I’m Just Like Gwyneth. Except When I’m Not.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Gwyneth Paltrow would never let more than two months elapse without updating her blog.

gwyneth-paltrow-sticks-to-her-diet-while-family-eats-pizza-and-pasta__oPt

Bad for the brand.

I’ve been thinking about personal branding lately and, of course, about Gwyneth, because how could you not? For the lonely writer, social media is our water cooler. Gwyneth’s announcement of her split from husband Chris Martin has dominated social media over the past few days, but even better are the writers who have posted insightful and funny retorts to Gwyneth’s comments about “conscious uncoupling” and difficulties of life on a movie set in Wisconsin.

Others have responded so much better than I could, but I will just say, as someone with two jobs, kids doing three sports and and a husband who thinks I have all the time in the world to get his international drivers permit, life on a movie set in Wisconsin with 14 hours of uninterrupted focus on one goal sounds pretty good right now.

wisconsin cheese

Actually, I’ve been on something of a Gwyneth kick lately, exercising regularly, sticking to 1500 calories a day, snacking on cauliflower with bagna cauda and generally trying to maximize my potential.

But years of attempts at personal growth and personal stomach shrinkage have yielded an important realization: I’m good for about three weeks.

Three weeks is the maximum stretch I can regularly run, do yoga and Tabata, limit myself to one glass of wine with dinner, accomplish my professional and personal tasks with aplomb, volunteer at school, take the dog out regularly for long walks, drive carpool, manage the carpool Google calendar, make healthy dinners that everyone actually likes, drive to and from soccer practice and get enough sleep.

Gwyneth-Paltrow-Real-Beauty

Before

Three weeks. Then, something’s got to give.

I just listened to a piece on NPR about male coming-of-age rituals in Kenya. Boys are circumcised at age 13, in an elaborate ritual that involves pulling the penis through the foreskin and then tying the foreskin into a bow. Though I don’t have male equipment, my knee-jerk reaction is ouch. Prior to the ceremony, the boy’s face is caked with mud, which dries into a hardened mask. During the ceremony he is supposed to remain perfectly still. If he flinches or reacts in any way, the mud will crack and he will be branded a “sissy” for life.

 

Three weeks later

Three weeks later

That’s how Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand of “aspirational” (my new, most-hated word) lifesyle strikes me. I admire the effort to be perfect, but aspire to the more realistic, trickle-down effects of trying to do your best and settling for achieving your personal best, whatever that is, at any given time, with whatever you’ve got going on in your life.

Eventually, the mud will crack

Eventually, the mud will crack

In the months that I’ve contemplated what I wanted to write about next, two pieces served as inspiration. One was a much reviled piece by New York Times writer David Brooks called The Thought Leader, in which he paints a grim picture of the life cycle of a certain type of self-satisfied intellectual.

The other, which ran a few months later in The Atlantic, is called The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age. As we age, the writer argues, we may find it hard to accept that not just our looks, but also our ideas, are discounted in favor of the young. Wisdom and experience are no longer at a premium, especially in an age of self-absorption.

I found the happy medium in a New Yorker essay by Roger Angell. This Old Man is an account of Life in the Nineties. If you are short on time, stop reading this blog immediately and read that instead.

Wisdom is not dead.

Yes, feminists, I realize I have just cited three works by men. This past week there has been a trove of good stuff written in commemoration of Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. I am well aware that wisdom and reflection are not solely the domains of those who have endured penis-centric coming-of-age rituals.

Quote-by-Gloria-Steinem

In the past week, I had two contrasting experiences which provided food for thought. The first was the day I spent interviewing third-generation longshoremen on the docks of a busy container shipping terminal. I learned about the values that had shaped them and how they pass these on to the younger generation. The second was lunch in a beautiful penthouse apartment listening to academics and followers of the Dalai Lama talk about ways to bring “secular ethics” into schools.

Both groups were equally aspirational and I guess you could call them both “thought leaders.” And both, though they used different terminology, were essentially trying to accomplish the same thing.

The getting and passing down of wisdom is an important aspect of the human condition and a key tenant of some religions. Blogs and brands and Twitter accounts notwithstanding, it’s generally assumed that wisdom is something that makes an appearance on the heels of experiences, which are accumulated throughout the course of one’s life. There’s no right way to do it and no one time when you’ve got it all figured out.

It’s a solitary and individual experience.

Because we are treading into heavy, preachy Gwyneth-like territory here, please take a moment to watch this video.

I’ve jumped back on my Gwyneth regimen today (because I have three weeks before departing for Spain, where I will happily get off the virtue wagon). And here’s how my day has shaped up so far:

Up at 6:30 to rouse a tired teen who had been at a dance the night before and take her in the pouring rain to meet the bus for her track meet. We stopped at a coffee shop on the way. Didn’t I feel virtuous eating a Morning Glory muffin to take the edge off, so I could attend an 8:30 a.m. power yoga class.

Here’s the thing about that yoga class. I used to do yoga at a trendy studio with lots of young, attractive people in great looking yoga threads, who liked to do handstands and Bird of Paradise and Side Crow and probably use the word aspirational a lot.

gwyneth yoga

Now I do yoga at our friendly, affordable neighborhood gym with a bunch of regular looking people of all ages, shapes and sizes and a teacher who plays great music. I’m not much for the woo-woo aspects of yoga, but every now and then, something the teacher says sticks. Today he reminded us not to worry about how we looked. “Nobody’s looking at you,” he reminded us. “They’re all too busy focusing on themselves.”

Confession: I look at other people all the time in yoga and sometimes, like when my shirt is riding up over my belly, I worry that they are looking at me too. I don’t judge, but I aspire to look like those beautiful older women who look like they’ve stepped out of an Eileen Fisher catalogue.

between friends yoga

I’ll finish this blog post and then, because I’m not on a movie set in Wisconsin,  I’ll go out again in the rain and drive for 40 minutes to pick up Daughter #1 from her track meet. She’s likely to be self-critical about how she did and how she looked and, on the long drive home, I will dispense the wisdom that I, and so many others struggle to remember in this increasingly connected, always on-display world.

