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.

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.

IMG_2039

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

IMG_2026

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

IMG_2031

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

Collective Soul

A fellow Seattle-based blogger who is much loved (for good reason) recently confessed on her blog that she has been diagnosed with post-partum depression. Her revelation, and the outpouring of support and thanks she received, got me thinking about the differences in the way women share their experiences now and the way things worked when I was a first-time mother in January of 1999. (Daughters #2 and #1 turned 12 and 14 this week, so I am feeling sentimental).

madonna-and-child

First, there were the books. The pregnancy and parenting books of course:  The What to Expect series, Brazelton and Leach, Sears and all of the behavior books that would follow.  My personal favorites?  The now quaint-seeming age-specific series by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. and other members of the Gesell Institute of Human Development, written in the 1980s.  Many’s the time I’ve found comfort in these books and their evocative subtitles, such as Your Three-Year-Old:  Friend or Enemy or Your Seven-Year-Old:  Life in A Minor Key.  When my daughters were old enough and there were clouds on the home front, we would read these books together, delighted and relieved to learn that eleven-year-olds are so difficult at home that everyone in the family would benefit from a “geographic cure,” such as camp, a visit to grandparents or boarding school.

Your-Seven-Year-Old-9780440506508

I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to realize that we are on our last Louise Bates Ames book, Your Ten-to-Fourteen-Year Old, which doesn’t have a subtitle, though I can think of a few, some not appropriate for a family-friendly blog. I am reassured that, at twelve, D #2 will be “a dream come true.” We have already experienced the “boundless energy and optimistic enthusiasm and goodwill” from her now fourteen-year-old sister, along with the realization that she finds practically everything we do objectionable.

3986-failed-test-mom-amp-dad-teenager-post-teenagerposts-Favim.com-459511

If there were blogs when I was a new mother, I didn’t know about them.  Essays were the sharing mechanism of choice.  When Brain, Child, the magazine for thinking mothers debuted it was like manna from Heaven.  Here was a treasure trove of other women’s experiences with the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of parenting (a verb that was still relatively new back then).

The only online parenting site I knew of was the wonderful Mothers Who Think section of Salon magazine.  These essays were eventually collected in an anthology; eventually there were many anthologies, including The Bitch in the House, Toddler:  Real Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent Tiny People We Love and a host of great collections from Seal Press, publisher of books “by women, for women.”

I became a rabid consumer of essays about motherhood and eventually started writing and publishing them myself, having the good fortune to have one of my stories included in the Seal Press anthology Secrets & Confidences:  The Complicated Truth About Women’s Friendships.

Years later, I received an email from a fellow parent from my daughter’s elementary school, a woman I had never met.  “I recognize your name,” she told me.  “We’re in the same anthology.  We should get together for coffee.”

I found her story in the anthology, got on her website, read her blog and I panicked.  She sounded so cool, not like the square, boring, goody two-shoes parent I had become.  She rode a motorcycle.  She wrote erotica.  She wrote raw essays about her struggles with infertility and the challenges of fostering and later adopting a little boy. Her writing was funny.  Her writing was real.

adorable-lady-gaga-mother-monster-motorcycle-not-a-motorcycle-the-fame-Favim.com-69087

When we met, I relaxed.  She was just as funny in person as in her writing, but also self-deprecating and down-to-earth, not the hip mama I feared would judge me.

Not long ago, a fan of this blog commented that he had enjoyed the book Poser:  My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, Claire Dederer’s memoir of life as a new mother in Seattle.  “I know her, ” I told him.  “Our kids used to do toddler gymnastics together.  I was secretly envious of her. I had no idea she was so frustrated.”  I emailed Claire and told her of this exchange and she responded “I always thought you seemed so smart and together — I was kind of intimidated by you, to be honest.”

