Monday, May 31, 2010

Charm School

My son Nathan simply refused to let me schedule anything for him that summer. He was about 10 years old and recuperating from a cracked bone in his ankle. He was getting around just fine but his leg was in a cast and he couldn’t go swimming or participate in other sports. His older sister was away at sleep-over camp and he had his mama’s full attention. Poor kid. Since he wasn’t going to enroll in any organized summer activities I took the parental power route and decided that he would not waste the entire summer reading comic books and reorganizing his baseball cards. (I can just hear myself saying that to him in my bossy mom voice.) We were going to devise his own personal enrichment program—what I called “Charm School.” I didn’t go to the extent of trying to ram etiquette down his throat, but I was determined to find ways to expand his mind and hopefully to entertain him at the same time. I don’t recall giving him any veto power over the activities I scheduled but I did try to find angles to the culture that would capture his imagination.

Because we lived in Northern Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital, we had the all the Smithsonian museums and other cultural attractions within minutes of home. We went to the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery to see an exhibition of Asian warrior art—Nathan loved drawing pictures of “guys” fighting battles and so he loved the room-sized paintings of the warriors. We went to the FBI museum to see exhibits on infamous criminals, sawed-off shotguns, and ingenious weapons the bad guys had developed. But in the end, the bad guys got caught by the good guys and justice prevailed. We went to the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, a real former torpedo factory that was redeveloped into art studios. I gave Nathan my camera and let him take photos. (You can see photos I took of him attached to this posting.) I think I got him to cook too, but have no recollection of what we cooked and I don’t think the cooking thing stuck with him either.

The thing I remember most was that we spent time together doing things that he would like. In a sense it would have been easier for me to have let him sit in front of the television and read comic books. Because I didn’t want him to have a lazy kid summer, I couldn’t be a lazy mom either. And now I remember that special time with my boy. I’m not sure that Charm School had that much influence on him, but I think he turned out to be a charming man.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zut alors

I would like to file a complaint with l'Académie française about the French number system. If you don’t know what l'Académie is I can save you a trip to Wikipedia. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The Académie consists of forty members, known as immortels (immortals). New members are elected by the members of the Académie itself. Académicians hold office for life, but they may be removed for misconduct. The body has the task of acting as an official authority on the language; it is charged with publishing an official dictionary of the language.

Sounds pretty serious, n’est-ce pas? Sort of like the Supreme Court in charge of the French language. I don’t think I’ll get far filing a complaint, being a mere mortal and an American to boot.

However I would like to point out to the immortals that perhaps no one has noticed before that the French number system is convoluted. For example, the French word for the number 99 (in English, simply and reasonably ninety-nine) is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf. Literally translated this is four-twenty-ten-nine or less literally, four times twenty plus nineteen. The number 60 has its own word—soixante, but after you get past 60 all hell breaks loose. There’s no word for 70—in French it’s 60 plus 10. There’s no word for 80—it’s four times 20. It’s not the vocabulary that throws me off. One has to do math to figure out what the number is in French. Not simply multiplication but a combination of multiplication and addition and you have to do it in the blink of an eye in another language. By the time I’ve figured out what the number is I could have been well into another conversation. And if someone tells me in French how much something costs I’ll have no idea what the real price is. Maybe it’s their way of keeping the non-native speakers confused.

How hard would it be for the French to have separate words for their numbers? I would like to propose to l'Académie that the French develop new words for the numbers 70, 80, and 90. Perhaps seventie, eightie, and ninetie? So the word for the number 99 in French would be ninetie-neuf. That I could understand.

I thank l'Académie française for considering my proposal. And when you consider it, please remember that we saved your derrières in World War II and it's the least you can do. You're welcome.


Recently I was notified that I have been accepted into membership in the Foodie Blogroll. There were rigorous admission standards. Well, not that rigorous, but they did require a certain minimum percentage of actual food entries on my blog and I guess I passed the test. Although I haven't posted much about cooking lately, food content is featured on my blog, as it is in my still unpublished book. (Draft is done--about 250 pages, 49 stories and 49 recipes.) I've been working on getting it published. Anyone know an agent? A publisher?

So, in honor of now being a part of the Foodie Blogroll, I'm posting a salad recipe that I developed. Last week at the farm market there were lots of nice little Persian cucumbers. It will be weeks before fresh local peaches arrive, but I'm ready with the recipe.

Quoting sweet, wild, creative Julia Child, "Bon appetit!"

