Friday, December 31, 2010


A few years ago, my friend Bradley perfected the one-word New Year's Resolution. He chose the word "move", not knowing where it would lead. Where it led him, a guy who never pictured himself as a homeowner, was into a Habitat for Humanity house where he still lives.

I adopted his approach, and haven't looked back.

The beauty of the one-word resolution is that we point ourselves in a general direction and then get out of the way because that single word creates a lot of space for the Universe to step in and do what needs doing. This is a little unnerving, really. Resolving to lose weight, to read more, or to remember to feed the fish are things we have the power to follow through on. Or not, as the case may often be, but either way we control them rather than the other way around.

2011 marks my third one-word resolution. The first, three New Years ago, was change. I didn't know how the year would end, but I was determined that it wouldn't be as it began. And it didn't--it started in Michigan, but ended in New York.

Last year, I opted for courage because mine often fails me at moments when I need it the most. What I discovered is that courage has many facets. It is about knowing when to speak up, when to push, when to watch failure without stepping in to fix it and, most challenging for me, knowing when to stand and fight even as I'd rather walk away.

This year's word had been eluding me. I tried on several, but ultimately discarded each of them for a variety of reasons. I've finally found it, though--movement. I won't explain how I ended up here, only that it feels right because it makes me just a little uneasy. I don't know what that means--movement--for this year. I don't expect it means that I'm leaving my now-beloved Finger Lakes, nor do I imagine it means anything so simple as get more exercise. All I'm sure of...let me try that again...I suspect that first and foremost it means don't get complacent.

Beyond this? Anything could happen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Carol of the Boxes

When I was growing up, at least during my younger years in Texas, the Foley's box was always the mark of a most excellent gift.

Christmas Eve always happened at my paternal grandmother's apartment. The grownups would sit at the dinette, smoking, drinking Wild Turkey, and gossiping about whichever uncle and his family who were on the outs that year. The honor always passed between my uncles Bill and Charles. One of them would be there with his wife and kids, the other, I always imagined, was at home sulking, hiding in his bedroom while his wife and kids sat glumly before the tree wishing they were with the rest of us.

As an adult, I still don't know the stories behind those years. But no matter. Regardless which uncle and family were present, there was always the ceremonious retreat to the bedroom. We younger kids were never invited, but in the later years, one of my older cousins was occasionally included.

What would happen is this: after enough cigarettes, Wild Turkey and gossip, my grandma would choose a co-conspirator (one of the wives or one of those female cousins), and after an interminably long time in the bedroom, out they would come. Boxes would be stacked higher than their heads, and their knees would sometimes buckle under the weight of bows, paper and ribbons.

The boxes would be distributed under the tree, and each of us children would wait, breathless, for the one with our name on it to be handed over. Was it the big one back in the corner? Or a tiny one that we couldn't quite see but that might, just might, have a birthstone ring in it?

The first gift was always given to one of the wives. She would carefully remove the ribbon, setting it aside for later, and gently slit the edge of the tape with one long, polished nail revealing, underneath the wrapping, a coveted Foley's box. An "oooh" would rise up from the room, followed by a collective murmur of "Foley's box." Whatever was inside, we knew, was going to be good.

Like most regional departments stores, Foley's has been consumed by Macy's. Perhaps a Macy's box would be received with the same kind of reverence, but I doubt it. Like so many other of our traditions--like cigarettes and Wild Turkey for our Christmas Eve celebration--it has changed as our family has grown and spread out. My sister is in Texas, my brother is in Missouri, I'm here in New York. But no matter where we are, or how we're spending the holiday, we will call each other and at some point during the conversation, one of us will say with just a hint of breathless reverence "remember the Foley's boxes?" The other will nod, though the nod won't be seen, and we'll be kids again, for the briefest of moments.

Whether you celebrate the Solstice, the Christ Mass, or another of the holy days that fill the season, here's wishing peace, happiness, and a Foley's box of your very own to you and yours.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Awkward Questions (300 words)

My son asks the most awkward questions. For example, this afternoon as we were heading home from school he says "Mom, if the baby's name was Jesus, why do people call him "Christ"?"

"That's his middle name" was the first thing that popped into my head but fortunately I had sense enough to keep that one to myself and simply admit that although it was a good question, I had no idea why Jesus is also known as Christ (and, if you were listening to Diane Rhem today, Buddha, Mohammed, and the Star of Bethlehem but those are things for another post by a religious scholar of some sort. I'm just a mom trying to answer an awkward question).

The Christmas holiday brings a lot of awkward questions. Some of them (what's a manger?), I can answer based on a childhood spent in church. Others (re: above) leave me clueless because the belief system that governs our household doesn't come with automatic answers. I can explain why we hang lights, have trees and give gifts, but the magic of light isn't quite what our cultura celebrates these days.

Also, I guess I'm a contrarian, because it doesn't bother me that they sing carols in my son's music class, and those carols include religious references.

I realized, earlier this season, that my kiddo has a completely different frame of reference than I did; that the nativity is not a story he knows forward and backward. He's never been a sheep, or listened to a high school Mary's plaintive "there's no room at the inn" or beheld a star in the night. And this makes me a little sad because, belief or no belief, there is a distinct cultural reference in the nativity story. When a friend invited us to see her choir perform in a church, the first thing my boy asked was "can we go there?" meaning into the church because somehow he has gotten it into his head that only the righteous are allowed inside.

On our very snowy drive home, he peppered me with more questions, like, "what's that about 3 wiseguys?" and "what was that one wo wo wo song?" ("Angels We Have Heard on High") and "Why didn't they just go to a different hotel?"

And I was inexorably sad because he genuinely didn't know the answers, and because I don't know how to thread the needle between explanation and acceptance, between narrative and doctrine.

On the plus side, however, this morning we discussed the Solstice and he did a classic 8-year-old boy raised-fist salute and said "Sun's back! Woo Hoo!!" Sounds to me like the beginning of a tradition.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of Gingerbread and Tinsel

Now more than any other time (at least here in the dominantly Christian-thinking world), there are traditions to uphold. Home-baked cookies, hand-made teacher presents, tinsel, inflatable Santas, fresh trees and countless other expectations rattle around all month, making a mockery of any aplomb we...I...might typically have. In my world, past years have provided greater opportunities to bake more cookies than I knew what to do with, or decorate the house within an inch of its life.

This year is a bit more challenging. Part of the shift is that with the two of us here, I spend a larger percentage of my time doing things like dishes, laundry and general household maintenance; another is that I'm no longer a grad student or a stay-at-home parent who can readily carve out extra time to do these things. And the biggest change is that in an effort simplify my world, things like "more tinsel" have lost their meaning. All of this leads, as I've alluded to before, to figuring out what does have meaning.

There's a traditional cookie that I make--it comes from my spouse's grandmother's grandmother's mother. The dough for that is resting in the refrigerator. It has meaning.

As for the rest of the cookies--and there must be cookies--I have decided to return to the cookies of my childhood. Thank you, Sara Lee and Archway, for your sugar cookies. Already decorated with sprinkles and colored, glittery sugar, they taste like childhood. I had a working, single-parent mother and, curiously enough, don't look back on those store-baked holidays with anything but fond affection. Those cookies have meaning, too, but in an unexpected and slightly off-kilter (just like me, my family, my life) way.

I've baked gingerbread houses in the past--whipped out the royal icing, the gumdrops and the nonpareils. This year, I signed us up at the NYC Wine and Culinary Center where, for a reasonable(ish) fee, we get to join other families and decorate a gingerbread house that NYCWCC has already baked and assembled. It may not be quite the same as the ones I've baked, but I suspect it's still going to be a good memory to make and hold. When I mentioned it to my boy, his face lit up. I could promise that we'll bake one but honestly? The big day is 9 days from now. Instead of a decorated cookie, we'd be left with a broken promise. We don't need any more of those. Meaning.

