Escape From New York

Yesterday I left Staten Island for the first time in nine years. That’s right, I hadn’t stepped foot off the island, even for other boroughs, in nine long years. Actually that time went by rather quickly.

The drive was surprisingly non-horrific. With two and five year olds in tow I braced myself for the worst. A couple older kids came along for the ride and Mom did the driving, which was heaven sent- I dislike highway driving to the point of phobia.

We went over the Goethals, the turnpike, various parkways. We stopped for lunch at McDonald’s; I had a double quarter pounder sans ketchup and I threw out the bun (not before offering it to the rest of the family, they declined). It was awkward but doable eating the floppy hamburger patties with my fingers, the meat was terribly overcooked. It was edible, but barely, to the tune of $5. My little guys shared french fries and chicken nuggets, mom had a salad, older kids had an egg mcmuffin, more nuggets and fries. For drinks we had water (me), lemonade, mocha latte and diet coke.

I was surprised how many black people and hispanics are now north of NYC. Nine years ago non-asian minorities faded out a certain radius beyond the metro area with the exception of Springfield, MA. Most of the diners at that connecticut McDonald’s were black or hispanic, and it didn’t turn all/mostly white until Vermont.

After five hours we reached my hometown; I didn’t move here until age seven but it’s essentially my hometown. I wondered if I would start crying after all these years. But it was anticlimactic. There were the gorgeous mountains, lush green rolling in distant landscape. There was the guns-n-ammo shop. More lush greenery, an auto shop. Some kind of manufacturing plant (the sole one in the area, industry here has been decimated). The veterinarian where our sick pets were euthanized so long ago. Pretty colonials and victorians, many but not all in disrepair.

We arrived home to my very grouchy father. Grouchy is my dad’s version of happy, it only goes downhill from there. My little guy was all over the place while we unpacked- I tried to lock him in a playroom via baby gate but he howled pitifully so I let him escape.

My parents had dinner but I told them I would eat later. I went for a walk around local roads and hopped briefly into the woods, climbing a steep incline padded with pine needles and thin weeds. Pine trees towered overhead like solemn angels. I sat under one and patiently slapped mosquitoes as they landed on my skin. Later I ate some salmon and semi-raw hamburgers. My mother was horrified as she packed them out of sight into the fridge, asking wasn’t I worried about eating rare beef? Nope.

This morning I went to walmart. I needed shampoo and razors, my five year old requested pretzels. My mom warned me: the town looked worse than ever, but as I drove it looked the same. There was a new CVS. There was an abandoned something or other. There was the middle school where I was mercilessly tormented by my peers. I peeked down the street to my childhood best friend’s house- I considered driving past but that would feel stalkerish. I have no idea if her parents are even still living, and she has long since moved away.

Walmart… it looked exactly the same as nine years ago, except the shopping carts were in terrible shape (nothing irks me more than lousy shopping carts) and the walls were dinged up, in need of repainting. Two women said hello and politely asked how are you? This jarred me. They don’t do that in Staten Island, not that Staten Islanders aren’t friendly in their own way.

I am here for my aunt’s funeral. There is some drama with her estate that has darkened my father’s mood from bad to worse. I feel mildly vulturish hanging around waiting for the proceedings to unfold, but I never asked for this money. It’s all very sad. She should have lived a good twenty, thirty years further. God gives and god takes away.

Corn Cooked in Husk

It’s corn season! I grew up in New England so corn season conjures up vivid childhood memories. Farmstands overflowing with corn, husking it with my beloved paternal grandmother at our kitchen table, my mother boiling it up in cauldrons of water, and biting into ears so fresh it tasted like candy.

Fast forward to my own kitchen, and being the safety conscious freak I am, I’m always reluctant to boil water on the stove top. We have a center island in the kitchen where the stove is located, and the kids love to sit, and pile paper, around that island. This led me to seek alternative corn cooking methods, and lo and behold: it can be baked in the oven, so long as the husk is intact. That’s right: you don’t have to bother shucking corn before cooking it. In fact the husk creates a perfect “envelope” in which the corn can steam.