Salad With Curried Dressing and Peaches

½ cup good quality olive oil
¼ cup orange champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons chutney
1 teaspoon garam masala (can substitute sweet curry powder)
1 ripe peach, unpeeled, chopped coarsely
1 small Persian cucumber, sliced thin
¼ cup dried cranberries
½ cup dried sliced bananas
2 tablespoons roasted pistachios
1 head lettuce—tender lettuce like butterhead or green oak
Handful of pea shoots

In mini food processor, mix olive oil, vinegar, chutney, and curry. Blend thoroughly.

In large bowl, gently toss lettuce and pea shoots with peaches, cranberries, cucumber, and bananas. Pour oil/vinegar mixture over lettuce/fruit mixture and toss. Top with pistachios.

Serves 4.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I just learned an interesting lesson in life—if you can’t attain one of your life goals, then perhaps you need to adjust the goal. Ha! Easy—I just did it. I’ve been going to Weight Watchers off and on forever. I realize that it doesn’t work if you don’t follow the program. I really hate that about Weight Watchers—why can’t you just pay the fee and lose the weight? But I’m so frustrated with not being at my goal weight that today I did something about it, something I didn’t even know was possible until last week. I changed my goal weight. So even though I didn’t lose a single ounce in the past few weeks, I did get closer to my goal weight by moving my goal weight up 7 pounds. Wow, that feels good! They should have given me a star and applauded my success. Actually I told the WW receptionist that I wanted to add 10 pounds to my goal weight but I think she misheard me because she only adjusted it by 7 pounds. Doggonit—I don’t have the nerve to go back and ask her to add another 3 pounds so I guess I’ll just have to deal with it.

This whole thing about aging and weight is so damned frustrating. It’s not bad enough that you get old, joints hurt, skin sags, and you find yourself turning into your own grandmother. Insult added to injury, the metabolism slows down and you can’t eat anything but a couple of grapes wrapped in lettuce, perhaps some green tea and a shrimp. That’s probably 30 points on the Weight Watchers system. I hate counting. But the horrifying thing about weight in post-menopausal women is the new weight distribution routine. Younger women gain weight in their hips and thighs. They just get curvier, even if they’re a little bottom heavy. Older women blow up in the middle, gaining unsightly abdominal bulges and becoming more like potatoes on toothpicks. I have been known to say that I felt like a fat weasel burrowed under my skin and took up residence on my abdomen. I would like to think of it as a playful, rather charming otter instead of a squirmy, obnoxious weasel. It’s a weasel.

Smokers claim they are afraid to quit smoking because they don’t want to gain weight. They may have something there. Of course there are Surgeon General's warnings on packs of cigarettes, but shouldn't there be warnings on bags of potato chips as well? I think I’ll start smoking. How bad can it be?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

God heals everything

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5.

By sheer divine guidance I opened my Bible today to the page where my father’s newspaper obituary is tucked between the pages. And long ago I had highlighted in purple the passage from Proverbs about trusting the Lord. Funny that out of all 2000+ pages in my Bible, that’s where I had my father’s death notice and that was exactly the message I needed today. It’s okay. Well, at least it will be okay. God heals everything. It became clear to me that I need to stop trying so hard, to stop thinking that I need to DO SOMETHING to fix everything and just turn it all over to God. Duh. Why didn’t I think of this before? Just let it be. Just feel the hurt, accept the joys and sorrows that are inherent in being a human being, and let time and God’s grace heal me. Thank you Lord for the joys. Be with me through the sorrows.

Blinky McGinnis

My brother Steve can't believe I remember Blinky's phone number. Indeed it was Blinky's number--I even checked it with my father before he died and he verified it. My father remembered such things because he worked as a telephone installer his entire working career. Not only do I remember Blinky's number but I have a photo of Blinky with my brother Steve and me taken the day of my First Communion. Look carefully over my right shoulder and you'll see Blinky in his cage beside the TV. This is a story that Texas Monthly published last year. I swear every word of it is true.

Blinky McGinnis

Blinky was a feisty blue free-range parakeet, the only child of Mary and Mac McGinnis. Mary and Mac were our next-door neighbors on Apache Street. We called them Aunt Mary and Uncle Mac because over the years they became like family to us. I suppose that would make Blinky an unofficial cousin. In one old family photo my brother Steve and I, dressed in our Easter finery, posed beside Blinky’s cage. Blinky was the kid next-door.

