14 December 2005

Africa Journal

about keeping a journal... I keep cameras... but here goes...

the air here is thick with the red dust that makes up most of the roads and smells of dried wood fires, diesel and brick. the sun sets early, not because it has crossed the horizon but because the atmosphere is so thick with exhaust and dirt that it creates a higher softer horizon.... burnishing everything the light falls on an hour before the real sun sets below the real horizon .... the markets teem at this hour... small wooden shacks with corrugated tin roofs... goods dangling like so many unfulfilled wishes... one sign in particular caught my eye 'librarie du savoir' ... it was closed ... and in so many ways so is Mali... there is no god here or devil... just little gods and little devils ... who like the shops open and close themselves to us at whim... I walked the 4 miles to the 'guare' (the bus stop where most of the trafficking takes place) ... the same walk the kids take... I was looking for the 'locateurs' (trafficking agents) ... who kidnap these kids... in the middle of this squalor of limping buses and touts and mud and piss and tilted everythings I finally saw one and he saw me... and it was like we knew each other... and the knowledge that those who prey upon others may one day be preyed upon...

That is part of today... save this for me... as I normally don't write that much... and share it and my love with [your husband]


25 November 2005

Pie Dreaming: A Deconstruction of My Coming of Age as My Father's Oldest Son

Apple, pumpkin, blueberry, and--in a minute or two--coconut custard. For most people, Thanksgiving is about turkey and stuffing, though some people refer to it mysteriously as "dressing" as if it went on the outside of the bird, cranberry sauce, football, and of course mashed potatoes and gravy.

For my family, it's all about the pie.

When we were little, my dad discovered that he didn't like most coconut custard pies. The ones from the bakery, in addition to having crusts that weighed about as much as the Hindenburg, had the wrong texture. They weren't....well, custardy. In order for a coconut custard pie to meet my father's strict epicurean standard, it needed to have a distinctly custard-like texture, smoother than pudding, almost as creamy as the filling in a Boston cream doughnut (and those were another story). Which meant two things. The first one was the obvious detail of cooking it in a water bath, which most large-scale bakeries no longer bothered to do. But the second is where my father's quirkiness started to show through. You see, my father liked his coconut custard pie with the coconut floating on the top. This meant that the baker had to pay close attention during baking, regardless of the fact that he or she might be slicing apples or rolling out another pie crust or even mashing potatoes while the custard simmered away in its water bath. Halfway through the baking time, the oven opened, out came the pie, and on went the coconut, thus giving the custard time to set, enough to hold the weight of the flakes of coconut.

But that wasn't the half of it. My father also knew the deep truth about pie-making: there is nothing more criminal than a soggy crust. Lusciously soaked in apple and cinnamon and nutmeg, yes. Soggy from drowning under three cups of egg and milk and sugar, not so much. No, my father insisted on baking the pie shell for his beloved coconut custard separately. Surely he's not the only cook in the world to do this, because there exist such exotic things as clay-moulded pie weights (though why anyone would need anything other than a one-pound bag of pinto beans and a length of aluminum foil is beyond me to this day. They're just as reusable, too; my father has had the same bag of "pie beans" for more than thirty years.) This isn't the weirdness. The weirdness is what comes next.

One would think that an empty pie shell and a fully-cooked coconut custard filling would not be too hard to merge. One would be, in this case, gravely mistaken. The obvious problem is the aesthetic one: an upside down custard is a vulnerable thing at best. At its worst it's pockmarked, pale, watery, and prone to weeping. Failing that, it also doesn't fit snugly into its crust, like a child's fist does into a mitten. Even if it did, the coconut would all be on the bottom, which defeats the obsessive-compulsive routine of pulling the pie out half-baked to add the eponymous ingredient. No, this does not do at all. In order for a coconut custard pie to be a proper coconut custard pie, at least if you were born a Monahan, the pie must undergo a transformation that defies all logic (and occasionally gravity.) The pie must be slud.

That was not a typo. Perhaps it was my father's own coming of age in the fifties, in Brooklyn. Or maybe it was the fact that my mother's a die-hard Mets fan. Her theory is that it comes from "they woulda had him at second, but he slud." Regardless of the etymology, it is the only word that adequately describes the precariousness and absurdity of the entire pie undertaking. The baked custard must be slud, with a flourish, like an omelette from a pan, but it must be slud not onto a plate, but into a waiting pie crust. Furthermore, this bit of acrobatics must be performed at the holiday table during coffee, in front of the entire family, including friends, orphaned neighbours going through divorces, and inevitably a priest or two. This heightens the drama, raising the stakes from simple culinary manouevre to a sort of dessert as theatre.
It takes equal parts caution and frivolity, care and sang-froid, control and a damn the torpedoes kind of attitude. What's the worst that can happen? The entire custard could land in Aunt Doris's lap? Not likely, unless the tablecloth is greased. No, the realistic worst-case scenario is ugly enough, and it's happened more than once. I'm not describing a dessert that looks more like a quiche, or even scrambled eggs. What I'm talking about here is swearing in front of your mother.

