Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where The Gin Is Cold (And The Piano Hot).


(I took this picture with a point and shoot. Quite pleased. Quite!)


I just returned from a short trip to Chicago to visit a friend. It was wonderful in so many ways (Garrett's Popcorn - I don't like popcorn too much normally but the "Chicago Mix", a seemingly odd combo of cheesy popcorn and caramel corn was addictive) and not so wonderful in others (the cab drivers). Destiny cursed us with the strangest assortment of drivers I have ever seen - all surly and hellbent on breaking every traffic law known to man.

I am a person that talks too much. Maybe that was the problem. In other cabs around the world, however, this has made for interesting conversations. I love inquiring the drivers about their home countries (always asking them to teach me an insult or two in their language). I just like people, and am fascinated by their life experiences. The ride usually involves a lot of laughter (except in the case of a Chinese driver we had in Sydney - there were some sad stories there). On holiday with the kids in Mexico, my husband consistently shoved me forward, since my Spanish is better than his. I'd always end up in the front seat, looking at pictures of new babies on cell phones, asking if tourists were cheap bastards, trying to figure out where we could eat without being subjected to fluorescent mixed drinks served in foot-high beakers. These rides are always wonderful experiences that culminate in cries of "take care, wonderful to meet you!", a window into the lives of immigrants making lives in places sometimes very foreign to them, and overtipping. (I can't help myself!)

I love public transport in general. I live in a place where it is very inefficient to take the limited public transportation options, making me feel guilty every time I get into my gas-guzzling vehicle. I am always excited when I go to a place where this isn't true. Every major city I have been to excels at some aspect of moving large mobs of people around. Let's discuss!

MOST EFFICIENT PUBLIC TRANSPORT: This is a tie between the London Underground and NYC's subway system. So many stops! So many lines! I could ride them both all day! Although, truth be told, I do prefer to Mind The Gap.

CLEANEST SUBWAY SYSTEM: This is a tie. Only in New York have I been on a truly disgusting subway car, but the cleanest award goes to the Tunnelbana in Stockholm and Le Métro de Montréal. The cities themselves were surprisingly tidy as well. 


SUBWAY SYSTEM THAT SCREAMS "TAKE A VESPA INSTEAD": Barecelona's metro. It doesn't have a lot of lines, and they don't seem to stop anywhere near where you want to go. Maybe that's why everyone is so thin there....


COOLEST PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM: Sydney. Their trains stink (there is a sign that says when the next train is coming, but the time keeps changing. We were stuck in some outlying suburb forever and I swear I could hear the kookaburras singing in the old gum tree as we waited. And waited. And waited...) But OH, to take a ferry across Sydney Harbor, passing the Opera House, wondering if you fell off, how long it would take for a shark to find you....priceless! Stockholm may have ferries as well, if I recall, being that they are an archipelago and all. Don't worry, only about 1,000 of those over 20,000 islands are populated, so it's not as many stops on the line as you think...


MOST COMFY TAXI SERVICE: Allo Taxi in Beirut. It is a fleet of new, air-conditioned vans that will take you anywhere in style and comfort - even Syria! Try to avoid regular "service" cars, please. PLEASE. Once I was in a private taxi (where you pay for the whole car; it was myself and my family) going to Syria to visit other family and rode in a car that that had a hole in the floorboard the size of a baby's head. It took extra vigilance to make sure not to place anything on the floorboards by accident - especially your foot, which would be sheared off immediately.


Anyway, it was a great trip, except we went to a show, and I got in trouble.




To make a long story short, I was recording a particular song with my cell phone (LIKE EVERYONE ELSE) and was accosted by a security guard, who actually grabbed at it and screamed at me! Hmph! I didn't erase the video, but it sounds terrible. It was an amazing show, but it was general admission, and it made me realize I was too old to be in a venue that didn't have cushy seats and toilets that function properly. Also, my knees are now killing me from standing the whole time!


On another note, thanks to Suze over at Girl Wizard and Analog Breakfast (whom you all already know!) I have to answer this wondrous quiz! And I promised to do so, so here I go.

1. If you could go back in time and relive one moment, what would it be?
Algiers. 1935. The Oasis of Thieves. I can't say more.

2. If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

I would have worked harder as an undergrad so I could go on to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I don't have a lot of regrets, but that is a huge one.

3. What movie/T.V. character do you most resemble in personality?

It's going to have to be a cross between Fox Mulder, Eeyore, and Sofia Vergara in Modern Family.

4. If you could push one person off a cliff and get away with it, who would you choose?

That's a bit extreme, so I will change it to "if I could allow one person to be whisked off by aliens". It's a toss-up between The Kardashians (come on, they count as one person!). Or any of the Housewives. Or the Jersey Shore cast. Ew. Ew. Ew. If those aliens are stupid enough to take them, they can keep them! And not bring them back! (To any other life forms reading this: I didn't actually say you were stupid.  You are obviously really smart if you can make it to Earth and then go back home. Just saying.)

5. Name one habit you want to change in yourself.

Irrational Exuberance.

6. Why do you blog?

The same reason teens go to after-school programs. To stay out of trouble!


The last question was who do I want to send this meme to, and the answer is anyone who wants to answer it. I don't want you guys to feel obligated, but I would LOVE to read your answers.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Constant Craving.


I wanted to write a post about something important, but I'm too mad at Greece right now (even though they have given us Homer and spanakopita and Athena and lots of cool stuff in the sciences and philosophy.) I guess those who decided a European Union was a good idea never had the experience of doing a group project at school. Anyone who has embarked upon such lunacy knows it never works. Someone always pulls most of the weight, and there is some loafer who never shows up to any of the meetings, because they know someone else will pick up the slack, lest the grade of the entire group plummet into oblivion. Now, I am not calling the Greeks slackers! My Mediterranean cousins are a group of smart, swarthy intellects! However, I think living on the Med makes you a bit nuts in some way. Maybe it's the clear blue skies and the glassy, warm water, I don't know. Anyhow, I am not here to talk about global finance! This week I'm going to write about something else the Mediterranean folk share a passion for (besides loud fights that go nowhere and everyone wanting to be the boss): food.

