Buckley Hill

Looking Up Peel Street

Looking Up Peel Street

Returning to Boston is very uncomfortable. So much has changed there over the last twenty years that it is hard to find a single thing that still looks the same. With the inexorable beat of the developers’ drum, it has been reinvented several times over, with plenty of money changing hands each time.  Even the historic parts, which somehow ought to stay the same, seem swept up in a kaleidoscope of memory and change.

But this is not about Boston. It’s only mentioned because it is in such stark contrast to the village in England where I landed at age 10-and-a-half after my life took a dramatic fork in the road. That place, Marsden, nr. Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, England is a place that seems never to have changed.

Through the eye of Google earth, I can visit it again from my desk chair. I can virtually walk up Peel Street, past Pogson’s bakery where we used to buy “ham butties,” past the hardware store where I tried to buy elbow grease. I can turn left up Brougham Road towards my old school. There was a shop along there where we went regularly for fish and chips, wrapped in newsprint.

Those places are probably gone now, or changed hands or perhaps they’re sweet shops or hairdressers or a 99p shop. But the street itself is much the same, the bridge over the River Colne, the slumbering gray-green Pennines hemming in the horizon all around.

We lived at the bottom of Peel Street, where it meets Station Road, next door to The Swan, which used to be a pub, but is now a youth hostel apparently. The house, number 3, was called “Buckley Hill” — and that’s a how a letter would reach me– at “Buckley Hill, 3, Station Road, Marsden, nr. Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, England.”

There were plenty of letters sent by my father, and other relatives left behind in the States, writing with news of dogs and the American Top 40 and the Connor kids up the street.

(Letters went the other way too, from the post-box in the wall in front of the house: the pony (Minty), my teacher, Mrs. Docker,  was tired of me always writing about horses. She has silver-gray hair to her waist. Cadbury Flake is The Best!!!, but could you please send some Tootsie rolls?)

 

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Buckley Hill

But this is not about any of that either. This instead is about Buckley Hill. In the spring of 1973, at age 11 and a half, I walked out the front door, got in the backseat of our grey Morris Minor, went to the Manchester airport,  and left forever on a BOAC jet bound for JFK.

Yet, I remember the house with it’s tiny walled garden and its 300-year-old kitchen more clearly, more vividly than so many other things that have come and gone.

In Connecticut I’d had my own room, pink, in a rambling four-square on a corner. In Connecticut I’d been an only child.

Among the many changes that came with life in Marsden were the addition of a step-sister and step-brother, and the three of us shared a room.  It was over the kitchen and the pipes that ran up from the AGA cooker warmed it. Casement windows looked out over a long narrow courtyard between us and the Congregational Church. It was there I set up a series of little hurdles to play “show jumping” in the long days between riding lessons.

Each night I slept in a little white metal bed. There was a nightstand, and a desk. It wasn’t unusual to stay up late reading with a flashlight under the covers: Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton, The Chronicles of Narnia. On the desk, there a portable record player in a tan-buckram case where I played my cherished collection of Beatles records until someone appeared at the door and said “Get to bed. Now.”

We always parked in front of the house, and came in through the gate. The  drawing room had a line of chairs and a square grand piano. Up the right hand wall rose the staircase. My stepfather was the village physician and this room and the one directly above it were dedicated to that. Not much ever seem to happen in the room with the square piano, but you’d occasionally find strangers sitting there– women working on their knitting, men from the mill.

At the top of the stairs then was the domain of the staff– Peggy and Eileen and Dulcie. There were others. Typewriters and telephones and shelf after shelf of manila folders with the medical histories of every one in the village. Those rooms belonged to some other purpose and we were to steer clear of them.

There was one  bathroom in the house,  up the stairs and at the end of the hall, for staff and family alike. One long bathtub, big enough for two ten year old girls to bathe in at once. The toilet tank was up near the ceiling, and you pulled a long chain to make it flush. There were antiques in the bathroom. I’d never seen that before.

Downstairs,  a door on a swinging hinge opened into the family sitting room. Most of the room was taken up by yet another grand piano, and leather arm chairs nestled around a coal grate. Those chairs, inexplicably, have managed to stay with us for more than 40 years, and sit in my mother’s living room in South Carolina.  When you curled up in the chairs, it seemed that the piano was looking over your shoulder.

