Thursday, December 21, 2006


After a long, dry autumn and early winter, it is finally snowing. Looking out my window, I see tire tracks through the snow in the alley across from my office, and coworkers are popping in to express their excitement about the weather. We live in the Upper Midwest, where we expect to have snow on the ground, and lots of it, by Winter Solstice.

This is the time of year that marks the fourth anniversary of my mother’s suicide, and I’ve been thinking about the people who have helped me during the years after her death, often in unanticipated and surprising ways. I’m a list maker, and today I’ve made a list of those people and the various things for which I'm grateful to them.

SJG, for loving me, for doing all the housework in the months immediately afterward, and for giving me space to mourn in my own way

My sister, for listening without judgment

My father, who found just the right poems

MFO, for her letters and knowing heart

ML, who pointed me to the right stories

Ann G, who trusts in my mother’s choice

Kay, Marion, and JZ, who understand what it’s like

Jon, who gave me his copy of Kaddish

Luci, who came into this world on the heels of my mother’s departure

And Finna, for her joy.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


A young colleague, who, like me, has Italian roots, was quizzing me the other day about family recipes. She wanted to know if I had any favorite Italian recipes, and I immediately thought of my Uncle Larry stirring a giant kettle of sugu (spaghetti sauce) in his summer shorts and black knee highs. Uncle Larry is married to my father’s sister Mary, and the two of them often hosted the yearly August birthday party for my Italian grandmother, the family matriarch, now long dead. The gathering was always huge (ten adult children and their families), and Uncle Larry and Auntie Mary’s suburban home and yard accommodated everyone. It was in the basement kitchen that Uncle Larry made his famous sugu and served all the other fixings of an Italian lunch—spicey olive salad, spaghetti, warm loaves of sesame-seed encrusted Italian bread, and every kind of Italian cookie you could think of.

Lunch was buffet style, with Uncle Larry smiling his giant toothy smile as he ladled the thick sugu over each guest’s plate of spaghetti. Only recently did I receive a copy of his recipe, which serves 30 people, so do your math if you want to make less!


2 lbs ground chuck
2 lbs mild Italian sausage
½ cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
Several cloves garlic, chopped
3 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 quart tomato sauce
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
½ tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
1 TB sugar
2 TB dried basil
1-1/4 cups white vermouth
1-1/2 cups chopped parsley
½ pound mushrooms, chopped

1. Saute the meat in an 8-quart kettle until cooked through.
2. Drain grease and set meat aside.
3. In the same pan, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent.
4. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste.
5. Bring to a boil, then add the spices, vermouth, parsley, mushrooms, and meat.
6. Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve over the pasta of your choice.

Makes 7 quarts
Serves 30

*For a spicier sauce, use hot Italian sausage and more garlic, pepper, and basil, to your liking

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Earlier this month, right after the hard drive on my home computer crashed, I went to Nashville, Tennessee, for a conference. Afterwards, my father joined me for a weekend to visit some of the area’s Civil War battlefields. That Saturday night, we headed into downtown Nashville for the early show of the Grand Ol’ Opry, where it crossed my mind that Garrison Keillor must have had this in mind when he created his long-enduring “Prairie Home Companion” radio show. (And indeed he had, as confirmed in an interview I happened across shortly after returning home.)

One of the battlefields we visited—Chickamauga—is in northern Georgia, just across the Tennessee border. Driving from Nashville through the colors of the forested borderland mountains took me back to southeastern Missouri, where we picked persimmons with my mother's parents in a similar vista one long ago Thanksgiving. The Civil War battlefields breathe history too, though I found myself seduced instead by the omnipresent Baptist billboards announcing all manner of saving grace and redemption. One church offered a Seven Deadly Sins weekly series from its pulpit. The sin of this, Week Three: “Avoid the Lure of Lust!”

Regional linguistic flair is enchanting, and this euphonic admonishment stayed with me all day and through dinner, where our waitress insisted we sample the restaurant’s famous bread pudding slathered with Jack Daniels whiskey sauce. Not normally enamored of bread pudding, I chose a different dessert, but the sighs of pleasure from my father were too much to ignore. One bite convinced me. Impossible to avoid the lure of this lusty bread pudding!

Below are approximate recipes for the pudding and a sauce, adapted from the waitress’s orally rendered version, from Betty Crocker, and from a must-have regional desserts cookbook by Richard Sax called
Classic Home Desserts (Chapters Publishing, 1994). Unlike many recipes for bread pudding, the pudding that lured us in Nashville relies on day-old sweet rolls instead of bread as the base. You can easily double the pudding and sauce recipes if you want a larger amount.


4 cups cubed day-old sweet rolls, sugar doughnuts, croissants, and/or raisin bread
1-1/2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 eggs
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt

1) Put the cubed sweet rolls in an 8 x 8 pan and set aside. Heat the milk and cream in a large saucepan until hot.
2) In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sugars, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt. Slowly whisk in the hot milk.
3) Pour the hot egg-milk mixture over the sweet rolls and let stand for 15-20 minutes to allow the rolls to absorb the liquid.
4) Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the pudding until the custard is set but not too dry (about 40 minutes). Make the whiskey sauce while the pudding is cooling outside the oven.

Serves about 6 people.


½ cup sugar
1 egg
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup whiskey (Jack Daniels is the whiskey of choice in Nashville, where this whiskey is made; you can use any whiskey or bourbon to your liking)

1) Whisk the sugar and egg together in a double boiler until warm and a little fluffy.
2) Whisk in the melted butter and add the whiskey. Pour the warm sauce over servings of warm bread pudding.

*If this recipe doesn’t appeal, you can also make a classic hard sauce and add whiskey or bourbon to that recipe. Or, you can make crème anglaise and flavor it with bourbon or whiskey. Any such butter-based sauce will be excellent over the pudding.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Earlier this month, SJG and I watched migrating hawks in Duluth. With the lake in the distance and yellow gold trees in fall vestment below, we admired the birds floating past the overlook on columns of air known as thermals. Volunteers at the site let me hold, barefisted, a female sharp-shinned hawk. I stroked the back of her neck, leaning close to smell her. As the winds picked up, she squirmed in my hand, eager to be released to her journey south toward warmer climes. I opened my fist and, barely breathing, watched her dip toward the ground, spread her wings in wide embrace, and move skyward into the sun on large wingstrokes.

I told my sister about this hawk, and she pointed toward the first stanza of "The Windhover," a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn
Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air,
and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend:
the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, -- the achieve of, the mastery
of the thing!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Every summer when we're doing just about nothing in the North Woods, SJG comes up with exactly one culinary challenge for our doing just about everything life. This year, she said, "Let's make peach jam." We've canned pickles, stewed tomatoes, harvest mix (stewed tomatoes, peppers, and garlic), and cranberry chutney, but never jam. So last weekend, we went to our favorite cooperative grocery to buy peaches and pectin to do just that. The next afternoon, a cool drizzly Sunday, we put up four pints of peach jam (above), as lovely in its amber glow as it is sweet and delicate on the tongue. Below is a recipe cobbled together from a variety of sources. Follow instructions carefully and make only one small batch at a time. (Note that peach season is pretty much over, though the jam will be very tasty with less than perfect fruit.)
Peach Jam
3 pounds fresh peaches, peeled and pitted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 packet pectin
5 cups white sugar
canning equipment (pint jars and screwtop lids and rings; kettles for cooking the peaches and sterilizing the jars; a metal canning ring for processing the jars after they've been filled; a plastic funnel; a ladle; tongs; a cooking fork; a rubber spatula)
1. Sterilize four or five pint jars in the dishwasher and leave them there until ready to use.
2. At the same time, set a large canning kettle full of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Bring a smaller kettle (8 quarts) of water to boil at the same time.
3. When the smaller kettle of water comes to a boil, set it in the sink and add the peaches. Let them sit in the water for a minute or two, then remove them, and while still warm, pull of the skins. It should slide right off.
4. Take out the pit of each peach and any brown or otherwise blemished sections. Remove the tough red fibers around the pits. Slice the peaches into chunks and place them in a large saucepan or 8-quart kettle. Mash the peaches with a potato masher, leaving some small chunks for texture. Add the lemon juice to the peaches and stir briefly.
5. Meanwhile, bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer and place the screwtop lids and rings in the water to allow them to sterilize while you're making the jam. The water in the large canning kettle should be boiling by now; place the pint jars in the boiling water and keep them there until ready to fill.
6. Add the pectin powder to the peaches and stir until dissolved over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and add the sugar, stirring constantly.
7. Continuing to stir, bring the mixture to a full boil and allow to boil at a rolling boil for one minute.
8. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam with a slotted spoon.
9. Use a ladle to spoon the hot peach jam through a canning funnel into the sterilized pint jars, one at a time, leaving about 1/4- to 1/2-inch space between the top of the jam and the top of the rim of each jar. Use a rubber spatula to press out any air bubbles. Place a sterilized lid on top of the jar after you've filled it and carefully screw the accompanying ring onto the jar until finger tight.
10. When the jars are filled and capped, place them in the large canning kettle of boiling water, cover it, and boil for 10 minutes exactly. This helps prevent spoilage.
11. When the 10 minutes are up, turn off the heat and remove the cover of the canning kettle. When the water is no longer boiling and bubbles are no longer rising to the top (about three minutes), processing is complete.
12. Remove the jars with a pair of canning tongs and set them upright to cool and set undisturbed for 24 hours.
13. The next day, place the jars somewhere cool and dark for storage. Best eaten within the first six or eight months, after which time the jam will begin to darken and get runny.
* for extremely helpful tips, photos, recipes, and other useful information about canning, go to

