Friday, December 30, 2011

Blemishes are Beautiful

This New Year's Eve, I am resolving to embrace being an under-achiever. For so long it wasn't enough to run, I had to run fast and far. I couldn't simply play the banjo, I had to master it. If I didn't bike to work every day, I was a slacker. And as a result, things that should be fun became work. Actually, I often had more fun at work than when I was working at having fun. (Go ahead, read that last sentence again, it's convoluted.)

But this year, I am going to give myself permission to shoot a bit lower. I'm going to recognize that imperfect is, actually, plenty good enough. I'm going to accept the honor of the "Gentle(wo)man's C." I know what you're thinking: who wants to emulate George Bush? But other notable underachievers include Eero Saarinen (another C student at Yale), Steven Spielberg (rejected by film schools three times), Marilyn Monroe (dropped by her first studio) and Beethoven (his music teacher said he was "hopeless"). Lucille Ball's mother once got a note from her daughter's acting teacher saying that she was so bad that the tuition was a waste of money.

So I'm not a very good cook, but I can try to learn a few new (and forgiving) dishes. True, I have no sense of musical meter, but that just means my waltzes are jaunty and my ditties complex. A slow three mile run has me outside the woods for just as long as a blazing six mile one, with the bonus of not feeling like throwing up at the end. Maybe it requires the occasional day squished onto a mildewy Metro car to truly appreciate the freedom of biking in on other days. Dog hair tumbleweeds in the hallway can signify more than just the need to vacuum; they demonstrate that this is a household filled with unconditional love.

So here's to going part way. Cheers to taking a break. Huzzah for long languorous afternoons of not getting anything accomplished at all. It's time to celebrate enjoying something without mastering it, giving permission to put it down when it's not fun, and realizing that sometimes the smart thing to do is just have a chocolate (or two) instead. As that talentless redhead once said, "It's a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy." Happy New Year, Lucille.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Farewell Message to my Cat

Dear Isabella Boo-Manchu,

I'm not sure why I'm writing you a letter, you being a cat and thus too haughty to learn to read, but I feel obligated to attempt to explain what is happening here. Tomorrow morning we will go to the vet's office, and you will fall asleep there and not come home again. I know you'll be scared--you've never quite trusted the vet--but I'll be there with you, even holding you in my arms if you'll let me.

I suspect it's hard to believe, but I really am trying to spare you from all these problems you've been suffering over these past few years; these problems that make you hungry all the time but unable to absorb any satisfaction from your food. Having been feral in the beginning, you've never quite trusted me, either. And don't think that I don't recognize that a letter about putting you to sleep isn't really the best forum to make my case. But hear me out.

Remember how you and your brother, Murray, showed up on my doorstep back in 1995 in Long Beach, California, hiding from the giant opossums that gorged off the garbage in the alleyway? You two were so tiny, and while he was ready to blindly trust any one who came by, you were the wary one, making sure it was safe for the two of you before you'd come into my apartment. Even once you were inside, warm and safe (November is chilly, even in Southern California) it took months before you'd let me pet you. But I kept you out of danger, and you have to admit that you liked being able to curl up and nap on the furniture.

And once we'd moved to Los Angeles (you know, that apartment where you liked to knock all my ironic tsotchke crosses and Madonnas off the shelves every night?), do you remember how you got out one night and I slept on the floor next to the screen door to let you back in when you realized your folly at 3 a.m.? And who hung out with you and brought food to you when you wouldn't come out for three weeks once we got the dog? Yeah, me. And in Seattle when I spaced out and left the door open when we went away for the weekend, that was kind of a cool adventure for you, wasn't it?

Now, I'll concede that once we moved to rural Virginia I could have handled your hunting habits better. But you have to admit that having a living but shocked chipmunk dropped on one's foot would cause just about anybody to scream. And seriously, after you figured out that the bell on your neck was scaring off the birds, how many deaf--thus dead--moles did I bury without comment?

But these past couple of years have been tough. Here--in your 3rd state, 7th city and 9th address by my count--things have not gone so well. While you've become a bona fide lap kitty--and that only took 14 years--you've also been effectively starving to death regardless of how many pills we've given you. And slowly but surely we've had to close off ever greater parts of the house from you, lest you cause havoc. Your life is becoming increasingly circumscribed, and it isn't going to get any better.

