A Series of Unfortunate Events

It just goes to show you, it's always something.

It just goes to show you, it’s always something.

I remember the exact moment our luck changed. We were sitting in a Michigan airport getting ready to return home to Seattle when I learned that Paseo, the Cuban sandwich place located across the street from the beach near our house, was closing. Paseo signified everything that was right about Ballard, the neighborhood we’ve lived in for 20 years. I’ve written and ranted about the changes underway in Ballard and, more recently, about the changes brewing in our lives. When you have things that anchor you, like a pink shack with garlicky aioli-slathered pork sandwiches or a trustworthy drug store to buy lice supplies, school supplies, shampoo, chocolate and even wine (sadly, now knocked down to make way for a “mixed use” retail/condo behemoth), you can feel enveloped in a bubble of invulnerability. The destruction of those icons made my invulnerability bubble-wrap begin to pop, bubble by bubble.

The minor fender bender that occurred on the way to school/work left me grateful it was no big deal, but still a little shaky because I don’t, as a rule of thumb, have car accidents. Ditto the news that I had suffered a stress fracture in my foot, because I have never broken a bone.

So much for early morning boot camp.

So much for early morning boot camp.

But I rolled with everything, stylishly rocking the one shoe/one boot look for over a month and adapting each time a curve ball came my way. When Zayn Malik left One Direction,  I dealt with it better than some.

On a business trip to Chicago, I learned to tolerate lap swimming, thanks to the hotel’s 1929-era pool. Once home, I reveled in the fact that, instead of rising at 5:30 for boot camp, I could sleep in till 6:15 and hit my local (less fancy) pool at the end of the morning rush.

pool I made Yotam Ottolenghi’s carrot, apple and pecan muffins and I waited for a sign that this run of bad luck was coming to an end. muffinsThe first hopeful sign came in the form of  a package from my Chicago hotel. As proof that my stars were definitely out of alignment, I had discovered on my flight home that I’d left a drawer full of clean underwear and workout stuff in my hotel room. I do not, as a rule of thumb, usually leave anything behind when I travel (except for a black sweater coat left in a Grenada taxi. I blame my daughters for that). This was a fixable problem, and I jumped into action to get my items returned to me, convinced that when the package arrived, our luck would change. underwear Then, a setback. Daughter #1’s iPhone was stolen at a concert, to her perhaps the worst of all the mishaps that had befallen us. Heretofore, concerts were the ultimate bonding experience. Her faith in humanity was shaken. Worse, she couldn’t listen to music. headphones But a week later, we got great, life-changing news and we started celebrating. But then, unexpected, unwelcome life-changing (though to a far lesser extent) news came calling. So much for my attempts at pattern recognition. The latest news is that I’ve been advised to have my gallbladder removed because of a small growth that had been detected during the series of tests that followed my colonoscopy.

Among the random things I remember learning in school, such as that Taiwan used to be called Formosa and that guano is bat dung, I have a strong memory of learning about the four cardinal humors. The ancient Greeks believed that temperament was derived from the presence of bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An imbalance of any of these could influence a person’s personality and their health. temperaments Blood was associated with a sanguine personality. Phlegm could make a person apathetic or phlegmatic. Black bile was associated with melancholy and yellow bile was associated with anger, aggression and gall. If you’re like me up until a few days ago, you probably don’t even know what the gallbladder does. Like the spleen, the gallbladder is one of those under-the-radar organs that rarely gets mentioned. Its main function is to store bile, a substance that helps the body absorb fat.

The words gall and bile don’t carry positive connotations, as they are associated with boldness (in a pushy, nervy sort of way) and bitterness. Personally, I prefer the Chinese interpretation of the gallbladder and its functions. The Chinese associate the gall bladder with courage, bravery and heroism. According to one ancient Chinese theory of medicine, not only does the gallbladder play a role in digestion, but also in decision-making.

Beyond my fears of the surgery itself, I worried. Would removing my gallbladder upset my four cardinal humors? Would it make it difficult for me to digest fat and other foods? gall bladder meme I’ve learned that cholecystectomy, or removal of the gall bladder, is the most common surgery. And, in a twist on the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, in which something you just learned about seems to suddenly crop up everywhere, in the past few days, it seems that everyone I talk to is either missing a gallbladder or knows someone who is. Chances are, if you are a woman reading this, and a mid-life woman to boot, you don’t have a gallbladder either.

Or, as Jeff’s cousin Deb, a research scientist whom I greatly admire and who cuts right to the chase said, “Some of my favorite people have no gall bladders.”

no gall bladder club

Apparently, penguins have enormous gall bladders, but lots of animals don’t have them at all.

