Til’ You Drop…
I hate to shop. I know it’s trendy to say this in sustainable circles, but it’s true; I’m not trying to impress anyone. On the contrary, I know there are other circles, ones whose constituents go out at midnight to get one of the twenty flat screen T.V.‘s, priced so ridiculously low as to entice people to leave their cushy warm beds and rise before the sun, or maybe not even go to bed, but straight to the mall once the turkey’s in the fridge so they can get the deals before the store sells out. To some, shopping has become the new religion, single-handedly replacing God and all the Cherubim and Seraphim that accompany him. To this group, my intense dislike of shopping is borderline heretical. Sad, but if that’s your thing have at it, just don’t take me down with you. The exceptions to my shopping aversion are the grocery store and those cozy little shops along Main Street, U.S.A. where you stroll, coffee in hand, maybe holding someone’s hand, dreamily purchasing items that you never knew you needed until you spied them on the shelves. Yes, I know this sounds hypocritical, but it’s vacation shopping, or out-of-town-guests-are-here-and-want-to-have-a-look-around shopping, and therefore, okay.
While I do not begrudge any vendor his or her right to make a living, I’m wondering when it all became so skewed. Doesn’t the clerk running the register, generally a poor college student looking to make a few bucks over break, deserve to enjoy a nice Thanksgiving with family and friends without having to trudge off to work at midnight, only to be accosted by cranky customers until the wee hours of the morning. For me, combat pay isn’t even worth it — BTW, a month of combat pay is a pittance compared to what a Wall Street broker makes in an hour — making me wonder about those selfless souls who put their lives in danger, serving their country when they could be selfish, safe, and make way more money stateside.
So I guess it’s just clothes and gift shopping I hate, and by extension, Christmas shopping — bah, humbug. We here in America have way too much to begin with so why are we still chasing after things that make us happy for about five seconds? For me, it’s because I have kids and kids want stuff, especially when their friends have stuff, and it’s way too soon in my own evolution to sell it all and move to the Yaak Valley, in Montana, al la Rick Bass where I would chop wood for my Kodiak stove and live off the grid. If I could, I’d get everything online and avoid the crowds, the pushing, the nastiness, the scuffle over the last teal sweater, but like their tastes, kids sizes change and we’re way beyond the days when I could grab something in a 3T and have it be just right. They have opinions now, and because we live in a social media kind of world their “likes” are forming covalent bonds so strong that dynamite would have a hard time separating them.
Which leaves me no choice: off I go, kids in tow, to shop for Christmas clothes, or maybe take someone’s head off. For them it’s Disneyland, so much to see and do, while for me it’s like running a marathon except without the endorphin rush that comes after the first few miles, although similar to the way you want to throw up or collapse at the end. It’s grueling, and exhausting and there’s no prize, just a bunch of bills that hang around until spring. I thought about giving everyone Heifer, International gift cards this year, but the kids would be deeply disappointed (does this mean I didn’t do a good job parenting?!) and while I fantasize about serving up big heaping dishes of disappointment when I feel they’ve slipped into the American pastime of avarice, it’s only because I want to get their attention; I can’t ever seem to bring myself to disappoint them. And somehow, intrinsically, they know this. What do they care if someone in Kenyan got a goat with the micro loan they receive from Kiva and is able to make cheese for the next 50 years when their best friend just got her 3rd pair of Uggs, his 4th Airsoft Gun, her 5th fill-in-the-blank?
After 45 minutes at the mall, I’m ready to call it, but we’ve barely started. My oldest daughter, whose face has looked pinched and annoyed all morning (in her defense, she had to work in the afternoon and was only going to get a scant hour or so with Mom’s credit card), is all aglow now that she has managed in this period of time to find several items — all too short and none suitable for the weather — for purchase. She hands them too me. They look suspiciously like things already in her closet — really, how many little black dresses does a girl need? — and after a brief interlude of protestation on my part, I acquiesce: a) because there’s only a little time until she has to leave: i) for work; and ii) next year for college; and b) because I could make her buy the purple one, but then it will hang in her closet unworn so who’s the loser there, eh?
My youngest likes nothing unless it comes from Abercrombie, or Hollister, or one of those other monochromatic stores where the music’s too loud — the clerks will probably all be deaf by the time they’re 30 — the perfume’s ubiquitous and way too heady as if someone has sprayed the walls, the floor, and every last item of clothing with it, and the prices are exorbitant, considering how long the clothes last, the fact that they all look the same, and are probably made by impoverished Vietnamese youth earning pennies on the dollar. [Note to self: create a dance club atmosphere by blasting music, spraying perfume, and having pictures of half-naked and handsome young men and women on the walls and you have a business plan built for success, plus you only need to have four or five different items, offered in navy and cream, and sometimes red or pink.]
Then there’s my son, the middle child and my savior in all this crazy hullaballoo, the only member of my family I still like to shop with because, like me, he’s in and out in a flash: he locates; he ascertains size, he checks out. Where the girls try on 10,000 items to buy one, he chooses three or four and is ready to go. But woe is me today. He made the poo list when he insisted on buying 30/32 jeans, the same size jeans he gave to Goodwill this past summer because they were too short.
“These 32’s are different,” he says. “These fit.”
“No they don’t. It’s the length of the inseam and 32 means 32 no matter who the manufacturer is. It’s not a size like an 8 or a 10 which can vary depending on a manufacturers whim. It’s a measurement.”
“Then why did you give three pairs of them away over the summer?”
“Because they didn’t fit.”
