Because it’s spring and I work a block from the Boston Public Garden, I head over for a mini-retreat after lunch some days. When the swan boats are launched and the real swans return, it’s officially spring. No matter that scarves and gloves are still needed some days, it’s spring. Overnight it will be summer and kids on their last field trip before school ends will wonder why the swan boats aren’t air-conditioned.
I like me some good collage therapy–an art outlet disguised as life mapping or vision boards that allows for perusing beautiful images that I collect like a magpie for what I pretend is a work of art. But I rarely find the right images or collect too many disparate images, or don’t have time to arrange them all just so. But in a literary collage workshop at the MA Poetry Festival last weekend, I grabbed materials from trunks of colorful scraps, photographs, stamps, sheets of music, and lines from poems, and realized a sort of jungle theme had emerged organically: a bird, a bunch of bananas, trees.
Time was running out as it usually does when you’re knee-deep in art-making, but the pressure worked. With only five minutes before the next workshop would begin, I started slapping down images on a board in places that felt right, that all worked.
Instructors Missy-Marie Montgomery and Trish Crapo (check out her collages here) shared their own beautiful collage creations inspired by lines of poetry and encouraged us to layer both literally (materials) and figuratively (ideas and themes); one participant said she makes a drink and a collage every night; one young girl emerged with a masterpiece. I’m putting mine up on the wall and telling visitors it’s a rare work by a local artist.
In addition to pages ripped from books (shudder!), the artists brought some pages that had undergone a process using Citra Solv, a cleaning agent-turned-art material that blends the ink on a page to create colorful, abstract designs. You can read it about it on this artist’s blog.
With a minute or two left, each workshop participant introduced their collage, and I had the sudden feeling that everyone had been secret collage prodigies. Still, I loved the workshop, the creative process, the artists let loose from their poet selves. I’m eyeing my books with a new sense of possibility.
“Are you Kate’s sister?” a woman asks me.
“Who’s Kate?” I ask.
She points to a dancer about to perform. Kate is lanky with disheveled hair, a crooked tooth or two, and dressed in bright, appealing colors. I size her up then size myself up, which is, of course, impossible to do in any objective way. Kate appears friendly and interesting, but she’s too quirky looking. She’s a lot older. Her underwear peaks out as she dances (me? never) but she has the confidence to keep on dancing (I’m with her there). In other ways, I see myself, especially in her colorful presentation, unruly hair, and funky glasses. But then, she has the boldness to perform a creative work in front of a crowd (uh-uh) and she’s artsy and chaotic in a way that screams free-spirited artist (nope).
In high school, my friend can’t wait to tell me she met my twin who was playing in a visiting school band. In the auditorium, I see the band members file in and spot her immediately. Oh, God. Her? I am humiliated that this is how my friend perceives me. The girl is gangly and awkward, and while OK, I was gangly and awkward, I wasn’t ready to own it as a freshman.
I think of a summer writing workshop I took two years ago, all creativity and summer dresses, when a participant told me I looked and sounded like Teri Gross. I love Teri Gross but I wasn’t sure I wanted to look like her (she’s older, NY accent). Today, I would say Thank you and smile.
I turn back to watch Kate, graceful on the stage in a way that I am not, and start to embrace not only the qualities that we share but also some that I don’t care to share but have to admit are right on. I think about approaching her after the show to tell her about the comparison, but I don’t want to risk a shocked reaction or watch her scrutinize my face. But hey, she should be happy to be me; here I am sitting in the audience of her show–surely I have good taste–and not a smidge of my underwear is showing.
* At last, a genuine flip-flop day. Not a day masquerading as a flip-flop day (and working at a college, I can attest that students think every day in a flip-flop day until the snow bites their toes and they break down and break out the Uggs), but a bona fide sunny day that calls for the least amount of shoe you can wear.
* I lunched on pork buns from the Fugu food truck, plunked down in the park in Post Office Square, and dug into the buns and a book. The fact that the semester ended last week and that today was the perfect spring day, combined to form a dangerous vortex in which returning to work was, let’s say, a challenge.
* Rational for today’s post-dinner snack: guacamole does not keep and those pork buns were small. I will finish off the tub with half a bag of tortilla chips.
* Tonight, even from the humble and not-particularly-beautiful parking lot of Target, the sun set stunned in shades of lilac. Just picture it.
