Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cold vs. Warmth (Boston, MA)

I am so glad that my liner-less trench coat, which served me as a winter coat for the 25-plus years I've lived in Richmond and as a raincoat during my previous years in California and in New York City, finally gave up the ghost, along with its cuffs, pockets, hems, and all seams, before I left for my winter trek; its demise forced me to purchase replacement rain-wear (a sweet and simple aubergine-colored number) and a true winter coat (basic black, reversible, hooded, warm and snuggly). The coat seems to weigh almost as much as I do but doesn't make me look like I've got another person tucked in there with me. The toastiness of my new outerwear, combined with layers of under and mid-level and everywhere wear, do not, however, protect me completely from the elements.

This is not the coldest I've ever been (that was a New Year's day in Richmond, VA -- believe it or not -- when the words coming out of my mouth froze in midair and when my nostrils iced shut), but my face stings and my fingers ache and I think that if I remain outside for 10 more minutes I will require a two-hour roasting in a 350-degree oven to thaw out.

My sister-in-law Susan, niece Adele, and I are trudging through the frigid landscape towards the home of one of Susan's former English as a Second Language students. Ana is from Mexico, and Susan thinks she'll enjoy meeting me, telling me about her family, reminiscing about her homeland, and feeding us all lunch.

We are warmly greeted by Ana, but not by the snarling, barking, totally viscious dog -- the size and appearance of a small rat on stilts -- that strains against its leash in the pantry. When freed, it nips at my ankles. Recognizing that, with one size-5.5 foot I could easily put an end to its furious attack on my tarsis or my whatsis, the rat-dog desists, returns to the pantry, and releases a miniature turd onto the linoleum.

Susan has brought gifts for Ana and her children. I recognize some presents that I gave her from years past -- a cute t-shirt that obviously didn't fit Adele, a massage set (gloves with pressure points indicated; various doo-hickies to run over neck and/or back knots; oils, etc.); I'm glad that they were regifted -- I believe in recycling.

While Ana's children, a bright kindergartner and an active toddler, and Adele float between the kitchen (where we adults are sitting) and the five-year- old's pretty, pink, and frilly bedroom, we women have a grand time, chatting (platicando and talkeando) in Spanish, English, and Spanglish.

Ana ordered a rotisserie chicken from a nearby Latino restaurant over an hour ago; she calls again to give them street-by-street directions to the door. We snack on oreos while we wait.

When the cumin-scented bird arrives, we accompany it -- down the gullet -- with French fries, yellow rice (that Ana has prepared), and Inca Cola (a bright yellow, sickly sweet soft drink that is beloved by all who crave eventual diabetes or immediate sugar shock). Ana also serves us shredded chicken, lettuce, and a mild green salsa, which we encase in wheat tortillas that she's sauteed in oil.

When Ana's husband arrives home, tired and ready to take the family to a doctor's appointment, we say our hellos and goodbyes. Susan explains later that if we had stayed any longer, he would have gone out of his way to drive us home. We head back to the subway station, buoyed by the warmth of the family we have just left and the food that is fueling us. It's still flipping frigid out here.

First Westport in a Storm (CT)

Highlights of my visit to Westport:

Not enough time with my (only and favorite and adorable) brother and his adorable family, including their two adorable dogs. We spend the time talking, window shopping, and laughing (and eating and going to movies. See below).

Laughter: A storefront labeled LCR, which nobody recognizes, I identify as "Lotsa Crappy Rejects, a consignment shop." We watch a TV show about people looking for first or second homes abroad. Ellen (brilliant sister-in-law) describes the usual episodes as depicting British couples oohing and aahing over caves in Andalucia. "We can work with that," they enthuse. "That" might refer to using a river as a bathroom or having ceilings so low that they make walking upright impossible. We agree that chickens should be engineered to be nothing but skin and bones (because the best part is the crispy skin, so why not make it the only part?). You shouldn't be shocked; I am descended from parents who used to order pastrami on rye with extra fat (the pastrami, not the rye).