So tomorrow morning I am going to do the hardest thing we humans have to do for the animals who have given us so much. I am going to let you go. And I am going to miss you. I hope kitty heaven is cluttered with cans of tuna, and that there you don't need thumbs to get them open.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Ambivalent Paean to Northern Virginia

(Note: I wouldn't ask you to read this much without giving you some TV to watch too. Here is a video of Things You Don't See if You Don't Bike to Work)

Is it possible to pen an equivocal ode, to be confident giving only a qualified endorsement? After five years in Northern Virginia, I fear ambivalence may remain the best I can do, but I will say that the heart grows fonder of a place when the eyes can take it in at a human pace.

15 miles per hour is a speed at which you can take in the world; a pace at which your cerebral cortex can start to make some sense of the place where you are. Biking (and before that, running) through my world makes this sprawling strip-mall centered landscape at least a little more comprehensible. At a human pace, you get to know the regulars and you take notice of the little signs and signals of how this place came to be like it is. At 15 miles per hour, you’re sticking around long enough to become part of the story.

Like all of Northern Virginia, all this was once the enormous landholding of just one man, given by a King who had never laid eyes upon it. Later—and around here, by “later” we mean the 17th century—Col. William Fitzhugh purchased a cozy 24,000 acres of the land, christened it “Ravensworth,” and turned it into one of the largest tobacco plantations in the region. Not that he actually lived here, of course, even then, this place was not particularly centrally located. Instead slaves worked land that even Huguenot refugees found “primitive” and wouldn’t settle on. When the old colonel died, he divided the land between sons (always a recipe for happy family relations) and part of it eventually came into the hands of Mary Randolph Custis Lee, wife of everyone’s favorite traitor, Robert E. Lee. Happily, we live in the other half--despite being born in the South, I have a tough time reconciling myself to its history. (As an aside, the first house we saw as prospective homebuyers was located in a development called “Mosby Woods” after a famous Confederate raider. The house itself was located on “Sherman” street, but can you imagine giving directions to friends like, “Turn onto Plantation Parkway, then go left onto Confederate Lane. If you hit Reb Drive, you’ve gone too far.”)

Instead we bought a little brick ranch house in the admirably—if somewhat pompously—named “Broyhill Crest.” As is the case in so many mid-century eponymous developments, one can guess the names of the developer’s wife and children relatively easily: Donna Circle, Brenda Lane, Wayne Drive and Marvin Street remain as monuments to the Broyhill clan. Happily, Broyhill pere saw the value of the mature trees on his new land and determined to preserve many of them, including our very own 200 acre woods running along either side of the creek at the bottom of the hill. I bike through the woods every morning, seeing as how it’s the quickest way to get from one cul-de-sac-filled subdivision to another. (Another aside: “Cul de sac” means “bottom of the bag” in French, which sort of seems appropriate, doesn’t it?) I call out “Good Morning!” to the little old couple from over on Terrace Street. She waves and sings “Good morning!” back at me. He’s quieter, though we once had a very long conversation about the new recycling bins. I nod at the brood of older Korean women on their morning walk, and they barely break stride or their enthusiastic conversation as they nod back.

The neighborhood is filled with the older cars and trucks of the working middle-class, if such a thing can still be said to exist. A construction worker, an electrician (a proud member of the IBEW, according to his license plate), a postman and a landscaper number among our neighbors. Around here, 5 a.m. is a miniature rush hour as they stumble out their identical doors to go to work. There are probably few “Brendas” or “Donnas” here anymore; our neighbors’ names include Nguyen, Yapur, Fernandez, Kcaho, Santos, Aguirre, Tan and the occasional Smith. We still get mail for the guy here before us, Viengxay Prasonexay, whose name is like music if you say it out loud.

Once out of the neighborhood and on the bike trails, you get to know the regulars. Bicyclists are a quirky species, and as such individuals start to stand out even on the crowded multi-use trails we use to commute to and from work. There’s the tall skinny guy on the racing bike whose long articulated arms and legs make him look like nothing so much as a Daddy Longlegs balanced on a little bike. One young man keeps his pace slow, so as to stay within sight of his two children each pedaling behind laden with a heavy backpack. I find myself wondering what all the parents who drive their children to day care think of this father who shares fresh air and exercise with his children each morning. There's the older man on an ancient Schwinn who sports green sweatbands on his wrists, athletic socks pulled up to his knees and his helmet at a jaunty angle. He is not to be confused with the other senior citizen who rides his recumbent bicycle at an impressive pace, falling behind only on the very steep hills.

