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.
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.
Last week was one of the worst weeks I’ve had in recent memory. There was bad news (not the kind that makes you sad, the kind that makes you frustrated), mechanical failures, more bad news (the kind that makes you mad), home renovation stress, sunglasses stress and a mall mishap. One bright spot in the week was Daughter #2’s first ultimate frisbee game on a very blustery day, which cheered me up until the black clouds returned. (She and I are both disappointed that the Famous Minivan, which sounded like it was about to blow up, only needed a minor repair. We’d been hoping to be able to justify buying a jazzier ride, even though we try to live by a “one car payment at a time” rule).
The good news is that everybody and everything is fine, though I am somewhat worse for the wear.
A few Sundays ago I read a piece in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler. Entitled The Stories that Bind Us, it describes developing resilience in your kids through the telling of family stories. Feiler is the author of The Secrets of Happy Families, a newly released parenting guide billed as “a new approach to family dynamics, inspired by cutting-edge techniques gathered from experts in the disciplines of science, business, sports, and the military.”
A week or so before Feiler’s piece came out in the Times we watched him present a TED talk on incorporating the concept of “agile programming” into family dynamics. I am discovering that TED talks are useful teaching tools for our family. Rather than listen to Jeff or me lecture them, the kids get to look at a screen and watch people much cooler than us impart life lessons much more succinctly than we do. Like watching Modern Family or Downton Abbey or Glee, TED talks can provide a nice source of family time (proud parent moment: next week Daughter #1 will be in the audience for a TED talk hosted at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she has been volunteering).
I had been working on a story about student entrepreneurs and had spent several weeks interviewing a wide array of current and former university students who have developed a wide array of businesses. Talking with them, I was flooded with emotion over how proud their parents must be and how the world has changed since I was in college, when the thing to do was settle on a predictable career path that would guarantee you could support yourself after a few bohemian years of eating rice and beans and other inexpensive fare.
But mostly I was impressed with their fearlessness. Not only are they not daunted by the vicissitudes of the economy, they are also not daunted by developing business plans, presenting these plans to potential investors, patent disputes, unreliable suppliers and distributors, or the challenges of figuring out how have spring break in Cabo San Lucas and still make it to business meetings in China. One indomitable young woman said, “If you asked me to make a spaceship that could fly to the moon, I have no idea how I’d do it; but I’m confident I could figure it out.”
That’s their mantra: figure it out.
We’re figuring out this pesky bathroom renovation project, which has taken some U-turns along the way but is now officially underway.
There’s a toilet in our bedroom and Jeff and I will have to resort to sharing a bathroom with Daughters #1 and #2 (the worst prospect of all). I’m trying to figure out restorative justice for the mall mishap
and am hoping, hoping, hoping that the news we will receive this week will be good.
As a start to what I hope will be a better week, I decided to figure out what we’d be having for dinner. Understand, this is my “best laid plans” list, which only barely takes into account an ultimate game, swim practice, a Japan trip meeting (Daughter #1 leaves in three weeks), spring soccer practice, a Ballard Writers group meeting and a parent education event.
So instead of leaving you with a recipe, I’m leaving you with my list, which is my attempt at resilience, bolstered by the reappearance of the sun in Seattle and the blooming plum trees in front of my house.
Check back with me next week to see if I managed to cook any of it. And if any of the recipes intrigue you, please let me know (I’ve provided links where possible).
Monday – Chicken and Plantain Stew
Tuesday – Pressure Cooker Risotto with Kale Pesto
Wednesday – probably panini sandwiches
Thursday – Curly Pasta with Spring Vegetables
Friday – Scallops, grits and greens (this one comes from chef Becky Selengut’s book Good Fish. I recently took a fantastic mushroom class from Becky (talk about resilience, how about brushing mushrooms) and expect great things from this cookbook.
Wish me luck
I’ve been spending a lot of time of late trying to quantify things, such as which marketing actions translate into actual books sales; which high school curriculum will enable Daughter #1 to have an interesting and challenging education, get into college, graduate and be self-supporting before she’s 40; and how much value our two bathroom renovations will add to our house and to our lives.
(I almost entitled this post Bonfire of the Vanities. You can’t underestimate the value of providing bathroom space for two girls to straighten their hair at the same time). When not searching online for a 42 inch vanity with an offset sink, I’ve been writing articles about the benefits and detriments of standardized tests in our public schools and other education-related conundrums.
All this examination of data, marketing campaign statistics, shower stalls, tile samples, paint chips, vanity tops (we decided to have one custom made) cost-benefit analyses and discussion of measurable outcomes has my mind reeling. I’m overloaded with information yet, when the decision-making rubber meets the road, like Whitney Houston, I find myself wondering “how will I know?”
Luckily, a few shining lights have guided me.
