Friday, April 29, 2011

they say it's your birthday

And it is. Fifty-nine years old and sweating it, damn, sixty is too close.  My arthritic thumbs protest as I peel apples for Sonny's pie and I am thinking of a movie from the 50's, Marty, a black and white Oscar winner, starring Ernest Borgnine and he plays a lonely Italian butcher living with his widowed mother in the Bronx. Marty is a bumbling, homely sort of guy and Mom is a bitchy, unhappy critic who inserts herself into the lives of younger family members and then fans the winds of misery. There are no blue skies in this woman's aura. She is allowed to persist in this negative way because old people were revered in the day and matricide was illegal. In one scene she is sitting, in a rocking chair (duh) with her sister, another old lady and they are wearing the official old lady uniform: grey hair drawn back in a bun, black lumpy dress and thick stockings and huge crucifixes around their necks.  "Oh Bessie," she laments, "I am forty-eight years old and my time is past. I'm important to no one anymore."

My birthday. That means I get to order french fries and ask for a little packet of salt as well. I choose to celebrate with children because they understand the need for festivities and good things on this important day.  They will send me no birthday cards showing wrinkled women with sagging boobs and bonfire cakes and there will be no bottles of Geritol and X-lax in my gift pile. Instead we will sing loudly while the girl in the red and white checkered dress blows her oogah horn and announces to the room that it is indeed Dawn's birthday. "Do you want me to say another year older or  fifty-nine years old?" she asks.  Are you kidding?  Fifty-nine and gimme that free ice cream sundae.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I dust twice a year, Easter and Christmas, these are the days large amounts of people visit my house hoping to find chip dip and liquor.  I am not good at entertaining, nothing about it appeals to me and I am glad when the last citizen leaves my house.  I see people leaving my bathroom with dripping hands and my granddaughter Cameron is running up the stairs.  She is nude and there's my bathroom guest towel  wrapped around her little waist and she announces to the group she will be taking a shower. At least we got her out of her bathing suit which she has taken to wearing all the time.  You do not negotiate with a three-year-old child.

My brother David and I sit on our folding chairs holding our beer cans and waiting for the clock hands to move.  We are both self-acknowledged hermits and we come to these events because we know that family connections matter  although we're not sure why. We are waiting to return to our solitary comfortable lifestyles.

Another brother, Mark, is sitting on my purple couch and drinking my orange juice.  He is the middle sibling and owner of all the troubles and quirks that middle children are said to possess. "Poor Mark," my mother would sigh and roll her eyes," he is the middle child, you know," and with that statement he garnished a large portion of her attention.  And it didn't help that we teased him relentlessly about his "Dumbo" ears when we were small and he retaliated and called me "pizza face," an unchecked acne condition was my teen-aged angst.  Funny, the rest of him  caught up with those ears and they do not appear overly large to me at this late date. Mark did attain adulthood with only a few harmless neuroses, just like the rest us.
Another holiday passes and I hand my sister-in-law a pot of daffodils for volunteering to make the painstaking, time-consuming peanut cake recipe that is our family's mainstay traditional Easter dessert.  It involves freezing chunks of  cake and frosting all six sides of the chunks and rolling them in smashed peanuts.  It is not for the weak of heart but Sheri has met that challenge when she married my brother, a middle child with noticeable ears.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I had to buy a ham

I am standing at a huge freezer counter maybe ten feet long and it is filled with hams, bone-in, water added, spiral cut, shank, butt, shoulder, boiled, cured, smoked, raw and fully cooked.  Meat has never been my strong point and I face cooking  it with only scanty information and experience. My mother always bought the ham for Easter so I never bothered to learn ham language because she was always supposed to be there to cook the damn thing.  She and my father would travel to Cuba City, Wisconsin, home of Weber's Meat Market, a fine German establishment and purchase a fresh ham, the pale, pink color of a rose's heart.  She would  inspect that chunk of  meat and sometimes  request a new cut not liking how the fat veined or some other mysterious process.