I jokingly replied that we could edit an anthology of frustrated mothers and the different ways they secretly found to combat this frustration — her, yoga; me, cooking; who knows what everybody else was secretly doing.

mother+cooking

When I was alone in my kitchen, cooking away the frustrations of confinement, I had no idea there were others like me.  Today’s new mothers need not feel that sense of isolation. They cook, they blog, they comment, they support each other in real time.

On weekend mornings when the kids were little I would drive my minivan to our neighborhood coffee shop, situated at the top of a bluff overlooking Puget Sound.  I would leave the car in the parking lot and go running through the woods.  My route ended with a flight of 77 steps that lead to the coffee shop.  Often I would see a group of women walkers, older than me, and ahead of me on the stairs.  When I reached the top I would retrieve sippy cups from my van, go into the coffee shop and buy lattes for Jeff and me and cocoa for the kids.  The women would be there too, contentedly drinking their coffee, without the urgency of getting home to young children.  I often thought of their presence ahead of me on those stairs as a metaphor for where they were in relation to me on life’s journey.

stairs

I delivered a copy of my book to that blogger, in the hopes that it will bring her some comfort.  She probably doesn’t need it, as she’s received heaps of support in the form of comments on her blog, but, since I’m ahead of her on the parenting stairway, I thought she might like a hand with the climb.

No real food adventures to report, as we’ve been busy with work and birthday parties and planning for my book launch, which is tomorrow night and which may actually draw a sizeable crowd (though Seattleites have a unique relationship with the RSVP, so I really have no idea who will actually turn up).

I’ve been trying to eat healthily and found two recipes from the Washington Post’s Lean & Fit column:  Everyday Stir-Fry (Sabji) and Kale and Chickpea Stew.  While eating the latter, Daughter #2, a white food fan, who has never met a cheeseburger she didn’t like, commented, “Hey, this isn’t bad.”

Maybe she’s turning into that delightful twelve-year-old dream come true.

Ruminations and Resolutions

Now available on Amazon.com.  Ask for it at your local bookstore.  They can order it.

Now available on Amazon.com (Kindle edition coming soon). Ask for it at your local bookstore. They can order it.

On January 1, 2013 my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small was published.

Which means that I got to start out the new year having fulfilled a promise I made to myself last year, not an official New Year’s resolution per se, but a resolution all the same.  I resolved that 2012 would be the year I published the book I had started ten years earlier.

I’ve got to tell you, it feels pretty good.

DSC_0004

It felt even better on January 2, when I got onto Amazon.com and saw my book listed there.  And better still, when Facebook friends from far away announced they had or were buying the book and shared this information with their friends.

I didn’t think the day could get any better but it did.  2013 started out with the best winter weather Seattle has to offer – crisp and clear and dry with the mountains gleaming in the distance. I went out for a run and on the way home was treated to the sight of the snowy owl that has been nesting in our neighborhood.  I got a close-up view of this beautiful bird thanks to a neighbor who had thoughtfully set up a telescope. (Though not the actual bird I saw, this is what a snowy owl looks like).

snowyowl

That’s enough bounty for one day, right?  But it gets better.  When I returned home, there was Daughter #1, who these days is usually embarrassed by everything I say or do (We read this blog about girls’ relationships with their mothers during puberty. “Interesting,” she commented, rather cryptically, I thought.) engrossed in my book.

D #1 has read my manuscript, heard me perform parts of it onstage and was helpful during the editing and cover design process. But to hold the book, the actual book, in her hands and be able to read it was different.

“I’m so proud you wrote this book, Mom,” she’s told me over and over again.

The rest is gravy.

The rest is gravy.

With last year’s resolution so satisfyingly accomplished, I found myself wondering what I would resolve for this year.

We talked about resolutions on our way to the beach for Jeff’s annual Polar Bear Swim, which D#1 participated in for the second year in a row.

D#2, a pragmatist, was not  tempted to join in the fun.  She was, however, the first person to complain she was cold.

