Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Play It Again, Woody

Yesterday I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on her NPR program, Fresh Air. The show was a re-broadcast of an interview originally aired last June. Although I loved the early Woody Allen films, I've become less enamored of his work over the years and, I must admit, I've been affected by the lurid accounts of his marriage to Soon Yi, the adopted daughter of his former lover, Mia Farrow. The scandal made me think less of the man and less of his films, too.

So, it was with surprise and pleasure that I heard Woody Allen speak for himself. I think it's the first interview I've ever heard him give. He sounds like the Woody of films—the slightly whiny voice, the Brooklyn accent. But then the resemblance becomes more tenuous.

Allen, it turns out, isn't as neurotic as his film persona. It could be that decades of psychoanalysis have done wonders. Still, the childhood he describes isn't nearly as tortured as you might expect from his films. I imagined that Allen grew up in a Brooklyn tenement in the shadow of a Coney Island roller coaster, like his character in Annie Hall. But in fact, Allen fondly remembers spending his childhood in a lovely, safe, tree-lined neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, an area replete with ball fields, playgrounds, and numerous movie houses.

Nor were Allen's childhood dinners like those recollected by his character in Annie Hall. Far from the loud, argumentative affairs suggested by the film, Allen mostly ate alone and liked to read comic books while he ate. Allen says he enjoyed the opportunity for mealtime solitude in his crowded home, which was shared with aunts and uncles. His mother would make him an early dinner, then eat a bit later herself, sometimes with her sister. When Allen's father arrived much later from work, his mother would serve him dinner, too.

One of the surprises of the interview is Allen's assertion that he's far from the intellectual that others make him out to be. Rather, he says, "I'm the guy that you see in his tee shirt with a beer watching the baseball game at night at home on television." Talk of sports is interspersed throughout the interview. Though Allen liked his solitary dinners as a child, he loved to play stick ball with the neighborhood kids. He wasn't a loner. And perhaps the biggest shock of all is the news that Allen was a good athlete, always picked first to be on a team, winner of track medals, gifted enough to dream of playing professional baseball.

Sometimes, I'm reluctant to learn too much about creative people, lest I find the artist as a person much less interesting than his or her work. But hearing Woody Allen speak about himself was a revelation. It was also an invitation to enjoy his films as fiction without worrying about not understanding their intellectual subtext. After all, I have it from Allen himself that he's no intellectual.

For those who are interested, here's the interview.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Little Things

Sometimes little things can mean a lot. Today, I received a package from Stark Sisters Granola, which in my opinion is the world's greatest granola. Inside the box, I found the six containers of granola I'd ordered, plus a couple of newsletters from Debra's Natural Gourmet and a personal note.

If you've been following my blog, you'll know that when I'm in Florida I order Stark Sisters Maple Almond Granola from their online site (see "Addicted to My Granola"). Normally, I conduct the entire transaction online. But in October, when I placed my first order after arriving back in Miami, I had a question and decided I would call the company directly.

Debra Stark answered the phone. Naturally, I mentioned how much I love her granola. We chatted for a little while about the fact that her products are carried in New England Whole Foods Stores, but not in other regions. I reiterated my devotion to her granola. That was pretty much it.

My October granola order arrived quickly and I ate through it in record time. When I noticed I was down to my last two containers, I decided to reorder. Hence, the shipment I received today, which contained the following handwritten note from Debra Stark—

"Hi Barbara, Always happy to hear from you. Enclosing also two store newsletters for fun. Best, D"

A short note, easy to write. Good marketing policy, perhaps. But the personal touch really made me feel good. I like knowing there's a thoughtful person at the other end of my order. Her note added a little sparkle to my day. Thanks, Debra.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Out, Damned Spot

This afternoon, E needed my computer, so I sat down at his desk to check my email on his laptop. I immediately noticed a brown stain on the pale beige travertine floor next to the desk. I knew exactly what that stain was. I'd seen it before, but I'd managed to forget all about it. Now, I remembered my frenzied efforts to remove it several years ago and before long, found myself once again in the grip of temporary madness.

The stain that caught my eye today is actually one of  four identical marks. E and I first noticed them when we decided to move his electric piano about a foot to the left of its original position in order to make room for a file drawer on the other side of E's desk. When we lifted the piano, we saw that the synthetic footings of the piano had left unsightly brown stains on the travertine floor. I was horrified. E expressed mild dismay, but pointed out that the stains were small and that the two caused by the back legs of the piano were next to the wall and wouldn't be noticeable. That left the two front stains to contend with. E felt confident we could remove them.

I agreed that the stains probably could be removed if I hired a stone expert to buff the area professionally, but like a crazed Lady Macbeth, I wanted the spots out immediately. Unfortunately, no chemical I tried had any effect, except possibly to make the stains worse. I finally admitted defeat, reassuring myself that one day I'd pay someone to fix the damage. The piano is located on the far wall of the living room, behind the couch. Guests don't tend to walk over there and neither do I. Eventually, I moved on to other equally trivial worries and forgot all about the piano stains.

That was a few years ago. From time to time, when standing by the piano, I've noticed the stains and remarked on their unsightliness, but all in a rather detached way, as if I'd taken a special housekeeping antidepressant that allowed me to gaze on household mishaps with equanimity. Until today.

Sitting at E's desk, at slightly closer range than my normal standing position, the stain closest to me loomed large. Possessed by a sudden feverish energy, I felt driven to get rid of it. I searched the Internet, learned about poultices that can be applied, potions that can be sealed under plastic, and a few chemicals I hadn't previously tried. I discovered that when it comes to travertine, there's a difference between a stain and damage caused when a substance literally etches the surface of the stone.

Still seized by a compulsion to do something, I applied acetate, Goof-Off, and even Murphy Oil Soap, all to no avail. I knew they wouldn't work. I'd been through this before. It was a kind of temporary madness. Fortunately, I came to my senses before I created my own Shakespearean tragedy by asphyxiating myself with the fumes. I suggested to E that we go for a walk. Maybe some fresh air would do me good.

On my return, I avoided the piano area and settled on the couch, putting my feet up on the coffee table, the one with the water marks that won't come out. Madness for another day.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Father's Fear

As we're learning more about the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas day, I'm most struck by the fact that Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the father of alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was so afraid of what his son might do that six months ago he warned Nigerian security agencies of his concerns and he even went to the American Embassy in Nigeria to warn the U.S. that his son had become radicalized and might pose a danger to American interests.

According to the Nigerian newspaper, This Day, a close friend of the father reported that he was shocked to learn that his son was allowed to fly to the U.S. after he had reported him to U.S. authorities. I'm shocked, too. 