The night after I got my gallbladder news, I went out for dinner with friends, one of whom, I learned, is gallbladder-free. It didn’t seem to stop her from enjoying a divine meal of Muscadet, oysters, crispy sardines, cucumber salad and asparagus. I noticed she didn’t touch the pate, but that apparently had nothing to do with her lack of a gallbladder. Good sign.

Daughter #2, whose heart is in the right place, has decided we need to have a fatty foods party before my surgery. I suggested we should make an emergency trip to Paris for a cheese tasting. She’s in.

Last night,  I wanted to cook, something I haven’t done much of lately, but which always returns my four cardinal humors to their correct balance.

Jan Brady meme I ignored my usual impulse to cook something Mediterranean and decided to make khao soi, a rich, Northern Thai curry that reminded me of my early days with Jeff (we met in Asia). Our cooking and eating lives together began with Asian food, before we migrated to Mexican flavors and later, I veered off into Mediterranean, Turkish and Spanish territory.

Jeff’s been with me through thick and thin. He’s famous for giving the kind of unromantic presents that endure (though his sister was furious when he gave me a toothbrush holder. Turns out, I needed one). It’s true, I appreciate my Soda Stream fizzy water maker more than the iPad that I wanted for Christmas that year. And I love my mortar and pestle.

I hadn’t gone on a treasure hunt for ingredients for a long time and that was fun. And it felt cathartic to grind the spices, shrimp paste, chiles, shallots and garlic to make the paste for the khao soi. pestle Shit happens and the writer in me realizes it’s all in the interpretation. This one six-month series of unfortunate events is just that, and is far eclipsed by the many six-month great runs we’ve had together. However, I did find it galling that at a particularly low point, Facebook chose to show me a picture of what we were during last year around this time — making merry in Seville. Maybe next year, when I have no gallbladder, that kind of thing won’t bother me.

Jeff is a physicist at heart and he might scoff at my attempts to find meaning through pattern recognition or chaos theory. But, I bet that if I asked him, Stephen Hawking might give me hope that when Paseo, or something like it, returns to Ballard (I’ve seen hopeful signs at the pink shack), I’ll be able to eat rich pork sandwiches slathered in garlic aioli with no problem.

Stephen Hawking gives reassuring news

I used the khao soi recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook. Pok Pok is the wonderful Thai restaurant in Portland, Oregon (and now, I think also New York) that is an essential stop if you visit that city (make sure to order the chicken wings). The cookbook is a commitment, with several recipes advising you to begin preparation weeks in advance. I chose khao soi because it was relatively quick, but we still didn’t eat till 9 p.m., which taxed everyone’s gall bladders. Here’s a somewhat simpler recipe to try. 

What would Bertrand Russell say?

Snow geese in the Skagit Valley

Snow geese in the Skagit Valley

April already? Before I go any further, I want you to know that I have fulfilled all but one of my New Year’s resolutions. I started and maintained a diet. I had a mammogram. I had a colonoscopy for Pete’s sake and, as icing on the cake, a CT scan and ultrasound to boot. And, I wrote my last installment of this blog on January 31, which is pretty much February, so technically two months, not three, have elapsed. But there’s no escaping the fact that I didn’t fulfill the resolution to write this blog once a month.

I didn’t think anyone but me had noticed, but then my friend Peggy said something. Peggy is one of those super-involved, super-organized people, who does a million things, including writing a weekly column for our neighborhood newspaper. Peggy is from New England. She’s one of those pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, no whining kind of people. Recently, Peggy successfully lobbied the producers of the David Letterman show to allow her 80 year-old mother a spot in the studio audience before Dave rides off into the sunset. Peggy started a new organization to combat the out-of-control development in our neighborhood. Peggy gets shit done. I have disappointed Peggy and for that I am truly sorry.

Seen on a dry, 60 degree Seattle day. Was Boston selling off its surplus signs?

Seen on a dry, 60 degree Seattle day. Was Boston selling off its surplus signs?

In my defense, we have been living through what I think of as the winter of our discontent. This is not weather-related for, here in the Seattle area where we like to ski, this winter the big complaint was not enough snow, unlike the concerns of our friends back East.

Our discontent has been lifestyle-related — a knock-you-for-a-loop potential change that sent us scurrying to California contemplating a move.

In February, the principal of Daughter #2’s middle school, about to embark on a sabbatical, sent this quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell out to families: “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Do a little sleuthing and you’ll discover that Bertrand Russell had a lot of provocative things to say. I suspect  (and have since confirmed) that Daughter #1 would appreciate this quote: “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” As the mother of two teenagers, I feel compelled to beg to differ. (And I highly recommend you read this evocative description of the sea change that happens when you raise teens.)