D#2, a pragmatist, was not tempted to join in the fun. She was, however, the first person to complain she was cold.

“I’ve got to lose ten pounds this year,” I resolved.

“Oh, come on, ” said Jeff.

I was taken aback, until he continued. “Surely you can come up with something less pedestrian than that.  How about doing something to make the world a better place?”

Jeff must have noticed the initial look of shock on my face because he laughed and said, “Did you think I was going to say, ‘how come only ten pounds’?”

There have been lots of articles, blog posts and comic strips about resolutions and I don’t think I have anything profound to add on the subject, especially since resolutions are a personal and ongoing matter.

But two things have stuck with me:  This year, like nearly every year, there was one Christmas card noticeably absent from the pile.  Though I realize sending actual cards is a dying convention, sometimes when one is missing, you know in your gut that something is wrong.

Sure enough, I emailed my dear friend R. and discovered she has been through not one, but four major life traumas in the past few months. “It seemed like a bit much to put on a holiday card,” she said ruefully.

So when I allow myself to feel intimidated by the uncomfortable and overwhelming process of book promotion, I am reminded of something an acquaintance told me several months ago, when I mentioned I was working on a book and she said she wanted to be invited to the book launch party.  “Really?” I said.  “I feel funny asking people I hardly know.”

“Most people just want to be happy for you,” she told me.

Somehow I think being happy for each other is an important step in making the world a better place. I thank those of you who have been happy for me.  I resolve to revel in the good fortune of others and also to be supportive when skies are gray.

Don’t tell Jeff, but I’m also still resolving to lose ten pounds this year.  My favorite post-holiday recipe to ease the transition from indulgence to “eating mindfully” comes from the book Oregon’s Cuisine of the Rain.  It’s also a great way to use up post-holiday bubbly and cream.  If you happen to have something to celebrate, as I did this week, it’s a pretty festive dish, though certain members of the family were not thrilled that I served it with brown rice.

Petrale Sole with Champagne Sauce

Sauce:

1 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice (I used some homemade shrimp stock from my freezer)

1 cup brut champagne (I used Cava and have also used Prosecco on occasion)

2 scallions or shallots, chopped

1 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream

salt and freshly ground pepper

juice of 1/4 lemon or to taste

Fish:

salt and unbleached all-purpose flour for dusting

2 pounds petrale sole or other white, firm-fleshed fish fillets

3 T extra virgin olive oil

1 T fresh chopped tarragon

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. To make sauce, place fish stock or clam juice in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add 2/3 cup of champagne and scallions or shallots. Turn up heat to high and reduce mixture by 4/5 of its volume, skimming the surface occasionally (around 15 minutes). Add creme fraiche or cream and reduce by half (5-10 minutes) until mixture is thick. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.  Remove from heat and set aside.

3. Salt fillets and dust with flour.  Heat two 10-inch saute pans over high heat  Add  1 1/2 T of oil to each pan.  Divide the fillets between the two pans, saute for 30 seconds, then flip over and place in the preheated oven for two minutes.

4. Remove pans from oven, cover with tight-fitting lids and let stand for three minutes. Remove lids and pour collected liquid into the reserved sauce. Cover pans again and set aside.

5. Bring reserved sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to low, so sauce simmers. Divide chopped tarragons and remaining 1/3 cup champagne to the saute pans.  Divide sauce evenly between the pans and warm to serving temperature. If you want, you can spoon the sauce onto each serving plate and top with a fillet  We’re not that fancy, so we just serve sauce and fish from the saute pans.

Another resolution I am contemplating, comes from my new friend Martin, who makes a cassoulet feast every year on New Year’s Day. Martin is an engineer by trade and he tackles cassoulet with the zeal of an experienced project manager, making confit and sausage over a period of several days. Because I shared my favorite recipe for preserved lemons with him, I got invited to this year’s feast.  I hope to stay in Martin’s good graces so I get invited back every year.  