There is a group of men in white butcher coats next to me and one man has that boss tone to his voice and he is lecturing the others and I am thinking they are student butchers and he is the ham master . He turns to me and says, "What are you looking for, m'am?"  A good ham, I reply, and I hear my mother's voice echo within my own. The gentleman wants to help me, and the novice butchers will learn something valuable about old ladies buying meat.  I bought the Fleur-de-Lis brand name as he advised.  His father  was some sort of meat know-it-all and he bought this ham every Easter and the family would talk about it for days.  And this is what I want, my family talking about ham for days. And the other winning factor was the name, Fleur de Lis. The Dubuque Packing plant in my hometown was a huge pig-smelly place that employed 3500 people in its heyday and used this French logo for their prize hams.  Everyone I know over the age of 50 worked at the Pack, except me, I stood at my cash register in my aqua blue plastic smock at the S.S. Kresge's after school each day.  Ah, the 60's . . .

Friday, April 22, 2011


Making plans to visit my youngest son is like trying to see the Dali Lama.  He is enveloped in his job and can be unreachable for hours.  He is a cancer doctor for children and it is difficult to leave the ward when someone small is dying.  He stays.
It is a cold raw day in the Midwest, spring was here briefly for one day of seventy degrees and then we slammed those windows shut again. Ypsilanti Michigan is 425 miles away and I load the car up with books and yogurt and we head north.  There will be the challenge of driving around Chicago and no one's figured out how to do this efficiently.  Riding past the lake, the big one, Dave talks about renting a large cabin on the beach and inviting all the children, his and mine, for several days.  He babbles on about  bonfires and weenie roasts and I see myself hunched over a table peeling a mammoth pile of potatoes.

Arya is newly turned four and she could baffle a college debate team. She is complex and multi-leveled and fears nothing but public toilets as any intelligent person does. She sits in the backseat wearing Dave's sunglasses upside down and we get lost going from Walmart to her home. After two phone calls to her mother and a chat with a gas station guy in a town south of Ypsilanti we are back on the right road.  Arya is patient with us but it is clear she expects the adults in her life to be more organized.. 

Olive is almost one year old.  She's leery of me, who can blame her, I am this silly gushing grandma and Dave strikes her as the more interesting relative, big and gruff, like nobody in her life. She requires structure and sameness in her baby world and I am clearly an interruption of that.  She stares at me steely-eyed from the safety of her mother's lap and then gives me a little sniff and turns her attention to her rowdy grandfather.  Olive is aware she is in charge of the kingdom and she uses her power modestly.

Jim and Sara's condo is full to busting with baby furniture and it looks like the University will make Jim a deal he can't refuse and they will stay in Michigan. I tell him he can now buy a house with a guest bedroom and a ring for Sara's finger. I want a daughter-in-law.  I need a daughter-in-law. I deserve a daughter-in-law.  I have come close several times only to have my hopes dashed against the craggy shores  of bachelorhood, my sons shaking off  commitment like a couple of wet dogs.  Woof.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

fat and crabby in Iowa

"If I were back in Iowa," Susan's neighbor tells me, "I would be fat and crabby. All those people do is sit in the house and eat."  Yowser.  I am talking to Jean, seventy something years of age, and she is lamenting the status of her family back in the fair city of Ames, home to a huge cow-loving university.  We are climbing into the car and Susan will drive us to her gym for fifty-five minutes of Silver Sneakers II aerobics.

There are some things I don't like about California such as the governor has an Austrian accent and a wife who shares genetic coding with the notorious Kennedys and that you can never, ever find a parking spot. But I do like the mental and physical conditions of their geriatric population.  Near perfect weather every day inspires the soul to blow fresh chi into aged limbs and locked joints.  I see a little grannies on the boardwalk, silver hair pinned in  top knots,  floral house dresses reminiscent of my Nana and the biggest, whitest Nikes you ever saw.

The class instructor looks forty-five from my position in the back of the class.  She has perfectly toned arms, damn her, and a surfer girl lilt to her voice and she giggles about nothing at all. She is actually sixty years old and just got back from a week swimming in Nicaragua. We go into a squat and she says, don't do this if it hurts and of course, it hurts. If I only did what didn't hurt I would just go home.

