Banana tattoo

Eli was home from college for a week. Even when he was quiet he made his presence felt by the traces he left here and there: a skateboard in the mudroom, canvas shoes near the door, and water glasses near the couch and his bed.

This morning I grabbed the last banana to caramelize for the waffles, and I saw that Eli may have picked up my tendency (and taken it to the next level) to see writeable surfaces in every scrap.

How do I know he wrote “Banana…” on the banana? That’s his handwriting and his sense of humor.

It’s always good to leave a note

We’re having friends over for dinner tonight. Because I’m working until 5pm today, I cooked the main dish (the filling for Korean beef tacos) overnight in the crockpot. This morning I shredded the meat, strained the broth, and packed the meat and liquid into the refrigerator. Eli is home from school for a week, and I can imagine him rummaging through the fridge in my absence, finding cooked shredded beef, and sampling. And there would go dinner.

He’s still asleep. Soon I’m off for the day, so I’m left him a communiqué, taped to the Pyrex measure containing the broth to be boiled down later.

About me Lydia once said to Jimmy, “It’s so cute how mom leaves these little scrap notes everywhere.”  Any paper bag, junk mail envelope, promotional note pad, newspaper or magazine page margin, notice from school, a stray and linty post-it note, or an old greeting or business card: these are writable surfaces and a good place for me to leave a list, note to self, or note to you.

This is obscene, and yet instructive

In celebrity profiles, which often strangely report on what Jennifer Aniston or Mark Wahlberg or Prince Albert has in her or his refrigerator at precisely that moment, I’ve always studied the information and semi-memorized it. Celebrities seem to keep only a few items on hand, and it’s stuff like Evian water, fig paste, a few limes, small batch IPA, and perhaps some luxury brand facial moisturizer.

I have envied these refrigerators, their emptiness, and the uncluttered personal lives they represent.

Today, I cleaned out our refrigerator. (Warning: this may be the most prosaic thing you read all week. I may be writing this more for me than anyone else.) I discarded a tall-sized garbage bag full of expired or unwanted food. I analyzed the garbage, in order to learn something about our habits and how we might avoid this clutter and waste in the future.

Array of discarded food, 'toon version

The Things We Wasted:

  • Cooked pasta. From now on, let’s cook only what we’ll eat at one sitting.
  • BBQ sauce and salad dressing, variety. I think we see these in the store, want a taste, and must commit to the whole bottle. And then we revert to using the sauces and dressings we make or favor. No more sampling.
  • Vegetables and fruits. We overbuy, with the intention to eat the Food Pyramid every day. We rarely hit that mark. I miss the old Food Pyramid, in fact, with only 5 to 6 servings of veg & fruit daily. (Who can eat 11?) Continue reading

Technological distractions

For a couple of years, I’ve been sampling wireless presenter tools (“clickers”) without buying. Colleagues have loaned me theirs. The writing program officer also keeps a couple on hand, and I’ve been a heavy borrower.

a tool, not a toy: the Logitech R400

Recently, after trying and loving the Logitech R400, I made a commitment and bought one. And on its inaugural day, I felt so prepared, so completely supplied with technological accessories — laptop, power cord, VGA adapter, USB drive, wireless presenter — that I forgot to pack my bag with something I need even more than I do the digital: a juice box.

Read about my want of a quick carbohydrate, and how it almost brought down my lecture, here.

There is nothing to write.

On the contrary, there is always something to write.

Occasionally a child or teenager will stand in front of the opened refrigerator door and, uh, meditate. With the right hand on the handle and feet planted on the floor, s/he will stand there, silent and contemplative. And finally, if I am sitting there at the table, s/he will say, “There is nothing to eat.” (Full disclosure: I too, as a child, was guilty of perpetrating this on my mother.)

cartoon fridge, this morning. lots of dairy, I just noticed.

“Have an apple,” I say.

No.

“Fry an egg.”

I don’t want an egg.

“Leftover soup. Cheese and crackers. Celery and peanut butter. A sandwich.”

No, no, no, and no.

“Well, you must not be that hungry,” I conclude.

S/he will say, before stomping out of the room: There is never anything to eat in this house!

It seems to me that people who write, either because they want to or because they have to, will occasionally stand in front of the open-doored refrigerators that are their minds and be disappointed that a delectable cake, already sliced and plated, is not sitting there on the middle shelf waiting for them to grab and eat it. Instead, they have to choose a few ingredients and assemble them into something they might want to eat. Often, they turn away.

To that, I say, “Don’t just stand there with the door open!” Instead, do this. Continue reading

The world is strange again.

On the morning of the snowstorm, I am awake at the usual time. There’s no rush to get going. Still, I turn on the coffee and check “what happened overnight on the Internets,” as Jimmy would joke.

From my father, I read a gang email to all five of his children, exhorting us to clean off our cars before the temperature drops below freezing. His message may affect each of my siblings differently, but me, I feel watched over in a good way.

I put on my gear and go outside. Jimmy shovels; I clear the cars properly, even their roofs, and then I shovel around them.

Any mug can be a travel mug, depending on where you're going.

Snow removal from the cars, driveway, and sidewalk takes about 90 minutes. We jam the shovels in a snowbank — it’s great snow for igloo-making, why don’t we make one? — and walk over to the shops at Putterham Circle. Only two are open: the convenience store and Starbucks. While there are no cars in the rotary that feeds the shopping center, inside Starbucks it is steamy with people.