Martin and I are fellow cookbook nerds and we both live with people who question the utility of using so much space for these books.  Martin’s solution:  each week a member of the family chooses a cookbook from the shelves and the other person in the family makes the recipe of their choice from that book. I’m excited to give this a try (though I’ll be doing most of the cooking).  There has been a less than enthusiastic response from the members of my family pod, but as you can see, we have a lot to work with.

We have a lot to work with.

Happy New Year!

My Three Sons

” I have mountains to look at, stars at night to gaze at and it’s so dark that you can see every star in the sky. Also, the people here… everyone wants to help each other.”

“When I arrived here, nobody knew me. Nobody looked at me and associated anything besides the connotations of being American. It’s like someone just hit the ‘reset’ button on my life, and I get to build a name for myself from scratch again. It’s a great feeling to know that anything people think of me before they get to know me comes from questionable stereotypes and nothing else.” 

“Best of all, we got to experience life under a philosophy that’s different from today’s norm. Rather than “keeping up with the Kardashians” and constantly working more in order to buy more, our hosts worked comfortably with what they had. As a result they’ve ended up with a beautiful home, two grounded and fun-loving sons, and best of all, the time to appreciate it. “

Three young men that I have known since birth are on extended forays in Afghanistan, France and New Zealand.  These sojourners — a soldier, a “sheap traveler” and a student — are sharing their impressions of the world, and their place in it, via Facebook and blogs.

(To be fair, the insights about appreciating what you have were written by the sheap traveler’s girlfriend and travel companion.  He’s lucky to be sharing his life and this adventure with such a grounded, healthy “shiny” young woman).

More than thirty years ago, I launched myself into the world.  There was no Internet back then, and therefore no Facebook and blogs, and the only way to share one’s impressions was via tissue paper- thin aerogrammes. It usually took two weeks for them to reach their destination and two additional weeks to receive a reply.

By the time the response arrived, you might have forgotten what had inspired you to write in the first place, having moved on to new experiences and corresponding new emotions.

I like this real time communication.  Yesterday I chatted on Facebook with my sweet, strong nephew A, who is serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan.  He regularly Skypes with his wife, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and I imagine it is a great comfort to them to know that he feels safe and happy under the stars and that the previous night he shared a delicious meal with his Italian friends.  Rather than feel isolated, A can participate in home life and share the sweet mix of pumpkin patches, soccer games, doggy love and memories of good food with the people he loves.

I had to laugh when I read K’s accounts of student life in France.  Not much has changed since I attended a lycee in 1978.  His blog reminds me of the highs and lows I felt each day, as I, too, struggled with stereotypes and the reserve of the French students at my school.

I spent a second year attending college in France in the company of E’s parents.   Reading his stories of living and working in New Zealand on the cheap brings back memories of sleeping in parks and youth hostels, drinking inexpensive red wine and taking endless train trips throughout Europe.

E did a stint living and working in New York, so he’s experienced one version of “grown-up” life.  Now he’s seeing contrasting views of what a satisfying life can be. I can’t wait to find out what he decides for himself.

A few weeks ago, when the Canadians were here, Jeff pulled out his journals from his 1990 Everest trek.

That’s where he met S, aka “Cheesehead” (we’re not talking about Wisconsin here.  Jeff says this is the term used in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s to describe Canadians who crossed the border in search of dairy products).

More than twenty years later, we laughed as Jeff read us his impressions of S and tales of their adventures together in Nepal.  Twenty years and two very different life paths, yet we marveled after the Canadians left, that Jeff and S still feel a sense of connection and of shared values, as well as a mutual acknowledgement that their international experiences  shaped the way they chose to live their lives.

I’ve been reliving my own first tentative steps into the world as I put the finishing touches on the cover and interior design of my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small, which should be out by the end of next month (stay tuned for details).

I know of what I speak when I tell these young men that their lives will be forever changed by their international forays.

