The Ditches

Sunday morning I had to visit someone in the hospital. I parked on bard ave- it being sunday morning I got a great spot- then traversed toward the hospital.

In order to do so I had to leap over a churning current of rain water pouring down the side of the road. It was a miniature river! Staten Island has been crazy rainy the past few days.

In doing so I had a flash of memory from my childhood, so vivid it left me shaken.

When we moved into our second home in new england, my beloved paternal grandmother decided there were drainage issues with our yard (no one else saw this, but she did). A steep hill behind our house sometimes sent rain water barreling toward the front yard, which in turn sent water tumbling into the street. Never mind there were exactly three houses on that street, and rain water emptied down a further steep (uninhabited) hill.

My grandmother took it upon herself to design an elaborate network of ditches that would otherwise conduct the water. That’s right: my 70+ year old grandmother, shovel in hand, dug a network of ditches around our house to redirect rainflow. It took her more than a year, with me occasionally assisting.

I was seven years old.

Hay que encontrar la manera! she would often say, panting for breath, in a jumble of english, spanish, and german. That was how she spoke.

She was ultimately successful. Those ditches redirected the water from our property into uninhabited woods. They criss-crossed  back, front, and side yards. She dug into the forest, emptying into burrows of pine needles and desolate woodland.

Last I checked, twenty years after she dug those trenches, and many years after her death, those trenches are still functional. Miniature manmade rivers redirecting rainwater around the property in neat, obedient currents.

She had an 8th grade education, forced out of school by world events. I often feel my own lavish education was an utter waste and would have been better spent on her. But it is what it is. God is weird.

I heard this song driving back home. My poor grandma is the antithesis of irish (no offense to irish) but she does ‘live on’ through me. Even the atheists out there can understand this: if a person impacts your heart, you carry their mortal legacy.

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Wimpy Wine

The island survived my absence: turkeys still grifting, opossums still gnawing through garbage, my oldest daughter kept the feral cat colony in our yard alive. My tomato plants died but that was written in the stars.

It was difficult being up there, not in ways I anticipated. Often while driving around it felt I never left. Nine years non existent, maybe a time loop. The town looked somewhat worse- I saw a meth head handcuffed & hauled into the police station- I never saw that while living here. I never saw anyone handcuffed until I moved to nyc.

My dad was irate. Ranting about my aunt, her lack of estate planning, nitpicking her last motions, grumble grumble grumble. God lord, I wanted to tell him- the woman was dying! Cut her some fucking slack. I kept my mouth shut.

My mother dragged us to church, “us” being the little guys and myself. Alright I get it, she wants to show off the grandkids. I’ll show them off too- they’re criminally cute.

The church was so depressing. They recently signed a compact with a lutheran church merging two dying churches, and I could sense one foot in there was turf war betides. The lutherans on one side, anglicans on the other. Stink eye ensued.

My lovely children started acting rotten so I dragged them to the back where exactly one child (I later learned he was being raised by his GREAT grandmother- both parents and grandma were unfit) playing with legos and toy sharks.

Did I like sharks!? he asked, full volume. I tried to shush him. Had I ever picked up a shark? Had I ever picked up a shark but failed! What was my favorite type of shark?

He rolled up his sleeve. I’ve gotta tattoo, he said proudly, showing off a temporary skull tattoo. I gave him a silent thumbs up then shushed him again.

Day before the funeral my parents had a wine and cheese event. My mom’s cousin was first to show up; they discussed weather, traffic, grandchildren, who was at what school studying what. There was discussion of family history. The cousin marveled how adept my two year old was at navigating stupid games on my defunct android. I listened politely… and thought of the steven king story where people slowly turn into vegetables.

Then my dead aunt’s buddies arrived. The greeted me uproariously- hugs, jokes, booze! My aunt’s best friend’s other best friend sat in an armchair, perched on a cane chatting brightly. Aunt’s best friend threw back a tumbler of gin. I don’t want any of that wimpy wine! — she bellowed– viking style. The other friends downed glasses of wine and nibbled on cheese. We discussed architecture, history… the house was rocking!

Then the funeral. It was at the merged church, beautiful in its day. Rich mahogany knotted the ceiling, elaborate stained glass pictographs: Ruth the Gleaner, John the Baptist, St. Michael– ready to charge.

I read from revelations, my sister read a poem. The gin drinker cried quietly.