“But, Ian, that doesn’t make any sense. A 32 either fits or it doesn’t fit,” and around we go, for a good two or three minutes until my head is about to fly off. Ian, too, is seeing red. His father, ever the even-keeled mediator in such disputes, agrees to go into the dressing room with him to make sure they fit. Like every other teenage boy, Ian has a tendency to wear his pants “looooooooowww” on the hips. He thinks it looks cool, not realizing that in 10 years when images posted to Facebook are still hanging around and he’s trying to explain to a potential employer his choice of attire, a blush will grace his cheeks when he realizes that some other cheeks were peeking out of his pants at indeterminate intervals for all the world to see. (For now, he buys fancy underwear to accommodate the view.)
My husband confirms — the pants fit. Of course they do if you wear them around your ankles, but we buy them anyway which leads to the my next question, which if you were paying attention earlier you know I’m dying to hurl at him with a tidal force: “What Was Wrong With The Other Pairs of 32’s! The Ones You Gave to Goodwill Over the Summer!!!” But because it’s soon Christmas, and because my children won’t be home with us forever — although these ridiculous phases will live on in family anecdotes forever — I swallow the question, buy the pants, and make a mental note to start looking for real estate in Montana.
To live in California’s wine and food capitol is not without its moments of utter and absolute decadence. On the day before Thanksgiving, a friend and I headed Upvalley to shoot out the top of one ag preserve into another before heading out to the thundering Pacific coastline. Along the way, we hit that magical sweet spot when the sun was suspended in the azure sky at just the right angle so as to set fire to the vineyards already smoldering with autumn color. We were stunned stupid by the dazzling orange and crimson of the vineyards, which were hit with a sun slanted so perfectly so as to seem lit from within. A million orange, umber, amber, flaming luminaria leaves shone and we could only suck in our breath and say Oh. Oh, oh. This is what this place can do to you. I have known it for years. I left for a period of decades (a blip, apparently) and returned, and am once again subject to its magic.
I am the first to admit to the gift of calling this divine habitat home. While the whole county is occupied by no more than 135,000 locals (and host to five million visitors) and defined as rural, there is every luxury one could ask for within one or two miles. Seriously, when it comes to amenities, we suffer an embarrassment of riches, an enviable position, no doubt. I live in a community where chain restaurants are eschewed and the ordinary is unseemly. Taken to the extreme (as so often it is), it isn’t Grey Poupon, my darling, it is hand-harvested, house-ground, artisan-crafted mustard with essence of wild caught lavender. Not only is the emperor is wearing no clothes, but the empress is naked too, and she’s wearing a tiny gilded rosebud dipped in crème fraiche in her navel, and she is so so precious.
Now, I enjoy a heavenly seven course dinner as much as the next person, but that kind of living will give you what my new homeopath calls lipo-toxicity (literally: fat poisoning). It’s a fun treat, but as a daily diet, it will kill you as surely as Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me experiment. And so, in harmony with my contrarian nature, I am on a quest for an authentically awesome unchicly delicious home spun meal. This is no mean feat, and it does not make me popular, I can tell you. I am dive-hunting in a place that would prefer to believe that only crazy people want plain, for god sake.
This is funny to me, as the very lovely valley that I call home was cultivated (after the Wappo Indians) by enterprising Italian and Mexican immigrants whose no-nonsense approach to food is the very reason it is so amazing. We’ve come a long way since the Italians grew walnuts and prunes and tended grapevines to produce the local wines. The Spaniards may have colonized California through their stake in Mexico and spiced it up with a dollop of religious zeal, but little of that culture remains. It’s the hairball theory of cultural and culinary snobbery (my next review will be on Orbiting the Giant Hairball, please be patient and in the meantime buy the book). I want to orbit the culinary center of wine and gastronomic excess, I don’t want to get sucked into it.
So I find myself drawn to the dives that popular culture and beautiful people ignore, searching for simply. Good. Food. No foam, no reduction, no pretension. One such establishment is an old-school Italian place I found on the industrial side of town, the kind of place decorated with faux Corinthian columns and autographed head shots of mobster movies stars. I stopped by for their advertised happy hour. I had half an order of their fabulous house calamari and a passable glass of Pinot Grigio, all for slightly under $20 (gasp!). It was some of the most tender and tasty calamari I’ve had in ages. When I mentioned the source of that amazing squid sometime soon after, it was to raised eyebrows and great disapproval.
Another time, I went to a place called ——–Blu for lunch with a colleague. You know you’re in for a fancy meal at a resto so cool it can leave off the final vowel in its double-adjective nom de gastro. Admittedly, said bistro in in a very fancy gem of a town where the median income is above the value of many working families’ homes – so naturally, I expected amazing, I expected culinary art so shockingly rare as to make me dream of it for weeks. Girl that I am, I ordered salad. It’s not original, but there you are. A salad, I reasoned, is a good measure of a chef. Simple yes, but its simplicity is telling. I hoped that in such a refined atmosphere I would be served a salad that would forever define salad in my world. What arrived with a flourish was a very fancy and quite large square plate with a single leaf of organic butter lettuce arranged artfully in its perfect center. Upon the leaf was consigned a careful combination of half a dozen pieces of shaved and pickled root vegetables. I swear to God: one single leaf. Six pieces of root. I looked down at my plate and back up at my waiter, whose lip curled ever so slightly, daring me to question the art of the ——– Blu salad. Dude, I thought. Where is my salad?
“Fresh black pepper?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. Yes, that is what is missing from my salad – besides an actual salad –crushed black pepper.
I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Was I taking a 100 year nap when serving actual food became déclassé? Parochial? Embarrassing?
I am not against culinary expression. Au contraire. One of the current trends in my neck of the woods and maybe yours too, is goat cheese, honey, and baby figs, served on slightly toasted baguette. Any one of those ingredients is nectar, but all combined, they are a force of nature. It is one of those culinary mysteries, where somehow the total is greater than the sum of parts. Like beer and clams. Like chocolate and port. Some foods are just transcendent, and they should be. Food is primal. Food is a celebration. When food is elevated to a place where it is just too precious to be experienced, I say the emperor is strutting around au natural, and the empress is plain buck neked.