“Kids, today,” one generation is fond of sighing about the next.

Judging from the tales from abroad I’ve been reading, I’d say, the kids are alright.  They are scaling mountains.  They are making informed choices about their values.  They are not sheep.

If my two daughters  explore the world and show as much insight, sensitivity and open-mindedness  as my three spiritual sons, I will have fulfilled my most important goal as a parent.  Their parents should be very proud of them.  I know I am.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of cooking going in in our house because we are still adjusting to a busier schedule.  One night, tired of quesadillas and pasta, I vowed to make the Garum Factory’s Roast Chicken with Muhammara, but was thwarted by a Justin Bieber-related incident that it took most of the night to resolve (this time it’s personal, Bieber!).  A few nights later I did make that blissful chicken and the night after that, I used the stock I’d made from the chicken carcass to make one of my favorite standby soups, Ezogelin Corbasi, Turkish Red Lentil, Bulgur and Mint Soup.  Recipes for this soup abound. I used the recipe from Turquoise, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book about their culinary travels in Turkey.  Here’s a link to the recipe.

You can find some additional fabulous Greg Malouf recipes here.  

Lentils are one of those ancient foods that provide sustenance all around the world.  May these young men continue to find sustenance and broadened perspectives  through the people they meet and the meals they share.

Upside down

I don’t know why March gets all the hype, when anyone with kids can tell you that in September madness abounds.  There’s the getting back into school rhythm, the ceremonial synching of the calendars, the myriad of forms to fill out, the continual washing of soccer clothes (and hunting for soccer socks) and lots and lots of driving.

We’re affiliated with a new school and a new swim club, which means new faces and names to remember and new “opportunities” to become a part of these new communities.

For every event on my September calendar, there were one or two competing or bookending events, making it hard to get into the natural flow of daily life.

A few weeks after school started, we hosted a Japanese exchange student and had the opportunity to show her how a normal American family lives.  I thought it would be a good idea to make homemade pizza for our first dinner together.

I should have learned the Japanese translation for this.

Later that evening, our intrepid friends the Canadians unexpectedly showed up. They were camping in their nifty house on wheels

Sigh. There’s something to be said for simplicity.

which they parked on the normally quiet street in front of our house.  All day I had noticed an unusual number of cars parked on our street, including one with a woman in the front seat engrossed in a book.  Two hours later, she was still there.  Four hours later, she was still there.  At 11:00 p.m. she was still there, still reading.  It reminded me of that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally.

“I’ll read what she’s reading.”

Flanked by Jeff and the Canadians, I knocked on her window to make sure she was okay and to get a look at the book that had held her attention for so long. She explained that unbeknownst to us, our neighbor across the street had died earlier in the week and there was to be an estate sale beginning the next morning.  “They provide entry to dealers based on a list.  I’m number one on the list, so I’m spending the night here in my car to protect my spot.”  She went on to explain that it’s not unheard of for people to sneak out at night and remove estate sale entry lists, which are posted outside the property.  “Actually,” she said indignantly “you are supposed to remain near the premises to hold your place on the list, but I’m the only one still here.  At 5:00 tomorrow morning, everyone else will show up.” I did ask her about her book, but neither it, nor the prospect of being the first person to get the chance to dig through an old man’s stuff, seemed worth spending the night in a car.

The Canadians wisely decided to move their vehicle to our driveway, rather than risk being awakened by treasure hunters.  At 6:00 a.m., when I took the dog for a walk, there they were and their numbers grew throughout the weekend.  I imaged trying to explain the reason for all these people to our visiting Japanese girl.  Was this how normal Americans lived and died?

I decided we should stick to sight seeing.