A reception at my sister’s house. I wolfed down turkey and roast beef while my kids ate fruit. My sister’s german shephards skulked like patrolling soldiers while I clandestinely fed them pieces of meat. I watched our kids, all our kids, my kids, my sister’s kids, my sister’s friend’s kids, frolic in the gated garden. How surreal to regard such life in the shadow of death. The yard sloped down to a pond, endless acres of forest, the sky clear. I wonder as to the state of my aunt’s soul.

The funeral. We drove two hours to the grave site, my little guys surprisingly well behaved. An ancient retired pastor gave the homily while a grinning funeral home worker stood by his side. What a racket! (I later told my mom just to dump my ashes if I precede her in death.) The weather was sublime, a perfect breeze shimmering through towering oaks like god had planned it.

 

 

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. 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.

The Day I Knew I Was American

I was born in the United States, no ifs ands or buts about it. Unlike Obama, I would happily furnish a copy of my birth certificate issued by the state of Florida.

But I could tell, even at an early age, that something was really weird about the whole arrangement. We didn’t speak English at home. And we didn’t speak just one other language. It was a constant mix of Spanish and German with only occasional English interjected between my father and mother; when my father and his mother didn’t want my mother to understand them, they whispered in German. When my father and my mother didn’t want his mother to understand them, they spoke English. When things were calm, we all spoke Spanish. Argentina winning the world cup was The Most Important Thing in the World, yet our walls were lined with beer steins lettered in gothic German. My grandmother used German words for everyday things, like articles of clothing, but shifted to Spanish when she wanted to be more eloquent.

My sister and I were forbidden to speak German in public and in the haze of paranoia we quickly learned to opt for Spanish. English was slow in coming; on my first day of preschool (rare for the 1970s) I couldn’t understand a word the teachers said. My mother was mortified.

My mother’s parents, stodgy New Englanders, occasionally visited us down south and were horrified by my non-English speaking paternal grandma (she eventually did pick up fluent English, until she suffered a stroke) and my father’s strangely accented English. I don’t remember learning the pledge of allegiance until we moved to New England and were enrolled in the local public schools. Hand over heart, we chanted to the American flag. But wasn’t Argentina winning the world cup The Most Important Thing in the World?

We sang patriotic songs in school, the music books yellowed and dog eared. My Country ’tis of Thee, America the Beautiful, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. In fourth grade I won a state writing competition sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. To my great shock I learned my mother, and her mother, were DAR, and her stodgy mother went so far as to personally attend the award ceremony that was packed wall to wall with DAR ladies in Sunday best. But… what about Argentina winning the world cup?

It wasn’t until I was fourteen years old that I was able to see Argentina for myself. I blogged about that experience in this post. And here is a picture of fourteen year old me on the streets of Quilmes. Note the old cars- like Cuba, Argentina holds onto its cars.

14me

Our grim task that trip was to rebury my father’s father, whom I’d never met and knew nothing about.

While our accommodations in Argentina were lovely I found myself constantly feeling like a fish out of water. The people were strange. The food was strange. Everything was strange! I just wanted to get back home. Our expedition eventually drew to a close and we made the long flight back to the US (with a very long delay in a Brazil, that sent my father into a tirade against the airport personnel). Finally, in Logan Airport, we gathered our luggage and found our car in the garage. Emerging from the garage’s darkness a bright morning sun glared in my face. American sun, I realized with joy. American sun! And then- I don’t know if it was a government or commercial building- but we passed a large building that had an American flag high up on a pole, billowing in the wind.

The entire history of this country, at least as my 14 year old self knew it, flashed before my eyes upon sight of that flag, and a visceral relief poured over me. In an instant I saw every soldier who had suffered and died for that flag, every battle that had been fought; I collapsed against the back seat, eyes closed, tears streaming down my face. My mother turned to stare, perplexed. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I lied. “I’m just glad to be home.”

And that was the moment I realized I was an American, Argentina winning the world cup notwithstanding.

I made an inner vow to myself that I would never leave the country again. I only betrayed that vow once- when I visited Britain for the sole purpose of seeing the Tate Gallery, which I regretted (but that’s another blog post), and since then my feet have never touched anything but good old American soil.

To this day I still feel some version of that emotion when I see an American flag. Whether it’s on a Con Edison truck, fluttering from someone’s doorstep, or atop the roof of Costco. Thank God, is the feeling, thank God I’m here.

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.