Tuesday, December 29, 2015


It’s the week between Xmas and New Year’s, and I have some of my kids home but not all. Mostly, we’re just cooking, taking out the trash, and doing dishes. Though the tree is still up, I washed and put away the red and green tablecloth today. It has pinecones on it, flecked with gold, and is big enough for my big dining room table; it was my mother’s. In my current state it seems unlikely I would ever buy a holiday tablecloth.

My mother really loved Christmas. Not in a religious way, but in her own joyous, restrained perfectionism. She chose her trees for their correct shape and symmetry, neither too tall nor too bushy, and decorated them according to a strict sequence of steps that I, having absorbed her teachings as the one, true way cannot yet deviate from despite years of genuine efforts to chill the fuck out. My mother had a stockpile of gorgeous wrapping paper, and wrapped each of our presents with an assortment of different giftwrap, finished with a tasteful explosion of hand-tied and curled ribbon and tagged with antique Victorian reproduction cards, our names written in her 50s textbook–perfect cursive on the back. Each child and grandchild got a stack of similar size on Christmas morning, so that no one had a sense that anyone got a single gift more than anyone else.

Ok, but the thing is, my mother was originally Jewish. But hers was the kind of mid-western Jewish family that has a very Jewish-sounding last name, but also has a Christmas-tree. My mother was so jealous of her younger sister Mary that she insisted her family say, “Sarah Christmas,” in addition to what she heard as, “Mary Christmas.” And anyway, what kind of Jewish family names their second daughter Mary?

My mother was not a joke-teller, but she did on occasion indulge in telling a Jewish Mother joke, on the grounds, she said, that she had one. Strictly speaking, my grandmother was like Baptist or something, but married a Jewish man. They had a Christmas tree in their living room. Was that what you did, to fit in, living in suburban St. Louis in the 50s? Or, was it what Grandma wanted?

Growing up in St. Louis in the fifties, most of my mother’s best friends were Jewish, too, and she ran with a popular, smart, and beautiful crowd. The stories  she told me about their Jewishness were these: that had my mother been born in 1940 in Germany, she would have been a “mischling, second degree,” and therefore just Jewish enough to be persecuted by the Nazis; that my grandfather worked in sales under the name of “Nickels” because “Nussbaum” was too Jewish-sounding; and, that she was introduced by a different, less Jewish-sounding name, by a high school boyfriend to his parents.

In December of 1961, she was up in the middle of the night, feeding my older brother, then a 7 month-old baby. From her chair in the kitchen of their third floor, walk-up apartment, she saw flames flickering in a window of another apartment across the way, and she call the fire department. Imagine her embarrassment when she found out it was the guttering flames of her neighbor’s menorah, during Hanukkah.

When she told this story to me, she expressed the perfect abashment of, “I should have known. I certainly should have known.”

There were stories she didn’t tell, like why she and Dad chose to be Episcopalian, or how Dad’s father handled her half-Jewishness. My parents sent my older brother and I to Sunday school for some years when we were young, but then we stopped. Why did we stop? Maybe it conflicted with hockey games.

When I was 13, my mother arranged for me to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church, with the reasoning that I would want to get married there someday. I did get married there, fulfilling the perfection of her circular logic: because I had been confirmed there. I hadn’t been to Sunday school in a number of years at that point, and there was a fair amount of memorization, some of which meant canceling my charmingly bizarre mondegreen of the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m sure I never mastered the Apostle’s Creed. I wrote the Apostle's Creed on a piece of paper that I slipped into my pantyhose and could read by sliding up the hem of my skirt. Though I was a practiced liar, this is the only specific memory I have of cheating, in or out of school. I got away with it. The other kids were mostly from other schools, so I had no one to pass notes with. I endured this privation by doodling earnestly in the margins of my bible. The teacher was from my brothers’ private school and he reassured us that the bible was allegorical. I left confirmation class believing that I could go on being Episcopalian even if I didn’t think the bible was literally true.

Many Sundays, we were asked to read aloud, and this had served as an informal audition, for when it came to the Christmas Pageant I got to be a reader.