Friday, September 08, 2006

On behalf of my sister, I brought a length of braided sweetgrass to my Aunt V. in Milwaukee this past holiday weekend. For now, she's enlaced it with a heart of grapevine stems and berries (above) on her living room wall, but once it dries, V. will use the sweetgrass for smudging at drumming circles, which she hosts in her backyard. She and the women with whom she drums tie red prayer cloths around the slim trunk of the crabapple tree V. planted in memory of her older sister (my aunt) C., who died three years ago. The drummers invoke their higher spirits and say a prayer of honor and thanks before smudging the tree and the sacred circle around it in which they will drum. They learn rhythms together and then turn to silent meditation to the beat of their drums.
I came to know my Aunt V., who last month celebrated her eighty-first birthday, when I was about fourteen years old and she was the age I am now. My parents dropped off the three of us--my sister, my brother, and me--to spend a week with her (she is one of my father's older sisters) and our Uncle G. in the small house they shared with G's two older brothers and a large dalmatian. My parents were headed to an august medical facility many hours away where my mother underwent a battery of tests, which eventually ruled out cancer and determined her to be in robust physical health.
In those years, my aunt and uncle led a very private life, and in retrospect, I see that, in welcoming three children whom they barely knew--two teens and a three year old--my relatives had said yes to an intrusion into their privacy, and to a lot of work. As mistress of the house, V. kept us occupied all day and every day with activities we thought she undertook on a lark but that must have required much forethought, planning, and organization.
That summer, we learned to sew with Vogue patterns and to make pasta by hand, stringing lengths of hand-cut fettucine to dry on hangers before cooking. At some level, we recognized our aunt's efforts, for on her birthday, which arrived during our visit, we proclaimed her Queen for the Day. To start the morning, we served apricot sugar toast and coffee to her in bed and executed an ambitious dinner that evening, an undertaking that proved the wisdom of avoiding the temptation to prepare a new recipe as the centerpiece of a special meal. In tackling salmon croquettes, I discovered, too late, the difficulty of replicating neatly shaped and perfectly browned patties as displayed in lustrous glory in the pages of V's Bon Appetit magazine. No matter the meal's imperfections, the memory is one we still recall fondly, and the visit cemented a relationship that has endured for more than thirty years.
In remembering that week with her, and in learning more about her drumming this last visit, I admire more than ever V's willingness--and ability--to choose yes as a response to life, even when many and sometimes most of the variables are unknown. It's impossible for me to avoid contrasting her, now long widowed, with my mother who, though fearless in her imaginative life, was, unlike V., largely overwhelmed by the physical, tangible realities that come with being human. I hope I'm not deluded in imagining my own life as some mix of the best of the two approaches, and I like to envision that when I'm eighty-one, I'll still be saying yes to life and finding sacred possibilities in my own backyard.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


For the last couple years, we’ve been stopping in Duluth for lunch on our way to the North Woods. This harbor city, which we used to whiz past, is becoming known for independent-minded restauranteurs with a desire to serve simple yet delicious food from seasonal, locally produced ingredients. We ate lunch this year at the Nokomis Restaurant & Bar ( on the scenic stretch of old highway 61 just outside of town. The restaurant occupies what was once a lakeside supper club, and with its large plate-glass windows offers a spectacular view of Lake Superior just across the road.

We started our lunch with a salad of field greens encircled with a long strip of thinly sliced cucumber and topped with roasted tomatoes, thin slices of radishes, white enoki mushrooms, roasted pumpkin seeds, and Maytag blue cheese dressing. For the entrée, SJG chose a hamburger of grass-fed beef and shredded short ribs on toasted focaccia. I opted for vegetarian fare: slices of toasted ciabatta spread with black olive tapenade and layered with fresh basil, slices of red and yellow tomatoes, and quenelles of ricotta. SJG raved about the molten chocolate cake she chose for dessert, while my warm blackberry-raspberry cobbler brought back memories of my Missouri grandmother’s recipe for a blackberry dessert that was part-cobbler, part-crisp, part-buckle—a recipe I’ve never seen replicated in any cookbook. Below is an approximation of that summer berry recipe.

Missouri Ozarks Blackberry Cobbler

1-1/2 pints blackberries
1/3 cup sugar
3 TB cold water

6 TB unsalted butter (room temperature)
½ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
½ cup flour
½ cup old-fashioned pearl tapioca
Ground cinnamon (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the berries in a 9 x 13 baking dish. Sprinkle with the sugar and pour in the water, combing gently with your fingers.
2) Cream the butter, sugar, and salt. Stir in the flour, tapioca, and cinnamon (if using).
3) Sprinkle the topping over the berries. (If you like a lot of topping, as I do, feel free to make more of it. This is up to the individual palate, though it may prolong baking a little.)
4) Bake until done (roughly 20 minutes; check frequently just to be sure).
5) Cool briefly, and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Set on the edge of a lake in the northern wilderness, a much-loved cabin is the place we go every summer to recuperate from the year’s frenzy. We bring pillows, our favorite pajamas and fleece socks, piles of books and periodicals, and, above all else, the determination to avoid the urge to do.

This year is no exception. On the long drive north, we discuss whether or not we’ll take naps like we did the year the temperature soared into the nineties every day. At a minimum, we agree, we’ll be certain to put in twelve-hour nights, heading to bed as soon as the sun slips behind the ridge of pines to the west, leaving a rosy glow behind the canopy.

We arrive late, unpack and settle in quickly, and take a brief walk with the resident dog. Then we head to bed, adding a feather quilt to the pile of blankets and opening the windows to let in the pine-scented air. It’s very dark here, with no glow of city lights or flickering of the neighbors’ motion-detector floodlamps, and as we settle under the covers, darkness calls forth the silence of the place. It’s a still night, with no breeze to filter through the leaves, and we lie still, breathing as quietly as possible, listening for any noise that might break the spell.

The silence is stubborn, and though we anticipate a bird’s call or the crunch of a neighbor’s footstep on the gravel pathway, we hear nothing. Tired from the long day’s drive, and eager to stay true to our pledge, we drift to sleep as the three-quarter moon rises high in the black sky above.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Every summer for the last several years, my father and I have made ice cream using the electric ice-cream machine he and my mother bought years ago. One summer they made ice cream every week from whatever fruit was in season at the moment. Their peach ice cream stands out, smooth and delicately flavored, tasting almost exactly like the scent of the fruit itself. This year, my father and I made vanilla lavender ice cream with goats' milk as the dairy base. It brought back memories of the long-ago peach ice cream with its special satisfaction of merging senses.

