Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ghosts and Vacation

I'm leaving tomorrow for a week in Acadia National Park. Because of this, I will not be taking my laptop with me. I want just to relax, read, write (have a lovely new notebook and pens to take out on the trail with me) and don't need my laptop sitting around sulking because I'm neglecting it, luring me into Email Land and work. Thus, you won't be hearing from me for a while.

Before I leave, though, I thought I'd let those of you who might be interested I've decided, since I'm a marvelous maverick, that instead of taking on a novel in November, as I know everyone is supposed to be doing, I'm taking on a ghost story (or who knows? maybe two or three) in October. I'll be doing so over here . If you're into that sort of thing, please come join me and give me your feedback.

And things to look forward to here, if you're not into things that go bump in the night, when I get back:

AC expressed an interest in hearing how Anna Karenina played a role in Bob's and my meeting, which doesn't require any arm-twisting to get me to relate, so look for a post on that.

And I can't stop thinking about Mandarine's idea to create my own online psych test, so I'll be devising something while I'm away to post when I get back.

Have a good next ten days, all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Newest Addiction

I should have a warning label stuck to my forehead: CAUTION: HIGHLY ADDICTIVE PERSONALITY. I need a new addiction like I need a new appendix. Right now, though, I think that fact is my only saving grace. I have so many addictions, it’s impossible for any one to truly take over and ruin my life. Since I have to feed these daily addictions to reading, writing, cooking, listening to music, listening to audio books, blogging, and emailing, and I’m also someone who needs her sleep, meaning I’ve only got a good 16 or so hours a day, at least eight of which are taken up with work, my doses for each addiction are very small. Thus I haven’t yet become a total one-track loser, someone, say, who never showers or changes out of her pajamas and who has become completely antisocial, an embarrassment to Bob who won’t invite anyone over to the house anymore, and who is likely to lose her job soon, because all she does is sit amongst piles and piles of books, reading nonstop. I do run a bit of a risk due to the fact that I’m into combining doses, doing things like listening to audio books while cooking. And I’ve been known to listen to music while on the job, and yes, I do drive under the influence of music, as well as audio books. So far, though, I’ve been lucky, and none of this has killed me.

I will admit I had one addiction years ago that was quite scary. It distracted me from all my other addictions and was ruining my sleep. It was called Tetris. It was so bad that when my sister came to visit and hid the Gameboy, I developed a deep sympathy I never knew I could have for alcoholics whose family members dump their booze down the sink. I don’t know what happened. The Tetris addiction just went away of its own accord, before my friends and family members had to intervene and demand I start attending Computer Games Anonymous meetings, and I can now play Tetris in small doses without its being all-consuming. Still, I’m aware of what can happen, and I try not to add new temptations to my life on any sort of regular basis.

Thus I knew allowing my mouse to click on a link to this was a very bad idea. How dare that scruffy-looking link hang out on the outside of the chain link fence surrounding my email inbox and try to lure me into its world? I should have given him a piece of my mind and then hit "delete," but he was sweet-talking me and telling me how good it would make me feel. All I can say is he came along when I was in a weakened state; I’d been sick for a few days, and I was stressed out about getting all my work done before going on vacation. I wanted something that would help me feel good about myself. And, man, did it ever. Check this out:

Are You Normal?

Your Normalcy Quotient is: 40 out of 100.
Your quiz results make you a Marvelous Maverick

Giddy-up partner. You're a maverick and don't know what the definition of normal is. That's a-okay because you're now part of a fascinating group of desperadoes. Wherever you ride, it's sure to be off the beaten path because it's way more fun to find the path least traveled.

©2006 Chatterbean. All rights reserved. 4255 E. Charleston Blvd, Suite 186, Las Vegas, NV 89104

How could I not become addicted to something that with my first dose convinces me I’m a marvelous maverick? I’ve also learned I’d make a great food critic (a job I’ve always thought would be particularly fun) and that I’m not the life of the party, but rather the soul of the party, the one “always there for a witty insight or a sensitive thought…[not the one] dancing on the bar at Coyote Ugly, but…sure as heck [encouraging] others to do so...and then [giving] a brilliant commentary over brunch the next day.” Who wouldn’t want to be that person? Anyone want to invite me to a party, so I can show off my “soulfulness?”