As a parent, one's impulse is to protect one's children. Parents may agonize about difficult, withdrawn, or incorrigible children, but normally they don't alert law enforcement officials about them. Rather, in many cases, parents attempt to shield their children even in the face of evidence of terrible crimes. So, the actions of Mr. Mutallab in going so far as warning the U.S. Embassy about his radical Islamic son should have set off red flags and resulted in far greater security concerns.

This is particularly true given the father's standing in the community. Mr. Mutallab is a former minister and recently stepped down as Chairman of First Bank in Nigeria. Given his high profile in Nigeria and even in London, where has a home, one would think he would be particularly sensitive about shining a negative spotlight on himself and his family. Yet he did so when he informed the U.S. Embassy about his son, apparently driven by the fear that his son would be capable of exactly the type of attack he attempted on Friday.

Did someone drop the ball? Is this another case of beaurocratic incompetence? Do we need a new regulation specifically stating that when a parent says a child is dangerous, officials must pay special attention? 

According to the New York Times, after the warning by his father, "the suspect's name was inserted last month into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or Tide. About 550,000 individuals are registered in the database. A subset of that is the Terrorist Screening Data Base, or T.S.D.B., which has about 400,000.

"By contrast, fewer than 4,000 names from the T.S.D.B. are on the “no-fly” list, and an additional 14,000 on a “selectee” list that calls for mandatory secondary screening, an Obama administration official said. At the time Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was recorded in the Tide database in November, the official said, 'there was insufficient derogatory information available' to warrant putting him in the T.S.D.B., no-fly or selectee lists, and so he was not on any watch list when he boarded the plane bound for Detroit."

Does this surprise you? It surprised me that while millions of dollars are spent so that millions of passengers can be screened in airports, the most suspicious half million people receive no secondary screening at all. According to the New York Times, in the wake of this incident President Obama has ordered a review of current practices to make sure they're appropriate. Let's hope the result is more vigilance regarding people on the T.S.D.B. And let's put individuals whose parents have alerted authorities about them on the top of the list.


Friday, December 25, 2009

I Needed a Break, Until I Got One

Since Thanksgiving, I'd been busy traveling, entertaining visitors, buying holiday gifts, attending to Cosmo's latest health crisis, and working. I looked forward to a hiatus around Christmas. With the gifts all mailed and Cosmo back to good health, I planned to luxuriate in my free time, get on a regular exercise schedule, work on a deferred web project, enjoy some Netflix dvds, and read more books. Most of our friends would either be traveling or busy with family, so they wouldn't be available to lure me with social temptations.

I'm now almost a week into my break. For the first few days, it was a relief not to have any plans, but for the past day or two, I've felt at loose ends. On reflection, I realize this is a pattern I've repeated throughout my life—I long for solitude, then, once I have it, I miss the conviviality of others. Not that it's exactly solitude I'm experiencing. I live with my husband (henceforth to be known as E), after all. Yesterday, we took a bracing five-mile walk and stopped for lunch at a lovely outdoor restaurant, where we ran into some acquaintances. I can't leave my building without a friendly greeting from a neighbor or two. So, I'm not exactly alone.

And my email life is as active as ever. I love being able to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family on a regular basis. I have no desire to curtail that activity, even for a few days.

Still, with no social plans until New Year's Eve, life has begun to feel a little dull. No dinner out with friends to anticipate, no excursions to South Beach, no ping pong extravaganzas. Adding to my malaise, another pattern that I recognize all too well has emerged. With more time on my hands, I'm getting far less done.

Yesterday, just as I was beginning to feel a bit desperate, I was saved by a phone call. It was Eric's cousin, calling to say he's in town, at his condo less than an hour away. We'd hoped he would show up at some point this winter but we had no idea when. News of his arrival immediately brightened my spirits. We arranged to spend tomorrow with him and then take it from there.

Before you know it, I'll probably be yearning for another hiatus. Maybe one of these days, I'll find the perfect balance. For now, though, I'll take things one social event at a time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Julie Powell and I Have in Common

Not very much, it turns out. It also turns out that the Julie Powell who impressed me so much was really the Amy Adams/Nora Ephron version of Julie Powell, not the real flesh-and-blood, cleaver-wielding Julie Powell.

Here is what I do have in common with Julie Powell—we both blog (as do gazillions of other people) and we both went to Amherst College. She actually graduated from Amherst, Class of '95, while I merely spent a year there (albeit as one of the first 23 women to attend the college). That's it, that's what we have in common.

Do I sound disillusioned? If so, it's because I am, having written about Julie and Julia last night in a fog of admiration for the little blog that could. My misapprehension about the nature of Julie Powell's blog is not Powell's fault. It's mine, for assuming that the movie character and the actual person were one and the same.

Here's Powell's own take, from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the difference between herself and her movie character—

"I think I am a little tougher than the Julie Powell of the movie. I say 'f---' a lot more and funny stuff happens to her rather than her being funny. A huge part of my year was discovering that I had a writing voice that could be humorous . . . They knock off her edges. I wouldn't say they dumb her down but they simplify her motives."

And here's Powell's explanation, from the same article, about why her blog became so popular and why she started it in the first place—

"First of all, I was in the right place at the right time. Blogging was in its infancy and there were 5000 blogs instead of the 130 million there are now, so I was easier to find. Also, the subject matter really resonated with people. I don't like to make too big a deal out of the timing, but it was post-9/11 New York, and a lot of people who were feeling lost felt the need to do something else with their lives.

"I didn't want to just sit and be miserable; I wanted to shake things up. I had this life that was driving me mad. I was so enervated. Every night I would come home, watch some garbage on TV, order pizza, get drunk, go to sleep and start all over again. I was tired all the time physically but, existentially speaking, [the cooking/blog project] was a new lease on life."

My Internet research indicates that Powell's blog was more open and far more coarse in style than the movie excerpts suggest. However, one entry included in the movie did surprise me. In it, Julie describes her husband leaving after they have a fight over her cooking obsession. I hadn't expected that the film Julie, with her gentle persona, would opt to air her intimate dirty laundry in public. Turns out Powell's actual blog concerned cooking and relationships all along. Everything that happened in her life was apparently fair game for the blog.

In her second blog, which also became a book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, Powell revealed an adulterous affair. So, she's clearly a person who's comfortable letting it all hang out. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, But it's not quite how the Julie of Julie and Julia came across.

A friend who read the blog entry I posted yesterday emailed me about an interview she heard with Julie Powell, in which Powell sounded "incredibly arrogant and extremely nasty." I have no idea whether Powell always displayed these qualities or whether her blog/book/movie fame has brought them out, but certainly this is not the Julie who was portrayed in the film.