William, age six, used to sit on the piano bench and pick out delicate melodies along the keys. He’d been brain-damaged through an accident at birth: cerebral palsy, significantly reduced hearing and sight, cognitive deficits. If he wanted something he sang. “Would you like some tea?” meant that he was hungry.

The kitchen was the original room of the house, with stone walls and stone floors worn smooth. Milk was delivered each morning in pint bottles at the door, and was consumed immediately, which was just as well as the refrigerator was tiny, about 18″ square. My mother used to grouse that the room was so cold that the refrigerator was redundant anyway. There was a yellow box of Weetabix, William’s favorite.

William and Hannah and I ate tea in the afternoon, sometimes my mother made it, other times in was Jean Woods, the housekeeper. There was eggs and toast, Robertson’s jam with golliwog on the label. In the corner was  near the AGA stove was a small black and white television on which we watched Coronation Street, Top of the Pops, Show Jumping.

For years I wore a triangular scar on the back of my wrist, where I’d been pushed against the AGA in the midst of an argument with Hannah. The AGA was always on, summer or winter. The scar has faded so much that nowt  can’t find it anymore in the roadmap of my hands.

I don’t remember what the squabble was about. What to watch on the telly. The horrible smell of the fried bread she liked to make. That some boy liked her better than me. Who ate the last McVitie’s biscuit.

One afternoon in the kitchen– Hannah came back from the orthodontist in Manchester with new black and maroon platform shoes. I was livid and not at all gracious, as just a few weeks earlier I’d been made to get plain brown sensible oxfords. That was the difference between going shopping with Humphrey who would indulge such whimsies if it suited him, and my mother who thought that children shouldn’t dress like trollops.

They’d brought me a riding crop as a consolation prize, which only added to how much trouble I was in for being beastly about Hannah’s new shoes.

On Christmas day the town band crowded into the kitchen filling up the room. They played for the doctor a selection of carols of the season, and the the very last song was “My Old Kentucky Home,” especially for my mother and me, the Americans. How thrilled I was that they played a special song, an American song. It made me homesick, but in a nice way.

 

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A Second Cup of Tea

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Last year, I decided that I wanted something different for the new year– not resolutions which seemed doomed to failure and designed to inspire self-loathing– but something else, a kind of “to do” list. Not a bucket list, with its solemn life-changing scope, something smaller. What I came up with was a “tea-cup list“.

On the original list, there were 15 items. I achieved 7 of them:  I did renew my passport and I did leave the country. I bought a kitchen torch, I took Ransom to the beach, I spent more time with friends. I threw away my old tired undies, I explored more, I kissed more.

But the living room ceiling is still without gilt, I didn’t get to Kitty Hawk, I haven’t been riding, though I did take a carriage in Central Park.  I didn’t take the train to the Library of Congress, and I didn’t find a place to swim.  The fireplace still needs tile, and I haven’t learned to make a pie crust– though I found a restaurant in West Milton, Ohio that makes the most wonderful pie, so maybe I can cross that off instead. I am not writing five days a week and that does vex me.

I still want to get to all of those things, but they won’t make this year’s list.  Oh, perhaps you will catch a glimpse of one or two here or there.  But it is a new year and I have new things, and new-old things I want to try. And as with last year’s, I post these not because I think you have any particular interest in how I plan to make my year, but in hope that it may inspire you to make plans for some fun of your own.

 

Tea for 2015

1.  Two finished chapters by March 1.

I’ve been spinning my wheels on this long enough. The research is always fun, but the weight of what I need to do has begun to tax me. It’s time to get those chapters written, the outline polished, the pitch made perfect. In March I want to begin to sell the book.  (And while this sounds a bit like a resolution and I am resolved to make it happen, it is finally, a gift to myself to move forward.) 

 

2.  French doors to the study.

There are two sets of vintage French doors in the garage. And a five-foot wide opening into my study through which sail dogs, husband, children and the like. I love my family, truly, but if I can’t close the door, they interrupt, and if they interrupt I don’t get any work done. See item 1. 

 

3.  Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is safe, thank God. I had planned to go and visit when it was in danger of being raffled off to cure the city’s bankruptcy.  The imminent threat has been abated, but I still want to get to the Motor City to explore restaurants and make photographs of another great American city and poke around the art museum and see my friends Ed and Jerry over there in Windsor. 