But, I have to say, isn’t really an addiction. It’s the antidote to my other addictions. The site must be visited on a daily basis to keep me convinced I need to socialize, so I can give all these wonderful traits of mine a place to shine, which will keep me from becoming that person who is just inches away from crossing the line to keep her home, unshowered and smelly, pajama-clad, nose in book, oblivious to the tower of books that's about to topple over and kill her.

Gotta run. That fascinating group of desperadoes has just shown up at my door for a morning ride.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Pandas and E. Coli

You know how family members like to attach labels to you practically from the day you’re born, and how, as you get older, you eventually discover they’ve been attached with super glue? No matter how far you travel or how many things you do in life, things that prove you’re not what they think you are, you just can’t unstick those old adjectives. And any far-more-appropriate new ones that might come along post age 21 are always merely attached with that cheap, clear kindergarten glue, sliding off your skin the minute you get caught in an unexpected downpour. You try to salvage them, but the ink has run, and although you’d like everyone to start thinking of you as the family genius, you discover that “brilliant” has become "ANT." Great. You’re the family ant.

My family has stuck many labels on me throughout my life. One of them “Panda-obsessed” has faded with time, probably because it was one of the first. It's one of the few that I actually kind of miss, as it was very appropriate. I was given a large, stuffed panda when I was around two years old, and he held a prime spot on my bed until I was in my twenties. I adored him and, by association, all pandas. Summer travels to visit relatives in England and Canada were tragic, because I couldn’t bring along Panda (he was too big and awkward for parents who, with four kids and all their books and clothes, had enough to handle). Consolation when I was five years old was that we were taken to the London Zoo where I could see my first live panda, who did not cooperate, staying curled up in the far corner of the cage the entire time we were there -- I know this, because I kept dragging everyone back to check -- so that it just looked like any old furry black and white ball to me. Despite this disappointment, and the label that can barely be read, my love of pandas is something that hasn't faded much.

I was also labeled the family hypochondriac, a label that was apparently written in indelible ink and stuck on with two applications of super glue. This label is a little more dubious. Yes, I did exhibit an unusually keen interest in my health classes and their textbooks (often reading way ahead in them for “fun”), and I always seemed to be waiting to exhale, searching for the diseases I knew I couldn’t possibly have. For instance, I was thrilled to discover at age twelve, that not only could I not possibly have syphilis, but that I also wasn’t likely to ever get it, since sex was "gross," and I was never going to do that.

However, I definitely am not your standard run-to-the-doctor-with-every-symptom hypochondriac, and most of the time (you know, when I don’t have a strange itch that won’t go away and could be skin cancer, or a headache that must indicate a brain tumor, or an odd pain in my side that just might be kidney failure), I don’t think that much about my health. As a friend of mine recently emailed me, just before racing off to his doctor to have yet another life-threatening malady examined, "Hypochondriac? You call yourself a hypochondriac? That's a laugh. You don't even know what being a hypochondriac means." I've quite obviously outgrown my childhood hypochondria, but that label ain't coming off. Still, I'm always thrilled to read about some horrible disease I can't possibly have.

Enter this recent E. coli infestation. I, who don’t tend to like to buy spinach in bags, because there’s just so much of it, and it seems to wilt within a day of having been opened, meaning we’d have to eat copious amounts of it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in order for it not to go to waste, was very relieved to find this was the reported source of recent outbreaks. I haven’t cooked anything calling for spinach in ages; no way could I possibly have to worry about E coli. But then, late Saturday morning, I got sick. Nothing as severe as the descriptions in the news, but still, my symptoms were similar. Maybe I had a very mild case. And I know I hadn’t eaten any spinach, but maybe that radicchio I’d had Friday night that had tasted a little funny was the cause. Maybe I was the first case to be infected from a different leafy vegetable. I took to my bed, feeling twinges in my lower back. Could that be an indication that my liver was malfunctioning?

I slept most of the afternoon and woke up feeling somewhat better, convinced I wasn’t going to die after all. This was when Bob came in with a package from my mother. Packages from my mother are an amusing source of conversation in this house. She seems to spend a lot of time looking around the house for odd things to send to me. I never know if it’s going to be something wonderful (an old scrapbook I thought had been forever missing or some cool kitchen gadget) or something to which the only appropriate response is “huh?!” (an automatic envelope opener or some stupid article of clothing I’m still embarrassed to think I wore all the time when I was fifteen and can't believe she still had). This time, she hit the jackpot. She’d sent me a lovely green T-shirt she’d picked up on her trip to Peru that was too small for her, and an old, paperback picture book that was falling apart. Guess what it was. A Book about Pandas. That label must not be completely faded yet.

