Monday, November 30, 2009

Poor Jim Cramer

Poor old Jim Cramer. He's been on my mind a lot lately. I can't help but wonder what he did to deserve such a fate. It's sort of like when in Colonial times they publicly humiliated wrong-doers by putting them in the post (not The Washington Post, but I suppose that could be another form of humiliation) or the ducking stool. I figure Jim was one of the church elders and he sneaked some vodka into the punch bowl at Myrtle Biggs's 90th birthday party, got everyone out there dancing the hoochie-coochie, then he dropped his pants. Or maybe he just ran off to Vegas with the choir director with money from the collection basket.

Jim Cramer came to mind yesterday at church. I went to the Quaker Meeting at Langley Friends. One man stood and spoke of the Lord's Prayer and the concept of forgiveness. He asked us to consider Jesus's words "as we forgive those who trespass against us." And I thought about Jesus, dying on the cross, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Can there be any deeper level of forgiveness than that? I saw the meaning of the words in a new light—if I expect God to forgive me, then I have to aspire to be godlike and have that same depth of forgiveness for others. The “others” in a general, detached sense, are not difficult to forgive. It's easy to forgive anonymous people, people without faces who haven't hurt me. I forgive you, Jim Cramer. Now I'll work on forgiving the others.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I've been sitting by the fire, playing Cowboy's Dream on the banjo, thinking how nice it would be to be able to teleport myself to my favorite spot in Arizona for a few days. Just sit in the sun, ride horses, and climb up the mountain to those gorgeous views. Alas, not to be. But here's a piece I wrote about a man I met there.

A prayer for comfort . . .

Snake Bit

Darryl Pearce was filled with venom even before the rattlesnake bit him. His eyes exude the dark, fierce look of a caged animal, that wild look in a horse’s eyes before it kicks and runs, eyes you avoid looking into for fear of what you will see. Something painful throbs just below the surface, beneath the seemingly calm exterior of a polite, knowledgeable man. He’s part Apache—a dark, sinewy man. He wears his anger like an iron skin, quietly but undeniably. Khaki hiking shorts and shirt, sturdy boots covered with fine dust, felt hat with a stampede string, a water bottle and a knife in a leather sheath at his waist. I wonder if he used the knife to extract the venom when the rattlesnake bit him last year.

Darryl Pearce is a naturalist in the Arizona desert. He leads hikes into the foothills of the mountains, explaining all the intricacies of life in the desert. Last year I took my second trip to the area to go hiking with him. I love the hikes, love understanding the native animals and their adaptations to the harshness of the desert. I love being in the sun, the air, climbing up the mountains for the incredible views. But more than anything else, I love the tranquility. I go to the Arizona desert to find peace.

On my first trip to the area I hiked with Darryl as part of a group, the number of people varying from day to day, ranging from six to ten. Darryl is a fascinating, complicated man, with a deep reverence for nature. He has no patience for fools yet he patiently, tirelessly tells visitors the compelling story of the desert and its inhabitants. He knows where the rattlesnakes live in the wild and pointed us to a place under a rock where a rattlesnake lay sleeping. He has had a lifelong fascination with snakes and took a couple of us to a private area where he kept venomous snakes. I have a healthy respect for snakes, but share neither the fear nor the obsession of others. But Darryl was a snake man and told stories of all of his close encounters with snakes, boasting that through all of his years around snakes, he had never been bitten.

But three years later, on my second trip to that part of Arizona, I learned that Darryl had just returned to work after being out for several months—he had nearly died from a rattlesnake bite. He showed me the scars on his hand and said, “I just lost my focus and it happened. I was strangely calm immediately after it happened, just told someone to get help quickly.” He didn’t provide any sensational details—perhaps it was too fresh, too real, the only snake story he didn’t want to retell.

There weren’t many visitors during my second trip, so I got to spend some time hiking alone with him. He taught me about the different species of hummingbirds and took me to a place where we were nearly surrounded by them. Darryl and I had things in common—we had both come of age in the turbulent 60s, and his wife left him a few years earlier, about the same time my husband left me. We shared the knowledge of betrayal, loss, and anger. There was something unspoken gnawing at him while he spoke of the commonplace heartaches, an anger out of proportion to the stories he told. In a sense I felt a connection with Darryl, felt that he had cracked open the door with me, that he trusted me to confide in me a small, small part of his story. But that hint of connection also frightened me. I didn’t know if I could handle more than that. He told me stories about being in Vietnam. These were stories that skimmed the surface—I knew there was so much more that he wouldn’t tell and, while the words were coming out of him and in the silences between, I felt him living the rest of the story in his head. I got a glimpse at the horrors many Vietnam veterans will carry in their heads all their lives. I don’t know the details, I didn’t hear all the stories from him, but I saw him retreat into painful silence. I could see something wickedly sad in his eyes and I could feel something beyond sadness in his heart.

Hills covered with saguaro cactus, hawks and hummingbirds, coyotes and javelinas, snakes and the lapis-colored sky. I hope Darryl Pearce finds peace in the desert he loves, but I don’t think he has found it yet. Such a strange intersection in the paths of two souls—I go to the desert to find tranquility and I spend time with a man who can find no peace.