So now, the tree has been put up, and there are some lights outside. I'm declaring myself finished, ready to prop up my feet, pour a glass of eggnog (with a bit of bourbon), watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and relax with people I love. Sounds like my kind of holiday. Meaningful, simple, and a reminder that for me at least, this holiday is about cycles, and renewals, and the return of hope, light and, if we're lucky, peace and sanity.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Writing Teacher Meets Mid-December

The semester starts to wind down, and my energy for writing gets subsumed by the papers that need comments, or the students who need tutoring, or the project that is due in 3 days. It's always like this.

So I took a minute to reflect on what I'd been writing in this space, and determined that the answer is "whatever." I have friends who write, and whose public writing spaces are focused, with a dedication to following a particular topic, idea or sequence. There is a gestalt to their body of work, and I have a bit of envy about that cohesion.

I, on the other hand, write about whatever has captured my interest at a given momennt. This is probably why I've always known better than to pursue a life as a real writer-who-(hopefully) gets-paid. I don't have the grim determination, focus or interest in pursuing a longer text, or a series of shorter texts that tilt on a particular theme. No, I like to write about whatever. What's more, or maybe worse, is that I rarely do more than a minimal proof-reading of the work prior to posting it. There have been a few exceptions-if I find I've stumbled on something that compels me to keep going, I will. Mostly, however, I don't.

All of that said, I find that blogging (or non-profit public writing as I tend to think of it) brings up interesting questions about audience. As a writing teacher, I spend buckets of time discussing audience. In an academic setting, that's pretty easy--the audience is either me, their peers, or some arbitrary audience I've named in the rhetorical situation of the assignment. Real-life, non-profit public writing (can we just call it RLNPW?) blows the assumption that audience is easily named right out of the proverbial water. According to google analytics, folks from such diverse places as Russia and the Netherlands find their way to this particular place on the web. (I have confusion about the why of this, but no matter.)

This idea of an audience beyond the classroom is suddenly of interest to me because, for next semester, I'm planning to require my first year writing students to practice RLNPW. Whom shall I tell them is reading, I wonder. I will, of course, and their peers. But we, potentially, are a very small percentage of the audience for that work.

What I'm curious about is this: how will the potential of a larger, anonymous, audience change the tenor of typical FYW journals? Or will it? It has been assumed by many academics that our milennials, so accustomed to a life fully lived on the public stage, are unable to see the value of the private. I know what my students' journals look like now; I'm curious to see what they look like at the end of May.

And I, as a participant, will continue doing what I do best--writing about whatever nonsense flits across my my mind. Enjoy (she says, quite tongue-in-cheekily).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


As a writing teacher, one of the options available to me is something we call the "classification essay." If you're unaware of what this is,it is exactly what it sounds like: an essay in which a thing, or set of things, is classified according to what it is or is not. It's like sorting, for writers.

I never assign classification essays. It is much too easy to write them as binaries--a thing is/is not--and lose the nuance of what a thing truly is. Kind of like people really--we're liberals or conservatives, rich or poor, educated or foolish, rednecks or snobs. Kind of difficult to be a red-necked snob, really. They just don't go together according to our classification system.

Well, actually, they kind of do. It's just that we're so focused on classification that we don't recognize the gray zones of "moderate" or "plain old middle class." We've lost sight of this thing that we used to call "normal." Do we even remember what "normal" means? Isn't it that space between extremes? Of course, we now consider that person to be not normal so much as invisible.

A couple of things set me off recently. One was an ad for a show by a vegan feminist at Michigan State University--sponsored in part by the Womyn's Council. In truth, the term "womyn" lost it's charm for me somewhere around my sophomore year in college when I realized that it was just another, self-made way of fracturing the identities of half the population. Anyhow, the poster featured a model wearing a gown made of meat, and as near as I could tell from the rhetoric, the show is about some (perhaps imaginary) place where feminism, veganism, speciesism and T-Bone steaks converge. And what it made me wonder was this: at what point do we cease to be thinking individuals and become ideology shills? Do we know where our lines are anymore, or are we simply reacting, in knee-jerk fashion, to every affront, real or perceived, that comes along? I don't know about you, but I'm offense-exhausted to the point where I believe we need a word for it. Offenzausted? Overoffensensitive? Whatever it may be, what I'm really wondering is this: does hyper-reactionism ever take a night off to kick back and order a pizza(non-dairy and with a gluten-free crust, of course), have a beer and read a trashy novel just for fun?

I'm not taking potshots. I know and love various individuals who are feminists, who are vegans, who are unabashed rednecks, and who embody elements of all of these in one confused but lovable package. I do, truly. And one of the things I love most about them is that they defy the binary while remaining wholly true to themselves.

The other thing, in this binary nation, that set my teeth to grinding was the article in last week's Newsweek about food and class in America. I've been trying to tackle my own love/hate (there's that binary again) with food and foodie cultures here in this space, and the Newsweek piece (available here: cut to the heart of my thinking. Our relationship(s) with food have, especially for women, always existed on a scale of good-or-bad. Now, however, we are redefining what it means for food to be good or bad, and we are, in many ways, defining ourselves by our food choices. And of course, because we--or at least our media--find the rampant classist nature of humans so fascinating and prevalent, what we buy in the market has become the new symbol of class. I find this troubling.

And yet, even as I find it troubling, I recognize the truth in it and the ways that I am complicit in maintaining this binary. I tend, for example, to cringe at other people's box-laden grocery carts while feeling virtuous about my fresh asparagus. Surely this means I love my child more, or that I care more for his well-being than does the parent who serves Meaty Helper regularly. I've created this binary in my own image, with the largely subconscious motive of assuaging my own guilt about the choices I've made. Oh sure, I tore my family in half and dragged my poor child to New York--but look at how much I love him! I make him eat vegetables! (Vegetables covered in this nasty processed cheese sauce called "Wholly Queso", but no mind.)

And so I have to wonder if this is the real reason for our binaries--if we divide and classify so that we can find the ways in which we are "better than." And if this is true, it might give me just the faintest glimmer of hope that eventually, someday, our need for "better than" will soften and mellow into something just a little closer to "it's okay, just the way it is." Even better, what if, just what if, we stop judging ourselves by what goes into our grocery carts and onto our tables, or stop peremptorily labeling those with whom we share this tiny planet according to current trends? What if we make our choices based on personal belief and preference, rather than a desire to identify with the ideology of the day? What if, and I know this may be pushing the boundary a little too far, but what if Meaty Helper and organic eggs can coexist in the same kitchen, without shame?

What if.

Friday, November 26, 2010

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

It was one thing to move here by myself, and quite another to make it into something that feels like home for my 3rd grader. He's been slow to come around to possibly considering himself a New Yorker, and I've cautiously tried to give him time and new ways to engage with this turf --hence things like 14 hours on a bus for 8 hours in NYC. That may prove to have been one of the smartest things I've done lately, but that's a different story.

We're managing, though one of the things he doesn't articulate well is that he's afraid of being disloyal if he refers to New York as home. Really, though, what 8 year old does?

Our next big challenge is Christmas. Here or there? There or here? There are some serious logistics involved here, as any 8 year old boy can tell you. The house in Michigan is bigger, so there is more room for presents under the tree. The Michigan house also has a fireplace--very important for believers. On paper, it appears that the optimal location for the most loot is our house in Michigan.

On the other hand, Yuletide in New York means that there won't be the challenge of choosing what to take back and what to leave in Michigan due to car space. Further, since he is lobbying the Claus very hard for Clone Trooper reinforcements, the original troops are already in New York, and they do NOT travel well. Their armor makes them grumpy after a while. Not to mention, of course, his best friend down the street is in New York. I hear they've made plans for holiday nonsense.

Logistics aside, there are the emotional issues--he's only ever known Christmas in Michigan, and the routines and rituals we have there are familiar if a little weird. There will, of course, be new routines and rituals in New York. We just don't know yet what they are.