 

4.  A few nights at the Elizabeth City Bed & Breakfast

When the Wrights went to the Outer Banks to try their Flyer, the train took them to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They stayed in the Southern Hotel there while waiting for the weekly freight boat to Kitty Hawk. The Southern is long gone, but the quaint and charming Elizabeth City B & B is in an old inn that was the Southern’s contemporary. I think there’s a pillow there with a mint on it for me. 

 

5.  Chincoteague

I want to go and see the ponies. It’s not so far. 

 

6.  Finish early

This one is even more like a resolution, but my relationship with deadlines is a toxic one. It makes me anxious and cranky, and I could just be a lot kinder to myself by not letting it go so long. I will try. 

 

7.  Swim nearly every day.

What a luxury, and one within the realm of possibility. I would not have modified it to “nearly”, and could have planned to swim every day but I know my own life well enough that my best hope is four or five days a week. 

 

8.  Hang every picture in the house. On freshly painted walls.

I have many wonderful paintings and photographs and the like that are stacked in closets and up against walls and packed in boxes. It’s time to hang them so I can enjoy them. Some of the walls need a new coat of paint first. I’ve got the paint, I just need to set aside the time to make it happen.

 

9.  Rookwood Pottery. A single tile. 

Rookwood Pottery is functioning again. I told my husband I’d like a bear for my birthday. Perhaps I’ll get my wish. But really I’d like to go and look at tiles and see them made and perhaps buy just one, and use that one splendid tile for the focus of the surround that the living room fireplace has needed since we moved in. Eight years ago. 

 

10.  Go to the zoo and visit the lions.

I love the lions at the Cincinnati Zoo. There are new cubs. It’s not so far, nor so expensive. I just like to sit quietly and watch, it’s good for the soul.  I’ve never been sorry to spend an afternoon there. 

 

11.  Have a lobster roll.

My most favorite food. I don’t know where I’ll get this lobster roll. It doesn’t seem all that likely I’ll get to the Maritimes two summers running. But maybe. Revere Beach is closer. And if it comes down to brass tacks, I’ll make one for myself. 

 

12.  Resurrect the Suburban.

Poor Suburban, our work truck, gasping for fuel, the front passenger seat torn asunder where the dog lost his mind one afternoon. There’s a spot on the roof with a bit of rust. It’s sat in the driveway so long now that the remote won’t work. But it wouldn’t take so much to put it all to right, and once again have a rig that will carry sheet rock, plywood, garden soil, straw bales, dog crates, storage tubs and furniture. I miss it, I miss sitting a bit higher than the rest of the traffic. I miss its limousine qualities. It’s a worthwhile endeavor to bring it back. 

 

13.  Winnow

Like everybody, I’ve got too much stuff. Some of this stuff I don’t even really like. It’s time to pitch it. Ditto the spices I’ve been carrying around since I was a sophomore in college. The shoes I will never ever wear again. Some of the ways I squander my time. Friends who aren’t friends. Clothes that make me feel self-conscious. Books that I haven’t read and won’t read or those I’ve read once and won’t ever read again. Music I don’t like. VHS tapes.

 

14.   Go to the movies.

I like the movies. There’s a first run cinema here where you can see them for five dollars a pop on Wednesdays. I just need to make a point to go. I don’t remember the last time I saw a movie in a theater. It might have been a decade ago.

 

15.  Keep being grateful.

This autumn I made a point to count my blessings– three a day for a hundred days. I’ve finished that exercise and it was a good one. I’m so very glad I did it, even though I’m –um– grateful that I no longer have to do it such a formal fashion. But it did change me in a profound way. I learned to look for the silver lining, to note the things that made me feel happy or joyous or content instead of just letting those slide.  The glass is more beautiful when it is half full.

 

 

No Thanks.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 1.11.05 AM It’s my least favorite holiday.  I don’t think I really knew that, or even examined the question fully until today, but the verdict is clear. I’d rather just skip Thanksgiving. I believe that the grateful life is a healthy life, and that counting one’s blessings is a worthy use of time. I’ve made it Day 73 (so far) of delineating three different things I’m thankful for each and every day for a hundred days. It’s not that. I am grateful.

But this holiday . . . this holiday gets me down.

I was an only child and we lived 800 miles away from extended family.  In Ohio, my great Aunt Della was famous for her thanksgiving feasts. But I was never a guest there. I remember fish fries in the summer, and sauerbraten and homemade noodles,  and at Christmas the fudge she used to send through the mail. But I never had a chance to bow my head for prayer at her Thanksgiving table.