Last night, as I drove D#1 to a high school dance, (about as aspirational a venue as you’ll ever find),carrie

the streets of downtown Seattle were filled with people in costume heading into Comicon. We joked about how high school dances are a lot like fan conventions, with people dressing in character and finding their group. “But fandoms aren’t judgy,” (a word I have come to love) she reminded me. “Everyone dresses and acts the way they want to, and nobody gives them a hard time.”

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In thinking about aspiration and wisdom and perfection and Real Life, I got to thinking about Roseanne Barr. Have you seen her lately? She looks pretty good. She’s got the relaxed look of someone who has been on her version of the Gwyneth-Go-Round and has figured out that perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe Roseanne should be the next Thought Leader of something I’m calling the “Lighten Up” movement. She’ll remind us all to relax, eat pasta and Girl Scout cookies and wear inexpensive drawstring pants if we need to.

If our mud cracks, it should be from laughter, not pain or self-sacrifice.

rosanne_barr_new_comedy

Not that I’ve been doing much cooking because of all those sports practices, but my absolute favorite new recipe is this aspirational, yet indulgent, Turkish Poached Eggs in Yogurt, courtesy of Saveur magazine.

This is not a perfect picture, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

eggs

 

 

 

Act Your Age

between friends french fries

I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about this blog and all the things I have wanted to write. I send myself emails with ideas, usually figured out when I am running. I have become, like the self-proclaimed “serial memoirist,” Beverly Donofrio, a miner of material. But then I get busy with work and carpools or become overwhelmed by fatigue.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about cooking, and the meals I wish I had time to make.

And the books I wish I had time to read.

I think you get where I am going with this. This installment of Slice of Mid-Life has been a long time coming.

The material I’m mining these days is all about shifting into a new life stage. Daughter #1 is in high school. Dances and football games and associated accoutrements have entered the mix.

Daughter #2, a sophisticated seventh-grader, is as tall as me and we wear the same shoe size. Their dramas are different now, their minds are often like sieves. Our interactions are fleeting, though we spend a lot of time together in the car, driving to and from their many activities. That’s where I learn what’s going on.

The experts say kids this age feel more comfortable confiding in you when there’s no eye contact. Counterintuitive, but worth a try.

boots

During a back-to-school shopping trip with D#2, I spied a pair of black Steve Madden boots on sale that I encouraged her to buy. But D#2 is careful about money and wasn’t sure she should make the expenditure. “We can share them,” I told her. So we bought the boots.

“Our” boots, we called them.

D#2 wasn’t sure she would wear them much. Jeff wasn’t sure why a 52-year-old woman would want to wear the same boots as her 12-year-old daughter.

Touche!

Touche!

The boots made their debut on D#2′s feet during the first week of school and were an instant hit, especially with two of her friends who said they had the same pair, but in brown.

A few days later, I asked D#2 where our boots were. “You mean ‘my’ boots?” she corrected me, without any trace of irony.

I had been considering wearing them for a TV appearance, in which I had been billed as an “expert.” I decided that wearing the boots of a twelve year old might compromise my already weak credibility.

Schulz Lucy Doctor Is In

Yes, the days of raising children are long, but the years are short. We’ve become one of those proverbial families who rarely sit down together for dinner. So before our nest is permanently empty, Jeff and I need to start reclaiming our lives and rekindling our coupledom.

We tried to do so a few weekends ago, when D#2 was at away at a friend’s cabin and D#1 was at a cross country meet in Portland. It was a stormy, blustery Saturday and Jeff decided to go windsurfing. I set off for the grocery store to buy food for a party I was having the next day.

I was happily filling my grocery cart with beets, butternut squash, and chanterelles, which had just come into season and which I planned to serve in a cream sauce with pasta, salad and good wine, for that night’s dinner for two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the produce section I ran into a woman I work with, fifteen years younger than me, with two young daughters. She had the crazed look today’s parents do on weekends and told me about her day: two soccer games, two ballet classes, one Nutcracker rehearsal (already?), hair arranged into buns multiple times. She was hosting a multi-girl sleepover that night. I glanced into grocery cart. It contained nothing but popcorn. She told me she planned to organize crafts.

Did I feel a little bit smug and “been there, done that,” as I wheeled away with my chanterelles and beets, with all the time in the world to consider my purchases, my romantic evening with my husband and the next day’s grownup party?

Not a cheese stick in sight.

Not a cheese stick in sight.

I did, for five minutes.

That’s how long before I got the call from Jeff. While loading up his car after windsurfing, he had inadvertently locked his key in it. Could I come and get him?

Why did I suddenly feel like I was talking to one of my daughters?

I looked in my cart, which contained not quite everything I needed. I looked outside, where it was now pelting with rain.

Jeff was wearing a wetsuit, I reasoned. One of us would have to be inconvenienced; either him, waiting till I finished my shopping or me, abandoning my groceries and having to make a second trip to the store in the pouring rain.

Me or him, him or me?

wetsuit_ultra32_both_dt

Worn down by countless months of teen/tween-induced inconveniences, I decided that this time it wouldn’t be me. I wasn’t the one who had been forgetful. Why should I suffer the consequences of someone else’s lack of responsibility?

I worked my way down the rest of the aisles and loaded my items onto the check-out conveyer belt, regaling the cashier with the tale of my husband’s forgetfulness.

When it was time to pay, I reached for my wallet.

It wasn’t there.

What passes for vanity these days is me matching my purses to my outfits. Apparently during the last switch, I had neglected to transfer my wallet.

instant karma

So, groceries abandoned, off into the rain I went to rescue Jeff, go home and get my wallet and return to the grocery store to complete my purchase.

An hour later, we sat down to our meal. As the first bite of the first chanterelles graced our lips, we got the text from D#1: “We got home early from Portland. Please come and pick me up.”