Pie-sludding was always my father's honour. It was always the high point of Thanksgiving dinner, even more exciting for us girls than getting to finally listen to Christmas carols on the drive home. It was sometimes the only time the whole extended clan was actually around the table together, instead of snoozing or watching the game or off in Patrick's room playing whatever video game was cool that year. Just when we were getting bored, someone would call down the hallway that Jackie was getting ready to do the pie. And off we would go, joystick dangling and the enemy shooting at us undefended, obliterating us in a fireball of epic proportion.

Then one year it happened. No, not a custard-wearing catastrophe. Grad school. More specifically, grad school in Spokane, three thousand miles away from the family table in Staten Island. One night in May, shortly before I packed up my Volvo wagon and drove across I-90, I came downstairs to find my father in the kitchen, stirring something and peering intently into the double-boiler. I sniffed. This could mean only one thing. Coconut custard pie--but completely out of season. It was the one thing he gave me when I left for Washington, except for his father's Estwing hammer that was older than I was. When I went away to NYU at 18, it was advice about drugs and birth control and not getting mugged. When I left for Spokane, he didn't say a word. He just taught me how to slud the pie.

Ever since then, the pie has been my duty and my honour to bring to the family table. We don't go to Staten Island anymore; only two of us live there. The cousins have all married or gone off to reform school (or both), divorce has taken some people to Florida or Easton, and our grandparents are long dead. For a long time I continued the pie ritual at my own parents' house, in the enormous plaid kitchen where my mother spends two-thirds of her day, not because of the stove but because of the massive oak table where she reads or does her crossword in the southern exposure. I got married nine weeks ago to a chef, a beloved, funny man with long blond hair and a goatee who loves to sing Doors songs while he shuffles back and forth from oven to counter to sink, lining his favourite knives up like toy soldiers next to the cutting board. We didn't have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving; apparently that's something I'm going to have to get used to. On a holiday that's traditionally all about food, if you're a chef, you're at work. If you're a chef's wife, you're curled at home under an afghan, reading a novel and trying not to think about what you're missing while every family around you in this nation is sitting down to their tables and feasting. You're waiting, for the restaurant to close, for the truck to pull into the driveway, for your husband to slump in through the kitchen door, his whites rumpled and mottled with stains from the night's specials.

Tomorrow our family is coming up. The whole family. Mine, and his. Because my husband is who he is, there will be turkey, a ham, stuffing with and without mushrooms, sweet and mashed potatoes, two kinds of corn, string beans, cranberry relish, cream of carrot soup, homemade rolls, and whatever else he thinks up between now and then.

But dessert is my department.

14 October 2005

My Best Friend Just Hijacked My Blender

So, Robin was scheduled to come over for dinner last night, and because of all the skook he's been through recently (and also because we're dirt-poor and the herb garden is out of control) I decided to make him pasta-pesto. Which, being the brilliant friend that I am, I happen to know is his favourite meal.

Robin comes over just after 7, and beholds me in the kitchen with a vat of water on the boil, the blender out, and a huge-ass pile of basil on a dishtowel. A couple of humps of garlic, some parm, some walnuts. (neither of us likes pine nuts. Ptui!) Says to me, "So, what's for din-din?" Um, guess.

He opens the (first) bottle of white wine (Fat Bastard sauv blanc, pretty yummy) and pours us each a glass, so we can "Get obliviated." Sounds good so far. I'm picking bugs and stuff off the basil and hucking it into the blender. It's at this point that Robin, who has been telling me all about his breakup with Teri and how she thought he was a control freak, goes, "Honey......let me do that," and gets up off where he's been leaning on the kitchen table. It makes sense, right? The man's Italian. Native speaker, and all that. For chrissakes, the name on his passport is Umberto. Also, he's a complete boss in the kitchen, much like a certain husband I have. I'm used to this. I've been relegated to salad duty and baked treats for the remainder of my existence.