It’s not just the bikers you get to know. Other people and creatures also serve as landmarks when you’re moving at a slow enough pace to notice them: a woman, well into middle age, jogging in a scanty outfit and thrusting forward breasts at least twenty-five years younger than she is; a young woman running in a hijab, even in the sticky Washington, DC, heat; a heron is fishing in the bright green algae-covered pond and a family of bunnies munching companionably on grass just after the turn onto the path in Falls Church. There are the kamikaze squirrels and bunnies that dash in front of the bike, runners with headphones who can’t—or won’t—hear the chimes of the bikers’ warning bells, and walkers texting and walking in a pattern that puts you in mind of a soldier evading a highly skilled sniper.

You get to know the monotonous squeal of the overworked air conditioner above the “Touch of Class” salon and “Joseph’s Coat” resale shop, and you quickly learn to respect the spots where the tree roots aggressively reassert their primacy through the blacktop to bone-jarring effect. In Georgetown’s streets an unwary bicyclist might hit broken glass or puddles of vomit waiting to be cleaned up by staff so that the streets will be clean again when the madras-clad sons and daughters of privilege emerge furry-tongued and bleary-eyed to start their carousing again.

At stop lights, the bikers take the opportunity to chat: comparing the merits of different pannier bags and lights, commenting on the traffic, or pondering the mystery of why there is always an inexplicably long line outside of Georgetown Cupcakes. (Tourists: the cupcakes cost over five dollars and they aren’t really all that good, the lesson being that you don’t have to be a particularly good bakery to have a television show.)

If one of our tribe is pulled off to the side, we all call out “Are you okay?” before we zip past. When I had my second flat tire in as many weeks in the final 50 feet of a steep ascent, another biker was all too happy to stop to catch his breath and help me wrestle the tire off the rims. Afterwards, noting that he wasn’t as fast as I was, he promised he’d keep an eye out on the trail ahead in case I ran into trouble again. When I spelled a guy tired from using a hand pump to re-inflate his tire, we spent the time joking that what we really needed was a bike delivery guy with some cold beer. There’s no written rule that you have to play it forward like this; it’s just how you do for those others who are taking on a world of six-lane roads, right turns on red and other automotive hazards while balanced on two wheels.

Do I consider myself a Virginian yet? No. Will I ever? I’m not sure. But somehow, without quite noticing how or when it happened, I became a part of the landscape of Northern Virginia. And maybe that’s good enough.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lessons from (nearly) a month off running:

  1. Sleeping in past 5 a.m.--because frankly you don't really care how early it's getting hot--is sort of nice.
  2. Unfortunately, the cat that you have inadvertently trained to howl for breakfast before dawn does not understand the word "hiatus." (Or, apparently, "Shut UP," or "Don't scratch me," or "I'm going to kill you once I catch you.")
  3. Riding a bike significantly expands your range and you learn entirely new neighborhoods. You also learn that at least in Northern Virginia they look exactly like the old neighborhoods and you get lost. A lot.
  4. Swimming works those two bendy appendages that attach your hands to your body that you completely ignored during all those years of running. And they hurt.
  5. You can live like a Queen when you are no longer shelling out moolah for running shoes, GU and race entries every few weeks.
  6. You cannot use those newfound riches on eating like a Queen, because you aren't really burning calories anymore either.
  7. Your toenails start to grow back.
  8. You miss your running friends.
  9. You fall way behind on the podcasts you used to listen to every morning during your run and then you stink at the quizzes on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."
  10. The bike really tightens the tush, and frankly at close to 44 years of fighting gravity you need all the help you can get.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Becoming Okay with Not Being Like Audrey Hepburn

If you've seen "Breakfast at Tiffany's" you know the scene. (And if you haven't seen it, for the love of god why are you reading this and not renting it from Netflix right now?) Audrey is gazing at the windows of the famous jewelry store while nibbling on a danish and sipping take-out coffee from a paper cup. Her hair, with its bold streaks of blonde highlights, is smoothly and perfectly swept into an improbably high up-do, and her elbow-length black gloves don't even show a trace of crumbs. Her dress--and oh, what a dress it is--is a sleek black sheath with cut-outs in the back that emphasize her tiny wing-like shoulder blades. This is Audrey at her most Hepburn-esque, and I will never ever be like that.