I settled in for the rest of the evening, nursing my mild case of E coli and looking at pictures of some very sweet pandas.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Finding Comfort

I just spent a couple of days in Cambridge, MA sitting in on presentations to The National Math Panel, a panel established by our government to improve math education in this country. Needless to say, I found it rather depressing, and I needed some comfort. Where did I go? To the Coop, which used to be a university bookstore (shared by the different institutions in the area), and is now a "Saks Fifth Avenue" Wannabe, selling all kinds of overpriced junk, and oh yes, tucked away, over there, in a far corner on a distant floor, is the textbook section.

Back when we climbed aboard pterosaurs to fly us from our dorms to the classroom buildings (and called them "pterodactyls"), I used to spend hours at our university bookstore, browsing not just the "fun" shelves that contained popular books of the day, but all the course shelves as well. My thoughts went something like this, "when I’m no longer in school and have more time, it will be a good idea for me to do all my book shopping at college bookstores, see what they’re reading in classes I’d like to take and buy the books, so I can continue my education." Nice, in theory, but, like many nice theories, difficult for a normal human being to put into practice, especially this human being who never ended up living within ten miles or so of a college bookstore. And I didn't know in those days that such distracting things as Amazon and would arrive on the scene. Thus, I’ve never done it. Still, whenever I’m anywhere within striking distance of a college bookstore, I will usually spend some time in it.

The labels in my college bookstore indicated exactly what each course was (e.g. "ENWR 101: Introduction to Writing"). I haven’t visited that bookstore in a number of years, so I don’t know if they still label their shelves so effectively, but I discovered that the M.I.T. Coop was not quite so meticulous. I found, as I browsed the shelves, that the labels just read "ENG 3127." I was left to my own devices to figure out what that course was. I could at least decipher the "ENG" that stood for "English," and not "Engineering," which it easily could have (that is, unless for some reason, they’re now reading Norton Anthologies in engineering courses). The ENG offerings were in short supply, and most of them seemed to be pretty standard, with the exception of one interesting-looking course that must have been a study of the graphic novel. If my tastes ran more towards technical problem solving rather than everyday problem solving, I would have found myself in paradise, but since they don't, I lost interest fairly quickly among these shelves. I left and took the "T" a couple of stops to the Coop at Harvard Square.

Here I found shelves and shelves of PSY and ENG offerings (much more my thing) and a real challenge to my problem-solving skills. Once again, only course numbers (why are they called "course numbers" when they typically include letters? They should be called "course codes," which would be much more appropriate for this post) were provided. The offerings in the psychology department weren’t so mysterious. It was quite easy to discern which one was developmental psychology, which was cognitive psychology, which was psychobiology, etc. The English department, however, provided a little more intrigue.

Again, I had no problem with some that were obviously Shakespeare courses or poetry courses, and ENG 778 must be a 20th-century literature course similar to the one I took, as I recognized many of the titles: The Crying of Lot 49, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Invisible Man, The House of Mirth. Other books, although we didn’t read them, still fit the category: Farewell to Arms, Don Delillo’s White Noise, etc. Although I didn’t take such a course, ENG 90YX was pretty easy to label as LGBT literature (or whatever it might be called) or maybe a gender identity in literature course (given that clever "YX" in its "code"), with such titles as Funeral Rights, Orlando, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

But then I came across these courses that were a little more challenging. ENG 180 initially seemed to be some kind of cool crime and mystery course with the likes of In Cold Blood, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and The Library of America’s Crime Novels, but then it became a little more complicated when I noticed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Great Gatsby, and If He Hollers Let Him Go, not exactly titles that this librarian would have filed under "mystery." Could it be a course on crime and evil minds or something? And then I found some real stumpers. Take a look at some of the titles for ENG 97: Gulliver’s Travels, The Rule of Four, The Bluest Eye, Measure for Measure, Night, and Life of Pi. Well, I’d love to take the course, but I’ll be damned if I can find the connection among all those titles (maybe it was something on how can you possibly read The Rule of Four after having just read Gulliver’s Travels and not be repulsed by the obvious rapid decline of what the general public considers "great literature?"). I had the same reaction to ENG 166X with such titles as: Jane Eyre; Ian McEwan’s Saturday; Winesburg, OH; Heart of Darkness, Wild Sargasso Sea, and Kim.