Tumblr

But the quote about not taking things for granted, well, we lived and breathed that quote. Jeff had a job offer in California. Our family pendulum swung from “there’s no way we’re moving” to “maybe we could have a better house and better weather (we hadn’t considered California’s drought) and escape all the Seattle construction and traffic.” The next thing you know, we were on a plane to check things out. It was, I might add, the day after my colonoscopy. I’d kept myself busy during the fasting and prep periods by researching real estate and schools. Jeff was incredulous that I would choose to have a colonoscopy during such a stressful time, but that’s how I roll. Not a lot of people would say this, but I can honestly say that the colonoscopy was the high point of my week.

During the White Food Diet I was required to follow prior to the fast and cleanse, I indulged in two items of note: French toast made with King’s Hawaiian Sweetbread — a family favorite introduced to us years ago by my mother after many sojourns visiting my brother and family at their Maui home — and labneh, basically strained Greek yoghurt which is great as a spread for pita bread, especially if you garnish it with za’atar and sumac. This after a few weeks of very controlled, mostly vegetarian, mostly Ottolenghi eating, which was my way of controlling my life, which seemed to be spiraling out of control.  “Mom is starving us,” my daughters complained to their father, who was out of town. “She only makes spicy rabbit food.”

The post-colonoscopy meal washed down with a sense of humor.

The post-colonoscopy meal washed down with a sense of humor.

And then, just like that it was over. The White Food Diet, the fast, the colonoscopy, the California possibility and winter. We came home, back to our lives, a few new condominiums that had sprung up across the street from us seemingly overnight, and to spring.

spring

Though I appreciate it more now that I’m older, spring has always been my least favorite season. It confuses me and makes me nervous. Unlike summer, which has a devil-may- care feel to it, accompanied by margaritas and guacamole, spring has expectations that I don’t feel I can meet. It always takes me a while to find my footing in spring and this one has had many false starts.

That’s where the Corpse Reviver #2s come in.

corpse reviver

 

Jeff and I were introduced to them a little over a week ago, courtesy of our classy friends G and C, and they have given shape to spring. Last weekend, I whipped up some Corpse Revivers and I cooked, reveling in lemons and herbs and asparagus and fava beans and all of the lighter, sharper flavors that, like spring and the sunshine that comes with it, bring life into focus.

The snow is beginning to clear in the East, in our minds, in our lives.

Bertrand Russell spoke of his personal vision — to allow moments of insight to provide wisdom during mundane times. Spring is a little like that, providing a sneak peak of clarity just when you need it most.

Anacortes

Plenty More

kitchen wall

For years Jeff and I remarked, not unhappily, that we were in a rut. We had the work/kid/life thing figured out, with occasional grumbling from me about being bored and occasional grumbling from Jeff about his long commute. Life had a humdrum predictable pattern, though we were lucky to take a few spectacular trips along the way, whose effects lingered for several months afterwards. On the walls of our kitchen hang photographs, often askew, of food scenes from Turkey. One of these days the Spain photos will make it up there too.

I remembered Jeff’s sister, some years ago, calling their dad and stepmother one evening in Michigan. No one answered the phone. My sister-in-law was shocked. “Where could they be?” she worried. “They are always home.”

Jeff and I were becoming similarly predictable.

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project

I didn’t realize at the time that the acquisition of our dog 2 1/2 years ago signaled the beginning of the end of the rut, or that the transformation of our lives would pick up speed like a snowball heading downhill.

In early October, the girls and I accompanied Jeff to the Adams River in the interior of British Columbia to witness the “Salute to the Sockeye,” the festival that celebrates the salmon run that is dominant there every four years. We’d been there four years earlier and had seen an impressive array of red, misshapen spawning salmon, along with the carcasses of salmon once their procreation was complete.

Adams 2010

To be honest, we female members of the family didn’t want to make the trip. I was about to start a new job and was concerned about not having a break between my old job, the contract project I was currently working on and my new gig, which would start the day after we returned from fish gazing.  The girls had a “been there, done that” attitude about this salmon phenomenon, something most people in the world never get to see and which is near and dear to their father’s, (a former salmon fisherman) heart.

But Jeff put the importance of this foray into compelling perspective. “This is the last time we’ll all be together to make this trip,” he reminded me. “Four years from now, Daughter #1 will be away at college.”

