Monday, August 16, 2010

Twinkies (and Bucatini) to Linens and Back

I was going to make bucatini with a creamy bolognese sauce (a wonderful recipe that my sister-in-law generously shared with me) for tonight's dinner. It's a three hour ordeal, minimum, but so worth it. I had visions of that rich sauce simmering all day in the vintage mustard colored Chantal cast iron dutch ovena large pot  that I could barely pick upthat my sister gave to me (part of her purging process before permanently moving to New Hampshireup until I got the pot her move was only semi-permanent). But first I had to run to the post office to overnight an iPod touch that my beautiful niece had left behind (she and her beautiful family had been visiting from Chicago) beneath the linens in the bed in which she had slumbered. And then I had to run to Dave's Market to gather the ingredients for the bolognese: ground meats, pancetta, onion, tomatoes, parmesan, etc... and I'm not sure precisely what happened next, but I remember the Little One tossing a soy milk in our shopping cart as she danced around the end of the canned fruits/vegetables aisle while gingerly offering me a cup of coffee and a Twinkie, both of which she held in her outstretched hands, and this must have been the moment when I got thrown off course. A Twinkie? Are you kidding me, a Twinkie? It was at the coffee station, she explained, fully wrapped and there for the taking. Actually, it was a lemon frosted, lemon custard filled, sort-of-Twinkie, and since I didn't see the packaging I can't say for certain that this spongy sweet was, in fact, a Twinkie. All the same, it smelled (from what I vaguely remember) like a Twinkie. Wait a minute... whoa there, didn't we have chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast? But there was fruit, too, right? Fresh fruit. And whipped cream. But the fruit. The fresh fruit trumps all, right again? Erases all the garbage, correct? So I stopped asking myself questions, stuffed the lemon Twinkie-like sponge thing down my throat, and followed it with a washing of very light coffee. The Little One and I continued through the frozen foods aisle and I filled the cart with nearly everything she asked for (whichfor the most partmeant ice cream), but I didn't fret because I was still on my lemon Twinkie-like sponge thing high.

After returning home to unpack the bags I discovered that I had forgotten an essential bolognese ingredient. Not to worry, I still had to run out for a last-minute birthday present for a friend of my very forgetful child (whose party he was presently attending)I would stop back in at the market after hunting down the greatest, most unequaled, most unique gift in the world (because this is what I pathologically do every time I search for a present). But before running back to the market, I had to run home (to wrap the present)... where I found all the linens... in the washer and in the dryer... and got to folding... and the dishwasher's dry cycle ended... and the Little One got bored with her art project... and then the phone rang... and Hubby came home.

And so, here we are, at 8:30 in the evening without the bucatini or the bolognese sauce. But, thanks to last night's massive grilling gallimaufry, there are leftovers.

Let's see: burgers, pizza, chicken, flank steak... hmm. Not feeling it. I am just not happy with this picture. Is this it, is this all there is in the fridge? This is not penance. This is not what I should be consuming this evening, not after this indiscriminate, undisciplined, cholesterol-clogged day. But wait, look what Hubby whipped up, and just when I thought the day had been a complete gastronomic flop.

                               This is called the "I Will Help You" dinner.

Greens, grilled chicken, sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, avocado, oil and vinegar. Amazing what Hubby can do with leftovers. Thank you, darling. Thank you for making it OK for me to have inhaled a lemon Twinkie-like sponge thing. And chocolate chip pancakes. Now, do you mind if we pop out that fruit topped Boston creme cake from the fridge? Hey, it's a leftover, too!

Never mind, I'm shutting the doorI won't be peeking in the ice box again (unless it's for prunes). Not tonight.

I never did deliver that perfect presentthe one that's sitting on my kitchen island. Think I'll make the beds up with some of those fresh linens, tuck myself in for the night and deliver the gift in the morning when I pick my son up at his friend's house. After which I will (I will) start the bolognese sauce. Night, night.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Skimming the Surface - A Short Story

Lulu waxed the top of her board just like she was told to do at the store. She held the square of white Zap wax in her left hand and rubbed it generously over the skimboard. “Momma,” she said, “why am I waxing the top and not the bottom of the board?”