Of course, I was active in children’s theater in those days, having already played a retired roller derby queen, a horrible, evil gnome, the ugly duckling herself, and an assortment of reading, speaking, or screaming roles. I knew how to read, and project. And I knew the pageant’s prestige went to the three readers. Everyone else got to wear robes and carry a staff and hold very, very still. I had to stand at the dais and read Matthew 1:18 “Now the Birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way....”

The music at our church swelled from tall pipes, driven in joyous familiarity by a skilled organist, and with the candles and lush Christmas decorations, midnight mass on Christmas Eve was a sumptuous hour and a half.  In my memory, it stands out as the most traditionally Christmas-y thing I ever did. The pews were packed. Mothers and daughters wore matching Christmas dresses. Children old enough to stay up this late wore sport coats and ties. It seemed like everyone we knew was there. 

I stepped onto the footstool provided for me before the dais, and stumbled on the “Jesus,” in the opening line. So, it sounded like “juh-juh-jeezizz,” and then, I shouted out the “Christ!” I distinctly heard both my dad and a friend of his snorting with laughter. In the reception to follow, I stood eating cake, dripping powdered sugar on my velvet skirt, and drinking cider from a tiny plastic cup and Dad and his friend were both still laughing.

For my troubles, I had been promised a gold ring with my monogram on it. I still wear it. The letters engraved on it are almost completely rubbed away. On the inside it clearly reads, “1977.”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Looking For The Joy of RageCooking

Cookbook Shelfie

Lately I’ve been dreaming about cooking. Last night, I dreamed I made little chicken and pesto pizzas, the size of dessert plates; this is something I’ve never done. The night before, it was mashed potatoes. I was using a potato ricer, and a whisk. It was so mundane, so plausible. I know how to make mashed potatoes, but I only do it when my husband isn’t around to mash the potatoes. I “don’t know how” to grill meat or mash potatoes. I “will never learn” to grill meat or mash potatoes. A few days before, I dreamed I was making bread, and I watched my hands doing the specific real steps I follow. Methodical. When did my dreams get so boring?

I woke each time irritated by such dreams. I often resent cooking. Thoughts about dinner interrupt my afternoon. I feel like a hundred stories have gone unwritten, and ten novels unstarted because I was running to the store for green beans. When we lived in Seattle, I didn’t feel it was necessary to cook every day. There was always pizza to order (and it was good pizza). Or Thai food. Or Indian. Or sushi.  Too bad I wasn’t writing much then.  

The first year in New York, I was way out in North Dreadful, where the pizza we could get delivered was only so-so, and there was nothing else. I got online recipes and learned to make easy new things like Brussels sprouts, and hummus, and rack of lamb, and how to turn Sunday’s roast chicken into Monday’s salad, Tuesdays tacos, Wednesday’s soup. I started writing more.

Then the next year we were in the city, where cooking was a rare but important production, with a lot of planning, like a single night run of an off-off Broadway play. I did a whole Thanksgiving with turkey and stuffing and sides in a loft apartment kitchen, and I wrote every day. It was better than a village’s dragon; it was like a quest to face the biggest dragon in the kingdom. I wrote about my mother, who hated cooking and had a limited repertoire of dishes, including creamed chipped beef on English Muffins, and lasagna. I wrote a young person’s novel about a girl in New York, and she ate a lot of take-out, too.

As an antidote to the ravages of city living, we rented a house in the country, and while I was supposed to be working on a second draft, I started ragecooking. I’d signed up for a CSA, and found myself chopping a lot of vegetables I did not normally eat and wondering why I’d signed up for a CSA. I mean, kohlrabi? Turnips? Kale and more kale?

I celebrated my annoyance with the hashtag #ragecook. I cussed and took pictures and tweeted.

People liked the #ragecook tweets better than my normal tweets. Especially when something burned, or was nasty, like an ostrich egg. Ragecooking means that the lentils that turned to mush have immediate value. I can lose it washing sandy leeks or peeling uncooperative turnips, or scouring burnt tomato sauce off a French enamel pan, tweet about it, and move on.