The prospect of the Shake Shack opening in my state (not even my neighborhood, but my state) excited me so much that I forgot I don’t go to things when they open. Movie premiere? You risk moviegoers talking too loudly, tickets being sold out, a packed house; I’ll wait a week. New restaurant? Dying to try it, but not if I have to wait two hours in the cold.
So the NYC-based Shake Shack that’s creeping its way into CT and other random locations (Miami, Turkey) has crept, rather oddly, into Massachusetts. But not into Boston where you’d expect, and certainly not into the Boston Common where I lobbied hard for it to take over the most perfect little structure in the park that would have drawn crowds like their Madison Square Park location in NYC where you can watch the line on a live cam online. No, it opened in a schmancy new development in Chestnut Hill, a tony burb that most people will have to drive to, unless you’re attending Boston College around the corner.
Still, when I was in the area around lunch, I swung by to enjoy a burger and a shake. Only to remember why I avoid new places. The Shack was one of the few storefronts open in the new development, but that didn’t stop a line from forming around the building amid hard hat workers constructing, ironically, a gym next door. The line suggested “You will not see any food for at least an hour.” I balked. And then caved. And waited for an hour before carrying a petite tray with a Shack Burger, fries, and vanilla shake to a table in the sun where I ate every last crinkle fry and thought about getting in line again.
* We’re on the cusp of that season when you come home to a stuffy house and realize I can open the windows and snow will not drift into the living room. To say it’s a revelation is not to overstate the situation. Soon, the curtains billow in ecstasy and the cat rediscovers her window perch, and all is right with the world. Or, in this tiny corner.
* Walking through Beacon Hill this morning, I take a deep inhale of bread and think, even the toast smells better in this quaint, historic neighborhood. And then I realize that the aroma is coming from the Subway on the edge of the neighborhood where fresh bread is baking every day. So they say.
* Do you remember when May Day meant dancing around the maypole and homemade paper baskets filled with flowers left on your door? I miss that.
* A pigeon pecking at bread crumbs in the park tried to woo me with its iridescent green neck. I am a little beautiful, he says, and he is right.
Today I took a walk because I could. Yesterday at this time I was at the finish line with some friends in the very spot that’s on the news, playing over and over again. We were cheering for our friend and her fiance as they approached the finish line. They finished side by side at 2:37. The first bomb went off at 2:50. Proud of her accomplishment, we were more grateful for her speed. Just one bathroom break or leg cramp later, we might have had a very different story to tell.
I may have been trying too hard to see something good on my walk today, but two hearts jumped out at me, lopsided as they are.
* Hillary, I like it when you talk sternly to moronic men. Women, everywhere: let’s talk sternly to moronic men.
* Women in combat, please kick ass. I’m sorry it took so long to ALLOW YOU TO RISK YOUR LIFE FOR YOUR COUNTRY.
* Is Safe Haven a real movie? If so, could one view it as a comedy?
* To those of you watching the 11th season of Project Runway: hello, Geraldo Rivera! Right?
* How is it possible that the gun control debate has been overshadowed by the Beyoncé lip syncing debate?
By my count, there are about four million people mourning the loss of Twinkies (quick math), and about two dozen lamenting the loss of Devil Dogs, the dry, chocolate counterpart to its more popular older brother. It’s natural to assume that the predicted rise in milk prices can be attributed to the fiscal cliff debacle. Actually, that wouldn’t be my natural assumption, but it’s true. If Congress doesn’t pass a new farm bill, milk prices might rise like fuel prices. But forget all that. The real reason that dairy farmers might be out of work: no Devil Dogs, no need for a gallon of milk.
I miss the occasional dry dog, even if I only bought a box once a year. Since I was denied this indulgence, I got online pronto to research how to make my own. Caveat: the following recipe will not taste exactly like a Drake’s Devil Dog (can you really recreate that factory-made, unnaturally long shelf-life cake of exceeding dryness?), but it’s pretty darn good. Think whoopie pie in a Devil Dog shape.
I found several recipes online but chose to make the cake recipe from one and the cream filling from another. Shaping the cakes was a clumsy mess and I’m no expert with a pastry bag when it comes to piping the cream, but whatever. Close your eyes, pretend it’s 2012, and devour.