I have been cooking a lot the last few weeks, and here I will show a few of the fruits of my labors. Just to show off, if I am honest. Also, because it's kind of an easy out, isn't it?

The above: red velvet cupcakes I made for a birthday. 


Roasted Sweet Potato Soup with Spiced Chipotle Cream and Pepitas (Pumpkin Seed)


Polpette for Meatball Subs 


S'Mores Cupcakes (chocolate chocolate chip cupcakes with graham cracker crust and homemade roasted marshmallow topping)

Pina Colada Cupcakes (coconut cake filled with homemade pineapple curd and topped with a coconut buttercream frosting)



S'Mores Cupcakes (again! different party....) and Cherry Limeade Cupcakes (Hello, Girl Wizard!)


Spiced Quince Compote (I bought too many quinces and had to do SOMETHING with them.) The flecks aren't dirt, I swear. They are vanilla bean, cardamom, and clove, along with cinnamon and ginger.


Spicy Red Pepper Jelly


Caramel Apple Cupcakes (with homemade caramel and apple chips)


Almond Joy Cupcakes (coconut almond cake with chocolate ganache and coconut almond buttercream, toasted coconut and almonds)


And, because Suze so kindly dedicated a blog post partially to me, and begged me to post these, here you go. Don't laugh! The above is the outfit I gave out candy in on Halloween. (The package said "Gretchen" on it...)


And here is one I wore to a costume party. And, James Littlejohn, I know you may mock me for it (I think there may have been an Open Letter to Girls Who Take Pictures in Mirrors With Cellphones) but I am taking a chance.



Thursday, October 27, 2011

We Found Love (In A Hopeless Place).



Finally! I am waiting for some cupcakes to cool before frosting them, so I thought I would take this brief reprieve to post a little something, since it has been a while. The cupcakes are for the school Harvest Fete tomorrow. (It's really just the fall class party, but "Harvest Fete" sounds so much more soignee, no? Anyway, the school cannot call it a Halloween Party, being that they are affiliated with a religious institution. Perhaps you will see a photo, perhaps not. Of the cupcakes. Not the religious institution. But I digress.)

Parent-Teacher conferences were yesterday, and unusually, I showed up a little early. Bored with trying to figure out the latest on the Ashton-Demi debacle through the wonders of my smartphone and internet tabloid rags, I wandered the halls a bit. Fortunately, my girls are great students, so I don't have to visit the school much. Not that I am not involved (see above description of cupcake crafting); I just (knock on wood) haven't had to do more than provide treats and chaperone field trips. I like it that way. I was not born to be a room mother or helicopter parent (not that they are necessarily the same breed, mind you). I do communicate with the teachers, and with other parents, just usually at carpool and birthday parties, so it is rare that I actually enter those hallowed halls.

My girls and their classmates had just completed a project on a timeline of their lives. The posterboards lined the hallway, and it was such a delight to read about the seminal events in these children's lives. Some of the kids had been with the girls since the three-year-old class, and I felt a little twinge seeing pictures of them in chubbier states, toddling along with various stuffed creatures tucked under their tiny arms. I remembered how some of the students came in to school speaking only the foreign language they had learned at home, like the little girl who only spoke Korean until four years ago. Now, her English is unaffected, strong and sure - but she still has the benefit  and gift of that first language. 

It was obvious that some of the parents had a heavier hand in the production of these projects - the handwriting was too neat, the wording too advanced for that age group. Although the posters were all different, there was an element of sameness in them: trips to Disneyland, to the beach, first football games, swim meets and soccer tournaments. Even the more esoteric events were products of privilege: Renaissance Faires and swimming with the dolphins, sleepaway camps and horseback riding.

At first glace, the mini-biographies could be seen as the banal outcropping of a solid middle-class suburban life.I thought about the events around the world the last few weeks, and felt humbled by good fortune. A lot of us are ground down a bit by the day-to-day, shuttling kids from school to activities, trying to schedule family time between work and errands. The displays at school yesterday were happy, colorful pieces of art, innocence untouched. There were remembrances of parents who had gone to Iraq, and perhaps the death of a beloved pet, but for the most part, they were joyful celebrations of lives just beginning. Think of the children in Misrata, or Kabul, or Baghdad. What would their timelines look like? Instead of trips to see Mickey, we might read about relatives that had been brutally murdered by a corrupt regime, the wish to go back to school and learn, the longing for something more than a bowl of rice as the once-a-day meal. All of us have our own struggles, and I know, though I hate to contemplate it, that those happy posters may not reflect the reality of all of those children's lives. We know what can lurk in a family's shadows. That isn't my focus, now. My focus is, for myself,  to remember to be grateful for the freedoms and choices I can make, and the relative safety I enjoy - and to remember to not take these things for granted. 

When somebody asks me, "How are you?" I try never to say "Great!" or, conversely, "Terrible." I say, "I'm OK, thank God." Because that is what I am. It could always be better, always be worse. There but for the grace of God go I, right? In a world in chaos (I'd like to give a big shout-out and a "whoop whoop!" to Angela Merkel and her smooth moves that helped get that European debt crises in line...you go, girl!) I am doing my best to keep perspective. It's all I can do.

And now...a message from your sponsor!


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Monday, October 10, 2011

Mon Coeur S'Ouvre (A Ta Voix).


My children are fans of a goofy Disney channel program called "So Random", which is a SNL-style sketch comedy show for kids. Some of it is eye-rollingly annoying (a music video for a horrible song called "Ketchup With Everything" and anything that involves Zombie Man) but other sketches are really very clever. There is one in particular that makes me laugh (because I relate to it - not because it is wildly funny) about a sort of nerdy girl whose mother hires a group of female 60's-style backup singers to follow her around school. Every time something of consequence happens (little or big) the girls, resplendent in their beehive hairdos, lean in and sing a few bars.

Although I don't have my own backup singers (and if I did, they would not be a dainty girl group. They would be Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, and Jason Statham. And no, I don't actually care if they can sing or not!) I do have a Soundtrack To My Life that always seems to be running, as if I am starring in my own movie. My own, usually somewhat dull movie, yes. But my own movie nonetheless!

