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.

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!

Monday, Monday

Blah, blah; blah blah blah blah

Blah, blah; blah blah blah blah

Last Monday was a dreary day and I just couldn’t kick it in gear.  Keepers of family tradition might know what I’m talking about.  No sooner are the Thanksgiving leftovers put away, then the December holiday season ramps up with a vengeance.  Suddenly it’s the beginning of Advent (which we take seriously in our household) and time to order the holiday photo cards and calendars while Snapfish still has them on sale. Far-flung family members (who have also probably been caught by surprise) request Christmas wish lists via early morning and late night texts and the holiday pressure mounts.

HolidayEatingFrenzy

I had spent the rainy Sunday evening before happily peeling and chopping a leftover Thanksgiving pumpkin for a Turkish pumpkin soup while listening to the audio version of Salman Rushdie‘s new book Joseph Anton. I know some critics have said that the book falls prey to excessive name-dropping and self-promotion, but I haven’t  gotten there yet.  I am reveling in Rushdie’s evocative portrait of the artist as a young man. I find this book riveting.

So I should have been soothed and intellectually sated come Monday, but I wasn’t.  All day I lacked inspiration.  I decided to turn things around by preparing Marcella Hazen’s Braised Artichokes and Potatoes.

Essentials-of-Classic-Italian-Cooking-Hazan-Marcella-9780394584041

To be fair, Marcella Hazen probably didn’t decide to cook this on a day when she had inadvertently double-booked herself to drive in two different carpools at the same time on opposite ends of the city at rush hour.

And I’m fairly certain that she didn’t have to pee while embarking  on the elaborate trimming protocol required to ensure that the artichokes are silky and tender and melt in your mouth.

I think of myself as possessing a reasonable amount of self-awareness, so, even though I was rushing to get the artichokes braising so they would be ready for D#2 to eat and digest before departing for basketball practice, I’m not sure why I didn’t take the time to pee before trimming. Years of traveling and living in the developing world, where the facilities have sometimes been of dubious hygienic quality, have made me a rapid peer of Olympic caliber. The bathroom at the Shalimar Gardens in Srinigar, circa 1987 remains etched in my memory, yet I traveled seemingly the whole of Cost Rica, circa 2006, in search of a dirty bathroom and couldn’t find one.

DSC_0003

But I digress.

The potatoes in the dish did indeed melt in our mouths, the artichokes, due to my hasty preparation, less so. But we enjoyed our dinner, which was accompanied by a pork tenderloin that I’d had the foresight to brine on that mellow Sunday night following the simple recipe from the Zuni Cafe cookbook.  If you remember nothing else, remember this:  Use Zuni’s wet brine, or something like it, whenever you plan to roast pork.  Use the Zuni Cafe dry brine recipe for roast turkey. You can screw up every other part of the meal and people will love you anyway if you follow these two meat preparations. Also, bring a sarong with you wherever you travel.  It can be helpful when you have to pee on the fly.

It was pouring on Tuesday and still lacking inspiration, I took our puppy Kobe for a very long walk.  A few blocks from home, C.S., a woman I hadn’t seen for a long time drove by and waved.  Then she pulled a U-turn and came back to tell me how much she had loved my blog post about the importance of pets. I hadn’t been aware she knew about, much less read my blog. “I’m so happy there are writers to help us make sense of our lives, ” she told me.

The week was looking up.

Buoyed by C.S., I decided to seek inspiration from other writers.  There was “I Want My Daughters Back,” a John Blumenthal essay on Huffington Post about the melancholy of the empty-nester, that made me temporarily appreciate the vicissitudes of life with Daughters #1 and #2.  There was the song “Same Love” by Seattle’s own Macklemore, a rousing rallying cry for supporters of same-sex marriage, which this week became officially legal in my home state of Washington. (If you have fifteen minutes to spare, watch the link to the NPR Tiny Desk concert with Macklemore, which I’ve posted at the end of this blog entry).

Image: Dow Constantine

There was this song by Shayna Cram, a young Foreign Service officer serving in Peshawar, Pakistan, who was inspired by  Malala Yousufzai, the teenage Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban after advocating education for girls.