Vanilla Lavender Ice Cream
Lavender Milk:
1 cup goats' milk
6-8 sprigs fresh lavender

Put the milk and the lavender in a small saucepan over medium heat. Just before it starts boiling, remove from heat, cover, and allow to infuse for 20 minutes. Strain the milk into a small bowl, discard the lavender, and let milk cool for another 10 minutes.

Ice Cream:
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
3 cups goats' milk (or, half goats' milk/half cows' milk)
lavender milk (see above)
1 cup whipping cream
1 vanilla bean (or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)

1) Put the egg yolks and sugar in a big saucepan. Beat with a whisk until pale yellow.
2) Put 3 cups goats' milk and lavendar milk in another saucepan. Cut the vanilla bean in half and gently split each half open and add to the milk. Slowly bring just to the boil.
3) Add about 1/2 cup of the warm milk to the egg yolk and sugar mixture, beating constantly. Stir in the remaining milk. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the custard. Stirring the whole time, slowly bring the mixture again just to the boil, at which point it will be smooth and custardlike. (Just under the boil is 180 degrees F, which assures the safety of eating the eggs.)
4) Pour the custard into a chilled bowl and allow to come to room temperature. If a vanilla bean was not used, stir in the vanilla extract. Then place the custard in the freezer for about 30 minutes to make for faster churning.
5) When ready to churn the custard mixture, whip the whipping cream until just under stiff-peak stage and fold into chilled mixture. (This makes for more volume.) Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer's directions. Chill in freezer for several hours before serving. Makes about 1 quart of ice cream.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Our neighbors, Peter and Gaye, have two little girls aged nine and three. The other day, Gaye and the girls were in their backyard, and as the four of us talked, the girls climbed and slid across their mother's body as she lounged on the grass. Into my mind sprang the memory of this feline mother and her offspring, who, like Gaye, lay patiently in grasses on another continent while her cubs claimed the maternal body as their own.

Monday, July 31, 2006


My sister went to the new downtown public library recently to hear historian Neil Baldwin talk about his book The American Revelation: Ten Ideals that Shaped Our Country from Puritans to the Cold War, which was released this summer in paperback. Not particularly inspired by Baldwin himself, she was, however, deeply intrigued by the idea of pinpointing characteristic American values that shape our common personality, so when my father came to town for a visit last weekend, we agreed on that Friday to craft our own lists and to come together on Sunday afternoon to share our thoughts about the American personality. The four of us (my father, my sister, SJG, and I) sat on the back porch all Sunday afternoon, quizzing each other in detail about our lists, amplifying ideas, making connections to other related theories—all at top volume and with much manic waving of napkins and leaping about to make an emphatic point.

After hours of conversation, we had shaped a seven-page list, out of which we pulled the following top-five values, which we agreed, as a group, to be characteristic of the iconic American personality. Caveat: these are idealistic values, which, though brilliant in their allure, sometimes manifest darkly and are not experienced by all of the people all of the time. However, they are values to which this particular group feels we aspire as a nation and which we feel do distinguish us as a people from other nations and cultures in other parts of the world.

1) Individualism—the notion, inscribed in our Declaration of Independence, that each individual has certain “unalienable rights,” and that each person has the right to live up to one’s abilities and interests, as defined by self. As Americans, the tension between acting for the greater common good and “doing your own thing” generally plays out in favor of individual choice.

2) Pragmatism—the tendency to figure out a problem based on what works at any given moment rather than relying on pre-established, accepted truth; a sort of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” approach to life; pragmatism as a school of philosophical thought was pioneered in the nineteenth century by American philosophers John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James (brother of Henry James). Generally speaking, they held that experimentation, inquiry, and observation are the tools for determining “truth,” with complete freedom to re-determine and re-name any of the objects under investigation at any time.

3) Mobility—the general openness of American economic, political, and social systems, whereby individuals have ease of movement among and between groups or places. To be born in one class, in one place, among one set of people does not mean one spends an entire lifetime in that same class, place, or set of people. This plays out in a general flexibility of thought and practice—the ability of the average American to go beyond prescribed limits to see if something is doable or enjoyable. Want to paint your house purple? Go for it! Want to have salmon with chocolate (a definite no-no in French cuisine)? Why not!

4) Fusion—the ability and desire to incorporate cultural expressions of all stripes into the mainstream or to simply accommodate them alongside other options, whether it be music (blues influence in jazz, country influence in rock and roll), food (Cuban Chinese restaurants), vocabulary (street language or foreign terms that become part of everyday mainstream vernacular), or ethnic family groupings (Chinese Jewish families as one example). Our socio-cultural fabric is like a sponge--very absorptive.

5) Optimism—a “things are looking up” approach to life, whereby events are perceived to flow inevitably toward the good, the better, the best. We came up with a list of classic popular songs, such as “High Hopes” and “Accentuate the Positive,” that speak to this American tendency to avoid bad news and to express a distinct preference for "the sunny side of the street."

Try making your own list—see what you come up with!

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Southern Africa is home to an intriguing mix of peoples. That part of the world often telescopes into a black-and-white paradigm, but the blend is much richer, with populations of black, white, yellow, brown and everything in between. As a result, the cuisine is varied. On safari in Botswana last month, I mentioned my interest in local foods to the camp manager's wife, a lovely young woman with family roots in subcontinental India. So one evening, she arranged for us to be served a traditional meal of eland stew--cooked slowly on top of the camp stove all day to release the meat's juices and marrow--with mounds of steaming-hot, white polenta as the accompanying dish.

People in Botswana generally eat fruit for dessert, if they have dessert at all. But since the safari camps cater to American tastes, we savored a rich, dense gingerbread cake for dessert that evening. Alongside our plates, the servers placed small white pitchers of warm "pudding," or creme anglaise, to pour over the cake. Ginger is a common spice in Botswana, used both in African dishes as well as in those brought to the continent by its Indian population. In memory of that meal is this easy-to-make version of gingerbread cake.

Gingerbread Cake

3/4 cup dark honey
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup unsulphured blackstrap molasses
3 eggs
3 cups sifted flour (half white, half whole wheat)
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons powdered cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 cups buttermilk

Mix honey, oil, molasses, and eggs in a large bowl. Sift together all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the honey mixture alternately with the buttermilk. Pour the batter into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Serve slightly warm with whipped cream, flavored to taste with sugar and vanilla.

Friday, June 30, 2006


Polite smiles, yeses and nos, perhaps a few words in answer to the usual questions. Is it hot here in summer? How many cubs does a lioness birth? Where does your family live? I want more. Do you have siblings? How many? What does your name mean? Not your English name, the one for white foreigners. Your real name, the one that links you to this place. It means “not the same way.” He, our guide, is the youngest child. Seven of the eleven adult siblings are dead. They were sick, he says, when I ask how. In naming him, his mother wards off the sickness. This child will not be taken from her like the others.

We stop talking, still in our tracks, like the impala we pass each day. Alert to danger, to realities that keep us apart. Read about in books, perhaps, or gleaned from other inquisitive questionings.

The silence lingers, overtakes us. The relationship—between guide and tourist, man and woman, black and white—has no words to touch his sorrow. Yet in parting, the young guide steps toward me, leans forward with open arms. I move into his embrace, unanticipated, generous, as innocent, I think, as my questions had been. Between us, a vast landscape of human experience remains untouched. Where words can’t go, a gesture of affection has taken us below the surface, to the region where understanding lies and where hope burns. I climb into the tiny aircraft that will take me to the next camp, wiggle my fingers in farewell through the crack of the open window, and train my eyes on the waving arms below until all human form blends into the dun colors and broad sweep of the bush.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Coming to wakefulness from sleep, I open my eyes. The blackness is complete, oddly rich, not unlike the smooth sheen of melted chocolate. I wonder for a moment if blindness has this same sensual depth. I lie quietly, anticipating the shapes of things to announce themselves, even if only in shadowy outline. But nothing emerges at all, only the sounds of the bush outside.