It's Sam I am I am.
Would you buy a used car from this Sam?
  Susan has purchased sky-blue denim upholstery for her most recent move back to San Diego. Her pillows have bird-of-paradise and palm tree motif.  "Too much ocean?" she asks,  Naaah, I say, and I luxuriate in the lush pale greens and sea blue turquoise living room. And they always have the biggest TV imaginable and they never watch a program when it is actually on because Jim records shows right inside that big TV and we watch  Sam, the Cooking Guy when we darn well feel like it.  The phone rings and on the corner of the TV screen Jean's name and phone number flashes.   God, I'm loving this.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I could live there, really

I could live in Hillcrest.  Susan says I would not like the frequent planes booming overhead but I would find a way to compromise on that issue.   On my first visit I felt some element had changed and the universe had shifted into a more sensible arrangement. The streets of Hillcrest are clean, litter is nonexistent and the houses and shops are painted in bold colors. Gardens are everywhere- all things have reached their artistic and most eye-pleasing potential here.  A creative funk hangs over the place and it is apparent intelligent people reside here. Poetry readings are posted everywhere, book shops touting Hemingway and Capote, eclectic art galleries, places of intelligent consumerism.  Hillcrest is a homosexual community and there is an acceptance and integrity in the lifestyle and I could cartwheel down he middle of the street in polka dot underwear and everyone will applaud and ask for more.

  We have breakfast at the Crest cafe, a favorite of mine and I love the pale pink walls, rainbow lighting and paintings of dogs and children on the walls.
We check out the farmers' market and sample blood oranges, oily pestos and Carlsbad strawberries, big as plums and they melt in your mouth like thick mushy pudding.  I buy silver earrings and Susan picks up pale pink Fuji apples for her neighbor. I did pass on the mango salad served in the sea urchin bowl, see below.  The band is playing xylophone/ washboard Louisiana beans and dirty rice kind of music and Hillcrest is just a versatile wholesome place to be. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

baby, you can drive my car

If you live in California you are either driving somewhere or coming back and if you actually slow down you are looking for someplace to park. An automobile is a requirement in this state and if you have none you are quietly escorted to the state line.

So, it was no surprise when we spent  my first day in San Diego test driving cars.  Susan was seduced by a  navy VW sedan convertible with tan leather seats and the hard-top creases and shuffles itself into the trunk like a blanket being folded.   Joe, the very gay salesman, thought we should take the car home and see how it looked in the driveway, sneaky devil. Todd, the other  salesman, looked all of twelve years old, but he had a Midwestern personality and his slacks were perfectly creased.   Currently, my friends own a Honda hybrid, God bless them, but they want to feel the California wind in their hair, thus the convertible.

 Susan knows a lot of rich people.  They seem drawn to her because she is classy and dresses well and she understands their predicament, being rich is not always easy. And she has an enfolding tenderness that appeals to those of us who are often misunderstood by the world. We are invited to dinner at the condo of Doug and Barbara, the rich people.  We arrive at the house on the boardwalk and it is the same house we stayed in sixteen years ago when Susan and Jim were married on the beach.  There had been a horrendous hail storm in Dubuque the August before and everybody was collecting from their insurance companies for hail damage.  I had a $400 check in my hand and decided a trip to California was more fun than buying shingles for my roof.  Susan loves a pajama party and there were fourteen of us in that house.  We roller bladed in the hallways, ate fresh fish and fruit and bought four new bottles of liquor each morning. 