I’m sure some completely unimaginative person would point out to me that I could easily look up the Harvard course offerings online and find out what all these classes actually are, but that wouldn’t be half as much fun. And that’s the problem with unimaginative people, isn’t it? They've lost the ability to have fun (if they ever had it). I’m glad to see that one of this country’s high-ranking colleges obviously has some quite imaginative professors, stringing together unlikely titles in what must be some very fun courses. This means they can’t all be stuffy, petty, boring bureaucrats, more concerned about test results and college rankings than anything else.

How’s that for comfort after a dismal meeting that had left me wondering if there was any hope for 21st-century students?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Typo Quean

I hate labels. Too bad we can’t go through life without them, or make up things no one’s ever heard of to describe ourselves. If I could do that, rather than calling myself an “editor,” I’d call myself a “writer’s helper.” You see, I’ve discovered during my life as an “editor” that this label sometimes intimidates authors. They don’t feel comfortable giving their work to an “editor” to review. I think they fear I’ve memorized Fowler’s and The Chicago Manual of Style and am waiting, mouth drooling in anticipation, to pounce on them with my red pen. They seem to expect comments like (and, believe me, I did once know an editor who was like this, so it isn’t as though their fear is completely irrational), “This is garbage,” or “During your schooling, did you ever wake up to take note of what it means to write?” I’m pretty sure some of my authors are afraid to have a single typo or awkward phrase when they send me sample pages to review.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I am myself a queen of typos and awkward sentences. I can write something, obsessively proofread it ten times, pick it up a week later, and discover some glaring and embarrassing typo, or a phrase that sounds like I was channeling Tarzan when I wrote it. I turn to my friends who are editors to help me catch these errors, knowing perfectly well that the problem is I’m too close to it. I know what I meant to say, and my brain reads that, even if it isn’t there. I can completely sympathize with those who make mistakes. I have no problem reading and correcting them. I don’t judge those who make them. And there’s nothing I like better than to help turn around somebody else’s awkward phrase, which is much more fun than trying to turn around one of my own.

I have to admit, though, that at one point in my life, I was headed in that nasty, overly-judgmental direction authors seem to fear. When I was a schoolgirl, I was extremely dismissive of people who misspelled simple words like “its” and “it’s” or “your” and “you’re.” We’d clearly been taught the differences between these words, and the differences were quite easy to remember. I was especially harsh with those who would write in my autograph books “your nice” or “your sweet.” How could I have chosen to let such woefully ignorant people be my friends? And how had they made it this far in life (5th grade, I mean, come on!) without knowing the difference? Did they ever wake up in class to take note of what it meant to write?

Then it happened. I was sixteen or so, and I happened to be spending the night with my best friend. I picked up her high school yearbook from the previous year, flipping through it to see what everyone had written, being mostly interested to see what I’d said. And there it was: a “your” where a “you’re” should have been, in my own handwriting, right out there for everyone (you know, all those hordes of people who would be reading her yearbook) to see how ignorant I was. I, of course, immediately found a pen and corrected my mistake.

That yearbook signing must have been the beginning of my career as the Typo Queen, as I’ve discovered myself making similar mistakes ever since (in fact misspelling homonyms seems to be a pet favorite of mine). Email seems to bring out my most creative efforts in this profession, but I’ve noticed blogging is becoming a fine outlet as well. Sew, the next time you sea a slew of errs in won of my posts, don’t be to surprised.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Wannabe-Type-B Personality Gets a Facial

[A friend who has three children has just started a new job teaching at a nearby high school. She calls Type A Thursday night, sounding as though she must be somnambulant, but she can’t be. She’s making too much sense as she explains how exhausted she is and wonders if taking this job was such a good idea. Type A immediately decides the friend needs to do something relaxing, something away from the family, something just for herself. This is how Type A ends up at a day spa at 9:15 on a Saturday morning, sitting next to her friend and completing an information form, so she can get a facial.

Type A is looking at all the information about full-body massage and wishing they’d decided to do that, even though it would have meant taking out a second mortgage on the house. She’s forgotten that she’s the most ticklish person on the planet and that the four times in her life she’s had a full-body massage, she’s spent a good deal of it worrying that the massage therapist was going to hit a particularly ticklish spot. Not exactly relaxing. Just then, Marie, the massage therapist, arrives to lead Type A into the room where she’ll be spending the next hour. Marie leaves, so Type A can disrobe “from the waist up” and put on a little gown.]