Finally, the film does a disservice to Julia Child. We learn in the film that Julia told a reporter she didn't like Julie's blog because she thought Julie wasn't serious about cooking. The comment sounded ungracious and not like the good-natured Julia Child whom I admired from her cookbooks and television appearances. But here's the thing—the movie treated a genuine comment made by the real Julia as if it was directed at the film Julie. This gave a false impression about what Julia was reacting to.

According to Child's close friend and Knopf editor, Judith Jones, Child disliked Powell's coarse language, believed that the cooking project was a stunt, and didn't want to be perceived as endorsing the blog. She was of an older, more genteel, generation, and was responding to aspects of the blog that weren't depicted in the film. (Jone's remarks were made during an interview with Publishers Weekly in July, 2009.)

My friends have sometimes accused me of being too literal-minded. I plead guilty as charged. But in the future, I'll try not to take films too literally, even when they claim to be true stories about actual people.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bon Appétit!

I just watched the film Julie and Julia. I had heard that Meryl Streep channeled Julia Child amazingly. She did. I had also heard that Amy Adams paled in comparison. There I beg to differ. I found Adams engaging, believable, and adorable. Of course, I may have been a tad influenced by the project that her character, Julie Powell, was engaged in—a blog.

In order to write her blog, Julie had to fulfill the goal she set for herself, cooking her way through Julia's pièce de résistance, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Blogging I can do, cooking not so much. Those of you who follow my blog regularly may have read my entry, entitled "The Only Thing Julia Child and I have in Common." The answer, you may recall, was not cooking.

But back to blogging. As a fellow blogger, I wondered how exactly Julie managed to create a blog that went viral. Her witty, self-deprecating style probably helped. And her dedication to blogging every day, plus the one-year deadline she set to accomplish her goal, may have drawn readers in, too. Then there was the thing the blog was about—Julia Child and cooking. Every day, Julie would prepare a recipe or two or three from Julia's cookbook and readers would anxiously wait to learn the results. It was an adventure of sorts, Julie's own kind of Mt. Everest. But the greatest thing about Julie's endeavor was that she just plunged in and did it, without expectations of any reward beyond the thing itself, beyond the nightly cooking and eating and communing with Julia through preparing the food and then writing about the experience.

Here's a toast to both Julie and Julia, who were looking for something to do and wound up creating recipes for their own lives—bon appétit!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Writer's Cramp

I had to do some writing today. Handwriting, that is, with a pen on paper. I needed to inscribe a note to a friend. An email or typewritten letter wouldn't do. My mind and spirit were willing, but my out-of-practice writing hand wasn't.

Blame it on technology. Constant keyboard use has made me almost spastic with a pen. I don't have arthritis. I've simply lost the ability to write with ease. To be honest, though, my handwriting difficulty goes back a lot further than the advent of the computer.

I'm left-handed, a disadvantage when holding a pen and trying to write from left to right. This was exacerbated by my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Moshy, who insisted I hold my pen the way a righty would, with the unfortunate result that as I formed my letters with the required fountain pen, everything smeared. In desperation, I learned to hold the pen correctly yet not let my hand touch the paper as I wrote, resulting in a cramped, awkward penmanship.

In junior high school, I tried to train myself to write with my right hand. It's a miracle I passed the seventh grade, since all the right-handed notes I took in class were illegible, even to me. I later learned the backhand style that many left-handed writers use, but alas, Miss Moshy had taught me too well—I eventually reverted to the penmanship form I had developed in her class. As a result, though my handwriting remains graceless, I assure you that I hold my pen perfectly.

My handwriting low point came in law school—the endless note-taking was pure agony. How I would have loved to have a laptop instead of a spiral notebook, but laptops didn't yet exist. In my effort to write quickly yet not smear the ink of my ballpoint pen, I put a tremendous strain on on my wrist, resulting in a large unsightly lump known as a ganglion. The ganglion eventually resolved (after I accidentally smashed my wrist against a big amplifier) and I eventually finished law school, but my handwriting failed to improve.

Happily, computers evolved and touch typing takes care of virtually everything, except for the occasional check or handwritten note. Lack of practice has made my penmanship more stiff and clumsy than ever. When I try to give my handwriting an elegant flourish, I wind up slurring my letters and rendering them illegible. Often, I have to re-write birthday cards and thank you notes several times. Today I did relatively well— I only had to rewrite my note twice.

So, if you receive a birthday email from me rather than a handwritten card, I hope you'll understand—I'm doing it to spare you the task of deciphering my scrawl and to spare myself the torture of putting pen to paper.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Study in Contrasts

The New World Symphony is a wonderful institution. Founded 22 years ago by Michael Tilson Thomas,  who still conducts, the NWS is an orchestral academy which trains and showcases talented young musicians. Since shortly after its founding, it has made its home at South Beach's Lincoln Theatre, which boasts a restored art deco exterior and a modern, comfortable interior with great acoustics.

This afternoon, I attended a lovely NWS performance. The orchestra played selections by Milhaud, Ravel, Berg, and Richard Strauss. The young musicians were masterful. They combined tremendous technical skill with freshness and enthusiasm. The audience was also enthusiastic, giving the performers a well-deserved standing ovation. But I was more struck by the stark difference between the musicians and their audience—the musicians were all in their twenties, while those of us in the audience were mostly seniors.

This is a common phenomenon at classical music concerts, but somehow at this performance, where the musicians themselves were so young, the contrast seemed all the greater. Their musicianship makes it clear that there's no shortage of brilliant young musicians, but their audience appears to be on its last legs.

The NWS seems to think there's still a market for its musical product. It will soon move into a new Frank Gehry-designed campus right around the corner from the Lincoln Theatre. The orchestra hopes to create interest in classical music among a younger generation. I hope they succeed, because it's certainly weird to feel like one of the youngest in the crowd at age 60.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Après le Déluge

Miami has just experienced a rain blizzard. At times, the rain fell so furiously I couldn't see anything in front of me and the wind roared so fiercely I feared a tornado would strike (in fact, a small tornado is believed to have touched down not far from here). The rain has stopped, but the palm fronds are still blowing horizontally and white caps have formed on normally quiet Biscayne Bay. Over a foot of rain has fallen here since yesterday. The wild Miami weather is part of the same system that's about to wreak havoc on Virginia, Washington D.C., and points further north, where forecasters predict a major snowstorm.