Food: Japanese -- Hibachi lobster and sushi (at two different meals). Italian -- Veal chop (!) with wild mushrooms and half a slice of pizza (at two different meals). Chinese -- Giant shrimp with baby bok choy; spicy chicken and shrimp with mango; diced chicken in lettuce wrap. At home -- deep-fried chicken (which left us smelling like we worked at a Popeye's franchise for days afterwards); bialys (a round, airy but chewy roll with a sunken center filled with poppy seeds and/or onions)and cheese and perfect eggs-over-easy, courtesy of the delightful Sasha, who excels at egg preparation and dancing but not at both simultaneously, I don't think. Popcorn (tubs and tubs) at the movies.

Movies: Avatar (fantastic in 3-D), Up in the Air (with the swooney George Clooney, and the film was excellent, too), and the Meryl Streep-Alec Baldwin It's Complicated.(It's forgettable.)

I manage to keep the rows in front of us at the movies free and clear of tall people who might block my or anyone else's view. I ask the first woman who had the misfortune of seating herself directly in front of me if she would please slouch. She turns and says that she is short, but I correct her misconception. She moves. The couple that follows her leaves after I innocently remark, to no one in particular but aloud, that I sure hope that the tall people about to sit down are not intending to stay. I stare the next couple down and ask if they are planning to wear hats to make sure they would completely block the screen. They move. Their replacements are appropriately slouchy, so I don't need to say or do a thing, although by that time my family is pretending that they don't know me, and my beautiful 20-something niece Thea is reliving the nightmarish worst moments of having a relative embarrass a teen. But there is a definite method to my madness, as we can see the screen perfectly.

The visit is too short and our meetings too infrequent. We have got to get together more often!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Plane to See (Westport, CT)

As if I hadn't had enough of the snow in Richmond, where it doesn't even belong, I've gone into the heart of snow country in the middle (or the beginning) of winter. I'm in New England, amidst lawns and fields and fences covered in the white stuff that won't melt until June or July because it's so flippin' cold. I am, quite obviously, completely out of my mind. But I had no choice.

I don't get to see my family often, so I have to take the opportunity to do so even when Nature conspires against my nature. I have two weeks off during ChrismaHanaKwanzaa, so I took off a coupla days ago for points north. Let me tell you about the trip....

I get to the airport two hours early, as required. Already have my boarding pass but stop by the USAir counter, anyway, just to make sure all is in order. It's 7:15 a.m.

The clerk asks if I want to change my ticket to the flight that's already boarding. I say no. But then she tells me that my flight, scheduled for departure at 9:27, is already delayed. So I jump on the chance to go while the going is good.

"You'll have to hurry," she warns me.

"What if I don't make it?" I ask.

"No problem. We'll put you back on the original flight."

So I head for the security check point. I pass through without a glitch but with some pleasant banter with the screeners.

As I jog, rolling my roll-on toward the gate, I hear the final boarding call for my flight.

I break into a trot, but that's when my carry-on bag #2 (the suitcase masquerading as my purse) decides to slide around and off the handle of carry-on bag #1 (the rolling suitcase proud to admit its true identity). I attempt to rearrange #2, and #1 slips out of my grip and crashes to the ground.

By the time I've gotten myself and my gear into gear and arrive, sweaty and panty, at the gate, there's no one at the gate. Suddenly, a uniformed attendant appears and asks if I'm on this flight. I nod and she shoves two yellow tickets at me, instructs me to attach them onto my bags, and says that my carry-ons won't fit on the flight.

Frantically, I try to wind the elastics around my carry-on and carry-all-the-rest, all the time contemplating being fitted into the last empty space in the plane (a.k.a. flying sardine can). And I am anticipating that the obese man, who is destined to sit next to me and who should have purchased a double row to accomodate his heft, will be overflowing into my lap and beyond, trapping me like the victim of a volcanic eruption, under flowing mounds of ashy, flabby flesh and fleshy flab, but at least I won't be cold. (Yes, I realize that volcanos spew lava, but work with me here, okay?)

I jerk, upright and uptight, as the gate attendant hisses (yes, HISSES): "Run!"

I charge down the tunnel and reach the door that opens into the airplane, with its smiling stewards performing their preflight rituals. Except that it is quite plain that there is no plane.

