Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How to Stop Grieving Your Kids' Childhoods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

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

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

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

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

--Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter. 

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My Favorite Autumn Blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Where Are All the Tiger Moms in Singapore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Kennedys in Georgetown

Last time I walked through Georgetown, I saw Maria Shriver.  Via my British tabloid habit I learned later she'd been in town for her daughter's graduation.  In an auction later this week, photos of her Uncle Jack and his young bride in their early years together will be on the selling block.

I've been besotted with the neighborhood since reading Katherine Graham's Personal History some fifteen years ago.  I loved her stories about throwing dinner parties with all the young stars in town, the best and brightest in the early, heady post-war years in Washington.  Later I would devour tales of Julia and Paul Child feeding friends Francophile dishes, drinking good wine, and of course smoking lots of cigarettes while solving the problems of the world.  The reading was a great thrill, if only a vicarious one: I was a new mother with a lot of laundry, and the idea of getting to visit, never mind work, in DC, seemed as unlikely as landing a cameo on West Wing. 

It turns out my life is charmed as such that I have now have a boss in the nation's capital and a reason to visit every few months.  When I am there, I sometimes get to perch in a visiting office with a view of the White House. Even among the jaded souls in the city, views from our conference room elicit gasps and shots from smart phones.  Everybody in the town is still the smartest kid in the class, but when I committed to my line of work, I knew I'd assigned myself to the back of intellectual bus.  I don't care.  Every time I walk down Connecticut Avenue, I pinch myself. 

When I have time in the morning or after office hours, I trek over Rock Creek to Georgetown, which still looks almost exactly as it did when JFK and Jackie strolled through it, at least once off the main drag, which is a crush of cupcake shops and upscale clothing stores.  But even there, one sees men wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and matrons in well-preserved Chanel suits.

T and I visited together last May, and on our Sunday walk he brazened our way into an open house--it was a gorgeous-looking, red brick townhouse--on what looked to be a coveted street. I would never have had the nerve, but I really do have a lot more fun now that I hang out with him. Fully restored and four bedrooms, it was breathtaking.  There was a stuffy, manly study on the second floor and some very tasteful and convincing chintz wallpaper in the bedrooms. The footprint was intact, which meant the kitchen, though beautifully finished in white marble, was still designed for the help and so about the size of a walk-in closet in a Texas tract house. The pricetag was $4.1 million. As we attempted to skulk out, there was a woman, clearly a neighborhood fixture, crowding 80 and wearing a sweater with holes in it, cornering the realtor and commenting about the streaks on the windows. 

Of course, there were later black moments for that golden generation that lives in my imagination.  On days when I leave my Dallas office for home, I drive past the grassy knoll and think of Jack each time.  But I also remember he turned out to be an epic philanderer.  Jackie had herself an interesting time and a career after that, but those cigarettes caught up with her early. Katherine Graham oversaw the biggest story of the century at the Washington Post, but not until after her husband blew his head off.

After we walked through that expensive house, T and I talked about how it lacked soul, and even that there was an air of sadness about it.  A morning later, I took a walk on my own along P street and took in the quiet, outward perfection of it all.  Now I saw a little tarnish on the brass door knockers.  Dreaming about it was somehow more fun.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How Only Children Can Gain Emotional Intelligence Through Literature

I'm not friends with anyone who's called me stupid.  Or needy.  Or a bitch.  That's because I don't have a brother or a sister. 

Kids from big families seem to have skins so thick.  As an adolescent, I gravitated to these large broods, hanging around their houses like an anthropologist.  The way they spoke to each other!  Especially the boys, who called each other all manner of homophobic slurs and whacked each other around.  The girls played passive aggressive games until someone borrowed the wrong pair of jeans and then screaming and hair pulling ensured.  I was horrified and thought surely their relationships were severed for good.  Then I would see them at dinner laughing about some ancient family joke.  I was mystified at how their bonds held even in the face of what I saw as violent conflict.