Unlike him, I know that those rituals will emerge, and we will adapt and embrace them whatever they turn out to be. Different friends will become a part of our extended family, and we'll add new decorations and dimensions to our celebrations. But I know these things because I'm older, and because I've moved many times both as a child and as an adult--and because I'm an adult, and because I have already learned these, I forget that I need to be patient as he filters through them and finds his own meanings.

I'm looking forward to our tree this year, wherever we put it, because it is an inviolable part of our ritual. It will mark our space as home and remind us that wherever we are, together, is right where we belong.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The less-obvious

With Thanksgiving upon us, I thought it a good moment to stop and offer thanks. Like most people, I'm thankful for family, job, friends, a roof over my head and other things that belong in the "obvious blessings" category. This is not to belittle those in the least.

The tricky thing about thankfulness and blessings, though, is that they're often hidden behind less-than-shiny exteriors and topped with unpleasant-smelling things that aren't bows. I decided, for the sake of honesty and prose, to consider a few of these less-obvious things.

In no particular order:

  • My mother's insistence that my brother and I become, respectively, a truck driver and a hairdresser (her exact words were "beauty operator," harkening back to a time of rollers and Dippity-Do). Her reasoning was pretty smart actually--we'd both always be able to find work. I'm the disappointment; the family black sheep because I have a Master's Degree and am considering doctorate work. Realizing that roller sets weren't for me, I opted for a different path that I undertook knowing full well what it was going to cost.

  • And if I'm thankful for her well-intentioned advice, then I need to be thankful for the racial divide that was the cosmetology program at Cleveland High School. If I hadn't been the only Caucasian in the class, I probably would've stuck with the program and would now be working in a BoRics knockoff in a strip mall somewhere in America's heartland because, let's face it, I just wasn't that good at it.

  • Neighbors whom I detested back in our MI subdivision. If there's a poster-family for picking subdivisions populated by those with whom we have nothing in common (I really wanted to use the term "asshats" but didn't want to be confrontational), we're it. On the plus side, if it weren't for finally reaching my breaking point with their...differentness, I probably wouldn't be where I am--which fortunately is a place I expect to call home for a very long time.

  • A 15-year attempt to finish my BA which left me $20,000 in debt. I lived in Alaska fer cryin' out loud, more than a decade before anyone ever heard of Sarah Palin. How many of us get to say that?

  • The fact that I grew up working poor and a first-generation high school graduate because it means that I can budget, balance, beg and eventually qualify for a fellowship that paid for my MA in its entirety.

  • I'm also grateful for growing up poor because I can see keenly how very privileged my current space is and how slim the line is between the two.

  • And finally, I'm renting a house that is approximately 1/3 the size of one I own in Michigan. It's cramped, but in a place where there are boys and sidewalks and neighbors who engage with each other. We don't have a lot of our stuff here but what we do have, has value. This small space has required us to consider what matters and let go of what what doesn't. If that's not something to be thankful for, I don't know what is.

Friday, November 19, 2010


The hardest part about this solo parenting gig is that when I've had a rough week, my son has been forced into a rough week of his own.

I noticed this particularly keenly this week. Mine has been...challenging, which means that his has become that way. I don't know if it's my reduced patience that affects him, or if he picks up on my general sense of frustration, exhaustion and stress and mirrors it back, or more likely a combination of the two and quite possibly a little stress of his own. It's true that kids are resilient, but the guy has had a lot of change thrown at him in a short time so it's taken a bit to find his equilibrium.

Maybe it's just that time of year. I have several friends who are struggling through some things as well, and much of it compounded by having a lot of pre-holiday work that has to get done.

What then compounds things is that the stress and frustration become a kind of death spiral--I come home from work frustrated and unhappy, which gets transferred to my boy, which advances the spiral which feeds my displeasure which adds to his stress which turns me into a ball of angry, seething ick that I try to keep to myself but somehow spills over--and the descent into this very awful place continues for days until we're both just miserable.

Enter the TurkeyMum. Yes, the TurkeyMum. I picked up the boy from his after school program, needing to get to the grocery store because dinner options were pretty limited (as they can become when you don't get to the store).

We were both in our crabby places when we got to the market, and I was bracing myself for an escalation when we walked in, and there it was:

Yes, that's a mum all gussied up with pipecleaners and googly-eyes and glitter. At the store, we stopped in our crabby tracks and stared. Then we looked at each other and burst out laughing.

I don't know what we paid for TurkeyMum, and it really doesn't matter because now, when we're in the kitchen together, we both smile. And believe me, during a really challenging week when the frustration is rubbing off? Any smile is good.

It is much too easy to forget, at the end of the day or the week, no matter how awful it's been, that what matters is each other. TurkeyMum is a great, and silly, reminder.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

300 words explained (300 words)

Someone I know said recently that she's considering starting a blog, but didn't know if it would be narcissistic self-indulgence or worthwhile creative expression. My comment to her was that I do it because it makes me write, and that sometimes I stumble onto something that seems worth posting, and others I sort of cringe at what's out there--it's public but not necessarily publicized.

The 300 word posts are squarely in the "makes me write" category. Multiple creative writing teachers I've had over the years have required a daily or every-other-daily 300-word exercise. The goal of them is not unlike the goals we have as composition teachers--getting some words on the page that, eventually, may end up being something much more interesting and/or compelling.

Of course, a lot of the 300 word posts end up being like yesterdays, which was largely an exercise in typing. Those, I am typically tempted to not post because they are, as my students might say, full of fail. However, I post them because of those very same students--to show that we all write crap, nonsense and drivel from time to time. Writers write, I tell them; I never say that writers write brilliant work all the time, every time.

So, in a nutshell, the 300 word posts are intended as fodder, as an exercise in language, and as a commitment to myself and the craft of writing. Sometimes their purpose is to mark space and time--a "Kilroy was Here" of the digital age, perhaps. Now and then, something will emerge from them that I want to follow--a path into an idea I hadn't spent a lot of time with. Those moments always remind me of why I like writing the 300 word pieces. Times like now, though, those times when I'm busier than I'd like to be, they're more like verbal treadmills--good exercise, even though I don't like them very much.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saying (300 words and not really finished or well-developed)

One of the hardest things about being a parent, about being a female, and about find one's place in a new society is learning how to say that scary little two-letter word. You know the one. Starts with "n" and ends in "owe." I think I've figured out why.

Let's start with the "mom" part. I have guilt. Guilt for moving him here, guilt for leaving him there last year, guilt because he's an awful lot like my and god help him that's not going to be easy, and guilt because, well, it's what I do. I know some moms without the guilt. Okay, I think I know some moms without some guilt--if they have it (and yeah, they probably do), they've managed to make it less visible to the outside world. Problem being, of course, that the guilt isn't doing anyone any favors, it just impels me to do more than I'm really capable of doing--if I'd been able to say the "n" word, we probably wouldn't be at this impasse.

And then there's the whole female thing. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that guilt is a largely feminized space; that women are more likely to harbor this vague-ish and somewhat nameless guilt that floats somewhere around our midsections. Seriously. It's why we apologize so much, even when we haven't done anything apology-worthy. I have, embarassingly enough, been known to reflexively apologize to chairs that were in my way. I haven't known many chairs to take offense, and even when they do they tend to be pretty quiet about it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tourista! (pt 1: 300 words)

I started the week with good intentions. I was going to meet my promise to myself to write 300 words/day even if they were about nothing more consequential than the NYSEG guys replacing the gas lines.

Things happen and in truth I did write more than 300 words on multiple days but they weren't posted here so it's not quite the same thing. So I'm calling it a par 2 and getting on with my writing.

Thursday, my boy and I spent a day in Manhattan, a first for both of us. We planned it as tourists--decided that we'd do all of the obligatory tourist things like wear mom jeans and white sneakers, and not think twice about it.

Well okay, I don't really own mom jeans or white sneakers but we did gawk like a couple of country rubes gone tada city. It's a little hard not to, frankly--stepping off the bus into Times Square was like landing on a whole 'nother planet. I joke about being all country and stuff, but I was born a city kid, and have spent substantial time in more than one--and so far, nothing compares to NYC.