I became a foodie when James Beard and Julia child and MFK Fisher were the leading arbiters of not only good taste, but also what tastes good on a plate. I like to think that they would insist that fine food should be, well, actual food. I know: boo hoo, right? Listen, I’m lucky and I know it. I live in what many justifiably consider to be the center of the foodie and wine universe, and it a wonderful adventure and my great pleasure. Still, I am on a quest. Now if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you please pass the pepper?
TALK TO ME
I work in a building with steel bones, which means that every time I get a call on my mobile phone I have dash outside to get reception. “Hold on a minute,” I say, with my face mashed up to the window above my desk, which on a good day gives me two bars. I scoot down the hall toward the emergency exit, breathing into the phone. “. .an yo. . .ear. . .e. . .o?”
It’s completely ironic – not in that black fly in your chardonnay way, but really – in a time when we are all connected electronically at the hip, we work in buildings constructed with steel beams that block the signals. My dad was a contractor and as a kid I used to love to walk the construction sites with him, just as they were just framing the houses. Until they put the walls up, everything smelled like fresh, raw wood and sawdust. That was about a million years before cell phones, which is a shame, because the reception would have been amazing.
But we live in a post-modern world now. Everything is spinning faster and faster. We rely on computers to connect. Cell phones. Cyber dating. Now, you post a profile and publish it to the world. Now, you “meet” someone on line. Wink, wink. They call you on their cell phone while cruising down the interstate, en route to fly to Europe on business. You speed-walk down the office hall. “. .ait. . .min. ..an. .yo. . .ear me. . .ow?” Within range of a clear signal, you reveal things about yourself that normally take a couple of dates to excavate. You’re vegetarian. You can’t have a meaningful relationship with an atheist because you’ve finally stripped off that cynicism you’ve carried around like a chic accessory, a sophisticated approximation of worldliness, and decided that the patterns of a sunflower are too magnificent to be an accident. That spiderwebs and egret nests and the smile on a dog is just too enthralling to be random. But then you stop. You think wait. . .wait. Is that too much? Are you revealing too much? Killing the mystery? And then you think f*ck it. This is who I am. You say, “look, I have to take a conference call in about two minutes. Call me when you get back to the states.” You think about the attention span of the people you’ve met this way. You think it’s a long shot. You think, who knows?
I just saw the new James Bond movie, and loved it. I had read reviews that bagged on the fact that this Bond is aging, that his chin whiskers are silvery. But that’s what I liked about him. He’s someone who seems a little bit more human. Sure, he’s flawed. Yes, he’s not as fast as he used to be, but now he’s not just another pretty face hovering above an enviable six pack. Now he’s someone you’d like to have a conversation with. Wink, wink. What I perhaps liked best about this particular piece of the franchise is that in the finale, Bond decides to go old school, to give up the gadgets, and it make for a whopper of an ending.
I’m no Luddite and I’m not ready to give up my gadgets quite yet. But I do think that as our lives get more complicated and consequently more fragmented, it’s important to remember it’s not how we connect, but why. Isn’t it ironic?
BE COOL, BABY
According to my acupuncturist, my chi is too hot. My liver wind is moving around too much and needs a calming influence. My liver and spleen are over-active, creating havoc in my house of health.
For the last five years I’ve been plagued with a hot, itchy rash; first on my feet then on my hands. This is annoying on several levels, not the least of which is my pride in exhibiting overall general good health. The rash comes and goes. My skin grows hot and red, and then the itching starts. I try to ignore the symptoms, but you know how it is when you try to disregard something? The itch, the idea, the mosquito buzz you’re trying to forget just gets bigger and bigger until you can think of nothing else. Granted, as life problems go, a rash is pretty low on the scale of personal discomfort. But it’s my rash, my discomfort.
I tried a metaphysical approach, asking my skin: why do you burn? What are you trying to tell me? My skin did not deign to respond, except with the exhortation: I will ignite you! And so I appeased it, raking the skin with my nails, wondering what it was supposed to mean.
I took a nutritional approach. As a philosophical vegetarian, I don’t even eat eggs, troubled as I am by the image of chickens (not God’s most intelligent creature, but still. . .) living their whole lives in crates stacked in buildings, never scratching their bony feed in honest to goodness dirt. I try to do well by the planet and myself and feel that my body should return the favor with an abundance of ease, grace, and perfect health.
The rash has evolved over time. When it began, I attributed it to stress. I had a job that kept me awake nights with worry. The stress ebbed and flowed, and so too, did the rash, but not always at the same time. I ate Kung Pao tofu with brown rice at my favorite Berkeley restaurant; got a rash on my feet. “I must be allergic to tofu,” I reasoned. To my great sadness, I cut back on the King Pao. The rash continued off and on, and I learned to live with it.
Then, I moved to Portland. Rented a place on the Columbia River, which is about as idyllic a place as you can imagine. I took a fundraising job for a worthy local charity. The rash disappeared for a long while, and I thought I had it beat. Then it appeared one day, but the inflammation had moved (like a nomadic tribe) from my feet to my hands. I tried homeopathic treatments, I tried Rescue Remedy. They worked a little, but never completely. Sometimes, the rash would burn so fiercely, it would wake me in the middle of the night. The only thing that soothed it was to hold a block of Freeze Pak. The cold of the blue ice tempered the fire in my hands and I could sleep again. I went vegan, thinking it could be a reaction to GMO or growth hormones or antibiotics. I made fruit smoothies every morning, tossed in fresh ginger, or dash of cinnamon or cayenne. The rash did not abate, but the smoothies were delish.