The new ferris wheel on the Seattle waterfront

The visitors left, the month wore on and I kept waiting for things to calm down.  Over dinner, I spoke authoritatively about putting “systems in place” and established menus and job charts to keep us all on track.  Whenever the opportunity to restore order presented itself I grabbed it, collecting the apples that had fallen from our tree to make applesauce (using a James Beard recipe which admonished that, because different varieties of apples vary in sweetness, it would be “folly” to add sugar until the apples were cooked.) and catching up on laundry in between the first and the second time the dryer broke.

One such night I wanted to cook, really cook and so I decided to make maqluba, a traditional Middle Eastern upside down dish of rice, eggplant, cauliflower and chicken, using the recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s new book Jerusalem. The timing may have been bad – just as I was frying up cauliflower, Daughter No. 2 needed help with her math homework. I know I’m not alone when I say that answering any questions about math requires me to sit down and breathe deeply before I dive in. But when I brought the steaming platter to the table and adorned it with garlic-infused yogurt, I could imagine that one day, life would feel normal again.

 As we moved into October I had two encounters that gave me pause.  One was with a former neighbor, who came by to tell me that a member of her family had died.  I was rushing to dry my hair, take the dog for a walk and zip to an appointment when she appeared and so could not fully express my condolences or share memories with her. The other was a telephone conversation I had with a woman I had interviewed for an article I’d written.  She’d lost her teenaged son unexpectedly last Christmas and recently her family met the man who had received her son’s donated heart. Our interview the day before had stirred up memories and now she wanted to tell me all about her son, not so that I could write about him, but so that I could know the person he had been.  I listened, wanting to help her keep his memory alive, but I was distracted. I had ten minutes to chop and brown pork and put it into the Crockpot so that we would have time to eat dinner after school and swimming and before soccer practice.

One evening last week, in the brief available interlude after dinner and homework and before bed, we watched snippets of the documentary Half the Sky, which aired on PBS.  Even my daughters, who were riveted by what they saw, realized that our challenges are First World problems of our own making.

Still, I know it would be folly to expect that September will ever be any different, at least as long as I still have kids at home.  Just as I once designated a night of the week as European Chicken night, I’m thinking of designating September as Topsy-Turvy month and cooking maqlaba and tarte tatin and other upside down dishes until life, and our priorities, right themselves again.

It’s been a year since I started Slice of Mid-Life and I want to thank all of you who have read it and commented.  Even though work and life and puppies sometimes interfere with my best-laid blogging plans and I have to find stolen moments to write (like tonight, when I typed in my car while waiting for our Cuban Roast pork sandwiches to be ready), I’m always glad that I did.                 

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:

Pink Pig

The inspiration for this post originally came from our recent Diecinueve de Mayo party.  Every year, on or around Cinco de Mayo, we throw a big party. The margaritas are the main attraction, but the potluck Mexican feast is also a pretty big draw. Some years, I’ve stayed up late into the night making tamales or charring chiles for complex moles.

Many of our friends exhibit a similar culinary dedication.  Leftovers are few and far between.

Our Cinco de Mayo party originated sixteen years ago as a “Ballard Ain’t So Bad” party.  We had recently bought a 1912-era house in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood then mocked for its Scandinavian roots and bad drivers.  On “Almost Live,” a Seattle late night live comedy show, Ballard was routinely the butt of jokes because of its uncoolness.  Now, it seems like Ballard is featured in the Sunday New York Times Travel Section every couple of months. Among other charms, it has quite the restaurant scene.  When we first moved here, the only culinary attraction (apart from an incongruous Indian restaurant, which is still going strong) was the number of places you could buy lutefisk. Sadly, one by one they have all disappeared, though you can still get a good Kringle at Larsen’s Bakery.

I wanted to throw a party because I was new to Seattle.  I’ve told you before how challenging making friends here can be.  I figured a big party would be a great way to jumpstart my efforts and a theme would make for a great ice-breaker. People still remember the black-and-white party and the New Jersey party I threw in Bangkok and the Aretha Franklin party I hosted in stuffy Washington, DC.

