Saint Michael Pumpkin Scones

Dec 10 2020

I made pumpkin scones last weekend, refrigerating the dough on Saturday night and baking it on Sunday morning. I was skeptical; pumpkin is so moist, I thought the result would be pyramid-shaped pumpkin bread. And Husband, who gets really into the chemistry of all cooking and baking, called them “wedge muffins” before they were even in the oven. But the recipe worked, and yielded eight beautiful triangles of scone-ish texture that smelled like fall and possibility and happiness.  

Then I had a dream that involved St. Michael, the Archangel, handing out pumpkin scones to thousands of people, including me. His foot, large and gladiator-sandaled, was on a rock, and under the rock was a giant slug of some sort. We were not at the gates of Heaven though; we were in the Target parking lot, and Saint Mike was pulling the scones from a lime green plastic bucket, like the ones kids use at the beach. And he was wearing Airpods, their white stems pointing down his cheeks like sideburns.  

I’d been wondering, at the end of Mass that day, if there were any scones left at home, and the green bucket in the dream was exactly like the one in the garage at my dad’s house on the Maryland shore, where the kids and their cousins played in the “waves” (barely lapping tide) when they were small, their spindly baby-legs poking out from tiny swim trunks and ruffled suits. The Airpods made an appearance in the dream because one of the kids wants them for Christmas; the real ones and not a knockoff. Saint Michael was defending and protecting the masses (thus a Target parking lot and not a cathedral), and his foot on a slug symbolized good crushing evil. (I really hate slugs, and if I were a Renaissance painter I’d put slugs under the saint’s feet in my work, or maybe those beige, hump-backed crickets that terrorize suburban basements.) The bucket represented change and nostalgia. And the scones were the good, nourishing, happy gift he was handing out from God. But dreams are weird: I was wearing a tutu in the dream and my dream-self felt really awkward and chubby, and Carol Burnett was there and told me my house was a mess and I should really be getting home. I told her I needed to buy contact solution in Target so I couldn’t leave.

Still, it meant something, this dream. Saint Michael defends us in battle, and not just the kind soldiers and marines fight. We are all of us fighting some tiny personal demon or another, in addition to a virus that cannot really be fought. My college kids are in a battle daily with secular culture and very liberal professors who try to tell them America is bad and conservatives are dumb or evil. The younger kids are battling anxiety and ennui and a culture that doesn’t really care about faith and values and kids, and one of them is making some big decisions about what to do after graduation. And the quotidian battles that must be fought around the house (laundry, meals, housework) are no small thing, and then there’s the conflict between my need to eat scones and my need to fit in my jeans.

But these scones: they are good. If you can manage to have just one, they are life-affirming and a little bit astonishing. They smell like both autumn and winter, bridging the Thanksgiving/Advent gap nicely. I feel like they are the ammunition a person needs to fight battles big and small, and I’m making them again tomorrow. If there are any left, I might keep them in a bucket.

For the Scones

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1  tsp ground nutmeg

1  tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

3 Tbsp granulated sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter , cold and diced into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp. canned pumpkin, chilled (save a Tablespoon for the glaze)

3-4 Tbsp buttermilk or homemade “buttermilk” (put a tsp of white vinegar in the milk for 5 min)

1 large egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter until the pieces are pea-sized. In a large measuring cup, whisk together the wet stuff (everything else.) Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet, then mix with a wooden spoon or baking spatula until combined, but try not to over-mix. Flatten to a disk a little over an inch high on wax paper or parchment and chill until you want to bake it. (Or bake; does not have to be chilled!) Cut into 8 wedges like a pie and bake on parchment-lined cookie sheet at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes. (If dough was cold; will cook faster if warm. Check at 10 minutes to evaluate.)

For Glaze: 

Mix up 1 Tbsp pumpkin, 1 Tbsp milk or half and half, ¾ cup powdered sugar, and ⅛ tsp each cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. 

When scones are mostly cooled, put a sandwich bag over a cup or jar and fold the edges down, then spoon in the glaze. Close the end of the bag with your hand and snip one corner, and squeeze out the glaze in pretty lines across the tops and serve on a pretty plate. 

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Roly Poly Little Bat Faced Girl

Dec 10 2020


She doesn’t know what the plant is, but she imagines it is wheat; she is walking through a wheat field, like a farm girl, or no: like Antonia in that book they had to read in English. The stalks grow on hillsides and in big fields, and if you take hold of one with your fingertips, and pull upwards along the stem, little hulls pop off and fall into your palm. They are soft and rough at the same time, and feel grainy in your hand. There are millions of them, so Anges doesn’t feel badly about de-seeding them this way as she walks from the empty lot behind the house to the back deck, or up through Parker’s field from town. It isn’t a crop anyone has planted, just a wild mountain weed that grows everywhere, and Agnes can’t shake the idea that the little weeds want her to pull on them; that they yearn for this, so the ones she pulls as she walks by are happy about it. Spear grass, it’s called, but Agnes doesn’t know that. It is 1986; her family has never owned a computer, and she can’t look up the name of it in an encyclopedia without already knowing the name of it. No one has ever mentioned what the plant is, even though it grows everywhere in this town.

Agnes read somewhere that the way to truly appreciate a thing is to know it fully, to educate oneself about it. Her dad would tell them that was precisely what the encyclopedias are for; for looking up anything in the whole world that you want to know more about. He purchased a whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica from a man that went around selling books door-to-door in 1979. She was only about eight, but she remembers how much he loved them, and how her mom teased him for falling for the sales pitch. The books’ covers are wine-colored leather, or something that looks like leather, and they’re lined up in order on the knotty pine bookshelves in the living room, in a way that suggests he is proud of them. They still smell new when you crack them open.

But Agnes disagrees about educating yourself completely. She prefers not knowing. About spear grass, or types of clouds–her teacher back in fifth grade made them memorize cumulus and nimbus, cirrus and stratus, ruining cloud-watching for Agnes–or even how babies are made. She could probably look that up in Encyclopedia Britannica, she thinks, though she’s pretty sure she knows about the babies thing because of Jeff Norris in sixth grade. Jeff was her partner for square dancing in gym class, his friends laughing and teasing him when the partners were read aloud. “Sucks to be you,” they’d said, and, “Norris got Fatso.” Jeff had been surprisingly good at square dancing, for a boy, and when they learned the allemande left, he squeezed her hand hard and jerked her close to him, and whispered in her ear all about how babies were made, or at least the basics, in a creepy voice. She was not shocked, it seemed reasonable that something like that would have to take place, but she figured he must have some of it wrong. The mechanics seemed impossible. She did not want to know more. 

 She lets the seed pods fall into her palm until she has a fistfull, and then flings them into the blue sky. She does not make a wish. 

The sky is always blue here. It is impossibly beautiful, a panorama of mountains against a blue canvas that is somewhere between cornflower and turquoise, the little town plopped in the middle like a toy village, post office and A-frame churches made of bright cardboard. It is rustic and cute and comforting. So Agnes, clomping along in reeboks that she thought would make her look cool but actually make her look awful–her shins shorter, her ankles thicker–knows that she should be happy, but she is miserable. 

Coming upon the house, she pauses, and then walks down the hill to the weathered and crumbling deck and through the back door, letting the screen door slam. She does not have to knock here, it isn’t that kind of arrangement. She comes to babysit the Maynard kids three days a week, though they are phasing her out, she knows. They can’t afford her, or don’t want to. She only charges three dollars an hour, and there are five kids, including a baby. It’s hard work. Mrs. Maynard (if she really is Mrs. Maynard; she’d told Agnes to call her Deb, and mentioned once that she and Mr. Maynard don’t believe that a marriage certificate makes you a family, and don’t see why the government should have anything to do with their love), is a part time nurse and needs someone to watch the children, but the oldest, Han, is twelve and Deb sees no reason he can’t just watch his sisters and the baby himself soon. The reason, Agnes thinks privately, is that Han is a moron, and mean to his sisters. He can burp the alphabet up to Q.