A few weeks later, I heard that Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan had died and that another cooking elder and idol of mine, Paula Wolfert, had Alzheimer’s. On the day I learned that my cousin, three weeks younger than me and the one who will be the first family member of my generation to leave us, had gone into hospice care, I spent the afternoon slowly and sadly cooking Marcella Hazan’s Pork Loin Braised in Milk from the Essentials of Italian Cooking.

The following weekend Jeff and I went to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding, our first trip away together since having kids, nearly 15 years ago.

I packed about an hour before we were scheduled to leave for the airport and fretted about my wedding outfit, which needed to be suitable for an outdoor wedding with limited seating at Stern Grove, in San Francisco’s Sunset District. The ground would be uneven, warned the bride-to-be, so wear comfortables shoes.

The October weather could be cold, warned my friend Nina. Bring a shawl.

Too old to pull off the hippie look, and too poor to own any chic, neo-hippie expensive fiber clothes, I could not come up with a flattering, yet grove-friendly wedding outfit.

“You’re 72-years-old,” said Jeff. “Who cares what you wear?”

Oh, my man, I love him so.

At the wedding, I spied Nina, the portrait of understated Eileen Fisher elegance.

dresses_hp

We chatted about the recent New Yorker profile of Eileen Fisher, which revealed that her life and the management of her company are not as effortless as her clothes suggest.

It was chilly. Nina lent me a black Pashmina shawl to wear on top of the shawl I was already wearing.

“I look like an old woman, who is either going to curse the couple or hand down the family recipe for spaghetti sauce,” I lamented.

old hag

“Plus, I no longer have a waist, I have a thorax!”

During a hike at Mount Tamalpais, the day before, I had taken a tumble. My bandaged knee completed my look.

knee

It was a beautiful, heartfelt wedding with the best wedding speeches I have ever heard. The couple had found each other after difficult first marriages and had lived together for thirteen years before tying the knot.

Jeff was right, as he often is. Who cared what I looked like?

Back at home, life marched on in all its hecticness. I wore the Steve Madden boots occasionally and received compliments every time.

Daughter #1 told me she had recently discovered the pleasures of potato leek soup. Could I make it?

Long before elegant women wore expensive fibered clothing, there was the little black dress and Julia Child. I pulled out my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and was pleased to discover that, as if anticipating my future needs, Julia offered a pressure cooker adaptation of her classic recipe.

An hour later it was on the table, classic and modern at the same time.

Yesterday, on my way home from my second of two round trips across town, I received a text from Daughter #2, who was at a friend’s prior to attending a party that evening. Any chance I could deliver the boots to her?

The funny thing is, I almost wore those boots, but was having one of those days where nothing I tried on seemed to look just right. Edgy wasn’t working, so I went for a more classic look instead and wore a pair of grown-up boots with a heel.

If I had been wearing “our” boots, would I have driven over to D#2′s friend’s house, taken them off, given them to her and driven home in my stocking feet?

I guess we’ll never know.

Recently I had the good luck to be interviewed about my book by Deborah Kalb, who interviews authors on her delightful blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.

She got me thinking about how life and time march on. Here’s our interview.

Finally, a friend posted a TEDex talk by Gina Barreca. How is it possible that I had never heard of her?

Ostensibly it’s about the future of women in comedy, but really, it’s about so much more than that.

We are serial memoirists, we are story-tellers, we carry our lives in our purses and our cars. When the boot fits, we wear it.

Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2′s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.

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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Explaining Myself to a Twenty-something

Now that all the hoopla has died down — two birthdays and a book launch party in one week, surprise out-of-town guests for said launch party and a delicious weekend of basking in the glow of friends, family and accomplishment — we’re back to business-as-usual and the daily slog of work, deadlines, school and the dishes and laundry that seem to mysteriously pile up when I’m not looking.  Add to that high school tours, flu, a middle-aged basketball injury and it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Oh yeah, I wrote and published a book.

books

You may have seen me decked out in a red dress and heels the night of the party, but it was also me you saw this morning at 6:55 in my pajamas, robe and Uggs at the ATM in downtown Ballard getting the forgotten funds for Daughter #2′s lift ticket, so she can go on ski bus tonight (we were wise to get D#1 a season pass; I realize this now).  Tonight, at 11:00 p.m., Jeff and I will hop into our respective cars and head to the daughters’ respective schools to pick them up from their ski forays.  We’ll be off to D #2′s  basketball game in the morning.  I will be grateful that there is no weekend swim meet requiring me to sit on uncomfortable bleachers for four hours to watch D#1 swim for less than ten minutes total, as I did last weekend (I entertained myself by reading Getting to Calm:  cool-headed strategies for parenting teens and ‘tweens, but kept the book cover hidden, so D#1 wouldn’t be mortified).

I'm not the only member of the family interested in this book.

Someone else seems to be interested in these pearls of wisdom.

Tomorrow afternoon we will make dumplings with a group of Chinese exchange students to celebrate Chinese New Year.  Today I’ll need to find a mango-based Asian dessert recipe and prepare said dessert for said party.  Someone needs to buy a gift for a birthday party on Sunday. The beat goes on.

A few days ago I was scheduled to be interviewed about my new book by our local newspaper.  By local, I mean neighborhood. Seattle is a city of neighborhoods and my neighborhood, Ballard, has a particularly strong community, a community newspaper and a popular blog.  Until D #2 started going to school across town, I rarely left Ballard. There is some truth to the bumper sticker you sometimes see around here:  “If you can’t find it in Ballard, you don’t need it.” My friend Peggy, a columnist for the Ballard News Tribune, beautifully summed up our attachment to our neighborhood. The interviewer was to be a journalism student at the University of Washington named L.  “Go easy on him,” Peggy said.

