Zen

Our dear hamster Zen passed away a few days prior to Thanksgiving. Her death was not unexpected; we’d been on hamster death watch since August, when the ravages of old age were beginning to show, and on high alert for most of November, as she slowed down and eventually became paralyzed.

Zen’s death was the first we’d experienced since the death of my mother, in February 2010.  Just as we had with my mother, we observed Zen eventually stop eating and had to coax her to drink.  In her final hours, just as we had with my mother, we took our iPod and played the songs she’d loved, while telling her how much we loved her and what she had meant to us.  My mother’s play list:  the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version of “Hawaii Aloha,” Madama Butterfly, Camelot and “Stardust,” sung by Willie Nelson, because that’s the only version I could find on iTunes.  Zen’s playlist:  Sean Kingston’s “Dumb Love,”  Ed Sheeren’s “The A Team,”  and Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me.”

We went out in the pouring rain and buried Zen in the “kitty arbor,” where three cats and one bird rest beneath a pieris japonica plant and a statue of a sleeping cat.

There’s a wonderful David Sedaris essay (which I mentioned in a previous post about dogs) called Youth In Asia that, among other things, talks about how the pets in our lives mark the passage of time.

Zen was Daughter #1′s fifth grade graduation gift.  Now as D#1 prepares to go to high school, it feels as if the last vestiges of her little girlhood are fading away. As we tour prospective schools, she is feeling the pressure of PSATs, SATs, leaving some of the friends she’s gone to school with since kindergarten and contemplating college and beyond.  I used to say that our kids’ remaining time living with us was equivalent to the lifespan of a guinea pig.  Suddenly, for Daughter #1, it’s dwindled to the lifespan of a healthy hamster.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many of my friends from New Jersey posted updates on Facebook about the havoc wreaked by the storm, including how they had coped with power outages.  One of the most heartfelt updates came from my high school friend S., who included this picture:

This is her turtle Speedy, wearing the sweater S. made to ward her off from the cold while the power was out. S. says she also held Speedy over a steaming pot of boiling water, but reassured her that it was for warmth, not turtle soup.

Speedy has lived with S. for more than forty years.  When we were young and S and her family went on vacation, I used to feed Speedy cantaloupe and watch her slowly make her way around S.’s house.

Speedy has been a constant in S.’s life, and, I guess by extension, mine. Though S. and I haven’t seen each other since we were in college, the fact that she still has Speedy is a reminder that she is still the person I knew and loved.  Speedy brings back fond memories of S.’s and my mostly happy high school years.

I wanted to do something special for Daughter #1 to acknowledge the loss of her pet.  Quiet, gentle, bookish, artistic and dreamy, D#1′s feelings are sometimes overshadowed by the loud and harsh realities of everyday life.

I decided that after Zen’s funeral we would have lemon curd, something D#1, adores almost as much as she enjoys Britishisms. (In a recent report she did on British cuisine, D#1, who has an excellent sense of humor and a firm grasp of the inner workings of the middle school mind, decided to steer clear of mentioning “spotted dick.”).

Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s a steamed pudding with currants.

When she was little and couldn’t pronounce the letter L, D#1 would refer to the tangy marriage of lemons, butter and eggs as yemon curd.  Other little kids, who had trouble pronouncing her multi-syllabic name, sometimes referred to her as Lemony. For birthdays she enjoyed the Lemon Butter Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Butter Cream from our friend Leslie Mackie’s Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook and my favorite White Chocolate Whisper Cake, featuring lemon curd and raspberry preserves.  You can find that recipe in Leslie’s new book More From Macrina.  I am the “fellow soccer mom” mentioned on page 169, who enjoyed the cake on my fortieth birthday.

So even though I was up to my ears in Thanksgiving preparations, I took a breather from pies, turkey stock and the cranberry- pomegranate sauce from Food and Wine magazine that will now be a staple in my Thanksgiving repertoire and I made lemon curd, using David Lebovitz’s recipe. We ate it with shortbread cookies while watching an episode of Modern Family to cheer us up.

I don’t know if we will get another hamster, though, if we do, we agreed a few years ago while vacationing in Turkey to name it Suleiman the Magnificant (there is some back-pedaling about that agreement now).

The advice about high school I would give Daughter #1 comes from the immortal words of Bob Marley:

Finally, in the immortal words of Jon Stewart, here it is, your moment of Zen (and Speedy’s brush with fame):

As the holiday roller coaster speeds up, we could all use a few moments of Zen.  I finally took some time to collect all the recipes on this site onto one page and also to provide some information about my forthcoming book. It was kind of relaxing. You’ll find both of these pages at the top of the site.  

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Mom

For seven years I have facilitated a mother-daughter book group, established when Daughter #1 was in second grade.  We started the group because the first signs of girl bullying were beginning to surface in the classroom, and so we gathered every girl in the class together on a Saturday to discuss the book The Hundred Dresses.

Over the years, the group has shifted from school-based to home-based and the membership has waxed and waned.  It’s now comprised of a core group of avid readers, young and not-so-young, who have discussed everything from race relations in the South during the early1960s to dystopian societies of the future; dysfunctional and functional families; the complexities of mother-daughter relationships; and girl power:  extraordinary and ordinary.