It was supposed to be Cassidy’s babysitting job, but she’d done it once and said never again. “It’s gross there,” she’d said. “Everything is sticky and it smells like dog poo–why do they need three dogs? And that Han kid is a creep. He tried to touch my boobs and he took ten bucks from my wallet. And the stupid baby has a runny nose like, all the time.” It is all true, but Agnes needs the money. Wants the money. I could do it, she’d said, and Cassidy had only raised an eyebrow. “Suit yourself,” she said. And later, “Be careful of that oldest one, Ag. Don’t let him cop a feel.” 

That was a year ago, when Agnes was fourteen. Han had never tried anything with her, and Agnes knows he won’t this summer either. Which is good, she would vomit if he did, she would die, but it stung that he–even gross, mean, twelve-year-old Han–wouldn’t want to. Han was a foster kid, taken on by the Maynards because they “felt strongly about Viet Nam.” His name started with an H like their girls, which they took as a sign. Now they’ve adopted him, Agnes thinks, but she isn’t sure and doesn’t want to ask. He is mean to everyone, but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, if he has any. 

Holly and Hattie come careening around the corner into the kitchen, shrieking. Holly is smiling, but Hattie is crying, genuinely terrified. Han is close behind them, wielding a bat, poised right above Hattie’s head. Agnes thinks: it begins. 

“Hey, put that down, that could really hurt some–”

“He’s trying to KILL US!”

“Agnes is here!”

Hattie buries her face in Agnes’ stomach, then shifts to her back, her skinny arms around Agnes’ waist, clasped in front as if her life depends on it. Maybe it does. Han might have actually hit her, and worried about the consequences later. No, not worried. He wouldn’t care.

Han gives her a look, a look meant to convey that he is walking away because he’s grown bored of them all, not because Agnes has any kind of authority over him. Deb walks into the kitchen, a thirty-eight year-old woman in scrubs and sneakers, overweight and tired looking, her perm growing out so that the ends are frizzy, but the first five inches from the scalp are pin straight. 

“Okay, spaghettios for lunch, they can have oreos if they’re good. Howard is already napping. And, god, I hate to ask you this, but Sparticus peed in the basement again, can you clean that up?”

“Um, sure,” Agnes says, but Deb is already out the door, yelling bye and be good to them all, but only Agnes hears. It is going to be a long day. 

Evergreen, Colorado is still a small town in 1986, Main Street still the center of everything, with three stores, two restaurants, an ice cream store and taffy shop, a bank, a post office, and a bar, but a little real estate office tucked in by a French restaurant all speak to the fact that Evergreen is growing. There are kids in Agnes’ ninth grade class whose parents went to fancy colleges, and who now work in Denver, at mahogany desks in tall buildings; parents who have executive lunches and drive home in a Mercedes, winding up highway 71 into the mountains. They are country club members who play golf on weekends, their children going to school in catalog clothes and the latest sneakers, trapper keepers placed tidily in their Lands End backpacks the night before. 

But there are also kids in Agnes’ class who walk miles to school in ill-fitting boots or drug-store flipflops when they come at all, their clothes dirty and their hair uncut, their homes not in the town proper but hidden in the mountains in places with no name. They don’t bring a lunch and don’t have money to buy one; they skirt the guidance counselor’s questions and accept the free lunch on days when the food is good and most kids buy anyway, so it will not seem like charity. Some of their grandfathers had been miners, coming to Colorado for the rumored gold and settling in the little mining town before it had churches or schools, working odd jobs in the winter when it was too cold for sluicing or dredging. There is no mining now, so their fathers, if they have fathers, work when they can, wherever they can, but they stay. People tended to stay. 

Agnes Crane’s family is somewhere in the middle. Her father went to two years of college, but left for divinity school when “the Lord told him he was needed.” She’d seen pictures; he was young and eager-looking then, his pants pressed with a crease you could see even in photos. He was an assistant pastor at a presbyterian church in Denver, got married, and was sent to Morrison, then Evergreen. He wished he’d finished regular college, he told Agnes once. He’d enjoyed learning for the sake of learning, reading Keats and Shelly because you were a student and could afford the time to do such things. 

 Anges’ mother had attended Community College in Denver, but one look from a blue-eyed boy who’d given an earnest, shaky sermon at her parents’ church and she’d been a goner. It was the sixties then; the boys Agnes’ mother knew at age twenty were either wearing tie dye shirts and beads, protesting the war with shaggy hair and angry faces, or off fighting in it. Or dead. Leland Crane couldn’t fight in the war because of mild scoliosis, but he’d tried. He wasn’t a coward, that was the important thing, and there he was with his earnest blue eyes and too-small blazer, talking about Peter denying Jesus, even though he loved him. We disappoint the ones we love most, he’d said, and the truth of it struck Ellen McGee as wise beyond his years; mature. She stayed for coffee cake in the fellowship hall and the rest was history.Five years later, when they were ready to give up on having children, Cassidy appeared, sky blue eyes and honey blond hair cascading down her back by the time she was three. Cassidy had a sunny disposition and a healthy amount of sass, people said now, and she could throw a pretty mean curveball in heels. 

A few years later, along came Agnes, her father would say, the way any father might say about a second child. Every time, Agnes analyzes his words, his inflection, his expression, searching for something she can’t figure out. Disappointment? Regret? Something. But in his along came Agnes, there is always faint astonishment, and that is all.

But Agnes is not like Cassidy, not in any way she can discern. Cassidy has a broad face, large eyes and a turned up nose; the perfect face for a Sea Breeze commercial, Anges often thinks. Cassidy could actually be a model, she’s so pretty, but Agnes has mouse-brown hair, a small face and a beakish nose.  Her nose is the great tragedy of her face, in her opinion. It protrudes out, giving the effect of leading her wherever she goes, her eyes tucked neatly beside it as if in deference. And she is fat; heavy even as a child, her pale stomach used to peek out from under her shirts in a way that is cute on toddlers, but not on six-year-olds. Not on teenagers. Now she wears longer shirts, but she hates the way her waistbands are tight, the way her legs feel like tree trunks, the way her arms seem thick all the way down. It is perplexing that she and Cassidy are related. 

Walking home, Agnes takes the long way again, through Parker’s Field, which is just an empty lot owned by Dan and Judy Parker, whose house is on the adjoining lot. The Parkers own the hardware store, selling garden hoses and snow shovels to the entire town. Roughly an acre, their property backs up to the Crane’s property and slopes upward, so that after the hike from the Maynard’s house, around Bear Creek park, up Meadow Drive and then through the tall pines, past the rocks she calls the thinking rocks, she will reach her own yard at the top of a gentle hill. Looking down, she sees her own house, a small cedar A-frame with an aging but elegant back deck, the porch light on in the dusk. Her father might come out the back door at any moment with a tray of burgers to grill, his main method of cooking for them since her mother died and they’d moved to this house, this little cedar box that is not attached to the church. Three years, four months, and eleven days ago. They eat a lot of burgers now, and spaghetti with sauce from a can. It is what he knows how to do. 

This is her life now: wake up, go to the Maynards, survive for seven hours, come home. If it is not a babysitting day, she might walk to town, buy enough taffy to last a few hours of reading, and go to the thinking rocks with a book, but she runs the risk of Mr. or Mrs. Parker seeing her there, coming over to talk. They don’t mind her being there, they always say she is welcome any time, but that ruins it. This is ours, but you can borrow it, is what they mean. 

If Cassidy is not working at the country club, where she hands out club sandwiches and iced tea, Agnes might convince her to take them to Evergreen Drug, where they could spend an hour looking at magazines and the little ceramic animals Agnes loves. They have different ones all the time; tiny dogs and owls and horses and kittens on a little piece of cardboard that says Hagen-Reniker at the top. Agnes and Cassidy used to collect them when they were younger, making little houses out of shoeboxes, little matchbox beds lined in cotton balls. This bed is for Flopsie, and this one is for Brownie… The animals were best friends, imbued with human emotions and rescued from certain hardship to live in the shoebox palaces made by the unlikely sisters. 