L. and I arranged to meet at Caffe Fiore.  There are actually two Caffe Fiores in Ballard — one in the Sunset Hill region of the neighborhood, that is favored by families and people with dogs, but doesn’t have WiFi, and one in downtown Ballard, that is favored by childless hipsters and WiFi aficionados.  I gave L. the address of the Sunset Hill Caffe Fiore, where I do much of my “business,” because it’s closer to my house and it’s easy to park there.  Still, I wasn’t surprised, while sipping my double short non-fat latte, to receive an email from L. saying he was at the other Caffe Fiore.

fiore_logo

I found him amidst the laptops, he turned on the voice recorder on his iPhone and we settled in to talk.

apple_voice_memos_voice_recorder_iphone

I interview people for a living but have rarely been interviewed myself.  To be honest, I expected L. to ask me some rote questions about my book, which I am fairly certain he has not read, and to go through the motions of interviewing a 50-something year-old-woman with whom he has nothing in common.

L. surprised me.

How many times have you encountered young relatives at large family gatherings or seen the college-aged kids of your friends and asked them about their studies and their plans for the future?  These conversations always seem rather one-sided:  you, the experienced adult, offer suggestions about internships. You offer to put in a good word with the friend of a friend, who may be able to offer some help.  You inquire about hopes and dreams and inject some practicality into the conversation.

L. was not particularly interested in my book,  but he was interested in my life.  He asked me to reflect on which accomplishment made me proudest (Foreign Service officer, mother, journalist or author) and I had to think before responding that I was proudest to have figured out how to have accomplishments in each of the different phases of my adult life.

We talked about the differences in international travel in the pre- and post-Internet world.  “Don’t underestimate the value of truly being away and unplugged,” I said.  “The examined life is important, but not if you are living your life so it can be examined.”  Then I sheepishly remembered that I am a blogger (and a person, Jeff would point out, who is tethered to her iPhone).

slice of mid-life logo

But here’s what really struck me.  L. wanted to know about my future.  He asked me about  my hopes and dreams. He questioned me about my values and how I would apply those to whatever I hope to do next.

At 51, it’s easy to think the course has been set.  We get so caught up in thinking about our kids’ futures that we forget to think about our own, other than squirreling away money into retirement funds.

It’s not that we don’t grapple with what we want out of life, it’s just that we’re busy being practical and making sure our kids get to ski.

teenager mom

Seeing yourself through the eyes of a twenty-year-old, who is not your kid, can be revealing, especially when they turn the tables on you and ask you to dream.

I’m looking forward to reading L.’s story, to see how our conversation resonated with him (turns out, my aerobics buddy K. is L’s journalism professor and will have a hand in editing the story.  I’m hoping, in fifty-something solidarity, she ensures I come across well. Another perk of living in a small community).

For the record, I want to tell L., his professors and his parents that I think he has a bright future ahead.

But I especially want to thank him for for reminding me never to stop asking yourself the big questions, even if the answers are not on the tip of your tongue.

There is an interesting article about “twenty-somethings” in the January 14 issue of The New Yorker called Semi-Charmed Life, that I encourage you to read, along with the Letters to the Editor in response to this article (some from fifty-somethings), which appear in the February 11&18 issue of the magazine.

Years ago, when I was in my twenties and living and working in Thailand, I met New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn in Laos (I think on a flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabong).  They were young too, living and reporting in Beijing, where the Tiananmen Square uprising had recently occurred.  They won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting from China, Kristof became an Op-Ed columnist, often focusing on the plight of disenfranchised peoples around the world, and they wrote Half the Sky:  Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

 Kristof, a native Oregonian, has written about the importance of wilderness experiences, describing the annual backpacking trip he takes with his family on the Pacific Crest trail. 

He’s just announced that he is taking a leave from his column to write another book with Sheryl WuDunn.  He says, “The theme is the benefits to ourselves when we engage in a cause larger than ourselves, and, given that, how we can engage in a way that actually works. In other words: the emerging science of how to make a difference.”

I appreciate contemporaries of mine, such as Kristof and WuDunn, who continue to ask the big questions and share what they’ve learned to benefit us all. 

Vanity: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part II

from sketchfu.com

By now you may have heard of “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” Allison Slater Tate’s manifesto that we mothers shouldn’t hide behind the camera because we are ashamed of our post-baby bodies and the ravages of aging.

“Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves — women, mamas, people living lives.

“When I look at pictures of my own mother, I don’t look at cellulite or hair debacles. I just see her — her kind eyes, her open-mouthed, joyful smile, her familiar clothes. That’s the mother I remember.” 

Juxtaposed with this, I read a piece on the Huffington Post on why feeling pretty after 50 is important.

What still confuses me, and what I want to explore in my thoughts, conversations and writing, is what aging gracefully means to me.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t dress a whole lot differently than I did at sixteen and, truth be told, I don’t look a whole lot different either.  So when I have to grapple with things like that roll of fat around the middle that just won’t go away

I’m not sure whether to fight it, accept it or make peace with it and figure out how to deal with it.

“It’s inevitable. You’re getting older,” sighed my Ob/Gyn.  “It may be the perfect storm of perimenopausal hormones and glycemic sensitivity,” said my new general practitioner, who spent a full hour talking with me and listening to my concerns. “Try shaving two or three hundred calories off your daily intake each day, change your exercise routine and give yourself six months to lose ten pounds.”

My first round of thyroid tests were normal and though I don’t yet have the results of my second round of blood work, I assume those tests will also be normal.

That’s a good thing.  Though I was anxious for a concrete answer to the changes in my body and rightfully vigilant of the impact of the steroid injections I’d received, I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with me and that I won’t have to be on medication for the rest of my life.

But because I’m not ready to throw in the towel when it comes to my tumultuous tummy, at the doctor’s suggestion, I became familiar with the glycemic index, which measures the impact on blood sugar levels in the body after eating certain foods. If you feel bloated after eating pasta and wonder whether the glycemic index could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, check out the glycemic index website put together by the University of Sydney, which among other things, maintains the international glycemic index database of a wide variety of foods.  Most experts agree that the number you want to pay attention to is the glycemic load, which combines both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in one ‘number’. According to the University of Sydney, it’s the best way to predict blood glucose values of different types and amounts of food. (This blog is not meant to be the source of medical advice. If you are curious about the glycemic index or any other aspects of your health, please consult with a doctor, preferably one who will take the time to listen to your concerns).