So I invited everybody I knew, and made my very first trip to Costco, where I bought the largest bag of tortilla chips I have ever seen.

The party was “different,” people said, and then admitted in that low-key Seattle way that they had liked it. Seattlites, especially those whose roots run deep here, are not known for co-mingling friends or bringing new people into their inner circles. I considered the party a success.

Still, the real social ice-breaker was having kids.  We made friends with the parents at our kids’ pre-school and and they began coming to our annual party.  Because of Ballard’s growing popularity, the party needed a new theme.  We found inspiration while camping at the Columbia River Gorge one Memorial Day weekend.  We were awakened early by our toddlers and were surprised to see the childless couple in the site next to us awake as well, when they could have remained snuggled up in their sleeping bags.  They were zesting limes which would marinate in lime juice all day for the margaritas they planned to drink that night after an unfettered day of windsurfing.

When the kids graduated from pre-school and everyone scattered to different elementary schools, I worried that we would lose touch with our friends.  But the party became a way to maintain those friendships and bring new friends together with old ones. Very un-Seattle, but it worked.

Years passed and before I knew it, I was the one with the established social circle, unable to invite everyone I knew or wanted to get to know better to our Cinco de Mayo party, because my house wasn’t big enough. The party wasn’t an ice-breaker anymore.  It was just part of our life.

I took a relaxed approach to cooking this year and made Cochinita Pibil, a Yucatecan dish of pork shoulder marinated in a paste of achiote seed and sour Seville orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked for hours. I used Diana Kennedy’s recipe from her classic book The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.

Cover of "The Essential Cuisines of Mexic...

Cover via Amazon

It was easy, it was succulent, it was comfort food.

May turned into June and, as I sorted pictures for Daughter #2’s fifth-grade yearbook, I marveled at how quickly the years had gone by, and got a bit weepy at the prospect of once again leaving a school we’ve been associated with for the past eight years and saying goodbye to so many good friends. To add salt to the wound, over a period of five weeks, each of our daughters seemed to age five years, which left Jeff and me scratching our heads in bittersweet bewilderment.

It’s a good thing we have Kobe.

He came home unexpectedly a week ago and it has been like turning back the clock.  A nine-week old puppy isn’t that much different from a nine-week old baby, except that this time I’m appreciating every moment, because I know it is fleeting.

That first night, Jeff and I found ourselves alone with him, while our girls were off at a carnival, and a sweet flood of memories washed over me.  Snuggled up inside of Jeff’s jacket pocket, Kobe looked as warm and contented as our babies had and later, when the two of us got on the floor shouting “Pink Pig!,” as we taught him to fetch a squeaky toy, I remembered how much I love Jeff as a father.

So for Father’s Day, though short on sleep, I decided to make Jeff a special meal to commemorate the slow, sweet development of our family life together and Cochinita Pibil seemed like just the thing.  We ate it in our backyard with a Paloma cocktail, as our puppy discovered the world around him and our girls prepared to go even further afield.

I was inspired to make Cochinita Pibil because during our recent trip to Chicago, we ate it at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill restaurant.  At O’Hare airport, before boarding our return flight home, we were thrilled to find a Frontera Grill kiosk and purchased Cochinita Pibil sandwiches for the flight home.  They were delicious, and rather aromatic.  I hope our fellow travelers didn’t mind.  Here’s the Rick Bayless recipe.

Hormones Hit the Big Time

Wading through my post-vacation stack of newspapers, I found an article entitled “All the Rage” in T, the New York Times style magazine.  It was not a description of spring fashion trends.  Written by Ayelet Waldman, it was an account of how PMS exacerbates her bipolar disorder.

You may remember Waldman, wife of author Michael Chabon, for her controversial 2005 Modern Love essay, in which she admitted that she loved her husband more than her four kids.  Since then, she’s had some fun playing agent provacateur among the mommy set, most recently in her memoir, Bad Mother.  In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross after the book came out,  Waldman acknowledged that her bipolar disorder may have led to some inappropriate moments of “oversharing.”