Mary and Mac doted on Blinky. When they called him, he would fly to them, land on their shoulders, and give them little affectionate parakeet pecks on the cheek. I swear I’m not making this up. Mac was a chemist whose pants were always hiked up too high and Mary was a soft-spoken, elegant stay-at-home mom to Blinky. Mary spent her days talking to Blinky and keeping an immaculate house. Perhaps it was time consuming to clean up after a bird whose cage door was kept open so he could fly around the house at will. Or perhaps Blinky was potty trained. All the other parakeets in the neighborhood, including my own parakeet Chiffon, envied Blinky. Sadly, my own parakeet was quite ordinary—otherwise I might be writing about Chiffon instead of Blinky.

Blinky was renowned for his extensive vocabulary. I used to swear that he knew what I was saying and would answer questions with the correct answer. Mary and Mac had taught him to say many things, including the usual parakeet things like “pretty boy” and “hello there” but his favorite thing to say was his name and his phone number— “I’m Blinky McGinnis. Hemlock 4-3288.”

One fateful day, Mary went out the basement door to water her tomato plants and Blinky soared out the door, gone from sight in an instant. Mary and Mac were frantic. Mac scoured the neighborhood with binoculars, calling, “Blinky, Blinky, come home.”

Every day Mary drove miles into the city to the Franciscan monastery to say novenas, pleading to God for Blinky to return. Weeks passed and Mary and Mac became more despondent, wondering how long Blinky could survive in the wild, fearing the worst.

One day, before cold weather set in, they got a call from a woman, asking if they had lost a blue parakeet. Seems the woman was working in her yard, several miles from the McGinnis household, when a parakeet landed on her shoulder and said, “I’m Blinky McGinnis. Hemlock 4-3288.” Their prayers were answered—their beloved Blinky came home.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


My father died on the 8th of April and I’m beginning to realize that this grieving ground is where I’m going to be for as long as it takes.

The details that keep coming back to me are strange—for example, I looked at his hands in his final days and they weren’t my father’s hands—they were swollen beyond recognition. I think of the last words he spoke while he was still conscious, when my sister came into the room and he said, “I can’t stand this, Fance.” The image of him attached to all that medical equipment haunts me. I want to remember him talking and standing tall in an ironed white shirt. I want to remember his voice.

In the beginning, in the first few days after his death, I was in shock. Although for nearly two weeks before he died I was running back and forth from the hospital, and day-to-day I witnessed his situation becoming more and more desperate, when the end came I could not quite comprehend the finality. I was with him when he died. I closed his eyes and held down his eyelids until they stayed closed. I was there when the doctor marked his time of death—1:31 p.m. I wept and pleaded with God to take him gently, to lift him into heaven with his final breath. I think about leaving the hospital, walking with the chaplain to the staff elevator, and how I tried to stay in control so I could drive home safely, thinking that I had just seen my dear father for the last time and knowing that life had just changed forever. Yet it’s impossible to take in the reality of it all at once.

In the early days and hours after he died I did what I needed to do. I contacted the funeral home, called family and friends, wrote an obituary for the newspaper, and began to compose his eulogy. Then I withdrew for a couple of days. I turned off my telephone, worked in my garden, and took a long hike along the Potomac River. I was exhausted and I needed solitude. My grief was so great that I could not cope with anyone else’s grief. I couldn’t even bear hearing myself say the words necessary to tell anyone else about his death.

His funeral Mass was held less than one week after his death. I didn’t listen to the words of the hymns or to what the priest was saying. I blocked all of it out to steel myself to deliver the eulogy. I kept thinking that I wanted Daddy to be proud of me and I wanted to deliver a message that honored what was important to him. I made it through the eulogy without breaking apart. My voice cracked only once when I talked about his long marriage to my mother. And no one but me even noticed that my voice cracked.

And on Tuesday, five weeks after the funeral, we took his ashes to Arlington National Cemetery for interment. I thought I was in control, I thought the reality had sunk in enough that I could be gracefully sad. But I wept again, sobbed. Seeing him honored for his years of service in the Coast Guard, seeing them fold the flag and present it to my mother, hearing the bugler playing Taps and the loud 21-gun salute piercing the misty quiet, seeing my brother Steve solemnly carrying our father’s ashes to his final resting place in the wall—all of this made it so real, so final.

Today has been the first day of my life with my father finally laid to rest. The services are over, the guests have gone home, the flowers have dried up. My dad is gone and life is supposed to be back to normal. It doesn’t feel normal. He’s not here and I miss him.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I so badly need to get back to writing. Writing is my lifeline. I've been so consumed with matters of life and death (especially death) that I've slippped away. So I just made myself sit down and do a writing exercise, anything to get me going. A prompt from a brilliant clear thinker, Michael Harrington, a writer whose study on poverty in America, written in the 1960s, had a huge influence on my thinking and my attitudes about society and life and politics. I've taken it in a completely different direction, but it's an exercise and I'm not Michael Harrington. May he rest in peace.