Audrey was clothed primarily by Givenchy. My wardrobe is primarily from the House du REI, a healthy dose of Mountain Hardware with a bit of North Face and Prana thrown in for good measure. Audrey was always fresh and well pressed. I always look like my clothes just came out of a panier bag on the back of my bike, mostly because, well, they just came out of a panier bag on the back of my bike.

Audrey Hepburn had flawless hair, no matter if it was her Holly Golightly up-do or her impetuous kicky short coiffure as Anya Smith (the princess on the lamb in "Roman Holiday"). Even after a long night of cocktail drinking or a spin on a Vespa, the girl's hair looked good. My hair, by contrast, always looks like it's about four weeks beyond the date when I needed a haircut, even as I walk out of the salon having just gotten a haircut. The movie star I seem to resemble most is Benji the Dog, with hair in my eyes and weird bits sticking out in the wrong places.

We won't even mention her make-up, since I refuse to wear anything but a tinted sunscreen. (Especially not those perfectly lined doe eyes with the long curvy eyelashes; how the hell did she do that?!?!) If I do actually try to wear lipstick, I always eat about half of it off within minutes leaving me looking like your crazy Aunt Lettie. I think we can simply note that my toe-nails are painted lime green and move on, shall we?

After years of wishing I were more like Audrey, I am starting to think I may just need to accept that I am the kind of girl with scrapes on her knees, bike grease on her shins and garden dirt under her fingernails. For me, "dressed up" will forever mean wearing shoes that are not suitable for kayaking. Unlike la Audrey, I don't move like a dancer; unless by "dancer" you mean somebody who hits her head a lot and gets a new bruise every time she takes the Metro (stupid armrests).

OK, so I'm never going to be Audrey Hepburn. I'm not even Kate, though at least she wore pants a lot and you can imagine her swearing up a storm in private. I'm messy and clumsy and perpetually covered in dog hair. But we do have one thing in common: neither Audrey Hepburn nor I can sing for shit. So, there's that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Born Again Southern Belle

Dirty little secret: I was born in Virginia. And then spent the first 3+ years living further South still. So you wouldn't think that moving here as an adult would be so...challenging.

And yet, as my long-suffering friends and even longer-suffering spouse can attest, I haven't done so well at adjusting to living here on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. The grass isn't actually greener on the other side (not with all this rain), but it is more likely to support gay rights, oppose policy making by "christians" and just occasionally eat something that isn't breaded and fried.

But this week, while riding to and from work in 80+ degree temperatures and 10-to-the-kajillionth-power humidity, I think I actually figured it out. This part of the country was simply never intended to function within the parameters of the 21st Century; arguably it never quite mastered the 20th Century. Moving at the speed of a bicyclist one can appreciate the inefficiencies for what they are: opportunities to shirk one's duties. As they say here in my adopted home state, "Take off your shoes, Sweetheart, it's all id and no ego down here. Can I get you a julep?" (Try fitting THAT on a license plate.)

Mis-timed traffic lights aren't a reason to curse the imbecile in front of you and grip the steering wheel until you get a stress fracture, they are an opportunity to stop, sip some cool water, and observe the eccentric gentlemen across the street wearing a construction paper hat. Endless Metro delays, with their bad habit of stranding you in a tunnel just when you realize that you really kind of have to pee, are not of your concern moving as you are at about the pace of a horse and buggy. Need a pit stop? Why, there's Trader Joe's and the opportunity to chat with the nice college drop-out stocking those lovely containers of chocolate-covered pretzels. ("Why yes, they ARE delicious, aren't they? And have you seen the new blueberry Greek-style yogurt, it is simply to die for.")

And there is no reason to abandon this genteel pace just because you have gotten off the bike. Why rush to work when there are iced-coffees to enjoy as you while away the time on a park bench a block away from your desk? (Did you notice that that fellow screaming into his cell-phone is also sporting a pocket square? Who DOES that anymore?) Why tap your life away at a computer at 5:45 p.m. when there are so many patios and so many mojitos to try?

