Thursday, December 31, 2015

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

You can't stop time, but there are days I'd like to shut the expectations of the calendar off.

I do not want to sum up my past year in my nine best photos from Facebook. I do not want to come up with a word that perfectly encapsulates where I'm headed in 2016. Vision boards are just a reflection of the zoo of magazines you have in your bathroom. I am not in the mood to write 25 words that  spotlight my year, either, although it's a writing exercise that my sister does yearly and it's a fascinating challenge.

Network television and the internet today will be a firework of expectations and intentions. Helpful memes, handy lists, cute ideas like leaving notes for yourself in your sock drawer so you don't feel sad on Mondays. Fresh starts! Woo! Who doesn't love them? 

Everything in me says no to this right now, and my favorite word is an all capitals YES.

So, today I say YES to just being. It's ok for me to watch the squirrels peel bark off the tree in front of my window and wonder why they do it, to binge watch TED talks, and to eat the last three Welsh cookies without guilt or shame. It's ok for me to not participate in the forced march of bright displays of storage bins, or list making, or pork and sauerkraut wishes. It's ok to just be, to let the new year start quietly, maybe even sleep through it, because where I live now, they celebrate the last few minutes of the year by dropping a very large shoe.

A shoe. "Waiting for the other shoe to drop," is an idiom that came from tenement living in New York City. As one shoe makes a sound hitting the floor, the expectation for the other shoe to make a similar sound is created.

So we can assume that somewhere around here, there is another giant shoe, waiting to drop. We can spend the whole year waiting to hear that familiar sound, or we can spend it imagining that our upstairs neighbor is Lowly Worm.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Welsh Cookies

Stacked up, they are impressive!

First, get yourself out of the mindset that your Welsh Cookies will look anything like the ones you buy in the grocery stores or at church functions: those perfectly tanned, all uniform in size treats. You will have some burnt soldiers, some crumbly ones. This is what makes the world an interesting place. Broken cookies. Remind yourself of that as you eat them to hide the evidence that you can't keep your stovetop an even temperature.

Yield: About 2.5 to 3 dozen cookies. You will burn some. You will eat some. You will wonder why you doubled the recipe (original recipe is half of the ingredients below and says it yields same amount). Making them is a marathon of dialing back temp, timing, and wondering why you didn't thank every single grandma who made these back in NEPA. A friend tells me that an electric griddle works wonders if you have one. I don't.

Total Time: Carve out an afternoon, friends. The batter takes about 10 minutes to make. Refrigeration an hour (go do a couple of yoga sessions to pass the time, you'll need the peace),  and cooking time is the better part of your afternoon. At least another hour. Unless you're really efficient, in which case, I'm afraid we can't be friends.

Ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1.5 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
5 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), cold and diced, plus more for cooking
1.5 cup currants (a box)
4 large eggs, slightly beaten
4 to 6 tablespoons milk
Melted butter, for cooking (about a stick, not kidding)

Directions:

Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, zest, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture looks sandy. This part is fun, fun, fun! Messy. I like to think of all the people who say "Made with love!" when really they mean, "My hands were all over this! I swear I washed them!" 
Stir in the currants. They look like beady little eyes. Beat the eggs and 4 tablespoons of the milk together. Stir into the dry ingredients to make a shaggy dough, add more milk if the dough is dry. Gather dough into a lump, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Go do your yoga. Breathe.

Roll the dough on a floured workspace into a piece about 1/4-inch thick. Cut into 2 to 3- inch rounds.

Heat a griddle (I tried our cast iron one and it got too  hot) or frying pan (non-stick worked best) over medium-low heat. Brush the pan surface with butter. Cook the cookies until slightly brown and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side. They rise like little pancakes. Transfer to a rack, sprinkle with sugar and cool. Stack them up and take a photo for your Instagram followers. Store the cookies in a cookie tin.



