I’ve got a new post coming, just as soon as we settle in for the holiday break. Until then, I wanted to share this piece I wrote for my weekly education column.
See you soon.
I’ve got a new post coming, just as soon as we settle in for the holiday break. Until then, I wanted to share this piece I wrote for my weekly education column.
See you soon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
When the refrigerator shelf shattered, I didn’t see it as a metaphor, merely an inconvenience.
Daughter #2 had been on a summer fruit smoothie kick. She put a blender jar of leftover smoothie on the top shelf of the refrigerator. A few moments later we heard a crash. The top shelf was intact, but three levels down, the glass shelf that sits atop the vegetable crisper had shattered into a zillion pieces. I looked into the crisper and saw shards of glass adhered to leaves of cilantro. In the door of the refrigerator, glass was stuck to condiment jars.
I closed the refrigerator door and walked away.
If you watched the CBS morning news this morning or if you read this Sunday’s New York Times magazine, you will become aware of a new trend: professional women who quit their jobs to stay home with their kids, then opt back in to the work force.
Having been a DINK, a SAHM and a soccer mom, I’m intrigued to be part of a new demographic which, as far as I know, does not yet have its own acronym.
Here’s the story I wrote about my experiences opting out and opting in for Parent Map magazine. It includes a link to the New York Times article.
Life is full of surprises.
Just a few blog posts ago, I was whining about my dismal chances at employment because I’ve been out of the traditional job market for 15 years.
Then, out of the blue, somebody offered me a job. A right-up-my-alley job, working for a magazine with smart people in a flexible, family-friendly environment. A job that came my way because someone was familiar with my freelance journalism and thought I would be a good member of the team.
A job. A real, honest-to-goodness, too good of an opportunity to pass up, job.
I was and remain flattered.
The job offer coincided with a number of great opportunities for me: some unexpected, meaty freelance work, a meeting with the journalists who founded the Solutions Journalism Network, a TV appearance to analyze our local school board race, an interview for someone else’s book and two book promotion events of my own.
It must be the weather.
According to weather watchers, Seattle is close to setting a record. We’re closing in our first rain-free July in 50 years.
All this sunshine can be a bit overwhelming for us, despite the fact that Seattle apparently sells more sunglasses per capita than any other U.S. city. We count on gray, rainy days to get things done. There is an unstated rule that sunny days are for having fun, but that usually doesn’t mean going 30 days without working or paying bills.
Rain or shine, I’ve been busy and I’m going to get busier.
This has resulted in some flakiness, like buying conditioner instead of shampoo for both me and my dog and wondering why he and I weren’t sudsier.
I’ve spent a lot of evenings eating take-out food or thrown together meals from refrigerator scraps, which is not my preferred style.
The Grape Leaf, Herb and Yogurt Pie from Plenty was to die for. I couldn’t find Camargue red rice, so substituted Himalayan red rice instead for the Mango and Coconut Rice Salad. It kept me going for much of the week, “Let them eat steak,” said I (who am allergic to beef), happy to eat this hearty salad as a substitute.
Though the kids proclaimed it “slimy,” Jeff and I were blown away by the Roasted Aubergine with Fried Onion and Chopped Lemon from Jerusalem. Not too many self-respecting American kids admit to liking eggplant. I wonder if it would be a different story if we used the more melodious word aubergine. We served our aubergine with Turkey and Courgette Burgers with Spring Onion and Cumin, barbecued instead of fried, and garnished with a creamy sour cream and sumac sauce. Can you tell that I have the British edition of Jerusalem? Courgette sounds much more exotic than zucchini. Actually, it sounds like it could be the name of a character in “Les Miserables,” but I digress.
Goodness, will you look at the time. It’s after midnight and I need to go to bed because, well, I have to get up for work in the morning, which is why I won’t be typing out the recipe for Turkey and Courgette Burgers (I couldn’t find an acceptable link). Time management and preserving my cooking integrity will be among my new challenges. Which is good, because I was getting bored with my old challenges.
