The Interestings

IMG_2045Over a recent four-day weekend, a group of cousins ranging in age from three to 55, along with family members in their 60s and 70s and one intrepid 90 year-old, assembled in Portland, Oregon to witness one of their own graduate from college.

If you’re a fan of the show Portlandiayou probably know that Portland has its quirks and its institutions.

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making it a fun place to hang out with a group. Among our group were our Boston-based esteemed travel companions Deb, Tommy and Nell, last seen in Chicago, where we contemplated the roads not taken.

True to his nature, our first morning in Portland, Tommy went out on an early morning doughnut and coffee run.  The bacon-topped maple bars were a hit. Deb’s famous iPad was commandeered by Nell and Daughter #1 who, immediately upon seeing each other, compared notes on the courses they will be taking when they start high school next fall.  More self-assured since last year, they quickly caught each other up on the trends at their respective schools on opposite coasts, dismissing the banal and celebrating the edgy. They spent much of the rest of the weekend watching episodes of Dr. Who, their latest obsession.

When you stay in a hotel with a big group of people, the gathering can take on a frat house-like atmosphere.

The girls unpacked,

Traveling with them is like traveling with The Who, minus the smashed guitars.

Traveling with them is like traveling with The Who, minus the smashed guitars.

we did some touristy stuff

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and ended up on the floor of one of our hotel rooms late that first night, devouring chicken wings from Pok Pok,

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while the girls and their twin male cousins, about to graduate from fifth grade and thrilled to be hanging out with their older, more sophisticated kin, watched Dr. Who.  The three-year-old was the only one with enough sense to eat lightly and get some sleep. He took advantage of his freshness the next morning and held several bleary-eyed grownups hostage in the hotel lobby in a jail made from couch cushions.

Awake too early, bloated from late-night eating and not yet in receipt of Deb’s “Come up, we have coffee” text, I lay in my hotel bed and started reading Meg Wolitzer‘s new book, The Interestings. It’s about a group of friends who meet at an arts camp in the summer of 1974, when they are 15, and follows the twists and turns of their lives, until the present day, when they are in their fifties.

Was this a case of life imitating art or art imitating life?

The first chapter was perfection: the awkward, uncertain girl, invited to join a group of cooler, more sophisticated, talented peers. The urgency of the late night talks in the teepee.  A first kiss that was all wrong. I was blown away by Meg Wolitzer’s ability, not only to summon reservoirs of feeling and memory within me from when I was 15, but also to demonstrate that some experiences transcend time. The feelings you have when life is on the verge of becoming interesting are the same, whether you are in a teepee in 1974 or on an iPad in a hotel room in 2013.

I couldn’t wait for Daughter #1 to wake up, so she could read the first chapter and recognize herself and her burgeoning awareness of the larger world she is about to join.  “Just read the first chapter,” I urged.  But of course, she kept going.

“Listen to what the book says about needy girls and attention,” I called out to D#1 and D#2.  “Girl drama is nothing new.”

I couldn’t wait to tell Deb about The Interestings over our morning coffee, though I wasn’t surprised that she had already read it. She liked it, she told me, but she didn’t love it, because she felt the interpersonal relationships were not fully developed. That said, Deb admitted she couldn’t put it down.

It occurred to me that then, as now, Deb probably listened to cooler music than I did and was naturally one of the “interestings,” whereas I, then and only occasionally now, was on the outside peeking in. I can’t deny that I felt a kinship with Meg Wolitzer.  After all, both of us wrote books that include the apocryphal story of Mama Cass choking to death on a ham sandwich.

That day, our college graduate and his roommates hosted a barbecue for family and friends. Their house which,the last time I saw it, could have been immortalized in the Smithsonian for its depiction of slovenly college living (I was amused then to find a copy of Martha Stewart Living amidst the squalor, the last remnant of a roommate who had moved on to cleaner pastures) had been cleaned up surprisingly well.

The guests included an array of 50 and 60-something parents, who had made various accommodations to the aging process. Some of the men had pierced ears, some wore the classic sports jackets of tuition-payers, one was in biking gear. The lovely women, mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and cousins, seemed more at ease with their wardrobe choices .  One of them proudly directed us to the Special K treats she had whipped up in her hotel room, a favorite childhood snack of the now 21-year-old college graduate she had helped raise.

The couch was enveloped in a haze of smoke. Draped on its cushions and arms was an array of beautiful youth who could have been in a Colors of Benetton ad.