And there was a long run on a surprisingly crisp and clear Saturday with Joseph Anton echoing in my ears. That night we dined on Joan Nathan’s potato latkes

DSC_0001

and played dreidel with our wooden dreidel that seems weighted so that everyone except Jeff always gets Nun.

Liked my braised artichokes, the night wasn’t perfect, but, it was a pretty good ending to the week.

On blah days and weeks, perhaps the writer who provides the best much-needed perspective is Judith Viorst, author of an impressive canon of work, including Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. 

alexvid1

Sometimes you just have to roll with a bad day or a blah week, because, to paraphrase Alexander, some days/weeks are just like that.

Even in Australia.

Happy Monday to all and to all a good week.

Braised Artichokes and Potatoes

2 large globe artichokes

1/2 lemon

1 pound potatoes, peeled (though I didn’t) and chopped into 3/4 inch wedges

1/3 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

salt, fresh ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1/4 cup water

Follow artichokes preparation directions in the above link, but do yourself a favor and go to the bathroom first.

Heat oil in pan and saute onions on medium heat until translucent.  Add garlic and cook until gold.  Add potatoes, artichoke wedges and stems, salt, pepper and parsley and stir two or three times.

Add 1/4 cup water, adjust heat to simmer and cover saute pan tightly. Cook until tender (approximately 40 minutes), adding a few tablespoons of water, if necessary.  Taste and add salt, if necessary.

NPR Tiny Desk Concert with Macklemore

An Historic Day in Washington

Zen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Alone

This holiday weekend I found myself unexpectedly home alone.

As someone who toggles the stay-at-home mom/work part-time from home lifestyle, I spend a lot of time alone in my house.  I enjoy the solitude and find myself practically shooing the last person to leave out the door in the morning (because of different school schedules, the morning wake-up, breakfast and departure routine is nearly three hours from start to finish).  The alone part of my day (around 4 1/2 hours) never seems long enough and, I’ll admit it here, I am sometimes resentful when a child or a husband stays home sick on a day that I have Things planned.

Jeff travels fairly often for work, so I am also used to being without another adult. It can get lonely, especially on balmy Friday evenings when all I want to do is sit in the yard with him, unwinding from the week over a cocktail. But my daughters are becoming more and more like girlfriends and I often enjoy my time alone with them, watching chick flicks, eating pasta and listening to pop music.

A few weeks ago, in the Sunday New York Times travel section, I read Paradise Lost:  A Mother-Daughter Spring Break, the tale of a mother who had splurged on a Florida resort vacation for herself and her college-aged daughter. It was a disaster, partly because the pricey resort was neither comfortable nor accomodating, but mostly because the mother and daughter, who kept different sleeping and waking schedules, couldn’t find ways to connect with each other.

This was on my mind as Memorial Day weekend loomed and I discovered that I would be spending it alone in Seattle with Daughter #2.  Jeff is an avid windsurfer and from now until September, weekends will be dominated by the quest for wind.

It’s the deal I accepted when I married him and it’s the life I’ve lived for almost twenty years, though over the years his windsurfing opportunities have dwindled as we’ve made accommodations for comfort and Other People’s schedules and preferences.

A month or so ago, Jeff reserved a campsite for us at the Columbia River Gorge, but as Memorial Day weekend loomed nearer, I found myself on the beginning of the roller coaster ride that May and June can be for parents of school-aged kids, and less than enthusiastic about prepping for a camping trip or about camping at all. The kids were also unenthused.

Then things got complicated. Daughter #1 got invited to go to the beach with a friend. The same friend who’d invited her to go skiing in Utah over spring break, when we went to Chicago instead (she reminded me a tad resentfully).

Puppy-like Daughter # 2 did not want to go to the Gorge without her sister, and opted to stay in Seattle, despite the fact that few of her friends would be in town for the weekend and those that would had family plans.  Nobody asked me what I wanted.

Friday after school, with slightly forced enthusiasm, I brought D #2 and a group of her friends to our neighborhood ice cream shop before everyone scattered for the weekend.  We got take-out Cuban pork sandwiches at our favorite beach shack

and I bought tickets for us to see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at a neighborhood high school that night.  So far, so good.