There's been a lot of wild weather this week. Over five feet of snow fell during a single extended storm in Valdez, Alaska, setting a record. In Edmonton, Canada, cold records were shattered on Sunday when the temperature sank to -46.1 degrees Centigrade. That's Centigrade. Shockingly cold. For those who believe in global warming, any extreme weather provides evidence that we're destroying our climate, so presumably even record-setting snow and cold proves that the earth is warming. Call me an agnostic, but I'm still not convinced, especially after the recent scandal regarding suppression of data that didn't support the global warming hypothesis. And then there's the question of sunspots (see "Global Cooling")—a sunspot minimum might not negate the greenhouse gas theory but it could ameliorate its effects.

Ironically, it snowed this week in Denmark and the country is expecting a white Christmas for the first time in 14 years, while world leaders meeting there debate solutions to global warming. Not that news commentators mentioned the snow. Nor should they have—individual weather events do not in and of themselves prove or disprove the theory of global warming. Still, had the temperature soared to unexpected highs in Denmark this week rather than sinking to unaccustomed lows, I feel pretty sure journalists would have woven the local weather into their updates from Copenhagen.

Some may call me a Polyanna and perhaps it's true that I'm in denial. I fervently hope that the earth won't overheat catastrophically, so maybe I'm grasping at any sign that the science supporting global warming is wrong. Yet some scientists do dispute the prevailing view. For example, see "The Climate Science Isn't Settled," a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by MIT professor of meteorology Richard S. Lindzen.

For now, I'll take things a day at a time. Many of the measures proposed to prevent global warming seem good for the environment, so I'll support them. But I'll view attempts at excessive government intervention and spending with a wary eye. The deluge appears to be over for the moment in Miami, but the political storms swirling around the issue of global warming seem likely to continue for a long while.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Those Holiday Letters

Everyone complains about them, makes fun of them, even discards them, but I look forward to reading the annual holiday missives, especially the ones from people I rarely see—friends from college and grad school, old neighbors and prior workmates. I may never even have met their children, yet I enjoy learning the the intimate details of their lives during the past year.

Holiday letters are like mini-memoirs and, as with any memoir, one can learn a lot about the writer by his or her style, by what's included, and by what's left out. Some holiday letters are over-filled with holiday cheer. These writers only want to share the good stuff. I must admit, this makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the holidays abound with images of brightness and hope, embodied by the lighting of Hanukkah candles and Christmas trees. It seems like a good time to focus on the positive, right?

Yet, when I read a relentlessly cheery letter, detailing the accomplishments of family members (Pete won the Heisman award, Jessica got a Fullbright, their dad finally nabbed that Nobel prize), I do wonder what's being left out (Pete may have won the Heisman but he wasn't drafted by the NFL, Jessica's boyfriend dumped her, their mom had a hysterectomy). Not that I really want to know the gory details, but sometimes the super-upbeat letters don't seem quite real.

On the other hand, some people seem to regard their holiday letters as cathartic—an opportunity to share bad news as well as good, perhaps even a chance to reveal information previously kept secret. I recently received a letter from a former neighbor. In it, he frankly described his family's struggle with his wife's serious illness during the past year. The letter provided happier notes as well, including the arrival of a new puppy in the household, but the predominant tone was one of sadness. Still, I was glad to receive the letter. It helped me feel connected to my old neighbors and brought back memories of happier times.

Ultimately, the best letters remind me of why I liked the senders in the first place. For example, I enjoy reading each year about an old friend's exploits in the wilds of Maine, even though I haven't seen him in thirty years. He still comes across as the same zany guy Eric and I knew back at the University of Chicago, when we were all graduate students there.

I won't be sending out holiday letters myself this year. After all, I'm posting these blog entries on an almost daily basis. The last thing anyone needs is a special holiday edition. But for those of you so inclined, please don't forget to write!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SoFi, and I Don't Mean Sophie

It's a gloriously sunny day in South Florida and I've been dying to visit South Beach's South Pointe Park, a 17.5-acre esplanade which recently underwent a $22 million renovation. That's a lot of money to spend in any economy, let alone this one. I'm eager to take advantage of the largess.

The esplanade creates a link for walkers from the inland waterway to the Atlantic Ocean. It fronts on the Government Cut, a man-made shipping channel that was literally cut across the end of the Miami Beach peninsula a century ago, creating Fisher Island to its south.

South Beach comprises the 23 southernmost blocks of Miami Beach. In recent years, the southern tip of South Beach, which lies south of Fifth Street, has become known as SoFi. To the north of Fifth, the crowds on Ocean Drive party day and night; to the south, it's quieter and, with the addition of newly-planted dune grass and palms along the esplanade, breathtakingly beautiful.

It's hot today, too hot for a long walk, but perfect for an amble through the park and onto the beach. Along the way, I pass a fashion shoot in progress. What better spot to photograph a rakish model in casually stylish attire?

Whichever way I look, the views are stupendous—the Port of Miami and the Miami skyline to my west, the brilliant white sand curving north along South Beach, and behind me to the northwest, luxury high rises hovering over the water like cruise ships in dry dock.

There's great food to be had in SoFi. Today, I enjoyed lunch at a restaurant adjacent to the new park, overlooking the Government Cut. As I ate, I watched a giant container ship sail by, almost close enough to touch, no doubt on its way to some exotic destination. As for me, I felt quite happy staying put. In ultra-chic SoFi, I'd already found my exotic destination.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dark Side of Whites

It's laundry day, so naturally I'm procrastinating—I'd much rather write about laundry than do it. Yet, I seem well-suited to the task. I like clean clothes and I'm orderly by nature, so folding should be my forte. Still, though I like having the laundry done, I'm loath to do it.

I particularly dislike doing laundry here in Florida. We renovated our apartment with every intention of creating room for a full-size washer and dryer, yet in the end the laundry area wasn't deep enough to accommodate the larger machines. The medium-size Bosch side-by-side appliances we purchased are beautiful to look at, state of the art, yet surprisingly unimpressive. The dryer's lint collector is impossible to clean and clothes that came out of the dryer unwrinkled back in Boston require ironing after emerging from the Bosch dryer. The front-loading washer is downright scary—it goes into its spin cycle like a rocket ship lifting off on a noisy mission to outer space. More than once, a neighbor who happened to be passing in the corridor just as my machine was lifting off has pounded frantically on my door, sure that an explosion was imminent.

The worst aspect of doing laundry in Florida is the need for more loads. With my extra-large Kenmores back in Boston, I can get away with washing one dark and one light load of clothing per week. Here, I'm lucky if I can squeeze a week's dirty clothes into three loads. Usually, it takes four. Sheets and towels also require three or four loads per week, rather than the two I'm used to in Boston.