Agnes would still do it, truth be told. It still sounded fun to make cardboard houses, if she had anyone to do it with. She knows she is too old. But she still looks at the miniature animals when they go to the drug store–she has had her eye on the mother owl and the darling little baby, a pea-sized gray oval–and Cassidy sees but doesn’t say anything. Then they buy a coke for the way home. The problem is, Cassidy invariably sees someone she knows, or whole groups of them. It’s a small town. They call to her  from the parking lot, and she waves and smiles and is drawn into them, the way a fly is drawn to an open pitcher of lemonade. Agnes has offered to walk home when that happens, to give Cassidy a way out so she can go off with her friends, though walking hometakes nearly an hour. “Are you sure?” Cassidy  says, a momentary wince flashing across her face, but just barely. But before Agnes can even say, “It’s fine,” some girl squeals and shouts Cass! Come with us, we’re going to Pizza Hut! Or some boy, some good looking boy with feathered hair and tight jeans, rolled at the bottom, drives up and says Want a lift? We’re all going to Granger’s house, I can drive you back for your car later…. Cassidy usually goes. The girls and the boys both ignore Agnes completely; they are not unkind, but they fail to acknowledge her at all. No one invites her or offers to take her home first. She is three years younger, chubby, and invisible. 

Still, she has twenty-five dollars in her pocket now, instead of the usual twenty that Deb gives her–Sparticus hadn’t just peed on the carpet and Deb must have known–and they don’t need her again until Thursday. Summer has just begun, and the whole day stretches out before her tomorrow. She will sleep in, as late as she wants, and she will take Corn Pops out on the back deck in her pajamas. She will read until lunch time; she is over half way through The Castle in the Attic. It is a book for little kids and losers, she knows, but she loves it. She will bake brownies, she will watch reruns of Eight Is Enough at three; she can’t decide who is cuter, Tommy or David. Tommy is closer to her age, and there is something cute about his smile, his confidence, the funny predicaments he always gets into. But he has stupid hair. David gives her little chills down into her stomach; David seems like a man. David, the actor, probably is a man. He looks old, almost as old as the dad, who is kind of a dip, but David is handsome in a way that nearly knocks the breath out of her. She could watch David forever. She feels badly about this, vaguely ashamed and gross, but she cannot help it. 

After that, maybe she will offer to make dinner, maybe chicken-tortilla casserole. She knows it by heart: you mix the cream of mushroom soup and the salsa and you spread it with cooked chicken and grated cheese between the tortillas, and bake. Easy as pie. Cassidy could do a salad, and voila, an actual dinner. Maybe it wouldn’t make her dad sad this time, like the quiche Loraine had. She’d made quiche Loraine last Easter for brunch, getting the recipe out of her mom’s wooden box, and it came out pretty well but her dad saw the recipe on the counter when they were cleaning up, her mom’s handwriting, and excused himself to his room.

Walking down the hill, Agnes notices the pink sky, the unremarkable brown box of a house, the porch light already on. It isn’t so bad. Bingo, there is her dad, coming out onto the back patio, a tray of something in his hand, lifting his free hand to her in a tired wave and turning to face the charcoal grill. She feels a small wave of something wash over her and disappear as quickly as it had come; happiness? This happens sometimes, unpredictably, when she has had a good day, a day when no one has bothered her and she has something nice to look forward to: a new book, a package of snowballs or King Dons: she’ll feel a wave of what she thinks might be happiness. It makes her want to jump up and down for just a moment, or wiggle her fingers really fast, or squeal like Dawn Peterson does in the hallway at school. (“Oh my GAWD, you guys, homecoming is in TWO WEEKS!” Or, “Oh my GAWD, you guys, Matt Miller got his hair cut, did you SEE it?”) But Agnes isn’t sure if the feeling is happiness, because it is fleeting. Sometimes it lasts for a couple of hours, sometimes only a minute or two before something kills it. Happiness is something more long term, she thinks, a contentment that settles in people and lasts at least a week or two.Years, maybe. Pretty people, thin people, people with mothers. 

Still, walking down the hill toward the deck, she has the happiness feeling, then she feels guilty for having it. Her mom would want her to be happy, she knows, but still. Maybe it’s too soon. Plus, she was not really happy before, either. But at least then she had both parents, and her dad wasn’t so sad all the time.

 Sometimes, Agnes thinks her dad looks old, and she wonders if he looks much older now than a few years ago, but the only pictures she has of him aren’t very good so she has nothing to compare “now” to.  He is kind of old, fifty-two, but she thinks maybe he looks older. But tonight she sees that he is holding a plate of not just beef patties, but onions and mushrooms too, which means he is in a good mood. He grills the mushrooms sometimes, a thing which Agnes thought would be gross but is actually good. Maybe there will be corn on the cob, and ice cream. He has changed into a cardigan sweater and the shoes he calls his house shoes; slipper type things but with a hard sole. They are old man shoes. She loves this about him, how he changes into a sweater after work just like Mister Rogers, plus old man shoes for the house and deck only, so he doesn’t get germs and dirt inside. 

She knows it’s sort of lame; her dad is not cool or handsome, like some people’s dads. He does not wear jeans, for one thing, and he does not laugh easily or play catch in the yard, not that she would want to. Her dad wears corduroy pants and reads the Bible. Her dad seems detached and mildly bewildered all the time now, but not in a funny, handsome way like the dad in The Parent Trap. Brian Keith. She saw the actor’s name on the box when they rented it from Blockbuster, and she remembered it because that dad was so attractive. He was very dad-like, but also kind of sexy. She had this thought and immediately wondered what was wrong with her, that she would think a thing like that when the actor was supposed to be a dad. He was old, in his forties or fifties probably. She was such a freak, thinking a thing like that. But then Cassidy watched some–she’d had a fight with her boyfriend, who is also named Brian, and came in the living room in sweats and slippers, curled up on the sofa, and watched some of the movie–and when it was over she’d said, “That’s totally messed up, you know. To separate twins at birth like that? Not even tell them the other one exists? That’s kind of screwed up, even if the dad is a major babe.” 

Then Agnes knew that she wasn’t a freak, that Cassidy had this thought too, even said it outloud. Normal, perfect Cassidy, who is unknowingly the prism that Agnes sees everything through: she, Agnes, is not only herself, chubby, hook-nosed Agnes Crane, but also the sister of Cassidy Crane. Sunny, blond Cassidy, who is so comfortable with her own feelings that she always says what she thinks, even to adults, even when no one has asked. Agnes cannot imagine this, can’t even imagine imitating it for a day. Weren’t sisters supposed to be similar? All of the sisters Agnes knows are similar, even if they aren’t very close in age. Their faces are similar even if their bodies aren’t, or they have the same build even if they have different eyes and hair. They shared mannerisms, the same kind of laugh, the same jaw line or smile. They might have  different personalities, but there is a sameness about all the sisters Agnes knows; a quality that floats beneath the skin somehow, an intangible essence that is the result of having the same DNA. Or was it half the same? They just learned this in science last year, but Agnes can’t remember. Even her mom had had it with Aunt Peggy; a sameness that popped up and showed itself despite the difference in looks. But Agnes and Cassidy don’t have this, as far as Agnes can tell. Or maybe they do, but it is something you can’t see in yourself, the way people can’t hear their own accent. 

“Hi,” she says, coming upon her dad. There is no corn, but the mushrooms and onions smell good.

“Hi, Bean,” he says. There is a comfortable silence between them as they watch the meat on the grates, sizzling just a little bit on the edges now, their centers still pink and raw. “All those kids wear you out?” he asks.

“A little. The baby took a long nap at least. That smells good.” 

He smiles at the meat, but Agnes knows the smile is for her. 