Todd and Susan, BFF
 Doug picked up pepperoni pizza and salad, a regular blue collar lunch, from around the corner and we helped them finish off their margarita mix as they will be returning to Oregon this week. They own a flower seed company and their home and gardens were featured in, uh, Home and Gardens magazine.  Barbara is a soft-spoken woman in her mid-70's with shiny platinum hair that hangs loosely around her shoulders.  I love watching her hands when she speaks.  She wears slender gold rings and bracelets and they make tiny tinkling sounds whenever she gracefully gestured.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

need to be by the sea again

April  7
This winter is moving too slowly out of the Mississippi valley for this cornfed woman.  Although snow is no longer interested in our back yards there have been two hail storms.  Funny little ice balls bouncing and pinging off the ground, a strange and interesting comedy, until you realize your car is parked outside, there is a new roof on your townhouse and your springtime perennials are only four delicate inches high.  The wind today has a arctic chill spinning me around and I am tired of cringing when I walk out the front door.  Susan is the solution for many negatives in my life and besides that she lives in San Diego.  California.

So I'm sliding out of this brown and grey town and will fly above the winter clouds for that sweet destination.  I've packed my mother-of-pearl earrings and turquoise necklace and I only wear these things when I am at the ocean.  They feel strangely out of place on the prairie.  I am nursing yet another upper respiratory infection (does anyone ever get the lower kind?)  so I will stuff myself full of antihistamines before I climb into that pressurized cabin.  Once while flying to Virginia I had a head cold and failed to take the meds and I spent the next week sounding like I was talking from the bottom of a well and conversation was wasted on me.  If you're sick, stay out of the stratosphere.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

in love with the grape

I am one of those people who have an allergy to tannins and if I drink more than two glasses of wine I will vomit.  I am a great hit at parties and the invitations keep rolling in. Tannins are found in the skin, stems and seeds of wine grapes and give the drink its dry and puckery sensation in the mouth,or mouthfeel as the wine gurus would say.  After my divorce I dated a wine salesman briefly - oh, so briefly as you would expect.  There was a pre-dinner wine, two wines with dinner and then the dessert wine.  I realized in the long run this was not the best game plan and excused myself to go swig beer with my women friends at the bar.

But I truly do love wine. I have always wanted to be a wine connoisseur ever since the 80's when I would watch Frazier on Thursday nights right after Cheers and before Hill Street Blues.  Man, that was good television.  Frazier and his brother would take a sip from their expensive wine glasses and roll their eyes and talk about the vibrant presence of ripe plums with a delicate touch of spice and peach and oak flavors. What the heck does oak taste like and why would we want to know?

I admit I am intimidated by wine.  Let me explain. I always order a glass of Merlot at restaurants before dinner.  If I am at Appleby's the waiter merely nods and off he goes. But if I am at an upscale place with menus that are not laminated the waiter will question me further.  Would I prefer a Sebastiani 2009 or South Africa Pearl 2008 or perhaps the Bennet Valley 2006?  How do you say I want the cheapest without sounding cheap?

Jason has taught me the value of the dry reds as opposed to the fruity sweet wines that Dave prefers.  The cowboy's choices taste like spoiled Kool-ade to me and he fills my wine rack with cranberry, cherry and dandelion varieties.  Give me my robust Merlot and Chianti and Cabernet and they add mystery and sparkle to a forkful of bolognese and pasta.  White wines are for your delicate maiden aunt and other such wusses.

Bring it on, oh glasses of deep and passionate Merlot, tart and flaming temptress in a bottle, smoky and luxurious and silky down my throat, but just one glass, please, just one.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

support your local blues bands

 In a weak moment I agreed to go hear a band with friends of Dave's.  I must have just finished exercising and the endorphins were running high and the world was my oyster and I feared nothing.  I have no other explanation as it was noon and I don't start drinking until later in the day.

Let's get this straight.  I was divorced for seventeen years and many Saturday nights I was out with my friends and we would dance and drink and were stupid enough to never appoint a designated driver. Immortal, the young believe themselves to be. I would come across the Iowa- Illinois bridge after closing down two towns and I would  see two bridges instead of one and I would hope that I was driving on the right bridge.  I am grateful to any higher entity that allowed me to find my way home on those nights and I  remember one time getting out of the car and kissing the ground in front of my apartment  Those were fun, reckless, idiotic times but now I am content to sit on my couch at day's end and consume useless carb snacks and play with my various technological toys. I don't want to go out anymore.