Can it be possible I’ve been writing this blog for four years? I mentioned our 2010 Adams River trip in a post I wrote about my fleeting obsession with fish oil and the constant role salmon has played in my married life.

Naturally we compared our 2010 trip with what we experienced in 2014. I packed many of the same clothes, (though their fit was admittedly more snug) and we visited all the same haunts. Though, coincidentally, we made both trips the same weekend in early October, in 2010 the river was swollen and red with fish. This year, it was too early in the season. We could tell that the fish were on their way, but had to content ourselves with viewing the leaders of the pack.

Adams 2014

In 2010, D #1 had just started middle school and our evenings were dominated by math homework.

teenager posts math

We’d mentioned to her math teacher that we were making the Adams River trip. “I grew up around there,” he told us nostalgically. “My grandfather had land overlooking the river.” It didn’t stop him from piling on the homework.

This year, things were different, yet the same. This time it was Daughter #2 who was plagued by homework, working each evening to interpret the themes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. 

On the second day of the trip we hiked up a steep path to enjoy a view of a broad expanse of the river. There were people at the top of the hill and I was somewhat surprised that when Jeff and I reached them, they greeted us in more than just a cursory fashion. There was D #1’s 6th grade math teacher and his girlfriend, her 8th grade math teacher. I chuckled to myself as we made small talk, wondering what D#1’s reaction would be when she reached the top of the hill and saw them.

“I’ve been wanting to make this trip ever since you told me about it four years ago,” said the 6th grade teacher. He gestured toward the land we were headed towards, overlooking the river. “That was my grandfather’s land.”

I couldn’t resist pointing out that our 2010 experience had been marred by the sheer volume and difficulty of the weekend math homework he’d assigned, but he didn’t take the bait. And I’m happy to report that D#1, who has grown up a lot in these past four years, was practically poised when she encountered these two banes of her middle school experience.

We returned home, I started my new job and the dishwasher broke, just as the refrigerator had broken when I’d started my previous job the year before.

How do appliances know the most inconvenient times to break?

How do appliances know the most inconvenient times to break?

We dealt with it, a little more collaboratively than we had handled the refrigerator fiasco, I’m happy to report.

Some days I managed to work all day and easily get dinner on the table, including this surprisingly easy, satisfying healthy one bowl meal. Other days were catch-as-catch can. I brought out the Crockpot and the pressure cooker and bought a new fancy rice cooker that is the same size as our dog.

rice cooker

 

 

Harbinger of change.

The construction in our neighborhood continued, double-time. Three houses that were there when I left for work one morning were gone by the time I returned home in the evening.

One bittersweet weekend, my next-door neighbor Steve and I looked at the muddy pit, where our neighbor Bill’s house and the neighborhood tree house used to be. Tim down the street, just a few years older than us, had died, Steve told me. A few days ago, the large birch tree on Steve’s property was taken down, in preparation for Steve’s departure and eventual construction of a new, ugly, expensive multi-unit building. My neighborhood is changing and for now, we will be one single-family house surrounded by condos.

Bill's house

My friend Peggy wrote a beautiful elegy for our changing neighborhood and my street. Paseo, our favorite neighborhood Cuban sandwich shop abruptly closed down and it dominated the media and conversation for days. “Let the healing begin,” says the Seattle Times, which has just published this recipe, so Paseo devotees can try and recreate the magic at home.

One particularly fraught day, when work ran long and dinner didn’t get made, the mail didn’t arrive until 9:30 at night (postal service cuts). And there was the copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty More, which I had pre-ordered months before. Though I don’t have nearly as much time to revel in cooking as I have for the past 15 years, I took that book to bed with me and read it cover to cover. Yotam Ottolenghi talks about the way his cooking style and philosophy have changed in the years since he published Plenty.

The possibilities are endless.

The possibilities are endless.

We’re in the midst of some more changes now, which are causing a shake-up in our perspective and the fear and excitement that come with uncertainty. Jeff and I are gaining a greater appreciation for the lives we’ve lived individually, within this life we’ve built together. We are no longer in a rut, or at least not the same rut.

I’m revisiting my philosophy about change. For years, I could rely on the Foreign Service to create change for me, every two or so years, with a new assignment, a new country to live in, a new job, a new house, new friends. Jeff, who grew up as a vagabond and was a vagabond when I met him, sometimes marvels that we’ve lived in the same house for nearly 20 years and held the same jobs for nearly 15.

“You can never step in the same river twice,” wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who believed that change is central to the universe. I used that line once, in a speech  I wrote for then-Vice President Al Gore, who was traveling to the Nile River. I was young then and I’m not sure I fully understood its meaning, but I thought it added a certain panache to the speech.

