Friday, September 28, 2012

the solitude and the longing



Alexi and Cal are out of town for the weekend. A couple of times a year, they go on a YMCA sponsored father-son weekend with a group of other dads and sons from our school. Alexi and Abbott used to go together, too, but the program stops at third grade. The weekend is always a mixture of sadness and ease for me. Only one kid to worry about. I have all of the adult say in how we spend our time. There is a net gain in the relationship we each have with the child we’re with for those days. And there is something to be said for the missing. But we are a couple who really likes being together; we’re hardly ever apart for good reason. It isn’t the early romance kind of attachment. Now, what lies between us is so much more powerful and complex, involving love, attachment, habit, and the roots we’ve put down together.

In the early days of our relationship, separation was intolerable. When Alexi was on call overnight at the hospital, I’d visit him when he got caught up on his work, sometimes not until late in the evening. We got our first cell phones in 2000, when we were married, primarily for the use of the unlimited minutes between the two phones.

The first couple of years of our marriage, as part of his residency, Alexi ate dinner at the hospital on weeknights. I’d eat something simple, alone, like a fried egg and some vegetables, or a bowl of cereal, or I’d eat from a pot of something I made early in the week, all week. The arrangement worked well, as I simultaneously held down a job and was a full-time graduate student. I caught up on my studying and worked on my thesis in those hours I was alone after work or class. There is a certain pleasure in the solitude and in the longing. Alexi liked to wake up at 4:00 to study for his radiology board examination before work; he feels fresher in the mornings. He’d light a candle at his desk, make a pot of coffee, and get to work while I slept. Sometimes I’d try to join him. I would sit huddled on the floor next to the baseboard heater in the freezing cold apartment. I often slept in a floor length cream-colored flannel nightgown – not very sexy for a newlywed, I know – and I’d curl my legs up in it as I sat and tried to keep warm and study. But generally, I slept, and the morning was his solitude; the evening, mine.

I let Abbott choose what he wanted to do for dinner tonight. As in other times when we've been alone, he wanted to go to Delancey. We sat at a small table at the back of the restaurant.  He brought a book, as he usually does, wherever he goes, as I always do. I wondered about the social acceptability of reading at a table with my son. We are part of the 5pm, opening crowd. The other inhabitants of the restaurant at this time of night have toddlers and young children, and they are generally interacting with them. I amused myself by taking a couple of pictures – one with my camera, one with my phone – and browsing around Instagram, then surreptitiously pulled out my own book and began to read. We stopped to eat our pizzas. I always get the special - tonight, padron peppers! - and Abbott always gets the Brooklyn - cheese pizza with a red sauce - and a glass of milk. We both had dessert, a plum galette and a chocolate chip cookie, switching halfway.

On these weekends when we’re apart, I allow Abbott to sleep with me. He gets scared without Cal nearby. When I come to bed he’s curled up on my side of the bed, leaving me with Alexi’s spot, just where I want to be when he’s away.



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Full Circle Farm





















I spent today accompanying Cal’s second grade class on their first field trip of the year. I drove with him and three of his classmates the 45 or so minutes out of the city to Full Circle Farm, owned and operated by the family of one of Cal’s classmates and good friends. The entirety of the trip, both directions, the kids exchanged jokes that ranged from the known to the made up.

 “Why does Santa Claus have three gardens? So he can hoe-hoe-hoe…”
“Why do sheep cross the road? To get to the baa-baa shop…”
“Why did the cow cross the road? To get to the moo-vies…”

We’ve been looking forward to the visit for days. Cal has repeatedly asked if his friend would be coming along, too, given that he already knows all about it. “Yes, I think he’ll be excited to show the farm to his friends,” I’ve told him.

The organic farm encompasses more than 400 acres, growing over 150 varieties of over 50 different crops. The only animals on the farm are the elk, deer, coyote and bear that stop by, and Ella, the family’s dog. Andy is sturdy, good-natured, energetic, and handsome in a Midwestern way. Wendy is bright, passionate, and lanky, with a smile that lights up a room. The vegetables that come out of their farm are unbelievably delicious, particularly those we picked, and ate, today.

