights into the record."

--Jonathan Dee, The Privileges.

What goes around comes around.  He'll get his. You can't be good at everything.  Bad karma.  She had it coming.  Nobody's really happy. 

We've all uttered such sanctimonious tripe, mostly to make ourselves feel better about someone who went ahead and got something they wanted rather than waiting, like the rest of us, for permission from some unseen authority figure.  Usually she is better-looking than we are and got to be both prom queen and valedictorian. Or she's the one who everyone wanted to date in college, because she was totally gorgeous. And then she married the captain of the rugby team who now runs a hedge fund and had three beautiful children and moved into increasingly enviable houses.  I know a woman like this.  She also holds a law degree and I think does work of some significance to the community.  Thankfully I don't know her well, not that she'd want to be my friend anyway.

Cynthia Morey is just such a character, and Jonathan Dee's rendering of her gives us a sense of what it might be like to live a charmed existence, and he does it so well that we can't really hate her.  We don't really feel sorry for her, either, so it's a crafty bit of character development. 

The novel opens with the wedding of Cynthia and Adam. They are joined at the tender age of 22, and each spring from congenitally unhappy families, each unhappy in their own way, of course.  She gets pregnant on the honeymoon.  They rapidly have another child.  Adam works for a crazy rich guy who casts him as a surrogate son but soon makes demands on him, and Adam decides to head his own, tremendously risky path. 

Cynthia is, naturally, totally hot.  Not in an ice-queen sort of trophy wife way, which would be gratifying to us lesser birds, but in a way that makes her husband a very happy man behind closed doors.  She's not just good-looking and married to a man as attractive as she, but the kicker is that she loves him.  Their children are beautiful.  She doesn't have many friends--big surprise--but her sense of humor and general canniness make her difficult not to admire.  Then she and Adam get wildly, unfathomably--until Dee tells us the details--rich.  Stinking rich.

Once you start reading, you can't stop. Surely the fall will be painful and swift.  Won't the kids, with their Dalton background and the vacations at private villa in Costa Rica, fall off the branch early, rotten and overripe? Won't Cynthia succumb to an eating disorder or Adam to drink, the money man's stereotypical crutch? (The stereotype, in this case, is perhaps earned: I have a friend in the business who told me, without shock, that he had grown rather concerned about a fellow who worked for him when the guy in question was up to about thirty drinks a day. I actually met the guy, in a bar, and he did indeed appear to hold his liquor rather well, but also seemed to be in outstanding physical condition and was clearly brilliant and driven.)

When it comes to happiness, I hark back to the scene in As Good as it Gets, when Greg Kinnear and Helen Hunt are talking about how no one is happy, that everyone has stuff to deal with.  And then Jack Nicholson gets, as he almost always does, the best line.  He looks at the pair, incredulous, and says, That's just the crap the rest of us say to make ourselves feel better.  There really are people who live happy lives.  Their lives usually involve lakes and canoes and noodle salad.

Cynthia and Adam have almost more noodle salad than they can handle, and it's always good, even when the weekend cook prepares it.  Don't hate them because they're beautiful.  Who of us really gets what we deserve?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Normal Life: The Best Thing Ever

Today I took my children to an amusement park.  We had some moments of fun, although the most memorable were rollercoaster rides that really only punctuated the boredom of waiting in line for an hour or more with adrenaline and vertigo.  I'm really bad at waiting, though I got to claim status as a pretty cool mom not only for braving Six Flags Over Texas during spring break but also for going on the scary rides.  Okay, ride. But I did one of the big ones, and I had a good time once I realized that screaming is a good way to make one's way through general fear. 

It took us two hours to go from our house to the park, a half-hour trip at the most under normal conditions.  I left the place at least a hundred and fifty bucks poorer.  Hardest for me was, did I mention, the waiting, even though I was with my two favorite people. 