Baboons have begun to bark, the leaves of the trees rustling as the animals make their way through the branches above our tent. A lion roars, rumbling and low, in the not-too-far-away distance. The delicate chiming of bell frogs slowly diminishes, overtaken by hornbills sounding in raucous staccato. Slats of soft light reveal the framed outline of the tent windows, netted and thickly curtained to hold back the chill of night. I can pick out familiar shapes now, folds of mosquito netting around the bed, a chair in the far corner, the woven screen that encloses shower, sink, and bath. Fruit bats, calling forth evening darkness in clinking gate-latch chorus, end their song as the light shifts, rose-pink embers’ glow.

I slip out of bed, slide open the doors of the tent, and step out onto the verandah. The veld spreads before me, vast, quiet, secret. Palm trees stand tall along the distant horizon, delineating land from endless sky, and in between their dark trunks, a small orb rises, silently, swiftly, to paint the sky blood orange red.

Friday, June 09, 2006


Many years ago, my mother, who was Caucasian, had an ongoing flirtation with an older African American man who worked at the same nursing home she did. She was a nursing assistant there at the time, and he was….I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is that he came from Mississippi and his name was Johnny V----. He drove a big, white Cadillac, and boy was he a smooth operator. Oh, and he was married too. That didn’t really matter, though nothing ever came of their flirtation. They simply admired each other openly and entertained their fantasies without ever acting on them.

Recently, I had one of those sudden sinking feelings that hit you in the pit of your stomach. I realized that, on my birthday next week, I’ll turn 47—almost 50. I began to wonder where all the time has gone and, in answer to my puzzlings, made a mental list of what has happened to me in the course of almost five decades of living. It was a long, meaty list, of the sort the average woman of my age, race, and class might have. Still, in my mind, 50 is a big number and doesn’t quite fit my image of myself.

I must not be the only one for whom the number doesn’t fit the image. Walking along a busy downtown street the other day, on my way to buy a quick to-go lunch, I noticed an older black man pulling out of an off-street parking lot just ahead of me. He was driving a shiny, new silver Cadillac and we caught each other's glance for a flash of an instant.

I could feel it coming. He pulled slowly out of the lot, leaned casually out of the window, looked me up and down in my tight-fitting jeans and sleeveless tee, and crooned, “How ya doin’, Little Miss Blue Jeans?”

I kept on walking and said nothing in response. Instead, I fumed inwardly. It’s been a while since a stranger has hit on me in public, and I wasn’t really prepared. “I’m 50, for God’s sake,” I thought to myself. “I’m heading into menopause! Shouldn’t a woman be free from all this attention after a certain point???” But then I thought about my mother and her flirtation with Johnny V----. It's not always the case, but sometimes strangers and casual acquaintances are simply showing us their admiration, and it doesn’t hurt to nod in recognition of that fact. The fellow drove on, and I eventually cooled off. In fact, I feel a little better about turning 50. But I wish I’d smiled back at my Cadillac Man.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


My friend M. has studied flamenco dance for years. She performs locally--solo and with others--and has recently joined a new group that commits hit-and-run flamenco dance. They show up at local events, more or less unannounced, put down their flamenco dancing boards, hit the “on” bottom on their boom box, and start dancing. In explaining the concept, she says, “You know, hit-and-run flamenco is kinda like hit-and-run guerrilla warfare.”

In reflecting on her words afterwards, I thought about how the radicals in our lives aren’t “out there.” They aren’t “them” or “others.” They’re our friends and neighbors and family. They’re the ones who see and practice guerrilla warfare as joyful dance, as art, as beauty. In a time when many of us feel discouraged or fearful about the state of the world, I take hope and inspiration from people like M. She’ll be dancing when the lights go out, and I hope I will be too.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


June is asparagus season where I live, and every Thursday morning, I stop at the downtown farmers market on my way to work to buy a carton of fresh asparagus. I buy from the same vendor every week--a tall, lean fellow with blue eyes and a green felt hat. He's soft spoken and unassuming, yet everyone knows he has the best asparagus spears in town. If you don't get to him before noon, you won't go home with his asparagus.

I love asparagus three ways: steamed and served with a little butter and lemon juice; steamed and served over pasta with a sprinkling of fresh parmiggiano reggiano; or steamed and stirred into a favorite Asian salad called kung pao tofu. Admittedly, the first two options are simple and quick, while the tofu is detail work and takes a little time. But, the complex, full flavors of the salad are worth the trouble for this slim green vegetable, which is at its peak for just a few weeks in early summer.


3 tbsp tamari
2 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp unsulphured blackstrap molasses
1 tsp fresh, minced ginger
1 package extra firm tofu, drained, and chopped into large bite-sized pieces

1) Combine the marinade ingredients (except the tofu) in a medium-sized glass bowl. Stir to blend.
2) Add the bite-sized tofu and let it marinate for 20 minutes.
3) Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the chunks of tofu on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until dark brown and slightly crunchy. Remove from oven and cool while you make the dressing.

1/4 cup teriyaki sauce
2 tsp tamari
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tsp minced garlic
1-1/2 tsp minced ginger
1-1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp cornstarch

1) Bring all the ingredients (except the cornstarch) to a boil in a small saucepan.
2) Whisk in the cornstarch and continue stirring until the dressing thickens (just a minute or two). Set aside while you cut up the vegetables for the salad.

1 bunch asparagus, chopped and steamed til tender-crunchy (about 6-7 minutes)
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 green or yellow bell pepper, julienned
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3 tbsp (or more, to taste) toasted cashews
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

In a large bowl, combine the chopped vegetables, the baked tofu, and the warm dressing. Serve over rice of your choice (white or brown basmati rice is tasty). Enjoy!

Saturday, May 06, 2006


I've been thinking about people I was close to years ago, and with the aid of modern technology have googled a few of them, just to see what pops up. As a test, I started with my family. All of us bookworms, we each come up with our publishing credentials. Even a short editorial comment my father submitted to the New York Times years ago comes up with a link to the text itself. The colorful covers of the books my sister and I have written come up on, along with the gratifying "More books by...." link. Turns out my brother, who is on the periphery of family life these days, isn't editing the law journal he helped found a number of years ago. And my mother, unforgettable in her private life, yet pathologically fearful of the public spotlight, shows up not at all. Not even her obituary.

By contrast, a once dear friend from my teen years pops up all over the Internet. Not in the field she originally aspired to, but in another, where her extreme extroversion flourishes. The love of my life, the one who broke my heart, shows up on the roster of the ski team that shaped her early adult life. Alas, no photo to highlight her dark good looks. Police detectives I once knew through social connections are quoted in local newspapers and court documents; former professors show up on university faculty rosters or on the covers of articles and books they've written; one fellow, who had the starring role in all the high school theater productions, is splashed all over the electronic entertainment world, having risen to stardom on a highly successful television drama.

And then there are those, who, like my mother, don't show up at all or who, more humorously, share the name of prominent contributors in various fields of endeavor. A social worker shows up as a diversity organizer, a retired cop pops up as a prominent breast surgeon, another friend with athletic skills shows up as a Swiss filmmaker.

I've heard tales of people reconnecting to long lost friends through google searches. It's tempting, but I prefer to leave the past in cyberspace, where I can touch it from a safe distance if I choose and rely on memory for the rest.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

(for JF, who put it all in perspective)

"Well, you could stay home and watch TV instead," reflected a colleague as I fretted about my next travel adventure. My father and I are going on safari in June. We're heading to the Okavango Delta in the northwestern corner of Botswana in southern Africa. The game viewing there is superb, and all the charts promise lions, elephants, cheetahs, colorful birds, and everything in between. The fancy coffee table book our safari agency sent us is filled with glossy panoramic photographs of the African bush, and I easily imagined myself in the landscape, free from all worry and bother, waiting only for the next friendly predator to stroll languidly past my tent.

But that was before a friend--a travel nurse--sent me the Botswana package from Travax produces country reports focused on health and safety issues synthesized from data provided by the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization. After reading the 42-page document, I wondered why I'd paid for my safari package in full. I also wondered why the photos from the safari agency showed tourists in shorts and sleeveless shirts--didn't they know about malaria? ticks? UV exposure? What about the food and waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid, and cholera? Airborne contagious diseases such as polio, influenza, and tuberculosis? Measles, sleeping sickness, and parasites in abundance? And let's not even get started on HIV/AIDS. Turns out Botswana has the second-highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world, with an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults of 37% and 33,000 AIDS deaths each year (out of a total population of 1.6 million). For perspective, the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults in the United States is less than 1% (0.6% to be precise), and AIDS deaths reach about 14,000 people each year out of a total population of almost 299 million people. I checked the CIA World Fact Book to make sure Travax wasn't making this stuff up. Don't breathe, don't eat, and definitely don't have sex in Botswana.