There is a staircase (a.k.a. a metal ladder or stadder), however, which I bump my bump-on luggage down. I'm on the ground now, searching for my flight.

About 200 paces in front of me rests a solitary plane. As the sweat on my palms turns to ice, I wheel towards the metal bird that will deliver me to my destination. Its wings sparkle so brightly in the cold winter sunlight! And I am so intent on flying away, so focussed on this particular eye-soar, that I don't see the slicks of frozen water and/or oil (a.k.a. ice) that cause my legs to fly out from under me. I land, stunned, on the knee that always takes the fall, the one that -- just that very morning -- I'd realized with a contented sigh, I hadn't even thought about for a while because it no longer hurt.

I gaze towards the plane, which I now realize has no stadder that I could have scaled, and wonder if they've already sold out my original flight and if I'll be spending my impending staycation in bed, alternating applications of frozen bags of peas with hot compresses on my throbbing knee.

By chance, as I heave myself upright, I look to my left. There is a flight attendant, eyeing me from the top of the stadder of the plane that is awaiting me. A luggage handler scurries over and asks if I'd like to be taken back to the terminal for medical attention, but I no thank him away.
I limp towards the plane, trying to preserve whatever dignity I never had.

The flight attendants all hover. "Are you okay?" they chorus.

"Oh, sure," I say, wincing in a dignified manner, as they remove bag #1 from my grip and take it to be stowed in the bowels of the airliner. "Where should I sit?"

"Anywhere in the back," an attendant answers attentively.

The plane is practically empty. I sit in my own row, actually my own three rows, the other four passengers equidistantly spaced. The obese man who was fated to sit next to me has obviously been stowed in baggage, along with the other things that wouldn't fit into the compartments above our heads, below our seats, or within the cabin.I seatbelt myself in and prepare for takeoff.

Twenty minutes later we are informed that our departure will be delayed indefinitely so that the wings can be de-iced. I consider requesting a doggie bag to place on my knee.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Answer is Snow (Richmond, VA)

One of the reasons I moved south is so I could escape the cold. By the time I'd escaped from college winters in the Snowbelt, I'd already had enough of frigid temperatures, slipping on ice, falling on snow, and watching the streets turn from a brilliant white blanket to brackish, blackish mush.

Here I sit in my kitchen, looking out on a landscape that only Nanook of the North would find inviting. It's the second day that I've been forced to remain at home without any excuse to save me from cleaning my room, doing the laundry, catching up on stuff I've let slide since returning to work at summer's end.

I am not a happy camper. I could be zumbaing. I could be out and about, chatting with friends and strangers, sipping hot tea in a toasty cafe, instead of freezing my tuchis off in my frigid abode. The heat isn't working at all in several rooms; the upstairs bathroom, the study that separates it from my bedroom, and the kitchen are all extensions of the ice box. The temperature won't rise above 61 degrees F in the rest of the house.

I'm wearing so many layers that I can't turn my head. My nose is red and my hands and feet are so cold that I would stick them all under my armpits, if the layers of clothing would permit any bending of joints or reaching of extremities. My only consolation is that they say that people in cold climates live longer. This probably means that I've got an extra 2.5 seconds, if I don't freeze to death first.

As I waddle to the window, I must confess that the tundra-ish appearance of my backyard lends a dash of glamor to the usually barren landscape. Snow drifts hide the piles of brick, the compost heap, the remnant of a garden that never flourished because vegetables need sunlight, and there is none behind our house and under the shade of the neighboring yard's tree.

It's quiet and beautiful and still. Yet I continue to feel that snow is best when it's far away. If you want to visit it or watch it in a movie, be my guest. In the meantime, if you want to be my guest, bring sweaters, mittens, and blankets.

Happy Un-birthday Un-Party (Richmond, VA)

It's the 90th birthday of one of my best friend's mother, a woman I aspire to be like when I grow up. Despite a bum leg, this lady (and she most certainly is one, but is saved by her sense of humor and adventurous spirit) has experienced hunger and poverty in wartime and has traveled the world.