Jeez, the crowd.  Well, there were scads of teenagers, lots of them with piercings that shocked me (cheeks? really?) and the flashback to PDA. Suddenly I remembered being the friend who came along while my BFF canoodled with her fella and I stood by awkwardly, the perennial third wheel. High school does leave a mark on all of us, sad to say.  A smattering of adorable families with younger kids. 

And then the scary people.  I posted on Facebook about taking a dip in the shallow end of the gene pool, and it got mixed reviews.  But seriously, even the kids were scared by the guy who looked like a werewolf. There were lots of ill-behaved children who drew our ire, and vast numbers of people who were so overweight I wondered how they navigated the many miles necessary to get to the rides. 

While I waited for the kids to get off the Superman ride--I'm not that brave--I looked at the NY Times on my phone.  In Remote Towns, Survivors Tell of a Wave's Power.  Then, Certainties of Modern Life Upended in Japan.  So while I was dissecting the fashion choices of the women in the Flashpass VIP line (expensive haircut, unruly children, Superbowl leather jacket entirely too warm for the weather but clearly designated she had been invited) there were people across the world looking at places where houses, loved ones, and neighbors once stood but had been swept away.  Pictures of other who were taking their babies to see if they had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.  It's so difficult to get one's mind around the devastation, and hard to know what to do.

Photo: Courtesy the New York Times

Tonight, we're all tired.  I'm spending the rest of my vacation time having people replace my dishwasher and broken doors and blinds, and wish I could be on a beach somewhere.  And yet my house is still here, my kids and I had little more to do than gripe about the line in the sixty-five degree weather.  A week and a half ago, people in Japan were complaining about the same thing.  Now, what they wouldn't give to stand in line to get on the Batman rollercoaster. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What's Your Comfort Zone?

A few days ago I stumbled across an article about why so many of us keep ending up in the same relationships.  That these are unsatisfactory relationships goes without saying, or none of us would read the article.  People who are happy in relationships clearly stay in the same one, so they aren't looking again and again for that happiness. 

And yet the nugget I took from the article, written in the Huffington Post (note I am not quoting Cosmo here, says the intellectual snob) was that we all have our comfort zones in relationships, and it can apply to friendships and family dynamics, too.  The comfort zone isn't, unless one is highly evolved, a happy kingdom, but it does feel normal.  The author, Lisa Firestone, suggests that even when we do find a partner who takes us to a good place, we find ways to put them back in our comfort zone box. 

My comfort zone is lonely.  There isn't a good reason for it, since I am an extrovert and once I am among other human beings I am quite happy.  But in my daily life, I get in my own way and seek out relationships with people who are busy, high achievers.  With friends, this is fine, as occasional lunches and emails and Facebook posts are interesting and I am happy with the level of interaction.  But in romantic relationships, it means I spend a lot of time alone. 

Back when I was married, I went to see my first therapist. When I was in the middle of a recollection of a recent issue, she asked me: "Is this an old feeling, or a new feeling?"

I grew up as an only child of list-makers, and there wasn't a lot of time for sitting around contemplating life of the social structure in seventh grade. My parents were busy with important things, so there was a lot of time for me to fill, and I got used to feeling like I was in the way.  So now when someone I am involved with says they are busy or have a lot going on, I immediately decide I must be in the way.  To say this is visceral is a vast understatement, but it seems to lead me to sitting alone with a book on Saturday night. Usually it involves me being as patient and kind and understanding as I can, then being pissed because I don't get a gold star. Inevitably it seems to mean I am dozing off on the couch beside the dog when I should snuggling up beside a significant other.

There are people I know whose comfort zone is chaos.  Others tend toward overwhelmed.  There are those who are angry with the world and just about everyone in it.  And there is no end of those who are perpetually wronged.    