I don't think that this stems from any personal psychosis. I will leave that to the professionals to decide! I just know that music has been a huge part of my life, right from the get-go. My parents tell the story of how, as a tiny baby, I could only sleep if a little transistor radio was in my crib. (That was usually turned to the news, actually, but stick with me.) I asked for my own subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine when I was twelve. I tried to understand The Velvet Underground, and failed miserably. Everything has a soundtrack to me: breakups and makeups (involving myself and not), movies I love (and not necessarily the soundtrack the director chose), books that have seduced me, deaths and births and weddings and dinner parties. How many mixtapes have I made for people, just to show how I felt? And how many have I gotten in return? (Not as many as I've given, that's for sure.) My first concert (that I didn't choose) was Kenny Rogers. When I had a choice? Sting. 

As a child growing up with immigrant parents, I wasn't exposed to any of the music most of my friends were. It wasn't until high school that I really discovered (and promptly began to dislike) Bob Dylan. A lot of the  music my parents listened to meant nothing to me at the time: just a whiny assortment of vocalists going on and on about things I could care less about. Part of the difficulty was that many of the singers sung in the Egyptian dialect, which I could not (and still can't!) understand. I thought the music was awful. Boring. One of their favorite singers, a woman named Oum Kulthum, particularly tested the limits of my patience. She would sing one song FOR THREE HOURS! This what not something I was used to. My father is from a town in Lebanon called Baalbeck, which is the home to a world-famous music festival that is now coming back to its full pre-civil war glory. He tells stories about how she would hold the audience in thrall the entire time, with the crowd whooping and hollering at critical points in the show. My mother had a chance to attend one event as a young girl, and remembers that she was the only child there, remembers the crowd in tears, overcome with emotion and memory. I didn't care. I wasn't moved yet by life's pains, as Um Kulthum eloquently sang of in her classic piece El Atlal (The Ruins):

My heart, don't ask where the love has gone
It was a citadel of my imagination that has collapsed
Pour me a drink and let us drink of its ruins
And tell the story on my behalf as long as the tears flow
Tell how that love became past news
And became another story of passion
I haven't forgotten you
And you seduced me with a sweetly-calling and tender tongue
And a hand extending towards me like a hand stretched out through the waves to a drowning person

As I grew older, I began to better understand how these songs tied them to a place they had not forgotten, and still loved dearly. They came to America for a better life for themselves and their future children, but this did not mean they had blacked out everything that had ever held meaning in their not too distant pasts. My mother has a beautiful singing voice, although she will not admit to it, and is too modest and conservative to show off her talents in a public setting. (This apple did not fall off that tree, I assure you!) I will never forget the time we were cleaning the kitchen together, and, as was her habit, she began singing. That day it was a song that has now become one of my favorites: Ya Tayr (O, Bird) by the Lebanese legend Fairouz:

O, bird, flying at the edges of the world,
If you could speak to my loved ones of the pain I feel...
O bird, who takes with him the color of the trees...
The hand of separation guides me
I beg your feathers which equal my days...
If you're going to them and the paradise of love,
Take me just for a minute and then bring me back.

Her voice broke as she sang, and she said, holding back tears, "I really miss my family." My mother was not, and is not, much of a crier, and this display of emotion unsettled me. I was a teenager, but it was the first time I felt the full force of her longing, the throbbing scar of a wound that had never healed, the sense of having a foot in two worlds and never belonging completely to either one. It wasn't the first time I realized how music can affect our emotions (that had happened a few years earlier when I wore out The Cure's "Pictures of You" over some forgettable boy), but it was the first time I understood the breadth of feeling a particular piece could dredge up.

My parents eventually branched out musically, and so did I - but all of us (and, subsequently, my brothers) never strayed too far from melodic melancholy. My father, thanks to a work colleague, became enamored quite thoroughly with country music. Even now, the sob-in-the-throat voice of Marty Robbins brings a tear to my eye. Maybe that music reminded him in a way of the old folk songs he grew up with: lots of human drama, basic simple storytelling. Those are still the types of songs I gravitate toward: singer/songwriters like David Gray and Ryan Adams, music that is lyrically quite heavy and poetic.

Of course, for a music lover like me, there is room for more than just stories. Sometimes I don't care about words, and just want a beat that makes me forget everything except the way my body is moving. Sometimes, I want to have my cake, and to eat it, too. The result is reflected in my song choices at the end of posts: an odd mishmash off throwaway pop, classics, strange forays into realms I first visited in my younger days, on the path to reconciling the little girl who didn't know what she wanted with the woman who now wants nothing less than everything.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Muss Es Sein? (Yes.)



“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” 

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

from "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost


A few days ago, I had my hair done again. No longer ginger, I am quite firmly back in the land of brunette. The shade is billed ostensibly as "Coffee Bean", but in reality is more "Bella Without Her Edward": a deep, dark, lustrous shade that is perfect for the upcoming days when Persephone is bidding us all goodbye.
As usual, my makeover came with a side of philosophy, thanks to the spot-on observations of my stylist. This go-round, we were talking about change, and how easy it is for some folks, and how difficult for others. He said, "Sometimes you see people standing on the edge of that cliff, looking down at those churning waters below. Some of them stay there forever, just wondering what will happen, feeling the breeze on their face but not quite wanting to take the leap. Some jump, and get crushed against the rocks, and others may disappear a bit under water, but next thing you know, they are waving up at you saying, 'Come in!! The water's great!' You never know how it's going to turn out, do you?"

Of course I thought of Kundera. I have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being countless times, and every time it speaks to me in a different way. Unmarried and struggling with my own intense thoughts and emotions, I identified so strongly with Tereza. As I grew older, I understood the cad Tomas much more, realizing his depth. Yes, I know how reviled the book is in some circles: ostentatious literary pornography! Kundera hates women, and objectifies them! Too philosophical! Yet. Perhaps it is because I discovered the book at a critical point in my intellectual development. Or something. So many of the ideas were so new to me, then, the way of thought so original and moving. Just the sort of book a girl wearing Doc Martens and a sundress (topped off with a very New Wave haircut) could tuck under her arm while meandering across campus. (I meandered a lot as an undergraduate.)