I love everything about the desert southwest—the landscape, the art, the music, and especially the food. This is a sort of Mexican lasagna, a recipe that I’ve adapted from my friend Betsy Brooks, former resident of Flagstaff who first piqued my interest in southwest cuisine.

Chicken Tortilla Casserole

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cut into julienne strips
2 cloves minced garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup sliced black olives
2 small cans whole green chilies, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon cumin
1 dozen corn tortillas
2½ cups grated Cheddar cheese
3 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded into large pieces
Salsa verde

Sauté onion, red pepper, and garlic in oil. Remove from heat and add soup, chicken broth, sour cream, olives, green chilies, and cumin. Set aside.

Put about ½ cup of sauce mixture in bottom of a deep casserole dish. Tear apart 4 tortillas and put in casserole. Add more sauce, chicken, and cheese in two more layers until casserole is filled. End with layer of cheese on top.

Bake 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees until cheese is bubbly.

Serve with extra salsa verde on the side.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fog and fiction

Happy Thanksgiving! No feast for me today--I've got a cold and had to cancel plans. Still, I'm grateful for all the wonderful things in my life. Especially my children and grandchildren, family and friends. Thank you, Lord!

Writing a fiction exercise today--something foggy to match the weather.

November 26, 2009 (Thanksgiving) Neenah Ellis, If I Live to Be 100, p. 97

“Emotion is rising in his throat again and he pauses to let it pass.”

The fog settles in great gray puffs between the trees and up beyond the tree tops. Yet I walk through the woods with an easy gait, for I have walked this path a thousand times before. And through the dense fog someone calls my name. Am I mistaken? Is it the muffled cry of a bird? Is the wind beginning to stir, rustling the fog-laden braches of the pine trees? I hear it again . . . “Ruth, Ruth” . . . it seems to come from far, far away, yet I feel it resonate inside of me. It sounds like his voice, but he is gone, sure as his ashes were carried in the wind that June day at sunset. I climb over a log into a shallow trench, lie on the forest floor, and cover myself with soggy leaves. I hear him call me again, his voice louder and closer, and I hear the sound of footsteps and the crackle of broken branches underfoot. I hold my breath and hide under the leaves but I know that he can find me anywhere. I recall all those times I had awakened in a panic and felt for the gold band on my left hand. How had I lost my wedding ring? But then, as I awoke and my thoughts cleared, I would realize that the ring was not lost, but rather it had been ten years since I took off the ring forever. Every time I woke searching for my missing ring, I cried. I would cry because I could not purge that intense, visceral connection with him. But in the light of day, when my head cleared, I would remind myself that my life was good, that I had found some peace, that life would be okay without him. Yet I was hounded by a yearning for some sort of resolution with him, some words that would acknowledge that he once loved me and that he regretted what he had done. Now, here in the forest, the sound of footsteps become closer and I hear him calling me, his voice like the wind. I am lost between dream and reality. He moves the leaves covering me as I lie on side, my face hidden beneath my arm, unable to look at him. “Ruth,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. I try to understand his garbled words. I think he is saying, “Ruth, please get up. I want to tell you. . . .” Emotion is rising in his throat again and he pauses to let it pass.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Baby Boomer guilt

As a representative of the Baby Boom Generation, I’m carrying a load of responsibility on my shoulders. In college I learned the pig-in-the-python explanation of the effect on society of the sudden increase in births that followed World War II. Society (the snake) swallows a pig (all those babies born after the War) and the pig creates a huge bulge that slowly moves through snake from beginning to end. That’s us--one big pig in one big snake, giving the snake indigestion for years. I know that I’m just one measly person in the big BBG, but I feel some personal responsibility, a compulsion to explain, perhaps even apologize for the digestive upheaval we caused.

Take global warming, for example. I know that there are a lot more people on the Earth than there were in 1945 and those people are consuming a lot more resources. But also consider this phenomenon--the women of the Baby Boom Generation are all reaching menopause at roughly the same time. I know these women, I am one of these women, and I know first-hand about hot flashes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rate of global warming has increased with the onset of hot flashes in this huge cohort of women. Someone should plot it out and make a case for the correlation. I wonder if Al Gore has considered hot flashes as a cause of global warming.

Another thing that I probably should take responsibility for is war. I tried, I really tried back in the 60s. I marched against the war in Vietnam. I supported our troops--I had friends there and I wanted them to stop fighting and come home. I didn’t care if we promoted democracy in Vietnam; I just didn’t want any more of my friends to die there. But I see the war in Vietnam as our fathers’ war, a war promoted by those who became men in the World War II era. The fathers who fought the “good war” had to send their sons to another war. However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan belong to us baby boomers. George Bush and Lon Cheney had to have their own wars so they jumped at the opportunity. Lord knows I hate accepting responsibility for Bush and Cheney, but I’m taking responsibility for the whole generation. It’s a heavy load and it stinks.