Anyway, after a couple of swigs of olive oil into the blender (I cannot believe we actually ran out of olive oil in my house. That's like running out of air.) and some of the garlic, he looks at me and goes, "You know you can't really make pesto in a blender. Where's your food processor?"

What, you mean the one my husband wouldn't let me get because it's just as quick for him to chop the veg himself? Yeah. That one. It's working a double in the kitchen tonight. Besides which, I've always made pesto in the blender. (possibly for just this reason, actually)

Robin, of course, has a food processor 100 yards away through the Noah's Ark style downpour. It's now 7:20, dark as a donkey's arse, and we're two thirds of the way through the Fat Bastard. So we put on our rain slickers, grab our wine glasses, cork the wine, wrap the basil up in its dishtowel, untwist the blender from its base, and pack the whole mess into a string bag. And tromp up the steps over the hill.

There we are, in one of those cataclysmically blinding downpours (sans lightning, which would have made it so....I don't know....Forrest Gump), hunkered over our wine glasses, in the dark, on these slippery slate steps over the hill, Robin's got my blender under his arm, and he stops dead in his tracks, looks at me from under the brim of his ancient Columbia danger-yellow parka hood, and goes, "Is Teri right? Am I too controlling?"

I'm very proud of myself for not actually laughing out loud.

11 September 2005

Learning to Swim

Recently I've had two or three separate sources suggest that I set aside time for grief each day. There's an inherent misstep in that suggestion.

The misstep is the supposition that grief behaves.

Grief is a crock. It won't come out when you invite it, not even when you coax it out with pillows and your best journal and time alone and silent in the mountains. Instead it sneaks out, impervious to convenience, and smothers your attempts to do the laundry, to get a day's work done at the office, to have a logical conversation with an unrelated party.

Grief is a petty thief, stealing away what little resolve you have to soldier on, to persevere gracefully in the face of things, to remain intact once and for all.

Now I know why Daniel is afraid of water. It's not because he can't swim, or because he thinks the boat will turn him over and trap him like it did George. It's because he is so consumed by grief over I don't know what that he's already drowning. The waves have already closed over his head, and in his flailings he took hold of my arm and tried to drag me down to the bottom with him.

Like him, I hate and resent my grief, because it stifles me. It surrounds me, and keeps me from drawing a full breath lest it pour into my lungs like lake water. My ears pound with it, and my eyes swim with its blood. But I will not let this take me under.

28 August 2005

Madge! I Soaked in It!

Someday I'll look back on today and laugh, but right now we are not amused.

What a colossal waste of a day. For some unknown reason I decided that I would colour my hair to get the highlights back in it for the wedding.

Also for some unknown reason, all hell broke loose on the top of my head.
Sisters, I'm talking Baskin Robbins. I looked like a slushee for a couple of hours there. Thank god for Lisa, who called from Peoria to tell me that the household product most likely to tone down an accident of crimson proportion is....good old Palmolive.

Nevertheless, it did a number on me and I've now got an appointment at something inexplicably called Atelier Premiere Salon de Frou Frou or some fool thing, where tomorrow for more money than I undoubtedly have Heather will do something called "single process colour." I hope she also does something that I call "fix."

This is what happens when you let wedding planning go to your (admittedly now very squeaky clean) head.

11 August 2005

I Was a Rebo

I was a Rebo. (ree-boe)

I cannot explain a Rebo to you, really. Alas, Rebos are now defunct. Rebos all had their lockers in (of all places) Rebo Hall. No one really knows the origin of the word "rebo," nor why some people insist it is spelled "rhebo," so don't ask. Anyone left on the planet who still knows no longer has enough teeth left in their head to tell us.

Rebo Hall was a short, side hall that dead-ended at the stage doors to the auditorium. There were all of two classrooms in Rebo, one of which was the English classroom of the theatre director.

Art and theatre geeks had lockers in Rebo, as did the occasional punk radio geek, band geek, darkroom geek, journalism geek, or geek-geek. Lockers in Rebo were not "assigned" by the office (well, they were, but if you found an assignee in "your" locker on the first day of school, they usually gladly left for a locker somewhere in the main hall where all the cool kids were). Lockers in Rebo were bequeathed by their previous tenants. There was a caste system (no pun intended) in the locker assignments as much as there was in the acting and tech sub-groups of Rebo.

