Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Slow Start


Clearly the bearded young man at the front of the check-in line had been there for a while by the time Dave and I arrived.  With his feet planted a full stride apart, shoulders hunched, and elbows on the desk, he looked discouraged.  It didn’t appear he was going anywhere anytime soon.  Equally discouraging was the cloud of annoyance emanating from the next person in line, a woman whose frizzy blond hair seemed a physical manifestation of her frazzled state.  These two, in turn, were discouraging for the rest of us who had hoped for a speedy room assignment. 

After a lengthy interval during which the line hitched and swayed as we all shifted weight from one foot to another, the receptionist at the desk dismissed the bearded patron with a thin smile and, “Have a nice day.” The frazzled blond strode forward, angrily asked a question I could not hear, pointed out the glass windows flanking the entrance with a finger that quivered with indignation, and said, “Not good.”

Oh dear.

Eventually the line dispersed and Dave and I wheeled our bags to the desk and gave our names to the receptionist, grateful we had confirmed reservations, confident we would soon be sipping wine in the hotel restaurant. 

The hostess tapped on keys, scrolled down, and scanned the screen. Two deep furrows creased the skin between her brows as she continued to stare at the monitor. “What is your name again? How do you spell it?”

Ack.  Never a good sign when excessive scrolling and staring occurs. 

“Might you have registered under a different name?”  No, but we gave mine anyway hoping “Eleanor” might serve where “David” failed.   It did not.  Nor did the printed confirmation my husband had had the forethought to bring. 

Dave assumed the feet-planted-wide stance I’d witnessed on those first two frustrated patrons.  He was wearing sunglasses, but I had the feeling his eyes were closed, the better to draw deep on his reservoir of patience. His response was clipped when another receptionist joined the woman staring at the computer screen and asked again, “Might you have registered under a different name?”  

Lord.  

Ultimately, we booked the room anew and had greater success rectifying whatever glitch there was from our room, by phone, with the help of a young woman in Singapore.  Honest to God. 

But, no worries!  We had a bed and we’d be on our way to Portland, Oregon the next morning after a night at the airport hotel.  Time for a drink and dinner before turning in early.

We took the elevator down and were pleased to be the only ones in line at the restaurant hostess station. We had just been seated when a pale, wraith-thin young man flew through the hotel entrance frantically waving an ink-blue arm.  He grabbed a small bucket of soapy water from the bar and sprinted to the door.  He called over his shoulder, “If any of you are doctors, there’s a kid outside in bad shape.”  

Oh no.  Two women at the table next to us rose, told the server they’d return, and followed the young man.  Dave and I drifted to the door for a peek through the floor- to-ceiling glass windows  - What’s going on?  How can we help?  In this, we could not, but the police arrived with an ambulance soon after.   Once we returned to our seats, word filtered back to the restaurant that the kid had overdosed and it didn’t look good. 

Our table offered a view of the bar and its wall-sized TV. Outlandish costumes, vivid colors, and bizarre settings filled the screen as the Cheshire cat grinned at the Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp, in pancake make-up and flaming red hair.  Alice in Wonderland.  Hmmm.  Curiouser and curiouser. 

Our meals were delicious. I’d ordered a Szechuan wok with tofu and vegetables, and Dave, pasta with marinara sauce.  The mood in the restaurant was companionable but sober over our shared concern about the crisis unfolding outside, and I fear I was poor company given my mesmerizing view of the escapades of Alice.  

Suddenly Dave said, “It’s really hot in here and I’m super tired.” Actually, it wasn’t hot in there, and Dave felt funny.  Maybe I’m too suggestible, but I began to feel funny too. Odd given our tasty and uncomplicated meals.  We paid up, thanked our server, and beat a hasty retreat to our room. 

Luckily, the bathroom was clean and well stocked with all necessary provisions. 

So, first night on our way west: mixed reviews.

     


Friday, February 15, 2019

Inner Peace by Way of British Baking

When feeling bluesy, many would whip up a pie or cupcakes to answer that inner call for comfort.  Not me.  When bored as a teenager, I’d mix brownies or chocolate chip cookies to pass the time, but baking was never my passion. While occasionally I’ll bake a Happy Winter Fudge Cake or the Decadent Chocolate Cake in the Silver Palette Cookbook, since sugar was deemed poison – curse that science! - I don’t make them often. Still, it’s blissful when heavenly aromas waft from the oven, and something delicious is rising and turning golden brown.
   