“So your feet will stick, darlin’ and you won’t fall off the board,” I replied. Then I corrected myself, “Well, it will make it easier for you to stay on the board, not slip off.”

Of course she did slip. And fall. She ran down to the shoreline, holding the skimboard by her side, and then flipped it into the shallow salty water. Waves rushed in, engulfing the board, raising the water level, as she hopped with her two wide feet, slightly bent little toes, hammertoes—an ancestral anomaly, poor girl—onto the waxy board, arms flailing out and then swinging behind her derriere as she tumbled to the cold, murky floor.

Wham-O’s Pre-Skimboard Preparations say that “’s a good idea to start by closely watching the conditions on the beach and the wave breaks. Take some time to watch the waves and stretch your muscles. Watch the beach and get a feel for where the waves break.” They also suggest that you keep an eye out for hazards—like, say, other people.  After you do this, it is stated, “you should have a good idea where to begin skimboarding. But Lulu, the impatient, impetuous, lean, sinewy little lady, does not observe the beach. She dives right in, as she does with everything. She is the child, as her pediatrician once said, who will push the limits. “A function of ADHD,” he postulated; however so, exhausting, infuriating. She is the child who never slept through the night, humming self-composed melodies, inviting imaginary toddler friends to 3:00AM tea parties. She is the child who, upon threatened with the loss of her stuffed animals after leaving her bed “one more time,” preempted parental discipline by cramming garbage bags with dozens of her fuzzy animals and presenting them to me, declaring, “Take them, Momma, I know I can’t do it.” She is the child who still snaps her bedside light on after tuck-ins and scribbles journal entries until midnight. No inimical consequence, enticement or reward (of my own devise or of those recommended by the professionals) has ever been effective in altering or mitigating these habits. 

BE SAFE is in bold yellow lettering. This is what I say to my children when they leave my watch. Be safe. I love you. Under the yellow letters is advice to check water for rocks and hidden objects before skimboarding. “Keep control of your board and try not to let the board get away from you,” I read on the flier—the same flier that my daughter, who is down at the water, did not pause to peruse.

I watched from my brightly striped beach chair, watched Lulu raise herself up from the frothy water, smiling, giggling into the moist sea spray, waiting for the right moment to propel her wooden board, nose up, into the air and chase it as it lands, calculating the exact moment she would make the leap. She did this countless times. I saw a man approach her—his skin golden, his salt and pepper hair cropped close, a silver skimboard tucked under his arms. With both hands he extended the board in front of him, chest level, bent his knees sharply, and lifting the tip of the board slightly he gently thrust it along the rippling shoreline. She watched him, her body shaking with excitement, as he jumped on his board, twirling along the thin edge of the tide that was pooling in. And then the man waved back at her as he advanced along the shore.

Overheated, I pulled myself up from the low chair and walked down to the breezier and cooler coast where the little one amused herself. I  examined her efforts for a while, and then offered her advice (after all, I had read the directions, I had observed the experienced skimboarder, noting technique and style) but the little one wouldn’t have it, rebuked me, telling me with her tight little mouth that I hadn’t the right, the business, to offer such consult. (And I supposed she was right.) Lulu needed no guidance, she contended, and broke away from where the sorrel beach mud had swallowed my feet.

I retreated to my shaded space and Lulu—my little gamine—pitched the board in the air again and skipped on to its waxy coated top moments after it hit the surf. Each time she did this, she fell, or nearly fell, the board getting away from her. It was amusing, admirable how she kept at it with such tenacity, expression triumphant despite her many failures. But then, upon her last try, her feet fixed on the board for a spell, and she was riveted. She sailed up from the seashore, sand flying out from under her feet, “Did you see me, Mom? Did you see me?!” she bubbled. She did. Bubble. Percolating mirth she was. I saw it rising from her flaxen crown. 