Nor at my Nana’s house in South Carolina. I’m sure there were Thanksgiving traditions there, but I don’t know what they were. I couldn’t even speculate. I know the fried chicken and the green beans and the macaroni and cheese and the pound cake. But Thanksgiving? I haven’t a clue.

I do remember one childhood Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family friend:  roast goose,  Asti Spumante, Doberman Pinschers nosing around my lap for whatever I might slip them.

Then, a divorce, and we moved to England, where Thanksgiving is some foreign holiday, and the fourth Thursday in November passes without comment.  Later, in Canada, we again had Thanksgiving, but it’s the second Monday in October, celebrating the harvest and somehow cleaner, without the  bloodied history of European interaction with tribal nations. (Not that Canada doesn’t have it’s own brutal history, it’s just not that history.)

To Boston for college, and a hasty marriage one morning just prior to Christmas.  The month before my mother and stepfather came to visit for Thanksgiving,  but Bob was due for an extended family gathering at his grandmother’s house on the north shore. We delivered him there, met everyone, shook hands all around and left. Later, Bob said,  his sweet grandmother felt terrible for not asking us to join them, she’d been so flustered, there was plenty of food. But we went away and drove along the Massachusetts coast until we found someplace open. A dining room that looked out over the cold gray sea, where I ate tinned chowder and cringed under my stepfather’s harangue at not being asked to stay.

Of course, I was also rebuked for not taking more time off to be with them; but working in retail there were no days off the weekend after Thanksgiving, and we could be sure that those days were going to be utter hell.

Mind you, Thanksgiving itself is big business in Boston. Plimoth Plantation, which was developed around the site of the original colony has been a major tourist draw since 1947. It tries to present a picture of both the immigrant and indigenous cultures and you can still eat “America’s Thanksgiving Dinner” there for $93. Each. (Or $68, if you want to re-enact the 1621 dinner with  “A Sallet, Mussels Seeth’d with Parsley and Beer, a Dish of Turkey, Sauc’d, a Pottage of Cabbage, Leeks & Onions, and a Sweet Pudding of Native Corn.”)

Set off for Montana on my own some years later and I remember weeping when they played “American the Beautiful” on the radio.  Amber waves of grain, purple mountain’s majesty, fruited plains– yes! Finally, a place where Thanksgiving meant a connection to the earth.

Reality was that I married a lovely man with two young daughters. Every holiday was a cause for a fight with his ex-wife over where the girls would land, and Thanksgiving was no different. If we had them for Thanksgiving, we missed Christmas morning. And it wasn’t up to us to decide.

But working at a newspaper there in Montana I helped create the most rewarding Thanksgiving I’d experienced. While doing a human interest story on Meals on Wheels, we discovered that they didn’t deliver on Thanksgiving. Restaurants weren’t open on Thanksgiving. If you had nowhere to go that last Thursday in November, you were out of luck.

So we set about hosting an all-volunteer free Thanksgiving dinner for the community, citing of course, the communal nature of that first Thanksgiving. My friend Sheryl cooked the 90 turkeys on the rotating racks of her enormous bakery oven. The head chef from a nearby resort came to organize the kitchen. Food poured in, money poured in, volunteers came out in droves. No one was asked to prove their need. They only needed to want to be there with all of us. The District Judge gave the opening prayer. We fed 700 people.

The next year, we did it again. My father and his wife were on hand for that one, and again, it went splendidly. The next night, over dinner in Livingston’s best restaurant, my father lit into me for my lack of self-discipline. When I tried to defend myself (“I write 5000 words a week for publication, Dad. That takes some self-discipline”) he roared at me that he wanted some respect. I got up and walked out, happy Thanksgiving.

We did the Community Thanksgiving Dinner until 2001, when the events of 9-11 tapped out everyone’s last dime for charity. There was not enough money, or energy leftover to give locally.

Years later, we came home one winter evening to find three turkeys standing in the driveway. Live turkeys. They looked a bit like wild turkeys, but turned out to be Bourbon Reds that belonged to the neighbors. We were welcome to them, the neighbors said.

Apparently they’d acquired 4 turkey chicks in the spring and named them Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter. Apparently “Thanksgiving” had put up such a ruckus at becoming the centerpiece of the holiday meal, the neighbors had lost interest in going through all that again.