For once, no cars in Putterham Circle.

All footprints lead to the coffee source.

Then we walk, lattes in hand. It’s easy to shuffle across the intersection and down South Street. We walk and walk and pass only a few neighbors, here and there, out shoveling or snow-blowing. Ogden Street has not yet been plowed, and on the snow’s surface are chestnuts, still in their pods, that have just fallen.

Jimmy walks blithely down the middle of South.

Now, this is still life.

We see these fresh wounds everywhere.

Near Bournewood, we throw our empty cups into a dumpster in a driveway.

As we walk through the hospital grounds, I say, “I think Anne Sexton stayed here. And perhaps Robert Lowell.” Jimmy asks, “And Sylvia Plath?” McLean, in Belmont. Continue reading

Attractions of ordinary life

bed to make

Two nights before Christmas, Betsy and I sat at the bar at Legal’s in Chestnut Hill, having a quick drink and bowl of chowder before we went to see The Fighter. That now seems ages ago. For a while she and I talked about our attraction to cinematic portrayals of ordinary life: the food, routines, chores, and even squabbles of the everyday. B. also mentioned the fiction of Alice Munro; I thought of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens. And yet to say those works are only about the quotidian is to reduce them.

Because we never travel farther than New Jersey during the Christmas week — I’ve never spent my holiday in the Virgin Islands, Costa Rican rainforest, or Hawaii as some families do — and this time we haven’t traveled at all, the last week has been lush with the quotidian. Laundry. Tidying. Mail sorting. Reading. And cooking, especially cooking.

clementines to simmer and preserve

When the hands are busy, the mind is free. As I’ve chopped or made beds or run errands or wrapped gifts that I have since returned, sometimes with a clenched jaw, I’ve been thinking of the pressure on some of us to turn one’s own everyday life into an art form: concentrated, heightened, shareable. I both succumb to and participate in that.

As a child, my favorite bag lunch consisted of two hard-boiled eggs with salt, bread and butter, an apple, and cookies if possible. My own children want “something good” for lunch — and this may be a result of our having occasionally provided the show-stopping lunch — and it’s not enough, for example, to have an apple in a bag. The apple must be cored, peeled, and packed with sliced lemon. (Yes, I initiated that.)

last year's skates to sell, in the back room at the Ice House

Incrementally over time, the bar has been raised for all of us with a stable income. We are surrounded with labor-saving devices — vacuum, dishwasher, clothes dryer, car — and we use them to make more labor possible.  This week, Grace and I drove out to the Ice House to upgrade her skates and get hers and mine sharpened, and then we drove miles back to the rink for skating. Sometimes I long for (or perhaps romanticize) the hours spent on the frozen swamp ice deep in the woods that surrounded my childhood neighborhood. In its surface were embalmed sticks and leaves and air bubbles, which made for a pebbled glide, and here and there boulders and rotted trunks made interesting obstacles that we could do nothing about but skate around or over. Dulled blades were not a concern.

a fine girl to skate with

Once, seeing me crouching in the dirt in the front, my neighbor Gail, who never gardens but knows more the names of plants than I do, said to me, “You’re Martha Stewart.” I think this was a compliment, but I felt it as a stab. To convert everyday life to something that can be packaged, photographed, and sold is not my intention. If this is life, I want to make it into something, for me, yes, but also to share with others.

What causes the clenched jaw is when there is a collision between what I want to make and what others want me to make. Many nights, not very hungry, I’d be happy with a potato and fried egg for dinner. I am even often tempted to make a dish my father invented when we were kids and my mother went to night classes and he had to feed us, normally her job. It is the briefest recipe, not even deserving of a list or adjectives for that matter. Take a package of hot dogs, slice them into coins, saute them until crisp, stir in a jar of Prince or Ragu tomato sauce, and heat through. Boil water and cook a pound of spaghetti. Voila, dinner. My brothers and sisters could attest to how delicious this is, although not much to look at. Would my kids eat it? Maybe once, as a novelty.

Meanwhile, too, you know, much of the human population is malnourished, 40% of the world’s children do not go to secondary school, and the planet’s fossil fuel reserves are boiling down. And still here I am worrying about what I’ll plant in my backyard come spring, and also the expectations that both drive and thwart self-actualization.

to read, to drink

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Photographs taken on the iPhone using ToonCamera. Only $0.99.

How to work a cocktail party like a tutor

Last night Jimmy and I went to what’s called a drinks party and, to our relief, enjoyed ourselves. I realized later, after several good conversations, that what makes me an effective tutor can help me get through challenging social situations. Or vice versa.

Why are cocktail parties challenging? I mean, I may not be attention-hungry, but I’m not shy.  Here’s the problem: so many people, no defined role for me, and no structure.

If those are the conditions — and they are for most parties, except for baby showers which are usually rather annoyingly structured around “games” (and those are intentional quotation marks) — then a person must have a strategy for dealing with the conditions. Otherwise, the impulse is to hide in a corner with the one person you know, clinging to that corner as though it were a berth and you a little boat afraid of being battered by the open sea.

And just as the secret to being a good tutor does not involve being drunk on the task, the seven secrets to party-going success that follow do not involve drinking half the bottle in the first 10 minutes. Continue reading