Wardrobe aside, we did things like stare at the jumbotrons in Times Square, spend time on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, eat street food, collect tchotchkes, find slices of NY-style pizza, hang out at FAO Schwarz and buy pashminas from a guy with a trunk. And while I didn't manage to have breakfast at Tiffany's, I did nosh on some pineapple chunks scammed from a smoothie guy on the corner.

I will confess that I was torn between terror and excitement at the prospect of this outing. Our local YMCA offered it as a one-day, round-trip bus ride. Seven hours to get there, eight hours to be there, seven hours to get back home. So in truth, we spent more time riding the bus than trudging down 7th Avenue. But 7th Ave. was a whole lot more interesting, especially after I learned how to wield my elbows like a pro. (Which is an entirely different post.)

You might think that after moving, alone, to this strange place I'd never heard of for a job I wasn't positive I could do effectively would make me pretty fearless. You'd be wrong. Which is, of course, why things like dragging my 8-year-old son to NYC for a day are good for me--they require squirming out of my ever-drifting comfort zone and remembering what it means to discover.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Military History. Or not. (300 words)

The salt dough was the easy part. My boy came home with instructions for making it, because his class is going to make 3-dimensional maps out of it. I gave him the recipe and supervised while he did it--and told him I was impressed and proud when he cleaned up after the process without any coaching or prompting from me.

Then he told me that his class has been working on some kind of program for our local veterans, a program that includes all of the elementary school singing the "Star Spangled Banner", among other things. So we worked on that together. Well, we worked on it without that bit about the ramparts--that's the optional stanza, right? And that multi-octave nonsense. Also optional, at least if I'm participating.

Just because we had to google the words doesn't mean we weren't earnest about it or that he isn't looking forward to the performance.

No, it was after this that things went south quickly. The boy mentioned that he likes the part about the bombs bursting in air, and somehow...somehow this led to a discussion about war.

Oh dear.

I'm not a big fan of war, mostly because I'm not a big fan of telling other people (or countries) how to live. I'm also not a big fan of people dying for a cause--especially when they didn't make the cause. There are, of course, exceptions. That bit about wanting to be independent is one of them. But when the boy said something about always winning wars, I really couldn't keep my mouth shut--there's revisionism and then there is halftruth based on censorship and "Oh crap, how do I explain something this complicated to an 8 year old when I don't even totally understand it myself."

Wait, I know what we need--more salt dough.

Further Magic (300 words)

I have friends; I make casual ones fairly easily. The ones that stick are a little harder for me because it means that I eventually have to pull down a brick or two and I'm real sorry if you had to see that mess.

But I was thinking about yesterday's 300 words about magic, and about the magic that grows from our new human relationships; how it enhances our lives and how, if we're really really lucky, that magic--and our lives--are enhanced by those we include in our circles.

There are four of us inside the closest circle of my life here. Three of us met on my first day here. The fourth came a bit later. But we are 4. We've spent some time playing with the archetypes of 4--horsemen of the apocalypse; seasons; my personal favorite, the Stooges (if you include Shemp); and finally, the elements. The elements proved irresistible when we started considering their characteristics and our own quirks.

I started to write about what makes each of us different, and how those differences are, in fact, manifested in ways that meet the elemental archetypes. But as I started my fingers in that direction, I realized it was too dense for a simple 300 words. So I will say only that I have been designated "air" because air is mercurial, not following any anticipated path. Unlike water, it isn't easily contained; unlike earth, it is not place-bound; and unlike fire, it does not demand change though it can be a destructive force.

There is, of course, much more to this. And there is much more to the discussion of magic. But right now, the magic I need most is in the kitchen because in the kitchen are my son, the cat and the dog, all wanting breakfast.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pieces of Magic (300 words)

I suppose it is a uniquely American concept to believe that magic can only exist if it is evidenced by lightshows and fireworks. When we believe this, we lose the ability to see it where it really lives.

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending time with an old friend who does not live here in New York.We’ve been friends long enough that we can’t remember exactly how long it is, and we’re both married with children which kept us squarely in the realm of friendship. There was a moment, once, but it is long-past.

Here's the truth: I believe in the existence of magic. I believe it has the ability to transform us, to guide us, to remind us. It can be the source of our power or our greatest fear, and it rarely exists in thunderbolt flashes. Instead, it hides in our quiet corners, in those dark places we hope no one ever sees and, when we're lucky, our relationships.

Especially, I think, it’s those dark places and corners where the magic of old friendship lives. I had forgotten the simple pleasure of spending time with someone who knows me--at moments better than I think I know myself. And had forgotten the simple pleasure of chemistry--the kind that exists between people who know exactly who the other person is and likes them anyway.

This, I think, is the truest of all magics, the one that binds us. It lives in those old friends we can call after 20 years of silence, and the conversation picks up as though it was yesterday. It lives in the corners of our new relationships--those moments when we are at our absolute worst, and it turns out the company we’re keeping thinks we’re still okay. And it lives in the choices we made, and those we avoided. Hardly the flash and crack of the stage magician, and rarely as obvious. But always truer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Morning, a Snapshot (300 words)

The clock tells me it is 6:45, the Sunday morning of our return to Eastern Time. My body says it is 7:45 and I have overslept even as I try to use this time as a gift of extra sleep.

Tight against my legs is Carlos the dog. He (and my snoring) have long since sent my spouse, who is here with us for a few days, to the couch. Carlos is fairly petite as Golden Retrievers go, but he's been gifted with a superpower that enables him to expand to fill all available space. Elastidog, I call him. Even as I cling to the edge of the bed, I can feel him stretching out, his spine arching along my side while his legs reach for the other edge. I can tell that he wants more space for his paws. He will not get it.

From my son's room, I hear the "pew pew pew" of laser fire, and the occasional yell of "clankers!" in a remarkably spot-on impression of the Australian-sounding clones from "Star Wars the Clone Wars." Star Wars dictates my life and provides the narrative track for his.

The occasional car cruises slowly by in the street and between them I can hear the birds, hear that they are still trying to get their cadres together for departure. It feels like they're leaving late this year, though I confess that I don't always register time in its true and static form (not that I'm a time traveller, but rather that I tend not to notice how and where it passes, only that it has. Yes, I'm hell on calendars).

I can tell that the clones are growing restless. Soon, they'll be bouncing on the bed, on my arms and head in a unified attempt to rush me out and into the the lurking morning. Mornings, whether they care to admit it or not, lurk. I will buy myself enough time to make and drink a cup of coffee, skim the NY Times for headlines and the magazine until, in a fit of indulgence, I will decide that I need, yes need, to find 300 words of my very own, just for the sake of the morning.

And then, because it is Sunday, I will make pancakes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Foodies: 2 of 4 (Community)

My son has turned into an egg snob.

Trust me, this throws a new and ugly wrinkle into life here at the 47 for two reasons:

1) our primary egg source has informed me that chickens lay fewer eggs in the winter, meaning that it can take a while for her to bring us a dozen eggs, and

2) our secondary source, one of the local farmer's market denizens who provides us with eggs and jams in flavors ranging from plum conserve to winterberry to lemon-jalapeno (and she makes pickles, too), has traditionally closed down in the winter.

Let me back up and say that I never intended for him to become an egg snob. He's 8, loves Pop Tarts and would rather go hungry than eat broccoli unless it is smothered in this nastiness called "Wholly Queso: the Official Queso of the Yankees." Even then it is roundly denounced.

A few weeks back, I had to all but bribe and then frog-march him to the market. I've described it before, so I won't revisit that right now. What matters is that the boy who had to be coerced into going didn't want to leave. He wanted to know about the different vegetables, and how they made the maple syrup, and if he could talk to all of the dogs, and why the woman was selling papyrus plants and if we could buy a fresh chili ristra to replace the dried one I currently have and was I absolutely certain we have enough garlic to get through the winter and oh yeah, how the Amish people baked the bread and cookies they were selling, since they don't have electricity.