The second graders host a market for the school, modeled after the Pike Place Market. The visit was part of their preparation for it. The kids were taken to the fields riding in a wagon pulled by a tractor, and were invited to fill a bag with as much produce as they were interested in picking. They smelled the fennel; they tasted the beet greens, the celeriac. It was obvious many of them had no idea, before today, that carrots grew in the ground. One boy was able to identify a turnip before I was. Seeing them in and among the forest of kale will stick in my mind for some time to come.

Friday, September 21, 2012

like caterpillars make cocoons



My kids’ school is on the other side of town. I don’t mind the drive most of the time. I infer things about their days from the occasional questions and commentary; little beams of sunlight through the silent fog. “Do you think glass is a solid, liquid, or gas?” Once we’re home we scatter: Abbott to read, Cal to build with Legos, me to put away the evidence of the day, making room for the next.  Lunch boxes are unpacked – wrappers in the garbage, apple cores in food waste, ice packs back in the freezer. Cal’s milk box that rides back and forth, to and from school every day, back in the refrigerator. I sort the mail. Then I summon them to the kitchen, and we start the next phase of the day. Piano practice. Homework. Dinner preparation. Despite all my efforts to have it be otherwise, Cal resolutely sits on the counter, next to where I’m working; he does his homework beside me as I chop, steam and sauté. Abbott sits at a nearby desk. Cal sets the table; Abbott clears. We eat early on school nights– most nights at five. Sometimes we get in a walk after dinner.

Humans perpetuate rituals in the same way caterpillars make cocoons. It’s our nature. Every fall, every school grade has a picnic. Whenever these types of events come up, I have to overcome the same inertia to get myself out the door. I never want to travel across town at rush hour. Getting the boys to bed early, then settling in with a book and a glass of wine sounds infinitely better. But I love my children, as all parents do, and like all parents, I don’t want my kids to miss out on prime social time with their peers. So off we go, and we come home glad for having made the effort. I start out by taking pictures of them running in the golden light with their friends. Eventually, I warm to the social scene; going against my basic nature I touch base with most families. We parents, now familiar – it’s second grade, after all, and only a few new families – catch up on the intervening time since we last connected. We talk about our impressions of the second grade teachers – quietly, as they’re present at the picnic – and we agree, so far, so good. All of it punctuated by the background music, shrieks and peals of laughter. When the sun has finally vanished, and all that remains of the light is contained in one thin, pink, angled stripe of a cloud, we drive home again.

For the kids, these picnics don’t involve eating, beyond grabbing an errant brownie or a rice crispy treat en route to the merry go round. If it’s a potluck, they don’t like the food prepared by the other parents. If it’s a picnic in which each family brings their own food, nobody wants to stop long enough to eat. So last night I decided we would eat before we left, at 4:30, like toddlers. We ate a meal that tastes like September.


pasta with raw tomato sauce

3 cups roughly chopped ripe tomatoes, or 1 - 28 oz can of good quality crushed tomatoes, like San Marzano
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound pasta
freshly grated parmesan


Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.

Put the tomatoes, oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and basil in a broad-bottomed bowl. Mash together with a fork or potato masher.

Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain. Toss the drained pasta with the tomato sauce, divide between four plates, and top with grated Parmesan.

Yield: 4 servings



Monday, September 17, 2012

second nature



Portsmouth, NH

My father-in-law, Robert, is one of the best intuitive cooks I know. He lives alone, on the edge of a cliff above the Bay of Fundy. His kitchen is spare, with only a few tools and basic staples, and no cookbooks that I've noticed. But he has the basics on hand, and knows how to use them. Primarily, he knows what's going to be good, when, and doesn't bother if it's not. And he knows that good ingredients don't need much done to them. What comes out of his kitchen, and what he makes in mine, is always perfectly done.

Robert loves to fish. He bought my boys - his grandsons - fishing poles and tackle boxes for their birthdays a few years ago, then took them fishing. Both boys caught a tiny perch. Robert managed to fillet those fish that were about the size of my palm. Abbott read somewhere that you can cook fish in pancake batter, so being the pancake lover he is, he wanted his fish cooked that way. Robert helped him make a batter, and fried up those little fish such that we all had a bite. Probably, that experience will go down as Abbott's happiest fish-eating memory.