This mammoth crossword that ran in Virginia’s Daily Press captured the people and events that made news in 2012; what will make the news next year is anyone who can finish it. In addition to its size (820 across and 815 down), the print is so tiny that filling in any of those boxes is an achievement. I have a massive two lines completed but am confident I can knock this out in a couple of months. With a magnifying glass. And a jumbo eraser. And Google.
I’m pretty sure all 20 of my readers have been counting down till the moment I reveal my favorite books of 2012. Mind you, it doesn’t mean these books were published in 2012; I just discovered them this year, or felt moved to read them, or they wore me down. In any case, out of the 39 books I read this year, my top five are as follows:
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is a gorgeous book not short on descriptions of nature—both wild and human. If you’ve enjoyed Plainsong or any novel by Kent Haruf, you might find a kindred story here about non-traditional families set in a familiar landscape.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: tricky little thing.
Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron: beautifully wrought period novel. Cameron is a brilliant writer, despite an ever-present undertone of sadness, and this book made me revisit The Weekend, which I read in college when I was young and thought it was scandalous to read about lovers in a book who were both men.
A trio of novels by Tana French: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place. This was my first venture into mysteries since the Agatha Christie novels of my youth, and let me tell you: I’d be a mystery whore if the writing in the genre were this literary. In the Woods provides two mysteries for the price of one (but be warned one may not get solved). Despite a preposterous coincidence in The Likeness that the narrative is built on, it was still a fave because of the writing, characters, and generous helping of Irishisms. I just finished her third novel, Faithful Place, and that’s up there too. I’m trying to hold off on reading her fourth book Broken Harbor lest I have to start a fan club.
On Writing by Steven King: I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve turned up my nose at Mr. King’s tales of dogs, killers, and prom queens. But this man can write one inspirational memoir and a scene of joy so profound that it just might make you cry.
The End of Your Life Book Club by William Schwalbe: I suspected this might be a book along the lines of Tuesdays with Morrie (i.e., terrible). The author writes about the informal book club of sorts he has with his mother who is dying of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t think he could crack me. I was just in it for the books and conversation. I mean, I didn’t even know this woman, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get attached to her. Yeah. Tears.
Yup, I realize that was six books. Deal with it.
If none of these suggestions float your boat, 1) get a smaller boat or 2) check out this ridiculously exhaustive list of Best Of lists on largehearted boy. And then take three years’ of vacation to begin to tackle just 1% of the list.
And just for good measure, a couple of books I regret struggling through: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, the much-heralded novella that did nothing for me, and an over-hyped book by a woman who called in to On Point on NPR titled Anastasia by Victor Megne, which reminds me why I don’t listen to that show.
I also started and quit five books: Wuthering Heights (seriously, two Catherines?), The House of Seven Gables (I live in Salem; I should like this. I decided instead to just to walk by the house), Dovekeepers (cut out 400 pages and you might have had me, Alice Hoffman), A History of the Senses (interesting but heavy on the details), and the lengthy memoir What to Look for in Winter (self-indulgent author, but one with an astounding vocabulary).
Some families have sweet, wholesome traditions of hanging their stockings by the fireplace while little ones run amok in footie pajamas; others leave cookies for Santa on a special plate while trimming the tree and singing Deck the Halls; in my family we have a new ritual: the annual ugly gift contest. This is the second year we’ve scoured yard sales and thrift stores to vie for the prize: an ugly bargain.
The tradition got off to a rocky start last year when my entry was confiscated by officials at Logan Airport for being too ugly. OK, not really, but you can read the story here. This year, I skipped the whole flying thing and drove to Virginia for Christmas. I wasn’t taking any chances. With my ugly presented nestled safely in my luggage in the backseat, the TSA couldn’t touch me.
Crowning the winner would be tricky as everyone in the family offered a contender. How would we determine, impartially, who won? We tossed around the idea of a secret ballot, but when the nominees were unveiled all at once on the table, one thing became clear: no vote was necessary. We had a clear winner.
Yeah, the last one. While the orb (?) was the original gift—ugly enough on its own—my brother-in-law stumbled on a starfish . . . receptacle (?) that housed the flamingo egg (?) nicely. We still don’t know what to make of it. My mom tried to give an award to the winning couple from a bag of seemingly regifted items; the winners declined more crap.
In many ways I was the loser: not only did my moon come in last, it also garnered a few likes from the crowd, which was dispiriting. Regardless, I’m still calling it a victory, because when I packed up the car to come home, not one piece of that junk was in my trunk.