So this is what you do: Preheat the oven to 350F; trim off any extraneous ends (or don’t, it probably doesn’t make any difference). Line up the corn on a cookie sheet:

rawcorn

… and stick it in the oven for 30 minutes. I had something else going in the oven so it was at 400F for about half the time. No harm, no foul. Once time has elapsed remove it:

cookedcorn

… and you have perfectly cooked ears of corn. Surprisingly, the outer husks cool almost immediately, but to peel off the very inner layers I had to protect my hands with an oven mitt or paper towel. Voila:

huskedcorn

… a perfectly cooked ear of corn. Delicious and juicy, with no cauldron required.

Empty Beer Cans = 2 Points

My mother is visiting for week. The idea was, she would be here right after the baby was born to lend a helping hand, or at least an adult presence with a driver’s license. But the baby is five weeks now and I’ve managed to keep everyone fed, clothed and alive over that duration. So far she’s left a space heater on (when no one would be in the house) and left a stove burner running for hours; she didn’t turn it off after heating up soup. As someone with a high paranoia of fire, this has me on high alert for imminent disaster. She’s not senile, or ditzy, but being around so many whiny kids all day will make even the best minds falter.

This morning she regaled us with an interesting tale from her days as a principal. In the 1980s she ran a kindergarten center that offered free half-day programs to the five year olds of the town. Remember, this was before the days of universal pre-k and lots of kids didn’t even go to kindergarten, and most kindergarten programs were half-day. Her school received a Title 1 grant to offer full day programs to disadvantaged students; these students would be selected with the government’s criteria of maternal education (or rather, lack thereof) and eligibility for free lunch. So if your mom never finished high school, and you received free lunch, you were eligible for full day kindergarten.

The only problem was these two criteria produced a pool of 60 students while there were only 40 seats available. So my mom had to derive further criteria to winnow the pool. She finally hatched a plan with the teachers, that at pick up time they (the teachers) would examine the interior of the vehicle the child entered to be ferried home. Certain features would be assigned points, and the kids with the most points would be placed in Title 1.

  • interior of the car is clean – 0 points
  • interior of the car is messy but primarily with kid stuff – 0 points
  • interior of car is messy, and school projects litter the floor (as opposed to being lovingly magnetized to the fridge) – 1 point
  • interior of car is messy with empty beverage containers – 1 point
  • interior of car contains empty beer cans – 2 points
  • the parent needs to be reminded to buckle child before taking off – 2 points

With this method she got the group down to 40, and she claims the intervention of full day kindergarten helped these children so much that even by 4th & 5th grades they were achieving on par with their peers. This runs counter to studies that show early interventions have little effect by the time children reach older grades (but I kept my mouth shut). She and her teachers were even asked to give presentations on their interventive program at conventions, which they did, but when asked how exactly they selected children for the group she could never bring herself to describe the exact methodology and instead stated it was based on maternal education and free lunch status.

The subject of maternal education is an interesting one. While I haven’t read up on it, according to my mom the influence of paternal education is negligible while a child’s mother’s education is heavily weighted in that child’s future. So a guy could have a PhD, but if his child’s mother is uneducated his own pedigree won’t matter, statistically speaking. And the inverse is true. A man can have little education but if his wife is well educated the child will be at a significant advantage. Why the maternal influence is more potent than the paternal one is unclear; perhaps women are more aggressive when it comes to their child’s education, or, for whatever reason, their interest in the child’s education matters more, or is more efficacious, than the father’s.

In terms of my own kids this might put them at a slight advantage since I dropped out of graduate schools slightly later than did my husband, though he eventually went back and finished his degrees. Too bad the internet and documentaries don’t count as education, because that’s all I’ve had since.