Daughter #1 and Nell remarked derisively, “Look at all these hipsters! Do you see what they’re wearing?”

Those are Jeff's old-school  sneakers on the left.

Those are Jeff’s old-school sneakers on the left.

“I’m not going to live like this when I’m in college,” D #1 declared with the certainty of a 14 and 1/2-year old. “My house will be clean!”

“No need to wait till you move out,” I retorted, with the not-so-veiled sarcasm of a 51-year-old.

Jeff and I moved through the cloud of smoke to enjoy conversations with the current and recent college graduates, many of them painters or performance artists. The musicians were about to embark on a national tour with their band, which had just been signed to a record label (Minivan mom that I am, I was disappointed that they would be traveling in a Honda Odyssey, instead of a tricked-out bus).

Sigh.  How times have changed.

Sigh. How times have changed.

Later, we sampled the famed Portland food truck fare, once again late at night on someone’s hotel room floor. I felt my age the next morning at the All-You-Can-Eat hotel breakfast buffet, as I made a beeline for the oatmeal.  I felt it again, as I dressed for the graduation ceremony and made the ill-considered decision to borrow Daughter #2′s Katy Purry perfume.

A little overpowering for women of a certain age.

A little overpowering for women of a certain age.

It’s nice that parents of my era try to bridge the generation gap.  I’m sure the sweet smelling women from my past would have appreciated the scentiment but would have made a different choice.

As the weekend unfolded, Deb and I dutifully took photos and managed to upload a few onto Facebook in almost realtime, saving the bulk of our “sharing” for when we got home and had had a chance to recover. We were no match for our three daughters, who posted each experience on Instagram within seconds.

All the while, Meg Wolitzer was providing a slideshow of my life: Watergate, AIDS, Moonies, student loans, Chicken Marbella, crime-ridden New York, crime-free New York, lack of money, more money and many heartfelt conversations.  Her characters were coming to terms with leading small lives or big ones.

As if that weren’t enough nostalgia, I had recently reconnected on Facebook with two old friends from high school.  “Your turn,” one of them messaged me.  “The past thirty years:  Go!” Another summoned up a long forgotten memory of a powerful exchange that had occurred between us. “Thank you,” she told me.  “It felt good to know that someone noticed I was suffering and cared enough to say something.”

When Daughters #1and #2 grapple with self-esteem or despair about the future, I tell them they are like an interesting book, with one chapter building on the next. I was reminded of this as I surveyed the family and friends  assembled to celebrate our graduate, who had come of age in nearly every decade of the past 75 years.

You can’t always know, the graduation keynote speaker reminded us, which jobs will lead you toward your future career, which relationships will stick or which conversations will end up being a turning point in someone’s lives.

You just have to keep your compass pointed towards your own version of true north.

Luckily, Jeff gets to regularly relive his halycon college days, due to the state of our refrigerator, which is often bursting with rotting produce.  Living with me reminds him of living with his roommate Jordy and the “name that spugeom” game they used to play to identify the refrigerator specimens they unearthed.

This weekend I undertook my semi-annual fridge cleaning and had fun cooking with the salvageable produce I found, as well as the new bounty I purchased at our neighborhood Farmer’s Market.

With the green garlic, asparagus and morels I purchased, along with the remnants of blue and other cheeses I found in the fridge, I made Asparagus and Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding from Deborah Madison’s wonderful book Local Flavors, cooking and eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.  Here’s the recipe, which also appears on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.

CONGRATULATIONS, DAVID!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Every Day is Mother’s Day

To celebrate Mother’s Day, this weekend my book, Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, is available as a free Kindle download.  Here’s the link.  I hope you’ll give it a try and tell your friends and loved ones too.  And if you like the book, please consider posting a review.  Thanks!

My grandmother, a wise, warm woman who made French toast out of hot dog buns and called it Belgian toast, used to say “Every day is Children’s Day.”

She was a wonderful woman but, with the exception of latkes, not much of a cook.

She was a wonderful, inspirational person but, with the exception of latkes, not much of a cook.

In fact, the 1960s were not nearly as child-centric as today. The sometimes controversial writer Caitlin Flanagan summarized it aptly:  “When we were children, we followed our parents around.  Now we follow our children around.”

It will be 80 degrees and sunny today in Seattle.  What will I be doing?  Schlepping kids to school, a track meet, a volunteer appreciation party, a dance and possibly the mall. I find it amusing, and admittedly sometimes annoying, that the teenagers in my life plan all sorts of group excursions that involve driving hither and yon, but they often forget to consult the drivers.