The best part, of course, is that I didn't have to answer most of those questions. The answers, the source of the answers, marks the difference between going to the grocery store and the farmer's market; between simply living somewhere and becoming part of a community. Farmer's market denizens love to talk about their products, and will patiently explain how the tree sap gets cooked down, or the garlic is braided, or why Aloe is also called "Burn Plant." The dogs don't say quite as much, but their steady presences lend a weigh to the proceedings.

While we were there I picked up a dozen eggs, not thinking beyond "we need eggs. Oh look, here are some eggs."

The next morning, I made them for breakfast, my son watching dubiously as I broke them into a bowl. He was puzzled by the variety of colors, the misshapenness, the lack of size uniformity in the pack. They weren't the eggs he has grown up with, and in being different from both the norm and from one another, were instantly suspect.

The yolks, unsurprisingly for those who are familiar with small-farmed eggs, were a brilliant, almost glowing orangey-gold and bigger than the typical factory-farmed egg yolk. I scrambled yolk and white together, toasted the Amish bread and we sat down to eat.

The kiddo stared at them for a long time, still unsure. Until finally, slowly, he tried the tiniest of bites and declared them the best ever. Because let's face it, they're different. And now, he refuses to eat eggs from the grocery store because they're not as good. And really? I can't blame him for that.

Our regular market is now closed until next June. Harvest season is largely over except for the last few cabbages, and the first flurries have come and gone. I've been lamenting what we are going to do do for eggs and meat this winter, but I shouldn't have worried.

We're a community here. A rag-tag one, to be sure, but a community nonetheless and I should've remembered this. Our egg-and-jam lady, and the meat people, and our maple syrup source have, along with others, joined together to hold a wintermarket twice monthly in front of a new coffee shop here in town. Sure, they do this because this is commerce. But they also do it because it they are a community of people who, recognizing that none can do this alone, came together because that's how we get things done around here.

Since I started writing this, Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" has happened. What was said there reminded me of what is true here--"we work together every damn day" to make things happen, to get things done. Wintermarket, for me, is a simple, beautiful reminder of this--we can't do it alone; we have to do it together. And as I mentioned when I started this series, nothing brings us together the way food does. It defines our communities, often, makes us social and brings us together if only for a minute. Those minutes are precious, if brief. They are the ones that remind us of what we are: a community.

And now, I need to go find some eggs for my little locavore's breakfast.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Foodies, Part 1

The New York Times Magazine was devoted to food this week. I admit it; I'm an information age Luddite and I look forward to my daily newspaper. I find that reading it in its non-digitized form means that I spend more time reflecting on what I've read. And the headlines catch my attention in a way they don't when I'm reading online. I like paper; I've come to terms with this.

What I found intriguing about the Magazine this week was that it hit upon some things that have been bothering me lately. In particular, the way we've come to think about food.

Allow me to preface what comes next by admitting that the whole "foodie" movement smacks of an elitism that annoys me. This annoyance has many roots--memory, expectation, an innate disdain for most forms of snobbism. I'm no kind of social scientist, but what occurs to me as I'm considering this idea of snobbism is that unlike the $8million apartment in Manhattan, foodie-ness is potentially classless. With CSAs sprouting up not only here in farm country, but also in places like Detroit (where there are no major supermarket chains), there is the potential for all of us, no matter what our social status, to rethink how we think about food.

I adore the Food Network, I do. I love watching chefs compete on Chopped or The Next Food Network Star; I giggle when watching Guy Fieri barge into a Drive-In, Diner or Dive, and I steal ideas from Rachael Ray (but never Paula Deen who's Southern treacle makes me grind my teeth. I know Southern cooks. They make PD look like a mess cook. Confession: I have PD kitchen knives, but only because I needed a set of knives for the apartment last year and they were on clearance for $20 at a place I will not name).

But as much as I adore Food Network, I also watch it with a sense of real guilt. I suppose that's why they call it a guilty pleasure. My guilt comes from watching people desperate for stardom, or cash, or notoriety furiously plying their trades in hopes of impressing a food snob for whom, oftentimes, failure to garnish is a criminal act. The real criminality, of course, is the waste that is a result of our intrepid wanna-bes' attempts to serve only the best and in this attempt carve the four choicest bits out of the meat and leave the rest behind. (Perhaps the crew is allowed to feast on the scraps. I don't know--it wouldn't make for good television.)

I'm not planning to turn this into another foodie blog. Honest. But I'm fascinated by, and at times a willing participant in, our growing elitism about what we consume. What intrigues me more, and the heart of my thinking that was later explored by the NYT Magazine, is the idea of community. I'm also coming to understand that living in farm country brings, almost by default, changes in the ways that I think about food.

Since I've clearly opted to go down this cursed path, the least I can do is set out with a plan. I'm allowing myself a total of four entries on the subject, including this one. The remaining entries will cover (in no particular order): community; memory; cooking. Chances are good that no new territory will be covered. Still, sometimes the compulsion demands following. See you at the Farmer's Market.

Promises, promises

I keep forgetting to take the time to sit down and write.

So, promise to myself: I will write 300 words, 4 times a week. And I will do this even if those 300 words are about nothing.


Monday, September 6, 2010

The Middling Chef Tells All...well, some.

I felt like doing something a bit different this time.

I'm sitting here with a plate of charry bits and half-baked potatoes, thinking about my vast collection of kitchen knowledge. And, more importantly, that I should share this treasure trove of knowing-ness

I enjoy the Food Network tremendously. I watch the chefs saute and bake and toss pans of whatnot high into the air all the while thinking, with a mental shrug of ennui, "I could do that."

Well I could.

I'd need to make a double recipe because after scraping the whatnot off the ceiling and floor there might not be enough for everybody. And I'm sure that whatever the whatnot lacked in deliciousness would be related solely to poor recipe transcription and not my culinary talents.

So with that in mind here is some of my gathered kitchen wisdom, just for you and in alphabetical order because, well, it had to arranged somehow now didn't it?

Curry Powder: If you do not like the taste of curry powder, get it the hell out of your kitchen. There is something exotic-y about curry powder that, when the middling chef wants to add a pop of the unusual, is positively seductive. The middling chef--let's call her the MC, shall we? stands in the kitchen, spoon in hand after tasting the dillweed and sour cream dressing she's made for a fresh tomato and cucumber salad: "this needs something...hmmm...something a little different. A touch of curry, perhaps." The MC may also attempt to use curry powder to season chicken fingers, savory waffles and pot roast. Curry powder, in the hands of the unskilled, is a bit like a slasher movie. Everyone knows the prom queen is going to get it, and mostly you're just going to be grossed out at the end.

Grill Fires: The MC knows that grill fires happen. She also knows that when they happen, the wisest course of action is to close the lid, turn off the propane (unless it is an out-of-control charcoal fire at which point you're on your own), and walk away. New grills are cheap this time of year.

Muffins: When the MC wants to bake, she goes for muffins. A classic muffin batter is the perfect vessel for most any borderline fruit or hunk of cheese (please note that the MC does not condone using rotten fruit or cheese, only that which is past it's prime but not yet compost...and yes, the MC knows that cheese is not compostable). Once the basic recipe has been mastered, the sky is the baking limit. Home baked muffins offer lots of baking satisfaction without the long-term commitment of cakes, pies or brownies.

Non-stickiness: Here's a little something the MC picked up in a cooking class (hope springs eternal). To make a sticking pan into a non-sticking pan (please don't try this with scuffed, shredded or beaten-down nonstick pans. Those need to be discarded. Immediately.)

  1. preheat the dry pan on a medium-medium high burner
  2. add fat to the pan and allow it to come to temp (fyi: if you're using cooking spray on a nonstick pan, add it cold--spraying it into a hot pan is what causes that sticky chemical mess you sometimes see on nonstick cookware)
  3. add the whatnot, giving it a quick stir after the first minute

Note: Apparently this works because the initial heat causes the metal of the pan to expand, then the oil or other fat creates the nonstick layer between the food and the pan. Who knew?