It’s nice to know that eggplants have the potential to be aubergines. They can be main courses, side dishes, delicious dips, or even serve as metaphors, as the circumstances require. Each permutation can be delicious (or slimy) in its own way. It all depends on your perspective.
I’ve been a big believer in reinvention in my life, so it’s come as a surprise to me that in recent years I have embraced my New Jersey upbringing.
I hold Tony Soprano accountable.
I fled the Garden State in 1979 and haven’t looked back. I made a brief return for a family wedding in 1993, but had to turn around and leave almost immediately because the President of Sri Lanka was assassinated. I was the State Department’s Sri Lanka country officer at the time. Sri Lanka did not normally occupy the world stage, so when it did, I wanted to put to use my accumulated expertise about the country and be there for the briefings and press inquiries and late night work sessions, all commonplace for those responsible for sexier countries, but a novel experience for me.
Some in my family suggested that I was a little too happy to leave the state of my birth that fateful weekend.
I lived in Europe, California, Washington, D.C. and Asia, before settling in Seattle. Along the way I shed the most obvious trappings of my New Jersey heritage (though I would like to state emphatically for the record that I never had Big Hair).
Seattle is perhaps the polar opposite of New Jersey, and my Scandinavian neighborhood Ballard, especially so. Most Caucasian inhabitants of the city can trace their roots to Northern Europe and have the characteristic calm and reserve of those cultures.
People don’t yell in Seattle. People don’t argue in Seattle. If they must disagree, they do so carefully and politely. They don’t “lay out” to get a deep tan, they prefer polar fleece to “wife-beater” tank tops and they retreat indoors if the weather gets too hot.
People in Seattle don’t say fuck. Though, like decent bagels and good pizza, the f-word can occasionally be found in Seattle, the 250 or so different intonations of the word have not found their way into common parlance here.
The Sopranos debuted in January 1999, the month and year my first child was born. I don’t remember when Jeff and I first started watching it. We weren’t big TV watchers and didn’t have HBO. I think it was my brother, who lives in Hawaii, but retains much of his Jersey demeanor, who got us hooked, by sending me videotaped episodes of Season 1.
He couldn’t keep up with our demands for more, so I turned to an unexpected source: my Scandinavian-American neighbor B., who videotaped episodes for her Norwegian fisherman husband to keep him occupied during his months at sea.
Seafaring life is “salty.” I am only now considering the impact “The Sopranos” could have had on the inhabitants of that boat.
By now, my daughter was in pre-school. Word must have somehow gotten out that I had access to “The Sopranos,” because I was approached by unlikely fans: a blonde, mellow California woman and her equally chill husband, who asked if I could pass the videotapes on to them when I was finished watching.
All worked well for a while. B. recorded the episodes, sent them out to sea and passed them on to me once they returned. I, in turn, I passed them on to the Mellow Couple during preschool drop-off.
Once, there was a glitch in the supply chain and B. was delayed in getting the next installment to me. The Mellow Couple appeared at my house asking where their tape was.
For a moment, I thought I was about to get whacked.
Eventually, we began renting “The Sopranos” on DVD from our neighborhood video store.
The kids got older and I sometimes regretted that I was so far away from home and family. They had so little contact with my heritage and very little sense of who I had been.
So I cooked. Years of watching Carmella Soprano bring Baked Ziti to the table for Sunday dinner had made my mouth water and so I made some too. I explained to my family that, though we were New Jersey Jews, the closest thing we had to traditional family recipes was Italian food. My mother’s Veal Parmiagiana, her stuffed shells and mancotti (which she pronounced like a true New Jersey Italian, dropping the final “i”), stuffed peppers, and more.
Our extended family regularly congregated at Sibilio’s Golden Grill, a classic “red sauce” place with delicious spumoni.
Jeff, who is pretty mellow and spent much of his youth in California, indulged my fascination with the Sopranos, even as it got more and more violent.
“There he is,” I would sometime say, when he walked in the door after work.
The series ended and I never found anything to fill the New Jersey hole inside of me. Yes, I dressed up as Snooki one year for Halloween, but though I grew up there, I could never be a fan of “Jersey Shore” or the”Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
“The Sopranos” wasn’t parody. It was Shakespeare with red sauce.