Another part of the mess created by the baby boomers--a health care crisis. We’re getting old. We like our drugs, we need our drugs, and we demand all the expensive medical care that the system can provide. We’re costing society a bundle of money and we’re depleting the reserves in the Social Security system. We created a real mess, we didn’t know we’d live so long, never thought it would take us nearly 100 years to move through the snake. Sorry, kids. Sorry, grandbabies. I apologize for everything.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Just keep writing

That's what they say. Write even when you don't think you have a thing to write about. Did one of my exercises this morning. The "grab a random sentence out of a book and go" exercise. The book I grabbed with my eyes closed was Hamlet's Dresser, a fine memoir by Bob Smith. Here's the unfiltered, stream-of-conscious thing that erupted:

November 20, 2009-----Bob Smith, Hamlet’s Dresser, p. 228

“What I couldn’t see when I first looked into Bert’s sour puss was his genius.”

Sylvie just plopped her fat butt in the mud puddle with a twacky thud. Goo sprayed in all directions, smattering me from my pink sneakers on my feet to the authentic Bowie Baysox cap on my head. Not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or scream bloody murder, I did a little of all three. Sylvie was out of control about everything she did. She ate entire boxes of Twinkies in a single sitting. She sang off-key country songs at the top of her lungs. She hugged people, sometimes complete strangers, with the force of a grizzly bear. But she loved life with the same intensity, a full-throttle love. Sylvie was probably in her late 20s, but her brain was stuck somewhere at about six-years-old. Some people in town said she was tetched, some just said she was a little slow, but most everyone simply loved her. Her mama had been gone for many years, died from the fever after Sylvie was born. Her daddy, old Bert Simkins, cared for her as best he could. Bert was old to be a first-time father, probably well into his sixties when Sylvie was born. Even though his wife was nearing forty when Sylvie was born, I suppose the last thing Bert ever imagined was that he would survive his wife and have to raise a child on his own. Bert was a hard-working man, ran a boat out of North Beach. Sylvie was a sickly baby and it made it hard to earn a living and care for her, but the ladies in town jumped in to help him, even though he never asked for help. I’d look at Bert’s grizzled old face, just trying to figure out what made him tick, wondering what he was thinking. I barely heard him say a dozen words in a dozen years. Never smiled, never complained, never talked, just pulled in crabs and tended to Sylvie. Bert was standing on the porch smoking a cigarette when Sylvie did the butt-first mud puddle flop. He just shook his head and chuckled, the corners of his mouth barely turned up, and mumbled, “The Lord sure must love that girl.” What I couldn’t see when I first looked into Bert’s sour puss was his genius.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kookie crumbs and 'possums

Nooooooooo. Some fool on the radio was playing a cut from the theme song to the old television show, 77 Sunset Strip. Now I’ll have an ear worm running through my head for days. I’ll be at the grocery store, singing, “Kookie, Kookie, lend me you comb.”

I have to confess that I’ve got a history with Kookie. Edd Byrnes was a young actor who played a character named Kookie in the old TV series, 77 Sunset Strip. I think he parked cars and worked as a special assistant to the main characters who were private detectives. Kookie was so cute and he had the best hair. He had a slight bad boy demeanor, but his heart was pure. I thought that Kookie was the utmost. Utmost was Kookie’s favorite word so it became my favorite word too.

And now I have to confess the most humiliating thing I ever did in my childhood. Sometime around 1960 I became the founder and president of the Edd “Kookie” Byrnes fan club. I gathered my friends Barbie and Patty and other pre-teen girls in the neighborhood and we had fan club meetings in our own club house. Note that the club house was a dug-out storage area under my family’s screened-in porch. It was mostly a low-ceiling enclosed area with piles of dirt and a clay floor and a door. We moved aside the shovels and rakes and put up photos of Kookie and a large sign that said: International Edd “Kookie” Byrnes Fan Club. We glued a bunch of Valentine hearts on the sign. And we even had our own special Kookie fan club song--we sang the show's theme song, "Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb," but we sang it in pig latin so it came out "Ookiekay, Ookiekay, endlay, emay, ouryay ombkay." Weren't we the utmost?

But the opossums ruined the club house. It seems a mother opossum must have liked Kookie too, because she moved into the club house and delivered a litter of babies. My mother, nine months pregnant at the time, was ironing in the basement one evening. She began screaming and I ran downstairs to see what was wrong. She was standing on a wobbly red stool, screeching and pointing to a red-eyed critter that was crawling into the subflooring above her. The mother opossum had come into our house. My brothers stood at the top of the basement stairs, claiming to be fearless, but refusing to come to the basement. So I grabbed a broom and chased the teeth-bared, snarling, hissing opossum out of the basement. The next day our next-door neighbor, Conrad Lydon, went into the club house with a rifle and killed a mother opossum and a batch of babies.

That was the end of the International Edd “Kookie” Byrnes Fan Club. Our hearts just weren’t in it any more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No Skirt!

Skirt! magazine asked for submissions for their December issue--theme, inspiration/creativity. I sent them this piece and just got rejected. Oh, well . . .