I am probably a better cook now than I was before I moved. I am still disappointed when the mushroom soup is good but not amazing, or the bread is crusty but still better toasted.  Writing remains hard, especially revising. I think I need writing appointment with the gravity of dinnertime. At this time every day, I will sit down and write. Just like dinnertime.

Now we own a house and are unpacking for real. I opened the last box of books a couple of weeks ago, and proved to myself that my collection of cookbooks is gone. It felt like a disaster; I’d been waiting to see them for 4 ½ years, making do with a growing pile of Internet recipes I’d printed out. Maybe I gave the cookbooks away when I was giving books to the Seattle Public Library used book sale. I gave away more than 30 boxes of books. It could have happened. Maybe I meant to give them all away, reasoning that I barely used cookbooks anymore. I was so excited for our great adventure, moving to New York. It could have happened. Maybe the cookbooks are packed in another, mislabeled box, not a book box, but a bigger box, mixed in with the as yet missing fireplace tools and missing speakers and subwoofer. Maybe they were in one of the boxes that disappeared from storage in Connecticut.

In the very last box of books I opened, I did find one and only one cookbook, the Joy of Cooking, 7th Edition, which is pretty much not the worst cookbook to have as your one and only. But I was missing my older, original Joy of Cooking, the 6th edition, published in the late 70s; it had a recipes for making aspic and cooking the paw of a bear. It was the cookbook I learned to cook from, and it has gravy splashed on the turkey-roasting page. And I was missing The Silver Palate cookbook, and that Julia Child book, the white one with the red letters, what was it called?

How was I to recreate that shelf of cookbooks that got packed up 4 ½ years ago? Which ones did I actually use anyway? Did that matter? I used Thriftbooks.com to find that Julia Child book, and The Silver Palate, and one or two others, as my memory was tickled.

Thriftbooks had some copies of the Joy, but not, it seemed, the edition I was looking for. I wanted the one I learned to cook from. It’s the 6th edition. I got it in the early 80s. It had a recipe for cleaning and preparing the paw of a bear. I will never clean or cook the paw of a bear, but I want that book. I want all the post-its that saved my place. I want the shopping lists and the stains. I want my sarcastic comments about the biscuit recipe in the margins. Somewhere out there is my old Joy of Cooking with the recipe for the bear paw. I can’t get it back. But I can look for the same edition. I went to Ebay.

Funny thing about Ebay. I was an early convert to Internet shopping, way back on Amazon in their first years of operation, in the late 90s, where I bought music and hard to find classic children’s books. But I never found a reason to buy anything from Ebay, so I never did.

But I was determined to set aside the sadness I was feeling about my missing cookbooks, and found on Ebay what looked like a very decent copy of the 6th edition Joy of Cooking. I babysat my bid. By the end of the day I had the thing, and for less than my maximum. Hooray for winning! A couple of weeks later I had my book, packaged in a nest of broken chunks of styrofoam in a surprisingly long and odd box.  The first thing I did was look for the recipe for the bear paw and it was not there. It was the wrong edition after all. Though on Ebay it was clearly marked with the publication date of 1979, the book I bought was the 7th, from 1997.

I will pass it along as a gift to my middle child at Xmas, but I’m disappointed. Not exactly angry, just a little sad.

Friday, December 4, 2015


I sent change of address cards, and if you didn’t get one, it’s probably because I don’t have your address. It’s all email or text now, anyway. You know, back when my kids were little, I’d sacrifice the daylight of a whole day to stage a seemingly spontaneous holiday picture. I’d dress them in matching flannel shirts and try to gather them into a group, waiting for that perfect combination of kid-ness and cute-ness, in the presence of decent lighting. It wasn’t easy when the days were as short as they were in Seattle in early December. And I had film in my camera, so it was not possible to know right away whether I’d gotten a usable shot or not. Back then, I sent holiday cards to a long list, over 100, including my friends, relatives, neighbors, and friends of my parents. The list of change of address cards I sent out this November was less than 40 names.