Waist up? She said only from the waist up, right? This gown is too loose. It’s going to fall off. Where did she say to put my clothes? Oh, on the hook behind the door. [Hangs shirt and bra on hook.] Oh wait, there’s a hanger. Should I use the hanger? Oh God, I have to go to the bathroom. I knew I shouldn’t have had that coffee. Should I tell her I need to go? I don’t want to walk out there wearing this gown. People might see me, and it might fall off, it’s so big. But how am I going to relax if I don’t go to the bathroom. Why didn’t I go before I got undressed?

[Type A finally makes the decision to ask where the bathroom is and clutches the top of the gown as she scurries down the hall and back, where Marie is waiting for her. She lifts the covers of the bed and tells Type A to get in.]

Am I doing this right? I’m supposed to just climb into the bed like it’s any other bed, right? I guess this is right. Are the sheets heated? No. Too bad. If I ran a spa, I’d have heated beds.

[Marie brings over the paraffin dip for Type A’s hands. Type A knows she loves this, as paraffin dips were part of the physical therapy she had when she broke her wrist years ago.]

Okay, what am I supposed to do with this hand that’s been dipped while I’m dipping the other one? Do I hold it up like this? Will it drip on the bedcovers? This isn’t very comfortable, but if I lower it down, I might accidentally get too close to the blanket, and it might stick. I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to wash the bedcovers in this place. I bet they get everything on them: paraffin, face wash, greasy moisturizer, not to mention the people who lie in them. Don't think about that.

[Marie wraps Type A’s hands in plastic, and finally, she gets to comfortably put them under the covers. Then she asks Type A what sort of skin regimen she has.]

Should I tell her I really do nothing? I know I should, but who the hell has time for all those cleansers and astringents? Uh-oh, she’s going to want to sell me stuff like masks and little tubs of eye cream that cost $30 for 2 oz. I am not going to be suckered into buying them. I need to go home and see what I’ve already got that I never use. I should start using it. I need to clean out the bathroom cabinets. Maybe I’ll do that this afternoon.

[Type A admits that she just wipes her face every evening with a baby wipe and lathers on whatever moisturizer was on sale at K-Mart last time she went. If she were really honest, she’d admit she doesn’t even do this much a good deal of the time. Marie tells her that she’s “very, very young” right now, and that this may be working, but it won’t work forever, and that as she gets older, she’s really going to need a good regimen.]

She said I was very, very young. I’m not. Did she look at my information form to get my age? Is she 70, or something, and thinks 42 is young? Or is it my skin? Does my skin look like the skin of someone who’s really, really young? I should ask her. No, I don’t want to sound like I’m questioning her. But if it’s my skin, and she’s supposed to be an expert, those baby wipes and that cheap moisturizer must be working.

[Marie informs Type A that she has a lot of blackheads. She explains that exfoliating is really, really important, while exfoliating Type A’s face with a scrub that smells delicious. She massages Type A’s face and neck for way too brief a period, covers her face with a warm, moist towel and says she’ll be back in five minutes.]

She’s right. I really should exfoliate. I wonder how much that great-smelling stuff costs. I wonder if I can just buy it and not buy anything else. But that article I read a while back said exfoliating wasn't so good for those with very dry skin. Where did I read that? Wonder if I can look it up on line. Didn’t she say five minutes? This has got to be longer than five minutes. Where is she?

[What seems like it’s surely been a half hour later, Marie returns, only to leave shortly thereafter, having applied a mask that has to be on for fifteen minutes.]

Fifteen minutes? This is taking forever. I wish they’d let us read in here. I wonder what she’s doing. Does she have another client? Does she just go off and drink some tea somewhere? I bet she gets to go read. This is boring. What can I do? Maybe I should do some Kugel exercises. No, this is supposed to be relaxing. I should try to meditate. Breathe deeply. I wonder if my breaths are deep enough. I really ought to learn to meditate properly. I wonder what happened to that meditation CD I got Bob for Valentine’s Day. It would be nice if I could learn to take far fewer breaths per hour. Is that woman ever coming back?

[Hours later, Marie comes back to finish up the massage.]