When an only child has a fight with a friend--and in my case, even approaching fifty, a long silence or remark that I might require a little too much care and feeding can sting--it feels like the end of the world.  We are, if we're lucky, the third pin in triangulation with our parents.  In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo writes from the perspective of twelve year-old Griffin, driving to the beach with his father and permanently disappointed mother.  He sat in the back seat while each June they underwent an (initially) unarticulated discussion about the rental in front of them his father's meager academic salary had purchased, versus the description they had read in the advertisement.  Charming, rustic. Which meant, "crappy."  He made himself as small as possible in an effort to stay out of the inevitable fray.  I am grateful that my own children had one another through the dissolution of their parents' marriage.  At least later in life they can compare notes and be assured of their own sanity, if not that of their father and mother during this time.

I didn't have Netflix, so once I got through the Gilligan's Island re-runs, there wasn't much to distract me after school.  Books became my refuge and my way of understanding the world.  At thirteen and babysitting through the summer, I blasted through the romance novels of the mothers who employed me, and got bored with them quickly, although the Judith Krantz books held my interest through the lascivious parts.  

Then I pulled A Turn of the Screw off a bookshelfI remember trying to figure out what was going on with the governess, the housekeeper, the little sister, and why things turned so sinister.  It was fascinating, and my heart pounded as the plot rose.  This was no formula book, and who knew who the bad guy was?  At that point, I stopped reading for entertainment and started reading for empathy.  Literary writing was a window into how others lived, how they felt, what they dreamed about and plotted against one another.  Why do people do what they do?  I'll never tire of considering the possibilities.

This week, a study published in the journal Science leads to the conclusion that sitting with a book is not a dreamy waste of time.  Though short-term, the study demonstrates.. "that reading literary fiction enhances a set of skills and thought processes fundamental to complex social relationships—and functional societies." Reading books that focus on character development rather than plot helps us read other people.  It seems a pleasant way to overcome an experience deficit.

In my vocation, I help lawyers promote themselves.  Surpassed perhaps only by doctors as the least self-aware profession, they can be pretty brutal in their assessments of my efforts, although I have a pretty strong skill set in securing their trust. My high brow reading would seem to have provided me a good living.  And a thicker skin.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why I Skipped my High School Reunion

It has been thirty years since I walked over the stage of my high school gym with less than forty fellow graduates, and this past summer everyone who'd attended and was still alive was invited to congregate in the hockey arena, in its off-season incarnation with concrete floors before the ice going in.  From Facebook posts, it appears that a lot of people who see each other every weekend had a good time.  They stayed and remained invested in the community that brought them up, unlike me, who rejected it and didn't hesitate to disparage it to anyone who would listen.  Many times in my life, when I have jumped into situations and realized I am completely out of my depth, I have envied them.

My version of my past is based on the belief that my life began at post-secondary education. As soon as I was allowed,  I left the narrow world of hockey jackets and a town so small that grown men spent frigid Saturday mornings driving around together drinking whisky, looking for something interesting to happen between the three stoplights that served as its boundaries, to a sedate university town by Lake Ontario.  Its ivy-covered buildings reassured me I had escaped forever. 

My high school town was where I grew up, but it wasn't where I was from.  Although my father, as a provincial police officer in Ontario, was stationed only an hour away from where he and my mother grew up (later, during those post-secondary years as a summer tree planter, I saw the places in the north of the province that Dad had referred to as "hell holes," towns where there was nothing in the way of entertainment but an establishment with a heavy-metal band on one side and strippers on the other, I realized how much worse it might have been) they and I by extension were outsiders in our postings.  Sure, we made friends, but it was understood that we weren't sticking around forever. 

No, the land of my people is the Ottawa Valley.  This weekend I headed up to see my parents, where they live in a quiet suburb that is technically the city but only ten minutes to territory familiar to them for more than seventy years. We drove past fair grounds in Carp where I remember eating cotton candy for the first time, and as we continued along a beautiful ridge where the autumn leaves were starting to gain their color--while back in Texas, we were still in sweat all day weather--and the little towns came back to me, knowing where I was before I even saw the signs.

I didn't drive these roads as a teenager and I never lived within fifty miles of them. I don't personally know more than five souls there. But as I sat in the car with my parents, all of my childhood rides on Sunday afternoons to visit relatives had embedded the route in my deep memory.  I had a flash of understanding as to why Alzheimer's patients retreat to their childhoods: I can't remember things that happened five years ago, but the drive over the Pakenham bridge felt like I had done it yesterday.     