When I am working, I find my friend Janneke's rule, once you figure out the what, the how is easy, is so very true.  In my personal relationships, I know what I am doing and why. I just can't figure out why it keeps coming up in ultimately the same way with people who seem vastly different.  And yet when I step back, I also know I am projecting all of these feelings and whatever is going on probably has not a thing to do with me, yet that is exactly where my own work needs to be done. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Music for Grownups

I have a lot of friends who know way more about music than I do.  Most of them grew up in cities and had access to indie radio and/or older siblings who helped them learn what is good. Plus they are just cooler than me. When I reached the point of post-secondary education, I hadn't heard of any bands people listened to.  Who the hell was Depeche Mode? That I had seen Stevie Ray Vaughan open for Dire Straits cut no ice with the girls in the dorm, and I felt, not for the first time and certainly not the last, an outsider.  (Twenty years ago, a fellow small-town friend once told me she knew she'd reached a comfort level with her musical upbringing when she could stand up in a room full of similarly sophisticated school friends--long after graduation, mind you--and say, "I like Bob Seger!")

I lived through the nineties, already feeling like an old fogie, not liking much I heard on mainstream radio.  Then late in that decade I moved to Texas, and discovered a wonderful music scene, quite apart from the Nashville machine.  I had little kids and while I would have loved to head to Austin to listen to the next cool thing, it didn't happen.  But back around 2000, my friend Cathy invited me to see Kelly Willis at a now long-gone venue in Fort Worth called Caravan of Dreams.  Willis, a diminutive redhead, came onstage in a sundress and flipflops, guitar slung across a narrow shoulder.  Then she sang like an angel, wonderful songs with lyrics that pulled at the heart.  I learned that her husband, Bruce Robison, a gifted songwriter, had penned much of what she sang that night.  And thus it began for me. 

Now there are stations all over Texas featuring Red Dirt music. Bands people outside of Texas and Oklahoma have never heard of are being played, concerts are filled from Denton to Beaumont and beyond, and the genre is thriving.  I like quite a lot of this music, but my favorite station is one I discovered on a vacation with my children back in the summer of 2005.  It goes beyond the Red Dirt format and describes itself as Americana, and every time I listen to it, it sends me a new gift. 

The kids and I went to New Braunfels that August. We were changing schools--or at least my daughter was, having attended an expensive private school that we couldn't afford and should have known so long before--and were transfering in, so the children had to miss the first week until the class rosters were sorted out.  I was worried sick about how all of this would work out, and was working someplace that wasn't a good fit. It would end soon, I sensed. And I knew in my bones, if not in my brain, that my marriage was breathing its last gasps.  This vacation was suspended animation for me. 

We stayed in a little mom and pop motel right beside the Comal river. The place was dingy but the location was perfect, as it was still terribly hot.  The spring-fed river felt like heaven, and we went on our first tubing expedition, a rite of passage in Texas, and then I sat by the pool and drank cheap wine while the children splashed in the pool.  I found a radio station called KNBT and heard wonderful music and incredible pride in the long, until-now unknown to me history of music in Texas.  All of it came from people who were no longer young: they'd all had the corners knocked off them, but their stories of how it happened made for fine listening. 

We went to Gruene, a few miles away, and saw the oldest dancehall in Texas.  We escaped the white glare of midday and went into the dark, quiet hall, which felt almost holy in the quiet afternoon. It still smelled like beer, though.  The kids stood on the stage and I took their picture in the spot where Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett and later Pat Green and Kelly Willis stood and where so many talented people stand every weekend.  At that moment, I felt like I was suddenly privy to a marvelous, well-kept secret, a brief glimpse of what it might be like to be a native. 

When I got home, the kids got into the wonderful school that would be a safe, happy place for all of us during the next few tumultuous years.  The job ended, mercifully, though income then dropped precipitously. A practical problem, which I am fortunately well-equipped to solve. Also, I felt another presence in my marriage, about which my instincts would prove correct.  It didn't feel like a blessing then, but over time it's become clear it was a tremendous one. 

Now I listen as much as I can to this music, but once again I enjoy friends who know much more than I do.  They are the ones who've caught the legendary shows in Austin and at holes in the wall in the heavenly Hill Country that surrounds it. They grew up listening to this stuff and got to see Texas legends during Padre Island spring breaks and on Friday nights on Sixth Street in Austin. Despite the handicaps my upbringing has dealt me, I do my best to learn, though, and love what I hear as I stream KNBT (no flashy name, note) in my office in the Big D.