A few years ago, I was asked to perform at a live storytelling event. The piece I performed was entitled “The Battle Cry of the Jersey Mother,” in which I explained why judicious use of the word fuck could be an effective parenting tool.
My kids loved it.
They listened to me whoop and holler as I watched the 12/12/12 concert to raise relief funds for the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. Check out this moving editorial.
Now (when they aren’t rolling their eyes at me) they love my Jersey persona. If I’m upset at some injustice they’ll say, with admiration, “Don’t go all Jersey, mom,” not-so-secretly hoping that I will.
Recently Daughter #1 told me that she and some middle school classmates were discussing their parents’ taste in music and she told them how much I loved Bruce Springsteen.
“Your mom is from New Jersey?” a girl asked in awe. “That’s so cool. Does she curse a lot?”
James Gandofini was 51 when he died; the same age as me. Like me, he was celebrating his eldest child’s graduation from middle school.
Much has been said about his gifts as an actor and the way he and others associated with “The Sopranos” revolutionized television.
I’ll always have fond memories of snuggling up with my husband after the kids were tucked in bed, watching bodies get put in the trunks of cars or dumped in the river.
But the true legacy James Gandolfini and “The Sopranos” left me was a way to embrace my roots and share them with my kids.
The only appropriate thing to say about his untimely death is:
I’m currently on vacation, so don’t have access to my trove of cookbooks to give you a recipe. I don’t actually have “the recipe” for Baked Ziti, that tastes as wonderful as it did when I was young. Since it’s summertime, I suggest you get yourself a slice of thin-crust pizza with no yuppie ingredients on it (this is the one time I will advise you to stay away from merguez, despite the fact that it’s surprisingly good on pizza), raise it to your lips and show some respect.
I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.
I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together. A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”
“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.
That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.
So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.
Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.
Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school. We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT. UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.
Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.
I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).
Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.
Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.
The week I had to wait to see him was tough. It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.
It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.
To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.
Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.
So instead I focused on cooking: My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2’s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.
This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking: If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?
Maybe I’d get a book deal.
I wonder who would play me in the film?
A girl can dream.
So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.
Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).
It tasted great cold the next day.
Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury. Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us. Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.
May peace return to Turkey.
Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 T green olives, chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 T red pepper paste
1/2 t salt
2 T chopped mint leaves
1/2 c chopped green pepper
2 T crumbled feta cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t cumin
2 Roma tomatoes diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T pomegranate molasses
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.
Over 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 Portlandia, you probably know that Portland has its quirks and its institutions.
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,
we did some touristy stuff
and ended up on the floor of one of our hotel rooms late that first night, devouring chicken wings from Pok Pok,
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?”
“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).
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.
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.
To celebrate Mother’s Day, this weekend my book, Ruminations from the Minivan: musings from a world grown large, then small, is available as a free Kindle download. Here’s the link. I hope you’ll give it a try and tell your friends and loved ones too. And if you like the book, please consider posting a review. Thanks!
My grandmother, a wise, warm woman who made French toast out of hot dog buns and called it Belgian toast, used to say “Every day is Children’s Day.”
In fact, the 1960s were not nearly as child-centric as today. The sometimes controversial writer Caitlin Flanagan summarized it aptly: “When we were children, we followed our parents around. Now we follow our children around.”
It will be 80 degrees and sunny today in Seattle. What will I be doing? Schlepping kids to school, a track meet, a volunteer appreciation party, a dance and possibly the mall. I find it amusing, and admittedly sometimes annoying, that the teenagers in my life plan all sorts of group excursions that involve driving hither and yon, but they often forget to consult the drivers.
Because they text instead of talking on the phone, the logistics can drive even the coolest of parents crazy. Example: Daughter #1- Can you take my friends and me to the mall? We want to go to the Alderwood Mall (15 miles away from Seattle). It has better stores. Me: (attempting to dry my hair) Sure, but I have to stop at Northgate Mall (5 miles away) first to return something. D #1: My friend E. will meet us at Alderwood. What time should her mother bring her there? Me: I’ll pick her up. It’s on our way. Daughter #2: I want to go to the mall too and invite a friend. D #1: I just texted E. and told her to meet us at Alderwood Mall. Me, getting frustrated: I told you I would pick her up. (This exchange actually went on for several additional rounds and involved several hair dryer interruptions).