Fast forward four years, and I am back in California. I got recruited to head up the fundraising arm of a community health clinic. When I discovered that the clinic had an acupuncturist, I booked an appointment. I showed him my sad red hands. He took my pulse the Chinese way, in about six difference spots. “Does your neck hurt?” he asked. “Yes!” I replied. “It does!” He explained that he thought there was some a problem with the nerves in my neck, having to do with stress and posture, and these were showing up in my hands. He stuck me with needles, left me to marinate in the redirection of chi. He came back, took the needles out, the itching had stopped. Magic!
After two weeks of continued therapy, the itching red rash returned with a vengeance. “Help!” I begged. We talked about lifestyle. He said that my chi was running hot, that it my liver wind was moving around too much, creating heat. “What do you eat?” he asked. “I’ve been juicing,” I said proudly. All that fresh chlorophyll, those vitamins, minerals. I felt very self important. “I toss in ginger, cayenne, sometimes cinnamon.”
My Chinese medicine guru shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “No ginger for you. It’s creating excess heat. No cayenne. You are no Cinnamon Girl for now.” He took my pulse again. “We have to cool you down. You have too much Yang energy; it’s overpowering your Yin.” He went on to explain that my wind was moving too much, that it needed stability.
“That’s funny,” I said. “I just moved back from Oregon. Lately, I’ve been calling myself a nomad.” I laughed. He just looked at me. “As above, so below,” he said. “ Isn’t it interesting how that works?”
Well, crap. There I was, thinking I was doing all the right things nutritionally, and I was overdosing myself on Yang. As a card-carrying Libra, my sign is the scales. I strive for balance, equanimity. The news that I’ve been unintentionally tipping the scales has unnerved me. Sigh. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go cool my chi.
MY ACHIN’ HEART
A few weeks ago, six-term Missouri Congressman, and Republican Senate hopeful, Todd Akin made a most unfortunate remark that proved him to be a misogynist at worst, and a failure at 4th grade health at best. The party started when Akin muttered the words “legitimate rape”, as if there was such a thing. I’m no expert in criminal law, but rape is a felony and adding the word “legitimate” seems to me a dichotomy in terms, as in two words that have no business being in the same sentence together. You’ve never heard of a legitimate robbery, have you? “The guy had too much money in his pockets so I took some, your Honor.” Hours after the Congressman’s gaffe, online petitions calling for Akin to quit the Senate race surfaced, but the Congressman refused to step aside (he has until September 25 to make that decision). Akin’s bid for the Senate may still be underway, but are the rest of us ready for his great adventure?
Crimes by their nature are not legitimate; that’s why people who commit them go to jail. During the dark ages of women’s rights, a man stood a good chance of avoiding a rape conviction if he could successfully denigrate the woman’s character, allege that the woman didn’t fight hard enough, or that she really secretly enjoyed it, among other things. None of this makes any sense, of course, since rape is actually a violent crime, not a sexual one, and a women’s character has nothing to do with the violence being perpetrated against her. A woman’s body has ways to shut down if it’s a legitimate rape, the Congressman had remarked, as if a woman was an all-night motel that could turn on the no-vacancy sign at will: Not Accepting Sperm This Evening.
This year the federal definition of rape was expanded, resulting in greater protection for women, but if you think these hard-earned rights can’t be taken away in a blink, think again. Just look at the demographic of Congress: middle-aged white men run amok — and that’s pretty sad. Maybe it’s just me, but don’t we want our leaders to be a cut above? A little sharper? A little smarter? A little less gullible than the rest of us poor schlubs. Look ladies, especially my sisters on the extreme right, look at what’s about to happen to your daughters if these guys extend the almost vice-like grip they have over women’s rights and bodies (think transvaginal ultrasounds). Will you do nothing to subdue such bids for control? And if not, answer this: how will you protect your daughters? Why do you wish to leave them to navigate a future already overpopulated with land mines — terrorism, global warming, nuclear meltdown, extinction, to name a few — by burying just once more? Think about it: no voice, no choice.
What if we could vote for the politician whose choices were not pre-formed by record-groove beliefs that will not likely ever change again in their lifetime? Better yet, what if we voted by issue and not party? Your whole life isn’t defined by one single moment; neither should your choices be. Life is a series of small moments that combine to make the whole. Times change. Economies change. Climates change. Technology changes day-to-day. Don’t we want to elect someone who’s also able to change? Who can think in the moment and react on an as-needed basis? The seasoned surgeon doesn’t make the same decisions as the novice medical student, and society will not progress by looking backwards except maybe to take a historical geiger counter reading. Predictability can be stabilizing, or stagnating.
And what about Akin? A guy who legitimately believes his own schtick, and as a result, has been stuck in a record groove his whole life. Is he the type of guy you want making decisions for you? Such insensitive and incendiary remarks with no basis in science are appalling from your average Joe, but Akin is casting votes for a whole slew of constituents and purporting to have the wisdom and knowledge to do so. Is this the best our country has to offer? Where are the Lincolns, the Jeffersons, the Roosevelts, the people who wore leadership like the stigmata?
Lincoln agonized over his speeches, writing most himself. His style is impractical in the age of the sound byte, yet his methods should be emulated by politicians worldwide. Lincoln never made a big decision without a full-blown soul-searching session — just him and his pen wrestling with his demons, looking for the still point of the heart and mind together, the place in each of us where divinity resides. Lincoln knew we needed each other to make this a great country, and with a little help from divine intervention, he managed to weave together a fragile peace in the midst of the greatest challenge to survival our country has ever faced: the civil war. America today is not dissimilar to the America of the 1860’s. We are polarized, diametrically opposed, and have lost the will to listen to the other side except maybe to eavesdrop.