But when I’m upended, I don’t reach for a whisk. For insight and peace, I turn to writing, woods walks, prayer, and self-help books. Lately, the world is chaotic, and that spins me.  My traditional methods help, but our daughter introduced Dave and me to a wonderful new pacifier.

In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Casey was impressively ponderous and had energy for little other than what could be undertaken from a couch. Her friend Lindsay directed her to “The Great British Baking Show,” and she was hooked.  “It’s so relaxing,” she told us, a moony baby sloth smile lighting her face. 

For years, Chopped was our cooking show of choice. We still enjoy it, although I never liked the posturing and bravado of the professional chefs competing for the $10,000 prize and boasting rights.  The pace of the show is intense as contestants vie to produce flavorful, creative dishes while squeezed for time.

In contrast, as The Great British Baking Show opens, we viewers wing with the camera over sweeping bucolic scenes of the manor house, grounds, and voluminous white tent that houses the competition.  We bank and descend over sheep grazing in emerald meadows dotted with swaying buttercups. Between challenges, we sit with contestants beside the river or in front of a garden.  We zoom in on pastel spring tulips and yellow daffodils, or a dewdrop clinging to a blade of grass.  We join the judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, in their small tent for a cup of tea as they taste various bakes and discuss the bakers’ progress.  And every word rolls lyrically, those lovely English accents sonorous and soothing.  The clench in my stomach eases; my racing mind slows.    

Now, Dave and I spend many evenings unwinding with our new friends Mel and Sue, the presenters; Paul and Mary; and twelve initial contestants seeking, each season, to distinguish themselves.

Mel and Sue are charming and witty, gleefully slinging innuendos about pinching buns, the comparative size of baguettes, and the sauciness of self-saucing puddings.  Paul can be harsh, an arrogant jerk, but contestants yearn for his praise, a softening in those steely blue eyes, and his sought-after handshake.  “Don’t pay much mind to the pouty silverback,” Sue quips when a contestant slinks back to her seat after Paul decrees her entry “Awful.  Raw” after poking his finger into the cake she’s spent four hours baking and decorating with intricate fondant rosettes.   Mary Berry, a beloved veteran baker, is forthright in her comments, but like any good teacher, finds something to compliment, particularly if she feels Paul has been unkind. “But your fondant work is lovely,” she might add. 

As the competition proceeds, the howling of the world fades as our bakers pursue the perfect patisserie; stunning, flavorful breads; heavenly fillings; and spectacular cakes. In the first show of each season, Dave and I scan the line-up of hopefuls as they walk across the lawn to enter the tent. They always seem a sorry bunch; we’ve come to know the previous season’s players and we miss them.  But it doesn’t take long to find our new favorites as the contestants are introduced through quick clips of their families and professions. 

A sampling of names reflects the range of backgrounds: Nadiya, Nancy, Terry, Benjamina, Tamal, Rav, Andrew, Selasi, Iain, and Ruby. Depending on the season, by the quarterfinals, Dave and I have attachments. We love young Andrew with his red hair and self-conscious grin.  He looks like Opie or Howdy Doody; he’s self-effacing and dear; and most of his recipes were “nicked” from his dad or grandma. Nadiya, so far, is my all time favorite.  Initially she seemed foreign and subdued in her dark hijab, so separate from my experience. Once I got to know her, she was completely familiar: animated and expressive, emotional and funny, quick to doubt herself, and, when successful, giggly, teary, and exuberant.  Don’t we find that to be true most of the time?  Given the chance to go beyond appearances, more often than not, there is connection and common ground.  

Wrapped in cozy blankets on the couch, Dave and I lean forward, breath held, as Paul and Mary evaluate the shine of a mirror glaze, the spring of a sponge cake, or the fluffy marshmallow center and crisp coating on a toasted meringue.  We care about their assessment.  If one of our favorites is praised or rebuked, we cheer and cry along with them.  “I can’t believe I’m crying all the time when I watch this show,” Dave says. Yet we do.  What a relief, to lock out concern over a careening nation to weep or exult over brulees, canapĂ©s, and eclairs!  