There are not many catchy tunes, but plenty are genuine. In addition to the classics, many of which are nw to me, there are new songs with timeless themes. I've recently fallen in love with the music of Paul Thorn, who is from Mississippi, in addition to that of Chris Knight and Cory Morrow and the Avett Brothers.  Then there are my long-standing affections for Kelly Willis and Patty Griffin, and an ever-growing web of musical knowledge filled with pleasant surprises.   I encourage you to listen and let me know what you like.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Princess: Heaven Help Kate Middleton

I got up at four in the morning to watch Lady Diana Spencer marry the Prince of Wales.  Unlike my daughter, who eshewed bows and Disney-licensed tutus for stuffed animals who did her bidding at parties, I loved to dress up in my mother's old prom dresses and imagine myself as a beautiful girl ready to meet some fabulous fellow who would sweep me off my feet and cater to my every whim. 

Then life intevened, and I realized that if things were going to be done properly, I would have to do them.  Men, no matter how wonderful, leave socks on the floor or must be reminded to take out the trash.  They forget my birthday. They remind me that telling them they aren't doing things properly isn't my best quality. Then they change diapers and fix stuff that's broken.  They are human beings who do their best. But they are not princes.  After Lady Di became Princess Diana, she realized that her prince, even though he was the genuine article, was just a man.  Her life, so famously, became not a romantic whirl around the ballroom but a trudge through duty. Even worse, even when she married a prince, no one would hold her emotional baggage.  As it turned out, her lack of ownership took her to her early grave.  Even princesses have to own their crap.

I wonder about Kate Middleton.  She is, like her late mother-in-law, enviably gorgeous.  A decade older than Diana when she married, and no doubt a good deal more shrewd (I use this word in admiration) I hope she knows what she is in for.  An extra ten pounds or a bad hair day? A snappy retort to a reporter? An actual opinion? An unruly toddler?  She will not be allowed any of the little mistakes the rest of us might make.

Maybe she loves him.  Fergie (the Dutchess, not the hottie singer) says--and I believe her--that she loved Prince Andrew. But love, as so many of us have learned, is small potatoes compared to the compromises life forces us to make.  And almost none of us visits our in-laws at Buckingham Palace.

I am not alone in my cynicism about this union.  A 60 Minutes poll found that 75 percent of Americans under 30 don't care at all about the Royal Wedding.  A number of theories exist, including that marriage is down generally, that Americans have no interest in the British monarchy, that the recession makes people uninterested in lavish weddings.

My own position, which I believe informs the opinions of most, dates back to the Commonwealth Games of Edinburgh in 1986.  I watched Diana award a gold medal to a young female swimmer.  I looked at my mother and said, "That girl has actually done something. What does Diana do?" My mother looked at me, incredulous.  "She is a princess." So, she was decorative, right?

Later, I watched her on television during a visit to Toronto in the early nineties.  She went to an AIDS clinic, when no one else would.  My husband and I watched the clip of her sitting and holding the hand of man in the late stages of the disease, a leper in those days. We welled up together. Good God, she was so beautiful. "Touched by a princess," he said, breathless, as was I.  There she sat, smiling and bestowing her regal yet genuine kindness on someone who had been completely cast aside. 

It's hard to describe, to my own children, who live in the age of celebrity, just how extraordinarily famous Diana was. My gut tells me Kate knows all too well, loving the son of this woman, how lethal the spotlight turned out to be.  Being a princess is surely anachronistic, but I hope Kate, like her future husband's grandmother, is steely and finds her place. Not many of us believe in fairytales any longer, but I feel Kate may be smart and canny enough to turn her position into something real.

I'll get up early again to watch her marry Prince William, though my fourteen year-old daughter will wonder why. But I want to watch Kate, who can be so much more than a maker of heirs and a silly girl who dresses up and stands by her man.  I hope she finds her feet and doesn't let the tabloids get her down. Heaven help her.