This is not supposed to be a birthday party. We have all been instructed not to bring gifts and not to mention the number I just mentioned; it will merely be a gathering of her daughter's friends who all admire and love Mom.

I am the only one, I think, who takes directions (in this case, anyway) to heart. I've come bearing no gifts. I do not mention any numbers whatsoever for fear that I might err (as I usually do when numbers come into play).

We are a gathering of women of a certain age (although Mom is the most certain, plus the 20-something daughter of one of us, and diverse backgrounds: German, Dutch and Russian immigrants, ESL (English as a second language) teachers and other educators, a baker, retirees, and a congressional aide. A mostly unmotley crew.

Gabi calls with her whereabouts. She's running late, having had to de-grunge after returning from the stable. Why was she riding her horse on this cold, rainy day? somewoman wants to know.

The cognoscenti respond that horses have to be ridden, no matter the weather.
The same person says that she's never been on a horse.

I chime in with, "I don't know much about them, but I've been hoarse."

She asks, "How'd you get over it?"

I respond, "I've ridden it out."

Guess you had to be there, but in the atmosphere of generosity, indulgence, and warmth of all assembled, there is laughter.

And then, of course, there are the desserts: chocolate cheesecake; a yellow cake with white icing; stollen; star-shaped, sugar-dusted ginger cookies; marzipan; dark Belgian chocolates; vanilla cookies dipped in chocolate; liquor-filled chocolates. I take some of every food group to compose my well-balanced dessert plate: chocolate, vanilla, ginger, and green.

Mom holds forth, gracious and charming and lovely. We are all delighted to be celebrating her unbirthday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Black Hole (Richmond, VA)

I've driven down this road before -- the first and only other time I visited my friend Jill #2's house. And once again, I can't find my way back home.

Getting to her house is easy. A right turn off one of Richmond's main drags, followed by a series of rights. But I am learning once more that three rights, when reversed, can make a wrong. And I find myself on the wrong side of the tracks in the small town that bills itself as the "Center of the Universe," but which I feel -- at least right now -- should be renicknamed "the Bleakest, Blackest Black Hole in the Universe."

It should have taken me 20 minutes from her door to my door, but here I am, cursing and not exactly cruising down the same narrow, winding country road, bordered by deep ditches waiting, open-jawed, to swallow up my car and its increasingly freaked-out driver. The guy behind me in his monster SUV is practically driving in my trunk, his lights blinding me without illuminating the path that I'm trying to navigate. I recognize the deserted gas station I've just passed. I can't slow down and can't find a place to turn into and out of the SUV-of-a bitch's way.

I know that there are houses along this route, but none is lit up. I bet I know why: the lone parent remembers to pick up her newspaper at some point during one starless, moonless evening and, weeks or months or years later -- with the help of the FBI, the Air Force, GPS, and MapQuest -- finds her way home. She flings open the door, only to be confronted by the snarling progeny of her poodles or German Shepherds or sharpeis, long-reverted to their wolf-ancestor wildness and prepared to defend to the death the howling, feral teenagers, cowering and pissing themselves in the corner, and who will always be a disappointment to the canines that raised them from infancy for never having been able to compete with the rest of the cubs in terms of looks, communication skills, or instinct.

I drive on, knowing that the road sign that would have led me directly to where I wanted to go had never been erected or had been stolen (perhaps by a pack of feral cub scouts). Up ahead I spy an intersection and make a left turn, praying that the guy on my tail won't continue to tail me. He doesn't.

I make a three-point turn, praying that no kid who's just been granted his driver's license and is trying to impress his carload of friends by pretending he's on a racetrack will ram into me. I'm praying that I won't land in a ditch and be found, thirty years from now, upside down, seat belt firmly belted but half gnawed through, my last thought, caught in my head for eternity, "I wish they'd stop playing "Horse With No Name" for the gazillionth time..."

Someone must have put back the missing street sign, because now I see it. I make my way to Broad Street, to the highway, and homewards. The needle on my gas gauge hovers near empty, as do I.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thanksgiving Dinner Party (Richmond, VA)

These are some of the things that I am thankful for: growing up in a functional family; a son who is the light of my life; the best friends in the world; work that I love; a body and a mind that function reasonably well; more than enough of everything I need and virtually everything I want.