The sky is pink and orange now, the air cooler, the fireflies out in the pine trees up on the hill. Her dad is wearing his burgundy sweater with worn through places in the elbows, and rumpled corduroy pants. There is a beer in a glass on the deck railing, the foam settling. Agnes knows he allows himself this one thing only once in a while, this one thing that other men drink often, several in a row, even. Her straight-laced, rule following dad only allows it on rare occasions, just one, and always in a glass. Tonight it might be a concession to his grief, or a nod to the early summer sky. She loves him for this, too, and for his unremarkable face and squarish, dad-ish haircut, and for the way he does not even seem to notice the ugly things about her. The love swells up inside her until she can feel it like a weight, pressing her ribs outward from the inside. It is sweet and awful and exhausting, the feelings inside of her. Do other people feel this much, she wonders? Not just love for her kind, boring father, but all of it: the subtle but startling prettiness of sunset, the loathing of her own face and body battling against the irrational hope that there is something in her that is, what? Not pretty, not even good, but… worthwhile. It is almost painful, the hugeness of it, and there is no word for the feeling, if it is even a feeling. It is an unnameable thing.

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So Many Maybes

Nov 12 2020

It used to be hard to be grumpy on a really gorgeous October day, and yesterday was a seriously pretty day today; the sun was sort of soaking through the trees, the clouds looked like you could sit in them, and the breeze really was gentle. Hard to be grumpy on a day like that, but this guy on Fort Hunt Road gave me the finger.

I don’t know what his problem with me was. I did not pull out in front of him, I was not driving recklessly or–even more annoying–too slow, so his angry face when he passed me, and the bird he flipped me were a surprise. Did he think I was someone else? Some other forty-something woman in a blue minivan with the stickers of my childrens’ schools on the back–someone who wronged him? Then it occurred to me maybe the stickers themselves ticked him off, or the two above it that represent, in four-inch circles, the service my husband served in and a lobby group that fights for second amendment rights. Yeah…that might do it. 

Still, there I was just driving along in a nine-year-old minivan, listening to my eclectic little Spotify playlist that alternates between Dirks Bently and Dubussey, John Legend and Johnny Cash, hoping the car wouldn’t stall out because it does that sometimes. Our mechanic can’t figure out why. Then this guy zooms up behind me, awfully close, and when I get in the turn lane at 7-11 so I can buy my secret Diet Coke for later, I happen to look to my right and he’s glaring. At me. Middle finger straight up.

So that set the tone for my day. The car didn’t stall out but everything else went wrong. Okay not everything but some things. I was suddenly aware of annoying stuff: the teenagers were having a “distance-learning” school day, which just means watching a broadcast of school on a screen for seven hours, followed by at least three hours of homework on a screen. I left them at home, already bored and restless at nine-thirty AM. Plus I was heading in to work to deal with some emails of people who are frustrated with me for something I had no control over at all, but am responsible for. Plus the stupid car that stalls. Plus I have Lyme, which is an ongoing battle that involves not feeling good. Plus the stupid election that’s making everybody crazy and mean, plus the stupid pandemic. Plus, I hate my kitchen countertops, and this was bugging me deep down I’m sure of it. The guy flipping me off just sort of solidified that it was going to be a bad day, despite the turquoise sky. 

But here’s the thing: I had a job to go to, and it kept me busy doing something for a cause bigger than me. Then I came home with achy finger joints–stupid Lyme–but there was my youngest, baking chocolate cookies, blasting High School Musical from the stereo, or whatever we now call the thing that used to be called a stereo. (I literally don’t know what to call it. It is like a TV but plays music through all kinds of platforms my children have accounts to, but does not actually play TV shows, if such a thing exists anymore.) The smell of baking chocolate and the fact that the HSM soundtrack is enjoying something of a revival released a little more serotonin, and then she said hey, let’s make that taco soup for dinner. I threw some stew meat in the instant pot and she did the rest with me coaching (always add more cumin than the recipe calls for) and it turned out really good. I took a walk with Husband, who has some big frustrations of his own right now but is good to talk to, and we laughed at the weird house in our neighborhood and some things that happened at work and he was pretty decent company. And later, since the fifteen-year-old wants to watch The Office but I insist on watching with her so we can skip past the raunchy episodes, we watched that one where Jim doesn’t take the New York job and finally asks Pam out for dinner. I still like it so much I about cried. And then, the seventeen-year-old, who is Mister Fitness right now, showed me how to lift some weights in the basement, and somehow it ended up with me laughing so hard I couldn’t speak and him laughing that I was laughing, and my heart swelled up with fondness for him.

So that just proves, you never know. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed or a guy flips you off and it all starts to go down hill, but a few hours later you are laughing and having a great day. Today started out pretty good, but it might suck by lunch time, but then things might pick up. I’ll call both the college kids later, and that is something to look forward to. I’ll make something that smells good for dinner, maybe take some to the neighbor a few doors down who lives alone. Maybe take another walk. Maybe those cute little kids that live one street over will be out playing; the little boy kicks around a soccer ball that’s bigger than he is while the little girls try to boss him around and make him pretend to be this or that. I love hearing their high-pitched chatter while the sky gets all pink and dusky. Or maybe those darling, awkward middle school kids will be shooting hoops on the school playground next to the yellow sign that says NO ENTRANCE; their little rebellion makes me smile. Maybe Husband and I will watch something good and maybe the teenagers will want to hang out, or maybe I’ll drink earl gray decaf out on the back porch and read. That’s the thing; there’s so many maybes. You just have to grab them when they float by.

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Ten Things I’ve Googled This Week that are NOT Corona-Related

Mar 22 2020

1. Distilled water in iron. When I was a teenager, one of my occasional chores was ironing. My mom taught me to pour distilled water in the iron, and I remember asking her why the water had to be distilled. She made a face and laughed a little and said, “Huh. I’m not really sure. That’s just the way I was taught to do it!” This would have been in the very late 80s, so there was no easy way to look it up, and I filed it away in my brain with the many unknowable, pre-Googleable things that were part of life. 

This memory leapt up at me recently, out of the blue, the way memories will. I Googled it and the answer is that distilled water has no minerals so the iron won’t get clogged. Clogged? With minerals? I think this just means the salty deposits that can form around things, which you can just wash off. My mom bought special water at the grocery store her entire married life–she was an upper-middle class woman with an education and enough wealth to afford drycleaning, but she was an all in housewife who did her own ironing–without even knowing why. And she was okay with that. She died in an accident some years later, and I wonder all the time what she’d be like today, with the internet at her fingertips. She’d use it, that’s what she’d be like. She’d see it’s  wonderful, horrible potential, but she’d use it, to look up movie times and recipes. I think she’d have a little business of her own now; she was so smart and creative. She’d probably have stopped putting distilled water in the iron, but I bet she’d still do her own ironing. 

2. Kinds of Crepe Myrtle Trees and Pinky Tuscadero. My husband thinks the huge maple in our front yard is not long for this world, and the only thing that gives me comfort about this potential loss (and the kidney one of us will need to sell to have it taken down) is that we could plant a crepe myrtle tree. I fell in love with these marvelous pink and purple beauties in 1987, when we moved here from Evergreen, Colorado, a place of majestic rockies and pine trees. Northern Virginia seemed to be a place of traffic and allergies. My first spring here, it wasn’t the cherry blossoms that impressed me, it was the hundreds of crepe myrtle trees people had in their yards, the smooth, dove-gray trunks giving way to puffy pink blossoms that burst out in a riot. They are girly and gorgeous and they seem to say IN YOUR FACE, WINTER! SPRING IS HERE! Turns out there are fifty kinds of these, Latin name Lagerstroemia, and I have to be careful when we get one because they’re all lovely but I want a specific one called the Tuscerora. Tuscarora reminds me of Tuscadero, as in PInky Tuscadero, Fonzie’s girlfriend in Happy Days. I was five or six when my sister and I saw Pinky, with her Daisy Duke shorts and that shirt tied way up high. We were scandalized. And fascinated. When I tied my nightgown high above my belly button and pretended to be Pinky Tuscadero, my sister told me I shouldn’t do that because Pinky was “trashy and not a nice person.” I was ashamed and puzzled: Fonzie sure seemed to like her. 

