Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Monday, February 22, 2016

Birthday Bonanza

Steve Elders, who wasn't born on Valentine's Day, but on 2/22/58

Happy  birthday today to Stephen Paul Elders, who showed up a little late for the birthday party I had planned all those years ago.

Birthday Bonanza

“I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they’ll have to be quick or else I’ll be telling them about mine.”  --Dylan Thomas

We both expected our daughter to be born on Valentine’s Day. The obstetrician always had pinpointed the due date in mid-February, so we had no reason not to believe that our little girl would grow up celebrating her birthday on the most romantic of all holidays.

In 1958, long before ultrasound and amniocentesis, my husband, Bob, and I had no guaranteed way to determine our child’s sex. Nonetheless, we blissfully absorbed all the Old Wives’ Tales. At my shower, the wedding ring suspended over my bump swung back and forth rather than in circles, a surefire indication, my girlfriends swore, that we could expect a girl. And because I carried high, Grandma Simmons already had knitted two pairs of pink booties. So though we didn’t entirely rule out spending future Saturdays trudging to Little League games, privately we believed we’d be traipsing instead to ballet recitals and doll exhibitions.

As the big day approached, we settled on a name, Wendy, but just in case, chose Stephen as a backup.

“When Wendy’s five, she can have her kindergarten friends over after school for Valentine games and treats,” Bob offered. My eyes lit up, envisioning heart-shaped balloons and cakes.

Then another picture entered my mind. “Uh, but what if we’re wrong? What if it’s Stephen? Won’t he be embarrassed about a Valentine’s birthday?”

Bob and I gawked at each other. In our cozy fantasy land, we hadn’t even considered that possibility.

He frowned. “Hmmm. Well, at least we’re in Long Beach, California. We could always celebrate at Marineland or Knott’s Berry Farm.” I sighed. My heart was set on tea parties, lace doilies and red
balloons. And chocolate.

By early February my hospital bag was packed and ready to go, including a paperback copy of Dylan Thomas’ Quite Early One Morning. I’d planned to read those essays and stories during my three-day stay at St. Mary’s.

On February 14 I lolled in the maple rocking chair near the front window, waiting for the labor pains to commence. When Bob came home from work he handed me a pair of cuddly teddies. “One for you and one for Wendy,” he said.

But by midnight I finally accepted that Wendy wouldn’t be blowing out her birthday candles on a heart-shaped cake.

The next few days I dragged around the house, curiously downhearted. I’d slip into the nursery and try to admire how I’d decorated it with Disney cutouts arranged on pale lemon walls. Now, though, when I stared at the crib, I no longer could picture my rosy-cheeked little girl grabbing for the wooly farm animals on the mobile sent by Grandpa Crawford.

Then one midnight, shortly after Bob and I had retired, a pain cut through my lower back and I knew my time finally had arrived. We hustled to the hospital where I remained in labor for the next ten hours before delivering our son, Stephen.

That was the first surprise. The second came when a nurse carried in my lunch tray. Bob, who was seated by my bed, smiled approvingly at a slab of cherry pie topped by an American flag.

“Look,” he said, holding it up for my benefit. I eyed the pie blearily, and then redirected my gaze to the pillow-case-wrapped baby asleep in my arms.

“You go ahead and eat it, honey,” I said. “I’m not very hungry.”

“Don’t you get it?” he asked, plucking up a paper napkin and dangling it in front of my face. It carried a red, white and blue drawing of George Washington. “Stephen’s going to share his birthday with the father of our country. A real manly day to celebrate.”

For the next couple of days I dozed, fed the baby, and read Thomas’ lyrical praises of his childhood in Wales. I gave Grandma’s pink booties to my hospital roommate who had given birth to a girl, just as she’d anticipated. When we got home, I tucked the napkin and flag from the lunch tray into Steve’s baby book.

For the next several years, from Kindergarten to fifth grade, when Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law which switched George Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February, Steve always had his birthday off from school. And Bob and I always took him and his best buddy, Kevin, to Disneyland to celebrate. Even after the holiday was changed, Steve got his trip to Disneyland on the closest Saturday.