Take a cue from Congress, which has had more than 200 years to figure out how to reinterpret "work" in this climate: start off slow on Mondays, leave early on Fridays, and take the entire month of August off. (Plus good parts of January, March, April, June, July, November and everything after the first week of December, unless it's an election year in which case you are out from August until you know whether or not you still have a job.)

Slow down. Sit a spell and have a chat. Watch all the characters go by. You look hot, Darlin', do you take your tea sweetened?

I might just learn to like living in Virginia after all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Now We're Cookin'!

If there is any one thing that most people know about me, it's that I don't really cook.

(Or that of all the many jazz greats out there, I like Dinah Washington best 'cause she sounds a little dirty. Or that I strongly disapprove of SUVs. Or that I'm better at thinking about meditating than actually meditating, which I try to convince myself is sort of meditating one step removed.)

OK, so among the many many things that people know about me is that I don't really cook. I can make a mean PB&J, or some very excellent Annie's gluten-free mac and cheese (secret is, less milk and more butter). But my repertoire is, shall we say, limited. For the most part, I believe that the kitchen is where the wine glasses are kept.

Well, as Dinah would remind you, what a difference a day makes. This ol' dog learned a new trick and cooked something today that met even the high standards of The Resident Chef. Yep, me--the chick with the wine glass!

See, now that I'm not burning an extra five or six hundred calories a day running (curse you, stupid knee!) I need to think more carefully about what I'm eating which means no more candy bars for lunch. I have some very exacting criteria:
  1. It has to be something that can be made ahead of time and stored ready-to-go in the fridge. (If I'm not getting up at 4 a.m. to run, I sure as hell am not getting up at 4 a.m. to cook.)
  2. It has to travel well. Specifically, it has to survive 12 miles in a panier bag bouncing along with me on the bike path.
  3. It has to be vegan. My beloved does most (read: all) of our cooking at home, and his idea of "vegetarian" usually means just one kind of meat. So lunch at work is my one chance to give my heart and arteries a bit of a break. Also, see numbers one and two, then think about a pre-cooked, bicycle delivered piece of meat. See what I mean?
So today, I cooked something. Crazy, right? Organic brown rice, lovely Rancho Gordo "Yellow Indian Woman" heirloom beans, cucumber fresh from our garden, scallions, cilantro and avocado. Oh, and the extra special ingredient: coconut oil, which makes the dish delicious AND makes the whole kitchen smell like summertime at the pool. It. Is. Awesome.

You can get the recipe here. So grab a glass of wine, crank up some Dinah Washington and take heart in the fact that if this old broad can pull off doing something new, anybody can. (And keep your fingers crossed for me that I can run again soon. I mean, this coconut oil is FANTASTIC but not exactly low in calories, you know?)

And yes, Mom. That is the funky old pyrex Spag's bowl you gave me from Grandma's kitchen--still going strong after all these years.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

You've Been Served!


To: Crazy Spooky Bus Driver, et. al. (see below for full description of the collective Defendant named herein)

From: Law-abiding and Increasingly Pissed Off Bike Commuter Girl

Re: The Daily Minor Indignities and Occasional Life Threatening Situations to Which You, the named Defendant, Subject Me, the Soon-to-Be Very Wealthy Plaintiff.

Dear Sirs and Madam (and buh-LEEVE me, I am using those terms loosely and with no small amount of sarcasm):

By accepting receipt of this memo, you are implicitly accepting service of notice of my intention to sue your ass all the way to Timbuktu and back when—not if, but when—you cause me, the aforementioned Law-Abiding and Increasingly Pissed Off Bike Commuter Girl (heretofore named in this memo as She Who Shall Retire Early), grievous bodily damage.

This class of defendants, enumerated below, shall henceforth and forthwith be known collectively as Possessors of Insufficient Social Skills or Fundamental Friendliness, Dumb Rude Insensitive Very Evil Revolting Shits (PISS OFF DRIVERS). This godless clique includes:

  • Crazy Spooky Bus Drivers Who Misuse Their Turn Signals, Implying Intention To Change Lanes When They Totally Are Going To Cruise Up the Left Hand Lane for Miles;
  • Taxi Drivers Who Swoop In and Out of The Left Lane Like So Many Crows Competing for Road Kill to Pick up a Fare;
  • Empty-headed Blonde Georgetown Students Chewing Gum, Tossing Their Hair and Trying (Unsuccessfully) to Parallel Park their Daddies’ Lexus SUVs;
  • Self-absorbed Lobbyists Who Double Park then Throw their Doors Open Regardless of Traffic While Talking on their Phones In Front of Pricey Restaurants;
  • Lunatic Pedestrians Jaywalking and Texting Simultaneously;
  • Tourists Who are Soooooo Clueless that Bicyclists on the Path Are Compelled to Shout “On your left. Your other left. No the other side. OK, tell you what: you pick a side and I’ll adapt;
  • Runners (and I use that term generously as your pace qualifies you mostly to be called “Amblers”) Who Listen to Music Too Loudly To Hear a Bike Commuter Bell As You Meander in the Middle of the Path.

Note bene, this list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather embodies the general kind of person who I intend to sue the shit out of someday.

As exhibit A, a photo of me doing a pinky swear, so clearly demonstrates, I am a law-abiding bike commuter who never* runs red lights, rides the wrong way up a one way street or jumps onto the sidewalk. And as numerous character witnesses shall attest (hi, Mom!), I am typically too out of breath, too uninterested in reaching my destination and, most importantly, too fond of having the moral high-ground to violate posted speed limits on bike paths.

You, the members of PISS OFF DRIVERS, on the other hand, routinely run red lights under the misapprehension that the “Five Second Rule” is applicable in this context, speed up unpredictably under the misguided belief that getting to the next traffic jam just four nanoseconds earlier somehow enriches your quality of life, and step suddenly off the curb somehow thinking that it isn’t going to hurt like hell when I run you down on my bike (did you fail physics, or what?).

Ergo you are running the distinct risk of my taking every penny you’ve got someday since, ipso facto, you are not engaged in the give-and-take, ebb-and-flow, social contract that we call “traffic” and are therefore liable for all and any injuries on my part, including post traumatic stress disorder, unsightly bruising and the occasional broken fingernail.


A Blameless Bicyclist

*In this context, “never” is a term of art rather than an absolute calculation.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Ode to Dishwashing

Woe to us, the lowly and unsung dishwashers. We do not have reality shows featuring our work, nor lyrical lines of praise in restaurant reviews ("And the forks sparkle, just sparkle, making every bite a dazzling adventure!"). Friends do not come to dinner eagerly anticipating a truly smudge-free glass. Much like the goalie who gains attention more for failing to stop the ball than for dozens of successful blocks, only a dearth of plates or a stained coffee cup merit notice for he whose responsibility is washing up.

And yet, I delight in my role batting clean-up in the kitchen.

My much-derided but nevertheless undeniable "Virgo-ness" is, no doubt, partially to blame. I confess a visceral unease when confronted by dishes stacked in the sink or smears of one sauce or another on the countertop. My fingers begin to twitch and shall not rest until I am placing plates--like with like, from largest to smallest, all facing to the right, thank you very much--into the racks of the dishwashing machine. No doubt a pricey psychiatrist, were I to believe in such voodoo, would pinpoint my need for order in a tumultuous childhood or perhaps the feeling of responsibility shared by eldest siblings (that will be $200, please, and we'll see you next week).

True, too, is the joy...yes, I said it, joy...that comes with smugly refolding the tea towel at the end of sink full of sticky silverware and oily saucepans. When one's life is spent mostly in trying to attain long-term goals (completing a dissertation, reversing the injustices of capitalism or trying to improve on a 8:15 pace mile) there is satisfaction in tasks with a discrete and quantifiable completion. Where once there were dirty dishes, there now is a clean and tidy space. Where once there was chaos, there are now glasses placed neatly in their cupboard and knives sorted and housed securely in their respective drawers. I have no idea how to solve the mortgage crisis, but boy howdy can I scrub a cutting board.

I enjoy the quiet embodied in a sink full of soapy water. When the guests have left, and the kitchen is dark but for the one light above the sink, I like to turn on the little transistor radio that I'm supposed to be saving for emergencies and place it on the counter next to me. It's on low enough that only the occasional phrase or melody rises above the running water, allowing me to meditate on the value of friendship, or my good fortune in having such a cozy kitchen to call my own, or to think about nothing at all.