Michael Harrington, “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” p. 19.

“It is made up of Puerto Ricans and Negroes, alcoholics, drifters, and disturbed people.”

A breeze started to stir the still, humid air, and the leaves on the trees began to quiver. I stood at the bus depot, watching the sky turn gray and threatening. And the sky darkened to the color of a fresh bruise as the wind began to shake the awning and lightning jigged and jagged closer and closer to town. I prayed that the bus would arrive before the storm and I prayed that Delmar wouldn’t just happen to leave work early and drive by the bus depot on his way home from the plant. The bus depot was part of Essie Jenk’s gasoline station, little more than a concrete slab, a ticket window, and an awning. I stood next to the cinderblock wall, as far from the road as I could, cowering between the soda machine and the door to a restroom marked “Whites Only.” The skies opened up and rain poured down just as the bus arrived. The bus stopped, the doors creaked open, and I grabbed my suitcase and ran for the open door. But I couldn’t run fast enough to outrun the rain—I was soaked. The bus driver nodded and took my ticket and I sat down in the first free row I could find, two rows behind the driver. The air in the bus was stifling and sick with the odor of unwashed bodies. But I sat for hours with my head pressed to the window, listening to the windshield wipers, the swish of the wheels in the rain, and a baby crying softly in the back of the bus. My life was about to change forever. In my mind I was going to Boston. I had never been to Boston, never knew anyone who had, but I once had seen a picture of an old church in Boston in the snow and I just felt that was where I needed to be, that is where I could find a new family. We would have Sunday supper and walk in the snow and take care of one another. That was the extent of my escape plan. Into the second day on the bus, we stopped in Newark, New Jersey, where I was going to buy a ticket for another bus that would take me to Boston. Wrapped in a rubber band, buried deep in my purse, I had a roll of dollar bills that I had been saving for months and months as I hatched my escape plan. I looked in my purse and the roll of bills was gone. I searched everywhere, tore through every inch of my suitcase and every inch of the bus where I had been sitting for hours and hours. The driver just shook his head no when I asked him had he seen my money. I had fallen asleep at some point in the trip and thought about that old lady who sat next to me from Richmond to Baltimore, and began to wonder why she got off the bus in such a hurry. So Newark, New Jersey, became my destination, not Boston. There I was in Newark with only a suitcase and a handful of coins. Instead of finding the church in the snow, I found a homeless shelter in dirty city, with no ticket home. If I found a new family, it is far from the family I expected to find in Boston. It is made up of Puerto Ricans and Negroes, alcoholics, drifters, and disturbed people.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


He drove a blue Bonneville convertible, quite a hot car for a 17-year-old boy to be driving. There was kidney in his trunk. There’s an explanation for the kidney. His father was a surgeon and for some unexplained reason in the trunk of the car they kept a discarded kidney, floating in a vessel filled with preservative. I have no idea whose kidney it was. Kidney or no kidney, he scared me to death, speeding through the hairpin curves of Georgetown Pike, heading for Great Falls National Park. Maybe I liked him because he scared me. I’d rather believe I liked him because he was smart and funny, but it has been so long that I don’t really remember what the attraction was.

I hadn’t really been on a date with him—I just knew him from a group of boys from the local all-boys Catholic high school. I went to the local all-girls Catholic high school and the only boys we knew were our friends’ brothers, friends of our friends’ brothers, and boys we occasionally met at school “tea” dances. I wanted to go to my junior prom so I gathered my nerve and asked the Bonneville boy if he would go with me. It’s likely that I vomited from anxiety just having to call him on the telephone.

Probably as a gesture of reciprocity, he invited me to a dance at his school—not a prom, but a lesser, more casual dance. I wore my new coat, a grey tweed Chesterfield coat with a black velvet collar. I loved that coat. When we got to the dance, we piled all the coats in a room adjacent to the gym. And when we left, he went to retrieve my coat and couldn’t find it. I went into the room with him and watched as one person after another came, found their coats, and left. We were alone in the room—the Bonneville boy, me, and one coat. It wasn’t my coat—it was a ratty brown coat with a shawl collar and big buttons and it smelled like some other girl who tried to cover the aroma of greasy french fries with cheap cologne. My coat had disappeared and it was the last time I went out with Bonneville boy. I sure liked that coat and it sure was long gone.