The last time I washed the towels, I tried to cram three bath towels, a bath mat, two hand towels, and two wash cloths into a single load. In Boston, I would have had room to spare. Here, I could barely close the washer door. That should have clued me in that I was making a mistake, but I was determined to save energy—mine and the environment's. Fortunately, I'm too much of a worrier to leave the apartment while the washer is running, so I decided to put off walking the dog until the load finished. I was at my computer when I heard an alarming thudding sound. I raced to the washing machine, where the heavy sodden towels were giving my rocket ship a run for its money as it entered the spin cycle. I had to practically lie across the top of the machine, putting as much of my weight as possible on it, to calm the violent shaking and prevent the washer from truly taking off.

Naturally, laundry presented an even greater challenge while my kids lived at home. When Aaron was a baby, he rarely played in his playpen, since I used it as a large laundry basket. Once I'd washed and dried our clothes, I'd throw them in there, where they'd sit, sometimes for days, until I got around to folding them. Even now, laundry threatens to overwhelm me. Recently, I've designated two days a week as "laundry days"—one day for clothes, the other for sheets and towels. At least that way, I don't feel guilty about not doing laundry during the rest of the week, only when I procrastinate on the designated days.

Not long ago, I discussed the vicissitudes of laundry with a friend, who described his approach to the problem—he does laundry virtually every day, throwing whatever's dirty into the wash, so he never has to deal with full hampers and multiple loads. Maybe that's the solution for me. I can't start the day without my mug of coffee. Why not make it a mug of coffee and yesterday's dirty laundry? I fear I'm not disciplined enough to adhere to such a schedule. And even if I were, there's still the issue of ironing. Don't get me started on that.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Mutual Admiration Society

It was hard to re-visit my parents' former apartment yesterday, but I also had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with my aunt and uncle, who have lived for many years in the same condo community where my father and mother spent the last year of my mother's life.

I've always had a special relationship with my aunt, who is my father's only sibling. We feel a real affinity for one another or, more simply put, we like each other a lot. As a child, I admired my aunt's slim figure and her beautiful face, with its high cheekbones and sensitive mouth. I wanted to look like her. I was thrilled when people pointed out a family resemblance. I found her easy to talk to and appreciated the interest she took in me. I felt she embodied refinement and taste.

My aunt adores her children and was devoted to her own mother, who spent many years in a nursing home walking distance from my aunt's house. She has a close and loving relationship with my uncle, whose quiet presence, leavened with his enormous repertoire of jokes, complements my aunt's more talkative nature. I always look forward to seeing them, but yesterday's visit felt different.

My uncle greeted Eric and me enthusiastically. More gregarious than usual, he regaled us with jokes and told a marvelously improbable story, which turned out to be true—he and my aunt entered a raffle at a car dealer and, a couple of weeks after they had purchased a new car from the dealer, were informed they'd won a second new car! As amazing as this story was, though, the levity it occasioned couldn't fully explain how happy I felt being with my aunt and uncle.

My aunt seemed delighted as always to see Eric and me. She expressed her usual interest in the doings of our children, and updated us about her children and grandchildren. She looked beautiful, even luminous. In her mid-eighties, she swims every day, enjoys music, reads, plays bridge, and keeps in touch with far-flung family and friends. I've always identified with my aunt, in many ways more than with my own mother. I believe that yesterday, despite my sadness over my mother's recent death, I allowed myself to fully appreciate the connection I feel with my aunt and how much that connection means to me.

As we were leaving, my aunt thanked Eric and me profusely for coming, as if we were doing her a favor. But really, it's the other way around. Thank you, my dearest aunt, for being there, still my role model after all these years.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Remembrance of Times Past

Later today, I plan to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in a large condominium community about an hour north of Miami. My parents lived in the same community for a little over a year; they moved there from a house in Boca Raton, where they'd resided for over twenty years. Their apartment was small but pleasant, with two bedrooms and a screened terrace overlooking one of the community's many pools. My mother, a social person, always enjoyed watching activity from her window, so the poolside location was a good choice for her.

The apartment needed work, though. It's paint was old and dingy. The carpet, cheap to begin with, was threadbare and unattractive. The refrigerator needed replacing and the bathrooms were tired. When my parents moved in, my mother had every intention of fixing the place up. But she wasn't feeling well. She'd been diagnosed with an ulcer and had no appetite. She needed a knee replacement. And my father had early Alzheimer's, so required care and attention. They moved their furniture in and, after some prodding from the family, hung their artwork. The place was comfortable enough, if not perfect. The fix-up would come later.

But it never did. My mother's knee replacement left her in more pain than before the surgery. Though her ulcer seemed to have been cured, her appetite didn't return and she continued to lose weight. She went from doctor to doctor but found no relief. Eventually, she complained to one doctor of a swollen gland, which turned out to be an indication of metastatic cancer. By then, she was showing signs of mental deterioration. Only a few months after that, she died.

Almost until the end, my mother hoped and even expected that she would get better, that she would paint and re-carpet the apartment, and that she would build a nice life in the community. It was perhaps a blessing that her mental state declined in such a way that she never fully grasped her diagnosis. Fortunately, her passing was swift and, during her last days, without pain.

After she died last June, my father relocated to Chicago, where my two sisters and several nieces live. After family members removed the important keepsakes, we put the apartment up for sale, fully furnished. And there it has sat. The real estate market is terrible. Nothing is selling in the community, or in most of South Florida, for that matter.

The last time we visited my aunt and uncle, Eric and I checked my parents' apartment for the first time since returning to Florida from Boston. The realtor had informed us of a stain caused by a small leak, so we brought a can of paint with us. While Eric painted, I dusted and swept. It was an eerie, unsettling experience to be back there, yet not find my mother sitting at her accustomed spot in front of the computer nor my father out on the terrace, watching a football game on tv.

We've since lowered the price of the apartment, hoping against hope to sell it quickly. Yesterday, the realtor emailed us to say there's another leak. We'll stop by to check it out this afternoon. I anticipate that seeing the apartment, which seems to be slowly deteriorating, will remind me painfully of my mother's slow decline during the last year of her life. In retrospect, I wonder how I could have missed the signs of her serious illness. She had always been so strong. I convinced myself she would recover and keep on going.

During my weekly Sunday visits with my parents, the best times occurred when I persuaded my mother to come outside by the pool and sit with me under the shade of an umbrella, enjoying the soft Florida breeze. There, she would invariably feel better and often would reminisce about happier days—her childhood in Washington Heights, the many wonderful trips she and my father took, the fun times she had with her family and her many friends.

I think I'll spend a few moments by the pool this afternoon, where my mother remembered the good life she had.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

I brought my trusty iPhone along to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary today and took a few photos. But what I'll remember most is the one that got away—not just the photo, but the chance to see something special.