But the secret satisfaction comes from being the quiet support to the star of the show, the chef. Like Robin to his Batman (without the puns), Spock to his Kirk (without the ears) or Chewbacca to his Han Solo (okay, so I don't like to brush my hair, so shoot me) I know that without my efforts, our hero would fall faster than a shaken souffle. Just as there can be no Picasso painting without the canvas or the brushes, I defy you to make a truly great bacon-wrapped jalapeno pepper without a clean pan and plate. We who provide the clean dishes hear the secret, coded, plaudits in the fetish of "presentation" in fine kitchens (although I suspect that many share my opinion that all those artsy fartsy smears of sauces and foams on the plate just make it look like it still has this morning's breakfast stuck to it).

So here's to the dishwasher, nobly and anonymously putting the kitchen to bed at the end of the day. We raise a sparkling clean glass to you!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Confessions of a Cheater

"Your cheatin' heart/ Will pine some day/ And crave the love/ You threw away/ The time will come/ When you'll be blue/ Your cheatin' heart, will tell on you..."*

Hello, my name is Anastasia and I am a hair salon floozy. [Hi, Anastasia!] In my entire adult life I have only managed two meaningful relationships with hairdressers, and both of those were more than a dozen years ago.

Sure, I could blame it on my transient youth. With so much moving around, you barely have time to get to know somebody's name and how they feel about the '80s pop blaring through the salon before you're picking up stakes and having your split ends trimmed by some fresh new face.

Or I could fall back on the overall coiffure culture and the heady (no pun intended) hair scene of the West Coast. Back in LA, and then later too in Seattle, I went to "Rudy's," the key party equivalent of salons. You'd saunter into the place and eyeball the talent--hmmmm, the guy with the short bleached 'do and the tattoos seemed to be doing a good job on that girl in his chair, but then you didn't see her when she came in, did you, so who knows what his role really was in designing those kicky little bangs. Feeling daring, you put your name on the list and you rolled the dice; whoever called out your name was your destiny for the next half hour. You got a new stylist every time, and it was exciting and dangerous and you felt like you were living on the edge.

But this program is all about taking responsibility for our mistakes, right? So I have to tell the truth and admit that my laxity in who I allow to put their fingers in my tresses is due entirely to me. I'm drawn to the allure of a new salon and the mysteries it holds. What kind of shampoo do they use? Do they massage your scalp? Do they offer you coffee or--praise be--wine, or just season-old issues of "In Style" and "Details" magazines?

And there are the stylists; oh the frisson that accompanies somebody new sliding up behind me, placing their fingertips on my head and delivering that age-old come on: "So, what are we doing today?" At that moment, all my dreams seem possible. My hair will be thick and straight, no more unruly curls or unending frizz. The cut will look perfect without my having to blow-dry it or coat it with an unending variety of "products." It will cascade behind my ears and onto my neck in a glorious, shiny, smooth stream, the light reflecting off my saucy highlights and with a vague scent of exotic vanilla trailing behind me.

I know what you're thinking. "Your expectations are too high, Anastasia. That's why you can't commit." Well, duh. That and the $95 a really good cut seems to cost. But I just haven't met that perfect somebody yet, that stylist I'm ready to settle down with. So in the meantime, if you have any recommendations, let me know. 'Cause me and my hair are totally available and cruising for a new salon.

*Hank Williams, "Your Cheatin' Heart," 1952.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Ignominy of Middle Age

In retrospect, maybe three marathons in just over six months after a six year hiatus was...overambitious. Back in 1985 I was told I shouldn't consider taking up running—advice I blithely ignored after the late 1990s—and so I recognize that every mile is a gift. But this last race was a doozy, with long downhills that put my feet, heels and knees into a competition to see which could cripple me first. Add to this hours and hours in the garden that have left me all too aware of each and every muscle in my back and with several blisters on my soft middle-management hands. I'm shuffling around here like a recently retired football player.

But rather than moan about it, I am going to focus on the bits and pieces that don't hurt:

My elbows. And who the hell came up with the phrase “funny bone” for when you do hit your elbow, anyway? I have a pretty good sense of humor, and I don't find that at all amusing.

My hair. It's frizzy, perpetually "between" actual haircuts, and increasingly sprinkled with gray highlights, but at least it doesn't hurt.

My toenails. Not even the one I've lost, like, four times from running and that doesn't grow anymore.