Each of us goes through our own period of soul searching, some more than others. Maybe it’s after high school, or well into your 30’s, but sooner or later, most of us lose the curiosity chip and our beliefs cement. You’ve heard the joke: you’re a Democrat until you’re out out college and off your parent’s dole, slugging away in the real world, day after day, which, is when you become a Republican. It’s only marginally funny, but probably not that far off the mark. Yet the people who start off as liberal or at least centrist college students and end up as stodgy conservatives, worrying about their 401K plans are running scared. They were promised a piece of the American Dream, and they won’t stop whining until they get it: unlimited money-making opportunities, as long as they don’t have to work or think too hard to get them, a safe place to stash the cash, AND delivery confirmation on all of it, dammit.
Yet neither the narcissistic Republican party nor their new poster child, Ayn Rand can give this to any of us despite all promises to the contrary. Is Ayn Rand’s philosophy any different then say, L. Ron Hubbard? (Conservatives everywhere just collectively gasped.) Both stress the individual over the collective, and there’s nothing wrong with that, really, until it gets horribly out of balance. It would be fantastic if we were all completely self-sufficient, could make a billion dollars, put it in the bank and live off the interest all the while amassing more wealth, but: a) why; and b) that’s not the nature of life. The nature of life is interconnectedness, inspired faith in ourselves and each other, not he who makes the most money wins. Pure capitalism, Ayn Rand’s capitalism, can only work in the absence of government and yet the very people who decry government regulations — Wall Street, Big Business, Politicians (the most ironic of all since their very existence is as a result of government) — could not survive without these regulations and the tax breaks and loopholes that encourage their supersonic latch onto the federal teat. Ayn Rand’s vision of Utopia is a sad and singular place where individual rights trump collective ones no matter how much tainted milk or pesticide-laden food there is as a result, a “what’s in it for me,” world as opposed to “what’s in it for us”. Thank God we don’t live there. At least not yet.
Rather than a knee-jerk reaction to everything, perhaps we should sit down and listen to our opponents with open ears and open hearts, and then provide them with a thoughtful, well-informed response. Take an hour or a day to do so if need be. Stretch your synapses. It’ll keep your brain snappy. The people that get dementia are the ones who think the same thoughts every day, running around the same groove on the record. Just look what happened to Ronald Reagan. And here’s a novel idea: no matter what your political party tells you to think, consider what’s in your heart.
I never finished Atlas Shrugged. I had 200 pages to go, not much considering the length of the book, but I couldn’t do it. I was only about 15 at the time so it could have been short attention span, but I think it was something else. I just couldn’t take it anymore. Even at 15, I knew that to read Ayn Rand, one needs to suspend belief. At least technology has advanced to the point that James Bond’s antics have credence, that Star Trek maybe wasn’t that far afield. But a utopian, corporate society that doesn’t have greed at its core: hogwash. It’s the nature of the beast, and society, to grow, and there’s no harm or shame in that since that’s what we are here for: to learn, to change, to evolve and grow. Yet it’s the unsustainable growth, the raping and pillaging by the top 1% just for the sport of it, the profits over people, the use-it-all-up-before-someone-else-does mentality, and the choosing of an unborn fetus over a grown woman because abortion in all instances will not be condoned, these are the things that make no sense, that cause each and every one of our hearts to ache, whether you admit it or not, and that will either kill or enslave us. Change requires a conscious effort that rarely happens overnight. It takes tenacity and dedication, and great changes, those for the betterment of society, require great and often difficult choices.
Hey, How’d This Food Get in My Mouth?
We are a repetitive people. We wake, eat, work out, eat, commute to work, eat, watch t.v., complain (!), eat, sleep, and do it all again the next day. The problem is that most of what we do, we do unconsciously. Ask anyone what they had for breakfast yesterday, or what they saw along the two-mile stretch of road between the house and the grocery store and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. They have no idea because their mind was somewhere else at the time. One of my favorite SNL skits is when Tom Hanks plays Mr. Short Term Memory. He’s sitting at dinner, having a conversation and forgetting about virtually everything, including the food he’s eating: “Hey, how’d this food get in my mouth?”
So much of my life feels like this that it makes me laugh every time I think about Mr. Short Term Memory, but as it applies to food, I cringe. Between the various pressures of work, family, and kids’ activities, I’m generally rushing to get dinner on the table, rushing to eat it, rushing to clean it up and pack it away. I rarely remember what I ate. Or rather, I remember it like one remembers unexciting past events: sort of, kind of, not exactly. The details are not only lost, they never even registered.
Perhaps I need to take a page from the French way of eating. Somehow, the insanely high-calorie content never seems to catch up with those crazy French. No one knows for sure why, considering that wine is always part of the mix, but it seems to have something to do with the small portions, the slow-down-when-you-eat mindfulness — it can take hours to eat a brioche, for Godsakes — the camaraderie and community that surrounds food, and not just the eating of it, but the growing and selling of it, from the farm to the table. Slow food is the opposite of fast food as in not just no McDonalds, but no pesticides, no agribusiness, I bet they don’t even use microwaves. It’s a beautiful idea if you think about it. Basically, it’s how we ate 40 years ago: intentionally and with joy. Not so much longer ago, our ancestors didn’t have the bounty of food available to us at every meal (which could be an instance of more not necessarily being better.). To them, food held a more sacred place in their lives. In France, as in Italy, the birthplace of the slow food movement, the fruit vendors will ask you when you intend to eat the piece of fruit you are about to purchase. Armed with this information, they will provide you with a beautiful peach in the perfect stage of ripeness for the specific moment of your consumption. In France, the farmer’s market is a mathematical, mystical experience.
