Friday, October 31, 2008

A Day Brightener

Yesterday I received a Halloween card from my Auntie D. She's my mother's only sister, my godmother, and the most faithful card-sending occasion-rememberer I know. She not only sends cards for birthdays, anniversaries and major holidays, but also for Halloween, Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. They always arrive on time, and always include a little note or a newsy letter.

What's amazing about her steadfastness in sending cards is that she has the most low-tech system imaginable: it's called a calendar. In spite of the number of accessible and affordable state-of-the-art, high-tech data storage, time management and communication devices that are available to us, how many of us still forget birthdays, fail to return phone calls, or are late for appointments?

Cosmo, whose core message on salesmanship is rooted in the basics of time management and the discipline of consistent behavior, regularly cites my aunt's "system" as the most effective of any he knows. Why? Because she's found a method that works for her, she's committed to it and she uses it.

I can't describe how much pleasure and comfort I felt when I saw that bright orange envelope with her distinctive handwriting amid the rest of yesterday's mail. I was transported back to my childhood and took a moment to remember just how important a role this sweet 70-something woman has played in my life. Along with my mother and my grandmother, she was the biggest influence of my formative years. Most of the things that are important to me and central to my value system, I learned from these three strong and amazingly different women. Auntie D is the sole survivor of this influential triumvirate.

I know everyone's busy anymore and I do appreciate emails and phone calls, but what a blessing to have somebody who has known me all my life, who lives 3000 miles away and has endured her own share of heartache, who still takes the time to reach out to me with lovely little things like a Halloween card.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

More Memories of Meals in Italy

As we settle into fall, with crisp days and cooler nights, I want to cook comfort food: hearty soups, stews, pasta dishes. What I really want is to return to Italy and to experience again some of the incredible meals we ate there. Recalling a few of the more memorable might assuage my yearning for now.

Our travel agent recommended Bocca Negra in Firenze. We walked there from our hotel on our second night in Italy, and this is the first place where Cosmo started to connect to his roots. the meal was fine, but it was the drama that currounded our meal that made the evening memorable.

We ordered a bottle of wine and when the waiter brought it to the table and uncorked it, before he even raised the cork to his nose, he made a face and then stepped away from our table and set the bottle down on an empty table nearby. Then he sniffed the cork and made another face, then went to the bar and brought back a wine glass. Poured a small amount into the glass, swirled, sniffed, tasted and spit out the wine into the glass. He picked up the bottle, walked quite resolutely away from us, slammed the bottle down on the steps leading to the upper balcony area of the restaurant, turned to us and said apologetically, “It’s bad—vinegar-- I’ll get another bottle.” He returned and repeated the entire tasting sequence carried out at the same neighboring table, I suspect this was all done to spare us the effrontery of getting a whiff of this noxious brew. When the second bottle met his approval he stepped over to our table and poured into our glasses. The wine was delicious.

Satisfied that he had given us a quality product, he again left the room, but on his way out, he stopped to tell the story to another waiter, who promptly retrieved the bottle from the stairs and took a sniff, then looked our way with a sheepish glance and said, “good for salads, not to drink.”

Our waiter left, and returned with our antipasti and was followed by the maitre d’, who also lifted the bottle to his nose, poured himself a taste, repeated the same reaction of disgust, looked over at us and also apologized. The two waiters and the maitre d’ then engaged in a lengthy discussion complete with hand gestures, and it was clear that they were commiserating on the horror of this situation.

This scene was repeated at least twice more, whenever another restaurant employee came into the room: our waiter recounting the event, the other person smelling and/or tasting to see for himself, agreement as to the poor quality of the wine, animated discussion about what an outrage this was. Cosmo and I were the only ones in the place who never got close enough to that bottle to smell even the cork. But we thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment that the incident provided.

Another memorable meal was in a tiny trattoria in Lucca called Da Leo .We had lunch there at the recommendation of our guide. It was a bit off the main tourist drag, just a little out of the way, but well worth the short walk. We were the only tourists in the place, it was obvious that every other patron knew each other and the staff knew each of the other patrons. We felt completely welcome, however, and we enjoyed watching the scenarios playing out as these neighbors visited with each other. Two children ate at a corner table with their father and then got up and ran around the place, hugging the staff and greeting patrons.We think one of the waitresses was their mom. A dog wandered in from outside and sniffed around a bit, was largely ignored, then left. An older gentleman tended the bar which was more like a tabletop bridging a space connecting the two dining areas. The bar was covered with wine decanters and the gentleman was filling and rearranging the decanters.