Though it had been an exceptionally busy week and I was on the verge of coming down with the nasty cold/flu that knocked me flat by Sunday, I’m glad I made the effort to attend a meeting of Book Publishers Northwest, where the featured speaker was Laura Pepper Wu, self-described entreprenette and book marketing guru, whose website 30 Day Books offers a wealth of valuable information for independent authors. I haven’t yet purchased her pdf book Fire Up Amazon (at $4.99 it’s a deal), but I plan to.
I followed a few of the tips she offered for optimizing your book’s Amazon page (turns out, it’s all about the algorithms, baby) and lo and behold I had some, dare I say, measurable outcomes.
There were more measurable outcomes to come.
I love my husband, I really do. But we don’t usually follow the same path when it comes to house projects, which is why our kitchen wallpaper was half torn down for a number of years. Up until now, our philosophy has been, to quote Bob Dylan, “most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine.” If one of us is invested in a project, we run with it (shelves and anything to do with the garage – him, turquoise kitchen walls and any other cool painting project – me.
When we have to work together…. well…
But these bathrooms. Maybe it’s the chance of escape from the vicissitudes in mood of our teen and tween that had us companionably scraping wallpaper from the master bathroom for hours one Sunday (because you know the t(w)eens aren’t going to offer to help) and trolling for tiles on a Saturday afternoon.
I know that’s what drove us to the custom vanity place not once, but twice this past weekend and then off to a lighting fixture store after that. Imagine my surprise when we managed to agree, not only on floor and shower tiles, but also on style of vanity, counter top (that was big), faucet style and finish and drawer pulls, but also on unexpected new bedroom lighting. I’ve been worrying about us as empty nesters. Now I see our bright future. We’ll become renovators.
(Anyone who knows me is snorting right about now and perhaps uttering that evocative British phrase “Not bloody likely.”)
The promise of a new vanity that would soon need to be picked up led me to get my act together and finally repair the broken trunk lock of the Famous Minivan. I have yet to deliver the bags that have been sitting in said trunk to Goodwill or to remove Daughter #2’s end of first term project — it’s term four now– but I’m on a roll, so watch out, world.
The nasty cold/ flu bug had knocked me flat just as the high school deliberations started intensifying and, deprived of my usual moxie, I was looking for a sure thing. I found it in a recipe.
If you like to cook with recipes, you know that there are certain people you can rely on to never steer you wrong (Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazen, Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells, David Lebovitz and, my current gastronomic crush, Yotam Ottolenghi) and other Julia-come-latelys who have to earn your trust.
If you like to cook at all, you know that there are certain ingredients that are magic together and techniques that are nearly impossible to screw up. Like stew. I’m a big fan of stews, tagines and any sort of one pot mash-up.
So when I saw that the ingredient list included chickpeas, preserved lemons, dates, saffron, plus lamb and that nice exotic lamb sausage, merguez, I put down my tissue box and perked up. I hadn’t felt like eating much over the past few days (but had managed to produce chicken adobo and a Mexican tomato soup with fideos. I may not be timely with household projects, but, as my friend Donn likes to say “Damn, the bitch can cook).
It came from The Garum Factory, one of my favorite foodie blogs, which perks up my inbox each Friday morning with its clever combination of history, culture, technique and interesting food.
On the way back from picking up the now-repaired Famous Minivan, I zipped over to store, bought the ingredients, slapped them in the pressure cooker and in less than an hour was tucking into a divine tasting and beautiful looking lamb stew.
Sometimes it’s nice to forget about algorithms.
And sometimes it’s a relief to have a recipe for success.
Now that all the hoopla has died down — two birthdays and a book launch party in one week, surprise out-of-town guests for said launch party and a delicious weekend of basking in the glow of friends, family and accomplishment — we’re back to business-as-usual and the daily slog of work, deadlines, school and the dishes and laundry that seem to mysteriously pile up when I’m not looking. Add to that high school tours, flu, a middle-aged basketball injury and it’s hard to remember what all the fuss was about. Oh yeah, I wrote and published a book.
You may have seen me decked out in a red dress and heels the night of the party, but it was also me you saw this morning at 6:55 in my pajamas, robe and Uggs at the ATM in downtown Ballard getting the forgotten funds for Daughter #2’s lift ticket, so she can go on ski bus tonight (we were wise to get D#1 a season pass; I realize this now). Tonight, at 11:00 p.m., Jeff and I will hop into our respective cars and head to the daughters’ respective schools to pick them up from their ski forays. We’ll be off to D #2’s basketball game in the morning. I will be grateful that there is no weekend swim meet requiring me to sit on uncomfortable bleachers for four hours to watch D#1 swim for less than ten minutes total, as I did last weekend (I entertained myself by reading Getting to Calm: cool-headed strategies for parenting teens and ‘tweens, but kept the book cover hidden, so D#1 wouldn’t be mortified).