“I saw you,” I said. And I did. But I only half saw her. I knew, at the shore, she was safe. I knew as long as she didn’t wade out to the enormous, relentless curling waves she was alright, I could dig my heels into the sand. The lifeguards were there, too, as my back-up. So every once in a while, as she skimmed along the coast, I opened the book—Peter LaSalle’s Tell Borges If You See Him—that I had started reading the night before, and stole a few words for myself. If I hadn’t been so fatigued the night before I would have made it through the first short story in his compendium, but my eyes were heavy with heat and tingling with exhaustion from yet another sultry summer day with the urchin spitfire, and I stayed wakeful only long enough to skim over the scene where Emily tells her boyfriend Jack, a Harvard student, that she is going to Cameroon with the Peace Corps. They're sitting in the Hayes-Bickford cafeteria, in Harvard Square, and he tries to talk her out of Cameroon, tries to save her, suggesting Ghana as a more stable, safer alternative. But he is unpersuasive, and you knew Emily wouldn’t be coming back. I thought both options rather risky, although a grand idea—the Peace Corps. Had some illusions about it myself at one time, only my parents had big concerns which I didn't get then, but now as a mother myself, I fully understand. I’d worry like hell if my daughter ran off to Cameroon (which is just the sort of thing she'd do). Then again, I’d worry if she ran off to anywhere.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chimera Interrupted

This morning I took my son to Harvey Uniforms. We both reluctantly strapped ourselves into my car’s front seats for the jaunt to Seekonk, MA—me, because I knew how little this boy-man likes to shop (especially at a uniform supplier’s store); and he, well, because he dreads any event requiring him to try on clothing, his body recoils at the mere glimpse of a clothing store. Thankfully, the process was relatively painless since we were the only customers, and Harvey’s computer system was down—which meant I couldn’t ask any questions about the clothing sizes that I had forgotten my son wore last year, nor did I have to wait around for updated size information to get entered into their system; the clothing would be ordered and shipped to our home address. So there we were, time to spare and hugging the outer edges of Providence’s east side as we plied along our northwest passage home.

“What do you think about stopping in Providence?” I asked the little man. “Walk around downtown, have some lunch?” He had commented on the city’s architecture, and we hadn’t really walked the city together before, not just the two of us, not downtown, not in the now semi-renewed Westminster Mall—New England's first pedestrian mall—where I had shopped with high school friends in the 1970s, taking the local city bus to Kennedy Plaza in Providence, hunting for finds along the Mall before it was abandoned for the Providence Place Mall and suburban strip malls. I wanted to walk him through the Arcade, where I lunched when I interned at the Attorney General’s office on Pine Street during my senior year of college. I wanted to take him up to the top of Westminster Street to see the beauty of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.  I wanted to stroll along the Mall and point out all the historic stone buildings in which I had shopped. Oh, there's the old Tilden Thurber jewelry store, where I only window shopped... And there's the old Woolworth's building, what a great soda fountain it had... Look, there's the former Florscheims, where I bought all my shoes.  But most of all, I wanted to pick up some pungent artisan goat cheese at Farmstead Lunch on Westminster, and I prayed it was still open, hadn't succumbed to these hard times, like many of the shops that had opened within the past few years or so and promptly closed.

“Sure,” was his breezy reply. And so we parked the car on Westminster, near Empire, and drifted west along the street—towards the Cathedral—where it dead ends along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and neglected brick apartment and office buildings. At the far right entrance doors to the brownstone Romanesque Cathedral a homeless person slept under a Buzz Lightyear fleece blanket, surrounded by brown bags and a torn backpack. All of the front doors were locked, leaving me unable to show my son its striking interior and the magnificent green marble alter.  We shifted back east and continued down Westminster where I identified all my old haunts, and where we were stopped by several street persons looking for our attention and money. "Mom, who are all these people in the street? Why aren't they working?" the little-man asked. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to my literal walk-down-memory-lane-for-goat-cheese excursion.

If my son had been raised in the city, he probably wouldn't have asked about the street people. And even though his suburban upbringing left him a bit sheltered, he had certainly been to enough big cities—Boston, Chicago, New York, Montreal—to take note of this circumstance elsewhere, had packed enough lunches and delivered them to shelters for his school service hours, had had some exposure, so at least I thought, to this darker, harsher side of life. Hadn't we talked about this? (Which made me wonder if he hadn't meant to ask, "What are we doing here; why aren't you working? We really can't afford to shop in these pricey boutiques, can we?") Clearly, these street people weren't just idle tourists; and although I had been informed or, more accurately, hardened, by a few years of social work, I didn't want to distill the matter into a simple answer—drunks, druggies, lazy, mentally ill. Of course I new the answer was more complicated, and had some first-hand knowledge of the real stories behind these vagrants. Only I didn't feel prepared to deliberate socio-economic complexities with the boy-man, at least not at this moment, not while recreating my youthful fancies. But I can't keep my children in a bubble forever, now can I? Couldn't I keep them cocooned just a while longer? It may be a good idea to keep my daughter in a bubble for as long as possible. She doesn't seem to mind.