With so much to be thankful for, I am still a bit depressed on Thanksgiving Day. This is one of my favorite holidays, revolving around the things I most love -- family, friends, and food. Of the latter two, there is great abundance, and I am truly grateful.But I am surrounded by the empty space that family members used to occupy.

My parents are long-gone, and my in-laws, more recently deceased. I miss them all, especially at this time of year. My brother and his family and siblings-in-law with theirs, celebrate the holiday in their respective parts of the country. I wish I had a table to accomodate them all.

As I begin dinner preparations, I feel a lump in my throat. The deepest pain is that our son is not joining us; he is at university, too far away to visit for just a long weekend. He was the maker of stuffing, the baker of pumpkin pie. This year, unwilling to undertake the pie-baking, I purchase a chocolate almond torte and a cranberry-apple galette.

I call my son. He doesn't answer the phone, so I leave a message. "I miss you -- and your cooking." I attempt a light tone, but I feel just plain sad. "I love you...."

Meanwhile, fresh cranberries pop open in the pot, where they jive with a rind-and-all orange and just enough honey to eliminate bitterness, without becoming overly sweet. I remove now-fragrant pecans from the toaster-oven and mix them into the jewel-toned melange, cooling on the counter top.

Italian turkey sausages sizzle in a pan. I smush them with a wooden spoon and toss the crumbles -- no longer pink -- atop a waiting bowl of cubed whole grain bread. I saute a load of red onion in olive oil, add chopped celery, herb it up with rosemary, thyme, sage, and fresh basil, salt and pepper, add chicken broth, and bring it all to a boil. Ten minutes later, I mix everything together with toasted walnuts and slip the stuffing into a muffin pan to form 12 individual crisp-crusted servings (to avoid fights over the corner portions). The remainder goes into another greased pan for leftovers.

I de-string the green beans. The beans will be served at room temperature, sauted al dente in olive oil, tossed with slivers of garlic, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, then salted, peppered, and finished off with a squeeze or two of fresh lemon.

The Romaine lettuce and red chard are rinsed and torn into bite-sized pieces. With quarter of a jar of red Italian peppers and a handful of green olives, they will comprise a simple but colorful salad.

While the turkey browns belly-up in the oven and the root vegetables (beets, garnet yams, turnips) and garlic cloves bake in their olive oil and herb-scented bath, I run the coats upstairs, dust the living room, mop the kitchen floor, clear and set the table for nine.

The cooking smells and constant business lift my spirits.

Carolina, my daughter-by-choice, her partner, and their precocious four-year-old will eat with us. Jeffery (a sushi chef and current student), his wife, Pyu Pyu, and two sons (the adults born in Burma but lived in Japan for 28 years before coming to the States) will. too. The table only seats 10, and I like Thanksgiving dinner to be a sit-down affair.

I silently pray that none of this year's invitees are anorexic. (One year I neglected to question why my two female guests probably didn't weigh 150 pounds put together.)

Pyu Pyu has brought vegetarian spring rolls and Indian (potato-filled) samosas. We eat them as appetizers and bring them to the table, adding ethnic zing to the spread of all-American eats. M. has concocted a last-minute "gravy," and makes us guess the secret ingredient, added to the olive oil, garlic, and onions. Nobody gets it: shredded wheat! We dig in and everything, with the exception of the stuffing muffins that I've burnt, is delicious. We wash it all down with lemonade, sparkling water, and/or red wine.

Former students, Valgine from Brazil, and Ahmed, from Saudi Arabia, arrive and receive filled plates. Jeffery and his family leave; the boys need to go to bed.

Ahmed brings us a Saudi dessert: homemade, fried whole wheat dough balls, pooled in honey. We drink coffee and add vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, semi-sweet chocolate-covered cranberries, and pomegranate seeds to our desserts. We travel with our plates between living room and kitchen, sipping mint tea or strong coffee.

Dinner is tasty, the conversation lively, our invitees charming. Dessert and life and so many memories are sweet. I am so thankful for it all.