Our guide recommended the farro soup.Farro is a grain and it’s a local crop. I can’t even describe how delicious and rich this simple soup tasted. Cosmo also ordered the meatballs and grilled vegetables plate. The vegetables were something like a tempura, and the meatballs clearly had been fried in olive oil. Two sheets of plain brown paper separated the entrĂ©e from the plate and gently absorbed the grease. I had escallops of beef which were bathed in some kind of heavenly sauce, lemony and rich and perfetto. We thought we were in heaven and I only wished I could have gone around the room and snapped a photo of everyone in the place. The faces, the expressions, the stories!

Finally for memories to sustain, there's Tre Scalini in Roma. We went there after our morning at the ruins of the palace of the Roman emperor Ottavio Augustus and the Colloseum. The reservations had been made for us earlier, but our guide (who is an Italian version of a combination of Teed and Diva) gave us the option of eating elsewhere. We were all too happy to follow her recommendation. She escorted us in, introduced us to the owner, made sure we were pleased with the place, and left us with huge kisses and a flourished exit. We dined outside under a canopy.

To start, we were presented with glasses of proseco, the Italian version of a light champagne. Our waiter was superbly adept and of course gracious.We started with a minestrone for Cosmo and a creamy tomato soup garnished with fresh basil for me. Next we shared several plates including lasagna that melted in our mouths, eggplant parmeggiano that practically made me cry, and a lemony chicken dish. We were easily talked into the house specialty for dessert, a wondrous pile of chocolate gelato surrounding a cherry and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. For this we did not share, we ordered due.

We left Tre Scalini convinced that if we never ate another meal we could die happy, and went out onto the Piazza Del Navona, on a glorious sunny day. Cosmo went to a tabacchiera to buy himself a cigar and I wandered around the square to check out the vendors. We found each other back on the plaza, in front of a street performer who was singing O Solo Mio for an enraptured crowd. We bought some watercolor prints as souvenirs from one of the many local artists whose works I had browsed.

It took us about an hour to walk back to our hotel, and this was a good thing as it was an opportunity to work off a few of the calories. Not until we were on the plane headed back home did I discover that Tre Scalini is listed in the book “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”
(Photos from top: Opera on the Piazza Navone, Cosmo enjoys a cigar on the Piazza after lunch at Tre Scalini, Lunch at Da Leo, Espresso after dinner at Bocca Negro)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ah, sweet mystery of life

Cosmo and I have known each other for almost 39 years; been married for 37. I'm fond of saying that our socks have been tumbling around in the dryer together for a long time. You'd think that would mean-- after hanging around with each other for almost four decades-- that we know each other pretty well, that maybe there aren't many surprises. You might think that, but I'm here say it ain't necessarily so.

A dyed-in-the-wool romantic might think that I'm taking this in a starry-eyed direction, leading to a conclusion that has something to do with continuing to discover sweet things about each other after all these years. Yeah, that can happen, but that isn't what's on my mind these days. It's more mundane, and tied to everyday realities and it befuddles me.

Cosmo and I have been through a lot together. Sickness, health, richer, poorer, good times and bad. Raised three kids, discovered the joys of grandparenting, faced fears, uncertainty, a couple of recessions and unemployment, fought over and resolved many an issue, agreed to disagree on many more. Stood together in the face of adversity, basked together in triumph, have a boatload of memories that we can summon for each other with a brief phrase.

One might think at this point in the game we'd be well equipped to roll with the punches and just take life as it comes.

But it just doesn't always work that way. Obviously, we get through all the big stuff, but sometimes the little stuff can throw us more off-balance than a blanket in the washer and we find ourselves clunking around, making ugly noises and spinning out of control.

I hate it when that happens. And years of experience at this game hasn't really given me any insights as to why,or to see the warning signs that we're headed for one of these out-of-whack phases. It seems like one day I can look at this guy and hardly need to say a word before I know that he knows what I'm thinking, and the next day-- heck, the next minute-- he can say something that seems so utterly preposterous that I look at him and ask, "Who are you and how did you get inside my house?"