The idea of "not knowing what to want" is so universal. How many of us have stood on that cliff, not knowing whether or not to jump, and wondering (as Kundera's Tomas wondered, via Beethoven) "Must it be?" when assessing our fate. And yes, in some ways it must be. What seems like choice, isn't. It is only the bitterness of contemplating two (or more) unpalatable options, a scenario played out again and again on the stage of human history. Frost advocates taking the less obvious path, which seems, at first blush, to be the brave thing to do. But is being brave really all it's cut out to be? Anyway, easy enough for him to shun cowardice from the comfort of his own carriage, horses well-fed and healthy. What if he had to make it through the woods on a snowy evening on foot? I think he would want to go On The Path Very Heavily Traveled So That Perhaps Someone Could Kindly Prevent Me From Becoming  Frost-Bitten.

Maybe the failing is believing there is one correct path. Is it possible that the right answer could be several things at once? How do we know which way to go?







Friday, September 23, 2011

Mama Mia (Here I Go Again).



It's a Friday night, and being that I am old, I am here in my most favorite cozy grey v-neck and questionable pants and not out and about gallivanting with young whipper-snappers. I am futzing around on time-wasting websites, because I don't have to wake up early in the morning and I have decided that watching a U2 tribute band at the local casino might be a trifle disappointing. Here is a sampling of my adventures on the interwebs.

If you would like to polish your trash-talking skills, visit the Pirate Oath Insult Generator. In no time, you'll be able to hang tough with Jack Sparrow and his gang, flinging such gems as "Have a face full o' me boot, ye jelly-boned thumb sucking crud bucket!" (Are ye shiverin' in yer boots yet, matey?) I am sure this is bound to come in handy one day. In fact, I think I will try it on the next telemarketer that calls! Everyone needs goals.

I may be one of the only people in America who is not particularly fond of Oprah Winfrey. No matter that I subscribe to her magazine (it's very good!), or that I am immensely awed by her talents and accomplishments. She just seems a little fake around the edges, and no matter how many cars and houses she gives away, it's all a little "Look at me! I'm so RICH! And generous!" (Full disclosure: I tend to also avoid movies featuring Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks. Hope I don't get my passport revoked.) No matter! I will partake in Oprah-fy Yourself to see what I would look like as the icon herself. Let's check out the results:



Hmmm. That's kind of how I look in the morning if I've gone to bed with my hair wet. Check out the shoulder pads, though!

Have you always wanted a super-hero name, but just couldn't think of a fitting one? Try the Super Villain Name Generator! Some of the names aren't super-scary, though. Mine is The Terrible Cat-Stroking Werner Van DooDoo. (Well, evil villains usually ARE stroking a cat, so this actually seems lazy and repetitive! Let me try again: The Loony Admiral Otto Sabreface. Better.)

Sometimes we don't want just what the doctor ordered. We want to order it ourselves! In that case, visit Custom Prescription Maker, but don't call me if you get arrested trying to get Vicodin or Oxy. The virtual doctor's handwriting isn't illegible, so nobody would mistake it for a real prescription anyway. (Clive Owen as Manservant was supposed to be on the list, but ended up in the date box instead. I guess I got a bit excited by the prospect!)





OOH! This is one of my favorites! One of the things I should have added to the "Things You Must Know About Me" blog entry is explained by this graph. If I call you, text you, send you an email, and you don't respond in approximately...5 seconds, I will think:

a. you have died
b. you wish I never existed
c. your phone is a piece of crap and you never received the message

It's never because:

a. you have a job and a life
b. you are sick after eating bad sushi at lunch
c. you forgot your phone at home

I blame this on the fact that I am a Leo that was not hugged enough as a child. (Kidding, mom! Sort of.)


If you don't know what the VIX is, that just means you don't read The Economist enough, and well, can't help you there. Maybe the playlist will make you feel better!


Monday, September 19, 2011

A Heart Unfortified (A Mind Impatient).



This was an odd week. My car broke down and had to be towed, I couldn't seem to get everything together that I needed to (signed permission slips, lunch menus, the like), my brother found a strange man sitting under a tree in his front yard when he came home from work. When he asked the wayward gent WHAT THE F*&$K ARE YOU DOING?? the man (clutching an 18-back of beer) said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, "I was waiting for my friend to show up so we could drink these beers!" (Well, at least he had a plan.) However, that was not the strangest or saddest thing to happen in the last few days. My niece's former preschool teacher, a 29 year-old with a very strange and memorable nickname, was brutally murdered along with her daughter and another woman at their home. The suspect is, as is heartbreakingly usual in these cases, the estranged father of the girl. After the act, he set the house on fire.

I just wanted to take a moment to stand on my soapbox, and send prayers and love out into the universe for the families of these lovely, lovely people, and to remind  you all - it could be someone you know - mother, brother, sister, friend - a classmate of your child's - who is suffering some sort of abuse or trauma. Don't be afraid to help the people you love find the help they need. We are all in this together.

Now! Back to the regularly scheduled program (because, as much as we miss those who have left us, the living have to keep living, somehow...). Thanks to Julie, Gypsy In My Soul, who has given me some fabulous awards!! (Clap! Clap!!) 



As part of this, I am supposed to tell you seven things about myself. So, away we go! In no particular order.

1. I love mayonnaise. LOVE it. I eat it on fries. And eggs. On poutine (I hate you, Canada, for introducing me to this delciousness!!!). I have never really had it on poutine, but I want to. On enchiladas (that dish is called Enchiladas Montadas, because I guess they are mounted?) I put mayo and eggs in the same category. I actually made up a sandwich in college that was quite a hit (perhaps more so among the crowd that spends their time in a cloud of therapeutic smoke, if you  know what I mean.). The Maggie Sandwich (I wish it was as titillating as it sounds) consisted of:  a fried egg, american cheese,  and fried bologna. The (white!) bread was buttered on the outside, and the whole thing was toasted in a skillet, like a grilled cheese sandwich. I could use one of those now! And the answer to your next question is yes, I was chubbier in college. And as for your second question? DO NOT EVEN TRY TO GIVE ME MIRACLE WHIP!!! You Brits though have a lovely thing called salad cream, and that is really tasty also. I could dedicate this post to all the things I love to eat, acually: fruit chutneys with cheese, a stack of chocolate chip cookies piled in a mug with milk poured on top and eaten with a spoon, peanut butter....