Robert is also one of the best storytellers I've heard in action. It's probably what makes him a good fisherman, or vice-versa. He loves a good restaurant meal, and will recount the details of a particular piece of pie in the same way he'll tell a fishing story. Long ago, I treated him to a meal of halibut cheeks, and I still hear about them from time to time. They've become legendary.

Last summer, he took us clamming when we visited him in Nova Scotia. It was my first time, and one of the highlights of my week. There was a distinct satisfaction in squishing around the mud flats, and in the surety there is in the digging. It's akin to blackberry picking when faced with a bush of luscious ripe ones - the juice is running down your hands, and it's nearly impossible to stop. The meal we made of our efforts lingers in my memory. Robert has spent most of his life in Maine and Nova Scotia, and cooking clams is second nature for him. His chowder is one for your recipe box. We made it recently, as we're starting to turn toward fall.


Robert's Clam Chowder

"The key I find to a good chowder is simplicity - basically, milk or cream, fish or clams or lobster, each alone, not mixed; potato and onion."

5 dozen small clams, such as manila or littleneck, well scrubbed
2 cups water
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon butter
1 large potato, peeled and diced
one piece of salt pork, approximately 1/4" thick x 3/4" wide x 3" long
2 cups heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
butter, paprika and parsley, for garnish

Combine the clams and water in a medium sized stockpot, cover, and bring to a boil. Cook until the clams open, about five minutes. Discard any that don't open. Remove the meat, and coarsely chop it. Strain the water through a fine mesh sieve until all the sand is out. Set aside.

Dice the salt pork into 1/4 inch cubes. Sauté it in the stock pot over medium heat until some of the fat has rendered, about 3 minutes. Add the onion and butter and cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Put the potato and clam broth into the sauce pan with the salt pork and onion, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the clams and cream, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook just until heated through. Do not boil, or the cream will separate and the clams will toughen.

"When dishing it up, add a touch of butter and paprika and a little chopped parsley."

Yield: 4 - 6 servings


Saturday, September 15, 2012

continuum















Williams College

Yesterday, I had the deep visceral pleasure of meeting my friend Molly's five day old daughter, June. I hurried from the car to her front door, trying to balance my excitement with the chocolate birthday cake I had in tow. I hugged Molly, then hugged her mother, Toni. No sign of June, so I started describing something about the drive over. Toni interjected, "You've got to come see her!" I had assumed that a baby out of sight was a sleeping, off-limits baby. In we went to the tranquil, treehouse-like nursery and stood in silence for a minute, taking her in. The light from the window cast a crib slat pattern across the room, and made a silhouette of June's delicate profile on the blanket under her. The three of us gradually moved to sit in a little circle around her, and she slept peacefully through our conversation, the dog barking, and all the other extraneous noises that came and went. An occasional half smile flicked across her tiny face, and her hands moved intermittently between her sides and the general region of her mouth. As I sat watching June and listening to her birth story, many scenes and emotions from my memory bank of experiences emerged. Molly made mothering a newborn look easier than I remembered it feeling.

We had an experience of the opposite kind a few weeks ago when we visited Williams College, Alexi's alma mater. As we watched our boys race around the grassy lawns empty of students for the summer, it wasn't that difficult to envision the day when we'll take them to tour as prospective students.

This morning, Cal and Alexi left for hockey practice right after breakfast. I asked Abbott if he would be up for going running with me; he was. It took a few minutes of figuring to pace ourselves with each other in speed and stride. He's stronger than I realized. As we jogged side by side along the boulevard overlooking Elliott Bay, I got as much attention from the people we encountered, beaming at me, a mom out running with her ten year old son, as I used to when I was out walking with him as a newborn. My pride was akin to what it was in those days, too. We plodded along, chatting about the linguistics of the word 'downtown', making observations about the soccer game going on below the bridge we ran across, discussing a sign for an upcoming wild mushroom show and whether we might want to go foraging ourselves, and sometimes sharing silence. Our breathing and the pat-pat-pat of our sneakers were entrained as we took in the salty air and the sights of our neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

easing into it














images taken on our recent trip to New Hampshire

I woke up this morning to a sky split, vertically, blue on one side, a sheet of charcoal-gray clouds on the other. I wondered which way the day would go. I dressed in the middle – a long sleeved cotton dress of Liberty fabric. I was too hot by late afternoon, as is often the case in September.