I feel compelled to add...or warn...that this short list barely scratches the surface of kitchen knowledge accumulated over my odd (as in mathematical term) years. I know some secrets about store-brand cheese that would make your ice cream curdle.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A quck 'n' messy transitional post

Where were we?

Oh yes. Summer was upon us, and I took a 3-month hiatus to move. And move. And move one more time.

I moved into a house; moved my son here from Michigan; moved my writing center into a different space altogether (although confession: I only had to do the packing for that one.)

I love serendipity. At the end of the spring semester, once I finally made the commitment to stay here for a second year, I discovered that I hadn't left myself any time to figure out living arrangements for the 2010-2011 academic year. Worst case scenario, I thought, was that I would stay in my apartment for another year. Eventually we will buy a house, but there are some pesky details that need attention before then. Details like selling the one we own in Michigan, which is no easy task right now.

A second year in the apartment wasn't ideal for many reasons, despite its considerable charms. Chief among these reasons were the complicated set of door locks and alarms that required navigation to get outside, and the fact that I was, by about 20 years, the youngest resident of the house. Combined, they made moving my 8-year-old into the apartment a fairly bad idea.

Enter serendipity. As I was beginning to panic over living arrangements, one of my colleagues was starting to worry about her house. She accepted a one-year teaching assignment in Central America and needed someone to rent the house for the year. Through the magic that is Facebook, it came together for both of us.

Last year brought with it the opportunity to rediscover myself, my priorities, and other things long forgotten in the shadow of cohabitation. This year brings my son to New York, where I will be parenting solo most of the time. My spouse will be the one doing the commuting which, really, doesn't sound so bad right now. I suspect, however, that I have a lot to learn.

And we're off.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

This must be how non-custodial parents feel.

When I decided to make the jump to New York, it was for a lot of reasons. Some were quite selfish, others much less so. Many of them intertwine, and some stand alone. When asked what the hell I was thinking, I typically give an answer tailored to the audience. It is never a lie, though it is probably an incomplete truth.

I commented in a short essay once that I was concerned that I had sacrificed the last vestiges of my son's childhood for Blue Cross. While I still am concerned about this, I'm also at the "what's done is done" point in the process, which is a bit of a relief. Of course, the next question is along the lines of "but what has been done?"

We're in New York this week, just the two of us. It is the first time in a year that it has been this way. Just the two of us, for longer than just a few hours. And I discovered today that I don't know him quite as well as I used to.

There aren't major changes in him, no complete differences or absolute unexpectedness. Just little things like the way he no longer needs me to order for him when we're out to lunch because he's too nervous. Or how he doesn't need the company of a parent when he's the first one awake in the morning. Small things that are part of growing up, and that I wasn't there to watch unfold.

And it leaves me feeling quite maudlin.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

10 Things

As soon as I wake up (as in become functional, which will require much more coffee and a shower), I'm off to Michigan for the summer.

This must mean I've finished my first year here. So what I really want to know (and undoubtedly you do, too) is this: what have I learned?

Here, in random order as they occur to me in my caffeine-deprived state, are 10 things I've learned from my year of living solo in New York:

  • How to ride a horse. Although this had been on my bucket list for years, it wasn't until a friend and colleague nagged me incessantly that I finally signed up for lessons. I'm definitely not a natural talent, but I'm improving. Hopefully I won't lose it all over the course of the summer

  • How to meet strangers in the laundromat. The laundromat is a great place to meet people. Seriously. I picked up my hairstylist there.

  • That when it comes to corresponding with people I have great intentions but horrible follow-through. If it weren't for Facebook and email, I would've lost touch with just about everybody I know who doesn't live in New York. (I always knew this one, but really saw it in action this year.)

  • Fry cakes, when done right, are vastly superior to donuts.

  • That trusting the universe will get me much farther than pretending I have all the answers.

  • Also, when I shut up and listen to them, I have good instincts. And that trusting my instincts sometimes requires counterintuitive actions.

  • How to make a terrific mustard-maple chicken. Heck, before, I didn't even know New York had a maple industry. Sad, but true.

  • That I'm okay by myself. I miss my boys, but one of the things this year has required of me is that I function externally rather than internally. I may often be socially awkward, but I'm still social and I think this is strangely easy to lose sight of this when we're part of a cohesive unit.

  • The pronunciation difference between Keuka and Cayuga is this: one has a voiceless velar plosive (k-sound) in the middle, while the other does not.

  • And finally, I have discovered that I can do, or find a way around, pretty much anything I decide to take on. Sometimes it requires rational approaches; sometimes it takes the help of friends; sometimes it takes a little more hard work than I had budgeted but at the end of it all, the goal is met. (Or modified. What it isn't is abandoned--which may have been the hardest lesson of all)

Now, on to summer in Michigan.

Friday, June 11, 2010

There was a time, not that long ago really, when New York existed only as an inconvenience. Starting about ten years ago, we would go to Maine for the summer--something unheard of in Michigan, as most Michiganders prefer to go "up north." (Make a mitten with your hand, and everything from the base of your fingers to the tips is "up north." The Upper Peninsula isn't up north, by the way--it's the U.P.)

We love Maine, though, so every summer it was the same big question--"how are we gonna get there?" Flying has become increasingly painful since 9-11, increased security issues compounded by luggage fees, long lines and generally annoyed people. Driving takes longer, but we can carry on all the liquids we want. Driving from Michigan to Maine also requires going through New York, and the annual conversation went something like this:

"How are we getting to Maine this year?"

"Well, we could fly, but I hate dealing with the airport, and we'll have to rent a car, and we won't get to stop in Vermont."

"Yeah, but if we drive, we'll have to go through New York. I hate that stretch through New York. There's nothing there. Miles and miles of nothing."

"True, but when we finally get out of New York, we're at Bennington."

Every year, the same conversation.

Recently, on a drive back from Plattsburgh, I was trying to explain this to a friend who has always lived in New York. I also admitted that on the big list of places I've always wanted to live, New York didn't even make the semi-final cut. In all of my wanderings, both real and imagined, it wasn't even up for consideration.

But here I am. I'm cleaning up my apartment, tossing things that will spoil over the next 3-4 weeks, and getting ready to head to Michigan for a bit. I'll enjoy my time in Michigan, seeing friends, doing the things that I have typically done there, and spending some much-needed time with my family. But I know, even though New York is an inconvenience, and even though New York isn't on my list of places I want to live, that to some extent I'll be marking off the days. I'll be ready to come home to this unlikely place.

I have plans. Big plans.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Finger Lakes Cooling

Once upon a time, I did all those things that need to be done once in a while--change the flat tire, unclog the sink, take out the trash, kill the black ants, get the oil changed, move to Alaska. If you're a single, obstinate woman, this is what you do--it all by yourself.

Then, eventually, I got married and someone else changed the tires, unclogged the sink, took out the trash, killed the ants and got the oil changed (that move to Alaska thingy was a singular event predicated on the fact that I was in my mid-20's and thought "what the hell. I've never been to Alaska." So I moved there).

And then, even more eventually, I moved to New York, leaving the tire-changing, sink-unclogging, trash-taking, ant-killing, oil-changing spouse in Michigan. And I am proud to admit that I have relearned how to do all of those things without asking for help. Well, sort of. When my tire went flat my first reaction was to call my husband who, while sympathetic, wasn't really in a position to help beyond asking "so, what are you going to do about it?"

One thing I had never done--and that almost made me break down and ask for help--was install a window unit air conditioner.

We had a string of extra-toasty days here in Upstate New York which were manageable during the day but really, who can sleep in an 84 degree bedroom? So I marched myself into Lowe's and stood there gaping at the assortment of window units.

Who knew there were so many features, options and variables? Since it was just for night, in my bedroom, I chose the smallest, cheapest one, dragged it off the stack and carried it to the checkout. (Did I get a cart? No. Did I ask for assistance? Of course not, though I found out after I was in line that one of the employees was chasing me with a cart--in my determination to get the thing done, I never even noticed. And for what it's worth, men who are shopping at Lowe's are really, really, amused by watching a short, fat, middle-aged woman dragging air conditioners across the store.)