The German Juggernaut

My son will return from New England shortly. He’s my son, so of course I miss him, but I didn’t miss being browbeaten and regarded as a lower form of life every time he enters the room. Unless he obtains some kind of high demand but rare degree (and I struggle to think of what that could be, with our constant influx of H-1B visas) he’ll need to polish his people skills in order to be remotely employable. He’s extremely polite and formal with strangers but it goes no further. And behind closed doors, with us in the house, forget about it. He’s all condescension and ire.

argentina

There he is cheering on Argentina. The final match between Argentina and Germany was a painful one to watch. Of course I was rooting for Argentina, having been brainwashed since childhood to equate Argentina winning the world cup with the second coming. But in this case it would have been difficult not to vote for the scrappy underdog up against the German juggernaut. It was like the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match but with soccer balls. Germany had been widely predicted to crush Argentina but it became clear just fifteen minutes into the game that wasn’t happening. Then came the heartbreaking disqualified goal for Argentina, and from that point on I started to feel like I was watching two guys in a bar brawl smashing bottles over each other’s head, and every time you thought one was knocked out, he got back up and smashed another bottle over the other guy’s head. Germany finally won with an overtime goal, and the fact that my dad is technically German was of little consolation to him. If he weren’t crippled with joint problems he probably would have taken a walk around the block to weep.

I received a somber email from my mom describing the medical plight of my father: he will have to choose between a 10 hour reconstructive surgery on his back, or the potential of being confined to a wheelchair. This is due to severe arthritis compounded by decades of obesity. The thing is, until his 50s, my dad would have been classified as “healthy overweight.” Yes, he was heavy- very heavy, in the obese range for much of his adult life- but he remained very strong and active. In his 50s he began to have back pain and by his 60s he was crippled by back and knee pain. He managed to lose some weight for a knee replacement, but now his mobility is hampered by a spine that spent decades being crushed and compacted by weight.

Watching my parents struggle with health woes caused by excess weight is the main reason I am terrified of weight gain; I’ve always aimed to remain at the lower end of healthy BMI (18-20). By the time they were in their 60s their mobility was impaired to the point they could barely climb stairs. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer that was estrogen receptive positive, which has a strong correlation with obesity. They are currently still overweight, but lighter than they’ve been in decades (thanks to Weight Watchers). But even with that weight off, my father’s spine is essentially ruined and will need to be reconstructed if he hopes to regain any real degree of mobility.

Speaking of extra weight, I was reading an article on my favorite topic- the new school lunch guidelines- and was shocked to see this picture of Michelle Obama.

michelleobama

She’s gained an awful lot of weight, which wouldn’t be a big deal were she not poised as the nation’s spokesperson for healthy eating (no more than 2 ounces of meat per lunch!) and weight loss. She doesn’t look to be within normal BMI range anymore. It also looks like she’s suffering from the Lena Dunham syndrome of not having enough up top to compensate for the curves down below. I thought the first lady had big, or at least adequate, boobs? Maybe she normally wears a push up bra. Fame tends to make people gain weight- one of my husband’s favorite pastimes is cackling over before and after photos of celebrities- but if I were championing the cause of national weight loss, I’d be cautious to stay under BMI 25, and not to gain during my tenure as weight loss crusader.

Adios Argentina

The last of my relatives, or the last of my relatives we’re still in contact with, remaining in Argentina is looking to immigrate elsewhere due to the current currency crisis. I guess this is the final straw in a long line of social and infrastructure implosions in the country. She’s hoping to find work as a German teacher either in Uruguay or… Cuba. Cuba?! I didn’t know Cuba even had an immigration policy. Do you have to take some kind of communist vow, and renounce your religion? If I were going to immigrate to a foreign country, Cuba wouldn’t even make my list. I’d probably pick New Zealand, since I can handle myself around rednecks and they speak English (my kids, per order of my husband, don’t speak a word of Spanish). I guess it would depend on my motivations for fleeing the country. If I were on the lam I’d probably head to the mountainous Andes region, pretend not to speak English, and disappear.

An interesting fact about Cuba is that due to the influence of the Soviet Union, an impressive classical ballet program was built up in the country, giving rise to dancers like Carlos Acosta and Xiomara Reyes.

XiomaraReyes
Xiomara Reyes

Communist Cuba has also produced some good chess players, but none like Jose Capablanca, who died long before the Cuban Revolution.

I think it’s legal, or somewhat legal, for Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family members. So if my relative does end up moving there it might be worth visiting to see the Ballet Nacional de Cuba on its home turf. And of course, to walk in Capablanca’s footsteps.

What’s Your Excuse?