I’m more concerned with the life index, which I define as how quickly a meal shared with others is converted to joy,  i.e. how I can have my cake and eat it too.

I knew the day we went to eat dim sum with two Chinese exchange students that lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf with pork, would wreak havoc on my mid-section.  I could ill afford the Michelin look, because the next day I was scheduled for a photo shoot to obtain an author photo for my book Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, which is coming out soon.

We had a great time with the Chinese girls, I ate leftover lo mai gai for a mid-afternoon snack and was predictably puffy the next morning.  So I ate oatmeal for breakfast, worked out and instructed the photographer to take head shots only.

It was worth it.

Despite the warmth and easy demeanor of the photographer, I still found the photo shoot uncomfortable, especially when I looked at all the images she had taken on her digital camera and saw my many nuanced poses reflected back at me in Fifty Shades of Alison.

I hadn’t until realized until then that, unlike writing a book, promoting a book means getting into the picture instead of remaining comfortably behind the scenes, and that this is just the first of many times in the coming months that I will have to put myself out there — vanity be damned.

What saved me was a recent interview I’d had with B.J. Neblett, a fellow author who was writing a profile of me for our writers’ collective website.  The morning we met, I was unshowered and wearing an old sweatshirt of Jeff’s. B.J. didn’t care that I was scruffy. We had an enjoyable conversation, which was reflected in the flattering profile he wrote about me.

I’m not going to pretend to have given up vanity, not to be flattered when people compliment me on my youthful appearance and not to be shocked when I resemble my maternal forbears in their later years (spoiler alert – there is one poem in my new book entitled, “My Grandmother’s Thighs”). I will sporadically pay attention to the glycemic index but hopefully, as the years go by, I will scrupulously pay attention to the life index — dim sum bloating be damned.

Aging gracefully

 I had a great idea for a recipe to share with you that I thought would cleverly tie the themes in this post together.  I planned to call it “Vanity Fare.”  It comes from Dorie Greenspan‘s book Around My French Kitchen and involves slicing boneless skinless chicken breasts into strips, sauteeing them in butter and then adding a cup of creme fraiche with two LU Cinnamon Sugar cookies crumbled and mixed in.  I was going to say that when chicken breasts are sweet and creamy and comforting, nobody cares if they are pleasantly plump.

“What’s for dinner,” daughters #1 and #2 asked suspiciously (they are often suspicious when I am cooking). “Chicken with cookies!” I said, assuming they would be thrilled to have a dessert-like twist on dinner.  I was thrilled to produce such an effortless elegant meal so quickly because I had to rush off to a meeting before the meal was over. They took tentative bites and proclaimed it “too rich.”  The next day, I found some chicken wadded up in a napkin and (not very well) hidden in my office.  We had pasta that night for dinner.

 I hope when my kids look at pictures of me and I’m sporting a tummy, they’ll see the kind eyes and joyful open smile of a mother who ate carbohydrates to make them happy.

Cold Feet: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part I

I’ll start by telling you that I suffer from latrophobia, fear of going to the doctor.  Though I haven’t undergone counseling to figure out the root causes, I think this fear took hold during childhood.  Growing up in a tumultuous household, I was a bedwetter, and I found it humiliating that during my annual physical, Dr. E felt compelled to “examine” my nether regions, looking, I assume, for signs of rash. In those days you didn’t question doctors and parents didn’t ask kids about their feelings.  Even though for many years, on the eve of my check-up I would parade around the house with homemade picket signs which read:

I HATE DR. E!!!!!!!

my mother didn’t pick up on my discomfort or, if she did, didn’t think it was worth alleviating.

It was the mid-1960s, after all.

(You’ll be happy to know this is one of the issues we resolved on her deathbed.  Dr. E was apparently a celebrated pediatrician and my mother thought she was acting in my best interests).

When I became an adult, I dreaded going to the doctor for a different reason:  the weigh-in.  In some crazy, retro, pre-feminist way, I managed to transform what is supposed to be a partnership caring for and maintaining my body/machine into a self-created moral test of my character.

Even though I’m older and wiser now, I still avoid going to the doctor unless I am in desperate need of a Z-pack of antibiotics, have a sports-related injury or am having my annual Pap smear or mammogram (they don’t weigh you for those).

In other words, I don’t get an annual physical.

When I first started noticing that my body seemed different, I assumed the ravages of age and perimenopause were taking hold.

Certain friends who shall remain nameless here have gained a bit of weight around the middle, many have joked about forgetfulness (including my dear friend C., who forgot to feed my cats over Labor Day weekend.  They were hungry for more than just affection when we got home). Broken nails, my friends have seen a few.  Let’s face it, we’re not as young as we used to be.

Reference material nerd that I am, earlier this year I felt compelled to purchase Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause and keep it on my bedside table for a little light reading about hormonal changes. As I read through the section on mid-life weight control, something in Step Five:  Get Your Thyroid Checked jumped out at me.

Cold Feet

My feet are always cold, even in summer.  As I read through the rest of the possible signs of hypothyroidism, I realized most of them could apply to me. (It kind of reminded me of one of those quizzes in Cosmopolitan:  Ten signs that tell you he’s cheating.  By the time you finish taking the quiz, you are convinced that he is).

I added getting my thyroid checked to my mental medical to-do list, along with the colonoscopy I should have had last year, but of course, I didn’t do anything about scheduling either one of these important, potentially life-saving tests. (No, JDM, I have not had a shingles vaccine.  No, sister-in-law D., I have not had a flu shot either).

On vacation this summer, I awoke each morning, more bloated than the next.  It felt like more than an excess of tequila and tortilla chips, and, as I thought about it, the problem had been worsening for months.  Was I suffering from cellular inflammation or an overabundance of fat-accumulating hormones, such as insulin?   Was my thyroid the culprit?