For purposes of protecting privacy the two friends mentioned earlier will now be referred to as Franklin and Eleanor.  Dave says Frank has invited us over for the first grilled bratwurst of the season.  The band starts at nine and if I accept the 5:00 brats invitation  that will put me at about seven hours of socialization and I would rather have midgets stick red hot needles into my eyeballs.  "I'll take that for a no," says Dave, "Eleanor wants you to come so you two can talk while we watch the game."  Eleanor and I do not talk.  Eleanor talks, I listen. Any subject matter, any question or comment she is able to redirect back to her favorite topic, Eleanor. It's almost fascinating how she maneuvers and achieves this process.

The only thing that's going to save this night is that the band be good.  They are from Iowa City, another bluesy, headstrong river town, so I'm not worried.  Now if only Eleanor would not talk through the whole show and she will do that primarily because she is fueled by Long Island teas, glass after glass. What are those, five shots and a splash of Pepsi?
I liked the joint.  There's lots of polished wood and a skylight with an angular Frank Lloyd Wright glass plate.  Eleanor is content to sit next to the cowboy and he does not need to come up for air as I would have found necessary.  The boys know a lot of the old Chicago stuff and I let the wailing cadences pull me under.  The soulful, piercing notes  intensify and get better the more you drink.  But that's true of most things in life, wouldn't you say.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

it's a gas - gas - gas

Early in our relationship the cowboy bought tickets to Barry Manilow and I tried not to yawn as the maestro of mellow belted out his repertoire.  Dave drew my attention to several middle-aged housewives tossing their underwear on stage.  Dave asked  if I would be interested in doing the same and I smiled patiently, "you take me to a Stones concert and I might consider it,"
We went to a Bob Dylan concert and I had a difficult time focusing as some teen-aged punks had formed a mosh pit at the foot of the stage and they were bouncing off each other.  I was hoping Bob might say something to the young egotists but he just smiled and kept singing about revolution and war, you know Bob, such a bubbly sort of guy.

Live concerts represent a chance to mingle with the gods and breathe the same air  if they do indeed breathe.  I have a picture on my fridge that shows an aging hippie wearing Mickey Mouse ears and flashing the peace sign.  On his shirt is written, Clapton is God. We were fortunate to acquire tickets
to Eric's concert. We sat quietly in our chairs letting the beauty of his music wash over us and it was an experience not unlike sitting in a great cathedral.

I did make it to the Stones concert and as some of you know crowd control borders on a military manuever for Mick and the boys.  There were 75,000 of us and everybody stayed in their roped off sections thanks to an army of  goons, and by that I mean the UW campus police and some local motorcycle guys.   The stage looked  tiny because we were so far away and we watched the musical hi jinks on giant screens and tried to believe that Mick was really here.  A few yards from me was a small platform with stacks of amplifiers and sound panels.   Suddenly, an explosion of sound and the boys are strutting down a catwalk and onto my platform and prancing and sneering right above me.  Keith is screaming, "this may be the la-a-a-ast time," and looking directly at me with those wild, kohl-rimmed eyes and I experienced a sort of catharsis of spirit and body. It was right up there with childbirth and a few other physically inspiring acts. The Stones never did get to see my white Hanes regular cuts tossed their way. I have some decencies left.

the accidental boyfriend

In the movie The Accidental Tourist William Hurt plays a travel book author who lost a young son in a car accident.  It is a bittersweet story and Geena Davis won an Oscar for her role as the kooky dog therapist who befriends him.  But the interesting characters in the movie I think are the eccentric intellectual people in Hurt's family.  Two brothers and a sister and none of them are married,  living together in a big old house, never going out and seeing nothing askew about their introverted isolated lifestyle.  One brother goes to the hardware store and despite his grandiose intellect, he has a history  of not being able to find his way home.   Hours after his departure the phone rings and the assembled family members stop their conversation and stare at it. Who could that be? they wonder.  Perhaps it's our brother calling to say he's lost.  No, no he wouldn't call, he knows we won't answer the phone.  He would call the neighbors if he wanted to reach us. In the end, of course, they do not answer the phone.