3. Can you survive on 500 calories a day. This is an interesting one because Google’s answer was something along the lines of not really; your body will go into starvation mode and your metabolism will shut down and you’ll get very sick and die. However, if you google can you survive on 600 calories a day, increasing the caloric amount by the number of calories in eight baby carrots or one hardboiled egg, the answer is: you bet! And you’ll feel great and live longer, too! There is so much conflicting advice on the internet about dieting that I’m sure if I wanted to find a chocolate chip cookie diet that was great for weight loss and healthy too, I probably could. 

4. Was Joseph Pulitzer a bad person. Every theater nerd knows all the words to this catchy musical, and some people who shall remain nameless may have even memorized the entire script from the 1992 movie with Christian Bale because he was so dreamy. (He was even dreamier two years later in Little Women, the much better movie than the recent one.) Pulitzer is the Newsies villain, the monocle-wearing newspaper publisher who hikes up the price the newsboys must pay for papers, sparking the famous strike of 1899. He’s rich, so he’s bad, and basically a child abuser, but we named a huge prize for intellectual endeavors after him, so how bad could he have been? Wikipedia’s answer is that he was good and bad: he was responsible for putting crowd-pleasing garbage in newspapers, but spearheaded many philanthropic projects and was by all accounts a solid family man. He did indeed raise the price of newspapers and refuse to lower them, but it was after the Spanish American war when all papers raised their prices. He was against child-labor and didn’t think children should be selling papers in the first place, and said he wished parents wouldn’t send boys out to do men’s work, though of course that was easy for him to say from his mansion. His daughter, Katherine, may have been spunky but she does not seem to have been an aspiring journalist.

5. Lloyd George Knew My Father Song. This got stuck in my head, I have no idea why, and I suddenly had to know why there was a song about a prime minister knowing someone’s dad, and if there were any more words to it. Turns out the song is as nonsensical as it sounds and  has no more lyrics than those in the title. But it lead to a search about Onward, Christian Soldiers (same tune), my parents’ favorite hymn when I was growing up, and an inspiring hymn in hard times; I wish it were in Catholic hymnals, and I have a whole other article about that. Turns out the lyrics to the hymn were written by Arthur Sullivan, the greatest lyricist of all time. He’s half of Gilbert & Sullivan, the duo who wrote comic operas like HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. I was in a professional production of Pinafore once, but I’ve  kind of forgotten about Gilbert and Sullivan for two decades, and suddenly I am sad that no one seems to know what it is anymore. Those songs used to be part of pop culture, and now pop songs are mostly trashy. I’ve heard rated R songs blasting away at the grocery store and doctor’s office like it was no big deal, and it makes me cringe and think: who are we? The US would be a better place if we played better music in stores and offices and all public places. I’m convinced this is why everyone is so happy and well behaved at Disneyland; they play big band music in the streets. 

6. Wiper blade movie. There was a movie I watched years ago when all four kids were little and went to bed early, and we had time to watch a grown up movie in the evenings but were too tired to stay awake or remember it later. This movie had Greg Kinear in it, and I’d had a crush on him since his Talk Soup days when I was in college, which my husband knew, but he agreed to rent it anyway. I think it was one of the last movies we rented from a Blockbuster. It’s a true story, about the guy who invented intermittent wiper blades for a car and pitched his idea to Ford, only to have them use his invention on the latest Mustang without giving the guy credit. He is so distraught, he checks out of family life and temporarily lands in a mental institution. But really it’s a story about pride: when Ford eventually offers him thirty million dollars to settle, but without admitting wrongdoing, he won’t take the deal. His family has crumbled and thirty million would pull him out of crushing debt and set them all up for life, but he won’t take the deal, because he wants justice. His own way. It’s called Flash of Genius, and it reminds me that God wants us to follow our principles, but not everything is a moral issue; we sometimes mistake principles for foolish pride, or let perfect be the enemy of good. Sometimes, I think God is telling us take the deal, you idiot, take the deal. (If you like Greg Kinear, the remake of Sabrina is a better bet. He’s adorable in that, and Julia Ormond is even more adorable.) 

7. Mrs. Beasley doll. There was a TV show I watched in my very early childhood, all sepia-toned and blurry in my memory. It had two children, a boy and a girl, and the girl had Cindy Brady ponytails and a strange-old lady doll in a polka-dot dress whom she called Mrs. Beasley. I was fascinated by this girl (perhaps Buffy?) and coveted her curls, and even though I had a good father and a lovely family life of my own, I had a strange dad-crush on the father figure in the show. So I Googled Mrs. Beasley and discovered the show was called Family Affair, already in reruns by the time I watched it. The kids were Buffy and Jody, and the doll is even stranger than I remember, and you can buy an Ashton-Drake replica of her for a hundred bucks. (The father-figure, it turns out, was played by Brian Keith, the John-Wayne-like dad from the original Parent Trap movie and I do remember the dad-crush I had for him in that. I think we all do, am I right?) In hindsight, I can see why I wanted to be like Buffy, and it wasn’t just the curls. She was winsome and beloved and smart, like Shirley Temple. (I also wanted to be like Shirley Temple. And when I got older, Hayley Mills, and then an obscure actress named Amanda Peterson who played Sunny on a TV show I watched with my mom called A Year in the Life, and then Jennifer Connelly in that white dress in The Rocketeer, and then Meg Ryan with that cute haircut in You’ve Got Mail, and now Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary.) 

8. Why is Jesus’ Passion called Passion. I should have known this but I didn’t. Of course I knew the definition of the word: a strong emotion, or deeply felt enthusiasm, etc., but not really how it applies to the days before Easter. Turns out the etymology of Passion means suffering, and it was mainly used as a noun that meant Jesus’ crucifixion until Shakespeare came along and toyed with it a bit, like he did with all words, so that it could mean a deep affection for something or a mild agitation, or anything in between. He even used it as a verb, the way people will take a noun and verbify it, like incentivize, and dialoguing, and trending. Now we associate passion with either romantic love (sometimes tawdry romantic love), or a strong affection for something, like cars or silk scarves. It’s strange that someone can say they are passionate about pugs, for example, or environmental issues, but if I say I’m passionate about Jesus, or my family, it would be kind of weird. People would smile and back away real quick. Although, I think we can all agree that it’s okay to be passionate about dark chocolate. 

9. Mulligatawney stew. Heard this in a novel I was listening to (Amy Snow, by Tracy Reeves. It’s like Jane Austen meets Rosamund Pilcher, and it was perfect for listening to). I lived in England for a semester of college and have been there a few times since, but never eaten this very English take on an Indian soup, so I Googled recipes and discovered there are more variations on it than any dish I’ve ever heard of. The stew in my novel involved beef, but of course it wouldn’t have had beef in India. The name is a version of a Tamil word (had to look that up to; the language of the Southern third of India) that means “pepper water,” but the recipes I saw only had a shake or two of pepper. Think of chicken soup with rice instead of noodles, with coconut milk and curry powder, and you’re close. Since I love coconut milk dishes, I made some, and the result was so wonderful I wondered where this soup has been all my life. It’s pretty popular in Ireland, too, I think because the name sounds like an Irish village or type of thick-yarned sweater, or maybe a Celtic dog breed. It’s the best comfort food ever, and I’m going to make it a tradition for some cold weather holiday. I just haven’t decided which one.