Surprisingly, the phone rings and it’s not a telemarketer: It’s H., friend of D #1: I texted E. and asked her to ask her mother to drive her down to my house so we can go to the mall. Me: I said I would pick her up on the way to the mall so her mother doesn’t have to drive her anywhere. D#1: Calm down, mom. Me: Text E. and tell her I will pick her up. D#1: Stop yelling, you’re ruining everything. Maybe I just shouldn’t go to the mall.
Me: WHY IS THIS SO HARD AND WHY CAN’T I DRY MY HAIR? Pick up the phone and CALL E. and confirm that I will pick her up.
In the car, much to D #1’s mortification, I lectured everyone on effective communication, minimizing our carbon footprint by not driving unnecessarily and not inconveniencing parents, who may actually have things they want/need to do.
When we got to the Northgate Mall we learned that D#2 had neglected to tell her friend B. that our final destination was the Alderwood Mall. B. had neglected to mention that she had a volleyball game in an hour.
We waited for B.’s father to come to Northgate Mall and pick her up.
If there were a logo to describe me as a mother these days it would be a sponge.
Not because I clean, but because as the first line of defense of the family, I absorb everyone else’s emotions. I also step in to resolve messes, sometimes (such as prior to having my morning coffee or during the aforementioned mall logistics) I can be abrasive and I adapt to a variety of tasks.
But lately I’ve been wondering whether if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen to quit my career to become a full-time mother. In my book and on this and other blogs, I’ve chronicled the intellectual frustrations I felt, which clashed with the stronger pull to be there for my daughters. Now, almost fifteen years later, I am dealing with the economic ramifications of my decision.
Originally this post was entitled the Mommy Track and Freekah-nomics (you’ll see why in a few minutes).
Now that I’m ready to “lean in” and go back to work full time, I’m discovering that the years I spent freelancing, volunteering and doing a little of this and a little of that, were years not spent developing expertise in a particular field. I’ve got a pretty interesting resume, which shows that I am smart and as adaptable as that sponge I mentioned. But, though I’ve reinvented myself professionally several times, it lacks fifteen years of targeted experience with increased responsibility. This, I realize, will hurt me in a tight job market.
Jeff and I have an artist friend named T. who has spent her entire adult life cobbling together different jobs to support herself. She’s also managed to squirrel away enough money to take several international trips. Currently, she and her husband (who’s had a similar work life) are at the end of a year-long, round-the-world trip, which they have been documenting on Tumblr.
Though not lucrative and often uncertain, freelancing makes for a pretty nice “stop and smell the roses” kind of life.
So, I’ve chosen to be inspired by the flexibility and serendipity of T.’s unorthodox career. I’m cobbling together several different freelance jobs to help support us and squirrel away enough money to take a trip next spring (Belize, anyone?).
Though I’m devoting far more time to seeking and executing remunerative work and far less time to cooking, occasionally I still make time for culinary exploration, focusing on less time-consuming recipes.
I hope you enjoy it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some driving to do.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Note: This post was mostly written before the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt, which, as I as write this, is still underway. Condolences to all the victims and to the residents of Boston and its surroundings. May “positive disruption” expand so that alienated young men can find non-violent ways to express themselves and politicians can find the courage to support gun control.
Female empowerment has dominated our household for the past few weeks. On April 3, Daughter #1, who has been volunteering at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attended a TEDxChange talk there on “Positive Disruption” — a term used to describe making catalytic changes to society, agriculture, technology and communities.
Afterwards the teen volunteers got to meet with the presenters. D#1 was particularly taken with Halimatou Hima, a sweet and soft spoken young human rights activist from Niger.
She was also impressed by Melinda Gates. (I couldn’t help but wonder aloud whether Melinda Gates is spared eye-rolling from her kids, who are around the same age as mine. The consensus among the teens present in my minivan was that no parent is immune to eye-rolling).