Rivers are always flowing. People and circumstances are always changing.

Four years from now, even if I can still fit into the same clothes and one or both of our daughters is still overburdened with homework, the Adams River won’t be the same river and the four of us will have changed too.

Tonight, at least, the possibilities are endless. Will I try out the Paseo recipe? Or will I make Yotam Ottolenghi’s Iranian Vegetable Stew with Dried Lime? Eggplant Kuku and Crushed Puy Lentils with Tahini and Cumin are calling my name.

Even if I don’t get to them soon, it’s nice to know that whatever’s going on in life, there’s plenty more to look forward to.

 

 

 

Pan Bagnat

Pan Bagnat

Recently, I took one of those BuzzFeed-type quizzes to find out what type of sandwich I am.

I usually work from home, so most days it’s just me, my dog and two cats. I spend a lot of time at the Facebook water cooler. Those quizzes can be hard to resist.

Despite the fact that my friend Sam has warned me that the quizzes put my data out there for Facebook and God knows who else to mine, I feel more self-aware now that I know which city I am supposed to live in (LA), what stereotype I was in high school (the renegade— totally not true. I just had lunch with a guy I went to high school with and discovered that even the nerds were wilder than I was) and what my hippie name would be (Flower).

When the results of my sandwich quiz came in, I was pleased with the outcome.

I am a Pan Bagnat, that Nicoise specialty, which is basically a Salade Nicoise between two slices of really good bread. You wrap it and weigh it down with something heavy for several hours so that olive oil and juices from the sandwich ingredients soak into the bread. It’s heavenly.

The first time I made a Pan Bagnat was during those early years of motherhood, when I would console myself over the lack of travel and lack of a job by making global concoctions. Early one morning I assembled the Pan Bagnat and set in the fridge to saturate until lunch time.

Daughter #1 was at kindergarten. Daughter #2 was having an afternoon playdate. Once her friend came over, I planned to leave the girls to their Polly Pockets and pretend I was in the South of France.

French Barbie

By the time my kids were 4, most of us parents were comfortable with the whole playdate thing, so we dispensed with the ritual of hanging around to make sure our kids were settled and high-tailed it away to enjoy a few kid-free hours. I was banking on D #2’s friend’s mother doing this and was anticipating enjoying my Pan Bagnat in peace before kid snack time.

She came, dropped off her daughter and … stayed.

I made the kind of small talk that is so boring you can’t wait to get away.

I encouraged her to go enjoy herself.

I told her the girls would be fine.

When it became clear that she was in no rush to leave, I grappled with what to do, especially since this was a woman I barely knew. Offering her half of my Pan Bagnat seemed like it would require an explanation. What was this messy sandwich? Why was it so special? Why was I planning to eat it furtively?

lucy-ricardo

I offered her a drink and silently willed her to leave. I not-so-jokingly reminded her the two-hour playdate would soon be over.

Eventually, she got the hint or maybe she just got bored.

You can guess that I was no more than two bites into my Pan Bagnat when the girls came into the kitchen to tell me they were bored and hungry. Not long after that, the other girl’s mother returned, followed by D#1. Yes, I got to eat my sandwich, but I didn’t get to savor it.

Pan Bagnat has held a mystique for me ever since.

After I received my quiz results, I decided it had been far too long since I’d made a Pan Bagnat. My kids are older and gone for most of the day, so there was nothing to stand in my way. I made the Pan Bagnat and I savored it, while reading this great essay in the New York Times.

lunch and paper

A week or so later I made it again, taking the bold step of serving it for dinner on a hot summer night. To my shock, everyone enjoyed it (shhh, don’t tell them they ate anchovies).

So much of family life and life with other people involves delayed gratification.

Picture the recent summer afternoon when I, who rarely sit still, settled on the hammock with Sandra Tsing Loh’s, The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.

hammock

Enter my handsome husband, who announced that in ten minutes we were converging in the sweltering attic for a family cleaning session.

Homer-Simpson-wingnuts-doh

Today is my birthday.

“I hope you are doing something self-indulgent,” a co-worker said.

Self-indulgent?

Today was my turn to drive the morning carpool and then I had to give a presentation to the Parent Association at our school. Tonight is the 8th grade potluck. We are assigned dessert, so I am baking this terrific flip-over plum cake, which I told you about almost exactly two years ago.

I sat outside in the sunshine, flanked by my sun-loving pets and I sliced Italian plums that I had been given from a friend’s tree.

plums

And while I baked the cake, I wrote this blog.