Tomorrow afternoon we will make dumplings with a group of Chinese exchange students to celebrate Chinese New Year. Today I’ll need to find a mango-based Asian dessert recipe and prepare said dessert for said party. Someone needs to buy a gift for a birthday party on Sunday. The beat goes on.
A few days ago I was scheduled to be interviewed about my new book by our local newspaper. By local, I mean neighborhood. Seattle is a city of neighborhoods and my neighborhood, Ballard, has a particularly strong community, a community newspaper and a popular blog. Until D #2 started going to school across town, I rarely left Ballard. There is some truth to the bumper sticker you sometimes see around here: “If you can’t find it in Ballard, you don’t need it.” My friend Peggy, a columnist for the Ballard News Tribune, beautifully summed up our attachment to our neighborhood. The interviewer was to be a journalism student at the University of Washington named L. “Go easy on him,” Peggy said.
L. and I arranged to meet at Caffe Fiore. There are actually two Caffe Fiores in Ballard — one in the Sunset Hill region of the neighborhood, that is favored by families and people with dogs, but doesn’t have WiFi, and one in downtown Ballard, that is favored by childless hipsters and WiFi aficionados. I gave L. the address of the Sunset Hill Caffe Fiore, where I do much of my “business,” because it’s closer to my house and it’s easy to park there. Still, I wasn’t surprised, while sipping my double short non-fat latte, to receive an email from L. saying he was at the other Caffe Fiore.
I found him amidst the laptops, he turned on the voice recorder on his iPhone and we settled in to talk.
I interview people for a living but have rarely been interviewed myself. To be honest, I expected L. to ask me some rote questions about my book, which I am fairly certain he has not read, and to go through the motions of interviewing a 50-something year-old-woman with whom he has nothing in common.
L. surprised me.
How many times have you encountered young relatives at large family gatherings or seen the college-aged kids of your friends and asked them about their studies and their plans for the future? These conversations always seem rather one-sided: you, the experienced adult, offer suggestions about internships. You offer to put in a good word with the friend of a friend, who may be able to offer some help. You inquire about hopes and dreams and inject some practicality into the conversation.
L. was not particularly interested in my book, but he was interested in my life. He asked me to reflect on which accomplishment made me proudest (Foreign Service officer, mother, journalist or author) and I had to think before responding that I was proudest to have figured out how to have accomplishments in each of the different phases of my adult life.
We talked about the differences in international travel in the pre- and post-Internet world. “Don’t underestimate the value of truly being away and unplugged,” I said. “The examined life is important, but not if you are living your life so it can be examined.” Then I sheepishly remembered that I am a blogger (and a person, Jeff would point out, who is tethered to her iPhone).
But here’s what really struck me. L. wanted to know about my future. He asked me about my hopes and dreams. He questioned me about my values and how I would apply those to whatever I hope to do next.
At 51, it’s easy to think the course has been set. We get so caught up in thinking about our kids’ futures that we forget to think about our own, other than squirreling away money into retirement funds.
It’s not that we don’t grapple with what we want out of life, it’s just that we’re busy being practical and making sure our kids get to ski.
Seeing yourself through the eyes of a twenty-year-old, who is not your kid, can be revealing, especially when they turn the tables on you and ask you to dream.
I’m looking forward to reading L.’s story, to see how our conversation resonated with him (turns out, my aerobics buddy K. is L’s journalism professor and will have a hand in editing the story. I’m hoping, in fifty-something solidarity, she ensures I come across well. Another perk of living in a small community).
For the record, I want to tell L., his professors and his parents that I think he has a bright future ahead.
But I especially want to thank him for for reminding me never to stop asking yourself the big questions, even if the answers are not on the tip of your tongue.
There is an interesting article about “twenty-somethings” in the January 14 issue of The New Yorker called Semi-Charmed Life, that I encourage you to read, along with the Letters to the Editor in response to this article (some from fifty-somethings), which appear in the February 11&18 issue of the magazine.
Years ago, when I was in my twenties and living and working in Thailand, I met New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn in Laos (I think on a flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabong). They were young too, living and reporting in Beijing, where the Tiananmen Square uprising had recently occurred. They won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting from China, Kristof became an Op-Ed columnist, often focusing on the plight of disenfranchised peoples around the world, and they wrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
Kristof, a native Oregonian, has written about the importance of wilderness experiences, describing the annual backpacking trip he takes with his family on the Pacific Crest trail.
He’s just announced that he is taking a leave from his column to write another book with Sheryl WuDunn. He says, “The theme is the benefits to ourselves when we engage in a cause larger than ourselves, and, given that, how we can engage in a way that actually works. In other words: the emerging science of how to make a difference.”
I appreciate contemporaries of mine, such as Kristof and WuDunn, who continue to ask the big questions and share what they’ve learned to benefit us all.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.