A few years ago, at a memorial service for Bob, I reconnected with Kevin, Steve’s lucky pal. We stood and chatted a bit about the gang of kids who grew up together at Circle Gardens apartments.

“How fortunate that Steve had February 22 for his birthday,” Kevin remarked. “When we get together these days we reminisce a lot about all those wonderful trips to Disneyland back in the ‘60s. We’d liked the old World of Tomorrow and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and we used to get a kick out of riding the monorail.”

I smiled, charmed that at least two men I know, besides Dylan Thomas, have childhood memories worth sharing.

Now as his birthday nears once again, I wonder if Steve really prefers cherry pie to the Valentine-shaped chocolate birthday cakes I’d conjured up in my pre-natal days. I’ll have to ask him. I know that in honor of the man who shares his birthdate, I’ll get an honest answer…since he cannot tell a lie.

As for my mythical daughter, Wendy, she sometimes shows up in my dreams. In the words of another Dylan, she remains forever young…with rosy cheeks smeared with chocolate frosting.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Posies, Pubs and Poets...and Aerobics

Winchester Cathedral

'Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.'--Dr. Samuel Johnson

Thirty-six years ago I made my first visit to England, Shakespeare's scepter isle. I'd longed since childhood to stroll the same London streets as the Bard of Avon, Dr. Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. I written about my impressions of  London and southern England for Uncle Jam, an arts magazine then based in Long Beach, CA. I'd titled it "Posies, Pubs and Poets." I recall recounting how I'd encountered Johnson's ghost in his writing room in his London home, and how I'd visited the Bristol pub where Daniel Defoe encountered Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish castaway who gave him his idea for Robinson Crusoe.  I'll be writing about this trip, as well, for the same magazine, still published by Phil Yeh.
Sue Burchfiel, Amazing Grays instructor

I'd gone in 1980 in late February, the same time of the year as I'm heading there next week for what will be my 15th or 20th trip...I've lost count. This morning, I got a sneak preview of my upcoming visit to the country that I'm still so enamored with, thanks to a simulation conducted by Sue Burchfiel. Sue, who calls us The Amazing Grays, provides fitness classes here at my H-W Senior Living apartment complex. 

Possessed with boundless energy and creativity, Sue delights in fashioning narratives to keep our low impact aerobic classes intriguing. There's not ever any boring routines. Sue invents imaginary adventures and selects songs to provide us with an appropriate musical backdrop to bounce and gyrate to.

For instance, last October we all became "Ghostbusters", doing "The Monster Mash," and chorusing, "We ain't afraid of no ghosts." When we'd tired of the December gloom and holiday hustle bustle, Sue decided we needed a timeout in Hawaii, so off we headed for the islands. Once there, we mimicked surfers, hula dancers and fishermen, before bidding a concluding "aloha." Recently one of the tenants in this complex got married...and we all paced through her wedding day, from the moment the bride awoke to prepare for her big moment, to heading for the courthouse, to struggling to catch the bridal bouquet to doing the chicken dance at her reception

This morning, it was my trip to England that we danced our way through. We started out showering, phoning Uber, and driving to the airport...imitating the Uber driver putting on the brakes on the crowded freeway. Yes, we were "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Sue detoured us through New York City, where we exercised to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" as we glimpsed the Statue of Liberty and rode in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. When we finally in London we were met with Beatles tunes, and decided to take a side trip to "Winchester Cathedral." (That was a seldom-heard-these-days hit by the New Vaudeville Band.) We finally made it to our cottage on the Isle of Wight, one of my actual destinations this trip, to "When I'm 64." 

Aldwych Theate, now playing "Beautiful."
Next we headed in Liverpool, where we embarked on a "Magical Mystery Tour," which, again, I'll really do. We even visited a pub or two, and attended a Carole King concert featuring, "You've Got a Friend." I'd mentioned to Sue that I'd snagged tickets for "Beautiful: the Carole King Musical," and she'd managed to work that into our morning routine.