2. I pick up accents fairly quickly. It's embarrassing, because the cumulative effect is that I sound like I am mocking people. By far the worst was when we were in Ireland, because that little lilt? At the end of a phrase? That sounds like a question? Yes. That one. I also can do a pretty good Australian accent (on purpose) but I have to to be reading something out loud - it doesn't just come out. No alcohol required.

3. I tried to sell my next-youngest brother on a street corner when I was about five, and he was almost 2. I guess I was jealous of the new kid, so put a sign around his neck that said "Boy for sale, $30" and dragged him to the end of our street. It's that Arab blood you know. We're business people at heart! My horrified mother only realized what was happening when he got thirsty and came in for a drink of water. We still joke about it now, although mostly it is me saying,"Too bad that sale didn't go through" when he rankles me somehow. Thank God no creeps were out in the neighborhood that day!

4. I am afraid of the dark. I can sleep in darkness if there is someone next to me. If there is someone, but down the hall, it doesn't help. I need a night light.

5. In real life, I am like the second coming of Gandhi, and it pains me deeply to even kill bugs (except roaches, which are evil. And scorpions, which freak me out.). In my entertainment selections (books and movies) I want violence. Car chases. I don't like shooting, more mano a mano. Boxing movies. Fast and the Furious. Gladiator!!!!!!!!!!

6. I collect honeys and salts. My spice cabinet is brimming!! At least they are food products that I will use, I hope, one day. I also love dairy. Check out my fridge!


Rice pudding. Yogurts from Lebanon, Greece, Iceland, Australia. Sour cream. Milk. Mexican crema. Creme fraiche (which is like a French-style sour cream.) There may be buttermilk and fresh cream hiding behind the lemonade; I wouldn't put it past me. That's also not including the butters (French, Irish, Land o Lakes) or the cheeses (cream cheese, cheddar, pecorino romano, feta, whatever Baby Bell is, Gouda, parmesan, provolone.) I think I need a snack right about now.

7. I don't know how to play chess, and it embarrasses me. I tried to learn, but didn't understand it. Too much strategy for a fly by the seat of her pants girl like me.

And now, a random playlist!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hurry Back to Me (My Wild Calling).


Not that this is really news to anyone, but raising kids these days is hard. And by hard, I really mean OHMYDEARGODPLEASEHELPMENOTKILLMYSELFOROTHERSTODAYTHANKYOUVERYMUCH. It really is an age of unprecedented stimulation, and it's everything I can do to keep them occupied in healthy and productive ways.

Their birthday was recently, and as a gift, they received...well, iPod Touches. Before you judge, in my defense, they were chosen as gifts in lieu of a birthday party, and actually turned out to be cheaper than a fete at Chuck E. Cheeze or some other bastion of horror. I also made sure to load up exciting apps like Math is Awesome and King Lear For Grade Schoolers. No matter. My daughters asked if I had that song "about the boyfriend that looks like a girlfriend? By The Killers?" (This, I blame on their uncle, one of my dear brothers. Again, shirking responsibility, here.) Sigh.

The girls also received Target gift cards from one of their aunties, and off we trudged to redeem them. The little munchkins had assured me that they wanted to buy useful things, like clothes and shoes, but upon entering the retail paradise, changed their minds entirely. Although I had warned them there was a time limit, they spent ages looking at almost every single item in the toy section as I tried to keep track of where they were.

As they were shopping, I came across the above-pictured doll. The Perfect Boyfriend! Incredible! Just what I've always wanted! I doubt I have seen anything quite as disturbing in recent memory. Ken's shirt is emblazoned with the phrase "The Ultimate Boyfriend" in a plethora of different languages, in case you didn't get the hint. What makes him so great, besides the preternaturally blondish hair and sculpted abs? Ken already is missing his manly bits, and The Perfect Boyfriend has taken this castration to new heights. "YOU MAKE ME TALK!" So, utter any phrase into his diminutive little noggin, and he will repeat it to you in his own voice. Sweet Talker. Imagine the possibilities, if you could make your partner parrot things back to you! No disagreements, only perfection. And unrelenting boredom.

I think this doll is absolutely wretched for lots of reasons. Firstly, girls that play with dolls should not be thinking about boyfriends, perfect or not, at that age. Secondly, it gives a terrible touchstone for what a healthy relationship should be, showing that it matters not if your beloved has the brains of a boiled cabbage, as long as he does whatever you say. Also, that it's OK to have a guy's cojones, as we say in these here parts, crushed into oblivion, making him meek and submissive and unable to voice his opinion without further damage to his already fragile psyche. It's demeaning to boys, demeaning to girls, demeaning to society as a whole. I know, I know. It's just a doll, right?

I'm not the mom that banned Barbies because I thought they portrayed an unrealistic view of a woman's body (although I did nix cheerleading because I wanted them to PLAY a sport, not cheer for one, and I hate the skimpy costumes. Yes, cheerleaders were awful to me in school. Why do you ask?) There is just something about THIS particular doll that rubbed me the wrong way - if you could even be rubbed by a eunuch.

(Dislaimer: The above discussion does not mean that I am above berating my husband for his poor dishwasher-loading skills or his inability to listen to more than half of every sentence I utter. But that's another post entirely.)

Thankfully, the girls avoided the Barbie section altogether, and settled on Legos and a Harry Potter DS game and remote control cars. Now I have to contemplate the subtext of THAT....

Saturday, September 3, 2011

O, I Am Fortune's Fool!



I wonder if I should just go ahead and apologize in advance that this is not a food-related post. The response was so enthusiastic, I definitely will do more!

In the spirit of trying to become more blog-worthy, I have decided to try and court adventure. You may say that what I should be doing is trying to REPEL it, but that is really not in my nature. Sigh.