Turkeys are funny animals.  These three– two toms and a hen– liked to sit on the ridge line of the  barns, or atop the chimneys like storks.  They slept in the barn at night, bedding down in the straw with the ponies.  They’d greet you in the morning and run to meet the car when we came home in the afternoon. They would cluck and coo and gobble as they made their way around the farm.

One day Edward the dog got loose and caught and savaged the two toms. I wanted to kill him, I really did. I was ready to load him up and head for the veterinarian. My son Julian, then about 8, wept and pleaded and argued Edward’s case until I gave in. I picked up the poor beleaguered carcasses, wrapped them in a sheet and set them in the back of the pick-up. I knew my husband would put them in the green dumpsters; there’s no burying anything in the Montana winter.

The hen mourned. I would watch her sitting alone on the barn roof. She wouldn’t go inside anymore. She turned away from the grain I brought her. With temperatures predicted to plunge to 20 below, I brought her into the mudroom of the house. She threw herself against the door. I let her out. In the morning I found her frozen to death in the snow.

It was a long time before I could face the carcass of a turkey on a platter. The next Thanksgiving we had a rib roast.

Late in August of 2005 my father came to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to recover from laryngeal cancer. In the inexorable march over the next three months he scheduled people to come and visit. We sent an email– offering to travel from Montana to Missouri for Thanksgiving, thinking one last chance to do this right– but our offer was refused. He’d already scheduled his wife’s son Michael and Michael’s family for Thanksgiving instead. Absent was any message of inclusion. He died the day after Christmas.

Two years later we moved to Ohio,  and finally we had a shot at a real Thanksgiving with extended family– my 90-something-year-old grandmother, aunt and uncles. their families gathered at my uncle’s house. One year I brought the sublime macaroni and cheese I’d learned how to make from my southern Nana, and no one touched it.

But for the most part, these were happy gatherings, with pickles and noodles and turkey and ham and salads and a kid’s table and plenty of wine and conversations that went on long into the night. Then my grandmother died, and we met only one more time for the holiday.  This year my Uncle tells me that the main event at his house is a “quarter pound mixed-meat hot dog and curly fries.” He did have cranberry juice for breakfast.  I tell him that we need to be better organized.

We had a quiet thanksgiving here. We weren’t in the mood to cook, and the oven is broken anyway. We thought we’d just get by with burgers today. But the burger place was closed. You can’t buy a burger on Thanksgiving, but you can buy a big screen television. Or an iPad. Or whatever Macy’s and Kohl’s and Target is selling; the hordes out there trampling each other for deals hours after being grateful for what they already have.

Thanksgiving is marked at our house this year with bacon and eggs and hash-browns. Perhaps it’s better to just be thankful every day and never mind the rest of it.

The Tea Cup List

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For years, in the quiet hours before New Year’s festivities, I dutifully crafted a list of resolutions, usually on the flyleaf of a brand new journal.  They ran the gamut from good thinking  (“Be comfortable in your own skin”) to the painful (“Find a good man”) to the absurd (“Publish that book of poems.”) Almost without exception they became instead a list of failures, mocking me each time I opened the journal. Good God, who needs that to start the new year? Or any time. Eventually I gave up making resolutions (and became comfortable in my own skin and found a good man) — for that matter I gave up keeping journals: much time is wasted contemplating one’s own belly button.

When I turned 50, it seemed like the right time to make a bucket list, so I did. It’s a good list and it’s holding up well. But a Bucket List is like a Lifetime Achievement award, a road map for the things you’d like to eventually accomplish. Some of them are less practical for the short term.

Last week while making quiche I thought, “this year I’m going to teach myself to make a pie crust that is both dependable and delicious.” This thought was soon followed by another: what else would I like to accomplish in the coming year? The usual self-castigating cast of characters danced their way across my consciousness. “Lose weight!” they sang. “Write every day!” they crooned. “Get your thank you notes sent promptly!” rang out the chorus.  No, no, no. Those are all worthwhile and virtuous. But I want something else. Something fun.

Like a bucket list, but smaller and more immediate. And thus, dear friends, we have it. The Tea Cup List. (And many thanks to my dear friend, Fran Menley, for supplying the name of my wonderful new list for the New Year.)  I hasten to add here that I’m not posting this because I think that you are all so fascinated with what I’d like to do in the year to come, but because I think some of you might want to borrow this idea to make your own happy plans for the new year.

Larkin’s Tea Cup List for 2014

1. Gild the living room ceiling.

I bought the paint for this nearly two years ago. The previous owners of the house painted every surface of the living room a kind of golden ochre, in flat paint. The color works, but the texture is wrong.