A friend whose kids are in their 20s still gets them to sit for an Xmas photo every year. Every year for the past four years I’ve been like, no way will she get them to do it this year, and then, blammo, she does. And their smiles last year were slightly less ironic than the year before. My kids aren’t all on the same coast, so I have no hope of being able to make it happen this year; I’m not sure when was the last time I got a picture of them all together. I think instead of feeling sad about that, I will put Xmas bows on my pets and pose them in front of the tree for a photo. They will enjoy it. It might be old dog Cherry’s last Xmas anyway.

In response to our change of address cards, I got an actual, handwritten letter in the mail from one friend, and an email from the son of an old neighbor in Seattle. The old neighbor’s son was sad to report that our neighbor died in August. I have written about this neighbor before, because she was the one who so keenly reminded me what a bad neighbor I was sometimes. She was 88, and had a massive stroke.

Here in Bedhead Hills, the dogs are still learning the boundaries of our mostly wooded property. I’ve only let them out the door unleashed a few times; Captain got skunked in October, and a few nights ago he came back to the wrong door, so I was calling out into the dusk and he was barking to be let in, but we were doing it in different doorways. So, I leash them up and go out with them, and when time permits, I try, after walking them on leashes, to take them around so they can practice seeing where our boundaries are.

Yesterday, after a long walk, we took the little path into the woods on our property. We got tangled in the thorny bushes, and I unclipped their leashes. My timing was perfectly wrong. Though our yard is below a steep embankment on that side, the dogs saw a woman and her dog walking by, and charged up the hill, bursting out of the bushes and ambushing the pair on the road. The woman screamed with surprise and snatched up her little white dog; it was barking furiously. I shouted and shouted at my dogs; Captain came back cowering. Cherry, who doesn’t hear anymore, didn’t bother coming back down the embankment at all. She trotted around down the driveway and headed towards the house. So much for introducing myself to the neighbors. I don’t suppose she heard me screaming, “SORRY!” at the top of my lungs.

Captain has never been very good at anything but the most basic obedience, and with Cherry no longer offering him the model of nearly perfect sits, stays, and comes, I’m going to have to go back to daily drills with him. I don’t know how we’ll conquer his desire to chase deer or greet people who walk by with dogs, without having to risk him running into the road. He is fun to work with, though, because of his sweet and cheerful outlook, and he doesn’t get bored as long as treats are involved.

They have their own agendas

Early last January, when we still lived on a big farm, far from the busy road, I let the two dogs out to go potty on a snowy day and Captain did not come back. Because I envisioned the skunk he was tracking or the herd of deer he was chasing, a half an hour passed before I got worried. Was he lost? Had he chased the deer too far to find his way back? Ten more minutes passed. Had someone taken him? My imagination ran away with scenarios: he is a hunting dog, so maybe he’d been stolen. Or what if he’d been dog-napped? I concocted a tale of how it was the revenge of my Twitter troll, trying to threaten and intimidate us. Could she have figured out where I lived? The longer he was gone, the more outlandish my ideas became about what had happened to my dog.

I got in the car and drove slowly down our long, frozen driveway, calling out the window into the cold. I drove to a neighboring farm where our housesitter said the dog had gone once to play with one of the dogs who lives there. As my tires crunched in my steady ascent of the long, straight driveway with snow banked high on both sides, four separate texts arrived on my phone at once:
“He’s back.”
“He’s back.”
“He’s back.”
“Where are you?”
The narrowness of the drive meant I had to go all the way to the top to turn around, or back out the way I came. I backed out the whole way.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dream House

We finished moving in on a Friday, spent one exhausted, dreamless night amongst the unopened boxes. The next day we went back to the house we’d been renting to clean it. On Sunday we moved our horses to a new barn. On Monday, the Bacon Provider left on a business trip.

After that I groped along in the fog of opening boxes, walking the dogs, finding a grocery store, and opening more boxes. I found the general store in town and bought toilet brushes, picture hooks, a plunger, and birdseed for the feeder.