Why can’t the massage part be as long as the waiting for the mask part? I wish she’d lingered a little more over the shoulders. God, my hair is going to be a mess after this. My bangs are going to stick up everywhere, and I’m sure she’s gotten lotion in it. I hope no one notices at the restaurant while we’re eating brunch. I wish I could go home and shower before then.

[Once Marie proclaims she’s done and Type A gets up to dress and looks at her watch, she’s amazed to find this was exactly one hour. She goes out to sip some yummy African nectar tea with her friend and talk about how relaxed they are. She's not lying. She's relaxed, because she and her friend have both agreed they won't buy any "product," and for once in her life, she won't be playing the sucker.]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I've Found Math

I can remember spending enough evenings during 8th grade in a frustrated fury, throwing my algebra book across the room, to know I didn’t grow up believing I had any real mathematical talent. I didn’t hate math, but I didn’t love it, either. It was just something to be endured, and if I liked it, it was only because it was so finite. I knew I was done with my math homework when my 25 problems were done. Language arts assignments were far more amorphous (especially for a budding editor). I took calculus (which I almost failed) and statistics (because all psych majors had to take it) in college, and that was it, whereas I took so many English electives, I suddenly realized in my fourth year I had accidentally minored in it. Most of my life, I would have told you I’m an “English person,” not a “math person.” Nevertheless, here I am today, an editor whose subject areas are math and science.

My colleagues and friends will tell you I’m like a late-in-life, obnoxious, born-again fundamentalist. I run around pointing out every area in their lives in which they’re “really doing math, you know.” I tell them there’s no such thing as an “English person” or a “math person,” as both are left-brain functions. I tell them they just don’t like math, because math was taught in such boring and uninspiring ways. I want to spread the Good News. I want everyone to come to Math. I want them to know it’s not okay to Hate Math.

One of my favorite series of questions is “Have you ever gone to a party and asked people if they’ve read any good books lately? Do they ever turn to you and say, ‘Oh, don’t talk to me about reading. I was lost once we got past The Cat in the Hat,’ or ‘I can’t read; you’re either a reading person or you’re not; I’m not?’” Of course not. Yet, start talking about math at a party, and more likely than not (unless you’re at a CalTech or M.I.T. faculty party), people will launch into discussions of how horrible math is, bonding over the fact that they just never could get it. And they’re not the least bit ashamed. Even if someone can’t read well, you’d be hard-pressed to find him or her admitting so in a crowd.

I thought I’d gotten over my own tendencies to bond in this way until Dorothy asked us all in a recent post whether we’re slow or fast readers. I immediately responded that I’m a slow reader, and I have absolutely no problem telling anyone this. I’ve never equated it with some sort of lack in my reading ability. It’s just a fact: I’m a woman; I’m an American; and I’m a slow reader. However, give me a series of math problems, and if I can’t solve them all quickly (and, preferably, in my head), I immediately equate that with a lack of mathematical ability. Somehow, it’s been ingrained in me that in order to be really good in math, I have to have a calculator-like ability to pop out answers.

Obviously, my authors are people who can do math and do it well, and I’ve noticed a reluctance on my part to do any real math alongside them. I don’t mind if they give me problems over which I can puzzle on my own, but I don’t want them to see how I really “can’t do math,” because the process is a long one for me. I become “Sally-Who-Was-Saved-Yesterday” trying to answer questions posed by Billy Graham. Maybe I haven’t really been saved after all.

So, I’m going to have to change my ways, if I’m going to live up to my new born-again status. I’m going to have to start proclaiming myself a slow problem-solver, just as I proclaim myself a slow reader. And what a nice thing to be. It gives me the chance to stop and smell the roses along the way when I’m trying to figure out if we can fit the new couch through the front door. One day, I might even get to have my own tent revivals, helping bring poor, lost “English souls” to Math.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Food AND Books

When I was a child, my mother used to drink buttermilk. She was the only one in the family who liked it, and I can still picture her stretched out on the lounger on our front porch with a glass of buttermilk in the summertime. At that point in my life, my taste buds still young and willing to work long, hard hours to wallop me with intense flavor every time something touched my tongue, I’d have agreed to go six months without reading my beloved Cricket magazine to avoid having to drink a glass of buttermilk.