Even dogs can suffer from hypothyroidism

There was only one way to find out.  Feeling very mature (in a good way), I called my Ob/Gyn’s office to schedule my annual Pap smear and mentioned that I also wanted my thyroid checked.  The young receptionist wanted to verify my insurance coverage and gave me the name of an insurance carrier we haven’t used for years.  “No,” I said.  My carrier is C**, the same one I had last year.  “You haven’t been here for three years,” she said coldly.

I felt like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.

I had to wait till I got home to comb through my insurance documents, call my insurance company and check all of my calendars for the past three years to prove that I had seen that doctor last year and the year before that.  When that turned out to be fruitless, I called the doctor’s office again to ask them to check my physical file.  This time the receptionist was more understanding when she informed me that there were no notes in my file after 2009.  “I know how you feel,” she said sympathetically.  “I was born the same year as you.”

I was not surprised to learn that a faulty memory is another symptom of hypothyroidism.

The plot and my waistline thicken

The weeks I had to wait for my appointment felt interminable, but I tried to make them productive.  I gave up alcohol, tried to stay away from carbohydrates and made sure to adhere to a regular exercise regime in spite of my achy joints (another symptom).

I researched doctors and made an appointment for a physical with one who looked promising (in my own latrophobic defense, apart from my Ob/Gyn, whom I have seen for seventeen years, I haven’t been able to find a doctor or a practice that impressed me with professional, high quality care).

One day while out for a run, I tried to pinpoint what had changed over the past six months to make my symptoms, especially the weight gain, worsen.  I’d started making and eating granola on a regular basis, but it seemed hard to believe a cereal mix could be so potent.  Then I remembered.  Around six months ago, after being diagnosed with a herniated cervical disc, I received two epidural steroid shots and also took oral steroids. Because I have trouble remembering things, I made a note on my iPhone to do some research.

At home, a quick search on the Internet suggested there could be a link between the steroids and my thyroid. (Searching for things on the Internet reminds me of writing high school essays: combing the available research materials for snippets of information to support my thesis).

Next week I will see my Ob/Gyn and hopefully be that much closer to figuring out what, if anything, is wrong with me.  Who knows, my symptoms might just be the normal by-products of aging, which require a change in my behavior, nothing more.

But at 51,  I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.  Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay on top of your health, if for no other reason than to have a baseline to work with if something is really wrong.  Perimenopause and menopause can cause some surprising symptoms (remember pregnancy nosebleeds?).  It’s worth talking to a doctor about them, instead of suffering in silence.

Check back with me in a few months to see if I’ve scheduled that colonoscopy.

This week, four diplomats were killed in Libya and my nephew was deployed to Afghanistan. As a proud former member of the Foreign Service, who served in the Near East and South Asia bureaus, my heart is with those who dedicate their lives to promoting international understanding.

In their wonderful new book Jerusalem, chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jew and a Muslim who grew up in the western and eastern part of that city, talk about food’s ability to break through religious and cultural boundaries.

Twice this week I made Ottolenghi’s recipe for Figs with basil, goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette from his book Plenty.

Historically, figs have been revered as a symbol of peace.  I can’t think of a better thing to eat. And they’re good for you too.

Shall I Compare Me to a Summer’s Fig?

If I were a real food blogger, I’d be writing about late summer Italian plums, figs and tomatoes, the last blackberry cobbler of the season, about eggplants and the fact that by late August my apple tree was already brimming with fruit as red as a seductress’ lips.

I’d be telling you that for the first summer in thirteen years, I made no jam from berries I had picked myself, but luckily was able to use Susan Herrmann Loomis’ recipe for apricot jam from her lovely book On Rue Tatin (a nice read when you are suffering from the doldrums) with the remnants of the ten-pound box of apricots I bought in Eastern Washington on the way home from a camping trip in Idaho.

I had big plans for these apricots, but a certain teenager ate most of them on the road from Quincy to Seattle.

I might mention all the terrific Mexican food we ate at the Columbia River Gorge and the fact that I got to eat at three restaurants I’d always wanted to try:  the fantastic Pok Pok in Portland, Aziza, the San Francisco restaurant owned by Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad’s New Moroccan, one of my favorite new cookbooks this year, and the iconic Zuni Cafe, where the famed roast chicken did not disappoint. Two weeks in a row, after dining at Aziza, I made Mourad’s piquillo almond spread, a real crowd-pleaser.

I might sneak in a mention of some of the books I finally got around to reading on vacation (The Night Circus, The Tiger’s Wife and, at the behest of Daughter #1, The Hunger Games trilogy).

I could tell you that it is bittersweet to realize that with the passage of years comes the realization that I will never have enough time in a season to make all of the favorite dishes we have compiled,

especially since I can’t resist adding new favorites, such as the Garum Factory’s Avocado Salad with Pikliz.

Finally, I might point out that if you have an abundance of Italian plums or figs, you could do worse than to turn to Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking from my home to yours  for inspiration (check out her Fig Cake for Fall and Flip-Over Plum Cake) and that if you are having a big gathering of friends on Lummi Island for Labor Day, people will be impressed if you whip up a big paella (even if you think you could have done a better job seasoning it).

But I’m just a broken down hybrid mid-life blogger taking advantage of a few free minutes on this, my 51st birthday, to muse about the differences between turning 50 and 51, opportunities found and lost this summer, our family’s newfound preoccupation with hair and the fact that as I progress further and further into that undefined hormonal state known as perimenopause (and perhaps because of all my fine summer dining), I am beginning to resemble a fig and am longing for the vitality I had when I turned 50.

Today was the first day of school, so if ever there was a birthday that was not all about me, this was it.  You should see our downstairs bathroom.  It’s a mess of hair straighteners, hair product, curling irons, nail polish remover and metallic blue nail polish, some of which has spilled onto the top of the toilet bowl, where it will probably remain for eternity.