Sex in the Suburbs: One Woman’s Awkward Search for Creativity

Yesterday I needed to go to the local office supply store to get a three-ring binder for my French class, an errand that normally wouldn’t have much potential for getting me in trouble. Before I left the house I was reading a magazine article about stimulating creativity. One of the recommendations in the article was to do something out of one’s comfort zone, do something usual and observe all the unfamiliar details. Motivated by the recommendation in the magazine, in a noble quest for creativity, and with feigned confidence, I left the office supply store and walked halfway down the tired little strip mall, heading for Night Dreams, the adult toy store, something far, far out of my comfort zone. Don’t be coy—you know what that is. I’m an old Catholic grandmother and even I know what it is.

I thought I knew what to expect at the adult toy store. Last year I was invited to one of those silly home parties where instead of selling Tupperware they sell vibrators. Before bringing out the merchandise, the hostess made us play inane, slightly bawdy games in order to get everyone relaxed and giggly, probably in hopes of increasing sales. A saleswoman named Candie speed talked through a description of her wares and passed things around the room for all the women to examine. It was like playing hot potato. No one kept anything for long, but quickly passed each item to her neighbor. Maybe it was supposed to be amusing but I hated the plastic penis party. It reduced a bunch of middle-aged women to junior high girl awkwardness. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful of junior high girls—they probably would have been totally cool with the whole experience. But if nothing else, it was my introduction to the wacky world of vibrators, leather thongs, and all sorts of things that bump and grind in the night. Still, being in a friend’s living room with a group of women did not prepare me adequately for the full-throttle experience of sauntering alone into a sex shop.

So yesterday I boldly ventured forth in the name of creativity. As I passed Starbuck’s on my way to Night Dreams, an overweight, unshaven foreign man with heavy chest hair who was drinking espresso at an outside table with another man looked at me, grinned, and said “hellooooo” like he knew exactly where I was going. My confident veneer was cracking.

I should have called the hello man’s bluff and ducked into the Jenny Craig weight loss center next to Night Dreams, but I wasn’t thinking fast and my boldness had not entirely evaporated. Yet.

There were a couple of mannequins in bondage and discipline outfits in the window, but for the most part the front of Night Dreams is covered with paper to conceal what’s inside the store. I entered and avoided making eye contact with the other people in the store, just stayed focused on the array of products on display. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a big burly man only a few feet from me and I wondered why he was looking at the merchandise in the women’s section but I had no intention of making idle conversation with him.

Although there were three clerks working in the store, thankfully it was a young woman who walked up and offered me assistance. She was dressed in black leather, heavily tattooed, and heavily pierced. The other two clerks were young men, also dressed in black leather, heavily tattooed, and heavily pierced. Perhaps they were required to dress that way to promote the corporate image.

I asked the helpful sales clerk about a product whose packaging claimed that it received a rave review in Oprah’s magazine, said it was the “Rolls Royce” of those things. Oprah uses these and she admits it?!!! I wasn’t exactly sure what it did, what features a shopper would find useful, so the nice bondage and discipline clerk explained it to me in specific gynecological detail. Being a confident woman and a savvy consumer, I looked down at the floor and said, “Oh, okay, I see.” I still don’t understand why one needs to have an appliance that changes color and what’s with all the cute little bunnies and butterflies? And I kept thinking about my experience with men and realized if I did buy one of those things surely it would soon move to another state just to get away from me. The devices looked formidable enough to call a taxi and head for the airport on their own power.

The clerk left me alone so I could browse through the store at my own pace. There are devices for men to use alone, devices for women to use alone, devices for couples, for groups, for people of any sexual orientation, for people with a wide variety of kinkiness. I really don’t know what people do with all of those devices but I didn’t have the nerve to ask the clerk about them and, having heard all the public health messages about safe sex, I didn’t want to touch anything without protection. Any vestige of boldness gone.

You can believe one of two things: (1) that I bought something and I would never admit it, or (2) that I completely chickened out, thanked the nice young lady, and promised her I’d think about it and get back to her. Take your pick.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Uncertainty and peanut butter cookies

Today I finished the second round of edits on my book. Now I'm paralyzed. There's no way of avoiding it--I have to face that cruel and cut-throat publishing world. Like a lamb to the slaughter. They will eat me alive. But it won't happen unless I try. Here's the piece I wrote on uncertainty.

A prayer for calm in a storm . . .

Let the Mystery Be: Living in Uncertainty

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
Iris Dement—"Let the Mystery Be"

For as long as I can remember I have fussed and fumed about determining my own fate. I thought that if I really focused and worked hard toward a specific goal, that I could arrange my life in a neat little package, tied with a bow, just like I planned. I heard Mother Superior when she said that when God closes one door, he opens another, but it seemed to me that the doors were always slightly ajar, or perhaps falling off their hinges and I had to fix them. How silly was I to spend so much time and energy fighting to orchestrate everything that happens in my life? What a shock it was for me to realize that ultimately we human beings have minimal control over our lives. Lots of things—both fortune and misfortune—simply show up. I’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming into this acceptance of uncertainty. Having peace of mind is requiring me to give up the struggle for control and the search for predictability, requiring me to accept uncertainty, knowing that answers will come in time, even if that time comes after I leave this mortal coil. Just think of much angst and frustration I could have avoided if I just let myself settle in to the mysteries of life. Besides, if I wait long enough, some answers will come. Or not. But I’ve realized that my fretting about it doesn’t make any difference in the outcome. The only thing I can control is how I react to uncertainty.