In the news recently have been stories of svelte moms posting toothsome photos of themselves as admonishment to fat women everywhere to get into shape. Maria Kang, who was briefly banned from Facebook for “hate speech,” posted this now famous picture of herself and her brood:

MariaKang

Post-partum mom Caroline Erikson recently posted this selfie while the placenta was practically dangling from her nether parts:

erikson
Ooo-la-la

She too has been accused of hate speech against fat mothers everywhere by virtue of immortalizing her hot bod so soon after ushering her child into the world.

It’s an odd world indeed when fit mothers not only make international news, but are the target of such vitriol. Shouldn’t we be proud of these women for managing to stay fit through pregnancy and beyond? Okay, fine, I get it: it seems excessively catty of them to be spreading their images across the internet– they’re being insensitive, judgmental. But since when do thin women need to cover up, to spare the feelings of heavier women? Aren’t we treading on dangerous territory in this respect?

What neither Ms. Kang nor Ms. Eriksen probably understand is that– for reasons unknown– some people just have a much easier time of staying thin than others. The fact that they are so fit after having children likely places them in this category, and once a person is in that category it’s difficult to stand in the shoes of those struggling with weight issues. Very few people are consciously choosing to be heavy; there are a slew of emotional, neuro chemical, and physiological issues preventing them from losing weight.

I am very thin, even after having 7 kids. In fact I’d say I’m thinner than either of these ladies (though I didn’t give birth four days ago):

1213

but I don’t come from a background of “good weight genes.” My entire family of origin is or has been overweight to obese. I grew up watching every last family member struggling with weight and, seemingly, incapable of keeping it off. These were not weak willed or lazy people, nor were they ignorant about nutrition or calories. My family has an incredibly strong work ethic and are all highly educated. But for some reason, in the environment of food excess that the western world currently is, something is triggered in them to eat in a way that can’t be easily controlled. This has nothing to do with strength of character; the reasons are likely infinitely complex, having to do with human evolution and the brain’s response to food.

If anything, I am the anomaly, as I was born with a small appetite and a comparatively low desire for food. So it’s easy for me. Perhaps it’s those of us who are naturally thin who need an excuse; we are the abnormal ones, who, for whatever reason, don’t have the typical response to food excess. That doesn’t mean we should be chased off of facebook or excoriated in the public eye, but it might behoove Ms. Kang to understand that being overweight isn’t a result of laziness and excuses. People aren’t waking up in the morning and thinking, “You know what, I don’t want to look like Maria Kang, let me be utterly lazy and gluttonous today.” People are overweight for reasons far more complex and nuanced than cooking up excuses, and she does deserve to be called out for that.

Salty Bird

After posting recently about my childhood holidays, I realized I am duty-bound to carry on the tradition of grand fetes for my children. If I don’t carry the flag, who will? They’ll stumble into adulthood never having known what a real party is. Of course I’m sixteen years too late in the case of my son, but only two years late in the case of my youngest. The rest will just have to remember the year mom went mad with holiday cheer.

So I’m trying hard to be cheerful about the upcoming holidays, and promised the kids a real Thanksgiving meal with a turkey (I usually make chicken or duck). They wanted a duck too, but I was shocked by the duck prices at Pathmark yesterday– I think the farmers must tuck the ducks into satin cushioned beds each night, to merit the prices I saw.

The thing is, I’m not much of a turkey cooker. I’ve cooked thousands of chickens in my time but only a few turkeys. My second favorite way to cook chicken is in a salt crust– the recipe used to be on the back of the kosher salt box years ago. You put a 1/2 – 1 inch layer of coarse kosher salt on the bottom of the pan, place the bird breast side down, then coat the rest of the bird with a thick layer of salt. You then spritz it with water to seal, or squeeze water from a wet cloth over it, and roast at a high heat as per usual. At the end of cooking time the salt crust is hardened and easy to break off the bird, which is salty (but not too salty) and juicy from having all its juices sealed in by the crust. I’ve also noticed that during cooking, the salt layer on the bottom of the pan absorbs any leftover blood or liquefied guts; this seems to improve the taste since the blood doesn’t mingle with the meat while cooking.