A friend suggested a while back that I visit a tarot card reader, just to get some clarity and focus in my life (note: clarity and focus do not go well with adventurousness.) I thought it would be an interesting experiment. I have sometimes been curious about fortune-telling, but mostly dismiss it. Remember Miss Cleo? No? Good. I had the vision that palm readers and their ilk were nothing more than glorified carnies, swathed in silks and bathed in myrrh and something that smelled awfully like Brut Cologne. Not particularly a pleasant thought.

Today, however, I decided to take the leap. I don't know what it was: maybe the fact that a shopping excursion resulted in a receipt totaling $7.77 - but something made me feel if not lucky, not cursed. It would be fun, right? Nothing too specific in mind or heart - just an urge to see what the stars had laid out for me.

I was warned by my friend that the - what would she be, seer? - was very blunt, and if I was going to die, or be sick, or anybody else I loved was going to meet some foul end, she wouldn't hesitate to say. With this knowledge in my back pocket, I rang the bell at the appointed time.

The woman that answered the door was tiny. I am 5'7", and she barely made it to my shoulders. You do the math, because I am tired (and keep in mind that I am fairly evenly proportioned; I don't have coltish legs or a short torso.) Olivia is a caretaker of the elderly during the day, and reads tarot out of her home on evenings and weekends. Everybody's gotta have a side gig in this economy, I guess.

She led me to a room no bigger than a shoebox. I sat on one side of a small table that looked like the type you would prop your dinner on while watching TV and she on the other. A red cloth placemat lay in the center. She handed me the cards, and told me to shuffle, then split them into two stacks.

The cards were greasy and thick with wear. Olivia explained that her parents taught her the craft, but one had to have the gift to interpret correctly. I knew from my friend's stories of all the accurate predictions Olivia had accrued: marriages and deaths and pregnancies and jail time and deportations, so I was hopeful (and worried) that she would prove to be right.

She slapped the cards down with authority, and began. I had been careful to dress blandly, not wanting to give anything way, and also had decided to let her do most of the talking. I didn't want to goad her or give her any ideas. Right away she launched into my story: two daughters close in age, that I was prone to depression and emotional instability even though I seemed to have everything. I was born under, for lack of a better, more elegant term, a big-ass lucky star. She told me to watch out for my older daughter - that I needed to spend more time with her and teach her how to have more self-confidence, because her sister was dominating her (very true.) She went on in great specificity about my marriage, unusual problems I was having with specific friends, the work that I was doing (great success is on the horizon!). Some of the things hit very close to home and stung like a slap. It was uncanny. A whole hour for twenty bucks! It was like a mental massage. But more painful. At least there was no death or destruction on the horizon, but she said I had to be very careful, because I like to court danger. Me?

I left somewhat shaken. A lot of things she said had hit right on the mark. Others, not so much. But the things that did were very specific. It was eerie, but should it really have been?

I think that after a long while, people can get very good at what they do. It's the natural result of practice and passion. Maybe she's just good at reading people, not cards. Olivia seemed like a nice lady; I don't think she would deliberately mislead someone, but I think it is impossible to ignore cues in people's body language and responses, even if (like me) they tried not to respond too much. In the end, it felt a bit like going to a therapist or spending some time with a good friend talking about important things: heart-clearing. And for me, it felt good. Even if she couldn't give me the winning lottery numbers.


Friday, August 26, 2011

I Hate Myself (For Loving You).


I am a little bit wonky and battered today. It was the first week back at school/activities for my kids, and trying to get a new schedule on track has been a challenge. Between arranging homework time and music class and fencing practice (And my own music class! And actual work that needs to be done! And dinner to be made!) I am knackered. Sometimes I feel as if I am nothing more than my children's social secretary. Add to that the fact that I have decided they should probably eat breakfast (and not just a to-go cup of cereal and milk in the car) and not eat school lunches this year (awfully unhealthy, and anyway the money I am saving by not buying them will probably pay for a cruise at the end of the year.) The end result is that I am actually making three meals a day and a healthy snack before the aforementioned classes. It's my fault for exposing them to real food early on. They request things like yogurt parfaits and chicken caesar salad wraps ("Please, mom, with the homemade dressing! The one in the bottle tastes gross!") Why can't they just eat fish fingers and Doritos like other kids?

Oh, that's right. Because I love to cook. And bake. And ply teachers, administrators, random passerby, friends, Romans and countrymen with goodies. I admit. Food is love! Behold the raspberry-rose macaroons that I crafted. Lovely, aren't they? Just a bit. And delicious, too. (Admission: I am patting myself on the back because nobody else does. Feel free to weep for me. Ah, to be taken for granted!)

I've always been obsessed with food: eating it, preparing it, watching others grow it successfully (I have a black thumb.) I own over 300 cookbooks (and use them!) plus stacks of magazines, foreign and not. I base vacations around restaurants and food stalls and visits to local grocery stores and markets. I have mad crushes on Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. 

At university, my Shakespeare's Major Plays class required a final group project to successfully complete the course. We all sat through a couple of days of fairly boring presentations (this was before PowerPoint - although, looking back, that was probably a blessing.) Even the group that enacted the death scene from Hamlet didn't do that well. Maybe it had to do with the fact that Gertrude and Hamlet were played by the same guy...but anyway. I'd like to think that our motley crew blasted through the curve. Our project, thanks to my stalwart leadership (I'm a Leo!) was, of course, food-related. Every one of us prepared a dish inspired by Shakespeare's time. One member actually was a hunter and had a frozen pheasant on hand! The other items were really not that authentic but incorporated things like dried fruits and spices that were becoming popular in Elizabethan England. The professor was a bit skeptical, and didn't believe that the bird was pheasant and not turkey until he bit down on a mouthful of buckshot. Thankfully, that didn't prevent us from getting high marks. Undergrads.

My girls not only love to eat, but love to help in the kitchen as well, which makes meal preparation take about five times longer than it should. No matter. The end result, other than their increasingly sophisticated palates, is also a growing appreciation for other cultures and the unrivaled bounty we are blessed to enjoy. It's homework we don't mind doing at all.



Friday, August 19, 2011

I Got Soul (But I'm Not a Soldier).


I have not been able to remove myself from the hazy funk that I have been in and come up with a sunny post just yet, so, in lieu of that, I will tell you a story. It kind of ties in with my last post, strings and all.