I make my living as a writer and am lucky that I get to interview people, study issues in depth and share what I’ve learned with the world. This summer was a particularly busy and stressful one for me, fraught with deadlines and not a lot of down time. I’m proud of what I’ve written, particularly this story about kids and gender identify, but in the rush of reporting, this blog, which is a form of self-expression, has suffered. So has my cooking.

So I am happy to report that my birthday was self-indulgent, in the best possible way.

Thanks for sharing it with me.

And if I hurry, I can get in a run or a bike ride before the kids come home from school.

Here’s the recipe I use for Pan Bagnat, courtesy of French food maven, Patricia Wells.

Bon appétit. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tinto de Verano

restaurant I suppose it was inevitable that the vacation glow would wear off, but I was surprised by how quickly it happened. The first day back from our trip, the first sunny day of a week that would reach vacation-like temperatures in the ’80s, I got into an argument about my dog with our mail carrier. Of course the argument, and my reaction to it, wasn’t really about the dog or the mail carrier at all.

It was about Change. construction If you know me or you’ve followed this blog, you know my neighborhood is changing. As the old-timers die off, developers are buying their land and razing their houses, building three and four-unit expensive condominiums in their place. “Chicken coops,” my taciturn neighbor, one of the remaining elderly men on the block, calls them. “Filing cabinets” is the term preferred by one of my colleagues.

My street is a constant construction zone. It’s loud and busy and my dog and I can’t stand it. He barks, which is what upset the mail carrier. I sometimes bark too, but mostly I am full of suppressed and not-so-suppressed rage.

On that first sunny morning, when my dog and I went for a walk, I learned that the neighbors on the corner, who had built the treehouse that everybody’s kids played in, had sold their property and were getting a divorce. My next-door neighbor, a good-natured handyman, who is always kind enough to feed our cats when we are away, told me he was leaving too. And then he offered to come back to the neighborhood anytime we needed him to feed the cats.

So when Jeff told me to let go of the argument with the mail carrier, he was really trying to tell me to stop fighting the inevitable.

Change. musicians Makes a person want to turn around and head right back to Spain. (I had to laugh when I read the snarky comments in response to the article I wrote about the mail carrier/dog brouhaha and destruction of my neighborhood. One of the more vicious trolls, who obviously saw me as an entitled enemy of honest working people, snarkily accused me of vacationing in Spain.)

Yup, I was in Spain alright. Andalusia to be exact.

Carefully constructed around Christmas time, when we were all sick with the flu, this trip was meant to have something for everyone.

A pitstop in London, for British-obsessed Daughter #1 (with a long-anticipated trip to Ottolenghi for me). Ottolenghi Windsuring in Tarifa, for windsurfing-obsessed Jeff (with a side-trip to Tangier, Morocco for me). tarifa   Morocco stairs Warm weather, for Daughter #2. Morocco foodMorocco doorwayGibraltar, just because. And Moorish history and great food for me.

When you travel internationally somewhat infrequently with your kids, it’s hard to know what will make the greatest impression. You never know what’s going to stick.

The morning of the trip, as I was frantically trying to make sure we had everything together, we realized that Daughter #2 did not have a purse. I know from experience with D#1 that teenage girls are very particular about their purses.

All other options rejected, my eyes fell on a black faux-leather Marc Jacobs shoulder bag that my stylish friend C. gave me when she moved away. “You can use this,” I offered, sure that D #2 would reject it as falling within the fashion domain of a 50-something woman clinging to the last vestiges of style. But D #2 surprised me. “Really?” she asked, her eyes gleaming. “Is that a designer bag?”

“Our boots” flashed before my eyes.

Surprise #1 of the trip was the way in which D#2 and I bonded. We’d been having some tussles and she, far more enigmatic than her sister, rarely let me in on her secrets. Lending (yes, lending) her that purse opened a window. I discovered just how sophisticated her interest in fashion has grown. She discovered that I had a past, one that apparently included more designer swag than she’d realized.

At the airport I told her that in my young, single, traveling days, when leaving a country, I used to take my remaining currency to the duty-free shop and spend it on perfume.

So on this trip, together, we spent all of our airport waiting time in duty-free shops, searching for what she hoped would be her “signature scent.” I spoke with familiarity about Chanel and Dior, Guerlain and Lancome, and she regarded me with a respect for experience that sometimes gets lost in our day-to-day lives.

When, in the last few minutes at the last duty-free shop, despairing of ever finding just the right essence (despite my using my own olfactory history as proof that your signature scent changes, as you change), a kindly British saleswoman (who was clearly one of those “sweet-smelling women,” like those who guided me) took D#2 in hand and helped her navigate the shelves.