Of course, hockey and whisky rule the towns in the Ottawa Valley as much as they do where I grew up. There is as much of a sense of community, good works, petty gossip, and insularity. It's just that I never lived there.  So instead of going back to see people who remember my awkward adolescent moments, my snobbishness, my dateless prom, I remember being with people who adored me.  A trip on a tractor at five, wrapped up snugly in a blanket.  Playing Crazy Eights in a "summer kitchen" and drinking my first vanilla float.  The smell of an indoor woodstove, still burning in January even though an electric furnace had been installed. 

I often say I don't like to look back, but it's clear I view the past as a smorgasbord.  The delicious parts are those I choose to keep. 


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Big Brother: Using the Word Fat

But what, or rather who, is the skinny? By conceit, the rail-thin are harsh, joyless, and critical....They don't know how to have a good time, and don't hesitate to poop your party, too. Scrawnies are superior, haughty, and elitist.  Vain, self-centered, and cold. Picky. Stingy and withholding. Aloof. Uptight.  Judgmental and condescending...Dishonest (likely to decline the offer of dessert because of feeling "far too full"), and insincere ("You look terrific!").  Nasty, although usually behind your back. Fearful, not only of food but also of people who eat it, as if libertinism might be contagious.

--Lionel Shriver, Big Brother

Pandora, the protaganist of the deeply affecting novel Big Brother, lives in Iowa with her cycling-obsessed husband, who has recently repudiated cheese, and their two stepchildren, whose mother, now stage left, is a meth addict.  Pandora has, surprisingly to her--and, it turns out, her family of origin--made a business success. She's forty years old and still describes herself as a little sister. Her much-adored and prodigal older brother, Edison, comes to visit, as he's fallen on hard times.  While waiting at the baggage carousel, she hears a couple of strangers complaining about the fat guy who was beside them.  "What gets me, is we all get the same baggage allowances.  Our friend in aisle seventeen was packing a quarter ton in carry-on. I swear, next time they try to charge me extra because one pair of shoes has pushed me over twenty-six pounds, I'm going to offer to eat them." Turns out the fella who gets wheeled off the plane is her big brother, who has grown to twice his size in a few short years. 

What follows is a family dynamic between siblings who've endured an odd childhood where they competed with their screenwriter father's versions of themselves on a sitcom.  Edison fashioned himself into a promising young jazz talent--except now he's forty-two--and Pandora has done her best to fade into the woodwork.  Like many who peak too early, Edison has now crashed and is in the grips of what can only be called an addiction.  Pandora has come to success in middle age and, consequently, grapples with a towering imposter syndrome.

Shriver deals bravely with possibly the most emotionally-charged issue of the era facing the developed world.  "Whenever I encounter a picture of myself, the first thing I assess is my weight," confesses Pandora when she finally decides to confront her brother about his morbid obesity. (Shriver's own brother died of complications from his weight.) Women think about this many times a day, whether they are in the rail-thin crowd or where Edison has landed.  Men likely do, too, but are less likely to discuss it.

A chain of events leads Pandora from enabler to full-blown co-dependency.  The novel touches on serious familial subjects.  Where is the line between duty to one's blood relatives versus the person we've married?  How far must one go to save someone we love from addiction?  Pandora's husband, like me, is an only child, and I must confess I identified with him closely. And, to say the least, he uses the word "fat," and some other choice words when he lets loose.  That's when the plot blows wide open. Shriver writes a compelling story, and I now understand what drives Pandora to strive so mightily to save Edison.

Her assessment about how weight has divided our society is the most striking part of the novel.  The mean things the skinny characters say about the obese sound familiar and of course are unhelpful to their targets. Edison, for his part, isn't a terribly sympathetic character, until he lets his sister into the reasons behind his rapid expansion.  In the view of the protagonist, the very fat are cheerful, generous, harmless, and lacking pretension.