Can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist teaching lately? I’ve been filtering Buddhist teachings on surrender and uncertainty through my Christian brain, wondering if I can accept uncertainty and just turn everything over to God. I used to think that God would just give in and directly tell me what to do if I asked the right way and if I badgered Him long enough. I wanted God to be like the host of a radio call-in advice show. Perhaps He could explain to callers like me those elusive mysteries of life and give out solid advice. If He would give his callers detailed black-and-white answers, just tell us what to do, we could always make wise decisions. And if He told us everything would be all right, we’d believe it. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon; there will be no talk radio God. And finally I have come to accept that we live in uncertainty because God must have wanted it that way. That’s what faith is—trusting that everything will be resolved according to the Lord’s own timing. The world around me may be chaotic, but in the midst of the chaos I want to find an inner peace, a reliance on God that can’t be shaken.

There’s a real paradox in this uncertainty situation. The paradox is that I actually may feel more secure if I truly can become comfortable with uncertainty and lean in to the Lord’s plan. And there’s a step further than acceptance—actually embracing uncertainty, reveling in the mystery. Perhaps taking life as it comes can lead to an unexpected outcome. Perhaps there will be an adventure, something joyful that I never could have imagined. Something incredible may come out of what may seem like chaos. Maybe I can learn to be grateful for the mystery of life. Maybe I’m headed for great things or maybe I’m headed for disaster. Ultimately it’s not in my control. I’m tired of fighting to mold my life into my limited idea of what I think it should be. It may never make sense to me, may never be what I expected. I can’t image where I’m heading. But if I just give up the fight and let life unfold according to God’s own inscrutable plan, perhaps it will turn out better than I ever could have imagined. I want to give up the struggle and live joyfully, even if I’m joyfully walking toward a cliff.

If I’m walking toward a cliff, I need comfort food. Last year at Christmas I couldn’t think of anything to give my father as a Christmas gift. He’s 88-years-old, blind, and really doesn’t need any material things. He’s an amazing man with strong faith who accepts God’s will without question. So I made my dad these peanut butter cookies. He loved them.

Peanut Butter Cookies

2½ cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1½ cups chunky peanut butter (or creamy)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter, peanut butter, and vanilla in large bowl until well blended. Beat in sugars. Scrape down sides of bowl. Stir half of dry ingredients into mixture. Add eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Mix in remaining dry ingredients.

For each cookie, roll one heaping tablespoonful of dough into ball. Arrange dough balls parchment-lined baking sheets. Using back of fork, flatten dough balls and form crosshatch design on tops. Bake cookies until dry on top and golden brown on bottom, about 14 minutes. Cool cookies on baking sheets 5 minutes. Using spatula, transfer cookies to racks and cool completely.

Makes 4 dozen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Peach opportunity squandered

Damnation. I just realized that I missed that brief, glorious window of opportunity. Peach season is gone. What was I thinking? I go to the farm market every week, sometimes twice a week. Peaches were perfect this year. I ate as many as I could, juice running down my arms made it even more perfect. But I totally forgot to make my Mountain Peach Pie recipe and now it's too late. I'll make you rueful too, dear reader. Here's a piece from my book in progress, including the recipe.

A prayer for self-acceptance . . .

The Family Fat

Once I thought I had a formula for writing a best-selling self-help book. All I needed to do was come up with a compelling title, the content really wasn’t that important. So I decided on “Men, Mothers, and the Fat Conspiracy: An Investigation into How Our Men and Our Mothers Conspire to Keep Women Fat.” All we need is someone to blame it on. Alas, no best seller—I never got around to writing the book. I didn’t feel like doing the research.

I blame it on my family. Weight issues run through my family like fat in salami. My mother has been on every diet that ever hit the magazine racks—cabbage soup, Scarsdale, Atkins, the diet where you eat anything before three in the afternoon, the list is endless. Many, many years ago, she went to a place above the Langley movie theater called Slenderama. At Slenderama, they strapped her onto a gyrating table that was supposed to make her lose weight. It was a perfect solution for her because she didn’t like to sweat and the Slenderama machines didn’t mess up her hair. But it didn’t work either. She loved Metrecal, those artificial sweet meal replacement shakes, so much that she drank several, followed by a tuna sandwich and potato chips. But now in her later years, she is still determined to lose weight because she says she wants to look good in her coffin. Is she a drama queen, or what?

Aunt Mary, my mother’s only sister, has probably had even more weight-loss angst than my mother. She once rode a Greyhound bus to North Carolina to spend a month at something called “the rice clinic” at Duke University. After a couple of weeks of eating only rice, she was allowed a baked potato. When another patient stole her baked potato, she nearly killed the man. Then she took the bus home. She also had her jaws wired shut but used her emergency clippers to undo the wires when someone brought fried chicken to the beauty shop where she worked. And she created a commotion at a Weight Watchers meeting when at her weigh-in she found she had gained weight. She threw down her purse and shouted, “I’m not paying you people good money to gain weight.”