Believe you me, I ran to my doctor for a first round of innoculations (DPT and hepatitis A for starters) and for a slough of prescriptions. Because the risk of TD (traveler's diarrhea) is so high--there's bacterial diarrhea and protozoal diarrhea, so if you don't get one, you'll get the other--I came away with three prescriptions just for diarrhea: one for bad diarrhea, a second for really bad diarrhea, and a third for really, really bad diarrhea. Next week, I go to the travel clinic for the second and final round of innoculations (typhoid and polio) and to discuss which of the many malaria profylaxes has a chance in hell to work in Botswana. Turns out African mosquitoes are mutating like crazy and many are resistant to anti-malarial drugs. Great. Does that mean the tubes of 35% DEET cream I bought to slather all over my body and the giant bottle of super-toxic Permethrin I'm supposed to spray on every article of outer clothing before I leave are just an exercise in wishful thinking?

As I was ranting about all this to my sister one evening, she looked at me askance. "How did you miss this stuff?" she asked me. She writes geography books for a living and is just coming off a period of writing specifically about Africa. She loves to relay to me all the statistical data she's gathered on the countries she's writing about, so Mali's human misery index, Uganda's information campaign against AIDS, and guinea worm eradication in Senegal are daily conversational fare between the two of us. I guess I'd missed this stuff because, like most Americans, I live in a cocoon of public health splendor. An Iranian taxi cab driver once told me that the U.S. miracle is its vast and highly effective system of agricultural distribution. Now that I'm going to Botswana, I think it's our ability to manage and protect public health on a grand scale...and still have money left over to go to the movies.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


I didn't really want to come to Disneyland for the annual science teachers national convention, but now that I'm here, I'm not sure I really want to leave. Everything is perfect. The weather is glorious, pleasantly cool in the early morning and comfortably warm by afternoon. The flora is in full bloom--yellow day lilies, shrub-sized clivia, paperlike California poppies, bougainvillea, azaleas, lantana, hip-tall birds of paradise, camellias and clematis as big as plates, and everywhere everywhere the gentle susserating of palms. Birds chirp high in the trees, a sociable sparrow shares my breakfast scone, and from morning til night, children squeal with a mix of delight and terror as the Disney machines, on their slightly rusted rails, hurl their occupants through space for an all-you-can-ride thrill.

There's not a speck of trash anywhere, no signs of poverty or distress, and at every turn, there's Mickey Mouse to greet you with his goofy grin. He's carved into the soap in the hotel rooms, carefully clipped into the hedges, and perched--ears only--atop the heads of most children under ten, who seem to sprout a Mickey cap within minutes of their arrival.

On the walk back to the hotel from an afternoon of convention sessions, I happened onto a Cinderella theme wedding, complete with golden carriage, white horses, coachmen, giggling bridesmaids all in pink, and a fairy princess bride, perfect in her whiter than white wedding gown and sparkling tiara. I felt an instant pang of envy; that feeling of recognizing before one's eyes a childhood fantasy made real in someone else's life. A beefy bodyguard approached me, asking in an apologetic tone if I would mind bypassing the bridal party, as the entourage was about to make its way to a garlanded canopy tent a few hundred yards away where the bride was to be married in outdoor splendor. The guard and I fell into whispered conversation, and I asked him if Cinderella weddings were common at Disneyland. He confessed that, as an employee of the bride's family, he wasn't sure of the statistics but that theme weddings were not unheard of.

"It's a whole other world out here, " I remarked in awe.

"It's lovely lovely," he grinned in response, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head in a sort of self-mocking acknowledgment of his role in this dreamland production.

Since my arrival at Disneyland, I've been wondering how to explain the appeal of the place. I think of myself as immune to canned reality, far too sophisticated to be seduced this easily. My colleagues must view me in this same light. They've been chuckling at me and my Disneyfied glee.

The monumental effort behind such a carefully manicured vision is a given, yet you don't ever see anyone laboring at it. It all takes place after hours or very discreetly in remote corners. I think it's because the vision is so smooth and tightly controlled that we fall for the fantasy. And, after a weekend of listening to science teachers at wit's end over plummeting student achievement in STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), over the lack of meaningful support from the highest levels of government to reverse the trend, and over distorted national priorities, the Disneyland cocoon provides respite. Tinkerbell is there to wave her magic wand to wish it all away, and for a day or two, I believe.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Spring is the traditional season for demonstrations in France (May 1 is workers' day), and indeed students, labor unions, and citizen sympathizers have been demonstrating for a couple of weeks in Paris and in other major French cities. My father is in Paris this week, and he's been sending regular email updates. He reports that much of the action in Paris has been near iconic sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Bastille, and the Place de la Republique, which is close to where he is staying. Air, rail, and metro traffic has been impacted, and many schools and businesses have closed on strike days.

Unlike the rioting last autumn, which was focused in poor immigrant ghettos, the upheaval this time is in the urban core. It is largely a white, middle-class protest of a new labor law that extends the period of employment probation for workers under the age of twenty-six to two years (currently the probationary period is only a matter of a couple of months). During the probationary period, employers have the right to dismiss young workers for just about any reason. The new law was meant to open up job opportunities for youth (a major issue in last fall's rioting), but instead, most young people in France resist the idea of American-style at will employment. They want the new law abolished. President Chirac has stepped in, changing the language of the law a little so as to ensure that, at a minimum, employers give reasons for dismissing youth employees.

La Chef writes to me about the demonstrations in highly reflective terms. As a grandmother, she sees her grandchildren inheriting a very different world from the one in which she grew up and lived out most of her career. She sees the forces of economic globalization at work in France and says that many of the changes to French labor law, against which so many citizens are protesting, are a foregone conclusion. We agree that the socio-economic contract that has provided job security in France for more than half a century is falling apart, and that historic change such as this is painful.

In broad terms, I wonder how changes to employment patterns impact culinary traditions. In the United States, with low unemployment and a high percentage of working families, quick meals in front of the television are increasingly the norm. Eating at restaurants during the work week has become de rigueur. The number of families heading for restaurants to celebrate holiday meals is skyrocketing, and the industry is quickly adjusting. The same trends are appearing in France, where the hours-long family meal is becoming a relic of the past. French grocery stores carry more prepared and pre-packaged foods, and even Valrhona, the preeminent French chocolatier, has begun to produce and sell chocolate chips as well as standard bar chocolate for cooking. Chips are easier for the home cook, who can save time and avoid the mess that comes with chopping up the large and heavy blocks of Valrhona chocolate into manageable pieces.

I discovered a 3-kilo bag of Valrhona chips in La Chef's cupboard last fall. Although she laments the passing of "slow food" and makes her career out of preserving slow food values (local and organic production of food, seasonal eating, home cooking using only the freshest of ingredients), she loves the chips. "Easier for melting," she says. On this trip to Paris, I've sent my father to Georges Detou in the Les Halles neighborhood for a 3-kilo bag of Valrhona chips for me. I've already gone through almost an entire bag from his most recent trip to Paris in early March. The chips are perfect for an Americanized version of the French "reine de saba," a sort of molten brownie traditionally made with pulverized almonds. Below is the easy American version.

Americanized Reine de Saba

12 ounces Valrhona chocolate chips (American semisweet chocolate chips will work too)
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1) Melt 6 ounces (about one cup) of the chips and the butter in a small pan over low heat. (You can melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave or over a doubleboiler as well.) Pour the melted chocolate and butter into a medium-sized bowl.

2) Beat the sugar into the melted chocolate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla.

3) Sift together the dry ingredients and stir into the chocolate mixture, blending well. Add the remaining 6 ounces of chips (not melted) to the batter.