2. Throw away all my old tired undies.

You know the ones. A little hole here or there, a stretched out elastic, that pair that was never comfortable. I can either buy new or go without. 

3.  Spend more time with friends.

Facebook alone is not good enough, especially when you compare it to a great meal together or time spent on a treasure hunt. For Trisch, who wrote to say “Come see me in L.A.” and Pam, who wants to share lobster rolls again on PEI, I’m intending to include you in this. Distances may be long, but the will is there. 

4. Go riding once in awhile.

I miss horses. I don’t want to own one again, but I’d love to be  seeing the world through the ears of a horse. 

5. Buy a kitchen torch and use it.

This is actually related to something on my Official Bucket List, which was to make a Baked Alaska, or just eat one. In any case, having a torch is useful. 

6. Take Ransom to the beach.

My Chesapeake Bay Retriever will be 11 in June. He needs another trip to the beach.  We live in Ohio, so the beach is something to be pondered;  though Lake Erie is not that far. There’s always  his ancestral homeland, the Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps I can combine it with Number 7. 

7.  Go to Kitty Hawk.

I’m writing a book about Orville Wright, and I live in the Omphalos of Aviation history. But I have to go to Kitty Hawk all the same. I wish I could take the train there, as he and Wilbur did, but alas, those days are gone. I can however . . . 

8. Take the train to the Library of Congress

The train goes from Cincinnati to Washington for less money than it costs to drive. I figure if I get a room at a hostel and don’t take a car, I can walk to the Library to do the research and I won’t be so tempted to waste time goofing off.  Which brings me to 9…

9. Write Five Days a Week

I am a writer, goddammit. It is my job to write.  This may seem to be one of the Mean Fairies of Resolution, but sometimes just defining how you’re going to do something is an enormous boon to doing it. Plus which, I get two days off. 

10.  Renew my passport, and go.

It makes me uncomfortable, almost itchy, that my passport has expired. Time to get a new one– let’s see, passport number five. Canada is not that far away. 

11.  Find a place to swim.

The old YMCA downtown has a wonderful pool, done up in 1920s Egyptian-inspired tile. Time to join. I bet my friend Martha will go with me. 

12. Re-tile the fireplace in the living room.

Speaking of tile. Our house was built in 1913, as Dayton was recovering from a godawful flood. (And yes, it’s built in the flood plain; which strikes me as a wonderful faith and foolishness combined). Over the years it’s been both well-tended and utterly neglected. The previous owners bought it for a dollar from the city. They did a lot of wonderful work in terms of restoration, but some things were a miss– like the dusty pink bathroom tile they used on the fireplace surround. It’s designed to have tile, just not that tile. 

13. Kiss more.

This is a philosophical position. I don’t have to be quite so prickly. 

14. Explore more.

There are so many things left to discover ’round these parts that it still feels like we just moved here. It’s been nearly six years.  Long past time to make time to see flea markets, abandoned watercraft, draft horse farms, haunted places, coonhound gatherings, caverns, dives, and museums of the obscure. I want to go to Henry’s and eat pie. 

15 .  Learn to make a pie crust that is dependable and delicious.

Hunting and Gathering

The Challenges of Bringing Food to the House.

If the whole diet and exercise thing comes crashing down in flames, it will be because I can’t get a grip on grocery shopping. For awhile I lived in Tuscany, and shopping for food in Italy was a real challenge. There were a few places that were like little grocery stores, but mostly you had to stop at market stalls in the street or at the butchers, the cheese shop, the bakery  to get what you needed. I didn’t have a car, and rarely enough money for grocery and taxi ride both, so I could only buy stuff that I could carry home in my arms, up the hill out of the city.

English isn’t widely spoken in Italy and though I had a little German and a lot of French, I found it very difficult to translate. So each morning, I would figure what was needed for the day and I would make a list. Then I would look up the translations for the foods I needed and write them next to their counterparts on the list. Sometimes I would write out the pronunciation key too. If I really got stuck I could point to the word on the list.  Bringing home the food was a lot of work and it took hours.

In 1972, when we moved from suburban Connecticut (with its bright and modern supermarkets) to a mill village in the north of England, my mother was horrified at the shopping dilemma. The nearest town with any sort of large market was Huddersfield. It was only about ten miles away, but there were innumerable obstacles. The local shops were merely out the door and 100 feet up Peel Street. It was just the everyday chore of having to go out for bread and vegetables and a bit of meat and chocolate– none of which were in the same shop, of course.