My own sister doesn’t want to get caught up in the weight loss frenzy of the other women in our family. She thinks it would be a mistake to lose weight because she needs all the friends she can get, and that women don’t like other women who are thin. This is almost the best rationalization of all, second only to eating doughnuts for the sake of world peace.

Didn’t I tell you weight issues run in my family?

I am resisting the compulsion to ignore my own personal weight issue. It’s a strain to even move my fingers across the keys to write about it, to admit that I’ve let my own weight slowly swell. It’s a familiar place. Here I am again, kicking and screaming, realizing that I can’t ignore it. I’m not fat, fat, like obese, but I’m not thin either. I have a naturally slim body, smallish frame, little wrists and shoulders, no bosom. However, although I have ribs showing on the top half, I have a roll of fat below my waistline, something akin to a weasel draped across my gut. I’m classically bottom heavy. How can the skinny zone be so close the fat zone? It’s not pretty. Truth? I hate to admit it but I wear a size 8 top and a 12 bottom. On a good day.

The nicest compliment my former husband ever paid me was when, after I had a couple a babies, he told me that he really used to like my flat stomach. Note that he never said a word to me about liking my flat stomach when it was still flat.

A few years ago, while I was still married, I was at the wedding day weight. Not my wedding day weight, but my husband’s wedding day weight. (Strangely, I remember what he weighed on our wedding day, but can’t remember what I weighed. What does that tell you?) So I went to Weight Watchers for the first time. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but it worked and I lost more than 20 pounds and stopped going to Weight Watchers, thinking I had control and was finished with the diet thing. Wrong, of course. Over time I gained it back.

When the divorce hit, I exercised a lot, was horribly stressed, and lost weight again. Then the stress level abated, I got lazy, started cooking again, and gained it back. So a couple of years ago I returned to Weight Watchers, totally committed to the program, and got below my goal weight. It felt great. I was wearing size 8 jeans. People actually noticed that I had lost weight. I got applause at Weight Watchers meetings. I got little keychain prizes and was declared a lifetime member. I felt like a celebrity. I donated all my fat clothes to charity and vowed that I would remember how great it felt and would never slip back. I do remember how great it felt, but still I slipped. So now I have a closet full of clothes that don’t fit and I no longer remember how I did it before and can’t seem to get motivated enough to do it again. I think I’ve got ADD. I can’t stay focused, can’t seem to stick to anything for long. In the morning I vow I’m going to stick to Weight Watchers and get some exercise, but by noon I’m eating bonbons while doing a crossword puzzle, nothing accomplished.

Yesterday I got back on the diet wagon. I wasn’t bad for breakfast or lunch. I did nearly an hour on the treadmill and added some yoga stretches. Then I made a diet frozen dinner, added some extra cheese, and washed it down with a beer. Come on, it’s not that bad, is it? I didn’t have any protein, not enough vegetables, too much fat. But have some perspective—it’s not as bad as my former neighbor who ate an entire package of raw pie crust dough. And I didn’t have any doughnuts or potato chips all day.

At eight o’clock this morning I declared once again that I was not going to give up, despite my erratic behavior yesterday. I am going to get the weight again if it kills me. It may kill me. It’s simple, I told myself, just stay focused. By mid-morning, within five minutes of my decision to stay focused, I went downstairs, made a cup of tea, ate the last two pieces of Halloween chocolate, ate a handful of tortilla chips with salsa and sour cream, and called Jeannie. Now that’s done and here I sit again, thinking of what else I can eat. I am focusing, I swear.


I clipped this recipe from an old community newspaper in about 1923. Well, maybe a little later than that, but not much. The clipping is yellowed and stained, but the recipe is still fabulously simple. It’s really much more of a cobbler than a pie, but it was called a pie so in my little world it will always be so. Although it makes six generous servings, I could eat the whole thing myself. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the weight issues, eh?

Mountain Peach Pie

4 cups fresh peaches, peeled and cut up
1 stick butter, softened
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk

Set oven at 375 degrees and melt the butter in an ovenproof 9 x 12 inch pan and set aside.
In a medium bowl lightly whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and milk.
Pour batter into pan.
Spread cut peaches in pan on top of batter.
Bake 30 – 35 minutes.

Serve warm (with ice cream if you like).

Serves 6 (or 1 person with no self control).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Crazy fiction

I've got this thing going, a daily writing exercise. I've been doing it for weeks now. I close my eyes and grab a book off the shelves, and with my eyes still closed, I open the book and put my finger down on the page. Wherever my finger lands, I take that sentence and write something around it. My practice has been to work up to that sentence and make it the last sentence in the piece I'm writing. I don't revise, don't worry about paragraphs and such. I just get in the zone and write. Here's a random piece from a few days ago.

October 22, 2009 Dorothy Allison—Bastard Out of Carolina, p. 258

“Her dark eyes glittered at me, but I wasn’t afraid.”