Of course, it’s not the pastry that has us in tears (although watching a rich chocolate buttercream frosting smoothed over a moist sponge knowing I won’t be served a slice can be torment), it’s our fondness for the people. All of us are represented in the students, ministers, doctors, farmers, teachers, professionals, retirees, and stay-at-home mothers who compete; in their diverse religions, colors, ages, and sexual orientation; in their hijabs and housecoats, turbans, wrinkles, piercings, and tattoos. To all appearances, in the Baking Show tent, such differences fold together as easily as the eggs, butter, sugar, chocolate, and flour so essential to my delicious Decadent Chocolate Cake. We identify with our on-screen friends in their wish to excel, bouts of self-doubt, and exhalations of relief.  And when a berry-sweet Charlotte Russe or spectacular gingerbread dragon prompts Paul’s grin and Mary’s “sheer perfection!”  Dave and I beam in sharing the baker’s pride, light as an airy souffle. 

 Like Dave, a contestant once wiped her tears and said, “ I can’t believe I’m crying over eclairs, but I can’t help it.”  They all know this is about bread sticks, roulades, custards, and pastries, not saving the world.  But it IS about testing skills, resilience, calm under stress, learning from mistakes, and striving to be best without losing empathy for those around you.  I once read that in celebrating others’ joys, you make them your own, and the Great British Baking Show gives us weekly doses of vicarious joy. 

Each episode covers three separate challenges in the space of a weekend over the ten-week season. In that stretch (condensed thanks to Netflix), we become fond of the contestants, and they become fond of each other. Paul might be harsh in his comments sometimes, but the bakers themselves seem a team more than competitors. When the walls of Louisa’s gingerbread church tumbled, three of her opponents rushed to help prop them. When Kate ran out of time before starting her glaze, Richard grabbed a pot and spoon and said, “What do you need?” My heart melts like chocolate at these many small kindnesses. 

On the last day, former contestants, friends, and family of the three finalists gather on the grounds for a festival of games, food, and celebration as they await announcement of the winner. To cheers and applause, the bakers emerge from the tent bearing their showstopper entries to be enthusiastically consumed by all.   Soon after, Paul, Mary, Sue, and Mel join them, barely visible behind three massive bouquets.  After weeks of striving, the winner earns flowers, a cake stand, and affirmation; no prize money is given. Bestowed instead is a glorious sense of achievement in being, until next season, Britain’s Best Amateur Baker.  Dave and I beam with pride, then slump a bit, for we’ll miss our friends from that series. 

We glance at the clock. It’s not too late… 

“Wanna start the next season?”

Absolutely. Time to meet a new slew of friends.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Passed Along

The tiny sticker on the underside of the silver pitcher reads “15.”  Somewhere, in one of the bins and boxes from my parents’ home that have migrated to our attic, is the list of Mom and Dad’s wedding presents. If I wished, I could search out that list, flip through the pages, run my finger down to #15, and find the gift-giver. 

Mom gave me the pitcher just months before she felt sick.  For a while she’d been trying to whittle down the belongings accumulated over fifty-five years lived in the house.  She’d opened the kitchen cupboard and waved toward four pitchers on the shelf, saying,  “Take one if you want.”  Silver is not the usual in our rustic, 1782 home, but I really liked this graceful remnant from an elegant era. 

When I noticed the “15” on the bottom of the pitcher as it dried upside-down in the dish rack, my nose prickled in imagining the wrapped gift arriving at Mom’s childhood home, 12 Upper Ladue, sometime in the fall of 1951.  

Since Mom passed, I’ve come to know her young self far better through her letters.  My father was stationed in Germany and Mimi wrote to “My Dearest Darling Paul” every day. She was nineteen years old and missed her man fiercely.  She yearned for marriage and a time when they could be together, but everything was uncertain, threatened by the possibility of Paul’s deployment to Korea.  In letters to his father, Paul spoke of his loneliness and fear that “this troubled world” and deployment might prevent a future with Mimi.  

He was only twenty-two. A boy far from home at Christmas… and in reading his letters, my heart ached for that lonely, young guy who became my father.

Their handwriting, so familiar to me, appears fresh on the page. Despite sixty-five years stored in a cardboard box, the blue stationary has held its color.  I know how life turned out for Paul and Mimi: they married, had three (wonderful) daughters, four cherished grandchildren, lifelong friends, travels, careers, and collections.  And with their pitcher in my hand, my eyes fill to think that it all lay before them when first Mimi opened that package and unfolded the white tissue within.  