This could be a scene from my childhood.  We were raised in a household that barely tolerated the telephone.  While the rest of the population heralded this ingenious invention my family chose to sulk and  mostly ignore Tom Edison's new toy.  A family of loners we were and the phone would become one more dumb reason we would have to connect with that crazy, noisy world out there.

Supper was a sacred ritual in my childhood home and God save the brother that didn't have his butt parked at the table at 5:15 exactly.  Should the phone ring all conversation would stop and my father would shove his chair back and walk to the little table in the living room. The black receiver went to his ear and he announced in a straight forward voice, "we are eating."  Receiver back in place and back to the casserole.

Dan something-something met me at a high school dance and he spent all evening telling me of Shirley who dumped him, and he showed me her picture.  Her hair was ratted and sprayed into a football helmet, the required style in the 60's. Dan also gave me a framed portrait-size picture of his senior self and I put it in the drawer under socks and my lucky rabbit's ear.  Dan would yell hi-hi-hi-hi-hi whenever I answered the phone and I found this annoying so I stopped taking his calls. One day he knocked on our front door and I recognized his '59 Chevy on the curb. My mother and I were hanging out laundry and I hissed, I don't want to talk to him and  hid behind the sheets.  Seems he wanted his picture back and my mother dug it out of my drawer.  There must be a new girlfriend somewhere, ratting her hair and waiting for his phone calls. Bye-bye-bye-bye-bye . . .

Friday, April 1, 2011

eggroll and perrier, please

I need a quick nutritious lunch and that's not available from my cupboard.  I have been avoiding the supermarket because I'm tired of the pale winter vegetables shipped from some godforsaken southern hemisphere country. I park in front of a little Vietnamese-Thai cafe in a seedy part of town and I double check my locked car doors.
The health department has forgotten about this place judging by the condition of its bathroom and other dark corners. The owner is a chef extraordinaire but I don't understand her singsong accent so I nod my head and hope she doesn't ask a direct question.

But the food is good. I eat sweet and sour soup with steamed tofu and garlicky cabbage with curry and thinly sliced peppery beef, more tofu fried with crunchy carrots and broccoli. I turn the page in my book and then I catch a scent of an exotic expensive cologne.  I look up to see two polished society dames, and they seem out of place in this scruffy neck of the woods.

They are tall women and walk with an inbred deliberate grace.  They are flawless starting with their blond hair pulled back into little pony-tails, no bangs please, down to their soft, camel-colored leather boots. Their clothes fit them well and it is obvious they do not shop locally. They inspect the place with a practiced eye and talk to each other as if the rest of us are not here.  One woman does not understand that we need to get our own water, napkin and silverware and she stands there bewildered and giggling, poor pampered queenie.  "I don't know what to do,"she squeals arching her perfect brows and  the owner quickly comes to her aid making this all a silly understandable story.
They talk about their children, that is if talking about children means listing their accomplishments, what schools they have graduated from and where they traveled in Europe. I don't like these women and their sloppily misplaced priorities. They should know better.

 I am at a wedding shower, one of those horrid women-only parties and we are forced to compete   making bridal veils out of toilet paper.  A woman approaches  me and I recognize her as the wife of a prominent business man, Dave knows her,  and she spends most of her time at a local spa tightening the appropriate muscles. She nervously says, "my son went to the same grade school as your son."  I asked about the young man, remembering that he and Jason had indeed spent time together and she shrugged her shoulders. "He is teaching philosophy at an east coast college, a small place."   Sounds interesting, I say, does he like it?  "I don't know," she replied and I don't think she ever considered this issue. "I just don't understand," she continued, "he doesn't seem interested in making money."

Years ago my sister and I shared many confidences and we would walk through affluent neighborhoods spying on the residents and their sleek cars and overly fertilized flower beds.  We would talk about the differences in our worlds and I wondered what it would be like to have this life, all these shiny new things. And when I asked that question  Amy said, "but do you think they're really happy?"