Then I realized, or so I thought I did, that my son wasn't just asking what these folks were up to, why they were parading along this particular street, he was asking one of the great existential questions of mankind (well wasn't he?!): What are they doing here? What are we doing here? What is this all about? But I didn't want to get all Kierkegaard, and it was too hot and I was too tired, so I said, "Out of work, laid-off maybe."

We continued down Westminster to the Arcade where several businessmen in white shirts sat devouring their lunch. As we climbed the old mall's wide staircase we observed its deserted recesses, and on one of the large glass doors a white paper sign with black type read: "The Arcade is now officially closed." Officially. I wondered what it had been before it was officially closed. Had it been unofficially closed? Had its freeholders forgotten to give this historic gemthe first enclosed mall in the countrya fitting ending, and later rectified this faux pas with pomp and circumstance, parade, balloons, fireworks which they also forgot to officially announce? Was it not evident, conspicuous enough, by its own appearance that it was, indeed, closed? I looked at the unimpressed little man, and growing weary I suggested, "Well, yes, picture this place thriving with shops and restaurants." Through its transparent doors, he looked into the empty space, commented on its Greek revival architecture and the enormous Ionic columns on the exterior of the building. "I used to love having lunch in there," I smiled faintly.

"Interesting, Mom, too bad it's not open anymore," the little man said.Yes, well, I'll take you by the old A.G.s office, too. And, as with all of the other places that had either closed or relocated in this stomping ground of my youth so had the Office of Attorney General; crossed over to the more pristine South Main Street. By this time I had grown officially weary, my memories tainted by the vacant buildings, the confrontation at every corner by jobless, homeless street folks begging for spare change. And while downtown is no ghost townthere are some surviving trendy boutiques along Westminster, mostly high-end, like Clover and Hier Antiques, and a couple of hip restaurants, a crafty type store and  Symposium Books (great prices)juxtaposed by such abject squalor, I wondered what the shop owners thought, felt guilty for considering a purchase, happy my son stopped me at the windows even if my intent was really just to poke around. And then there was that question...

We circled back to the car, but first ducked into Grace Church (where more street folk took refuge from the heat). We dipped our fingers into the enormous marble font, sat in an old wooden pew, meditated a moment, a thankful moment, and then quietly descended its stairs, crossing the street to Farmstead, where I ordered a quarter of a $28.00/pound of creamy French goat cheese—my only indulgence at this pedestrian mall.

As we walked back towards the car I asked, "Shall we head home now? Or have lunch here?"

"How about we have lunch at the Indian place on Hope Street?" the little man grinned. So we drove to his favorite place near Rochambeau—Not Just Snacks—and filled our empty bellies with spicy and aromatic pork tikka masala, chicken biryani, beef kabobs, basmati rice with peas, warm naan, and cold, refreshing mango lassi.

With our Downcity expedition almost forgotten, I prodded my little man to clarify the meaning of his street folk inquiry. "Well, Mom," he explained, "I just wonder why these people are roaming the street, and begging, why aren't we helping them? Why can't they get jobs? Shouldn't we be helping them?"

"We do try to help them," I replied, "We do what we can, we have state programs, job training, welfare, shelters, food pantries. It's a complex issue..." The boy nodded his head in agreement, yes, complex—as complex as the distinct and varied spices in our deliciously pungent Indian food. But as I said, I was hot, and tired, and the little man was full and satisfied, and drifting off somewhere else. Maybe we would have to save politics, social economics, and that philosophical conversation about existentialism for another time. Or could it be that this little man had already figured it out for himself? He sure looked content in his imaginative little bubble of a world. Yes, we would have to save humankind's perplexing matters for another day... Perhaps when his eighth grade uniform is delivered, or when we decide to cut into that goat cheese.