  
Now that my mother’s life has ended and I have moved into the matriarch phase she just left, I am acutely conscious of the passage of time, and each generation making way for the next.  As Dave and I decorated the house, changed bed sheets, put up the tree, and wrapped gifts, I recalled the aura of past Christmases at my grandparents’ homes: candles flickering, flaming plum pudding, stiff needlepoint chairs, fancy dress, and the expectation that kids keep a low profile.  

When my grandmother died and Mom took over, my grandmother’s candelabra found its place on my parents’ dining room table, and the needlepoint chairs, around it.   The plum pudding was dramatic, but never tasted as good as it promised to be, so my brother-in-law’s silky fudge and rum sauce over ice cream replaced it.  And the children?  Far from low profile, they became the focus. Still, those homes of the past made us feel cherished and safe; Dave and I hold the grandparent title now, and strive to embrace our kids and their families in those same ways… minus the plum pudding and finger-to-lips admonitions to behave.   

When my sisters and I divided the contents of my parents’ home, I did not clamor for the needlepoint chairs or the candelabra, and certainly, none of us wanted Mom’s white plastic kitchen chairs, but I really wanted the dry sink in the den. It was the first piece of furniture Mom and Dad bought together, and I loved its heavy, primitive look. Plus, it is scarred with a twisting groove that teenaged Lea idly carved with an ice pick while talking on the phone with friends.  


Since our marriage in 1975, Dave and I have been doing an every-other-year rotation between the  Sylvestros and Ingersolls for the holidays, and this would have been a year with Mom. When we discussed what the new plan might be, our new grand daughter Lexi was just weeks old and Eleanor was still afloat in Casey’s belly, so it made sense to hold Christmas at our house in Connecticut. My sisters, Rita and Francie, and their families, were willing to make the trip and stay minutes away at the humble, but reasonably comfortable, Hotel Hi-Ho. 

For years, the Hi-Ho, conveniently perched on a slope just above the Merritt Parkway, was rumored to have been a trysting destination, a pay-by-the-hour sort of spot.  While its huge, red, neon sign was easily visible to cars whizzing by, more often than not one, two, or three letters were out of order. So the “HO_EL HI- _O” was a local joke until recent renovations spruced it up.  Tucker, Lisa, Paul, and Lexi would stay with us, while Casey, PJ and Eleanor live nearby.  

In the week before Christmas, Dave and I attacked detailed To-Do lists each day.  As has been tradition since first we were married, Dave rolled out his homemade lasagna noodles, simmered the sauce, and assembled two huge casseroles. I baked “Happy Winter” fudge cakes and made crepes. We shopped for non-perishables on Monday the 18thand perishables on the 22nd. Mixed up artichoke dip and blanched cruditĂ© on the 23rd.   Ordered window shades for the guest room and crossed our fingers they’d ship in time... They did not. 

The dishwasher was crammed with the detritus of those preparations.  Mixing bowls, plates, ladles, and spoons.  Measuring cups, spatulas, dishes, and mugs. 

“Hon?  Be sure to run the dishwasher before you come to bed, will you?” I said on the evening of the 22nd

I was brushing my teeth when Dave entered the bathroom, grim of visage, and said, “The dishwasher’s not filling.”

“Not filling?” I said, or whatever garbled response might have emerged through the toothpaste. 

Yes.  The day before our loved ones arrived, the dishwasher broke down. When I spoke to the repairman’s rep the next day, hoping for a mercy visit given the circumstances, she laughed and said, “That’s how it always goes.” 

Ah well.  As my sister Rita said, plenty of bonding at the sink. Plus, she’s a party diva and after my desperate call, she arrived with bags of paper goods.  Would my grandmother have tolerated such a substitution? Maybe not, but Mom would have welcomed it. 

Were they there, Mom and Dad?  Beyond the toasts, tales, memories, and love?  Beyond their touch on the pitcher and wooden dry sink?  Beyond their names carried on in their great-grandchildren, Eleanor and Paul?  