So Pandora's comments about the "scrawnies" that hit back against the collective notion that thin is better, superior, are rather brave.   "...when  I look at the lists of attributes we instinctively ascribe to the very thin and the very fat, I would rather be fat."  Like every other divide our society has faced, it will require a great deal of compassion and understanding to solve what has become the health crisis that will define our age.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Vacation Horror Stories

After a night of many, many pints at several pubs in Halifax, I woke one morning to a Pepto Bisbol-tinted, insufferably hot room in a bed and breakfast over in Dartmouth.  It was more like a house with a couple of old people and a ceramic dalmation on the ground floor. We were the only guests and there had been quite a wait that morning by the proprietors. She with a beehive, he unremarkable.though he was clearly not in favor of letting strangers who stumbled in drunkenly in the middle of the night and who laid in bed until past ten in the morning into his house; his displeasure was conveyed with disapproving grunts. The long minutes that constituted our consumption of Corn Flakes, with the only other choice being bran cereal that looked like hampster dung, was a wee bit awkward.  It was 1990, and I was pleased to have found the room on the World Wide Web.*  My hangover was my fault; the pink room helped lead me to chumming off the side of a fishing boat in Halifax Harbour later that afternoon, to the eternal amusement of my sturdily sealegged friend Hugh. 

Through this summer, NPR has recorded a hilarious series entitled Vacation Horror Stories.  I don't think I've ever had a bat land on my leg in the middle of the night, and I've never spent a night in a foreign jail.  But I've had a couple of good ones.

There was the Motel 6 in Gary, Indiana, with the first bullet-proof glass I'd ever seen at a check-in desk. The little guy behind it looked terrified, and I slept with one ear open. There were lots of loud arguments in the parking lot and some rather interesting business transactions taking place in the rooms next door. It turned out my instincts were right, as Gary was then and perhaps now the murder capital of the U.S.  I might have checked that on the WWW before choosing that Interstate pit stop. 

A few years earlier in Corfu, Greece, I crept through a darkened bedroom where a middle-aged man lay snoring and his annoyed wife let us in after a night of cheap moussaka and even cheaper retsina.  We didn't even think it was that late, but as the old saw goes, youth is wasted on the young. We dozed on the floor in sleeping bags in the extra room until we woke to banging pots. The wife had snagged us at the train station and despite what could have been disapproval, fed us a lovely breakfast with wonderful fresh bread in the morning, and I remember a much-desired shower in a tiny stall in the confines of the kitchen.  It was weird to be rinsing off while the proprietess prepared lunch right outside my curtain. It actually seemed pretty good.  Earlier in my European tour, I'd schlepped down the hall in an ancient hotel in Paris to a shared iron bathtub.  It filled up with remarkably hot water for its eighteenth-century pipes, and I'm grateful I didn't think much about who might have been soaking earlier.    

I thought those days were over.  I'm now spoiled rotten, used to solicitous staff and Frette linens, pristine soaking tubs, and a Wall Street Journal under the door.  But last year T and I went to a family wedding on the Outer Banks, NC.  We landed late in Norfolk VA, and got to our pre-booked hotel, where a desserted lobby and a dark restaurant greeted us.  Our room turned out to be next to the elevator and had a nursing home-style bath.  We'd made it to the hotel guided by the delivery guy from a local pizza place, and then realized we'd brought good wine but no corkscrew.  Neither of us remembered the last time we'd stayed somewhere that didn't have a wine opener. The front desk was no help, so T went off in the night in search of one.  I fretted and called and T finally appeared, as did the pizza.  It was one in the morning, but it turned out to be a great meal, after all that.

Another night with one ear open, and then around eight in the morning a staff member walked in and interrupted what would have been a rather happy beginning to the day. I declined a soak in the bath with the security rail, and we found a Starbucks ten miles down the road. The worst trips really do make the best stories. 

*As noted by a reader, clearly I didn't book this online in bloody 1990.  How the hell did I find it?  One of the worst things about being divorced and old is that there isn't anyone I can ask, but then again, he might not remember either.  At some point it may come to me.  Maybe it involved a fax machine.  All I know is that without Google, I might not remember anything.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gladys Kravitz Lives

In 1990, I was a fresh graduate and a new bride, living in a basement apartment on Lakeshore Drive in Toronto.  It was a cozy little one bedroom with a fireplace, and in the summer we could sit on our little patio and see our sliver of Lake Ontario.  My husband and I thought we had the world by the tail. 