It's probably time to put this on my reading list.

It’s probably time to put this on my reading list.

Because they text instead of talking on the phone, the logistics can drive even the coolest of parents crazy. Example:  Daughter #1- Can you take my friends and me to the mall? We want to go to the Alderwood Mall (15 miles away from Seattle). It has better stores.  Me:  (attempting to dry my hair)  Sure, but I have to stop at Northgate Mall (5 miles away) first to return something.  D #1:  My friend E. will meet us at Alderwood. What time should her mother bring her there? Me:  I’ll pick her up. It’s on our way. Daughter #2:  I want to go to the mall too and invite a friend.  D #1:  I just texted E. and told her to meet us at Alderwood Mall. Me, getting frustrated:  I told you I would pick her up. (This exchange actually went on for several additional rounds and involved several hair dryer interruptions).

Surprisingly, the phone rings and it’s not a telemarketer:  It’s H., friend of D #1:  I texted E. and asked her to ask her mother to drive her down to my house so we can go to the mall.  Me:  I said I would pick her up on the way to the mall so her mother doesn’t have to drive her anywhere.  D#1:  Calm down, mom. Me: Text E. and tell her I will pick her up. D#1:  Stop yelling, you’re ruining everything. Maybe I just shouldn’t go to the mall.

Me: WHY IS THIS SO HARD AND WHY CAN’T I DRY MY HAIR?  Pick up the phone and CALL E. and confirm that I will pick her up.

In the car, much to D #1′s mortification, I lectured everyone on effective communication, minimizing our carbon footprint by not driving unnecessarily and not inconveniencing parents, who may actually have things they want/need to do.

When we got to the Northgate Mall we learned that D#2 had neglected to tell her friend B. that our final destination was the Alderwood Mall. B. had neglected to mention that she had a volleyball game in an hour.

We waited for B.’s father to come to Northgate Mall and pick her up.

If there were a logo to describe me as a mother these days it would be a sponge.

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Not because I clean, but because as the first line of defense of the family, I absorb everyone else’s emotions.  I also step in to resolve messes, sometimes (such as prior to having my morning coffee or during the aforementioned mall logistics) I can be abrasive and I adapt to a variety of tasks.

But lately I’ve been wondering whether if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen to quit my career to become a full-time mother.  In my book and on this and other blogs, I’ve chronicled the intellectual frustrations I felt, which clashed with the stronger pull to be there for my daughters.  Now, almost fifteen years later, I am dealing with the economic ramifications of my decision.

Originally this post was entitled the Mommy Track and Freekah-nomics (you’ll see why in a few minutes).

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Now that I’m ready to “lean in” and go back to work full time, I’m discovering that the years I spent freelancing, volunteering and doing a little of this and a little of that, were years not spent developing expertise in a particular field.  I’ve got a pretty interesting resume, which shows that I am smart and as adaptable as that sponge I mentioned. But, though I’ve reinvented myself professionally several times,  it lacks fifteen years of targeted experience with increased responsibility.  This, I realize, will hurt me in a tight job market.

Jeff and I have an artist friend named T. who has spent her entire adult life cobbling together different jobs to support herself.  She’s also managed to squirrel away enough money to take several international trips.  Currently, she and her husband (who’s had a similar work life) are at the end of a year-long, round-the-world trip, which they have been documenting on Tumblr.

Though not lucrative and often uncertain, freelancing makes for a pretty nice “stop and smell the roses” kind of life.

Every Tuesday Kobe and I used to visit our neighborhood barber, who gave Kobe a "pupperoni" treat.  He passed away last week.  We will miss him.

Every Tuesday Kobe and I used to visit our neighborhood barber, who welcomed canine visitors and gave them  “pupperoni” treats. He passed away last week. Our neighborhood misses him.

So, I’ve chosen to be inspired by the flexibility and serendipity of T.’s unorthodox career. I’m cobbling together several different freelance jobs to help support us and squirrel away enough money to take a trip next spring (Belize, anyone?).

Though I’m devoting far more time to seeking and executing remunerative work and far less time to cooking, occasionally I still make time for culinary exploration, focusing on less time-consuming recipes.

Here’s a recent find from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s Jerusalem: Poached Chicken with Sweet Spiced Freekah.

I hope you enjoy it.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some driving to do.

Happy Mother’s Day.