Let me start at the beginning. Visitors to Corkscrew Swamp can walk through the Audubon bird sanctuary on a 2.25 mile raised boardwalk, which wends its way through four distinct environments—a pine upland, a wet prairie, a cypress forest, and a marsh. The boardwalk creates a marvelous path through landscapes that would otherwise be inaccessible, while protecting the plants, birds, and other wildlife that inhabit the area.

Shortly after we began our walk, we detoured onto one of the occasional spurs off the main boardwalk that lead to points of interest. We arrived at an area where a bird feeder had been set up (this was the only spot during the entire walk where we saw a man-made apparatus). There, we encountered a photographer with an impressive-looking camera. She told us she'd been watching for two-and-a-half hours and had just seen and photographed a painted bunting. She showed us the picture in the window of her digital camera. Her patience had been rewarded with a gorgeous shot of a spectacular bird. Having missed my own opportunity to photograph the bunting, I've reprinted a picture from WikiMedia Commons.


Though sorry I'd missed the bunting, I was impressed by the photographer's perseverance. Her mission accomplished, she accompanied us back to the main trail. She mentioned that she lived nearby and came frequently to walk and take photographs. I commented how fortunate she was to be able to visit often. 

"The reason I have the free time," she replied, "is that I lost my job five months ago. I'd worked for the company for ten years."

Before she left to explore another spur, she pointed out a fox squirrel, newly reintroduced to the sanctuary. As we continued our walk, I saw a mother raccoon with two adorable wide-eyed babies and several birds that I'd never seen before, including a red-shouldered hawk and a black-crowned night heron.

At Corkscrew Swamp, I witnessed what we can do to preserve and protect an environment. I only wish we could do as well at preserving and protecting the jobs of our people.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Naples Pier

On a hot, humid day in Florida, the Naples Pier is a wonderful place to visit. First built in 1888 as a freight and passenger dock and rebuilt after various hurricanes, today the pier attracts fishermen, tourists, and locals out for a stroll. The air is cooled delightfully by the water below and one can gaze for miles down the lovely beach, whose sand is so soft and white that it's known as "sugar sand."

This afternoon, there were many fisherman on the pier. The bait on their lines attracted fish, which in turn attracted pelicans, gulls, and even a mother dolphin teaching her youngster to fish. A park official told me that the dolphins are experts at extricating bait from hooks without getting hooked themselves. As an added bonus, high in the sky above the pier, I spotted a bald eagle. It turns out a pair of them hang out atop the highest tree overlooking the pier.

The Naples Pier provides the setting for a harmonious confluence of man and nature. I was happy to be part of it today.

Click on the photos to enlarge the images.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Time to Pack

Tomorrow, Eric and I will embark on an overnight jaunt to Naples, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. We'll be traveling with good friends, who could care less about what I wear. I don't expect to be running into anyone I know and casual is the rule in Florida, unless you're on the Palm Beach party circuit (I'm not). So, all I need to do is throw a change of clothes and a toothbrush into a tote bag, right? I wish. For me, packing is always an ordeal, no matter how short the trip.

My mantra in life is simplicity. In decor, I tend toward the austere—no tchotchkes on my shelves. I like spareness in writing—I'm not a fan of post-modern obfuscation. And I'm definitely not a multi-tasker—I prefer to tackle one thing at a time. As far as clothing, I favor jeans and tee shirts, usually in a neutral palate, so you would think that packing would be a straightforward proposition. However, one of the ways I endeavor to keep my life simple is by always being prepared for any imaginable situation. Thus, packing becomes an activity fraught with conflict and anxiety, as I try to pack light, yet worry about leaving some essential item at home.

Though we'll only be gone for one night, we've planned a variety of activities, from shopping in Old Naples, to lolling on the beach, dining at a nice restaurant, and walking through the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. A delightful itinerary, but what shoes should I bring? For shopping, something attractive yet comfortable seems called for. Since we'll be hitting the beach, I really ought to have my flip flops, too. When we go to dinner, I'd like to wear my favorite sandals—they're cute but not good for walking more than a block. And obviously, I'm not entering the swamp without walking shoes and my cushy Thorlo socks.

When it comes to toilet articles, it becomes even harder to limit the load. What if I develop a rash? Better bring along the cortisone cream. And sunscreen is essential. But which SPF, 15 or 50? When in doubt, throw in both. And on and on it goes.

What I've described above, however, is just phase one of the packing process. After I've created piles of clothing, shoes, and toilet articles, I'm invariably appalled by the excess. So, the paring phase begins. Do I really need those flip flops? Can't my comfortable flat sandals double for shopping and the beach? In a pinch, I can wear them to dinner, too. As for toilet articles, after deliberation, the cortisone cream stays, but the SPF 50 is out. I'm living on the edge.

My aim on this trip is to share a single small suitcase with Eric. My stuff will probably fill at least two-thirds. Compared to plane trips, packing for our overnight should be relatively relaxing. After all, we're traveling in our car. If I decide at the last minute there's something that I absolutely must bring, like a fleece jacket in case of a sudden cold snap (the weather's predicted to be in the eighties), I'll just stash it in the back of the car's trunk. No one ever has to know.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Imagining Botswana

I've just finished reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the first in a series of books by Alexander McCall Smith. The series features Mma Precious Ramotswe, an African woman of ample girth through whose eyes the reader sees life in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe, an admirer of Agatha Christie, approaches her cases with a mixture of intuition and common sense, not unlike that of Christie's Miss Marple. And she's not one to be intimidated by power—she treats the people she meets, whatever their station, with dignity and respect, but also with forthrightness and spirit.

To see Botswana through Mma Ramotswe's eyes is to experience a country rich in beauty and tradition and proud of its independence. At the same time, Mma Ramotswe's Botswana is subject to the foibles of societies everywhere—bad people take advantage of good people. But it's the good people who come shining through in McCall Smith's depiction of African life. In his novel, I found portraits of honesty, love, perseverence, and reverence for the natural world. Mma Ramotswe cannot fathom wanting to live anywhere but Africa.

Mochudi, the childhood village of the fictional Mma Ramotswe

So often, descriptions of Africa focus on corruption, disease, cruelty, and suffering. I found the picture painted in McCall Smith's novel uplifting. Granted, the author, a white man of British background who grew up in Zimbabwe and currently lives in Scotland, might not be regarded as an authentic voice of black Africa, especially as channeled through a female protagonist. Yet McCall Smith, who lived in Botswana for a year and has visited annually for many years, may be the ideal person to communicate the special qualities of Africa, and Botswana in particular, to white westerners.