Sammy and Angela were sitting on the front porch of the store when I walked by. They had obviously stopped talking when I got near enough to hear. I walked past them, let the screen door slam, grabbed an RC out of the ice chest, and dumped an orange juice can full of pennies on the counter. Mrs. Dixon always tolerated me. She just chuckled and counted the pennies. She said, “Well, you’ve got 24 cents extra. How about I throw in a penny and give you five nickels in trade? You want to play the slots?” Of course I wanted to play—I’m a preteen slot machine junkie. Ever since the time I hit the big jackpot down at the amusement park, I’ve been expecting to hit it big again. I figure I’m just lucky. So I walked over to the nickel slot machine by the front door. First nickel, nothing. Second nickel, nothing. Third nickel, I got straight cherries and nickels started pouring out of the machine. Mrs. Dixon said, “Girl, if you just aren’t the luckiest kid I’ve ever seen. You must have been born under a rainbow.” She handed me a paper bag and I sat on the floor by the door putting all my loot in the bag. I could hear Angela crying on the front porch. “Sammy,” she said, “I just can’t understand why you won’t believe me. I don’t care who told you and I don’t care what they said. I did not kiss Bo Maltby, I swear. Some of the girls think he’s cute, but not me. Tell me who told you. Tell me!” Geesh, Angela was such a liar. I saw her kissing Bo Maltby just a couple of days ago, out behind the tobacco barn on the road to the store. I’m like a cat, just walk around with no shoes, not making a sound. I see all kinds of things I’m not supposed to see. Like the time I took the shortcut home and saw Mr. Morris sitting in the sun on his lounge chair wearing only what God gave him. Well, he was wearing sunglasses—I suppose God didn’t give him the sunglasses. He was all smeared in oil and had some big aluminum foil contraption all wrapped around him. And if you want to know the truth, I really did see his wiener. I’ve only seen one before, but that was my brother’s and that hardly counts because he was a baby. Mary Francis told me that her uncle showed her his wiener and it was ugly and hairy. So now I’ve seen one too and I don’t hardly care to ever see another one again. I did see Angela kissing Bo Maltby, but I didn’t tell a soul, and she was flat-out lying to Sammy out there in front of the store. Sammy just shook his head, got up, put his hands in his pockets and walked away, leaving Angela crying. I grabbed my bag of nickels and sat on the front porch to drink my RC. Angela sniffled, looked at me, and said. “You heard that, didn’t you?” I just drank my soda. She said, “You are evil. Everyone thinks you’re just a goofy, harmless little kid but I know about you. I’ll bet you’re the one who told Sammy about Bo and me, aren’t you? I’m going to get back at you for this, just you wait.” Her dark eyes glittered at me, but I wasn’t afraid.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pasta and piety

My friend Jeannie was here for a visit for a couple of days. We spent all day yesterday on a self-guided historic tour of our old neighborhoods in Hyattsville and College Park, Maryland. We were shocked at how much had changed. Like what happened to the place on Route 1 where in 1965 we used to get a huge plate of pasta with bread and salad for less than two dollars? We came back to my house and I cooked her pasta with my favorite sauce. Here's a piece from my book that includes the recipe.

Vocational Training

Have you ever heard that what you wanted to be as a child should be a clue to your true calling as an adult? If that literally were true, there would be an overabundance of cowboys and ballerinas and astronauts. I don’t recall anyone who wanted to be a plumber, or a butcher, or even a banker. My brother Mark wanted to be trash man. He practiced by piling toys in a blanket, carrying them to the top bunk bed, and dumping them over the side. He’s an adult now and he sells baked goods—maybe he would have been happier as a trash man.

I have been scouring the recesses of my memory, trying to remember if I ever wanted to be anything when I grew up. Something tells me that I once wanted to be a “stewardess” but it was not a burning desire. I think the stewardess phase probably came from my first flight, a trip to Texas when I was about 11 or 12. But for most of my childhood, I don’t think I had any plans. Maybe that’s why I’m a wannabe writer now. What else can I do?

There was a phase that I explored much later than most Catholic girls—I wanted to be a nun. I didn’t want to be a nun when I was an impressionable preteen. I wanted to be a nun late in my high school years. For me, the perceived calling wasn’t because of the strength of my faith. Rather it was the lure of something strangely romantic and dramatic. I liked the way the nuns floated down the halls with a quiet rustle. I liked the black habits and the laced high-top shoes. (Oh, my God, I just realized why my closet is full of black clothes and why I have seven pairs of Chuck Taylor high-tops—it’s the nun thing! Do you think they wore black lace under things?)

I was intrigued by the mystery of what went on behind the cloistered walls. The nuns who taught in my high school were semi-cloistered. They were allowed out of the convent to go to the adjacent high school to teach, but they had limited exposure to the outside world. When they died, they were buried in a small cemetery behind the convent. The belonged to an order called the Religious of Jesus and Mary. At the time, the nuns in this order were called “Mother” rather than “Sister” and French was the native language for many of them.

Although they were all white, mostly middle-aged, and obviously Catholic, their distinct personalities broke through the confines of their religious vows. Mother St. John of the Cenacle ran the school bookstore and taught Latin and Algebra. I had her for four years of Latin and two years of Algebra. She was a little tank of a woman and seemed stern but she had a sweet side and she was a wonderful teacher. She also was the designated driver who took the other nuns to the dentist.