Throughout the routine, Sue kept reminding us of how much we loved the beauty of England, the art, the music, the theater, the whole English experience. She captured the love and enthusiasm, the delight that I carry for the country. 

We'll be recapping the simulated adventure later this week, since Sue alternates our cardio and yoga classes. And then next Tuesday, I take off for real, via a shuttle bus, for LAX. Once again I'll enjoy my posies, pubs and poets. I hope to get enough walking in to offset the temporary vacation from my fitness classes. While I'm gone I'll be missing Sue and my fellow Amazing Grays.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Pasta Amore: A Pair of Merry Mollusks

Linguini with red clam sauce; aka, Pasta Amore 
“A man taking basil from a woman will love her always.” - Sir Thomas Moore

February 14 fell on a Tuesday in 1956, not a good news day for us. Bob and I had hoped to spend our first Valentine’s Day evening as a married couple at the Villa Nova, our favorite Italian restaurant. But I wouldn’t get a paycheck until Friday, and we’d already spent Bob’s GI Bill allowance on the rent and utilities for our tiny apartment.

“Don’t worry, honey,” Bob said that noon as we munched on our bologna sandwiches and apples on the shady patio of the cafeteria at Long Beach State College. “We’ll celebrate tonight somehow.”

An eternal optimist, Bob kept up the chatter as he drove me to the valve manufacturing firm atop Signal Hill. I’d been lucky in landing a part time job there, editing the company newspaper, a glossy monthly.

“I’ll pick you up at 5. We’ll have a cozy supper at home tonight. I think I’ll have enough left after I fill up this old Pontiac’s tank to buy a bottle of Chianti, and you can cook me up a Valentine’s surprise.”

It would be a surprise all right, I thought, trying to recall what remained in the pantry that I could make a meal of. Nonetheless, I forced a smile. At least we had each other, and we wouldn’t be paupers forever. Bob intended to take the local police department exam in a couple of months, with the goal of joining the force by summer. We were certain he’d be assigned a swing shift, which would enable him to continue his police science studies at the college. He still had another year to complete for his degree.

At the office I conferred with Alisa, who worked in accounting.

“What can I make for a special supper tonight when I don’t even have any meat?”

“Have you got any canned clams?”

“I think so, but that’s hardly festive. Besides Bob doesn’t like chowder.”

Alisa grinned. “I’m talking pasta, baby. Pasta means amore…trust me, I’m Italian. Men love pasta. I’ll give you my mom’s recipe. And remember, if you don’t have one thing on hand, just substitute another.  Santo Valentino would approve!”

“Saint Valentine’s Italian?” I cocked my head and furrowed my forehead. Somehow I’d vaguely thought of him as English, but realized I might have been thinking of a photo I’d seen of the statue of Eros in Trafalgar Square.

“Of course he’s Italian! He’s buried just north of Rome, near where my mom grew up.”

Alisa scribbled down her recipe and I tucked the folded paper into my pocket.

That evening Bob dropped me off at our place.

“OK, honey. You see what you can conjure up, and I’ll go get gas and some wine.”

I opened the recipe as I checked its ingredients against the few cans and jars remaining on the kitchen shelf.

Canned tomatoes, canned clams, olive oil, parsley, oregano and my favorite basil. Si certo, I had them all. Plus a package of linguini. I always kept onions and garlic on hand, and still had half a loaf of sour dough in the breadbox.  I even had a shaker of grated Parmesan. We’d have a feast. I rummaged around and found a red and white checked tablecloth and a couple of candles to make our kitchen table even more festive.

We ate every bite, and Alisa was right. It indeed was the food of love. Bob sopped up the last of the sauce with the last of the bread and sighed.

“My compliments to the chef. But I can’t keep eating all this pasta if I want to get in shape for the police exam,” he said, with a rueful shake of his head. He’d been running on the beach several evenings a week to prepare for the upcoming physical. “But tonight’s special, so I think Saint Valentine will work his magic and make these calories not count.”

“Did you know he’s Italian?” I always liked to share my new knowledge with my amiable husband.