After finishing the book, I did a little research and learned that Botswana, a landlocked country almost the size of Texas, has undergone an impressive transformation since it achieved independence from Great Britain in 1966. At that time, it was one of the most impoverished countries in Africa. Today, with a democratic political system and a market society that enables a majority of its citizens to live above the international poverty line, Botswana is considered one of Africa's success stories. I may never actually travel there, but I intend to continue following Mma Ramotswe's adventures. I look forward to many pleasurable hours inhabiting Botswana in my imagination.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Allure of Naming

The other day, I was out walking and saw an unfamiliar bird. I was quite certain it was a heron, probably a little blue heron, but I wasn't sure what to make of its legs, which were a lovely shade of lime green. The bird stood nearby, wary of me, but not intimidated enough to fly away. I enjoyed seeing its soft blue-grey plumage at close range and hoped I might actually witness it catching a fish, but at the same time a question nagged at me—what kind of bird is this, what is its name? It was as if I couldn't fully claim the experience of seeing the bird without being able to identify it.

A short search on the Internet satisfied my curiosity. The bird was indeed a little blue heron, but specifically a non-breeding adult. The breeding adults have a more purplish tinge to their head and neck, and their legs and feet are dark blue. I felt a surge of pleasure and relief. Now I knew the bird I'd seen. But then a new question nagged at me—why is naming so important?

Years ago, when I wrote poetry, I was in a workshop with a talented poet. She wrote beautiful poems about the natural landscape, using descriptions of flora and fauna to provide insights about the human condition. While I enjoyed her use of language and her perceptions, I was blown away by her knowledge of flowers and plants. She could name every native New England flower and every northeastern bird, weaving their characteristics skillfully into her poems. At the time, I feared my inability to do this disqualified me as a poet. Even when I got past that concern, I continued to admire her ability, convinced it gave her a deeper appreciation of our exterior and interior worlds.

I'm a tidy person with a need for order. Perhaps the ability to name satisfies some related urge. By naming flowers and birds I create a sense of order in what otherwise might be a chaotic scene. That explanation is appealing, but I think it falls short. It seems to me that by learning the identity of plants and animals, I become more aware of the world around me—my powers of observation literally increase. The next time a non-breeding little blue heron is in my neighborhood, I'll spot it more quickly. By learning its name, I've created a connection in my brain that will allow me to see it more easily the next time.

Whatever the reason, one thing is sure—the feeling of satisfaction I get from the act of naming is enough to keep me at it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What the Frak?

Those of you in the know will know that frak is a bowdlerized version of the real-life F--- word, an expletive sound-alike used by residents of the Twelve Colonies on the television series, Battlestar Galactica.

The Battlestar Galactica I refer to is a stylish remake of the original 1978 tv series. In it, a race of cyborgs created by humans have rebelled against them and wiped out most of humanity by nuking the Twelve Colonies. The remaining fifty thousand humans inhabit a fleet of spacecrafts. Led by the lone surviving military vessel, Battlestar Galactica, they search for a legendary planet known as Earth, where they hope to find refuge.

The people of the Twelve Colonies smoke, drink, worship, and curse. Sound familiar? Everything's just a little bit off, though. Instead of "God forbid," it's "Gods forbid" in the polytheistic Twelve Colonies. There are sleeper cells of Cylons rather than Al-Qaeda. And there's plenty of "fraking" going on.

Apparently the word "frack" was used in the original series because any real expletives would not have been permitted by the FCC. In the modern series, which was broadcast on the Sci Fi Network, no such verbal manipulations were required, Sci Fi being a cable network and not subject to those FCC sanctions, but either the catchiness of the word or the desire to air reruns on broadcast tv prompted writers of the newer series to adopt the variant "frak."

Eric and I have recently been watching the series on Netflix. It's a little slow-going at times, but addictive nonetheless, with a good cast and the allure of cyborgs that look, behave, and apparently feel exactly like humans. Until a friend recommended it, the series flew under my radar—I had no idea it had reached cult-like status among some.

The other night, I ran out of Battlestar Galactica dvds, so I decided to watch an episode of 30 Rock available On Demand. At one point during the episode, Judah Friedlander's character, Frank Rossitano, bursts through the door, distraught, and yells "What the frak?," a reference I never would have gotten had I not so recently been initiated into the language of the Twelve Colonies. I did a little research on the Internet and discovered that Salma Hayek appeared on another episode of 30 Rock wearing a "What the Frak?!" tee shirt.

I realized I had already seen that Salma Hayek episode, yet the Frak reference had totally passed me by. Now that I'm a Battlestar Galactica initiate, though, I immediately understood it's use in Frank Rossitano's outburst. My experience is part of a larger phenomenon that happens to most of us—after we encounter an unusual word or phrase and learn its meaning, suddenly it's everywhere, in magazines and books, on radio and tv. 

It's disconcerting to imagine how many references pass me right by in the course of a day. But at least now I'll catch the Battlestar Galactica allusions. And thanks to my husband and sons, who have watched every Three Stooges episode a hundred times, I'm pretty good at picking up those references, too. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A New Art Form?

Yesterday, I checked out Art Basel Miami, the largest annual art show in America, perhaps in the world. Galleries from around the globe exhibit artwork by their most promising and prominent artists, all of it for sale, often at astronomical prices. The artistic giants of the twentieth century are displayed cheek by jowl with emerging artists. Works by de Kooning, Picasso, Kline, Lichtenstein, Moore, and Calder were on hand at this year's show, along with offerings by avante garde artists using a vast variety of media, from video and photography to plastic and lucite, including one notable canvas consisting of bits of glued-on caviar.

Speaking of cheeks and jowls, the artistic efforts of plastic surgeons were very much in evidence at the show. Facelifts abounded. A facelift, like a cubist painting, rearranges the face. Had I been more brazen, I would have taken photos of the most dramatic examples with my iPhone. As I wandered through the labyrinth of gallery spaces, I gazed in amazement at the taut skin, wide mouths, and prominent jawlines of the doyennes of Palm Beach, Boca Raton, and Miami Beach. I had fantasies of creating my own photographic exhibit—The Facelift as a New Art Form

The more I gazed, the more the women with facelifts looked alike. Perhaps they'd used the same doctor. Perhaps they'd had one facelift too many. Most were slender and fashionably dressed. I couldn't help but wonder whether they'd spent too much time in one anothers' company. Perhaps they'd forgotten how people in the real world look.