Mother Mary of the Presentation was young and relatively hip. We called her Mother Prez. She taught English and organized the speech and debate teams. She recruited me to enter the diocesan speech competition, in the original oratory category. I competed with a speech about Dr. Tom Dooley, a physician who practiced in Viet Nam before the war was fully engaged. I wrote the first draft of the speech but Mother Prez added a line about Dr. Dooley being “my uncle, my guide, and my inspiration.” Lies, all lies. I only knew about him because I read a book about him—and he certainly was not my uncle. She convinced me to lie to strengthen the speech. What a kick she was. She died not long after we graduated from high school, a young cancer victim.

Mother St. Gregory taught religion and headed both the Sodality and the glee club. She was tall and classically beautiful, like Grace Kelly, with a voice like an angel. I still remember how graceful and ethereal she was. She organized a group of us to sing Gregorian chant in at a national conference for music educators. We sang Regina Coeli—until this day I remember every word in Latin. She also died young.

Mother St. Angela was the one closest to my heart. She was short and round with an impish face and a hint of white hair beneath her wimple. She was the French teacher. My graduating class was the first to have four years of French with her. She was bursting with pride for the small group that stayed with her for four years. At the end of the fourth year she decided to have a little party for us. So she planned for weeks and on a lovely spring day, we had a little celebration in the garden behind the convent. Although we had been at the school for four years, this was the first time we were allowed into the garden. Mother Angela made us root beer—homemade root beer. It tasted dreadful but it added immeasurably to her charm. There weren’t more than 15 girls in our fourth year French class. She became frustrated with me because I always found someone to chat with during class. “Mademoiselle Xander!!” she said with an icy stare. Then she moved me to the last seat in the row, at least five desks removed from anyone else. She lived a long life in the convent and was buried in the cemetery near the garden where she served her root beer. She taught us how to pray in French. It’s useful to be able to speak to God in more than one language.

Sometimes I think I should have entered the convent, but I probably would have lusted for the outside world in no time. Still sometimes I think it would have been wonderfully peaceful to live removed from the mania on the outside. Living in quiet, few decisions to be made, few worries about mortgage payments or rebellious teenagers. No concerns about whether or not my “relationship” is working. The only important relationship would have been with God.

Recently I visited my friend Kathleen who had left an abusive marriage and took refuge temporarily in a convent. Although none of the sisters where there when I visited, Kathleen told me they were with an order of Italian nuns called the Little Workers. There was a picture of the sisters in the entry, a photograph of them with some religious dignitary. They were little gnomes, dark, scrunched women in modern religious habits. They looked very Italian. Picture these little workers, like Snow White’s dwarfs, going off to harvest souls for the Lord. Their convent is just a large old house in northeast Washington, D.C., with a wrought iron front door and multiple door locks. The house smelled like old people. Too bad—I was hoping it would smell Italian, like garlic sautéed in olive oil and plum tomatoes. In the foyer was a poster on the wall, like a poster of Bob Marley in the bedroom of what we call a high-risk adolescent. But the Little Workers had a poster of Mother Theresa, tacked on the wall with push pins. I was expecting the smell of incense, highly polished floors, crucifixes, and statues of the Blessed Mother, not a push-pinned poster of Mother Theresa. But I suppose convents just aren’t what they used to be.

Some religious women consider themselves to be married to God. In the mid-60s I was captivated by a poem by Lynne Lawner, entitled “Wedding Night of a Nun” from a book of the same title.* I recently found a copy of this out-of-print book and wondered how this vaguely erotic book ever found its way into a Catholic girls’ school library. Lawner wrote:

Yet I wonder as I lie with him tonight
And mumble praise into the vacant pillow,
If it is not the same
And he another, who, being what he is, has excuse for absence.
I see his form pass through the dark forest
And as I lie in terror and desire
Feel his breath upon my face
And my humanness.

Lynne Lawner almost got me to enter the convent, just to see if that’s what really happens for a young nun. I didn’t want the vocation, the life of prayer and dedication to God’s work. I wanted the passion, the dark romance with someone beyond human form.

*Lynne Lawner, Wedding Night of a Nun: Poems. Little, Brown and Company. 1960.


The mere thought of olive oil and garlic and plum tomatoes is making me swoon. To me, there is no food more perfect than a simple pasta dish with fresh ingredients and real Parmesan cheese. This is one of my favorites.

Pasta Amatriciana

4 tablespoons good quality olive oil
1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 thick slices bacon (pepper bacon especially good) chopped
4 ounces Irish (or Canadian) bacon cut into julienne slices
1 28 ounce can Italian diced plum tomatoes with juice, coarsely chopped
¼ cup dry red wine
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 pound pasta of your choice (capellini, linguini, or rotini are good)

Heat oil in large skillet on medium heat.
Sauté the onion and garlic until translucent
In separate non-stick pan over medium heat, sauté the both bacons until brown.
Add bacon to pan with onion and garlic.
Add the crushed dried red pepper, black pepper, and parsley.
Add the tomatoes and wine and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, until sauce thickens.

Pour sauce over cooked pasta and top with parmesan cheese.

Serves 4.