I lugged it upstairs and into my bedroom, managed with only mild cursing to get it out of the box and sat there, aghast at all of the pieces that needed to be attached. My trusty Ikea tool kit next to me, I eventually got it assembled. (I have a few screws left over if anyone needs 'em. ) All that remained was putting it into the window, plugging it in, and turning it on.

Well, except that the way the window is set up with vinyl frames for the storm windows, I couldn't get it stabilized. And my bed was in the way. And the only outlet that would accommodate the plug is on the farthest wall.

So I shoved my bed into the middle of the room and managed to break off one of the bed frame wheels. Then I squashed a stack of paperback novels into the window crevice to stabilize the thing. The shiny covers made them a little slippery, so when I tried to get the air conditioner tilted to the correct angle, they slid out from underneath each other, tumbling out the window in a gruesome display of flying fiction.

Then I realized that there was no way the cord was going to get anywhere near the outlet. Plus the directions made a really big deal about having a dedicated, direct-access outlet as power source.

Really, all I wanted was cold air--did it have to be so hard?

Again to Lowe's where I bought packs of shims, a role of electrical tape, and spent 45 minutes staring at extension cords, certain that I was about to blow up the entire house. (To my credit, I had checked the volt/amp requirements and knew what I needed in an extension cord. I bought the heaviest one they had.)

Back home, I removed the slippery paperbacks, built a stack of shims and taped them together, put the damn air conditioner back into the damn window, adjusted the angle, attached the side-thingies to fill the extra space, wrapped tape around the whole mess, attached the extension cord, plugged it in, shoved my bed against a different wall, put the stack of books under the leg with a missing wheel, held my breath, counted to ten and turned the a/c on.

Ahhhhh. I slept well that night.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Photo Essay 1: Oh Canada!

I thought it would be interesting to create a photo essay of my commute through Canada. Of course, the moment I decided to do this, I was already on the Blue Water Bridge and the day was overcast which means that it looks pretty grim.
The rules I established were pretty simple: The pictures had to be taken from inside the car, and I couldn't endanger anyone (myself included) to get the shot.

Traveling into and out of Canada means going through customs. It also requires going over bridges. Lake Huron is to the west, the Blue Water Bridge crosses at Port Huron over into Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. On the east end is the Niagra River with crossings at Queenston-Lewiston, Rainbow Bridge at Niagra Falls, and the Peace Bridge, which I've never been on.

There can be tremendously long lines on the bridges; the time spent waiting varies wildly with no discernible pattern. Since each of the 3 lanes is dedicated to a specific kind of traffic, I never know what I'm going to be stuck behind. I was behind this RV for about 45 minutes. The worst part being that there's no change of scenery, and when the scenery is a square white box, well, it gets tedious very quickly.

Nearer the actual border, the lane breaks into a series of shorter lines, all with folks waiting to get into (or out of) the country. Choosing a lane is a com
plete crapshoot. It may be the shortest, but that doesn't make it the fastest.

When I get lucky, I can cross the bridge, flash my passport and be gone in less than five minutes. When I'm not so lucky, it's taken up to 2 hours to get through the border. I still haven't figured out when the best and worst times are--it has been random and arbitrary. One advantage I have is that I'm an uninteresting middle-aged woman traveling solo in definite "mom car." Once I'm at the booth it rarely takes more than 45 seconds. (Random car searches not included.)

The challenge, once I get into Canada, is staying awake. The 402 from Sarnia to London is the longest Canadian segment of the drive, and there is little to break up the monotony other than the occasional OPP patrol. Granted, it's only about an hour on the 402, then a quick and entertaining drive along the 401 before settling back into farm country monotony for a while.

A healthy lunch always helps.

It turns out that I don't actually like Smarties. Nestle has taken a perfectly good M & M knockoff and added essence of weird flowers or something equally bizarre and unexpected. Of course, Canadian zesty taco (taco piquant) chips are already a misnomer. Why I would expect more of Smarties is beyond me.

Eventually, civilization happens. Lake something-or-other is on the left (a quick googling tells me it is Lake Ontario). This is Hamilton, Ontario--also known as the land of traffic cones and bad merges along the QEW.

I wanted a picture of the ongoing construction, but couldn't get one without violating my safety rules--cars dart in and out of lanes with only occasional signal use. Mostly, I grind my teeth and cling to the wheel, refusing to give up my lane.

Eventually, after surviving Hamilton and exiting onto 420, I'm rewarded with a view of Niagra Falls.

A colleague I shared an office with back in Michigan told me once to always take the Rainbow Bridge. It is designated for tourist use, and trucks are not allowed on it. Most trips, this is how I return to New York. The border on the day I was taking these was completely empty, meaning that I pulled right up to the booth and cleared customs within seconds.

Immediately after leaving the customs area is downtown Niagra Falls, New York. Tourist season hadn't yet opened when I snapped this, but when it gets warm, human throngs take over, making it extremely difficult to get through town.

What I particularly like about returning this way isn't that I get to see the falls from my car, but rather the Niagra river. At this point, I'm about 90 minutes from my exit.

I'm in New York, it feels like home, and only one exit remains.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I bought a bottle of wine at the grocery store today. A serviceable Australian Shiraz; nothing very interesting. As it rode down the conveyor belt toward the cashier, I automatically pulled out my driver's license and held it up for her. I am obviously over 40, so she snickered quietly to herself while looking at me as though I was maybe just a little off. There was an obvious internal debate as to whether she should humor me and look at it or pretend it, and I were invisible.

In New York, they ID everyone.

After 9 months of living mostly there, I'm no longer befuddled by the sea of New York license plates though I'll confess to continued bemusement over grape pie.

None of this is what I set out to write about, though. What I wanted to write about was how this living two different lives in two different places leads to half-memories. In particular, I am often confused about who I know, and where I know them (given that I've moved a lot in the course of my life, this shouldn't be a surprise, really).

Spring semester has just ended, and I'm back in Michigan for a few days before I need to attend a conference, then spend some time cleaning up the aftermath of the semester. I'm working on regaining my momitude, which isn't as easy as it sounds. One of the chores that falls into this is grocery shopping. For what it's worth, I don't love grocery shopping. It's a chore, whether I'm doing it in Michigan or New York.

Nevertheless, I'm in the store, staring at the root vegetables. Plotting. A woman with a slight, shuffling step walks by and I think "oh, This is Michigan." She is, in fact, a total stranger with Laura's walk. I keep staring at the turnips, parsnips and leeks. For just a moment, I am lost in place.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Naked Lunch *

Earlier this week I took myself out to lunch, by myself.

Yes, I'm quite accustomed to taking myself out for solo meals. What makes this one notable, however, is that I went naked.

In this instance naked means without a book, a computer, my phone for texting or even papers to grade.

Anyone who regularly dines out alone knows that the experience is least uncomfortable and awkward when we take books, or work, or something to distract us from the fact that we are sitting at a table by ourselves, surrounded by people eating in the company of others. It's kind of like when we were little kids--if my face is hidden behind this book, you can't see me! I don't know about you, but often I'll just avoid it altogether and settle for something I can eat in my office.

But y'know, sometimes Indian food is the only thing that will do.

There's an Indian restaurant around the corner from the campus center where I spend a couple of mornings each week, and as I was leaving on that day I realized that my life would be incomplete without some naan and biryani. In my car, there was a book I've been reading, my computer, and a stack of papers to grade. I could take any one of those in with me to work on while I had lunch.

I parked and debated what to take in, and decided on: my wallet. Well, my wallet and my car keys (I don't carry a purse on campus center days, just shove everything into my rolly-bag, which is a whole other post for some day). I went in naked.

And it was so strange.