Sunday, December 20, 2015

So Far Away, So Close

How a room transforms with the sound of a lone voice, reading aloud from a book written seventy years ago. What a respite from the constant intrusion of thoughts -- "we need a new coffeepot" -- "did I pack the wig?" -- "I wonder what  she meant by that comment?" Absolute relief is found in language that thrums with its ability to make you laugh one moment and cry the next.

Yesterday as I made a long drive, the grey road collecting underneath the wheels of the car, I asked myself to recall some happy Christmases. It was a hobbled attempt at cheering myself. There have been many happy Christmases in my lifetime, so I figured I'd find solace there, and I flipped through the mental files for some specificity, looking for the file folder marked, "Dancing to Rock Lobster in Front of the Tree," or "The Scent of Mushrooms and Onions." I found a parade of garlands, ornaments unpacked and squealed over (that green sequin bell my sister made with its little pearl ringer),  but I was unable to linger in any reverie for as long as I wished.

I passed a cellphone tower disguised as the world's tallest silo and swerved into thoughts about communication. Do I owe it to my "followers" my "audience" my "friends" (are they even friends, they just follow my posts, and even then I'm not sure if they do, they probably have unfollowed by now, disgusted by all my hoopla and poetry), to share my loss, disappointment, feelings of helplessness? No. I'll save that for the people I see on a regular basis, the ones who care. I should meet with them over coffee. I'll email them. Email? Call them? I don't want to talk about it at all right now.

At the end of my grey road thoughts was a performance with a variety show, the welcome transformation into another person for a couple of hours, the glee of engaging and interacting with an audience, and dinner with a friend, who I shared my sadness with over a plate heaped with spinach. Iron brings strength.

Then there was the road back home with the radio blaring, the wash off of makeup. Brewed tea, sagging eyelids, vapor of thought curling out.

I woke up this morning, and instead of my usual early writing ritual (I am so tired of my own clouds), I made myself some coffee, picked up a favorite book, and came back to bed to read. At first I read to myself, but the words were so musical I had to hear them, and I began reading out loud, to no one. The room shared the story with me. Somewhere in the middle of a sentence about a man who fears the titles of medical books, I started to cry.

All the folders of specificity were open now. Awake too early to go downstairs to the glitter under the tree, I'd climb into bed with my sister, and she'd read to me. The physical closeness, and the words of L. Frank Baum, or Lewis Carroll, or Laura Ingalls Wilder, the sound of the coffeepot being brought to life downstairs by our mother, were all served up from the filing cabinet in the part of my brain that was inaccessible to me just the day before. My own voice, which is my sister's voice. Christmas past, present, future. My sister, always so far away and so close.





Monday, December 07, 2015

Rubiayat of Memory

This is to say we remember,
not that it brings diamonds back. September
blew in and made a swirling exit,
leaves curled in the fire. You watched embers

float away, and let them. You hope your wits
won't do the same. Memory? Bullshit's
compass. There is a kind of beauty
without it, in forgetting, a benefit

in submerging your papers in a stream
to see the ink wash away. It seems
to me, well, what use are words anyway?
Mine thrum on repeat, a pattern, my bloodstream

of familiar family stories. So dear
one day I will mix and match, premiere
my latest work: a collage of December's
blankest pages, a trembling chandelier.
--

This is definitely not a true rubiayat. I followed the interlocking pattern, but discarded the pentameter (or tetrameter) rules of meter. Meter be damned -- at least in this poem.

We spent an evening with a friend from Iran recently, and he talked about the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The Rubáiyát  is a translation of a selection of poems, originally written in Persian and numbering about a thousand, attributed to Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), a Persian poet, mathematician, and astronomer. A thousand poems!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Apartment of Regret, 1988

There was one outlet. I had to unplug the fishtank to work the coffeepot.

The carpeting smelled like a layer cake of beer.

The apartment across from mine was gorgeous, with pocket doors, a stained glass window, and the memory of my best friend. She was the reason I moved into the building in the first place. She moved out the summer I signed my lease, having lived there a year, and was fed up with the landlord.