4) Pour the batter into a buttered 8-inch pie dish or cake pan and bake for about 23 minutes* in a 350-degree oven (for glass pans; 375-degree oven for non-glass). Serve warm with ice cream.

*Note that chocolate brownies, cakes, and cookies are best if pulled from the oven a little underdone. If overcooked, chocolate desserts become too dry. Twenty-three minutes is just about right for this recipe.

Monday, March 20, 2006

(Piney River picnic, left, 1963)

My sister is in London until Friday. She left her computer at home and took paper and pen instead, saying she wanted to be in London the way it once would have been, free of instant messaging and satellite phone connection. I'm not supposed to call or email. I've resisted the phone call, but, of course, I've already sent her three emails, which she doesn't seem to have read, so I guess she's staying true to her vow.

With the edicts in place, it's awfully quiet around here. When my sister is at home, we talk all the time, either by phone, email, or in person. When I run out of things to say, she keeps right on going, and I say, "Uh, huh or "uh, uh" in reply, just like when we were young. I got to feeling nostalgic this morning and dug around in a closet for the white photo album where the old family photos are. I was looking for a particular image of my sister and me sitting in a pile of leaves on the curb in front of one of the Columbia, Missouri, homes. Instead, I found this picture from a 1963 picnic on the Piney River with my mother's mother (seated, background), my sister (foreground), me (in the middle), our shepherd Leki, my parents (off frame), and my mother's Aunt Maud and Uncle Willis (also off frame). It brought back fond memories of that river, where we searched for crawfish, skipped rocks, and collected buckeyes.

One summer, years after the 1963 picnic, my grandmother took my brother and me for a picnic on the Piney. She sat on the rocky riverbank to lay out our lunch while my brother and I, teenagers both, stripped off our clothes and lept off a boulder into the deep and dark waters below. My grandmother, a very proper grande dame indeed, looked up and smiled. "My little frogs," she said.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


In searching for a gardening essay I'd written a couple years ago, I ran across a piece about family communications that I'd written a long time ago. It was funny then, and it's still funny now.

Donna said she'd heard about The Fainting from her sister, Rose, who'd heard about from their brother, Dan, who'd heard about it from their father, Dominic. News gets around like that in that family. The source of family information is always several people back. No one ever seems to remember exactly who the original source is, and I doubt anyone really cares. The most important thing just seems to be the news.

There was the time their mother, Virginia, moved back into the house on Peters Square with Dominic. I think that news came from Rose, who'd heard it from Virginia, who'd actually been invited by Dominic. Donna was surprised by that one. After all, only twelve years had passed since Virginia and Dominic's divorce--and Dominic holds a grudge. His most recent outburst had been the threat of police action if Virginia ever stepped foot on his property. But, maybe twelve years is, after all, long enough to erase--or at least to dull--the sharpness of bitter memory. Donna said maybe it was loneliness. Or old age. But most probably, it had something to do with eating habits.

Virginia liked to test already-proven formulas, and the Greenway housing coop experience was no exception. She left Omaha in a hurry, speeding back to Minneapolis, her mother's old black Buick crammed full of belongings, the typing table and captain's chair firmly strapped to the top. Rose went with her for the ride. Donna says it was for the money--Virginia paid Rose to miss work at the library.

Rose didn't stay in Minneapolis for long, but Virginia did. She moved into the Greenway coop, into the room where Fran had lived when Rose was there. Actually, Rose moved in after Fran did. Fran had greeted Rose at the front door in her dirty long johns and ill-fitting robe. Fran's mother had given the robe to her at Christmas. Fran wore it out of guilt, or perhaps in the false belief that love had guided her mother's choice.

Shortly after the move, Donna went to visit Virginia in her new room at the Greenway. All the treasures that had been stuffed and wedged into the old black Buick were there, neatly arranged around the room. A few new postcards were tacked up onto the freshly painted walls, and handstitched quilts had been rolled onto wooden dowels to serve as curtains. Donna said Virginia could turn a storm sewer into a home.

Donna and Virginia ate breakfast out near the high school that morning. Virginia picked at an omelette--she always had a nervous stomach--and Donna slammed her thumb in the doorjam of the stall in the women's bathroom. She lost part of her nail, but Virginia still made her pay for the meal.

Donna says that Virginia's parting gesture after breakfast was a finger up the nose. Typical, and mostly in fun, but partly serious. Donna and Dan and Dominic had plans for dinner together that evening, and Virginia--as always--felt left out. Dan said she'd been talking a lot about marriage recently, mostly because she wanted a color television. And a good meal or two, which is how it all started, really.

A few months later, Donna called Dominic, who told her that Dan had told him that Virginia had reported that she'd fainted at work. The doctor attributed the fainting to poor eating habits. Dominic and Dan swore it was the strictly enforced vegetarian menu at the Greenway coop. Donna said it was more like a lifetime of cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and a five-pound bag of sugar every week. No one could agree on the cause exactly, but four weeks after The Fainting, Virginia showed up at Dominic's door, was invited in, fell asleep on the couch, and hasn't left yet. At least that's what Donna says she heard from Rose, who heard it from Dan, who heard it from Dominic. And he should know.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

(flowering cattleya, left)
My cattleya is in bloom. It hasn't produced flowers since I bought it several years ago, inspired by a visit SJG and I took to an orchid garden on a wintertime trip to Key West. When I bought the cattleya, the plant was in full bloom. But after the flowers faded and dropped off about a month later, it didn't produce a single bud or bloom again. I followed all the greenhouse directions--occasional on-schedule feedings, regular waterings and spraying with distilled water, perfect placement in an east-facing window with sheer curtains to filter the morning light during winter, and an under-the-trees outdoor life during the summer when natural rains could feed it. With no results.
I seriously thought about throwing it out. My mother, who had a magical green thumb, grew orchids with my father when I was young. They built a basement greenhouse, where they kept many different orchid varieties, bringing them into the dining room as they came into bloom at different times. When a plant gave up its annual blooming life after several years, they threw it out and replaced it with another orchid. But I couldn't bring myself to throw out my cattleya. Even though it wasn't producing flowers, it was still alive, and I couldn't bear the vision of trash can suffocation. Instead I moved it all over the house, including into the basement for a couple of winters, where even there it refused to give up.
Earlier this month, my sister casually mentioned a Swedish friend's wife, who grows orchids--in Sweden of all places. It's cold and dark there, yet this woman's orchids are blooming profusely now under what is described to me as neglectful care. I decided to try a version of managed neglect. I brought my cattleya from the basement and into the bathroom, where I placed it on the floor near the radiator and away from the windows. I figured the room's humidity and indirect light would bring miracles. If my approach didn't work, I promised myself, I would finally throw out the orchid.
But it did work, and the cattleya has been in bloom for about a week, with another four or five weeks to go. I think I'll bring the cymbidium into the bathroom tomorrow.

Friday, February 17, 2006


(Photo at left of the Roman pool at the Parc Monceau in Paris, courtesy of my father)

In the winter months, after it's become too cold and icy to ride my bicycle to work every day, I change my routine of exercise to include weekly swimming sessions at the downtown pool. I usually go in the midafternoon, when the pool is quiet, and there's only me and the Eastern European ladies in their swim caps and giant floral-patterned swimsuits. One time, in the steam bath after my swim, I ran into one of the ladies drinking a clear liquid from her flask. "That's a great idea, to drink water in here," I said to her. "I'm drinking vodka," she replied, and we both chuckled.

Although swimming is an exercise for the body, I find that, for me, it's primarily an excercise in meditation. Energy slows with each exhalation into the water, moving inward with each stroke. The exterior world begins to fall away, and I listen to my breathing as the water streams past my body and flows out through my nose and mouth with each forced out-breath. I imagine it must have been like this in utero.

I've never been a fast, powerful body in the water. In fact, years ago when in graduate school, I took a thrice-weekly swimming class at the university's Olympic-sized pool. One of the surprise! goals of the class was to increase speed and power, so at the beginning of the first week of class, we buddied up and counted the number of laps we each could swim in a five-minute period. I swam 18 laps. At the end of the semester, we again buddied up and counted laps for the same amount of time. Every one else in class had increased their capabilities by a lap or two. I again swam 18 laps.