I wanted this, my friends remind me.  I wanted Daughter #1 to feel comfortable with her femininity and to embrace her beauty instead of hiding it. I love the new nightly ritual of Daughter #2, our resident fashionista, patiently straightening her sister’s hair, of watching the two of them in the bathroom at 6:30 a.m., determining how much mascara is too much, of seeing how much fun they both have with clothes.

I also want to be able to leave the house without having to factor in 45 minutes of primping every time.

Instead of a day of self-indulgence and an unbroken train of thought, my birthday (it is now the next day) ended up being about making time for other people:  a 6:30 a.m. call from my nephew, who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan and a call that interrupted my much-anticipated chance to exercise from my brother, who told me about the Bruce Springsteen concert he had just attended (he was seated next to Chris Christie).

You can take the girl out of Jersey but…

There was the farewell conversation with our elderly neighbor, who has been a part of our lives for seventeen years and is leaving her home for a retirement community, and there was teen roulette.

As anyone who has more than one child knows, a good day is one in which all of your kids are content. More often than not, if one has a good day, the other doesn’t but, like a game of roulette, no matter how you bet, there is no proven strategy for beating the odds.

I held my breath to see how the first day of school would turn out.  I didn’t have to hold it for very long, because Daughter #1 started school at 11:30 and Daughter #2 finished at 1:00.  We went out for a Starbucks refresher, which is as magical to my daughters as my breast milk used to be, and Daughter #2′s impressions of her first day of middle school at a new school came spilling out.  When we went to pick up Daughter #1 at her friend’s house, I quickly scanned her face for signs of how the day had gone.  Then off to the swimming pool for her swim team tryout, which had been a disaster the day before, and this time was a smashing success.

It was only as we sat down for sushi and Daughter #1, now a seasoned veteran of middle school, regaled us with funny stories,

that I let the psychic energy of the day dissipate and I relaxed and remembered it was my birthday.

We came home to presents, lemon tart and dog poop on the stairs.  And then, as the hair straightener came out and my daughters took up their respective positions of straightener and straightenee, we listened to Michelle Obama’s speech about hard work and personal responsibility and contributing to the well being of society.

We’re gearing up for a new school year, a new array of seasonal foods to inspire us, a new   soccer season and new books to read (including my birthday bounty:  Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, one of my favorite cookbooks this year).

All in all, it was a pretty good summer, a pretty good first day of school and a pretty good birthday.

All’s well that ends well.

Someone to Watch Over Me

The two biggest things that happened last week were the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Obama health care plan and the passing of Nora Ephron.  So much has been written about both, that I don’t feel I have anything to add to the eloquence already expressed by so many others, though health care and loss are ever-present mid-life concerns.

Amidst the hubbub and emotions of a difficult weekend and week beginning, in which our family had a monumental decision to make, I received a quiet email from F, the father of my childhood friend C.  Entitled “C needs your help,” he told me that C’s mother R, who has been battling cancer for years, had been brought home from the hospital for the last time and was beginning hospice care.

C and I grew up together in a smallish town, where everyone knew everyone else and we all knew each other’s parents pretty well.

C and my mother had a special bond.  C had weathered an unusual number of blows for a teenager — the death of her high school boyfriend from cancer and a chronic and elusive auto-immune disorder that confounded doctors and would strike without warning.  After I left to spend my senior year of high school in France, as C dealt with the havoc the disease and its medication were wreaking on her body, my mother would take her to explore the growing number of ethnic restaurants in the area. When I traveled to Florida to bring my cancer-riddled mother home with me to Seattle, C came down from New Jersey to say a last goodbye.

My relationship with C’s mother and father was less intimate, but no less constant.  Snippets of memories have surfaced. I remember the Kiss posters in C’s bedroom, as we plotted how to sneak past her mother to go to the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I still remember the exact placement of the table and chairs in C’s kitchen, where I would sit and tell her mother stories about France, while she played with her little dog, Muffy. I marveled at the ease with which C’s mother slipped into Italian whenever we visited her immigrant parents, and mostly I remember her faith.  As C’s eyesight waxed and waned because of her disease, her mother would light candles and pray to Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the blind.

Though I didn’t see them again after I reached my mid-twenties, C’s parents remained my cheerleaders from afar. They always asked about me, my mother said, adding that they were always proud of what I was doing.

When my mother was dying, C’s father, who by that time had been dealing with his own wife’s cancer for a few years, sent me encouraging words of wisdom.  I hope I’ve adequately expressed to him how much his support meant to me.

When you lose your mother, you lose the one person who keeps her eye on you, no matter how old you get, no matter how independent you seem. My mother never fully recovered from the loss of her mother and, as she lay dying, it was her mother she called out to.

I was missing my mother last weekend, as our family grappled with our decision, knowing that she alone would understand what I was wrestling with.  “What do you think she would have said to you,” asked a friend, when I told her that my mother and I had once had to make a similar decision.  I thought about it.  “She would have laughed and said, ‘Now do you understand how hard it was for me?’”

My daughters are blessed with an inner circle of mothers.  We celebrate their achievements and we provide counsel and support, when needed. My mother used to joke about being “Mother in the Dark,” that she was often the last to know what was going on with me.  But when you have a circle of mothers, there’s always someone to watch over you.

For Mother’s Day this year, my daughters and their friends filmed a tribute to all of us moms, which included an awards ceremony.  Among the mom honors they bestowed were: best dresser-upper, best with no make-up and all that jazz, best advice, best garden, best redhead, best cowgirl and best chef (yes, that was me, but when asked what their favorite dish of mine was, my kids were hard-pressed to come up with their answer:  pancakes.).

Just as I do with my own daughters, I like to imagine what these girls will be when they grow up.  I know I will always be their cheerleader, even from afar.

Shortly before my mother died, I received a call from one of my brother’s childhood friends, whom I hadn’t seen for more than forty years.  Until he moved away, his family lived in a house behind ours and he and my brother bounced back and forth between houses every day, backdoors slamming with every arrival and departure.

“I was at your house when we got the news that President Kennedy was assassinated,” he told me.  “Your mother brought us together to watch the news and explained what was happening.” For him, my mother was an inextricable part of history.

