Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
My 12-year-old had invited ten friends over for a pre-vacation Christmas party that she had planned herself. It sounded like such an empowering idea at the time – she’s almost a teenager; if she wants to have a party, leave the planning up to her.
And yet there I was, putting the gifts the girls were handing me at the door into a basket for their gift exchange, baking one last batch of snowflake-shaped cookies, mixing up white frosting for decorating the cookies, sweeping a drift of flour off the kitchen floor, moving a pile of boots and shoes from the front doorway to the mudroom as fast as the girls could take them off, and assuring Holly that yes, the hot chocolate would definitely be made by the time she was ready to serve refreshments -- even though I hadn’t started making it yet. Holly was rushing around trying to light candles as her guests shrieked and hugged as if they hadn’t seen each other in six months rather than the four hours it had actually been since school let out.
In short, I was frazzled. And not just everyday-frazzled, but holiday-frazzled, which seems to come with a sticky powdered sugar glaze covering every possible surface.
And then the doorbell rang and another young guest arrived, walking in along with her mother, Elizabeth.
“Everything looks so cozy and Christmas-y!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “And the cookies smell so good! I haven’t even started holiday preparations yet.”
Like slipping on ice – or, perhaps more relevantly, on spilled flour – her words jolted me into a different perspective. Through her eyes, and because of her words, I noticed not the spills on the floor and the dishes in the sink but the smell of cookies baking and candles burning. Not the pile of boots the girls had left in the entrance but their joyful voices as they exchanged gifts and guessed who had given each one. Not the sound of the dishwasher beeping to signal it was ready to be unloaded – again! – but the Christmas carols Holly had pulled up on her iPod before the guests arrived.
This, I now understand, is what Christmas season is like. Not perfect and magical, but not solely chaotic and stressful either. It’s both, because that’s what it means to be an adult during the holidays, at least to be an adult responsible for children’s or other people’s holiday fun. Yes, it’s true that I don’t remember any stress whatsoever during the Christmases of my childhood, but that’s because I was just that, a child. Someone else was in charge. I remember thick snowdrifts, a hot fire, a tall decorated Christmas tree, the smell of a delicious dinner cooking. But I didn’t have to shovel the snow, or refill the firewood, or arrange for the arrival of the Christmas tree, or check the temperature of the roast.
Now it’s my turn to re-create this kind of carefree holiday for my children. Holly will remember this party for the cookie-decorating, the snow-globe-making, the general hilarity of ten girls who are just a few days from being on Christmas vacation. They won’t notice that the hot chocolate wasn’t ready until hour two of the party.
Elizabeth’s words were simple but eye-opening. Walk into someone else’s house, and you don’t see mess or frazzle; you see a lovely holiday ambience. I would probably feel the same way if I went to her house at this moment.
But I’m at my house, and so I should just enjoy the aroma of my own cookies baking. There will always be more dishes to wash, but Christmas week won’t last long at all. Best to enjoy every moment of it while it’s here.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
While running this past weekend, I listened to an interview with a novelist who has recently received a lot of literary attention. At one point during the conversation, she commented that she wasn’t yet comfortable thinking of herself as middle-aged. “I know I’m not really young,” she said, “but I certainly don’t feel middle-aged either.”
Based on a couple of things the writer had said earlier in the interview, I inferred she was in her mid-thirties, and I remember feeling the same way ten years ago – surely this can’t be considered middle-aged! So I was surprised a moment later when she said she was forty-four. When I realized she was just four years younger than me, I suddenly had less empathy for her qualms about the term “middle-aged.”
“But you are middle-aged,” I thought to myself. “I am, too. Being middle-aged now, if you take it literally, means we expect to live to be ninety. Surely you don’t think we’re at less than half our life span at this point.”
Even though the term itself has negative connotations, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been comfortable with it for a couple of years now. In fact, I specifically remember the first time I applied the term to myself, in an essay in our local newspaper. The day after publication, the father of one of my high school classmates said to me, “You can’t possibly be middle-aged! Because if you’re middle-aged, so is my daughter, and she cannot possibly be middle-aged!”
I was a little puzzled by his protestations. His daughter and I were both forty-five. Was he assuming we would both live to be over ninety? That’s certainly possible, but not something I would readily assume.
Regardless of actual chronology, it’s simply a term whose overall mien I’ve become comfortable with as of late. Because indeed, I do feel these days like I am at many midpoints. As a parent, I feel precisely in between the phase of of raising children and the phase of looking back on it. My children are 12 and 16; it feels as if that puts me right at the midpoint between a parent-to-be and being a parent of grown children.
Career-wise, too, I’m fine with the idea I’m in the middle. It took me a while, but I’m at a pretty good point right now with my work; there’s a tremendous amount I’d still like to accomplish, but I think I’m okay with the thought that there’s about the same amount of progress yet to be made as already covered.
And in so many other ways, too. As far as world travel, I like the thought that geographically speaking, I’ve covered about half the ground I’m ever likely to cover. I’ve visited many interesting places; if the same number of forays into the world lies ahead as behind, I’m happy with that. Even physically. It took me four decades to become someone who could run a half-marathon. Now I’m at that point, but I don’t expect to stay there forever. I’ll start declining in my physical abilities eventually. But for now, where I am feels fine.
Middle-aged. It’s an un-lyrical word with unappealing connotations, and maybe that’s why the novelist in the interview rejected the term. Yet putting all that aside, I’m fine with thinking of myself in the middle. It’s realistic and it’s comfortable. Here I am, and here I’ll be for a little bit longer, and then, barring disaster, eventually I’ll be even older and no longer middle-aged. For now, this feels just about right.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
“Just for fun, my mother and I are writing a cookbook,” I told a friend back in October.