I love working at a college where the conversations are, yes, about parties and like, crushes, but where discussion also ventures into the intellectual realm.
Passing students on the stairs the other day, I hear one say something about the delicateness of a fabric.
“Wait, is it ‘delicateness’ or ‘delicacy’?” he asks the girl.
They analyze it, and I have to say, I do too. The state of being delicate can be delicateness but then delicacy works too. Except we use it more to mean a special dessert. I like these kids.
At the dining hall, students can post comment cards with questions and complaints. I’m heartened to see a fair amount of goodwill: “Thanks for my grilled cheese, friendly grill guy!” or “Thanks for the soy milk!” There are complaints of course—no college can escape complaints about the food that is, I’d like to remind students, bought, prepared, and served to them—but it’s also a forum where sketch comedy majors can try out new material.
One card reads “Can we get cuddlefish and vanilla paste?”
“The water was very wet today,” says another.
“I love you guys!” says one surrounded by hearts.
The manager’s response: “Glad to hear you’re drinking your water. It’s good for you. And we love you too!”
It’s a place where I can discuss the finer points of The Newsroom (I love you Sorkin, but you’re so damn preachy) and feminism in Girls with students who love and hate Lena Dunham. A place where I can hear two girls gushing over Brené Brown, which turns me on to her TED Talks on vulnerability and shame.
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So, my friends, this is the cliché part where I say it’s not only the students doing the learnin’. There, I said it.
I rarely date, but when the mood strikes, I’ll give it a whirl when the guy sounds nice. Or brilliant. Like this guy I talked to recently on the phone who shared my foodie obsessions.
“So what’s your favorite pizza on the North Shore?” he asked.
“There is no edible pizza on the North Shore,” I said. And yes, I heard the food snob in me. “I go to Regina’s in the North End when I need a fix. What about you?”
“The best pizza place is twenty minutes away,” he said. “It’s rough.”
I sympathized. Ferrying that pizza home would not end well. We have standards.
“So that’s when I discovered a pizza delivery bag on eBay. It’s really increased my pizza radius,” he said. “Wait, does that make me sound weird?”
No, I thought. No, no, no, no no no! That makes you sound like a genius. Here was a man who cared deeply for optimal pizza temperature; this was a man worth getting to know.
“I love it,” I said, emphasizing the it so he wouldn’t misread my enthusiasm as We’re getting married tomorrow. “We should meet for pizza.”
“Oh, God. I’m too nervous to eat on dates,” he said.
That should have been a sign. He suggested we see a movie instead, which always strikes me as lame. To be fair, we both talked about our love of film, but if there’s no possibility of conversation, what’s the point? Still, I wanted to see Argo, so we made a plan. We weren’t a match, but the movie was gripping. I was, no exaggeration, on the edge of my seat chanting, Go, go, go go go! in one scene (if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean), while at the same time thinking if my date thought I was yelling at him, I would be OK with that. In the end, the promise of a man and his pizza delivery bag lost out to a movie about the Iran hostage crisis. And that, my friends, is the story of my life.
* Day dreaming about the feast to come on the day before Thanksgiving, I stumbled on an episode of Nature on PBS about a naturalist who raised turkeys from the moment they emerged from their eggs. You might have flipped past the channel had you been sitting with me, but you weren’t, so I lingered, bonded with the turkeys, and may have wept at parts. My Life as a Turkey recreates a year-long experiment between man and bird that is as beautiful as it is moving. Gorgeously shot, perfectly narrated, and scored with just the right music, the film converts you to instant wild turkey lover. Because you’re the kind of person who thinks, Uh, not in a million years, I’m sharing a link to the 50-minute program. Sweet Pea and Big Boy will win you over or you are dead inside. So, I’ll wait here while you grab a leftover turkey sandwich; come back and we’ll watch it together so I can watch you try not to cry.
* I have two old friends who send well wishes to the other through me, since in a way (after eight years), they know a lot about each other, even though they’ve never met. I go to my friend Sophia’s house for Thanksgiving; my friend Anthony volunteers for mealtime at a homeless shelter, which he’s done for years. This year, I’m at Sophia’s house, post-turkey, warming myself by the fire pit with her family. I go inside for a second where the TV is tuned to the local news doing its yearly story on the volunteers and guests of the shelter. Every year, I kid Anthony that I’ll see his mug on TV, and every year I do, always by chance. This year he’s upstaged by our senator, but not for long. When he flashes on the screen, I call to Sophia in the backyard.