I love Michael Pollan’s idea of eating summed up in his book, Food Rules, in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Vegetables.” It’s a lot easier to swallow — excuse the pun — than the wisdom (and I do believe it is wisdom for some) of Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, the authors of Skinny Bitch who espouse the no meat (dying, decaying, putrefying flesh), no sugar (toxic toxic toxic), no fats (it’s, well, fat!), no fun diet — not because you’re not allowed to have any fun, but because you’ll be miserable from all the food restrictions. BTW, Freedman and Barnouin are both model thin beauties, but I ask you: at what cost?! Pollan speaks to my need to experience the full panoply of foods as offered by Mother Nature herself. He tells me that I shouldn’t feel bad about having a snack, say, a piece of cake or a bowl of ice cream as long as it’s in moderation, i.e, not everyday, not in front of the television, only on special occasions. Herein lies my Achilles heel: snacks and mindless eating just to pass the time, or worse, to help me get through an undesirable task. (Rule # 73 is eat at a table, which means not in front of the t.v., which goes hand-in-hand with rule # 56, eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored, but my absolute fav is rule # 7, don’t eat anything with ingredients a 3rd grader can’t pronounce.) Substitute computer for t.v. and I’m sunk. The summation of my personal food addiction is mindless in-front-of-the-computer eating.
In my defense, I do this more at work than at home. Something in my psuedo-claustrophobic nature kicks in when I’m at work and I need to constantly snack, even when I’m not hungry. Half the time, a la Tom Hanks, I don’t even remember what I just ate.
For a couple weeks, the daughter of family friends had been staying with us, attending a drama camp with our youngest. When I called about arrangements for her to come back to our house the weekend of the final performance, my friend, Bob remarked:
“What did you do to my daughter?”
“What do you mean?”
“She doesn’t want to come home. She wants to go back to your house and stay there.”
I feigned ignorance, but ultimately confessed: “We have a snack drawer.”
There are some people who have no salty or sugary snacks of any kind in the house. I know people like this, and while I hate, I mean admire their courage and tenacity, it’s not for me. My friend, Lisa actually eats apples or almonds when she wants a snack. Imagine! She eats no meat, very little fish, practically no fat, and absolutely no desserts — unless she’s having dinner at our house (!!) — just fruits, nuts, vegetables and salad, salad, salad with the occasional tahini dressing, great for your body, but where’s the love?
The health effects are obvious. Lisa has no body fat, runs four or five miles a day, and her energy level is amazing. It would be great to be that energized. I’m no slacker. I work out everyday, eat a relatively healthful diet, if you don’t count sugar, and walk fairly often after dinner, but I’m no Energizer Bunny. Improvements could be made. I know this, but I can’t cross the snack threshold. Yet at the rate I’m going, gaining a pound or two a year — damn those mercurial hormones and gooey metabolic changes — I’ll be obese by the time I’m an octogenarian.
So I’m trying a new health campaign, adopting various ideas that comport with what I’d like my future self to look like. I’ll make eating a mystical experience. I’ll stay in the present moment, chew each bite 32 times like the Buddhists do (it’s a goal, eh?), engage in eating with all my senses on full alert: my taste buds, my olfactory system, my salivary glands. Perhaps with practice, I can return sacredness to eating. Perhaps with practice, I’ll learn to eat like the French. And then after dinner instead of chocolate, a nice walk. Or maybe a piece of chocolate while I walk. . . just to pass the time.
A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to the movies. It was her turn to choose, and she wanted Magic Mike. “Such a cliché!” I protested. But she replied sotto vocce, “Eye candy.” She won the argument.
So we rendezvoused in one of Portland’s fabulous living room theaters where they serve really good, local artisan food, wine, and beers, and watched Matthew McConaughey and Tatum Channing and a crew of equally delicious hunks take off their shirts. Well, that was the back story. The real story was the drama surrounding darling messed-up Michael and his sister, and baby brother’s sudden burgeoning talent for luring young women to stuff his shorts with Andrew Jacksons.
The Magic Mike phenomena occurs at about the same time that a potentially larger franchise is blooming on the horizon, and I am speaking of Chic Lit’s slutty new BFF: Fifty Shades of Gray. Many of my friends who know that I have dabbled in the Romance writing genre, have been telling me, “Hey, maybe you should try writing [lady porn] like Fifty Shades.” I could do that. I have done that, but without, you know, the S&M and secret pleasure palaces. Dang!
Fifty Shades started out as a brush fire and has become a towering, passionate inferno among the soccer mom set, and it’s no wonder. Women are starving for the kind of safe fantasy that Fifty Shades offers, and it’s flying off the shelves and into Kindles in suburban backyards, urban board rooms, commuter knapsacks worldwide. Yowza!
On my way to a meeting downtown last week, I had a “sitting in the car for the end of an NPR interview” moment. Zapping through the channels, I heard a beautifully well-spoken woman talking about her publishing career. It was Anne Rice. She spoke about the nom de plume she used, A.N. Roquelaure, while writing the sensational Sleeping Beauty series of lady porn originally published in 1983, 1984, and 1985. The books, titled The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s Punishment, and Beauty’s Release were bodice rippers of the dark kind, and found an audience eager to mix their dramatic historical romance with frothy dollops of humiliation and submission. As it turns out, since the sensational success of the Fifty Shades phenom, Internet searches for the Rice trilogy have exploded. A re-release has been manufactured, and book sales are very, very steady.
Of course, I haven’t read any of it. Heck, I haven’t even read the Harry Potter or Twilight, or Hunger Games series. I have what appears to be a freakish resistance to Pop Lit. I do however, have passion for debut novels, and have been having fun promoting books of friends (spoiler alert: watch for the Fabulous Fast Sisters!) So there you have it: my dark secret: I prefer Julia’s Chocolates to Fifty Shades of Gray, The Snow Child to Snow White.