After he died, Dad arranged a bounty of signs to let us know he was still around, while Mom kept her peace when she passed. But I have to think they could not have resisted a Christmas visit to see Jared and Campbell - now men in their twenties - on the floor playing cars with little Paul.  To see Tucker and Casey, holding each other’s babies. To see three elfin great-grandchildren in matching pajamas, and little Eleanor, already an activist, pumping her fist in the air.  To see Bill and Rita prancing in Santa and reindeer outfits.  To see my sisters, giggling all the way, smuggling in two of Mom’s sheet-shrouded white plastic kitchen chairs. 

Yeah, I have to think they showed up.  








Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Sleep Thieves

Default suggestions and corrections are often frustrating and sometimes humorous.  I supply plenty of material because I’m the worst typist ever. On my tiny IPhone, I have the excuse that my fingers are too big for that puny keypad.  “P” is too close to the edge and more often I hit “O” by mistake. And “M”?  Forget it.  It’s right next to the delete arrow, so that’s what usually happens.  In my enthusiasm, I admit I overuse the word “love,” but almost without fail, “live” is what I tap, turning a buoyant comment into an existential observation.  A chorus of audible grunts of disgust always accompanies my typing. 

On email, I can’t blame defaults, and I tend to overlook the warnings of green wavy underlines. Proofreading is a necessity to be approached with the keen scrutiny of Robert Mueller pursuing a lead. Recently, though, my typo gave birth to an incisive new word.  

My friend Otie and I had exchanged Christmas greetings and commented on the joys of visiting grandchildren. Otie wrote, “We have a houseful, and some of them get up early.”  

Leisurely mornings are my favorite retirement perk, but waking to grandson Paul’s sweet voice and dear little face still scrunched and adjusting to morning light is a gift. In my response to Otie, I told him how much I would miss that and added, “As you say thoughtcrimes, sleeping in will be good.” 

“Thoughtcrimes”?

I didn’t catch the typo and Otie made no mention of it in his next email. I happened to see it while reviewing the thread for a quick refresher before writing back a few days later.  I had no idea what I’d intended to say, and told him as much.

Otie has a philosopher’s soul and he did not take my finger-slip lightly. He mused about a conversation he’d had with our mutual friend, Moo, who’d said, “It’s not the end of the world, it’s just the middle of the night.”

Was this a commentary on our troubling times and a “this too shall pass” insight, or merely an insomniac’s lament? Otie pursued the quote with the persistence of one who has spent countless wakeful hours in the dark, a victim of thoughtcrimes and their not-so-stealthy theft of sleep.   “Problems are magnified by darkness and a little confusion, which leads to more sleep disruption, allowing time for more problems to try to take over our souls, and soon, dawn arrives.  But I have taken a certain comfort in Moo’s theory, and if I can remember to repeat it a few times, I can bore myself back to sleep.”

Ah, if only I could bore myself back to sleep! For me, “it’s not the end of the world” leaves plenty of room for post-apocalyptic scenarios that are not the end, but gruesome enough, so that mantra gives me no comfort. 

It’s usually around 1:16 that my eyes fly open.  I go to the bathroom for a quick pee and then snuggle back in bed praying slumber will re-find me. Ha!  As if. The hours tick by as I manufacture heated conversations with family, friends, Republican leaders, and Trump himself, working myself into an adrenalin-fueled fury that leaves no room for sleep. Or, hearing my beloved Dave snuffle and snore beside me, I begin with a smile and gratitude, then hustle myself along a spiraling path to tears and what would I do without him? To-Do lists can wrestle sleep to the mat with ease, and a quick mental reminder turns into an exercise in obsessive repetition to make sure I don’t forget whatever pressing task I’ve come up with. Guilt, too, is a rich well of sleeplessness.  I can dive in there and swim in that heavy muck for hours. Or, I think of warnings for my children after I’ve read the latest health scare in “The Week.” Thoughtcrimes!         

Dear Otie is more optimistic than me.  In so many words, he said that branding these ruminations “thoughtcrimes” offers the vigilant an opportunity to recognize the thief, seize him by the scruff of the neck, and banish him from the bedroom.  My friend closed with this comfort, “When I wake up early and start worrying about something that isn't going to happen and that I can't do anything about anyway, instead of the end of the world thing, I'll quickly dismiss my troubles with, "Thoughtcrimes. Sleeping in will be good." 

Thanks, Otie.