In the middle of one August night, windows open, we were shaken awake by a violent, drunken domestic argument in the driveway right next to our kitchen window. We lay in bed, hearts pounding, wondering in frantic whispers if we should call the police.  Getting out of bed and making a phone call--these were the old days where we didn't have mobile phones--would have certainly been heard by the very angry man outside. Luckily, the aggressor didn't do much beyond hurling obscenities at the object of his terrifying rage, and it was all over in a matter of minutes, though they felt like an eternity. To this day, I wish I'd had the guts to get out of bed and do something.  But I didn't, and never actually saw the woman who'd been targeted. 

By fall, I'd been through a layoff but was gainfully employed, thanks to the new basement tenant in the house next door, who'd taken me under her wing and toted my resume to her place of work.  My husband was running a cabinetmaking operation and I had a proper corporate job, and we were excited about our future.  Our apartment made a perfect nest for our new life together, and the tenants upstairs disturbed us rarely. 

The only fly in the ointment was Sunday evening.  The folks on the other side waited until nearly midnight to dump all of their weeks' recycling glass into the bin outside our bedroom window, jolting me out of our first sleep before our work week; the man beside me dozed blissfully unless I elbowed him. After a few months, I steeled my courage and went outside in my university sweatshirt.  I came face to face with a forty-something man who clearly lived a life of quiet desperation, save for his Sabbath ritual. I explained that I lived next door and that the noise was disturbing, and I wondered if he might handle his recycling earlier in the evening.

"Are you an owner or a renter?" At twenty-three, I looked eighteen, so it was clear but I explained anyway.  "Then I don't care what you think." Conversation over.  I wanted to stomp my little foot and explain that I was a nice person, and not a drag on his property value, but again my gumption deserted me.  We put up with it until we got a line on a cheaper place that needed gutting, where we lived in a state of partial renovation for two more years.   

Now I live on a street near a college campus, where renters far outnumber owners.  A couple of weeks ago the frat boys across the street decided to have a party.  When there were about forty cars on the street, I texted the owner of the house, who explained she'd sold the place a few weeks earlier, but promised to call the leasing agent who'd gotten her off the hook.  In the meantime, I stood in my apron and peered out the window of my newly-renovated kitchen while I roasted fennel and braised some chicken.  There was definitely something going on over there.

The cops showed up a couple of hours in--I'm still not sure who put the law on the party, but suspect I was the prime mover--and the fallout looked like a swarming antpile of blonde ponytails and khaki shorts.  I felt relief and thought about how I would want my sweet freshman daughter looked out for in the possibility of being run over in front of my house by beer-sodden drivers of $40,000 pickup trucks.

Then came the boat.  It's for bass fishing, I think, and it's been sitting on my street on and off for two weeks. It takes our road down to one lane, especially on busy mornings. The house where it originates, two doors down, is in a state of perpetual neglect, with various unknown tenants, presumably a number evicted, with loose dogs and a lawn that only goes down when it's burned to a crisp.  I saw a ticket on the truck in front of the house a couple of days ago and assume somebody called them in. 

At some point, perhaps I'll find my voice and find the owners and ask them why they are comfortable with their low-rent standards.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy my pretty house, have a happy life, and do my best to be a kindly old neighbor.  I never want to be the bitter guy, but I hope when the moment arises again, I'll do the right thing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dream Kitchen

My first real morning in my new kitchen left me at loose ends.  I've dreamed of this kitchen for years, doing so while I've spent long, pleasant evenings putting together meals in tiny working areas, with dingy appliances long past their prime, cabinets with worn paint and configurations unsuited to storing anything taller than a salt shaker.  I've thought about it intently as I contended with possum infestations and rustling behind my cabinets while I cooked, read, worked and wrote, still basically living in this room, a sloppy addition with multiple drafts and ancient, crumbling window frames.  With all these flaws, the room was still my favorite in the house.