I went to church today. I dropped the kids off at their school, run by Methodists, and drove down the street to St. Matthew's, spiritual home of the Catholics in that neighborhood. Yes, I know it's Ramadan, yes, I know I am neither Methodist nor Catholic, but I was feeling weary and worried and sad and burdened and just wanted a place to sit a spell and say, "Hey, God! What's up?" I don't think God cares much where we visit with Him. Just that we do.

 St. Matthew's is great for that. It is a simple church with a very sunny sanctuary, and off to the side is a smallish chapel anchored by a very large portrait of the Virgin Mary bordered in velvet. Tiny metal charms (milagros, or miracles) are pinned to the velvet, signs of devotion and gratitude glowing in the soft candlelight. Pictures of people are tucked into the frame: soldiers, babies, old women in resplendent beehives, couples young and ancient. I imagine all the prayers sent out in their names, and feel a bit sad. There was one other person in the chapel with me, a kind-looking much older man who had a small pamphlet with him that looked like a kind of Saint's Directory - an illustration of a saint on one page, with a prayer on the next.

I almost set this church on fire, once. I had come to light a candle for the wife of a dear friend. She had been sick, and was going for a battery of scans and tests and blood work to try and pinpoint what was making her so dizzy and weak. I noticed there were no matches by the candles. "That's odd," I thought to myself. "What am I supposed to do?" I looked around: there was no one to ask. Ever resourceful, I dug into my purse and found a pencil, and breaching all sorts of religious etiquette, stuck it into a lit candle, intending to use the flame to light one for my own devotions. The pencil caught fire pretty quickly. I almost dropped the thing, but managed to quash the flame out with some energetic blowing. Later, I found out from a Good Catholic that churches no longer have the matches out - you have to donate money to get one! I think that's ridiculous. Collection boxes used to be next to the candles, and you would give if you felt like it. Like God really cares. Out of annoyance, I bring my own matches now. (Ssshhhh!!) Oh, and the wife turned out to be ok. Health-wise, anyway.

But I digress. I was feeling lonely, and low, and had the foresight to bring with me a small wad of tissues (because, as you recall, I am a crier.) I tried not to cry. I sat quietly, meditating a bit on life, but all the pictures of bald babies next to St. Jude's statue made me even more melancholy, and soon I was sobbing, sobbing so hard I couldn't stop. I had rested my head on the back of the pew in front of me. I wanted to pray, but just didn't know for what. I felt utterly empty.

Suddenly I felt someone next to me. It was the silver-haired man with the prayer book. He flung his arms around me, and pressing me tight, stroking the top of my head, he said in Spanish, "Don't worry, daughter. God has given you a great sorrow, but you must have faith that He will take it away. It's ok to cry, don't feel embarrassed. There, there." I just held on to him and couldn't let go. He took a handkerchief (new and pressed and embroidered with a nice, solid H, that is it in the photo) from his pocket and gave it to me, refusing my refusals. After thanking him profusely, I got up to leave, but he held my arm. "Wash up first. Go freshen up, you'll feel better." Everything about the man was gentle: his soft, wavy hair, his voice, his deep brown eyes. He showed me the way to the restroom, gave me another hug, told me to take care, that I was still young, and shouldn't worry so much, and that I would be ok. 

I felt better after that, as though a tiny bit of my burden had been lifted. In Islam, we don't believe in praying to saints (although, I admit, I do call on St. Anthony when I misplace my iPod - and he doesn't seem to mind, because I always find it!). We prefer no intercession and just call on God directly. We do believe in angels though - and I think I may have just met one today.

Thank you, Mr. H.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Ties That Bind (or, Of Gods and Men).



"An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break." -Chinese proverb

After my last post, I thought to myself: "Self! You should write about something happy and carefree! Maybe post some photos of kittens, or puppies...babies, perhaps. Things that make you happy!" Then this week was suddenly upon me, with nary a furry creature or cherubic bundle in sight (except for the rather mischievous beady-eyed squirrel that gleefully munches on tomatoes from my backyard plant.)

Instead, I was faced with a sudden proliferation of ghosts, real (the kind that made me flee Facebook suddenly and without much regret) and imagined (the inner demons of a tortured soul, made weaker by nerve-shredding preteen girls.) The happy post will then have to wait, in favor of the pensive. (Admission: Babies don't make me particularly happy, unless they belong to other people and I can give them back quickly once they start fussing. I am actually quite frightened of them.)

I have been thinking a lot about the ways we are all interconnected, through communities and language and common interests and a thousand other things. What is it that brings us together, binds us close to some people and not others? It's funny, isn't it. Even though every person is unique, how many people around the planet overlap that uniqueness? If I said, "Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?" how many of you would scratch your heads, and how many of you would light up and laugh, because a specific memory was stirred up? (And if there is nary a one of you that knows that of which I speak, well then, run away! Run away!)

The metaphor of strings is powerful. The ancient Greeks were particularly fond of stories involving thread: Penelope waiting for Odysseus, weaving her endless tapestry; Ariadne gifting Theseus with a ball of string to help him find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth; Arachne getting into an ill-advised weaving competition with Athena. We can be high-strung, or strung along (or, strung out.) I came across the above proverb here at StoryCorps, in a story about adoption. StoryCorps, if you are unfamiliar with it, is an oral history project, and anyone can participate. It's unbelievably interesting to listen to stories about people's lives: their troubles, accomplishments, hopes. Something about it makes you feel a little less adrift in the world.

I love things that make me feel connected to a greater whole. There is another site, The Speech Accent Archive, that is absolutely fascinating. People from all over the world, with different native tongues, read the same fairly nonsensical English passage. Each language has several examples, with male and female speakers from different regions repeating the same handful of words. It's wonderful to compare a native Kirghiz (from Kyrgyzstan! Who knew?) speaker to myself, or to a native Bosnian or Icelandic speaker. I love it when the big, wide world feels just a bit more cozy.

What do you think about connection? Not just romantic - all kinds. Why do we meet who we meet? And when that connection is strong, does it really last forever, even when it may seem to be broken apart? Where does all that energy go?



Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cat Scratch Fever.


Look! Look! Thanks be to Suze, aka Girl Wizard for this wonderful accolade. She is, as probably ALL of you know, one of the most intelligent, sweet, and erudite people out there, not only in the blogoshpere, but in the real world.

I am supposed to pass on this award to five worthy bloggers, but as I am new to this whole thing, and think nobody is as worthy as I am, I refuse. Not really. The truth is, I need a bit more time, since most everyone I follow has a. won the award already or b. has too many followers to qualify. I will have to revisit this then at a later time, but am basking in a glow of gratefulness.

I have rarely won anything in my life. This is not to say my life has been marked by loss (although when that HAS happened, it's always been a doozy). Once, though, I did win a paid vacation for two to Las Vegas through a drawing sponsored by a local radio station. It included airfare, two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel, and two tickets to see...Ted Nugent. I was about 22 years old at the time, unmarried, without boyfriend or partner, and unfamiliar with anything regarding Ted except for his love of guns. I took my then 19 year-old brother with me, who was too young to gamble or do anything remotely Vegas-esque. We gave the tickets away to some long-haired rockers in the lobby and managed to have a great time, although at one point we found ourselves in a seedy strip mall on the wrong side of The Strip. The rest of THAT story, dear friends, is best left to the mists of time. (I assure you though, regardless of how I phrased it, the excursion did not include stripping or strip clubs or anything of the sort.) Even today, we laugh about the adventure and the fun we had, and still plan to revisit The Hard Rock Hotel's tasty diner, Mr. Lucky's 24/7. Good times, good times.

That was pretty cool, but it was also very random. This award is not - I was CHOSEN!! And somebody loves me for my mind! - so again, thank you!

And for your pleasure, THIS.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Senza di te (languisce il cor).


I was going to write a thoughtful and moving post about Ramadan, but, as it goes on for a whole month, I should have another opportunity. I don't feel quite in the right frame of mind. Although I knew it was coming, Ramadan still has taken me a bit by surprise, and it feels as if I have been pulled over for a busted headlight only to find out there is a warrant out for unpaid tickets. In any case, blessings to all - practicing or not.

Speaking of practice, albeit of another kind altogether, I have recently been taking voice lessons. It started out as a whim. I sing in the shower (AMAZING acoustics!), in the car, any time there is karaoke. I can carry a tune (this was later confirmed by a rather surprised professional.) I am enjoying it quite a bit, except that my assignments seem to be veering toward the exceptionally morose. As I have discussed previously, I do kind of like morose...but this is all a bit too much.

I am working out of "Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century (For Medium High Voice)". I'm a mezzo-soprano! Or something. This era was apparently a good one for, well, SONGS and ARIAS about heartbreak, love lost, love gained (and lost again), and flowers. Shepherds, gay maidens, ravishings (not of the previous parties, I must add), despair, meadows, and stars all make their due appearances. That was back in the day of no Twitter or Facebook, so there was no other way to update your relationship status, I suppose.

If you are not suffering from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or on your deathbead thanks to having been cruelly discarded by your lover (for he/she has found another! Or has died! Or has gone back to her baby-daddy!) then you surely will feel as if you have been. Or, at the very least, everything will take on a dramatic air, and even the wait for the Sears repairperson to come fix the problem with the soap dispenser of your high-efficiency washer will seem worthy of plaintive weeping and gentle, trembling song. (It has been two weeks since I made the service appointment, and I am tired of waiting! It's helping me get into character, though.)

Case in point: Caro Mio Ben. I am working on this one, and it is lovely (when sung properly.)

Caro mio ben,
Credimi almen,
Senza di te languisce il cor.
Il tuo fedel
Sospira ognor.
Cessa, crudel,
Tanto rigor!

My dear beloved,
believe me at least,
without you my heart languishes.
Your faithful one
always sighs;
cease, cruel one,
so much punishment!


There is a silver lining in all of this. One, I get to feel kind of cultured and renaissance-womanesque (or is that renaissance-esque woman...) because I am singing in a romantic foreign language. Two, when I close my eyes I am able to imagine that I am kicking something off my bucket list (dressing in a toga and singing in a chorus of some locally-produced opera.) Three, another excuse to cry! Of course.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Maggie and the Machine.


I went in to get my hair done today with only a vague idea of what I really wanted. On one hand, I thought to myself, "Mad Men. Let's do Joan!" although I have only seen the show once. (I have seen a lot of the curvaceous Christina Hendricks in magazines and online, so perhaps that is what fueled the desire to go red. That, or Harry Potter and Ron Weasley...) The other option was Debbie Harry's signature platinum tresses and onyx ends, but I thought that would scream "desperate soccer mom" in the carpool line. Forget that my kids don't play sports ("yet", she added hopefully...) I don't want it to seem as if I am trying too hard. There is hardly anything more tragic, is there?

I love going to this particular stylist. Is that even the right word, now? Hair artist? He is not only a creative genius, but is also kind, patient, erudite, and funny. He is also exceedingly diplomatic. Some of his clients (not me, I don't think...) are insufferable, the type that complain that The Four Seasons in Fancyville was just not quite to their standards ("Can you believe that the bellboy scratched my new Louis with his belt buckle? Why was he so close to it?!" "Oh, Newport Beach is so hideous now. It's full of dull, poor people." And he will smile, and chat, and agree, and not once roll his eyes or cough knowingly. A true professional. (I, however, am not so diplomatic. But it's good practice at controlling my emotions.)

Well, you see what I have chosen. The color looks a bit soft through the gauzy, loving gaze of the webcam, as though I had wandered into a Monet painting and returned covered in the dew of water lilies. In reality it is a bit more Mad Men-meets-Florence (without her Machine)-meets-Agent Scully-meets-Ginger from Gilligan's Island. I have gotten stares and shocked looks (the kind where eyes open wide, close for a moment, then open again.) When I went to pick up my kids from camp, my daughter was so overcome that she tripped and fell into a bin of cans waiting to be hauled off for recycling. "WHAT DID YOU DO??" she squealed.

All in all, I think it's a success.

Florence and the Machine -Heavy in Your Arms