But thank goodness that we are still reading! I am shocked by the pure numbers of students whom I have seen in my classes who simply Do. Not. Read. So if these young professionals read lady porn or stories of heroic young girls, or tales of magic boys who become wizards, I could not be more thrilled. The important part is exposing yourself to well-crafted language. I have students whose spelling skills are embarrassingly bad and who steadfastly disregard my warnings about bad grammar because I couldn’t possibly understand that their writing is creative; not a tangled mess of alphabet stew. . . .
All I can do is say: read. For the love of all that is holy, please just read. If you don’t own an actual printed book, hope lives. In our brave new world, books can be downloaded onto all kinds of electric gadgets. My first e-book was delivered to my Smart Phone. And as far as I’m concerned, the Kindle has done as much for book reading as the Guttenberg Press, so I say bring it. . .even if the books are Pop Fan Lit, because even lady porn is a start. As long as intelligent people read, intelligent language lives, we stand a chance at reasonable discourse, evolution, and enlightenment.
I recently attended the funeral service of my colleague, Betsy’s mother, Amy. Amy lived a full and rich life and died at the age of 94, leaving behind legions of people who bore witness to how truly amazing she had been in life. For 50 or so years, this wonderful woman had a standing lunch date every Monday with her girlfriends. The group called themselves “The Lundi Munchers,” in a play on words since Lundi means Monday in French. As I sat there, listening to dozens of people speak, I wondered what I would be like if I could trace my roots back as far as Betsy or her mother. My grandparents were all immigrants and I confess to feeling ancestrally- challenged at times, especially since everyone from that generation is dead. If I have a question, there’s no one to ask.
A few weeks after Amy’s funeral, I spoke with Betsy who was knee-deep in sorting out her mother’s affairs. Her description of the house-clearing process fascinated me. Several years ago, her mother had pared down a lifetime of accumulated stuff in preparation for a move from a three-story home to a retirement community. These belongings weren’t measured in decades, but in generations and half-centuries. Antique dressers and bolts of fabric purchased by Betsy’s mother’s grandmother were among the treasures and in some cases made the releasing process quite difficult, although, Betsy said, getting rid of “rotten old fabric” was “incredibly liberating.” At that time, Betsy helped her mother empty the house using Amy’s systematic approach — scale drawings and graph paper and floor plans, arranging and rearranging to see what would fit into Amy’s new apartment, and red ribbon to tag what she wanted to keep. What was left was redistributed to Betsy or her sister. A lot of the items were antiques; some would be sold to dealers. Then there were the mementos.
“There was a lot of stuff,” Betsy said.
The process began anew when Amy died. Antique lace, called into service from years of Thanksgiving dinners placed over here, the dresser that was purchased generations ago over there. What no one had room for was relegated to the giveaway pile which must have made the local women’s shelter very happy. Betsy’s mother had released enough to move into a one-bedroom apartment, and three years later, when Betsy and her sister cleaned out Amy’s apartment, they were shocked by how much it held. Yet it wasn’t just old dressers and antique lace, but hopes and fears and expectations for your progeny’s future, not only from Amy, but from her parents and theirs.
None of my grandparents lived to see me even reach adolescence. The upside is that in my rootlessness I’ve avoided the weight of their expectations. Once I visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. This national treasure was formerly a Byzantine church, then a mosque, and now a museum. My paternal grandmother, my yiáyiá, a Greek by birth, but a Turkish citizen, I believe, prior to emigrating to America, attended church in this architectural wonder at a time when it was used by a Greek Orthodox congregation. I touched the hole in the wall where hundreds of thousands of tourists have placed their thumb, rotating it completely clockwise to assure the granting of your wish, and in that moment I felt connected to Yiáyiá despite that she’d been dead for twenty years and probably hadn’t stood in that spot for more than sixty. I had undertaken a search for my missing parts and came back with so much more that it took years to decipher it all.
Still more years later, I read a book called “Black Dog of Fate” by Peter Balakian, Apparently, the Turks did to the Armenians and the Greeks what the Germans did to the Jews. I surmised that my grandparents left Istanbul (Constantinople at the time) for this reason, judging by their arrival time in the U.S. It also would explain why no one wanted me to go to Turkey and why there was such animosity for a whole race of people that as far as I could tell, we knew not a one of. Like Balakian’s family, my grandparents simply didn’t speak of that time in their history.
Perhaps if I’d have had the benefit of cleaning out Yiáyiá’s closets I’d be able to answer some questions. I was only nine when she died, but she was the grandparent with the most longevity, the one I knew best. Yiáyiá spoke only Greek and a few words of English despite having emigrated decades before, but that didn’t stop us from having one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. She taught me to knit and sew and be patient if you wanted anything to look nice. She made Spanikopita with me, a favorite food I still make today except I use a recipe borrowed from a woman at the Greek Church where my grandmother’s nephew, my second cousin, is a priest. Yiáyiá’s recipe may be lost to me, but the memory is close, the recipe close enough.
Is it possible to preserve a memory simply by having the accoutrements that helped to create it or is it more complex? I once read an article that espoused giving away everything that no longer benefitted you, everything that you hadn’t used in a year. There are some things I haven’t used in 10 years, but would be hard-pressed to part with them. For those with separation anxiety, the article recommended taking a picture of the beloved item and then giving it away.
A picture wouldn’t capture the feel of one of Yiáyiá’s hand-sewn quilts, the ones with hundreds of pieces of material sewn into little flowers, then stitched together and overlain on top of a festively colored quilt. Then there was the knitted afghans, the crocheted scarves, and various other hand made niceties. I don’t know what happened to these things after she died. Perhaps a local women’s shelter or goodwill got lucky, but I hope whoever is using it enjoys it as I would have. I still don’t want a picture. It’s better in my memory, the one I have of stitching those little flowers while sitting next to Yiayiá who was smiling at me and nodding when I did it right and still smiling when I did it wrong, just without the nod, as she meticulously pulled out the stitches and showed me, again, how to do it right.