We’ve recreated this situation in this country to an extent and made a trendy entertainment of shopping in specialty stores and farmer’s markets. I can hardly stand it. Maybe it’s the echo of my experience in Europe, but more likely it’s the sense of self-consciousness that drapes over me like a cloak. I hate to ask for things. I don’t want to be helped. All the other shoppers seem so weirdly pleased with themselves about being there.  We will go in occasionally to buy bread. Our friend is the baker and the bread is truly worthwhile, but I hate going to get it.

There are ethnic markets of course, but not for routine shopping. There is a small local chain of upscale groceries called “Dorothy Lane Market,” whose ethnicity is rich and white. I went there the other night for a wine and cheese sampling with my friend Rita. It was divine. They offer to help you there, but you can be utterly anonymous too. Just don’t forget your wallet, and I hope it’s fat if you’re shopping there much. There’s a Trader Joe’s too, but it seems kind of flat after DLM.

But the regular routine staples– the milk and oranges and butter and eggs and cereal, that generally comes from a grocery store here. My husband’s parents ran a neighborhood grocery in L.A.and in between stints at railroads, my husband worked at numerous grocery stores. I think he clocked in at about 50 Ralph’s in Southern California. When we still lived in Montana, people would stop him in the store and ask for help years after he’d stopped working there.

He is a great shopper of sales. He fiddles with coupons, but finally doesn’t use them for anything except tormenting me. If I should happen to buy something different or shampoo or something he will invariably  say “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to buy that? I have a coupon for it at home.”  Always. But his style of shopping is entirely different from mine. He’s the man at the checkout with 16 cans of green beans and four cases of soda pop, a tower of canned tuna fish, a big box of ramen and three bags of cat food balanced over the top of the cart. He always walks back to the back of the store just before we leave, to get the milk. If he buys fresh produce it’s one or more of these three things: lettuce, onions or bananas.

Then he wrestles with the self check-out. Those machines, they’ve got it in for Elmer. They’re holding a grudge.

There’s nothing particularly odious about grocery shopping here, it’s just so boring. I try hard to adhere to the advice of diet and money gurus to stay out of the middle of the store and just shop along the edges, as the edges are where they keep the fresh food. If money weren’t a consideration, the shopping would be easier. (Hell, if money weren’t a consideration, I’d have a personal chef and they could do the shopping.) But it is, so I’m on the lookout for less-expensive proteins to build a meal around. Before I was so food conscious, this was a bit easier. Kielbasa and noodles are a tasty and inexpensive supper, but really, you know, not all that healthy. Prowling the aisles, I try to find stuff that will help me continue on the right path, and still provide sustenance for the rest of the family.

On good days the cart is brimming with the potential of great meals ahead: tortillas and tilapia, ginger and Bok choy, cilantro, raw shrimp, peppers, chicken, some lean beef, brown cow yogurt, granola, fruit, spinach, avocado, oranges. But then there’s the check-out ahead and hauling it all out to the car and then carrying all the bags up to the house and finding some place to put everything and chucking out all the things that have wilted and rotted and gotten covered in gray fuzz in the refrigerator. The wastefulness of it all really bothers me. I resolve to do better, and use up the ingredients I’d bought in preparing wonderful meals.

But the days go by. We go out to eat. We have a “fend” night, where everyone is on their own to feed themselves. Things age, they wilt, the bloom goes off. And suddenly there you are with nothing in the house to eat again and it’s time to go grocery shopping.  Planning would help, of course. If we could only stick to the plan. Somehow, there’s got to be a better way.

Target today 70  Steps 611

Yogurt with granola. Slice of birthday cake. Six crackers with Monterey Jack cheese. Small slice of pizza. One chicken nugget. 

Your Flight Has Been Delayed

I know I promised that I’d lift you out of an ordinary day with sublime prose about the wonders of maple syrup. I know I did. I know I said I’d start writing in the morning. Yes, I’m aware that people are inconvenienced when things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to. Wait, here’s a bulletin: no flights of fancy on maple tomorrow either. Perhaps not until Thursday.

I don’t think I can write about maple syrup when I’m thinking about the World Trade Center. I really wish, now, that I could not think about the World Trade Center. I wish they’d gotten their asses in gear and built something fantastic, something soaring and wonderful on that spot, so that we could all go there and think about something else, so we could we be released.