Pancakes Saturday morning and then I went for a run.  When I returned, with a beautiful sunny day stretched before us and the Northwest Folklife Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival going on, we couldn’t agree on anything to do. “I’m glad I’m not an only child,” D #2 said pensively.

I found myself wishing that our puppy, who already has lots of expectations to live up to, were with us. A frustrating, petulant day followed, redeemed in the late afternoon by an outdoor Yahtzee game, cheese popcorn and later, a movie fest.  D #2 saw her first Woody Allen movie.  “He annoys me,” she said.

Sunday was worse and we, who are often at loggerheads these days, had a confrontation over a closet clean-up project.  Desperate to hear another adult’s voice, I turned on This American Life, put in my headphones and went for a walk.  When I returned, D #2 was meticulously organizing all the clothes in her closet.

She was rewarded for her good karma with an invitation to join a friend on a “stay-cation” for a swim at a downtown hotel pool and with a sleepover invitation from another friend. I got to drink wine poolside with the friends’ parents and we all ate fish and chips and strolled the Seattle waterfront.

Buoyed by our fun evening, I hoped the sleepover would be at our house.  But the friend’s desire to sleep in her own bed and the lure of her puppy, made it otherwise.

Which is how I found myself home alone at 10:00 on Sunday night.  In the past fourteen years, I have been home alone thousands of days, but only once or twice at night.  I struggled to remember how I had handled this when I was single.  There were no reruns of Sex and the City and, even if there were, watching it at this stage of my life, I would probably question the wisdom of spending so much money on uncomfortable shoes.

If we had HBO, I would probably identify with the mother, not the Girls of that groundbreaking new show.

I trolled around Netflix for a chick flick and stayed up way too late watching a bad one with Gwyneth Paltrow attempting a British accent.

The next morning, I realized I could make anything I wanted for breakfast and not suffer the consequences of adding preserved lemons, roasted peppers, dried fruit or nuts to the concoction of my choice.  But it seemed like too much work to cook something elaborate just for me, so I settled for an omelette (albeit with prosciutto and comte cheese).

For the rest of the day I forced myself to do things I wanted to do, not things I had to do for other people. I discovered and downloaded the music of Swedish/Argentinian guitarist Jose Gonzalez.  I finally got around to spending the gift certificate I’d gotten for my birthday  almost nine months ago, on Tunisian dinnerware.  I drank a glass of rose in the middle of the afternoon and I cooked things I wanted to cook, without much regard for whether anyone else would enjoy them.  But I also made muffins for the family to eat for breakfast this week and spent part of my gift certificate on a gift for someone else.  I began collecting pictures for Daughter #2′s elementary school yearbook, which I have volunteered to coordinate.

On Facebook I found a link to something called The Opposite of Loneliness.  Written by Marina Keegan on the eve of her graduation from Yale, she worried what it would be like to venture out into the world alone after enjoying the supportive environment of a college campus.  “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life,” she said. She never got the chance to figure out how to spend a lonely Sunday night or how to create a new nurturing web for herself because she was killed in a car accident the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

When my family came back together on Monday night, I wish I could tell you that it was unmitigated bliss, but it wasn’t.   After gushing about her fun beach weekend (which involved a lot of root beer and YouTube), Daughter #1 took umbrage at having to participate in the usual Monday night ritual of cleaning the cat litter boxes and taking out the garbage.  Daughter #2, who had claimed to miss her sister so much, unceremoniously booted her off the computer. Jeff returned tanned and healthy from his windy weekend, reluctant to jump back into the family fray.

So we all sat together and watched the National Geographic documentary Life in a Day.

Before I knew it, the holiday weekend was over.

Marina Keegan described “these tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something” and “the feeling that there are people…  ..who are in this together” and her hope that she would once again have this in her life.

I remembered that at the peak of my frustration this weekend, it was Daughter #2 who got out the Yahtzee game, who cleaned her closet and who willingly ate the Lebanese kefta kebobs I made for dinner.

“I’m sorry this was such a crummy weekend,” I said. “Dad and your sister had all the fun.”

She looked me square in the eye and responded, “We had some fun together too.”

With heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Marina Keegan

Upstairs, Downstairs

First week of the new year and I feel like I’m recovering from jet lag, despite the fact that I didn’t go anywhere.  I’ve been dragging myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m., am exhausted by 9:00 a.m. and brain dead by 8:00 p.m.  Though I didn’t exactly vacation during the holidays — there were special meals to prepare, houseguests to host and lots of laundry and dishes — the absence from our usual routine was refreshingly stress-free.  We slept in, watched multiple episodes of Downton Abbey and ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

No sooner did January begin, then the onslaught of emails and calendar commitments began, along with a series of professional and personal deadlines, resulting in a feeling of impending doom.

It doesn’t help that the Seattle winter rain has begun in earnest, making excursions, especially evening ones, bone-chilling and soggy.  No wonder Daughter #1 wants a cloak for her birthday.  Cloaks make venturing out in nasty weather seem dashing and romantic, not mundane and pitiful.

Let us be off to piano lessons!

Thank goodness for books.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish the ever-growing stack of books on my bedside table.  Usually I have so many magazines and newspapers to read that the flow of my book reading is constantly interrupted (kind of like trying to work with the alluring distraction of email, Facebook and Linked in). I’m in a Mother-Daughter book group and a grownup book group, so am often juggling multiple tomes. Plus, I’m usually so tired by the time I crawl into bed that I tend to fall asleep with the book, newspaper or magazine on my face.

I have a pretty big stack of back issues of the New Yorker too

But while I was sick, I took to my bed for a few days and read.

Books.   One at a time, for hours at a time.  Just like I used to do when I was younger and didn’t have to contend with the competing distractions of electronics and other people.

I read Iranian-American chef Donia Bijan’s delightful memoir Maman’s Homesick Pie (and used her mother’s delicious fruit and pine nut stuffing recipe for our Christmas dinner) and finished A Tale of Two Cities, a book I hadn’t read since high school.  There is something very satisfying about reading a book with a famous first line and a famous last line, though when you try to apply these to say, the middle school experience, sometimes people don’t fully appreciate the comparison.

I read Day of Honey, journalist Annia Ciezadlo’s memoir of food, love and war (complete with recipes) in Baghdad and Beirut, which also includes such universal topics as mother-in-law clashes and spousal career clashes (as in, “I gave up my job to follow you to a war zone, I’m just beginning to establish myself as a freelancer and now you want me to leave?!”).

One of my favorite scenes in the book is Ciezadlo’s description of dodging gunfire aimed at her kitchen window to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked —  a woman after my own heart.

She has an especially garlicky recipe for melokeya that enticed me to buy some of the dried leaves so I can try it.

The women of Downton Abbey don’t appear to read books,  but the “upstairs” ones seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedrooms resting, despite the fact that they have no jobs or household responsibilities, other than plotting and dressing for dinner.  Their bedrooms are like fortresses, impenetrable from the demands of public life.

We all know that in modern life, we are more like “downstairs” women (see paragraph one), though not as properly turned-out.

So as an experiment, and out of desperation, during the first few days of re-entry week, I tried heading upstairs to my bedroom in the early evening to “rest” with a book. (Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Table).  I’ve since decided that books will be my “upstairs” reading and magazines, newspapers and Facebook (where I get many of my ideas about what to read, courtesy of NPR, Slate, Salon, the Atlantic and my other “likes”) will be left downstairs.  The true test of this approach will come this Sunday night, when I have to forego the temptation to get into bed with the Sunday New York Times, my guilty pleasure.

Someone I know will appreciate the extra space

Work will also be upstairs, in the office, instead of downstairs at the dining room table, where’s it’s too easy to throw in a load of laundry or soak the beans for Boston Baked Beans, the first of many colonial cooking endeavors we will undertake this month, courtesy of Daughter #2 and her creative teacher Ms. P.  (I am envisioning an amusing twist on European Chicken Night, a F**k You, European Tyrants! recipe for Chicken and Wild Rice).

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  By mid-life, we’ve had years of dueling January admonishments to eat a more healthy diet, exercise more, be more productive, but also to take time for ourselves to stop and smell the roses and unplug (see what Pico Iyer had to say in the New York Times on the joy of quiet.  I read it last Sunday night in bed).

We also know that come early February, all of this will be forgotten in the push to promote romance and expensive chocolate.