I think this means that my potential as a swimmer is what it is, and that there's something in me that doesn't want to swim fast and hard. What I do want is to hit my stride, whatever that may be on any particular day, and to view life from a water creature's perspective--with that funny feeling of solitude and extreme insularity, even with other bodies in the water. One afternoon at the university all those years ago, swimming laps in the slow lane, I rotated onto my side for an inhalation and made contact with a woman swimming over and on top of me. As I held my breath to wait for her to clear my body, I wondered why she hadn't chosen one of the fast lanes. Swimming, of course, does have a competitive side, but drowning your fellow swimmers in the slow lane seems to go beyond the pale. Feeling the power swimmer had violated some common code of water life--whereby all swimmers respect solitude and insularity--I felt frightened that day, unable to regain my meditative rhythm, and got out of the pool at the far end of my lane. I like to tell this story to the lifeguards at the downtown pool. That way, I figure they'll remember me and look out for me in case anyone else tries to overpower me in the slow lane. But no one ever has and my pool-life serenity has only that one blemish.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Humans, as social creatures living in community, shape the lives of those around them. I know that in principle I've influenced the lives of people around me, loved ones and strangers alike. But it's hard to see that influence, and it's a rare event when any one of these people has actually confirmed or described to me the impressions I've made on them. If they've done so, it's usually been under unusual circumstances or in a moment of emotional fervor. I view these confirmations of human impact on other lives as a sort of footprint, proving that we have passed this way and have left certain recognizable signs in our wake.

Just this weekend, my young neighbor friend Gracie, who's almost nine, unwittingly showed me one of my footprints. SJG and I had invited Gracie, her mother and father, Gay and Peter, and her little sister, Bronte, to our house for a rib feast to celebrate Gay's birthday. We prepared the ribs the two-day way, marinating them overnight in spices, grilling them briefly the next afternoon, and finishing them in a two-hour steam bath in the oven. To please Gracie and Bronte's palate, we also made our favorite macaroni and cheese recipe; cole slaw rounded out the meal. We left the choice of dessert to Gay, and she opted for chocolate mousse. I made the mousse well in advance, to give it time to chill and set in individual glasses, with plans to serve each glass with a dollop of whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

After we'd finished the main meal, I called Gracie into the kitchen. "I need your help with the whipped cream for the mousse," I told her conspiratorially. She raced into the kitchen after me, and I handed her an old-fashioned set of beaters, the kind that you turn by hand. They fit neatly into a cylindrical ceramic container and work perfectly to beat small amounts of whipping cream and egg whites.

Gracie looked puzzled. "What are we going to do with these?" she asked.

"We'll beat the whipping cream with them and put a little spoonful on top of each person's mousse," I explained as I pointed to the small glasses of mousse in the refrigerator.

"Oh," Gracie replied. "I thought we were going to squirt the cream out of a can!"

"Nope," I replied. "We're doing the real thing." I poured the whipping cream into the ceramic container, placed the beaters on top, and told Gracie to start turning. "You can switch hands if you get tired," I explained.

Gracie dutifully began to crank the beaters, and within seconds wondered if her work was done. I showed her how to lift the beaters to check the consistency of the cream, and she went back to her work, checking frequently and switching hands as her eight-year-old arms tired. In due time, she exclaimed, "I think it must be done. It's getting really hard to turn this thing."

And indeed the cream was ready to spoon onto the mousse, after which Gracie sprinkled each one with chocolate shavings. She carefully placed the glasses of mousse onto a serving tray, carried it with great delicacy into the dining room, and placed it before her mother. "Mom, I beat the cream!" she cried with girlish pride. In a flash, I saw my footprint, saw through Gracie's excitement and pride that I had offered her a way to use her human powers to transform something ordinary into loveliness.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


My sister is a writer. These last few months, she's been working on a book about Morocco. In her background reading, she ran across a lovely poetical work called Desert Divers, by Sven Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish into English by Joan Tate. Desert Divers is part travelogue, following Lindqvist's journey in the latter part of the twentieth century across North Africa, mostly in Morocco and Algeria. It's also a reflection on personal and political memory, the ways in which we supress some things, lie about others, and aggrandize the rest. What sustained my interest, though, is that he tells his story through an exploration of a handful of French writers who were drawn to the Sahara, which reaches up into North Africa, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

One of these writers was Andre Gide, whose book L'immoraliste takes place in part in Biskra, Algeria. A novel about liberating the self from societal constraints, it's a book I remembered reading in graduate school twenty years ago. I became dissatisfied relying on Lindqvist's retelling and interpretation of Gide's desert drama, so I ran upstairs to the study to pull out my copy of the book from my lawyer grandfather's bookcases, which I've inherited from my mother. As I thumbed through the well worn copy of the book, reviewing the notes I'd scribbled to myself years ago in the margins, I was caught by this passage, which defines what it is to be an artist:

J'ai toujours cru les grands artistes ceux qui osent donner droit de beaute a des choses si naturelles qu'elles font dire apres, a qui les voit: "Comment n'avais-je pas compris jusqu'alors que cela aussi etait beau..."

In English, this more or less means:

I've always believed the great artists to be those who dare to give the right of beauty to everyday things, which lead those who see them to say afterward, "Why did I not understand before that this, too, was beautiful..."

By these standards, I think my mother was an artist. I have a vivid memory of her making toast for me one morning many years ago in her apartment. It was a lengthy process, and I marveled then, as I do now, at the way she held everything required for toast making in complete reverence--the slices of homemade bread, the toaster, the creamy butter and the knife she used to spread it with, the white Limoges plate she chose to put the toast on, the crisp linen napkin she spread across my knees. It seemed so easy and natural with her, and when I went home after that visit, I tried to replicate the experience on my own. But, without her there to promote the artistry, it wasn't possible. All these years later, I see that I have inherited something of her eye for beauty. And I try to stay true to her intuitive understanding, expressed so succinctly by a Frenchman before her, that art and artists lie right before our very eyes.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Every now and again, I play cards with three former colleagues with whom I used to play cards at lunch every single workday. We would gather at the kitchen table with our sack lunches at precisely 12:30 and play for an hour. Known for too much table talk and stretching the rules wildly, we paired off and bid our tricks, screeching with glee as we trumped our competitors or caught them short a trick. One coworker, who never joined in the game , routinely complained to our supervising editor about the noise we made. Periodically, email reprimands would come our way, and we would play cards in whispers for the next few days. But invariably, the sheer fun of the game caught up with us, and we were back to our noisy antics.

This weekend, the four of us gathered for cards for the first time in about a year. We all have demanding jobs and live far from each other in the farflung corners of the metropolitan area. One of the group, who has two young children, drives in for cards from a neighboring state, where she and her husband are refurbishing an old farmhouse. She's the most serious card player among us, and loves to win. I'm always nervous when she's my partner at cards. I'm a somewhat sloppy player, no good at counting cards and prone to erring on the side of risk. She, on the other hand, knows where every card is and wins by careful calculation and cautious but accurate bidding.

The friend who hosts our card parties is very generous. She always serves lunch and rarely asks us to contribute to the feast. This time, though, we volunteered, and she suggested I bring the dessert. At first, I thought about bringing the chocolate-apple tarte I'd learned to make in Paris this fall. But SJG tells me it's on the unusual side, and these friends have conservative palates. So I decided to bring my favorite American dessert--oatmeal caramel bars. It's a recipe I begged one of my neighbors to give me. She's always reading church cookbooks and the glossy recipe booklettes at the grocery store check-out counter. A steady flow of marshmallow bars, bakeless pies, and cookies with every chip imaginable come our way from her, and the oatmeal caramel bars are my favorites.

Over lunch, as we talk about my culinary trip to Paris, my card-playing friends compliment my blog but agree that all the recipes were way too fancy for them. "I didn't even know what half the words meant!" says the serious card player. We laugh, and I think of my paternal Aunt Lina, who said the same thing. I'm glad I brought the bars. They're a hit, and this time, I'm on the winning team at cards.