I’m wondering if this might work while cooking a turkey? The bird will be at a lower temperature but I’m concerned the long cook time might create an unpleasant result, like a blackened salt crust. Nevertheless I plan to try it come Thanksgiving day. I also plan to make squash and Parker House rolls, the latter being a Thanksgiving recipe handed down generations. I used to beg my mom to make Parker House rolls during the rest of the year but she refused, saying bread would make us fat. This was before low-carb was known to man, and I was always skin and bones anyway. I think she just didn’t want the hassle of bread baking.

No es lo que piensas

As I mentioned previously, my parents did not want a girl when I was born. This was before ultrasounds, so the news of my gender after 9 long months of anticipation must have been a guillotine through my parents’ hearts. I know my father well, and I can see his 1973 face in the hospital waiting room– devastation, anger, his serious face all the more serious behind his black-framed nerd glasses. He probably swore colorfully in German, lit a cigarette (he quit when I was 4), went for a long drive, then hit some adult beverages. Not necessarily in that order.

So there was exactly one person in the household happy to see me when I was carried through the doorway in a pink blanket bundle: my paternal grandmother, who lived with us. She was 63 years old at the time, gray hair still black at the nape of her neck, her complexion perpetually suntanned to bronze, fiendishly smart and impeccably neat. Whether she took pity on my circumstances, or whether it was just kismet, I don’t know, but we took to each other like a fish to water. We were inseparable through my childhood. If I had a nightmare I stole down to her room. For a period it was unclear to me that my parents were my parents; I thought she was my parent, and that my parents just happened to live there. She took care of me day to night, kept me company, told me she loved me, nicknamed me Tesora (“treasure”), and held my always cold feet when we watched TV together. We talked about everything from politics, to TV shows, to her life in Buenos Aires before she came to the states at the behest of my father.

She had a friend in Buenos Aires who was some years older. They made a pact, the two of them, that whoever died first would make every effort to return– in some form– to advise what awaited on the other side. Not unexpectedly her older friend died first; not long after she appeared to my grandmother in a dream and said simply: No es lo que piensas– It’s not what you think.”

So of course my grandmother and I made that same pact with each other. Whoever died first, and it would probably be, and it was, her, would make every effort to return to the other to illumine the afterlife.

My grandmother died a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. I was newly pregnant at the time and remember enduring the nausea through the preparation for her funeral; at the wake I touched her cold face and felt the earth swallow me up on the spot. When I stood by her grave I wanted to throw myself in alongside her. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would have just curled up in a ball somewhere and slowly wasted away.

In the back of my mind I remembered our pact, and while she did occasionally appear in my dreams it was nothing spectacular or informative. In fact when I dreamed about her she seemed simply alive, as though she’d never died, and it wasn’t until I woke that I’d remember she was gone. But seven years after her death, not long after my fourth daughter was born, I had a vivid dream that left me shaken.

In the dream I stood outside our old house. My grandmother lay on the ground gravely ill, and she died before my eyes. Not only did she die but I watched her body decay. It all happened quickly, as though in time lapsed photography, and then seamlessly her bones transformed into a lovely pink baby which was, to my surprise, suddenly in my arms. I walked into the house holding the baby.

I woke from this dream wondering if it was finally the message from beyond I’d been promised. And what did it mean? Was it a message of reincarnation? If so, why couldn’t she just come out and tell me? Or send a hindu mystic to lecture me?

I try not to think about her much. On the one had I feel she’s still alive inside of me. On the other hand the acknowledgement of the loss, that I’ve gone 17 years without her, years stacked on years, is unfathomable. So I don’t fathom it. I don’t even talk about her to my children, though I tend to keep my entire life before them a closely guarded secret. It took 16 years for the story of Pi Guy to come out.

Forget Me Not

I wanted to write more about my childhood, because I realized, once I’m gone, the memories are gone too; it’s not that the memories are so extraordinary but they are, after all, my memories.

When I was six years old we rented a house for a year while our house was being built. I’ve already written about this house previously; it was cavernous, old, and so remote there were no television stations (even cable– my sister, who still lives in the area, finally had satellite access available in 2008); in the evenings we gathered around the family room fireplace and watched flames burn and slash through the logs my grandmother fed them.