“Come meet Anthony!” I yell.
“Aw,” she says. “Anthony!”
They meet at last.
* Driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, front doors everywhere are open wide, cooling kitchens—windows fogged from turkeys roasting all day. Houses are letting off steam, staving off naps, and pretending it’s early autumn and that the open windows of summer are not yet a memory.
Thanksgiving is not the time to try new recipes, but who has time to do a dry run of an elaborate meal? Plus, I’m a risk taker. A jump-out-of-a-plane skydiver. A zipline-over-the-canyon kind of gal. Well, not really. Regardless, I go foolhardily into new recipe adventures on Thanksgiving with total confidence—my first being Rachael Ray’s stuffin’ muffins recipe that failed. Hard. Instead of crunchy yet moist individual portions of stuffing, the muffins remained wet balls (go ahead, I’ll wait), uncooked in the middle. Still, I liked the idea of making stuffing in cupcake tins, so I brought them to my friend’s house anyway and we had a good laugh. Too ambitious, my desires.
Last year, I made gingerbread thinking it was a brilliant idea to swap out dried old ginger spice for the real thing, freshly grated. Calculations veering on trigonometry did nothing to achieve an accurate substitution amount. Result: ew.
This year, I tried a recipe I’ve had in my collection for a decade but have never made. A rich chocolate tart calls for a special occasion and Thanksgiving seemed just the occasion. But dough and I just don’t get along (it refuses to be dough), so while I managed to at least make a chocolate crust, I failed to note that cocoa powder is not the same as cocoa. You knew that? You could have told me.
I also realized halfway through (seriously, there’s a reason you should read recipes all the way through before attempting, but we’re stubborn, you and I) that the magazine clipping with the recipe was missing the part about how to make the chocolate filling. After Googling around and going for it, I had a rich chocolate tart that was half rich, half dry as unsweetened cocoa.
But no matter. All would be forgiven once everyone saw the adorable turkey figure I stenciled on the tart using a hand drawn turkey silhouette and powdered sugar. Before popping it in the car this morning, I took a peek at the tart only to realize that the turkey had disappeared; the sugar had dissolved into the chocolate, as if embarrassed. Back in the kitchen, I sifted more sugar around the salvaged stencil. Crisis averted. Until I arrived at my friend’s house with the turkey half dissolved again and fading fast.
But this is a day to be thankful. Thankful that I have friends who will pretend the bitter tart crust is delicious and that the cute turkey is still clearly visible even when it’s not. At least I snapped a picture of the sucker for proof. If you too want to attempt this tart using actual cocoa powder, and can somehow manage to roll the dough out to the recommended 4″ x 16 ” rectangle and find a tart pan that size while not burning the edges and not watching your turkey shape disappear, by all means try the recipe.
On my drive home, a shooting star shot across the sky—a magical moment considering that it was, well, a star shooting across the sky to its death but more so because it was so clearly visible even from a city highway. You’d think I wished for more sense when it comes to baking, but I didn’t.
The ferris wheel came down early in Salem this year lest anyone get blown off it during Hurricane Sandy, but what this city lacks in cheap carnival rides it makes up for in revelers decked out in all manners of ridiculousness. My unscientific survey of the pedestrian mall turns up more adults in costumes than children; when else are adults allowed to dress up and pretend they’re someone else? A little fantasy never hurt anyone.
Still, it’s hard to tell the costumed zombies from the real ones roaming the streets amid tiny super heroes and cotton candy vendors, all backlit by fireworks over the water. Adults in wigs, feathers, and leather (sometimes all at once) replace the briefcase-carrying business folks on the train ride home to Salem. I have to admit it adds a little spice to the commute.
A handful of kids turn up at my door—a quartet of princesses, a Superman, and a masked something or other.
“Trick or treat,” they say in chorus.
“Do you have a dog?” asks a princess.
“No, but I have a cat,” I say, doling candy into their sacks.
“Can I see your cat?” says the masked kid, walking into the house.
“She’s hiding under the couch,” I tell him. “You’re too scary.”
Is this question-and-answer thing a new Halloween ritual?