10. Texaco Star Song. My dad was born in 1941 and went to high school in the 1950s, so when he sings and whistles songs from his youth, I’m fascinated. Everything from that time is just dripping with nostalgia; we may have been recovering from a terrible war and approaching the mess that was the 60s, but the music of the 40s and 50s is wholesome and catchy and somehow heartbreaking for it’s bye-gone-ness. One of the things Dad will occasionally sing while walking or tinkering with something is Fire Chief, fill up with Fire Chief… I assumed this was a commercial from his childhood, maybe even on the radio since his family didn’t own a TV until he was in his late teens. Turns out it was part of the theme song of the Texaco Star Theater Show, which started on the radio in the late 30s and was on TV until the early 50s. Fire Chief was a type of Texaco gasoline, and Texaco was the sponsor of the variety show, so the opening song featured four guys in gas station uniforms singing about how great the service was at Texaco stations. They ran out and filled your tank when you pulled up, especially if you were female or elderly, which didn’t offend anyone back then, and they wiped your windshield or checked your oil for free while the gas pumped. There was a gas station near my house that did that until a few years ago, and when they stopped, my heart broke. Not because I can’t pump my own gas, but because of what they’d represented; a gentler time. I think it must be hard to be seventy-nine years old like my dad; to remember a time when even the most “racy” pop-culture was pretty tame; when men wore nice hats and women wore gloves to go out to the store or a movie. When everyone held doors for everyone else and pop music, if it was played in public places at all, didn’t make you cringe and cover your twelve-year-old’s ears, and the half-time show at football games didn’t make you send kids out of the room and feel ashamed for women everywhere. I hope when this is over–I know I said I wasn’t going to write about this pandemic, but–I hope there are some changes. I hope we think about the public good a little more, and I don’t mean by washing our hands and sneezing in our elbows. I hope we hold doors. I hope we clean up after ourselves more, and try harder to help people who need it. I hope we make more TV shows the whole family can watch, and stop associating trashy vulgarity with “empowerment.” And I hope I never hear Beyonce in the doctor’s office again.  

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Paige’s Favorite Books and Best Things of 2019!

Jan 09 2020

To clarify, these are not the best books in the world, or the best things that have ever happened to me. This list is fifteen books I really loved in 2019, five books I loved listening to, and five little things I discovered that made my life just a teeny, tiny bit better. Not in the way that family and faith make your life better, but in the way that a really great pair of jeans makes your life better. (I am yet to find the jeans.)

I will begin with books. But first the obligatory preface: the books I like to read are not the same as the books I like to listen to. Audio books and book-books are not interchangeable for me. When I’m driving, I need plot. Not layered or complicated plot, just plot that develops in a straight-forward way with characters I can keep track of even while looking for my exit. Not Danielle Steel or Twilight, but let’s just say I’m fine with less beautiful prose and depth if the storyline keeps me entertained on the long drive to Blacksburg, and the narrator’s voice doesn’t annoy me. When I read, I want gorgeous stories with writing that’s so good it’s almost painful, and layered, observant characters; a rich narrative that is beautiful, sentence by sentence. I want literature, but not the boring stuff they inexplicably make high school students read; not graphic war stories and sexual awakening stories or drugs-and-suicide stories. I want great but not perfect heroines, humor, beauty, and distinctive prose. (Whereas in the car, listening, I just want to stay awake and be entertained.) Some of the books I read might make for good listening as well, and vice-versa, but in most cases I’ll stick by this list.

To Read: 

I’ll start with the classic coming-of-age novels, though Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards might have made the top of my list over-all, regardless of genre. It’s about a girl named Frankie, an apple orchard, and a family pulled in different directions by change. Set in the 1950s and rich with family dynamics, seen through the eyes of a girl, I loved this one in the way I love Jane Smiley’s Some Luck Series, or Edna Ferber’s Giant. Deep and mysterious and bittersweet and funny, I felt full yet emptied when I finished it.  

Another coming-of-age novel about family and a decade full of change is William Kent Kruger’s Ordinary Grace. If you can get past the first few pages, where the main character recalls the death of a little boy about his own age when he was a kid, it becomes a mysterious and moving story about childhood’s end, in a Stand By Me sort of way. Funny and heartbreaking and unpredictable, the book is about a family doing it’s best one strange and difficult summer, with characters so subtly flawed and believable it hurts. 

Alice Mc Dermott’s Child of My Heart was one of those books about nothing and everything; about a fifteen-year-old’s observations as she babysits the child of a local artist one summer. There are no murders or great tragedies, but her description of families and human nature that idyllic summer are can’t-put-it-down compelling, and the narrator’s intelligence and storytelling made me sad to finish it. And After This, also by Alice McDermott, was a pull-you-in saga about a marriage and a family that narrates the little moments of ordinary family life in a way that makes you relieved that someone else noticed the beauty in the quotidian. John and Mary’s romance and years together will remind you of families you know, if you grew up Catholic in the suburbs; it hurts almost physically when the kids grow up and get pulled in different directions. It is an homage to how things used to be, the good and the bad.

Speaking of family dynamics and the American Dream, Matthew Thomas’ We are Not Ourselves was a sobering, beautiful book about another Irish family. The main character was born in 1941, and raised in Queens in a Tree-Grows-In-Brooklyn childhood. She marries a scientist and has a son, and is constantly yearning for a shiny reality she can’t quite get to, where the grass will be greener. A psychological shift in one of the main characters becomes a mystery that the others must solve with tenderness and loyalty, giving the story and narrative unusual depth. It is epic in the real sense as well as in the vernacular “epic.” 

I didn’t love her other books but Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things astonished me with it’s breadth. I can’t believe this ambitious, epic masterpiece of a book was written by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. This one is about a 19th century English family whose patriarch makes a fortune in South America, and his American-born daughter who grows up to be a brilliant scientist. I learned about so many things: botany, the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Experience in general, but through fascinating characters and a storyline that doesn’t feel as though it is supposed to be educational. There is adventure and romance in this novel, and the heroine has that strong-delicate voice that transports you to another time. It’s not especially thick but it is a BIG novel. Quietly breathtaking. 

The best book about friendship I have ever read has to be Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss. Two friends growing up in 1960s Pasadena, it has a Mad Men aesthetic, but it’s about a childhood bond. It’s a mystery wrapped up in dreamy friendship narrative that occasionally makes you laugh aloud and wish you were friends with them, despite everthing. 

If you like books and movies about parents and their adult kids, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore could be made into one of those dramadies where the kids bring home their adult problems in one memorable summer. William and Ginny are the parents who must always be parents, and they are such well-drawn characters that you’ll identify with them even if you are the age of their children. A little examination of a modern family that somehow reads as literature with just a touch of chic-lit.

A Piece of the World by Christine Baker Kline uses the rather dull (and yet super well known and often shown in movies) painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, as its subject. The main character, Christina, was indeed one of the real-life models for the painting, and this loosely historical fiction is about this young disabled woman’s tie to the family farm in Maine, her dreams and regrets and inspirations. 

Another strong New England Heroine is Bea, in Anna Solomon’s Leaving Lucy Pear. One of those stories about abandoning a baby to escape shame, only to be reunited with her years later, it’s a page-turner with beautiful prose. The book reviews will say something about how it speaks to family and class and xenophobia, but I loved the writing and the post-war backdrop, and the abandoned baby and yearning mother plotline. I read this one at carpool and was so engrossed that got honked at when it was time to pull forward; I could not put it down.

Which brings me to the other abandoned baby book: M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans. Everyone else probably read this years ago, and it became a Spielberg movie with Michael Fassbender, but I only recently got to it. No wonder they made a screenplay; this one has the post-war backdrop, but with an isolated lighthouse, a woman who yearns for children, a husband who just wants to make her happy but also do the right thing, and gorgeous writing. Haunting and unusual, this is one of those books that is why people say reading is “escaping to another world” even though it is not fantasy.

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles surprised me with the distinctive voice of it’s ten-year-old narrator, and it’s sweet, haunting mixture of real and surreal, of childhood story and sci-fi. Julia is a precocious ten-year-old, worried about best friends and bullies at the bus stop, when scientists announce that the rotation of the Earth is slowing every day. Birds and the tides and human behavior are affected, and gravity sickness becomes normal. Julia’s family begins to fray, and she must discern what is a symptom of “the slowing” and what would have happened anyway, and what her future will look like. It will break your heart, and make you think about time and childhood and disater, but also leave you spellbound. I think someone is making a movie.