Somehow, though, my hatred of buttermilk didn’t register when I read about Laura Ingalls helping her mother at the butter churn, always hoping to get a little buttermilk. Her buttermilk wasn't sour and distasteful, but rather sweet and delicious, and my mouth watered as I read about it. I longed to drink some of that buttermilk right along with her, just as I longed to eat some of that maple candy Mr. Edwards brought after he ran into Santa Clause on the Prairie, even though I’d had maple candy from Hickory Farms and knew it made me feel sick. For some reason, I was sure that these foods must have been different back then. No child could possibly like the modern versions, but I trusted Laura implicitly. She was one of my best friends. If she claimed to have eaten and loved these special treats in all her little houses, I believed her.

Heidi did the same with her goat’s milk. Goat’s milk isn’t something I’d ever had, but I wanted to join her up there in those mountains, playing with the goats and drinking what was quite obviously the world’s best milk. Forget the fact that I was the world’s pickiest child when it came to cow’s milk. It had to be served at just the right temperature (it couldn’t be the least bit warm). I wouldn’t drink it unless I had some food to eat with it. When we visited England in the summertime, I didn’t like the milk (having been served only homogenized milk in America, I wasn’t used to what I would now consider that delicious cream that floated to the top of the bottles). My sense of how milk should taste was so keen, I could probably have sniffed a glass of United Dairies 1973, and told you exactly what kind of grass that cow had been eating before she was milked. Taking a sip and swirling it around in my mouth, I would have given it either a stamp of approval or one of disapproval, the latter resembling a reaction from Miles had he been presented with a glass of Merlot in the movie Sideways. Nonetheless (and despite my mother telling me she was sure I wouldn’t like goat’s milk), I wanted my parents to go out and get a couple of goats, so we could have fresh goat’s milk with our breakfast every morning.

After reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I became obsessed with trying to nibble slowly at my Hershey’s chocolate bars (which I was sure were completely inferior to Wonka bars, but I had no choice). I felt so sorry for Charlie living in that small place that obviously always smelled like cabbage soup (a smell I despised) with all those grandparents in one bed, and I was so impressed with his ability to make those once-a-year-chocolate bars last so long. How lucky I was to have a father who would bribe me with chocolate bars in order to have some company when he had to run errands. I should learn to appreciate them more, though, and to savor them the way Charlie did. Do you know how hard it is to make a Hershey bar last even two days? I fell madly in love with Charlie and his self-restraint.

I haven’t revisited any of these books in a long time, but boy do I still connect the foods with the books. Today, I’m far less picky about what I eat, so I can truly imagine enjoying the foods described in the books I read, and I could probably write an entire book about the foods I associate with specific titles. For instance, I’m not sure why a book that’s all about food, like Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, would encourage one specific food to march front and center in my mind, but I can’t look at that little yellow paperback sitting on my shelf without thinking about mouth-watering gingerbread, eaten warm on a crisp, fall afternoon. When I see Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, I’m reminded of the huge amounts of shrimp my parents’ friends from Charleston would bring up when they came to visit us in North Carolina, and how we’d sit around the living room table peeling them and dipping them in cocktail sauce (an evening in heaven, as far as I’m concerned). Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird reminds me of those inadequate sandwiches my own hapless father (just like hers) used to prepare, never as good as the ones my mother made, despite having the same ingredients. And is it possible to read a Janet Evanovich mystery without wanting to race off to a state fair and purchase a couple of homemade cakes, hoping one will be as good as the kind Stephanie Plum’s mother bakes?

Funny, although I’ve learned to like yogurt, especially yogurt made from goat’s milk, I’ve never learned to like buttermilk. I’m sure, though, that if I could only prepare it in a little log cabin, in the middle of the Wisconsin woods, using an old-fashioned butter churn (the added bonus here being a fabulous workout for the arms), it would be divine. But until I finish that time machine, I think I'll go bake some gingerbread. Although it isn't exactly "crisp" yet, fall is definitely in the air here.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Richer or Poorer

Yesterday morning Bob and I went into NYC to meet with a couple of men he’s worked with in Harlem who would like to have him help spearhead a spiritual component to an outreach program they’ve developed (a very exciting opportunity for Bob, but right now, it’s all just at an “idea stage,” so we’ve got our feet stepping firmly on our hopes to keep them from soaring up where they ought not to be). In the afternoon, we met up with my friend Marie Ellen, whom I don’t get to see enough, at The Morgan Library and Museum. This museum has recently been renovated with a new, beautiful, all-glass-and-wood entrance and building that connects the various segments of what was Morgan’s home and library at Madison and 36th and 37th. This day perfectly encapsulates my struggle with my two warring factions when it comes to money, with the added bonus that Marie Ellen and I often talk about these two warring factions of ours.