That's not too bad for an overly enthusiastic, obstinate, unrealistic forty-four year old broad. Now where did I put that ibuprofen, anyway?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gone Fishin'

First off, let me stipulate that were I not wearing gardening gloves I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to pick up a squirmy wriggling unfurling earthworm. But then, up until the last couple of years I didn’t do much gardening either, so for the most part the point was moot.

Inch by inch, I am reclaiming our massive suburban lawn from the ever-thirsty grass, and in its place I am creating (or, trying to create) undulating beds of flowers. While green is actually my favorite hue, my goal is to have as much of the yard as possible be a riot of color. And so, Saturday and Sunday both found me crouched over, sifting dirt off seemingly endless clods of grass and, naturally, encountering hundreds and hundreds of earthworms.

The better part of a lifetime ago, my grandfather tried to introduce me to the wonders of the lowly earthworm, or the Phylum Annelida, as he never ever would have called it. Early in the morning he would kneel in his own garden to pluck unwary worms out of the earth. Back then his yard—a large sloping thing rushing down to the shores of Newton Pond in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts—seemed impossibly huge to me, a little girl who had grown up mostly in army-provided tract houses or apartments in the city. But Grandpa was not gardening on those mornings, he was collecting bait.

Newton Pond—known at Grandpa’s house as “The Pond,” as if the town weren’t spotted with so many others—was idyllic, but fraught with dangers for me. Though Grandpa waded out as deep as his barrel chest to tend the shore, long strings of seaweed lurked just under the water ready to grab my legs (is it still called seaweed if it’s in a lake?). His sturdy homemade wharf gently rocked on the waves, threatening at any moment to buck like an untrained horse and toss me into the water where my bathtub fantasies of being a mermaid would do me no good as I most assuredly drowned.

It wasn’t all foreboding, of course. Me, my little sister and the boy down the street, Matt, used to walk for miles and miles—well, probably just under one mile, really—to the “Sand Pits” at the end of Sewell Street to cadge old truck inner-tubes from the operators there. By the time we got them back to Grandpa’s house we were hot, sticky and completely covered with black soot, three dark little gremlins threatening to track filth into my grandmother’s tidy ranch house. Once Grandpa had patched and cleaned the tubes, we’d pump them up, tie them to the wharf and enjoy hard-earned sodas as we floated contentedly and watched the speed boats go whizzing by, squealing at the wake created with each pass.

But there was also the fishing. Having collected sufficient worms, Grandpa would pull out three fishing rods—little ones for my sister and I and a full sized one for him—along with fishing line, hooks and a bucket. He’d select a worm from the pile, letting that weird pink articulated body curl around his fingers. Then he would spear it onto the hook, showing me how to get it firmly impaled so that the fish couldn’t just make off with it. He’d hold another worm in his palm, offering it to me with an encouraging smile, while I shook my head so fast I risked self-inflicted whiplash. After we pulled in the fish, I refused too to take it off the hook and watched in dismay as each one flopped and struggled on the wharf. I’m not sure if these were sun fish or calico bass that my grandmother later enthusiastically turned into what I seem to remember her calling “kipper soup,” but either way I wasn’t going to eat something I’d seen die. Eventually my grandparents would give in and feed their two exhausted, sunburned, traumatized grandchildren a few slices of cheese pizza.

Now it’s at least 35 years later. My beloved grandfather died of a cancer that robbed him of the muscles and strength of which he’d been so proud. My grandmother followed many years later, slowly drifting back toward her childhood of Lithuanian dances and Depression-era memories. I am told the house on Sewell Street is almost unrecognizable as the little green house I once knew so well, though I suspect The Pond looks much the same.

And our dirt is more clay-like than I feel like "dirt" should be. When I turn shovels full of it over, it seems impossibly dense and heavy. Yet, somehow, these tiny creatures make their way through it until I find them flailing and searching when they are suddenly exposed to the air and the light. I still don’t want to spear them with a fishing hook. Nor do I want to subject them to a quick submersion followed by the attentions of a hungry fish. Nor, frankly, do I really want to touch them.

But they remind me of capacious endless summers past, when I frolicked on palatial grounds, ventured along enchanted paths to reach a mysterious desert, rode atop giant swells and was indulged beyond reason by my doting grandparents. So I gently work these worms loose from the grass roots and carefully place them in an already cleared space so that they can loop and squirm and squiggle their way back to their underground lair.