Another sci-fi-ish novel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, made my list even though I generally dislike anything even vaguely apocalyptic. I only started reading this one because it opens with a production of King Lear, and seemed to be about artists and musicians, but it turns into an altered-universe story wherein a flu pandemic changes life as we know it. The main character is travelling around nomad-style with a group called the Travelling Symphony, who are trying to keep art and music alive. It is weird and depressing/exciting in the way that apocalypse stories are, but this one is set apart by its focus on the human need to see and hear beauty. For some reason it made me crave popcorn, like a good movie does. 

The Curiosity, by Stephen P Kiernan, is a Frankenstein-ish thriller, time-travel novel, and chic-lit all rolled into one. It’s main character falls in love with a man from another century who has been frozen in ice, Captain America style, and whom scientists discover a way to re-animate. Their romance is  delicate and doomed, but it is strange and beautiful while it lasts and makes you think what if through the whole story. 

Last but not in any way least is Eizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible. The only short story collection on my list, this is like a little dessert sampler or tapas platter for readers, by a writer who is one of the heavyweights of our time. All the characters in these vignette-type stories are real and flawed, Olive Kitteridge style, and will make you laugh and break your heart. Strout’s observations of human nature and love and loss and longing rival any of the great writers, and she does it with humor and an economy of words that filled me with awe. She’s a female Hemingway, but uplifting instead of despressing. 

To listen to while driving:

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon. Time travel and romance with really decent writing and an Irish backdrop. Listened to this one on my phone when I wasn’t even driving. 

Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Hilarious and sad with a hopeful ending, Eleanore is like A Man Called Ove, but British and with a girl. 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Based on a shocking true story about the Georgia Tann kidnappings, this is a well-told story with an old-school child heroine. 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. World War II story about sisters and love, it will shock you and the ending makes you gasp.

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes. Part one is a World War I story that revolves around a Mona Lisa type of painting and the love story behind it; part two feels like a different story at first but circles back to the painting, and the resolution of part one. Great for a long drive. 

Other Best Things I discovered, in no particular order: 

  1. Pomegranates! I knew I liked the strange, juicy-crunchy little seeds on my yogurt, and that they have tons of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, but getting those seeds out was too annoying until my sister told me how to peel them in a bowl of water. The membrane floats up and the seeds sink, so you just skim the top and drain. PLUS, they apparently have exactly 613 seeds, the number of Commandments in the Bible, which is random but interesting. PLUS, I read a book about Catherine of Aragon, who had pomegranates stitched into her clothing when she came from Spain at age 15 to marry King Louis of France, and she kept these “apples of Granada” as her personal symbol, though they were a symbol of fertility, all through her marriage to Henry VIII and beyond. Not that this matters to my health today, but Catherine of Aragon was steadfast to the point of bad-ass, so now I like pomegranates even more.
  2. The Instant Pot! I’m pretty set in my ways cooking-wise, but when the crock pot broke we replaced it with an instant pot that can double as a slow cooker. I decided tob e open to new things, and this one turned out to be low-key life-changing. Apparently pressure-cookers have been normal in other countries for decades, and were a big thing here in the ‘70s, but they were pea-green plastic and dangerously hot on the outside. Now they are back, and the Instant Pot brand is just a new name on the oldest trick in the book for turning big, cheap cuts of meat into tender, shred-able stew and taco meat. I actually think ceramic makes a better slow cooker, but it doesn’t matter because my instant pot can do everything a crock-pot can do but better and in less time. Chili, amazing beef stew, carnitas for soft tacos, fall-apart coq a vin, etc. all in under an hour. Plus you can make homemade yogurt in them, if you’re into that.
  3. Madam Secretary! Having never watched 24 or Homeland or Designated Survivor or really any non Masterpiece Theater show in a long time, I am surprised that I started watching this at all, and surprised how much I like it. Tea Leoni plays a former CIA agent-turned-professor who is asked to be Secretary of State. She’s polished and quick-thinking, smart and funny, and also the mother of three teenagers. Plus she’s soooo pretty, in an authoritative-yet-approachable way that seems natural and real, not like she’s trying too hard. The show has the West Wing quick dialogue, but the diplomatic crisis scenes are interspersed with warm, realistic plot-lines about her family, including her hot-but-cute husband, a CIA agent turned Catholic religious scholar, which has probably never been done on TV before. And her clothes! Her clothes make me drool. 
  4. Hollywood Glamour Beauty Queen hand cream! It’s in a bubble-gum pink tube and smells like cherries and childhood, and moisturizes hands like nothing else I’ve ever tried and without feeling greasy. I want to take a bath in this stuff, it’s so awesome, but it seems to be available only at those old, dated Rite Aid stores that are about to be taken over by Walgreens. If you find it, buy several. 
  5. Online grocery pick up! GAME CHANGER. What started as a one-time thing has become my norm: I fill my Giant cart while sipping decaf Earl Gray at home, and the next day I pull up and a nice lady comes out and loads me up. IT’S AWESOME. My groceries come in nice bags with handles, and the produce is nicer than what I could have found in the store. I used to think I had to see the food before I bought it, but I’m over that. (A decade ago, I never thought I’d do my Christmas shopping online either. Hahahaha.)  I like having someone else gather up apples and onions and roast beef and  for me, after I plan my recipes from the comfort of my own home. I like letting someone else find the arugula and the exact right kind of shampoo my teenager requested for his combination hair. I see other women in the store with huge carts, waiting in long lines and then loading up their own cars, and I want to roll down my window and yell Save Yourself! Order online! Grocery delivery still costs extra, but I’m fairly sure that ordering online and picking them up does not incur a fee. And if it does, it’s worth it. 

2,628 responses so far

Clarity

May 09 2019

She wore ill-fitting navy-blue flats, the shoes she wore to church with her parents. They were the only thing that matched her outfit, which she hoped looked casual, like she hadn’t thought about it too much, like she went on dates all the time. She thought about wearing her gold sandals, she loved the way they made her feet look like a more mature version of themselves, but she did not want to look too dressed up, too invested, as though she thought they were going to a red carpet event. Trey would probably be wearing shorts. That’s how boys were.

But Katie was invested. She had not been on many dates, and she would be in college soon. She had arrived at her high school sophomore year with the aloof-but-desperate look of a military kid who moved around a lot, had promptly joined the extra-curriculars and corresponding social groups appropriate for her status level (drama, wind ensemble, photography club), and had quickly made friends, mostly the forgettable sort of friends she made everywhere she’d lived. Periodically, there were boys who were rumored to like her, and she would go with them to a dance, to Denny’s after the cast party, or even to their house to watch a movie. She had been kissed exactly three times: once, too eagerly, by Michael Smelzer after a band concert (she’d thought what the heck, but had drawn back in horror when he immediately tried to stick his tongue in her mouth), and twice by a boy named Brandon who was a day camp counselor with her at Brookside Camp, where her job was to make yarn crafts with dozens of screaming ten-year-olds whose parents worked. It was a nice kiss until he said, “Wanna go in the tool shed on our break?” She’d replied, “Um…. not really…” To which he’d said, “Cool,” and never paid her any attention again.

The fourth kiss, the best one, really, would be from Trey Andrews, a lacrosse-playing senior, leagues beyond her socially, who had inexplicably left his team senior year and tried out for a school play, and wound up playing Benedick opposite her Beatrice in a very abridged version of Much Ado. He was olive skinned and blue eyed and had that jock swagger that other theater boys did not have, and he was not gay. Katie knew, because Trey Andrews had dated Lisette Peterson, and had a string of girlfriends before her. He looked cocky and made a good Benedick, and they had chemistry, something she’d never had with anyone on stage, or anyone off stage for that matter, except maybe her friend Parker, who did not do theater but who was gay.