In my desire to pack well, with children’s books in boxes with other children’s books, kitchen gadgets packed with kitchen gadgets, purses with purses, as I wished, I didn't do a good job of labeling, and some boxes still had writing on them from previous moves. So despite my efforts to be able to unpack in an organized fashion, it's been really haphazard. I’m opening boxes labeled with names my children no longer call themselves, or no label at all.

I dreamed strange dreams. I dreamed they added ultimate Frisbee as an Olympic sport and the refs wore jetpacks, and my oldest son had to teach them the rules. Then I dreamed he invented drone refs, and had a PhD in sports psychology, but gave it up to be an arborist.

Mrs. Gardenwinkle took good care of this house but there are a few little things to fix, in between setting up electricity and fuel oil and propane and garbage service. The doorbell isn't working. There is a thing, a piece of hardware that holds a shutter open, shaped like an “S,” that I didn’t know the name of, so I spent an afternoon finding the name of the thing, measuring the thing, and ordering a new one of those things. It’s called a shutter dog. One is missing from one of the shutters on the window outside my bedroom. When the wind blows the shutter closes, and it, too, startled me in the night. I dreamed and dreamed.

I woke around 4:50 a.m. each day all the next week, wondering where I was, and unable to figure it out quickly enough so I could go back to sleep. I made the habit of watching the sun rise from the big window in my new bedroom, the one with the ivy lattice wallpaper.

Our house in Seattle, which was largely perfect, had English ivy growing around the foundation on two sides (having been killed completely by peeing dogs on the third side). Dealing with that ivy was probably my most rage-inducing chore; it wanted to climb the house or work its way under the siding, and I spend many hours picking it off the house with my fingers. It was full of dead leaves and spiders and sometimes litter, and tangledy, and took most of an afternoon to trim it back, at least four times a year. So my official position is that I am against English Ivy, as a principle. But in my new house in Bedhead Hills there is English ivy on the wallpaper in my bedroom, and it reminds me of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who had ivy in her yard and on her needlepointed pillows. So, though I am looking forward to replacing it, I am enjoying it while it's still here, that ivy wallpaper. It's like being someone’s guest someplace, to wake up surrounded by someone else’s distinct taste. And it makes me think of my grandma.

That next weekend the Bacon Provider was back in town, and I woke up in the middle of the night to see a man standing on the windowsill of my bedroom. It was my husband, banging on the ceiling. I used strong language. He said we had squirrels.

The next morning, we went out to see, and we certainly had something; something made holes in the siding above our bedroom. Those holes were not there when I saw the house in mid-September, or went through the property with the inspector in late-September, or did a walk-through with the real estate agents the day before closing, in mid-October. Those were new holes. Those holes hadn't been there earlier in the week when I walked the dogs around the house. I called a company specializing in handling wildlife pest management. They sent a guy over on Monday. He said, "You don't got Squirrels. You gots woodpeckers."

He went on to explain that he could put a gel in the holes and if we left it there for six weeks the woodpeckers would not come back. “It don't hurt the woodpeckers. It scares them,” he said. “But they might go to another spot. They might make holes in your whole house.”

He told me to get rid of Mrs. Gardenwinkle’s bird feeder. And that today's visit would be $300.

I stood and watched him climb a ladder, and spread “woodpecker gel” in all the holes. Then he answered his phone and talked for a while, his head hard on the left, trapping the phone between his ear and his shoulder.

Later when I did some online research, I read that the woodpecker gel is bad for the birds, because it gets stuck on their feathers and makes it hard for them to keep warm. Various woodpecker-repelling strategies include a plastic owl (which they become accustomed to after a couple of days) and lengths of loose, shiny tape that move and flicker in the wind. And I was encouraged to feed the woodpeckers; they aren't going anywhere anyway.

The Bacon Provider felt that the woodpeckers provided a service to us, performing their own, more thorough inspection and revealing a couple of rotten pieces of siding. I made the case that I have a pressing need for my own owl, which can live in a special box we put on the roof, and hunt in our woods. I believe that my owl, semi-tame but mostly wild, will keep the woodpeckers off the house, and the nightmares away as well.