I just don't understand how on some nights we can reach for each other's hand in the dark without so much as a word, then wake up to start a new day and before the breakfast dishes are washed, get so off track with one another that we can't even find words to start a conversation.

And how is it possible to feel like we're facing a major issue one day and then be unable to describe the situation in a coherent sentence the next?

I know one thing, our basic natures make situations like this very unsatisfying for me. Cosmo will do almost anything to avoid conflict. I, on the other hand, am combat-ready at all times and I have an arsenal of weaponry at my fingertips. There's a scalpel for dissecting any situation, a shovel that helps me "get to the bottom of things," about a half dozen whips in various shapes and sizes--all suitable for beating a dead horse, a microscope to examine the minutest of details, an unabridged dictionary and a thesaurus to determine EXACTLY what was meant by any given comment, a keen ability to dig up the past, and oh, did I mention the menopause-related hormonal imbalance that makes me so easy to reason with?

So for the past week or so we've been bickering on and off about something truly trivial. Every time I want to revisit the topic (in other words, fight some more), Cosmo is maddeningly calm and insists on being distractingly logical. I'm convinced he does this just to make me more furious. Then life goes on and we sit down for a meal or talk about current events or share news of the kids, grandkids or something that happened to one of us that day, and poof, the storm clouds disappear for awhile. But we haven't really resolved the so-called "issue." I suspect we might not.

I wonder if other couples go through phases like this. Funny, but as many conversations as I've had about relationships, I don't recall ever talking about this particular phenomenon. As for me, there's no life lesson yet, no epiphanous moment, no rainbow-watching-kiss-and-make-up part or happy ending. When we get this way, there isn't even enough passion or anything fundamental enough to warrant a make-up kiss. It's just one of those crazy things.We'll get over it, we'll move on to other things, and in time I'll bet we find something really important to argue over,or enough time will pass and this will just fade into a distant memory and a moot point.

I guess not everything needs to be fully resolved or wrapped up in a neat package and tied with a bow. Some things are just mysteries, especially when we're talking about something as complex as a lifelong partnership with somebody who can still make me weak in the knees when he walks into the room, damn him.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Took the week off

When I started this blog a month ago it seemed like it would be a good way to keep myself accountable to my aspiration of writing. My goal was one post per week. I got to three for three and dropped the ball.

I thought about writing something last week (I know that doesn't count) but I was at odds with myself and the world, couldn't maintain focus, couldn't land on a theme, yadda yadda yadda.

If I've gained any wisdom and/or learned anything about myself since I started to feel grown up enough to even use the word wisdom, it's that this is the critical time for me: right here, right now. This is the place in which I've given up on one too many diets, exercise programs, plans for better self discipline, books, creative projects. The list goes on. I start strong, go for a little while, get to a hard place, miss a step, give up. OR...

Acknowledge that I took a week off, shrug and recommit myself to the goal, and start fresh today.

Years ago I was lying in bed, feeling fat, out-of-shape and sorry for my flabby self. As I gradually came out of my self-indulgent daydreamy state, I realized that I was actually staring at our NordicTrac and it was almost screaming to me, saying, "I'm right here, you idiot! The solution to your doldrums is about 10 steps away. Get up out of bed and come over here and move for 20 minutes."


In a brief but significant Aha moment, I learned something that day that for the most part has stuck, which is: usually the situation is not as complicated as I'm making it out to be, usually the answer is right under my nose, and usually it involves getting out of bed and doing something.

So here I am, back at the keyboard. I missed a week, but I'm writing now. In the past week I've looked forward to reading two of my favorite columnists in the local paper, only to find their photos and the announcement that they were" taking the week off." I guesss if it's ok for Nicole Brodeur and Ron Judd to do once in awhile, it's ok for me, too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Another Birthday Reflection

Today my "baby" turns 28. She's the only one of my children who, on her birthday, asks me to tell her the story of the day she was born. I just spoke with her, and in a 45-minute conversation we talked about everything from politics to job searches and interviews to the meaning of life, but we didn't get to the story of October 1, 1980. Now she has begun a day fully scheduled with work, time with friends and a date with her partner this evening at a restaurant she's been anxious to try. It's possible I won't talk to her again today, so I'll tell the story here:

The story really begins the night before when Cosmo and I went to a Marriage Encounter meeting with a group of people who had become our friends and support network in a surprisingly short time. We met at the home of the couple who would become Diva's godparents. Cosmo remembers vividly that the future godmother served doughnuts, but that detail escapes me.