Trey Andrews ignored Katie, mostly, for the first three weeks of rehearsal, except to say lines with her and then leave in the car of some other lacrosse-playing senior, engine revving over laughter and music, like in a movie, while Katie left in the passenger seat of her mom’s minivan. But at some point the week before tech week, when she’d decided to really commit to being a good Beatrice, to really nail her lines–especially the argument scene where she says even if Benedick’s face got scratched by a dog, it wouldn’t be worse–he did start to pay attention to her, a little. It had felt good to hurl insults at Trey Andrews, because it was something. He would never like her, pay attention to her, so at least she could have this contrived passion with him on stage, even if they mostly hated each other in the abridged version. At least she could have something with him. Surprisingly, he actually got his lines memorized–nobody thought he would–and he was good at them, and by the end of tech week, Katie thought maybe they were friends. Slightly flirty friends, which was thrilling and unsettling.

And then on a Thursday after school, when the play was over and there was really no reason for them to be seen together, Trey Andrews stopped by Katie’s locker and asked her what she was doing on Saturday. For a moment her mind raced: was there some mandatory meeting of cast members? Did he need to borrow notes for a class? She couldn’t think why he was asking.

And now here she was, eating a nice dinner with Trey Andrews at a fancy-ish restaurant, not a Denny’s or a Chipotle but a date restaurant, her tight, ugly shoes kicked off under the table. The shoes didn’t matter because he had the bluest eyes and ordered like a grown up, raising an eyebrow at her to indicate that she could order first, which made her a little dizzy. The waiter was in his twenties, so Trey was younger, but he wasn’t nervous at all and even seemed to brush the waiter off just a little, which was so adult. Trey wasn’t actually rude or anything, just confident, Katie told herself. And maybe he felt just a teeny bit cooler than the waiter even though he was younger, because the waiter was chubby. Athletes were like that, they couldn’t help it. Plus, Trey made her laugh at dinner, talking about his team and his friends, and when she reached for her little purse when the bill came, he’d said I got this and put a gold credit card in the wallet thingy they give you, sliding it in the pocket like he did it all the time.  

Walking to his car, he’d taken her hand for a minute, sliding his fingers down her arm first, then letting go. He’d tilted her face up, right there in the parking lot, and she’d thought oh, so that’s what they mean in books when it says her knees went weak…

 What do you want to do now? He’d asked, in an almost-whisper, and her stomach flip flopped. Another first. She’d been ready for the question, though: there was an old movie playing at the dollar theater, she told him, the one where the guy dances in roller skates and it’s amazing. It was a really old movie but her grandmother liked it, her grandmother had grown up in California and lived near the famous dancing actor when she was a little girl. Plus, it was two dollar popcorn night.

Trey had made a strange face and said wouldn’t that take like two hours? Yes, she’d said, it would, and then suggested they go to the bookstore on Princess Street instead, they had outdoor seating and they let you take books out there even if you weren’t buying them. Sometimes they had live music.

Trey had sighed at that, which Katie couldn’t understand, but he’d said okay and started driving in that direction. Was there something you wanted to do? She’d asked, and he’d said no, this was fine, but something in the atmosphere had changed. Or maybe she was overthinking it.

Pulling into the parking lot of Cyrano’s Books and getting out of the car, Katie heard a little flapping noise in the grassy median that separated the two halves of the parking lot. A small bird was just feet away from her, flapping and then stopping to rest, its beak open a little.

“Oh, gosh, oh no, the poor little guy, I think he’s hurt,” Katie said, a small, sad panic rising up from deep inside her. She could tell the bird’s wing was badly hurt, and she instantly decided two things without even thinking: that this was a boy bird, she would call him him, and that something had to be done for him, though the prognosis was grim.

“Leave it,” Trey said, just ask Katie bent down to scoop the bird up in her sweater. Did Trey have anything like a little shoe box in his car, she wondered? Or even a hat or something? If she took off her sweater, maybe she could wrap the bird in it to keep him still while they found help.

“What?” she said, taking off her cardigan. Had he just said leave it?

“That’s so gross, leave it alone,” he repeated.

Katie swallowed. “He’s hurt,” she began. “It’s his wing I think. There are animal rescue places that might take him, we could at least call–”

“God, what’s wrong with you?” Trey said, a sneer on his face, confusion in his eyes. “Just leave it, it’s dirty, and–”

“He’s hurt, and he’s not that dirty, plus I think he’s a bluebird, and if we could just find some help–”

“Jesus, that’s so fucking weird, I should have known,” Trey said, rolling his eyes. Somebody from the patio of the bookstore looked over at them as he raised his voice, “Just leave the stupid thing, it’s just going to die–”

“I KNOW IT’S GOING TO DIE!” Katie shouted, and now several people from the patio looked over at them, and slowly returned to their conversations. The bird’s head, she now saw, was sort of at an odd angle. “I know that,” she said again, quietly this time. Her throat was suddenly sore, and she felt the cool sting of tears in her eyes, but she willed them back down to wherever they came from. “But if there is a chance we could save him, like find a vet or something, we should at least try. Or we could at least, I don’t know… take him somewhere…” Her voice trailed off. She really didn’t know what her plan was. Maybe they could call a vet with after hours.

Trey starred at her, and she knew he was analyzing something, calculating. She also knew, in that instant, that he didn’t really like her, and if he did, she did not care. She took off her sweater, a whisper-thin, light blue cotton shrug her mom bought her at a beach when she was fifteen. She bent down and wrapped the bird in it; it did not put up a fight.

“I think you should take me home,” she told Trey, meeting his gaze.

“Jesus,” he said again, getting into the car and slamming his door, not helping her with her door this time, though she was cradling the bird-sweater now.

They didn’t speak all the way to Katie’s house. The bird died in her sweater, in her arms, as she thought it might. She looked straight ahead and did not cry. It was only a twelve-minute drive to her house, but she saw, stretched before her, a whole future, more clearly than anything she’d imagined before. She would continue to act; she was surprisingly good at it. Maybe not for a job, but maybe. She would study what she wanted, learn as much as she could, and stop imagining other people were cooler than her, better than her. She would stop waiting for everything to happen to her and decide what she wanted to happen to her instead. She would throw the navy-blue flats in the garbage.

Trey Andrews stopped in front of Katie’s house exactly long enough for her to get out before he sped away. Walking toward her front door, carrying a small, dead bird wrapped in her sweater, she felt, suddenly, as light as air. She felt free.

652 responses so far

Evergreen

Apr 10 2019

In childhood, that drowsy dream

of mountain peaks and meadows wide;

of needles crunching under-foot

of sun-soaked woods and babbling brooks;

where inspiration could abide

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

I learned that home and family

(both fluctuating, changing things)

tether us, by degrees to

where we’re born: towns, countries.

And in my blood and in my brain

indelibly were stamped it seemed

the air and sky and peaks and planes

of Colorado: Evergreen.

I learned, quite young

that I belonged

to this small town with elk-filled fields

and columbines, burst-out among

snow-laden hillsides; purple yields 

to violet

amid the brown.

In snowy town, all sun-shine shroud

nestled deep in canyon walls

we flew Old Glory high and proud

from cedar cabins big and small,

cheered at high school football games,

watched fire-works light the July air

and listened to the wistful strains of

Willie at The Little Bear.

I tasted pie at Summerfest,

in Bear Creek I did wade and dream

of my mountains, and the rest:

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

So as I grew and traveled far,

saw other mountain majesties,

exceeding not that highest bar

of scented pines, and towering trees;

of shining lake and one stop light,

small steepled church and hardware store,

where eagles soared in constant flight

in turquoise sky, white clouds galore,

I never questioned my true home,

affection was unwavering

for rock-hewn Camelot where I’d grown:

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

And then, at tender age I left

we packed our bags and went away

and I, all empty and bereft

did dream of mountains, night and day.

Though other places called to me

their alabaster cities gleamed

poor substitutes they all would be

for I was looking back it seemed.

And now that on my hands (and eyes stronger)

time has carved some tiny lines

and elsewhere I have lived far longer

than the city in the pines

still, when I smell the mountain air

or smell a brand-new Christmas tree

for a moment I am there:

my heart belongs to Evergreen.

838 responses so far

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