My place was furnished with a 1950s chrome dinette set. The bedroom had a bed with a white vinyl headboard that had brass pins pushed into it, giving it a pillowed effect. It was hard.

My other furniture was wicker and it creaked. I never sat in it.

The gas oven would occasionally send out a firebomb of flames from under the broiler as you lit it. My cat was almost singed. I considered complaining, but wasn't supposed to have a cat.

A collection of poetry, discarded in the doorway among some dried leaves, became part of my permanent book collection. From it I memorized, "Music When Sweet Voices Die," by Shelley, ripe with sentimentality, and "This Be The Verse," by Philip Larkin, which I can still recite if prompted.

My landlord: a tub of a man who clipped his toenails at the desk of his main floor real estate office, who didn't like me entertaining any man in the apartment, and who I discovered once, during a thunderstorm, out on the roof by my bedroom window.

The rent was too much.

The adjoining building, also owned by the same man, had a series of rooms like a prairie dog den that were rented by the week. There was a shared kitchen and bathroom. The hall that led to the shared kitchen had an old upright piano in it, with a few missing keys.

Letters from my sister, living in Pittsburgh at the time, arrived in a mailbox at the bottom of the stairwell. I looked forward to the little sketches in her letters, and her neat handwriting.

During the year I lived there, I shopped for groceries at the Acme within walking distance, and only bought items that were a dollar or less: ramen, margarine, frozen vegetables, mac and cheese, yoghurt. I was 19 and thought I'd live forever.

My neighbors had a snake for a pet. A big one. One morning on my way out to class, he said, "Hey, the snake got loose. Keep an eye out for it." I worried about my cat all day.

One of the single room renters was a young man named Mike, who had no family nearby, and he often didn't have food. Once a week or so he'd come over to my apartment and I'd make mac and cheese with hot dogs in it, or get fancy and make my sister's ramen noodle stir-fry. We'd sit on the floor of my living room and eat and talk.

One bare lightbulb lit the stairwell. 40 watt. Squint.

Mike was simple. No pretense. He wasn't without intelligence, definitely street smart, but wasn't much of a reader. He was tall, dark haired, soft eyed, and kind. He had no family to visit on Thanksgiving or Christmas, which meant he was alone in the prairie dog den on holidays.

On Sundays I watched The Gary Shandling Show on my little black  and white 12" television.

I forget what Mike and I talked about as we ate mac and cheese, but I felt good about myself for inviting him over, the poor guy with no family.

The phone was in the kitchen. I made weekly calls to my grandmothers. One week I was recording music from the college radio station on cassette, and forgot to shut it off so I recorded my half of the conversation with my grandmother, Romayne. The music ends, and then you hear me dialing, and saying hello, and all the kitchen clinks and clanks as I did the dishes, and my responses to her.

I remember feeling guilty for not inviting Mike home with me for Christmas or Thanksgiving. I thought it was safer that way. You know, he might fall in love with me. I was doing us a favor, saving us both a very awkward future situation. I gave him my mac and cheese and thought it was enough.

I hung my college level artwork. My colorful scarves. The poster of New York. My future.

I played it safe and breezy.

Grime on every surface I tried to clean off.

Odor of loneliness.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"It Sucks To Be Me" Chicken Pot Pie

It helps to start with a November mind. A few shaggy and grey thoughts, blustery with maybes and indecision, plus a dash of stress. Maybe because the Department of State won't recognize  the legal document that states your election to resume your maiden name, so your passport application is delayed. Maybe it's a big stress, or a small thing that digs in like one of those metal frame corners under your fingernails. Feeling it? You're ready to allow yourself the luxury of feeling sorry for yourself and to start cooking. Frustration and slightly cooler weather is key. If you don't have both, save this recipe for later.

Serves: Several saggy souls. Have some containers for leftovers.