“Busman’s holiday?” she asked.
Yes, it’s true: my job is to write and my hobby is to write. And for the past four months or so, when I haven’t been working on deadline to finish drafting an article, a brochure, or a piece of marketing copy, I’ve been putting together a compilation of family recipes.
And yes, it’s a little geeky, but it’s fun. Like many families, we have long wanted to pull together all our favorite old recipes, and as I worked on my project, many friends and acquaintances told me of how their mothers or grandmothers or even they themselves had made up binders of photocopied pages, one set to be given to each family member, or even had them bound at a copy store.
But print-on-demand publishing opens new possibilities for families who want to generate recipe collections. True, it will look more professional – if perhaps not as artistically creative – than a looseleaf binder or leatherbound scrapbook compilation of recipes, but more importantly, we’ll have an unlimited supply. Because we are doing this with a print-on-demand publisher, our book will exist in the cloud, available to anyone at any time, for as long as there’s an Amazon. And speaking as a reader of the Business section, it looks to me like Amazon will probably survive both nuclear holocaust and Armageddon.
It’s important to us, because my mother is the author of two previous cookbooks that are both out of print, simply because a number was determined for the print run and every last book sold out. Each family member has a copy, but there aren’t any more copies for new friends or acquaintances or even future generations.
It’s not that I think this particular cookbook that my mother and I wrote together is so important. It’s no “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” or “Moosewood” or “Silver Palate,” to name a few that I really do think changed the way people cooked. It’s just….well, us. It’s our family’s favorite recipes. It’s the ones we all trade around and copy for each other and pass back and forth time and again.
And it’s the ones my children and nieces and nephew asked us to include. Even those as young as nine or ten knew that it was important to them that we preserve certain formulas, like the way Grandma makes hot chocolate, or the way Grandma makes guacamole, or the way Grandma makes Portuguese sweet bread. (Come to think of it, all the ones my kids were most concerned with getting down in writing were their grandmother’s recipes, not mine. I’ll try not to take offense. I suppose it gives me something to which to aspire.)
As my mother wrote in her introduction to the book, “As I work on this third collection, I find myself thinking not about my cooking class students or anonymous cookbook buyers, as I did [with the first two books], but my six grandchildren. These are their favorites as well, dishes they've savored at countless family dinners and holiday gatherings over the years, and I imagine that someday they'll want these same recipes at their fingertips to make for their own children and grandchildren.”
Maybe. Maybe not. It’s always a mistake to project too many expectations, particularly misty-eye or rose-hued ones, on future generations. But if they do want to cook the familiar dishes of their childhoods, they’ll know just where to find the recipes.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
It’s the time of year that lends itself to reunions: not necessarily the official, capital “R” kind with college classes or multi-generational families that take place in late spring on campuses or midsummer at lake houses, but the unofficial reunions in which holidays or other homecomings bring us together with familiar faces from our past.
I was part of two such gatherings in the past week, though only in retrospect did I see similarities between the two events. One was a yearly party for high school friends. The other was an afternoon when it happened to fall upon me to feed the livestock at my parents’ farm.
I’ve hosted a pre-Thanksgiving gathering for classmates from high school for the past four years or so. The group that gathers isn’t a defined clique, like those at the center of so many novels. This isn’t about four women who were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings or lived together in New York apartments after college graduation. It’s just a general invitation that goes out over social media every fall encouraging anyone from our class – or the class ahead of us, or the class behind us, or really anyone at all who ever knew any of us during high school – to get together.
Sometimes only my closest friends show up; other years, alumni join us whom I barely knew during our Concord Academy days. But it always works out. There are the obligatory “Wasn’t it you who” and “Remember that class trip when we,” but by the time the evening ends, we’ve always gone so much deeper than that: into what matters most to us now. Our careers, whether successful or foundering; our marriages or lack thereof, our children or the choices we’ve made not to have children; our travels; our joys and disappointments.
The other reunion took place in ankle-deep mud, and was meaningful in a very different way. For about three years, it was my daily responsibility to feed the sheep and cows at my parents’ farm. The routine began after I almost simultaneously lost my job and adopted a dog; with the kids off at school in the morning, I was free, and spending time in the barnyard was a great way for the dog to get some exercise. My farmhand duties continued until my father took on a business partner in his farming enterprise three years ago and I was no longer needed. By then I was ready for a break from the daily slog out to the haybarn.
But this weekend, with my parents and their business partner all out of town for the holiday, it fell on me once again to care for the animals. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the task, but the minute I climbed over the fence and dropped into the mud in front of the barn, I became aware of how happy I was to be back there. The cows looked at me with eager hungry eyes, just as they used to. The sheep had the same benign gaze they always had. Retrieving the haybales and throwing them into the feeder was the same energizing stretch-and-lift workout I remembered from nearly a half-decade ago.
It was good to be back amidst the farm animals, and it was good to be back amidst my high school friends, and I hope neither group will be offended by the comparison. The point is that returning to old friends, be they agile (if increasingly middle-aged) two-legged humans or shaggy milling cattle, is rewarding. It reminds us of who we were, thirty years ago or just three years ago, and it reassures us that we can return. Familiarity is comforting, whether it comes in human or bovine form. At the party and in the barnyard, I was happy to be back amidst familiar faces.