My senior year, my crowning glory. I had locker 679. All a tech girl could ask for. Well, that and getting assigned as light board operator for the spring musical. Locker 679, in addition to having the 7 scratched out, was the locker closest to the stage door, in a row of exactly three lockers. Locker 679 had been handed down through the eighties and into the early nineties, from Shelly Kierman, before her from David Palmer, before David from Andy Walsh (not even my older sister, former tech geek, had reached 679), and Andy had inherited it from......insert angelic chorus......Susie Crowell.
(production note: the supporting cast sighs dreamily, men in angelic lust, women in plain envy of her beauty and sweetness: "Susieee Crowelllllll......") The high point of my senior acting class--much of which, oddly, involved chopping vegetables--was when the theatre director was giving notes on a scene and he growled at me, "and get your damn hair out of your face, you look like Susie Crowell." I walked on air all day. I had been compared to Susie Crowell!

I still have dreams about high school, and in these dreams the locker combination has not changed, which is funny, because we each had our own locks--but in each dream, the success of the dream as dream vs. nightmare depends on whether or not I can get into this locker.

But regardless of how the dream turns out, in real life,
I was a Rebo. The last of the Rebos, in fact. They tore the lockers out several years ago, as part of renovation. This summer they renovated the auditorium, and moved stage storage. Harry retired. Susie is married and living in Baton Rouge, but soccer players get nose-jobs and act in Oscar-winning films. Rebo Hall is dead.

Long live Rebo.

22 May 2005


Yes, you probably read that right. That's the only way I can think of to describe where I've been all year. Turning the pile, waiting for a bright red tulip to shoot up through the bullshit that I keep piling on just outside the door.

It hasn't been bad, mostly. It's been mostly good. It's just so damn much work. I'm not adjusting to moving in with someone, that's not a problem. Nope. What we're doing is different, scarier, more invested, and ultimately more rewarding. Thus more work. We're building a marriage. Which, of course, doesn't wait to start until September when the vows are said. That work starts every moment we are together.

And it's work.

I will never deny that it's worth it. Don't get me wrong. I am just having some trouble adjusting to the fact that building a marriage includes great quantities of garlic smashed potatoes stuffed straight into the refrigerator in their mixing bowl and the mixer left on the counter until I get tired of seeing it. That seems so much less fundamentally romantic than building love and trust and a foundation that our children can grow up in.

It's also yardwork, and remembering that one of us cannot go go go until after 9:00 at night without eating some sort of supper and then still be expected to function at work the next day. Not mentioning any names, of course.

8:30 on a Sunday morning: tea and a few doughnuts, and for the first time in longer than I can remember, I'm actually caught up on sleep. Considering how much of it I've done in the past 36 hours, I should be alarmed if I weren't. And of course it's cloudy and rainy today. I didn't exactly want to spend six hours in the car yesterday, being lost and schlepping around doing the cleanup from yardwork. But at least I won't miss it while I'm in the theatre.

Because Robin's film is finally out.

Why am I so frustrated? Is it the grey gloom? The fact that after all our exhaustion the house is still a goddamn mess? And always will be? Always so much to do.

Le sigh.

28 January 2005

Gayatri Mantra

Theoretically that's supposed to help me get through this moment. The trouble is, I want to blip this moment. To get through it without identifying it, in all its discomfort and pain and crusty crankiness. But the only way out is through. I hate that.

How can I tell him again and again I don't want to go out to Reading this weekend? That being out there depresses me, to say nothing of the four hour drive each way. I have told him, and he was stunned, because he had never realized the trouble I was having, with those memories, and that anxiety. But these months later he's already forgotten.

And I'm tired. Not sleepy, not needing sleep or up too long or needing to catch up or nappish. Just tired. Done, drained, empty, in need of refueling, thud. Need to nurse my small self, this one-sprout seedling, without using up what little store of emotional reserve I have.

Not to mention I have the damn dog. The dog whom I love dearly, whom I miss when I don't see her for days....but it costs a lot, emotionally, psychically, to take care of an 87-pound being who misses her constant companion. (I should know. I don't weigh all that much more than she.) I want to wash my kitchen floor, lounge in front of the fire, pay the rent which was due last week but we managed to fuck up jointly, do nothing, do yoga, be Sara and absorb my tranquil surroundings.

10 January 2005



The catastrophic plague that has been sweeping the office.


I have it.

Great. I always wanted to be an It Girl.

Sherry, I need your snail mail address. The most recent one I have for you is the house in Brighton. Please email me. And yeah, this is what happens when you stick your head in an MDiv for a month. Shit happens, I get engaged and hit up by some serious microorganisms.

Let this be a lesson to us both.

I did, however, get a Christmas card from your mother congratulating me on my new job, so at least you're getting some of the news.