Ingredients:

1 chicken, fully cooked
8 carrots
1 med. onion
3 stalks celery
4 small red potatoes
4 c. chicken or vegetable broth

For the noodles:

2 c. all-purpose flour
2 medium eggs
dash of salt
splash of water (as needed)

For the optional roux:

3 tbsp flour
1/4 - 1/2 c. water
splash of milk

Directions:

Bake a chicken.

What? I thought this was going to be an easy recipe! I don't have time to bake a chicken! I'm sad and frustrated and have had a long day.

Do you want this to taste good? Quit whinging and bake a chicken (it takes about an hour in a 350 degree oven), and while it's baking you can work on the rest of the chopping and mixing of noodle dough. Or you can phone it in and get one of those sad and wrinkly baked-for-your-covenience chickens that's been sitting in a plastic bag on a warmer for four hours and suffer the culinary consequences. Up to you.

While your chicken is in the oven, put on some music that makes you want to dance, and cut your carrots into rounds, dice up the celery and onion, and cube the potatoes. I like to arrange the rounds and little vegetable pieces into a pattern on the cutting board, just for fun. Playing with your food is ok, and no one needs to know, unless you photograph the design and post it to your Instagram feed. Hey, "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers is on! Groove.

Saute the vegetables in a little bit of oil at the bottom of a deep pot. I like to use a Dutch oven. When the onions are transparent, add the broth, put a lid on the pot, and let it simmer for awhile as you make the noodles.

The noodles are simple, and I learned this gift of a recipe from my friend Robin. Put the flour into a medium bowl, crack the two eggs into a small bowl and whisk with a fork. Add the eggs to the flour, and use the fork to mix. Add the dash of salt. When it starts to hang together, add a little water until a shaggy mass forms. Spread some flour onto a clean surface, and roll the dough out until it is about 1/8" thick. The noodles will puff up a bit in the broth as they cook. If you want them thicker, roll them out thicker. Cut into whatever shapes you like — squares are traditional. I have a circle cutter I use. Cookie cutters work — why not have hearts and giraffes?
When you're done cutting, lay the noodles out on a cookie sheet lined with some parchment or wax paper so they don't stick.

Chicken done? Let it cool a bit and peel the meat off the bones. Save the bones for making chicken broth. Put them in a bag and stick them in the freezer if you can't do it tomorrow.

Check the doneness of the veggies in the broth by actually tasting them. Don't just poke at them with a fork. Indulge in taste-testing. They should be done by now.

If they aren't done, or the chicken is still cooling, take a walk. It's November, so it's windy, and it will air you out. The trees are calligraphic against the sky, see?

When you're back from your walk, add the chicken pieces to the broth, and the noodles. Bring the broth up to a low bubble and let it gurgle for about 10 minutes. If you have larger noodles, stir occasionally to make sure they aren't sticking together. Add the roux to thicken the broth just a bit. You don't have to do this step if you don't want to, it's just an added bit of comfort that I like.

Serve in bowls. Light a candle for the table. Put your phone away, don't take photos of your food. Just eat, and enjoy. It's not quite so bad now, is it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

American Echo

It is simple to make your opinion known if
you have a Facebook account or Twitter. There
but for the grace of god go we, smug are
our memes, the filtered photos that prove our gods
have or haven't failed us. Did you see that they
changed our precious logo? The nerve. Our favor
runs solely on Dunkin, or let champagne flow for us
only, since it cures dementia, did you hear? We all
want to remember forever what we shared to
each other's walls, how we became our own brand of death.
--
A variation of the French form, Bref Double a l'Echo, which I learned years ago and fell in love with for the challenge of writing to the end words without it sounding forced. I came to this poem by reading about grace this morning, then looking up the word grace in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (I wanted the idea of grace notes in here, but the quote of the martyr John Bradford ended up in here instead), and by having a stew of opinions in my head from my morning newsfeed. Boy am I tired of the internet, and everyone's opinion, including my own. It shows in this poem.