When we go on marking the anniversary year after year, it seems like we mark our own failures annually. Yes, Bin Laden is dead. (Hey Ohio Republicans, news flash! It wasn’t Romney that killed Osama Bin Laden.) Yes, we’ve killed more of our own men and women to somehow avenge the deaths of those on September 11, 2001. Somehow that doesn’t seem to work out right, you know, the math.

We’ve practically obliterated another country that had nothing to do with it. (You know, nearly all the hijackers were Saudis. Why didn’t we invade Saudi Arabia. Oh yeah, this.)

It was a remarkable time in America. We came together in a way we hadn’t before or since. Most of the rest of the world rallied to our side. Even Yasser Arafat was there, with his sleeve rolled up, donating blood. But yet, we gave up so many freedoms, we’ve lived in paranoia and suspicion, under a cloak of prejudice for eleven years. Did we win the war on terror? Can you win a war on terror?

More thoughts on this tomorrow. If you’d rather read about counting calories and the virtues of avocados, come back later this week. Wednesday is the 18th birthday of my only son. (He didn’t really get a birthday in 2011, as you might imagine. Hard to be turning seven in the middle of all that.) So, okay, Thursday then, a new moon, rescheduled.

Tonight, we just sit together in the lounge and wait.

Target 70  Steps (still not counted correctly) 1586

Breakfast: Yogurt with granola. Three Bahlsen Leibniz cookies. Dinner: hot and sour soup, half a cup of lomein,  cup of bok choy with enoki mushrooms, braised tofu and pork. Fortune cookie. 

Becalmed

I hesitate to use the word “doldrums”, though “doldrums” is what it is.

I just can’t get anything done. But I’m not doing anything much. It’s not like I’m busy or something, I’m just idle. The devil, no doubt, is already eyeing my hands with delight.

The real doldrums are an actual place, well two places– one in the Atlantic ocean, the other in the Pacific. (So you truly cannot be those two places at the same time.) It’s the intertropical convergence zone (don’t glaze over, this is quick) an area of low-pressure near the equator where the air heats up and rises, traveling south towards the horse latitudes.

This causes periods of absolute calm, and boats under sail power used to be stuck there for weeks. In the “Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”, Samuel Coleridge describes it “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” But the winds come back, as trade winds, and can kick up storms and squalls with little notice. It’s a perfect metaphor for my life.

Norton Juster, who wrote one of my most favorite children’s books, The Phantom Tollbooth, in which he describes the “Doldrums” as a place inhabited by the Lethargians, “where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.” (Perhaps he didn’t get the memo about the trade winds.)

This isn’t despair. It’s just nothing. Last night I couldn’t even bring myself to write. This is spreading– I’m not reading, I’m not walking, I’m certainly not running or cycling or hitting tennis balls. I’m just killing time. And frankly, I don’t think I have so much time left that I ought to be killing it off. I’m 50 after all, surely I’m halfway through.

Part of this is too much family togetherness. I love my husband and my son. My son is off to university. But my husband is retired. He calls me from the living room to leave my desk to come see a clever television ad, or a bit in a political speech. For as much as he does it, the DVR controls are inexact and it sometimes takes four or five minutes for him to return to the clip, and I stand and wait. If I don’t come when summoned, he sulks a bit. (To be fair he doesn’t spend all day in front of the television– but when he’s doing other things around the house he still wants an audience. He is not much into solitude.)

It’s not just that of course. That’s fairly minor. It’s just one interruption after another, so why even bother to try? There’s noise and distraction and fifty things I need to be doing, so I don’t do anything. I play Snood on the computer and watch the minutes fly by, utterly pacified. The television chatters away in the background, all day, all night Maryanne.

I’ve forgotten to write down what I ate– the most basic part of this project. I mean how hard is it to write down a list of what you’ve eaten? But you forget one day, and then the next, before I know it the whole week will be blank.

In the doldrums, the sea is so calm, it’s flat and glassy, without a swell. The line between sea and sky becomes ambiguous, especially at night; as if you’re in the midst of an enormous blank canvas, floating in space, praying for the sound of a sail beginning to flap.

Today’s target 70. Steps 1865 (Yesterday 3763)

Breakfast: yogurt with granola. Lunch: barbacoa, rice, a tablespoon of refried beans, quarter avocado Dinner: small bowl of beef stronanoff, yogurt.