Now, just renovated, the new space has sleek new appliances--putting my mustard-colored French kettle on the gas range when I first get out of bed is a deep pleasure; after years of rickety electric stoves down to one element, the satisfying click and fire of the burner and the momentary scent of methane seems so proper, civilized, exactly the right way to make a cup of tea--and cabinets of a very particular gray.  I lost sleep over details and am pleased that I did.  For the first time in my adult life, I have everything I need.  Not a chef's kitchen, but a cook's kitchen and a warm, comfortable place to eat what is prepared.

Mark Bittman has written that good cooks can pull together a meal with very few implements.  Over  nine weeks of renovations, I reminded myself of that daily. I don't enjoy takeout and like restaurants to be a treat.  For most of my adult life, I've cooked an evening meal every day, even late at night and especially when I am on my own.  Chopping ingredients, the hiss of olive oil in the pan, the smell of garlic cooking, a glass of wine at the ready: these are the signs that my workday is winding down.  In anticipation of these weeks, T insisted we get a grill, and I used it most days, along with my big chopping block and a single Wusthof knife, whisking together my salad dressing on a big library table in the family room adjacent to the deck.  One unseasonably cool day in July, I made a beef stew in the crockpot, which sat simmering near the television.

During the demolition phases of the project, I escaped to California.  The two-hour time difference, combined with the gulls announcing the sunrise over the San Francisco Bay, mean I creep out to T's kitchen long before he does.  There, too, I make my tea and sit at the counter and answer correspondence and learn the news of the day.  On Saturdays, we walk to the Ferry Building and buy such wonderful things, Mary's Organic Chicken, Hog Island Oysters, dreamy local produce. On the Fourth of July, we sat on the balcony, grilled up a couple of steaks and split a bottle of Pinot Noir while looking at the Bay Bridge and catching glimpses of fireworks.  The day before, our contractor in Texas sent us pictures of the dead rat behind the old cabinets. 

For the next few weeks, I walked around plastic and dust and in the evenings barricaded myself in the newly-painted bedroom, trying to ignore the chaos outside.  I chastised myself for complaining about the mess, reminding myself of curling linoleum and old formica countertops with blistering corners that left holes in the front of my shirts.  This, I told my inner brat, was a rich person's problem.

In mid-August, we returned from a vacation to the Outer Banks to find the project complete.  T and I had been together, with family, for a full two weeks, the longest single visit we'd had together.  We spent the weekend in Fort Worth before he headed back to the Bay Area. We cleaned and organized, cooked and ate and drank, absorbing what the new space means to us and excited about being together here. Then I took him to the train station and we were back on our parallel tracks.

When I became single again at forty, Sundays were my favorite days to be on my own, once I made my own peace with being without the kids on alternate weekends. An only child, I learned early on to enjoy my own company, and it didn't feel unusual to face time by myself. Waking up was leisurely, and I savored those early hours, knowing the day lay ahead of me to do whatever I wished with it--walking the dog, reading, and certainly cooking a meal. 

So this past Sunday felt like my first real day here.  I sat in the lovely, quiet space and gazed out the new window at my favorite view, the tree in the front yard.  The students who raced up and down the street the day before were all still hungover in bed.  The cardinal who visits sometimes alighted on a lower branch, and I sipped my tea, finishing Kate Christensen's wonderful Blue Plate Special, a memoir I'd been reading.  It should have been a moment of pure contentment.  But it wasn't. 

Being alone now isn't the same as it used to be.  I've grown accustomed to the warmth of companionship and the pleasure of shared routines, and it has robbed me of my lifelong pleasure in being solitary. Christensen's last chapters conjured up a kind of homesickness for me when she wrote of finding real love and the joys of compatibility: "Real happiness is simple.  Simple as dirt."

Naturally, I was petulant with T on the phone later that day. 

But that evening my daughter dropped by unexpectedly with her new boyfriend, and I was delighted by the visit.  I made a good soup and tidied up after dinner, the order giving me satisfaction.  My son was coming back on Monday, an event I always look forward to. 

The next evening, T and I talked, and he remarked that I'd been out of sorts the day before.  It's okay, I said.  I was just lonely. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Finding Love in Midlife

It's been a while since this post, when I was hit less by a thunderbolt than by finding home.  The man with the warmest voice I've ever heard has wound up becoming the love of my life, and we're building one together.  A serendipitous meeting at a sushi place in San Francisco (I live in Fort Worth, Texas) ended up being the best decision I've ever made--traveling on one's own, done well, means shedding a skin and being exposed and ready for a new experience. 