TEDxChange is a program dedicated to spreading ideas in the areas of global health and development. It was created in 2010 out of a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and TEDx, a program designed to give communities, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. This talk was TedxChange’s annual global signature event.
D #1 also met Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, who are featured in the film “The Revolutionary Optimists,” which describes children who are saving lives in the slums of Calcutta. That evening, she attended a screening of that film.
The next night, Jeff took Daughters #1 and #2 and me to a screening of Girl Rising, the story of nine girls from nine different countries, who fought for the right to be educated.
It’s a moving and powerful film and my girls could relate to the girls it depicted. Except at 6:30 the next morning. “Remember how determined Wadley was to go to school?” I asked, as I tried to pry my sleepy, grumpy daughters out of bed, invoking the impish Haitian girl who, post-earthquake, staged a sit-in at her reconstituted school, so she would be allowed to study there, even though her mother could not afford to pay the fees.
When your kids are exposed to such stories and when they tell you they were inspired by them, you can feel good, as a parent and as a global citizen. Isn’t this the kind of leaning in we really want? For our daughters to be part of a global movement for the betterment of all?
After the excitement of the TED talk and movies died down, we spent the rest of the week and most of that weekend preparing for Daughter #1’s trip to Japan, as part of a school exchange program. There were two mall forays (which, thankfully, turned out better than the first one) and an exhaustive hunt for a travel-safe shoulder bag with zippers that “doesn’t make me look like a forty-year-old woman.” (ouch)The trip involved traveling with a dozen other eighth-graders and two teachers, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and then staying with a Japanese family and attending school in the town of Izushi.
Them, warily: What country?
Bathroom renovation #2 is underway. Whenever Ds #1 and #2 sit on the toilet, they will look down on a floor embedded with the Talavera tiles we brought back from Mexico.
But this would be the first time one of my daughters would venture into the world without us.
In the background, we were aware that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new young leader, perhaps seeking his own noteworthy method of “leaning in,” was threatening to test-fire a missile and that Japan’s Ministry of Defense was assembling anti-missile defenses.
I contacted Foreign Service friends with connections to Japan and Korea in an effort to establish a personal in-country connection. I encouraged the teacher to register her group with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). I scanned travel advisories and alerts and was relieved that Japan was not one of the countries on the list.
My mother told me that when I was an exchange student in France, she used to read my letters, filled with tales of mishaps and near-catastrophes, over a bottle of wine. “How can you do that,” people would ask her. Because of the time lag with international communication in the pre-Internet age, she knew that by the time she received my letters, I had weathered the storms (though likely had embarked on new adventures).
Daughter #1 left for Japan and Daughter #2 and I went to Los Angeles with friends.
We took full advantage of technology
and were able to Snapchat and Instagram pictures of the set and one of the stars of Pretty Little Liars
and look at pictures of D#1 and her friends buying toy swords, riding the subway and gorging themselves on Tokyo sweets.
D#2 and I were in Disneyland when we learned the extent of the Boston Marathon bombings. It was surreal to be at “the happiest place on earth.”
We embarked on boats and rode through the timeless and, that day, timely classic ride, It’s a Small World, and I almost didn’t mind having the song stuck in my head.
D#1 will be back this weekend. I know she will be forever changed by this experience.
I can’t wait to see her.
Just after I started writing this post, Anne Smedinghoff, a young Foreign Service Officer, was killed in Afghanistan.
Having been a young idealistic Foreign Service Officer in a country that had been devastated by war, I could imagine what she was feeling as she drove down that dusty road. She must have been anticipating the delight of the children who would receive the books she was donating and how impressed they would be that she could speak a few words of Dari. She would drink the tea that was offered to her, pose for pictures and return to her compound, confident that, history notwithstanding, on that day she had made a difference.
I wrote a book about my experiences, but my Foreign Service stories are only the first section of my memoir. Anne Smedinghoff’s life story stops prematurely.
To her parents, who supported her desire to engage in positive disruption, I extend my heartfelt condolences.