A picture also wouldn’t capture the way Yiayiá smelled: like my great uncle’s tobacco and the mothballs in which she packed her sweaters, but my memory does, and every time I smell these things I flash back to my aunt’s house. For the last years of her life, Yiáyiá lived with her sister and her sister’s husband, having lost her own husband years before, not an optimal arrangement since it wasn’t Yiáyiá’s kitchen, or her living room, or her bedroom, just borrowed space. Coming from where she did though, having to flee her homeland, I’m guessing borrowed space was fine enough. What I wouldn’t give to ask her about it. I search my memory for clues, come up empty — because this is not that lifetime. This is the lifetime where I start fresh without any predetermined familial obligations, where I emigrate to my own new world, like my grandparents before me, a world of my own making and vision, a world I’m free to manifest as I see fit. Whether anyone did it this way — by staying in place — I’ll never know. I do know that I come from a long line of seekers, and like my adventurous, risk-taking, tenacious grandparents, it’s up to me to figure out what my future will look like.
Still, what I wouldn’t give to have a question or two answered, or to take a nap under one of those quilts.
boundaries: they’re everywhere
It is more clear now than at any time in the history of this little blue planet: work on your sh*t or pay the consequences. My beloved blog partner and I were having our weekly Come to Jesus phone call this morning, catching each other up on our lives, and I blurted out, “it’s all about the boundaries!” It’s true, and it couldn’t be more clear.
I was up in Almost Canada this weekend, visiting with the part of my family that consists of parents, sister, sister’s estranged husband, sister’s amazing son and his wife, sister’s bff, our brother, and assorted cohorts. Whew! That’s a full plate. Literally. My sister is caretaker to almost more people than is humanly possible, so when I come for a visit, I stop at the local grocer and arrive loaded for bear, and then spend the next forty-eight hours whipping up fabulous recipes to feed the extended family so that my sister doesn’t have to worry about feeding the people whose lives she otherwise manages in every other respect. The cover story for my visits is to see the family, but covertly, I am there to provide respite for my sister, the Wonder Woman of All Time. I also encourage self-indulgence in the form of suggestions like, “let’s go get a facial” or “let’s go get some iced coffee and see a movie” because my sister has been taking care of other people for so long that she, like 99.999% of all caregivers, puts herself at the end of the long list of people for whom to serve.
Let me just add here, that when asked, I will often reply that I was switched at birth, which is to say, that I hold a peculiar world-view. I do not follow a traditional religious doctrine, I am not an advocate of suffering , guilt, emotional blackmail, self-pity, blame, helplessness or general malaise. I am more about expanded horizons, upliftment, meditative awareness, self-examination, and doing my best to heal banal childhood trauma in order to be a better human being. I know, it’s a lot to ask of a person, but I find it fulfilling. I work on my sh*t like most people work on anesthetizing themselves with as much television programming as possible. It makes me happy to make progress toward self-actualization. Plus, the bonus is, the “bad” stuff tends to show up less and less. One of the things that I’ve been working on in the last year is boundaries. I’ve come up against them, accepted my role in creating them, busted through them, and learned to recognize them for the gift they ultimately are. Is that always fun? No, it is not. Neither is a hydro colonic, but you sure feel better after. Boundaries, baby.
So there we were, up near the Canadian border, having a big, dysfunctional family dinner in what I affectionately call Crazytown, with my Alzheimer’s addled dad, perpetually confused mom, stroke limited brother, sis and me. Oh, what a lovely pasta primavera I concocted! Dad called it noodles and carefully scouted around the summer-fresh veggies colonizing his dinner. Mom smacked her lips and said, “yummm, yummm!” Sister said, “isn’t this beautiful; thank you.” Brother, who had just managed to get himself evicted from the latest in a string of assisted living facilities for acting like a turd on wheels, asked for a spoon. This was a reasonable request. His motor skills are marginal and more food will actually arrive in his mouth, if he uses a spoon. My darling sister, whose main concern is everyone’s comfort, jumped up to retrieve a spoon for our sad, disabled brother. When she handed him the requested implement, he threw it across the table. “I wanted a soup spoon,” he snarled. “This is a tea spoon!” Sister looked as if she’d been shot through the heart. I could see the gears in her head starting to grind, the ones that would compel her back to the kitchen to get another spoon to please the invalid. That was it. I’d hit my limit. “No,” I said firmly, and rested my hand on her arm. “You gave him a spoon. If he doesn’t want to use what you gave him, let him get his own.” Everyone stopped eating. The tension of a violin string hummed in the air. Finally, my sister sat down and we finished our beautiful damned pasta dinner. Boundaries, baby.
Later, when Sister was taking Brother home with a stop on the way to buy his weekly glut of donuts (he doesn’t like to eat the three squares his nursing facility offers), my brother wobbled over to me with anger in his eyes. “Nice to see ya,” he said. I had spoiled his game. “Nice to see you, too,” I replied. “You should be nicer to our sister. She does so much for you.” He turned away without another word. Boundaries.
Today, I had to file an academic report on a student for violating the rules of plagiarism. Even though it was the right thing to do, it felt creepy. I felt as if I had sentenced him to a prison of mediocrity. Even though it was of his own doing. Even though I had done everything in my repertoire as a writing coach to help him avoid that particular plagiaristic pitfall. And then I fell back to philosophy. He will (hopefully) be a better student for it. I will (for sure) be a better teacher for it. It’s all about the boundaries, baby. Thank Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Buddha; amen.
thank you for reading this far. click here to read the prequel.