What I do remember is that I shared with the group the fact that at this stage in the game-- my ninth month of pregnancy-- I was not at all sure that I had the wherewithal to be a good mother to three children. Somebody said point blank, "Why, dear, you're just terrified, aren't you?" At first I vehemently denied that I was that scared, but being the M.E. folks that they were, and hellbent on identifying FEELINGS, they weren't going to let me off until I admitted that, yes, I was feeling scared, maybe even terrified. And that being out on the table, we moved on, because in M.E. you don't judge feelings, you just identify them and let them be what they are.

But I went home with a few things to think about: first that I was, in fact, scared, and second that it was OK to be scared, and right around the corner from that-- now that the fear was identified and out there-- was the possibility that I could consider and talk about exactly what I was so afraid of. Hmmm... I couldn't quite articulate it, except that I was just not sure that I would be able to give all the time, attention and love that three children would need. Especially since the two we already knew were best described as Night and Day, and I just couldn't quite imagine what other personality flavors there might be.

As it turned out there wasn't much time to ponder any of this, because sometime during that night my labor started, and by 6:00 the next morning our next-door neighbor was settled in and ready to care for Teed and Nando and get them off to school, and Cosmo and I were packed up and heading off to the hospital.

The morning commuter traffic slowed us down a bit, but that didn't stop Cosmo from stopping at a convenience store for a pack of cigarettes. (Seems almost incomprehensible today, but wasn't a wild idea back then.) The plan was for Cosmo to be present during delivery (somewhat optional, maybe even a little controversial in those days), but as my labor progressed, at some point he announced that he felt faint; no surprise considering he had an empty stomach and was operating only on nicotine. (I, on the other hand, had had the foresight and rebelliousness to eat something before we left home, because I knew they wouldn't feed me at the hospital until after the baby was born)

It took the nurses about two seconds to whisk Cosmo out of the room and set him up with juice and crackers.Truth be told, I think they were of the school of thought that purports to fathers being better off out of sight during birthing, and were just as happy to have him out of the way. (Have I spelled out clearly enough that these were different times?)

With Cosmo taken care of, we got on to the business of delivering this baby. It all went pretty smoothly, and calmly, and I will always remember the doctor saying,"It's a girl," followed by the nurse cooing appreciatively, "Oh, she is BEAUTIFUL." And she was, just a perfect pink bundle, making her first appearance with little fuss, just showing up.

Blood sugar restored, Cosmo was first on the scene to admire and hold our little girl, to kiss me and assure me that all was well with the world, and to make phone calls to grandparents.

And all was well with the world, and over time I learned the age-old lesson that all experienced mothers know, that a mother's heart has plenty of love, and that each addition to a family only expands our capacity to love.

Nevertheless, I not only had fears about being an inadequate mother, I also harbored a very real dread of living in a prolonged state of sleep deprivation. Wisdom of the ages aside, of this I was certain: I don't do sleep deprivation well or gracefully or cheerfully. Not even a little bit.

I've heard that God answers all prayers, only sometimes the answer is no. I also think sometimes when the answer is yes, and we get what we ask for, it becomes more of a challenge to growth than the lessons learned through disappointment.

In any case, my selfish and immature heart had spent plenty of time in supplication, asking for a healthy baby who slept. A LOT. And amazingly, mercifully, I was granted exactly that, a beautiful, healthy baby who slept like a little bear in hibernation. Feed her, change her, rock her, put her down and she was out for the count, even with all the household noise that comes with two older children running around. And when she woke up, she'd coo and play patiently until someone came in to get her.

As she grew, her ability to sleep soundly became the material for many a family legend, including the time we were staying in a hotel and the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night and we had to leave the building. When we couldn't rouse our little sleeping beauty, Cosmo scooped her up, wrapped her in a blanket, carried her down multiple flights of stairs and into the parking lot where we stood with the other guests until we got the all-clear to return to our rooms. Cosmo carried his little bundle back up the stairs and returned her to her bed, her sleep undisturbed. And she didn't remember any of this when we told her about it the next morning. Now THAT'S a good sleeper.

Of course, that is only one quality about her that is noteworthy, but that's all material for other postings. Today is the birthday story.

So, Happy Birthday to the nicest surprise I ever got.