No matter that I misread and miscalculated the price of the Gucci perfume we ended up purchasing, only realizing after we returned home just how much we’d spent. provactive perfume

“Our perfume,” I call it. And though she may not realize it, we share it in more ways than one.

Back at home, D#2 and I went on a feminist movie-watching jag, watching the original Stepford Wives, which Jeff rented for us, under the suspicious eyes of the somewhat militant women at the video store, who refused to let him rent the Nicole Kidman remake. (A guy renting a movie like that is the equivalent of a guy buying tampons, which Jeff has also done. Welcome to the domain of women.) and Rosemary’s Baby.

My little girl is growing up.

D #1 looked utterly at home navigating the Tube in London, drinking tea and eating Maltesers. Maltesers-Wrapper-Small

She wants to study there and I realized that she probably will.

I dug even further back, before my perfume-purchasing days, to the two years that I was an exchange student in Europe, years of glorious poverty.

One of the most interesting things about being a parent as your kids get older, is that suddenly you can remember and relate. The distance between your respective experiences seems to shrink. My Eurail Pass self and my designer perfume self are just under the surface. My girls’ equivalents of those selves are just under the surface too, about to emerge. Ronda

But what about Spain?  Did they appreciate the Alhambra and the cathedral in Seville and the tomb of Christopher Columbus and the all-you-can-eat paella on the beach?

Spanishpaella

Yeah, they did. Granada

But more than anything they appreciated eating five times a day, dressing up, wandering around on their own, late night tapas crawls and sips of the drink that defined the trip for me: Tinto de Verano.

Enjoyed more by Spaniards than Sangria (which is apparently for tourists), Tinto de Verano, or summer red wine, is equal parts red wine and lemon/lime or orange soda. It is divine.

Seville

In Spain I was probably drinking a mixture of cheap wine and lemon-lime Fanta. At home, I tried to replicate it by mixing wine with Dry brand blood orange soda and a splash of agave and it wasn’t the same. I’m still tinkering. This uncomplicated recipe, from Saveur, is a good place to start.

The wonderful book that accompanied me on this trip was Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese.

Among other things, it’s about change, or rather the push-pull we humans feel as we struggle to preserve history, heritage and our way of doing things, with the inevitable changes that time brings. Cadiz

Fully back at home now ensconced in real life, with my Spanish sojourn and the sting of having three packs of jamon Iberico confiscated at the airport fading into memory, I can see change on the horizon.

But summer is coming.

As much as possible, I will spend mine trying to replicate our favorite tapa — grilled goat cheese drizzled with honey—cooking from my old favorite Spanish cookbooks, The New Spanish Table, The Spanish Table cookbook (from the wonderful Seattle store of the same name) and my new favorite, Moro, the cookbook, which I learned about one melancholy rainy day from this recipe for spinach and garbanzo beans (courtesy of The Smitten Kitchen), which transported me right back to Andalusia.

When the construction workers have left for the day and quiet returns to the neighborhood, I will lie on my backyard hammock with a good book, a glass of Tinto de Verano nearby.

I’ll try not to worry this summer, as Daughter #1 learns how to drive, reminding myself that change is inevitable.

How sweet it is.

How sweet it is.

Foodie Fan Fest

 

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

The Alhambra at night, as seen from the deck of our Granada apartment.

I’m just back from a glorious trip to the Andalucia region of Spain. The trip included a brief stint in London, where I got to enjoy a jet-lagged, yet wonderful meal at the Islington branch of Ottolenghi.

The next installment of Slice of Mid-Life will be all about that trip and the wonderful food we ate. I’m still marveling at the fact that Spaniards eat five times a day and late into the night, but don’t seem to get fat.

Until then, I wanted to share this brief interview I did with Molly Wizenberg, author of the wonderful food blog Orangette, who has a new book out this month. She’s at a very different stage of life than I am and it’s fun to see how she manages the interplay of food, art and motherhood. I admire her very much.

I hope you’ll think of this brief article as a tapa, in anticipation of the feast to come. Here’s the link:

Someone You Should Know: Molly Wizenberg

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

All-you-can-eat paella on the beach at Nerja.

 

 

Insights into the Teenage Mind, Courtesy of “Frozen”

I wanted to share this piece I wrote about the movie Frozen and Cinderella’s (aka Daughter #1) first ball.

Disney, I guess we’re not done with you yet.

Why Teens Love “Frozen”

Serrano ham will solve everything

Hello, new year, which snuck up on me the same way Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas did.

“it kind of feels like the holidays didn’t happen this year,” remarked Daughter #1.