That I ate more slowly and enjoyed lunch more is probably a given. But more importantly, I listened to people interact with each other in a casual setting, picking out which groups were friends, and which were coworkers, and I noticed how much I liked the wall decorations behind the bar, and as I looked out the window, I noticed some topographical and landscape elements I hadn't seen before.

Initially, I felt desperately uncomfortable--no surprise there, really. But by the time I was finished, something had changed. It was as if I had been--for lack of a better word--rebooted.

Yeah, I think that might be the word that I want. So, I had reached a point, between the interminable winter, the adapting to a strange place and strange job, the learning what it means to be alone and to start from absolute scratch, where I was as disengaged from the world as I have ever been. Disengagement, by the way, is exhausting.

So I was rebooted by my solo lunch. Today, I'm having lunch with a couple of girlfriends, and tomorrow I'm going to a cooking class at the local culinary center because, well, I realized at my naked lunch was that although I may believe that I'm wrapping myself in the relative comfort of anonymity, what I'm really doing is condemning myself to a kind of solitary confinement. Because, guess what? Cucumber raita is way better when we focus on it, rather than whatever it is we're hiding behind.

*with apologies to the late Wm S. Burroughs

Monday, February 22, 2010

Suspicious Activity

Bank of America takes issue with my living in New York. Any time I venture beyond Wegman’s for my shopping needs, they send an alert. An alert, if you didn’t know, is where they call, send an email and cut off access to your debit card because of “suspicious activity.” Granted, I can accept that paying $4 for a crappy skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks is suspicious—even so, I was a bit surprised that buying one at the mall a town over was enough to send BoA over the edge.
I probably would’ve handled it better on a different day.

Because nothing in this world can be as easy as I'd like it to be, I occasionally suffer from anxiety issues. Even better, I don’t always know when or where they’re going to appear—kind of like a crazy uncle or an evil clown, really. But no mind. My son turns 8 next weekend. He’s very excited about this. I, on the other hand, am wondering why my baby went, and just who is this kid with a natural talent for snowboarding.

I digress. Again.

So, I pull into the mall parking lot (by Macy's, in case you were wondering). I have my list, my bag, my phone in my pocket, a jacket. And, apparently, a panic attack waiting to happen, though that sucker stayed in hiding until it had a nice audience to work with.

So I walk through Macy’s, into the mall proper and it hits me. If you’ve never had one, anxiety/panic attacks are absolutely wretched. There’s the breathing issue (you can’t), the shaking issue (you are) and the whole world feels like it has gone solid. Walking takes a supreme act of will because you’re pushing not through air, but something with more substance. Jell-O maybe. Or pond sludge. It always amuses me that people think I’m “a strong woman”—that’s because they’ve never seen into my internal quagmire. Anyway.

There I am, standing in the mall, almost paralyzed. It takes every bit of will I have to keep moving forward rather than retreat at a dead run (I’m imagining how bing tackled by some dread security guard in the middle of Macy’s due to “suspicious behavior” would've helped). But I manage to shuffle forward. And there’s a Starbuck’s, in all of it’s crappy-coffee glory.

The problem with anxieties like mine is that if I give in to them, I’m done for. Retreating means that it wins, and that it will be harder to face down the next time, or the one after that until, eventually, I become the crazy woman who never leaves here apartment. Fortunately, I recognized it for what it was, which made it…well, I’m not going to say easier.

Struggling to breathe and to stay upright, dizzy from the internal push-pull of anxiety I forced myself to walk to the coffee kiosk. Each step was deliberate—what I told myself was that I was going to get a cup of coffee, sit down, do a visual survey, then take it from there. That’s the way this mental game works—a baby-step executable plan. Coffee. Chair. Survey. Those things, I knew I could handle. One at a time.

The universe is fascinating.

As I’m standing in line, I’m looking around, watching people get their coffees, wander in and out of the stores. There’s one woman in particular, dressed in all black, in her 50’s with white-gray hair, glasses. She gets her coffee, notices that I’m looking around, we make eye contact. She finishes doing whatever it is that she’s doing to her coffee walks toward me, leans over and says “we’ve all become coffee snobs.” We laugh for a second, she continues on and I get my crappy skinny vanilla latte.

Amazing how random words from (perhaps not so) random strangers can give us the momentum to move forward in moments where we’re not sure it’s possible. I sat, I surveyed, I was finally ready to buy presents for my snowboarding dude.

And then the phone in my pocket buzzed with a message from the Bank of America asking me to please call and verify that I had just spent $4 on a crappy skinny vanilla latte in some weird town in Upstate New York.

Monday, February 15, 2010

9 Things, a List

A list of 9 things I've considered writing about:

*Ghost Cat
*How to Piss Off a Customs Agent
*Tim Horton's v. Tim Horton's (or: why the heck is their coffee better in Canada, and why don't American outlets sell dutchies?)
*The Great Bologna Challenge
*Flat Tires, Clogged Drains and a Dozen Other Things I Forgot That I Know How to Fix
*Call Me Bonnie
*Metaphoric Land Mines and How to Find Them
*Old Lady Walking Shoes
*Tales From the Laundromat

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Growing up, I lived in a lot of strange and exotic places—Alabama, Missouri, Arizona. I can feel your envy from this side of the screen. Not for any reason so exotic as being an Army brat or having free-spirited parents but because my mother, for a short while, was married to a guy who worked as the foreman on an underground cable crew. This was back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Back before anyone outside of major urban areas had cable. If you lived in truly rural places like we did, you were lucky to get one fuzzy TV station if you turned the rabbit ears just right and it wasn’t raining too hard outside. Sad but true: I was 20 before I finally saw “Mork and Mindy” and trust me, it did not withstand the test of time.

One of the things I learned, between frequent moves and a mother who made misanthropy an art form more tangled than macramé, was not to get attached. Move in, make casual friendships with people then, when you’re gone, you’re gone. Unfortunately, that did withstand the test of time. I’m an excellent casual friend. Heck, I can even be a pretty good serious friend. What I struggle with is being a long-term friend. That “long-term” thing implies that the relationship remains through moves, downturns, upticks and miscellaneous outside forces. It implies that, when the people you’ve come to love and care about aren’t around, you miss them. I have managed to avoid that particular trap.

Or, at least, I had. My husband and son notwithstanding (I keep them with me whether I’m conscious of them or not), I float along occasionally thinking about people I know and love back in Michigan and elsewhere, experiencing a sort of vacant-feeling in my midsection that I ignore because it is uncomfortable to think about or even acknowledge.

It is curious how a single comment in a single moment can somehow change everything. I was at work the other day, my second day back in NY, and one of my colleagues stopped by—I suppose I should call him a friend now—and we were chatting about things. Families, students, books. And he said, at one point, “I’m glad you’re back—I missed you.”

How simple.

What made the words profound were how they were said—matter-of-factly, with no particular inflection or exuberance. I’ll confess now that I often, and to my own detriment, take overly-enthusiastic expressions of affection with a grain of salt. It is a common trait among women to be enthusiastic and social even when we don’t really mean what we’re effusing about (and for those among my friends who are naturally effusive and enthusiastic, I’m not calling you disingenuous, I’m saying that I am cynical), so it was the simplicity that took me by surprise.

To be sure, I have some 20-year friendships, and some younger ones that are important to me, but those are very much the exceptions. Mostly I’m quite talented at keeping people out, at not missing them.

Missing implies attachment. Later, as I was thinking it through, I realized how carefully I had constructed a life in which I wouldn’t miss people—I learned not to get attached because attachment has the possibility to hurt. That weird emptiness in my midsection can remain unnamed and ignored so long as I remain detached.

So, maybe “missing” is as simple as carrying memories with us as sustenance until we’re together again. And maybe, too, it is leaving parts of ourselves with others; taking the leap of faith that allows us to hand over those pieces of ourselves and believe that they will return to us unharmed. More frightening still, perhaps it means that we carry nebulous bits of those we call our friends, charged with keeping them safe and intact until some unknown future time when we put them back together again.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about Mork and Mindy. They’re probably best left to the annals of mostly-forgotten history.