Some years back, I read one of those “how to simplify your life” books (a tangent here: anyone ever look at Real Simple magazine? What a beautiful-looking publication, the kind that just begs you to pick it up and come inside. But then, have you ever bothered to read it? I was appalled to discover that the main way to simplify my life was to buy all kinds of expensive gadgets and organizational tools, as if ruining my budget with more house-cluttering things I’d never use properly, and that would probably need care, would help turn me into a Tibetan monk). One of the vignettes in this book that really stuck out in my mind was about a man who worked in construction whose tool shed had caught on fire and burned to the ground. He had initially been devastated, but eventually he concluded it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, as he realized how much junk he’d had in there that he never used. It was the beginning of the simplification of his life, as he began to focus on replacing only those things he knew he really needed, and soon discovered he really needed very little. I have a friend whose mother’s place in Florida was ruined in a hurricane last year, and he described to me how this past spring, when they began the construction to repair everything, they finally just made the decision that everything in the apartment had to go. Am I not the weirdest person in the world for sometimes finding myself green with envy when I hear such tales?

But I know it isn’t that I truly want everything I own to go up in smoke or to be washed away in a flood. What I’m longing for is a simple life. The problem is, the process for me to get to that simple life is not an easy one. I’d have to do things like wade through old school notebooks, letters and cards, knick knacks from around the world, books I know I’ll never read again, and make some very tough decisions. Then, I’d have to encourage a very reluctant husband to do the same thing. Finally, I’d have to decide that I just don’t like buying and being given fine things (books, of course, falling into the category of “fine things”). I’m fully aware that owning lots of things means taking care of lots of things, and I’d rather spend my time reading and having interesting conversations with friends. So, when I find myself thinking, “wouldn’t it be nice to come home and find the house had burnt to the ground?” what I’m really thinking is, “oh wouldn’t it be nice to have someone take the simplification process out of my hands, and just plop me down in the middle of a two-page spread in Real Simple?” And, oh, how I often fantasize about making do in two rooms with a kitchen, with a public library next door (because who really needs anymore?), giving away almost all the money I make (because I’ll no longer need it to accumulate and take care of all my “things”) to help those wonderful kids in Harlem Bob and I know and love be the first ones in their families to attend college. Money? Who needs money?

But then I make the mistake of visiting The Morgan Library. I walk into this new, beautifully-designed, naturally-well-lit building, with its shiny glass elevators and think, “boy, I wish I could live in a house designed by Renzo Piano.” I comment to Bob, while looking at magnificently detailed Rembrandt etchings, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any etchings of his before.” Then I read the blurb on the wall: Morgan owned almost all of Rembrandt's etchings, and this is the first time I’ve ever visited this museum. Would I like to have the kind of money in which I could own all of Rembrandt’s etchings? Well…yeah. What would it be like to be able to just decide you want three Gutenberg Bibles and to know you can afford them? Do you pop off to the auction houses for Near eastern carvings yourself, or do you send your staff for you? How do you get to be the person who owns the only few surviving pages of Milton’s draft of Paradise Lost? Is there some sort of collector’s duel you have to fight with all the other rich guys? And why couldn't I have had a father who was able to go out and buy the original drafts of Babar the Elephant for me when I was a kid?

I climb the short staircase that leads to Pierpont Morgan’s actual library and study, two rooms nestled in the old part of the museum, the part that was his house, and I think “Money. Give me money. I want this kind of money.” I can’t even begin to do justice to these rooms with words. I’ll try to simplify it for you. English castle. Warm reds. Artwork everywhere. Huge fireplace. Ceiling paintings and carvings. Walls lined floor to ceiling with books. Books. Books. Books. Leather-bound. Gold-trimmed. Wooden built-in bookshelves. Glass doors. Iron work. Austen. Dickens. Goethe. Shakespeare. Thackeray. Unlock the glass doors. Lock me in here. Sit me down on that couch. Build a fire. Bring me some tea and chocolate. For the rest of my life.

Well, I’m back to living in my two rooms, with nothing but books, tea, and chocolate. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it?