At the risk of oversharing myself (since I do not have bipolar disorder, I don’t have a handy excuse), I should tell you that recently I enticed Jeff with a “come hither” look to see the latest additions to my bedtime reading.

Not this:

or this:

But this:

and this:

Ooh, baby.

An avid appreciator of reference materials, I bought these books as a way to take control of my health.  Sadly, after a hopeful healing trend, my neck recovery hit a downward trajectory, probably because of hours at my laptop revising my book manuscript and one wimpy afternoon of skiing during our recent trip to the Canadian Okanagan (the photo above is the view from our condo at the Big White ski resort). There are MRIs and acupuncture and cortisone shots in my future.

I bought the menopause book for research.  I’d skimmed Christiane Northrup’s seminal work ten years ago, around the time perimenopause-like symptoms first debuted in my body. (At the ripe age of 40, I had a baby and a toddler to care for, so sheer fatigue may have trumped hormones as the culprit behind my mood swings and frustrations.)  At the time, I was put off by Northrup’s thesis that menopause is an opportunity for shedding extraneous burdens, and especially her suggestion that sometimes these burdens included husbands.

Though I’m still not interested in shedding my husband (after all, who else would appreciate the humor I found in my choice of boudoir reading?), this time around, the book warranted a closer look for its recommendations on mid-life weight control, reasons to have your thyroid checked and the physiological foundations of menopause.

My friends and I have been furtively comparing notes about symptoms we’ve been experiencing that may or may not be due to the impending “changes,” and we share a similar sense of bewilderment about these changes, not unlike how our daughters feel and felt about menstruation.

Menarche of the penguins

If you live in Seattle and have had children go through puberty, you’ve likely heard about an invaluable resource, commonly referred to as “that class.”  “That class” is actually one component of the Great Conversations program offered at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which offers classes and presentations on puberty, sexuality, parenting and other topics relating to adolescence.

In 1988, nurse Julie Metzger developed “For Girls Only,”as a fun, informal way for mothers and daughters to discuss puberty.  “For Boys Only,” geared towards fathers and sons, followed in 1992 and is taught by Dr. Rob Lehman.   Both classes have been a Seattle rite-of-passage ever since, and Julie is warm, funny, supportive and very, very informative.

 Remembering how much fun it was to sit among a roomful of girls and women shouting “penis!,” my friends and I wished Julie would offer a class “For Women Only,” so we could talk freely about hot flashes and cold libidos, sleep disorders, forgetfulness and overall bitchiness and maybe even do some shouting.

“You are not the first or even the 100th to ask this same question,” Julie told me.   “That says something right there about the need, doesn’t it?”

The other night, my family and I watched an episode of Modern Family with a plot line devoted to PMS.  The fact that hormones have made it to primetime TV (the final frontier?) as well a style magazine tells me that, just as our generation of women turned mothering into endless fodder for books, magazine articles, movies and TV shows, we may be on the verge of a menopausal renaissance.  There will be “bad girls,” like Ayelet Waldman and Sandra Tsing Loh, who refuse to “go gently into the good night,” good girls like Christiane Northrup, who remind us (after we’ve shedded the excess baggage) to take our flax seeds, and the French, who put everyone to shame.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will scratch our heads, eat our yams and dark chocolate and hope that, as the topic of menopause gains traction in American society, the discussion doesn’t become a version of the “Mommy wars.”

All those flying legs of lamb could be dangerous.

Julie Metzger and Rob Lehman have just published a new book for pre-teens: Will Puberty Last My Whole Life? a collection of questions they have been asked in over 25 years of running “that class.”  The book is available at independent book stores and on Amazon.com

I’m interesting in hearing your take on menopause.  Are there books or other resources you’ve found invaluable?  Have you found an entertaining, yet informative way to tackle the topic with your peers?