We moved to the newly built house when I was seven.  This house stood atop a steep hill with sloping yards on either side in the front, and a long, sightly winding driveway leading up to it. Behind the house was forest stretching endlessly.  Directly behind and on either side of the house were gardens that my grandmother fastidiously tended, also a flower garden running along the drive on one side. She grew roses there but the winters were so harsh she had to protect them with insulated covers; despite this the bushes sometimes died come spring. She planted forget-me-nots that naturalized even a half mile into the forest; we would see them while walking and knew they came from her. They grew densely around the house in clumped borders and we sometimes cut them in thick bunches for vases on our nightstand.

The immediate backyard consisted of a steep but short hill leading to the forest which stretched back level.  My sister and I eventually pressed two small trails leading into this part, the left one led to a beech tree we sometimes climbed (I was never much of a tree climber and rarely ascended more than three branches) where we’d sit and silently stare at the house through the branched veil.  The right path led to an area of pine, dotted sparsely, dead branches at the base and a lush dark canopy overhead.  Through this, one eventually found a small field of wild blueberries interspersed with thorny bushes; if brave, we endured scratched legs and hands to gather them.  And no matter which path one took one eventually hit a real path, blazed by god knows who, or when, as there was never a soul on our property except us. That path was two to three feet in width and followed the edge of a ravine that inclined down to a brook flowing east.  In places the ravine was lush with life, sun beating down, but over most of it more pine grew and it was shadowed and still.

This narrow path, going east, led to an open meadow where wildflowers grew, and insects never stopped swarming and buzzing over them in warm weather.  This was our favorite spot to catch butterflies, moths, or caterpillars, which we sadistically kept trapped in jars on a shelf. Descending the ravine led to denser forest that stretched seemingly forever; even walking half the day we never found the end, at which point we’d spend the remaining half walking back home.  In this area the forest floor sloped up then down, fallen trees lay helter-skelter making us pick our way gingerly over and around them.  Occasionally an outcropping of rock , tranquil, moss and lichen covered, punctuated the constant of trees. The moss was soft as fur and the lichen scaly like a graying disease.  There were marshes and small ponds, thick with salamanders, minnows and sludgy algae. We sometimes brought home samples of pond water to inspect under a microscope (donated by my pathologist aunt) and saw each drop teeming with life.  When we did see land animals it was at a distance; deer and rarely bears who paused to stare at us while we stared back petrified and shaken.

At points the trails grew wider and connected to other trails.  One in particular would have been nearly wide enough for a car, though hopelessly impassable with boulders and fallen trees.  At the pinnacle of this trail lay a hidden treasure: a massive rock outcropping where carefully chiseled names and dates– dating back centuries– were inscribed.  We felt like archaeologists studying the inscriptions, English names and dates from the 1700 and 1800s, all neatly and beautifully carved into the stone face.  I’ve often wondered if people actually hired stone carvers to do the job for them, or if people were so skilled, back then, such that they were handy with chisel and stone.

This is why, to this day, it is bizarre for me to be in a public forest and actually see other people enjoying the environs. I’ve tried visiting the greenbelt here on Staten Island, but it’s so jarring to see other people taking a walk through the woods, that it will stop me in my tracks, and I’ll wonder, for the briefest of seconds, if I’m seeing things.

My Father’s Nose

My maiden name is an unusual, long, multisyllabic, very german surname, and it caused me a lot of misery in grade school, as I was constantly the object of ridicule over it at the hands of my shorter-named peers.

When my paternal grandmother passed away, I was surprised to see our name printed with a “von” in front of it, in her obituary.  I’d never in my life seen it written that way.  I asked my dad about it– he shrugged and said it meant “from.”

I know nothing about my grandfather, and knew better than to ask my dad further questions, so I let it rest.  But today on a whim I googled my maiden name, but this time with the “von” in front and it turns out there is a mildly famous person with this name: an 18th century engineer who I swear has my father’s nose.

furhat

Great, great great, great great great, Grandpa?

If only I could resurrect his spirit to tutor my 14 year old in math.  He’s got that compass ready to rip!