I've avoided writing not out of happiness, as some of my friends have suggested, but out of respect for a deeply precious thing I've unearthed with another person.  After the years of wondering, asking the universe for a sign, and then the tentative steps toward the real thing, rather than some provisional relationship, I didn't want to endanger what we were making. 

Now we are, and have been for a long time, on solid ground. There have been many plane flights back and forth to the wonderful city by the Bay, and jets have traveled too to DFW.  We've made some interesting adventures out of work trips together, and are looking forward to one to Asia together soon.  It's calm, supportive, and passionate at the same time. Who knew those could coexist?

I'd started forget the loneliness I felt earlier in life that I read about in my earlier posts, even when T has to leave me, or I him.  But looking at these, it's clear I avoided the Real Thing, which is why I didn't find it, even when I thought I was ready. The best thing about those feelings is that, painful as they were, they drove me out of my comfortable little rut and out into the wilderness.

So if you are at a certain age and have determined that solo life is not for you, see my thoughts below.

1) Eat lunch all by yourself.   This is especially good if you are in a city that is not your home.  Even if you don't drink alcohol, sit at the bar, order a sparkling water, and see who else is sitting there.  Strike up a conversation, or at least look open to one.  This doesn't mean hitting on someone, but it can open doors about where to meet people.  A couple I met the day I also met T recommended Chaya for dinner on my own. I went, and in walked my destiny. 

2) Get out of your neighborhood.  You already know all the single people in your town.  That might mean your actual town, or your eight-block radius around your apartment where you get your coffee and go to brunch.  The key part is that you'll not just see different people--you'll be different, with your guard down and free from the preconceived ideas of your regular crowd.  When I met T, I was coming back from a work trip in China.  My insecurities were not in evidence: I thought I was all that and a bag of chips.  T picked up on that, and agreed.  So put yourself in places where you can shirk off your usual suit of armor and see what happens. Scary, but pretty exciting.  And when nobody knows who you are, it's hard to worry about what they think.

3) Ask for it. Okay, if you are not a religious person, this can be tough.  But it can be as easy as writing down a wish on a piece of paper and putting it in a drawer, or as challenging as climbing a mountain and asking your own personal version of a spiritual guide to send someone your way. Or just tell a couple of trusted friends that you are ready, and what you think it will look like. It's about intention and opening yourself up to possibility, which means you can walk around with your eyes fully open no matter where you are.

4) Banish convention.  We're fortunate to live in an age where we can make our lives look however we want.  If you're a deeply traditional person, it's easier when young to find someone who looks at the progression of a relationship as dating, marriage, house, kids, promotion, retirement, and death.  Once the world has knocked all the corners off you, you can make it up as you go along, are smart enough to know a good thing regardless of the package it comes in, and can enjoy the hell out of it while knowing life has big bumps.  Respect, kindness, humor and fun are what matters.  The last two are up to your definition, but the first two are absolutely essential.  Settle for nothing less and enjoy your life.  It's short, and you no longer need to give a crap about what people think.  

5) Give yourself permission.  I really couldn't understand why I was on my own. I had friends, was active, curious and engaged in the world. Time to myself was sweet, and still is, which is why a long-distance thing has been great for me and T. My enjoyment of my own company--better than being desperate for a partner, to be sure--didn't explain it completely. Right before I went to China, a couple of frank discussions with a professional helped me understand why I cried all the way to work every Monday when I had to take my kids for the switch-over to their other home. My children were my emotional life.  Anybody else in real proximity would mean I had betrayed them.  After all, I had broken up their home and owed them all my energy to fix that.  Well, turns out when I allowed myself to be open to someone else and stopped putting my guilt in my way, there it was. And my kids?  We took it slow, but they love T, and they are visibly relieved not to be responsible for my happiness. 

Once you find love--and this hardened cynic has learned you can--remember the road is not always easy.  That's another post, but in the meantime, check out Julie Orlov's Pathway to Love website.  Sage advice as we navigate strange waters.