3/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup flour
1 cup finely cut oatmeal
32 caramels
5 tablespoons cream or millk
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 chopped nuts (I like pecans)

1) In a mixing bowl, combine the butter, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, flour and oatmeal. Stir until butter is absorbed.

2) Pat about 3/4 of the mixture in the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish and bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

3) Meanwhile, melt the caramels and the cream.

4) Sprinkle the chocolate chips and the nuts on top of the oatmeal base. Cover with the melted caramels and then the rest of the oatmeal mixture. Bake 20 minutes more.

Friday, January 13, 2006


My father turned seventy-five this month. He likes to think of it as three-quarters of a century; it sounds more momentous that way. My sister, SJG, and I had a small dinner party to mark the occasion, complete with party hats, noise makers, and a sparkler candle on the birthday cake. As a way to tap his thoughts about what it means to be seventy-five, we asked questions about his life, some serious, some not. Here are his reflections from that evening.

FAVORITE FOODS: bananas, coffee, and fruit pies. “I’ve always liked comfort,” my father says, reflecting on a weekend Boy Scout trip in Milwaukee in the 1940s where he was the only one who came with his bathrobe, coffee pot, and galoshes in tow. It rained the entire weekend.

FAVORITE ACTRESSES: Anouk Aimee, Madeleine Carroll, and Catherine Deneuve. He still gets a faraway look in his eyes remembering a chance encounter with Anouk Aimee and Albert Finney on the streets of Paris in 1970, when we, the children, were all little. He loves that Anouk and Albert turned around to stare at us, and he spent the rest of that trip roaming the streets near where we’d seen the star couple, calling out, “Anouk! Anouk! Where are you?”

FAVORITE CHAIR: A low-seated wicker chair known as a “cannibal” still sits on his front porch. He bought it in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1957 and loved it because it was a little unusual, yet very comfortable.

FAVORITE SPOT ON EARTH: The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. He heads to the center of the garden where children play with rented wooden sailboats in the pool of the garden’s large fountain. He remembers trying to rent a boat there himself many years ago, and the concessionaire said the boats were only for children. When my father said he had his children with him, which he did, the man replied, “Then bring them over here!”

CREDO: Cherish good memories and forget the bad ones.

FUNNY MEMORY: In 1963, my father was teaching in Ada, Oklahoma. One day after lunch, he went out to the garage and there, standing on top of our 1957 blue Buick was a stray goat. It had wandered off from someone’s farm, and my father was somehow able to return him to where he belonged.

FAVORITE SUIT: A brown wool suit from Gimble’s department store in New York, where he lived and went to New York University in the 1950s. It was a single-breasted suit that cost $13. He wore it everywhere, to work, to social outings, and even to bed. Many years later, our mother threw it out.

FAVORITE BOOKS: We asked the standard question: If you could only take three books to a desert island, which three would they be? He chose:
--The Leopard by Giuseppe de Lampadusa, the biographical story of the Prince, Don Fabrizio, who is moving into his old age as the Italian state begins to form toward the end of the 1800s. It’s a story of how individuals face historical transitions, and my father admires the Prince for knowing that his time has come and gone, and that the future belongs to the next generation.
--the Bible (mostly the Old Testament and Revelations). He likes the monotheistic pagan God of the Old Testament--capricious, vengeful, unpredictable, funny—as a reflection of the vagaries of human nature.
--Shakespeare’s histories. Like the Old Testament, the histories seem to him an accurate reflection of human nature.

PROFESSIONAL ACHIEVEMENT: He is most proud of the ways in which he acted as a check on the powers of the central administration at the university system for which he served out his professional career as a professor of political science. Power is a force, he says, which, without checks and balances, corrupts.

FAVORITE PETS: Melek (Leki), a German shepherd we had in the 1960s, and his cats Kanga and Roo. He says he loves his cats because they are companions and love to sleep on the couch as much as he does. And, he got them from the humane society as a two-for-one bargain. They had been at the humane society for so long (several months) that the humane society—which wanted to adopt them out as a pair since they had come in that way--reduced the adoption fee by half. In the end, it wasn’t the bargain that convinced my father. It was the fact that, as he was walking out of the building, having come there for a dog, Kanga reached out of the cage and batted my father as he walked past. The cats chose him, not the other way round.

FAVORITE MEMORIES OF HIS CHILDREN: There are three of us, and we each have classic moments in family lore that my father cherishes.
Me—I’m the star of a family movie from the 1960s in which I try for several long minutes to pull a wagon out of the garage by the handle. The wagon is somewhat blocked by the car on one side and the wall of the garage on the other. Lacking sophisticated spatial relations, I go at it unsuccessfully from every possible angle, while my sister sits patiently in the wagon itself. Eventually, I tire of my fruitless maneuverings with the handle and manfully drag the wagon out of the garage by pulling at the sides.
My Sister—is renowned for pulling up a peony plant by the roots at my fifth birthday party. We were each meant to pick a peony flower, which are always in bloom for my June birthday, for my father’s movie camera. Dressed in a layered chiffon dress, I carefully pick a bloom from the row of plants and turn to smile at the camera. My sister, in a matching dress, tugs at the bloom, which will not cede. She continues tugging, harder and harder, pitching backward onto the ground as the plant comes out of the ground. She stands up grinning proudly for the camera, holding an entire peony bush—roots and all—in her hands.
My Brother—My father remembers him as a small child, beating happily on pots and pans with a wooden spoon under a table in our dining room on Orton Court, one of the early family homes. About his children, my father says that we are like clocks. We all tell different times.

Friday, January 06, 2006

(for SJG, who helps me with the obvious)

My neighbor Bill across the street puts up outdoor Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving every year and promptly takes them down on New Year’s Day. I’ve begged him to leave them up a little longer, at least until Epiphany, when the Magi reach Jesus in Bethlehem. But he doesn’t see the logic in my reasoning and climbs up on his aluminum ladder every New Year’s afternoon to take down the lights while his wife disassembles the artificial Christmas tree indoors.

I’m always saddened to see Bill’s lights come down. At this time of year in the Upper Midwest, with only seven or eight hours of daylight, the ropes of light strung along gutters, draped over bushes, and placed in windows are testaments of faith, of awareness that the darkness is only temporary. Light, and the life it brings with it, will return.

Two years ago, SJG slipped on ice and tore the quadricep muscle of her right leg right off the knee. The diagnosis was slow to come, and in the period between the accident and the surgery to reattach the muscle, SJG spent many days at home, unable to bend or raise her leg unassisted. One evening, to lift her gloom, we drove slowly through the neighborhood to see the holiday lights. Our favorite display was a large house by the park, the house with the “Protect the American Family” sign on the front lawn that summer. Every bush and tree was strung with cream-colored lights; giant red plastic candles glowed from each window; and all the gutters, downspouts, and porch railings shown like green frames into the night. We returned home feeling hopeful.

Like many people in our neighborhood, that family leaves the lights up well into the spring, as a sort of insurance policy against eternal darkness. They counterbalance Bill and his eagerness to get his lights back into their box in the basement. And they are reminders that light can be a kind of choice, an act of will.

My siblings and I cleaned out our mother’s apartment together after her death. At first, we were frightened to enter her apartment, fearful of what we might find there, the memories, the forensic detritus, the mountains of possessions. Yet, over the days ahead-- a kindly neighbor bringing coffee and treats each afternoon--we fell into a routine, laughing one minute, weeping the next as we made our way through the layers of our mother’s life. One afternoon, the music blaring at full volume, we came together in a desperate clutch, like magnets, my sister in the middle, my brother and me on either side. We went wordlessly back to our tasks, and eventually, we’d emptied the apartment—dropped off charitable donations, placed mounds of trash curbside, loaded the rental truck with precious items to bring home. As I took a final swipe of the wet mop across the kitchen floor, the sun began to stream into the room, filling it with a golden glow. My mother had spent years filling every corner of her apartment with belongings, blocking the light with plants and window coverings. It had always seemed such a dark place, and in that moment, I realized, with surprise, that it was not naturally so.

In the years since that day, I’ve come to think that we make our own light, and it takes care and attention and a good dose of faith to maintain the flame through the dark hours until the morning comes.