I sometimes entertain myself by imaging the editors at O magazine, fed up with devising countless different magazine covers enticing us to “live our best lives”, creating a “dummy” issue:

Don't Bother

Stick With Your Dead-End Job Till Retirement

You Can Buy Bigger Clothes in Smaller Sizes at Target

I leave you now to exercise and tackle those pesky deadlines, while the Boston Baked Beans are in the oven.

But know that tonight, when I head upstairs and take to my bed with my book, to paraphrase Sydney Carton, whose fate was far more gruesome and noble than mine will be this evening, “it is a far, far better rest that I go to…”

Scentiment

Thanks to the miracle of antibiotics (which lasts for ten days, instead of eight), I’m my old, energetic self again and happy to get back to writing.  Sandra Tsing Loh gave me the perfect opening to begin a conversation on this bog about what an aunt of mine used to darkly refer to as “The Changes.”

But seriously, it’s Christmas Eve.  Does anybody really want to read or write about menopause?  I think not.

Instead I want to write in praise of sweet-smelling women.

When I was a little girl, my mother and all of the capable, well put-together women I knew each had her own distinctive scent. If you know anything about the alchemy of perfume, you’re aware that the same perfume mixes with an individual’s body chemistry to produce a unique aroma.

At holiday time and at other family gatherings, I loved breathing in the symphony of scent that was produced by a roomful of grandmothers and mothers and aunts and great-aunts. Greeting them at the door, gathering their coats and my great-grandmother’s fur stole, I’d give myself over to the mixture of scents that was my heritage, as the women of my family bustled around the kitchen to make things special.

Friends’ mothers and grandmothers had their own scent, just as their families had their own traditions.  If you complimented a women on her perfume, she’d proudly name her signature fragrance — Joy, Fracas, Diorissimo and, of course, Chanel Number 5.

My mother went through perfume phases — moving on from Jackie Kennedy-inspired French traditional elegance to freer pheromones.  Remember Charlie?  You could track the changes in social mores from the 1950s to the 1980s by the scents she wore.

These days there is less of a divide between girls and women.  I still dress pretty much the way I did when I was sixteen, in jeans and clogs and comfy sweaters.  So do most of my friends. Our kids call most of us by our first names.

So it makes me happy when my daughters identify me with my scent (these days it’s Euphoria by Calvin Klein, though I miss my more exotic past, which was accented with Samsara by Guerlain).

I hope it instills in them the same sense of trust and belonging that I so loved as a girl.

The other day we were in the mall and found ourselves in the perfume section at Nordstrom.  Though so many of the elegant touches I remember as a girl, like after-dinner mints, have faded away, you can still get perfume samples at Nordstrom.

Daughter #2 tried Chanel Number 5 and I explained its historical and cultural significance.  Then she pranced over to a display table with more contemporary scents and sprayed them on over the Chanel.

I cringed momentarily at the aromatic collision and then smiled, thinking of the joy that awaits her and her sister as they experiment with the scents that will accent their lives.

We drove home in a car that reeked with what I referred to as Katy Swift Bieber as the girls clutched their perfume samples.

I wish perfume was not just another commodity in the branding of a superstar.

Once in a while I encounter a woman who smells so good I feel compelled to  compliment her.  And once in a while someone asks me a question you don’t hear very much these days:  “What are you wearing?” and they are not wondering about my clothes.  My step mother-in-law (happy birthday ESMIL) is one of those sweet smelling women.  When she comes to visit, she unpacks her mini perfume containers and arrays them in the guest bathroom.  Her bathroom at home is similarly arrayed with beautiful glass vials. I hope she knows how happy this makes me.

There are women, such as Jane GrossDorie Greenspan, Jane Brody and Lisa Belkin, who I classify as “sweet-smelling women.”  I still have so much to learn from them.

My mother and grandmother are no longer alive to share holidays and traditions with.  Every year we make latkes to honor my grandmother and keep alive one small piece of my heritage, that can be passed on to my daughters.

And every day I wear perfume, partly for me, and partly for them, so that its scent is imprinted in their memories.

May you enjoy the sweet-smelling women in your lives during this holiday season.   If you’re so inclined, ask them about “The Changes” they’ve experienced.  And then let’s talk about it in the new year.

Happy Holidays.