He looked at me as if I were demented. “What else would he be? What did you think?”

“Never mind.” I sipped the last of my wine and smiled. “I’m just happy as a clam that you liked our dinner.”
“And why are clams so happy?”

I was relieved he’d asked. I always enjoyed sharing such tidbits.

“People forget the second half of that saying. It’s really ‘happy as a clam at high tide.’ I guess at high tide they are out there swimming around and not floundering on the sand where people dig them up.”

“You’re so smart,” Bob said, laughing. “Wait right here while I get your Valentine’s present.”

He went into the bedroom and I heard him open a drawer. He came back with a homemade Valentine…a heart cut from the Sunday funnies, and a Hershey bar with almonds.

“Next year I promise a two-pound box of See’s and a real Valentine,” he said, giving me a hug.

“What do you mean? This is a real Valentine!” I opened it and read the verse he’d scribbled in crayon. Bob never had been noted for his poetic skill.

I read it aloud: “I will be your Valentine, if you will be my clementine.”

I gave my husband a puzzled glance. “Clementine?  Didn’t she drown?”

“Clementine’s the name for those little mandarin oranges we saw at the Piggly Wiggly last Christmas. Remember how juicy and sweet and squeezable they were?” He squashed my hand to make sure I got the picture.

“And it’s the only rhyme I could come up with at the moment for Valentine.”

“I can think of another,” I said, grinning.

“What’s that?”

I giggled. “Frankenstein.”

Bob hooted. “How about concubine? Or Palestine?”

We cleared away the supper dishes, merry as a pair of mollusks…at high tide.

Alisa’s Mom’s Pasta Amore

1 pound package linguini                                l tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped onion                                      l tablespoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper                       2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 14.5 can tomatoes                                        2 6.5 ounce cans minced clams, undrained
1 tablespoon dried parsley                              1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil                                  salt, pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain
Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper and sauté 3 minutes or until onion is browned. Stir in tomatoes and tomato paste. Cook until thick, stirring constantly. Stir in clams, parsley, oregano and basil. Stir until heated through. Serve atop drained pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Heart to Heart: In Praise of Love

A few years ago "snark vs. smarm" became a hot topic on Twitter, Gawker and blogs. Some real heavyweights  offered opinions, including Tom Scocca and Malcolm Gladwell. I'd been amused at the time, and particularly had admired Grammarphobia's discussion of where the two words originated...probably because it concluded with a quotation from Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

Now, as Valentine's Day approaches, I've been shuffling through cards in local shops, shaking my head in dismay. The ones labeled "funny" nearly uniformly are snarky. The ones meant to be romantic indeed are smarmy. Nonetheless, when I saw Chicken Soup for the Soul's choice of an illustration in a recent newsletter,  mittened hands framing a lovely and loving quote from Vincent Van Gogh, I cheered up a little. Does "love" really need a defense? If so, here's a book I hope to be reading on Valentine's Day...I've put a hold request on it with my local library.

Who is Alain Badiou? Here's the note from the publisher: "Alain Badiou is the Rene Descartes Chair at the European Graduate School. A leading French philosopher and lifelong communist, he is a co-author (with Nicolas Truong) of In Praise of Love (The New Press) and the author of The Meaning of Sarkozy, Being and Event, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, and The Communist Hypothesis. He lives in Paris."

Here's the blurb that caused me to scuttle to my library account:

In a world rife with consumerism, where online dating promises risk-free romance and love is all too often seen only as a variant of desire and hedonism, Alain Badiou believes that love is under threat. Taking to heart Rimbaud’s famous line “love needs reinventing,” In Praise of Love is the celebrated French philosopher’s passionate treatise in defense of love.
For Badiou, love is an existential project, a constantly unfolding quest for truth. This quest begins with the chance encounter, an event that forever changes the two individuals, challenging them “to see the world from the point of view of two rather than one.” This, Badiou believes, is love’s most essential transfiguration.

When it comes to love, I'd trust the French.

What are you reading on Valentine's Day?