Our most recent book was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was followed by a group outing to see the film.  The main character, who is a freshman in high school, deals with SPOILER ALERT suicide, depression, molestation, abortion, drugs and gay bashing, in addition to the typical emotional highs and lows of adolescence.

The girls, all but one of whom are in eighth grade, chose the book because they wanted to see the movie. Daughter #1, the first of her peers to read it, found it unexpectedly depressing.  “I can’t believe that the main character is one year older than me,” she said.  So I starting reading the book. I found it riveting because it captured many of my own high school experiences (especially the Rocky Horror Picture Show obsession).

Did you read Catcher in the Rye, Go Ask Alice, Girl, Interrupted or Ordinary People?  Depressing stories of depressed teenagers are nothing new (and Perks was actually written in 1991).  But there’s a moment in the book, and also in the film, in which the main character is riding in a truck with newfound friends and a song comes on, the perfect song.  He describes the way he feels as “infinite.”

A few days after I finished the book, there was knock on my door. A neighbor wanted me to know that the police had been called because one of the inhabitants of my house had broken into her house and set off the alarm. I looked at my charge, whom I still think of as young and innocent, and didn’t want to believe it could be true.

Hadn’t I spent years instilling good values?

He broke in through the cat door, stole some food and beat up my neighbor’s cat.

At the beginning of the school year, a group of ninth-graders in my neighborhood allegedly stole a parent’s car, sped down a neighborhood avenue and hit a parked car, which mercifully protected them from the telephone pole behind it. The owners of the smashed car left it there for weeks with a note on it and on the telephone pole, the gist of which was:  “Dear Kids, If you’ve come to see the results of your accident, know that we are glad you are okay.  Please take care of each other.”

I took Daughters #1 and #2 to see the smashed car and the note.  “I can’t believe the kids who did this are one year older than me,” said Daughter #1.

There were apparently marijuana-laced brownies at the middle school Halloween dance and whiffs of other pot rumors have been floating in the air. (Yes, I do live in Washington State, where we’ve just legalized recreational marijuana, but not for middle-schoolers).

My daughters and I watched a few episodes of My So-Called Life.  It was depressing to watch fifteen-year-old Angela Chase struggle with questions of identity, which involved sneaking out of the house and having confusing experiences, before returning home, usually miserable and defeated, yet sometimes grateful to be back in her mother’s orbit.

Late one Saturday night, my puppy, who is perfecting his watchdog skills, spied movement at the abandoned home of our recently deceased neighbor. As he barked, teenagers came spilling out of the house and scattered into the alley.  I wondered whether I should call the police.  There are so few abandoned houses anymore, as there were in my youth, and this one is likely to soon be replaced with a modern duplex. My guess is that the kids inside were feeling infinite.

The other mothers were as riveted by The Perks of Being a Wallflower as I was.  We discussed whether the book was too depressing for our daughters and C, who may sometimes be forgetful, but is always wise, said “Better for us to introduce these topics then for them to learn about them elsewhere.”

When our group came to discuss the book, we mothers told carefully chosen stories about ourselves in high school. The girls were fascinated.  “I can’t believe you’re telling us this,” said the daughter of the formerly raucous Catholic school girl, who became an emergency room nurse.  “We weren’t always the way you see us now,” we told them.  “We grew up.”

There is a scene at the end of the film version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which one of the characters, who has been away at college, tells the high school protagonist what he has to look forward to:  “The world gets so much bigger,” she says.

Our daughters liked the film, but they were equally impressed with the art house theater where we saw it. It was the first time any of them had seen a film in a venue so funky and cool.

Their worlds will get so much bigger and I am glad they will have moments when they feel infinite.

I just hope they will take care of each other when they do.

For most of my high school years, I felt infinite at the Jersey Shore, specifically the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. My heart goes out to everyone who was affected by Hurricane Sandy, especially the inhabitants of my former home state.  Please continue to take care of each other.

I won’t pretend that I’m not apprehensive about the looming parenting challenges, but I have found one sure-fire method to bind the family together:  potatoes. Specifically, the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook.  No matter how angry or uncommunicative or hormonal anyone gets, these potatoes bring them around, even me, a rice aficionado, who has never been a fan of making or eating mashed potatoes. These mashed potatoes are tangy and comforting without being too decadent.  Anyway, sometimes it’s important to ignore the glycemic index in the interest of family harmony.

Here’s the recipe:

Zuni Cafe Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes (serves four, but I always double it to serve four)

1 1/4 lbs. peeled potatoes (I use Yukon Gold), cut into chunks

Salt

2-3 T heavy cream (you can also use milk or half-and-half), warmed

2-3 T buttermilk at room temperature

3T melted unsalted butter

1. Boil the potatoes with salt until tender.

2. Drain and mash, while piping hot and then add hot cream, followed by buttermilk.  Finish by adding butter.

3. Mash vigorously and add salt to taste.

4. Enjoy your family.