As we enter our fifties, more and more of my contemporaries are losing their mothers. Though I often get the news via Facebook and sometimes I did not know these women well, I still remember them:  the mother with the gentle eyes, the one who showed how beautiful a woman can look when she’s prematurely gray, the one who drank endless cups of coffee with my mother.

Thank you, R, for being an inextricable part of my history and for being a member of my inner circle of mothers.

With much love to R, C, F and your family.

Depending on your vintage, Nora Ephron was like a friend, sister or mother/mentor and the way in which she shared the experiences of being a woman was beneficial to so many.  Here’s Lena Dunham’s take on Nora from the New Yorker:

And They Called It Puppy Love

Move over, soccer moms.  There’s a new stereotype in town:  middle-aged mothers of middle-grade kids in love with middling (okay,small) dogs.

And I am soon to be one of them.

How to explain the yearning?

What parent hasn’t listened to years of entreaties from kids begging for a dog?  In our case, the begging came mostly from Daughter #2.  When we describe the difference in our daughters’ personalities, we sum it up this way:  Daughter #1 is like a literary cat, who loves solitude and curling up with a good book.  Daughter #2 is like a dog, craving activity,  people and balls.

It was difficult to harden our hearts to Daughter #2′s dog dreams because we knew how good a dog would be for her and, by extension, for the rest of us.  And when your child is naturally inclined towards something, it’s hard to resist.  I say this as the mother who rushed out to buy a discounted piano the night before we hosted a party for 100 people in our cramped 1912 house because our neighborhood piano store was going out of business and because Daughter #2 showed musical promise.

I sobbed as we re-arranged the furniture, so moved at having had the power to grant her wish.  Have I mentioned that now, four years later, Daughter #2 would like to quit piano lessons?

We managed to push aside the dog requests by making sure Daughter #2 had plenty of access to other dogs: her friend R’s dog, dogs in our neighborhood and in her dogless friend B’s neighborhood.  We were never so rash as B’s father RC to make promises such as, “if you clean up 40 dog poops, we’ll consider getting a dog.” Daughter #2 and B have steel wills and have probably picked up 400 poops between them.  RC is on the spot.

Around two years ago, I found myself wavering.  If Daughter #2 wanted a dog so much, I reasoned, why not give her one?  We’re already experiencing family life at full throttle, so what’s one more thing?

This had been my rationale for breaking my anti-rodent injunction when Daughter #1 graduated from elementary school.  A rat, or any rodent with a long nasty tail, was out, but I could live with a hamster.  And live with a hamster I do.  A very sweet hamster named Zen, whom I found on Craig’s list and whom we drove from Seattle to Whidbey Island to get, after several email exchanges and photo sharing with the owner of her birth parents.

It was a bit over the top, but at least I didn’t cry.

Around six months ago, after a particularly heartfelt request from D #2 for a dog for her elementary school graduation, Jeff confessed to me that he was softening (for the record, his opposition to a dog had been our limited yard space. If we moved to a bigger house in the country, he was all for a dog).  A few months after that, I injured my neck and began taking long walks every day, passing a host of neighbors and their dogs strolling companionably together.

“If you get a dog, no matter how much your kids promise to help, the dog will end up being your responsibility,” everyone warned me.

I had a lot of time to think during those walks.  I imagined what it would be like to be responsible for a dog and began listing the qualities my ideal dog would have:  no shedding, easy-going and good with cats,

Courtesy of the May 7, 2012 New Yorker

small with small poops.  A far cry from the Lab or Golden Retriever Daughter #2 had dreamed of.

Luckily, her friend G had just gotten a Shih Tzu puppy.  I tested the waters,  Given the choice between a small dog or no dog, which would D #2 choose?

We considered all sorts of breeds before I settled on Havanese, a breed that is growing in popularity.

Venus Williams and Harold

I hunted down reputable breeders looking for puppies and we suffered one disappointment when a possible puppy was sold the day before we were scheduled to visit her.

Meanwhile, I trolled petfinders and rescue sites and Jeff, wary of a small, designer dog, suggested we visit shelters.  We found several sad dogs and a few big, beautiful dogs, but none that was right for us.

In the end, I found a lovely breeder named S and things worked out similarly to the way they did when we got Zen, though we didn’t have to drive as far. S invited us to visit her expectant dog and sire, and shared emails and photos when the puppies were born.  Shortly thereafter, just after dropping Jeff off at the airport for a business trip to Taiwan, the girls and I went to S’s house to choose our puppy.

This weekend, Jeff will meet him for the first time. He says he’s slowly getting used to the idea of a little dog, though draws the line at walking the dog if he (the dog) is wearing any article of clothing.

Even if we dress him like Shaft?

The girls have nixed all the great Cuban names we came up with and are hoping that once he meets him, Jeff will agree that the compromise name the three of us came up with is a perfect fit.

While we were en route to meet our puppy, we listened to a rebroadcast of This American Life’s episode In Dog We Trust. In Act 1, The Youth In Asia (which you can also find in his book Me Talk Pretty Someday), David Sedaris reminisces about his family pets.  The death of one of them, he says, felt like the end of an era.

For me, this puppy feels like both the end and the beginning of an era.  I have wondered, with the women I know who love these little dogs, whether they are replacements for our children, who are beginning to stick a few toes out of the nest.

My recent experience with a chronic ailment was a sobering reminder that I won’t always be able to push my body the way I want to.

Courtesy of the New Yorker, May 7, 2012

The dog walkers in my neighborhood all seem to be in pretty good shape, though.

Though I have a few years left as a soccer mom, I can tell I will be entering a new subculture.  My puppy and I already have some summer play dates lined up and I’ve gotten tips on where to find the best groomers in town.

When I think back to those sweet early days, when my kids were babies and toddlers, I didn’t always fully appreciate being in the moment.

I plan to enjoy every (or almost every) moment of our remaining time as a family of four with two cats, one hamster, eight fish (last time I checked) and one dog.