I know what she means. All our little rituals —the advent calendar (which admittedly, I’ve never managed to have together by December 1), lighting the menorah (which admittedly, we’ve never managed to remember to light all eight nights. This year, because of Thanksgivukkah, we hit an all-time low), creating a photo calendar and trimming our Christmas tree were done haphazardly, late and without the enthusiasm of years past.

What took you so long?

What took you so long?

Finding a time when everyone was available to go get a tree was tough. Finding the time for our family ritual of eating gingerbread and going through our ornaments one by one, sharing the associated memories, was challenging.

For us, that luxurious block of time known as winter break was taken up by a week’s worth of flu. When we weren’t sleeping or sneezing or writing cards or working we were dragging ourselves around town shopping for presents, baking cookies (even during the “barfing Christmases” of yore, I always baked cookies) and trying to get into the Christmas spirit. We’d come home and take to our beds or the nearest couch to recover from the exertion.

Each year, we buy a few new ornaments to commemorate the year’s highlights. It’s sweet and increasingly bittersweet to look at the ballerinas and Disney princess ornaments, the owls, mushrooms and pet-related trinkets (the most heartbreaking is the ornament to commemorate our departed hamster Zen, the only rodent I have ever loved).

Christmas tree

This year, Daughter #1 got a Tardis ornament.ed9f_doctor_who_christmas_ornaments

Daughter #2 got a hairdryer ornament.

Hair-Dryer-BR12019

 

And I got an ornament of Seville.

seville

Because Spain is what will get me out of the doldrums and jumpstart my year. We are going to Spain, Andalusia to be exact, later this year. We’ll stop in London for a few days for the benefit of Sherlock and Dr. Who-obsessed Daughter #1.

While there, we’ll eat in one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurants.

For me, this is the adult equivalent of going to a One Direction concert. I am giddy.

Everyone in the family had a different vacation wish list and London/Andalusia fits the bill. Daughter #2 wanted to go somewhere warm. Jeff wanted to windsurf. And I, who am fascinated by Muslim culture, am interested in seeing Moorish Spain. And am looking forward to taking a day trip to Tangiers.

On New Year’s Eve, we started feeling better and arranged to have a small tapas and paella party at home. I started sipping Fino sherry at around 6:00.

We indulged in an array tapas, including gambas al ajillo, mejillones a la marinera and queso manchego con membrillo.These recipes came from Tapas, the little dishes of Spain, by the late Penelope Casas, a book I scored one year at our biannual library sale (sadly, a  scavenger hunt tradition I have let fall by the wayside).

We supped on my friend Diane’s paella and her brother-in-law Ian’s sugar plums (not authentically Spanish, but oh, so good).

At midnight I had a few sips of Cava leftover from last January’s book launch party, and tried to get over the fact that, thanks to the developer who bought the property across the street and is now building a monstrosity, we no longer have a New Year’s Eve view of the fireworks over the Space Needle or our clear-day treat of a glimpse of Mount Rainier.

kenny's house

The new year arrived and with it, woes. These days, at any given moment, I am worried about people who are close to me, sometimes everybody all at once, and even the dog.

I appeared on TV and learned the life lesson that wearing polka dots on TV is a bad idea.

So I decided to think about Spain. I read this article about a jamon master. I sought out recipes featuring jamon serrano and jamon iberico, arranged to buy replacement parts for my Spanish-manufactured Fagor pressure cooker and anticipated the Spanish pressure cooker recipes I could experiment with. Daughter #1 and I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

My friend P, who was widowed when both she and her kids were young, was waxing poetic on Facebook about holiday traditions, remembering the Christmas Eve screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life and staying up late stuffing stockings after the preschoolers had gone to bed, anticipating the early morning Christmas magic to come.

These days, my girls like to sleep in, so I was the only one up early on Christmas. The good news is magic is magic at 6 a.m. or at 10 a.m. And as long as there’s coffee, either is fine.

In a post entitled “Time to Enjoy the Gifts That Matter,” Catherine Buday, who blogs as The Sandwich Lady, describes letting go of traditions  —no writing Christmas cards or baking multiple batches of cookies— instead, simply enjoying the return of the prodigal kids and having the whole family together on one couch.

My friend P. summarized it best: “Like all things, we–and our traditions–change. I think that’s a good thing.”

One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table. Every recipe in the book is outstanding. One of my favorites is Garlicky Braised Green Beans with Jamon.

You know how I feel about Yotam Ottolenghi. This recipe for Saffron Cauliflower is a winner.

Time will pass and people will change. But one tradition I will never give up is exploring the world from my kitchen.

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.