On the other hand, maybe it's me who's lost touch with reality. I arrived at the show in my customary jeans, black tee shirt, and SAS walking shoes. My hair had frizzed in the humidity and I'd forgotten to bring a comb or lipstick. Amid the chic outfits and high heels, I looked distinctly underdressed. I can only imagine how the women I've just disparaged would describe me. Definitely not as an art form.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Among women who have had breast cancer, there are quite a few, me included, who find all the pinkness surrounding breast cancer awareness rather annoying and cloying. After all, breast cancer is not pretty and pink. Some women complain that after they've been diagnosed, friends give them pink gifts—tee shirts, tote bags, scarves. They appreciate the thought, but not the pink. On the other hand, I recognize that the pink ribbon campaign has raised millions of dollars for breast cancer, undoubtedly contributing to the development of new treatments to fight the disease.

The other day I received a message about a youtube video from a woman who shares my pink ambivalence—"Even though it's about pink," she wrote, "it's worth seeing." So I clicked on the link and watched. It was catchy and fun. I enjoyed it enormously. By now, the video has gone viral, but if you haven't seen it, check it out.

Breast cancer aside, what I love about this video is the sense that the people who work at St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Oregon enjoy being there. They like the people they work with, they're proud of what they do, they feel part of a worthwhile endeavor. That may seem hard to extrapolate from a dance video, but it really came through. If I were sick, I'd like to go to that hospital.

I recently heard that since the economic downturn, architects in Portland have been sharing employees, so that if one firm has extra work, that firm borrows another firm's architect. This has helped prevent layoffs. Maybe there's something in the Portland air—architects cooperating to save jobs, hospital employees collaborating to create a dance video to raise breast cancer awareness.

It may rain a lot in Portland, but the employees of St. Vincent have shown it can be a very happy place, with a generous spirit. Let's hope that spirit is infectious.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Way Memories Bubble Up

This morning, I read a moving poem, written by a friend, Bonnie. The poem is set on on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I would re-print it here, but it has recently been accepted for publication, so I'll just say it describes two people camping by the Sol Duc River, preparing a meal over an open fire and singing songs from the sixties, the breeze wafting over them, time like a river lifting them and carrying them along.

My summary is totally inadequate—the power and beauty of the poem lies in its language and its associations, both internal and those evoked in the reader. For me, this poem awakened a memory from 40 years ago, from the summer of 1969, the same summer that man first walked on the moon, the summer of Woodstock, the summer that Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick. As I read Bonnie's poem, I recalled a camping trip I took that summer.

Eric and I had dated during the winter and spring of '69, our sophomore year in college, but I had broken up with him just before school ended. Nevertheless, in mid-summer Eric called me from the West Coast to see if I'd like to join him and his friend, Hoyt, on a camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula. Hoyt's family owned a ranch in Sisters, Oregon, and Eric had been working with Hoyt building fences in the area. When the work ended, they decided to take a camping vacation in Washington. Eric apparently hoped to revive our relationship and called to see if I'd had a change of heart.

His timing was perfect. I had been going crazy living at home on Long Island and working at a summer job in the billing department of a Wall Street commodities firm. That summer, the Long Island Railroad was plagued by political turmoil and mechanical problems and the commute on the stifling train often took two or more hours. What's more, my job involved mind-numbing repetition. So when Eric called, I didn't hesitate to quit and hop on the next plane for Seattle, where Eric and Hoyt retrieved me in Hoyt's pickup truck.

Sol Duc Falls on the Sol Duc River
After a gorgeous ferry ride from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, we drove along the path of a river until we found an inviting campsite. We left the truck by the road and brought our sleeping bags down to a gravel beach near the water. The air was fresh, the current strong, and my spirits were buoyed by my escape from New York. Eric seemed so happy to see me. I hoped we could make a go of it.

As the sun set, the air cooled, and Eric put on his puffy North Face parka. In a moment of exuberance, he began imitating Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit, taking giant robotic steps and intoning "One small step for man . . ."

Unfortunately, I was not amused. Looking back, Eric's clowning seems so sweet, so trusting, so funny. At the time, though, I found his behavior totally uncool, even embarrassing, especially in the presence of Hoyt, who seemed the embodiment of rugged machismo. Still, the stars were brilliant in the sky and the scent of Douglas firs perfumed the air. Maybe things would get better.

We explored the Peninsula for several days, walking among the giant rock formations on the beach, digging for clams, and hiking through the temperate rain forest. It was all spectacularly beautiful, the perfect setting for romance. Alas, I couldn't erase the image of Eric all puffed up, pretending to be an astronaut. By the time we had left Washington and arrived at Hoyt's ranch in Oregon, we were barely speaking, a situation that continued through our last two years of college. Things didn't change until a chance meeting early in 1972, when I was given a wonderful gift—the chance to rekindle our relationship. This time I didn't let any puffy parkas get in the way.

It's wonderful and mysterious, the way memories bubble up, evoked perhaps by a smell, a song, or a passage from a poem. Forty years ago suddenly seems like yesterday. Thanks, Bonnie, for allowing me to briefly return to that time and place.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Only Thing Julia Child and I Have in Common

Julia Child and I went to Smith College. That's it, the only thing we have in common. I suppose you could also say we've prepared a few of the same dishes. That's because she created the recipes and I followed them slavishly, using her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her later compendium, The Way to Cook.

The first meal I ever prepared for company was one derived completely from Julia's rendition of classic French recipes. My mother-in-law, Reggie, had given me her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking when Eric and I moved into our first apartment. In return, I wanted to cook a meal from it for Reggie and my father-in-law, Joe. In retrospect, I realize that Reggie gave me the cookbook because she and Joe found the dishes too rich. But they were polite and appreciative that long-ago evening, as I served them French onion soup, beef Bourguignon, potatoes au gratin, spring-green peas, and chocolate cake. It took me a week to select the recipes, purchase the ingredients, and prepare the meal.

Julia Child was an inspired, creative cook, happy to let her recipes bubble up in the exuberant mess of her Cambridge kitchen. I, on the other hand, am an orderly cook; I need time to plan a meal and an exact recipe to follow. The best cooks regard recipes as starting points, adding and subtracting ingredients to fit their personal tastes. Over the years, I've rarely had the courage to substitute. Even using margarine in place of butter makes me nervous.

On one memorable occasion, I was preparing curried chicken for ten dinner guests from a recipe I'd found on epicurious. I duly spooned the requisite amount of Thai red curry paste into the skillet containing the chicken and other sauce ingredients. The result was a fiery mix I could barely swallow. I knew my guests would never survive it. I had to improvise. Fortunately, I had a lot of chutney on hand. Most of it went into the pan along with a few other handy items that I hoped would reduce the spiciness. Not only did my fix work—it was one of the most successful dishes I'd ever prepared.

This should have been the beginning of a brave new era, one in which I began experimenting with recipes and even created a few of my own. But, sad to say, I've returned to my rote-recipe-following ways. I hope my creative spirit comes through in my writing, because it's certainly nowhere to be found in my cooking.