After a weekend of cleaning out closets with my characteristic ruthlessness, the house feels ready for the school year. My brain hasn’t yet reverted to the schedule, however, and my limbs are still clumsy with sleep as I insert my contacts, brush my teeth. By the time I’ve unloaded the dishwasher and started breakfast, I’m halfway through my coffee, still unhappily groggy, but moving out of my dreams into the morning’s reality. I clean the catbox and start a load of laundry, then tell Abbott to stop reading and make his bed. I try and cajole Cal to get up, without being able to come up with any selling points.

I ran with a friend I haven’t seen in many months. We caught up on our summers, on her daughter’s entry into high school and my anxiety about the middle school admissions process. The sunlight filtering through the ancient trees in Discovery Park and onto the trail nearly brought me to my knees, it was that beautiful.

After making myself a salad for lunch I sat, sleepily at my laptop, trying to remember why I thought it was a good idea to be sitting there at all. I shuffled things around in my calendar that weren’t, apparently, going to happen today, made myself an Arnold Palmer in an effort to perk up enough to fetch the children, and called it a day.

After dinner, amid piano practice and the remnants of homework and kitchen cleanup I observed a teenage neighbor in front of the house playing street hockey by himself. I sent the boys out. I make sure we’re outside as much as possible before the darkness sets in.


Arnold Palmer

1/2 - 1 cup lemonade
1/2 - 1 cup iced tea (sweetened or unsweetened)
plenty of ice

Fill a tall glass with ice. Add lemonade until the glass is half full, and top with iced tea. Stir to mix.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Abbott's













When I was a kid, I used to search the racks with the personalized key chains and pencils at the Woolworths and such. Not surprisingly, I never found anything with Lecia on it, but I never stopped looking. Now, it’s as easy as a click and a few dollars to personalize almost anything, and the significance is definitely lost on my kids. I’m sure I was far more excited than Abbott was to find, and eat at, Abbott’s Lobster a couple of weeks ago in Connecticut. We all did love the food and the location.

Friday, September 7, 2012

habit






I'm a guest at habit again this month. I really love it there - stop on by.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Connecticut











Sunday afternoon over the holiday weekend, my sister Lindi and brother-in-law Michael hosted a catered party on their lawn. I had a nice enough time meeting their friends and neighbors and colleagues, even though I am generally not a fan of making small talk with strangers. After the sun lowered on the horizon, the last of the guests found their way home, and the caterers packed the leftovers into the refrigerator, Michael’s two brothers, their families and his parents lingered. The party after the party; the best part of my day. The air was thick with humidity as we sat around talking and watching the kids swim. Eventually, when we got hungry, we rummaged and found leftover sandwiches, what the caterers used as raw material for cutting into two bite portions to serve –lox between thick slices of pumpernickel; cucumber between butter slathered white bread; curried chicken salad on rye. We ate them right out of their ziplock bags and washed them down with martinis. The conversation was opinionated and lively, as I expect it always is when Michael and his brothers get together. It made me wish, not for the first time, that my family all lived in the same place.

Part of the pleasure I experience in being east is in the unfamiliarity I have with my surroundings. I asked my sister if she now feels like an East Coaster, and was a bit surprised to hear that she does. Sometimes I forget how much time has passed since our childhood in Alaska. Saturday night, at a restaurant in New Canaan, Connecticut it was all I could do not to gawk, in between bites of my sweet corn tortelloni, at the men wearing embroidered belts and salmon colored pants. I forget that preppy culture is alive and well in pockets of the country. I’m sure those same residents of New Canaan experience a sense of the alien when they visit the Pacific Northwest.

Alexi realized he’d lost his driver’s license as soon as we got to Connecticut, adding some drama to our return home. Perhaps because he was traveling with three other people with the same last name, with ID, we were let through airport security without more than a brief delay for questioning. We ended up with some extra time, and I used it to get coffee. I had the best cappuccino of my life right there in JFK, at an Illy stand that also served pastries from Balthazar. Almost instantly, I felt cheerful, despite having been up since 4:00am.

This morning, the first day of school, we all got up feeling a little nervous, a little excited, and jetlagged. I made oatmeal with peaches for breakfast, which tasted more like peach pie, they are that good right now. Some worry stayed with me all day, intermingled with the sweetness of the peaches.