I’ve made a few men cry out in my day, but this was different.
This was a blood-curdling scream.
I ran upstairs to the bathroom, almost tripping over the cat running the other direction. I burst through the door not knowing what to expect. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like anything a kiss and a batman bandaid would fix.
“Stay away,” he yelled, holding his pants in one hand and brandishing the plunger in the other. When I followed his horrified gaze to the bathtub, I could see what triggered his panic.
“It’s just cheese,” I tried to explain, but he was hyperventilating and past logical explanations.
I had been making cheese that day. Instead of using cloth bags, I used pantyhose. I tied them in pairs and threw them over a rod I installed over the bathtub to let the whey drip out. The cat liked lapping up whey at the bottom of the tub.
They did sort of look like balls.
There were about a dozen pairs.
When I went to grab one of the sacks to show him, he bolted, still holding his pants. I heard the door slam and his car start. I got to the window just in time to see him peal out of the dirt driveway from my farmhouse to the county road, leaving behind a cloud of dust.
He took my plunger.
The cat packed his bags and went on a road trip.
Yesterday, a recipe I was looking at listed cream cheese as an ingredient. I didn’t have any. “Well, then”, I thought, “I’ll just make some.” Homemade cream cheese is rich and smooth, not like those gummy bricks of Philadelphia Cream Cheese you buy in stores.
Hanging up my balls reminded me of the blood-curdling screamer, poor thing.
I need routine, to be active, to learn, and to be creative. These are my vaccines for depression. My morning routine goes something like this. The cat bats my nose, if that doesn’t work, she jumps on me. I pet the cat and talk to her, make the bed (she helps), feed the cat, do chores while the coffee is brewing, and take a cup up to the funky roof garden with the cat tagging behind. We soak up some sun. I flip through old Sunset Magazines.
Lately I’ve been wondering if it might not be time to settle down in a small town in the Southwest and have a garden, provided, of course, that I don’t die of the pandemic here in Mexico.
While I mull this over, the cat chases bugs.
Then we put on music (the cat likes Atomic Kitten) and run around the house. Sometimes I chase the cat, sometime she chases me. She is nearly a teenager. Her legs are impossibly long, but her body hasn’t caught up yet. She reminds me of a small shack on stilts in a Louisiana bayou.
Around and around we go. The cat tracks around corners, leaning into it like a biker. Yesterday, she spun out and ended up facing the opposite direction. She was clearly confused as to how I had disappeared without a trace. I clicked my tongue. She jumped straight up and executed one of those mid-air cork-screw turns cats and skaters do so well. I turned and ran.
Around and around.
When one of use throws in the flag, I go online while the cat goes back to sleep at the foot of the closet – her current favorite hidey hole. Clearly, sleeping most of the day does not cause depression in felines.
Afterward, there is no structure. It’s like that Chinese juggling act with plates on the top of bamboo poles; whatever plate is about to fall off gets a twirl. Occasionally, a plate comes crashing to the floor and breaks into pieces, making me cuss like a Marine while the cat looks on disapprovingly.
romWhen my son was little, I told him stories of Sonya the Red, who rode through the sky on a chopped 8-valve Hog with ape handlebars, picking him up at night after his parents had fallen asleep. We lived in Alaska at the time. Red could be relied upon to come for him when the Northern Lights were out.
Dylan had to be careful when he went on escapades with Red because she would try to talk him into things that no sensible boy should do. For example, she offered to take him to a tattoo parlor for his sixth birthday. Sometimes they were chased by polar bears Sonya owed money to. The vig was in salmon, and Dylan’s job was to throw them fish until they ate their fill and went away.
Red chewed Cougar snuff and wore Chanel Number Five, Goodwill evening gowns, and Harley-Davidson steel-toed boots. She could cuss in several languages, including Chinese and Polar Bear, which sound a lot a lot alike. Red smoked Montecristo No. 2 Cuban cigars and chewed Double Bubble gum at the same time. Her breath was so pungent from eating fish and smoking cigars that when she popped her bubble gum flowers would wilt and clouds of mosquitos would fall out of the sky dead.
Red was the night manager of the 25-room Hotel California. She had a lot of pretty boys she called friends. Normally, it was impossible to leave the hotel, but Red threatened to pop her gum and kill all the plants if they didn’t let her see her pajama-clad friend. Dylan visited the Hotel California several times with Red. He thought the people who stayed there were weird but interesting. He especially liked Dylan Thomas, after whom he was named, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote No Exit in room 32.
This reminds me of the desk my dad built in the bathroom. It was a pull-down affair that looked like a high-chair tray. When you dropped your drawers, sat and pulled down the desk top, the rest of the built-in features were visible: magazine racks holding National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Reader’s Digest and articles cut out from the Elkhart Truth; an ashtray, cigarettes and a lighter; a notebook and grease pencil for sketching out whatever my dad was in the process of inventing or building. He was always building something. We had a fully-wired playhouse with its own garage and a gocart.
While his three daughters engaged in hand-to-hand combat to do our hair in the only other bathroom, my dad smoked, sketched and dreamed in his temporary kingdom, his bathroom Brigadoon. I used to flip through his notebook to see what he was thinking of building next.
My dad’s bathroom smelled like stale smoke, Ben Gay ointment and Sen-Sens liquorice breath mints. I wondered if my dad was using the Sen-Sens to mask the bottle of booze I found in the back of the bathroom sink, hidden, no doubt, from my mother, who preferred to drink her spirits from a bottle of Lydia Pinkham´s herbal-alcoholic “women’s tonic.”
Today, there are always books in my bathroom. Instead of paper and a grease pen, I have a white board on the wall.
A friend of mine – a glass blower – is in Spain taking surfing lessons. His first day, he failed 75 times to get up on his board, only briefly managing to stand upright five times.
Seventy-five times and he kept trying. Equally striking, the focus of his story was on the five times he stood up.
Many people would have walked away, convinced they couldn´t learn to surf. Some would have blamed the teacher. Or the board. Or the weather. I hear these stories all the time. I call them quitting stories. The storyteller just couldn´t do it. They tried, but it just wasn´t in the cards. The reality is that it is easier to start something new than to keep trying. Closets and garages become filled with guitars, treadmills and other quitting paraphernalia.
Quitting can become a habit. Sometimes, someone´s entire story is about one failure after another. There are a lot of professional victims out there. I´m not interested in their dramatic woe-is-me tales of helplessness.
Give me something I can use.
Henri Bressons said that a photographer´s first 10,000 photos were his worse. He wasn´t talking about photos, he was talking about persistence, the act of going on in spite of obstacles and discouragements.
Here´s the thing—we cannot be anything we want to be. We can only be what we persevere at.
My friend is a working artist. He gets up every day and blows glass. My friend knows that nothing else matters except showing up and doing the work. He is simply using this habit to learn to surf. My friend is not trying to be good; he is trying to be better.
Children know something adults should learn: not to be ashamed of falling, but to get up and try again. Suzuki calls this beginner`s mind. Many of us are so cautious, so afraid of failing, that we don´t want to try anything new. If we are not careful, this attitude grows stronger as we grow older, until we are dead long before we stop breathing.
When I was married, my husband and I had a group of acquaintances. We alternated coming up with things to do as a group. Once, when it was my turn, I picked roller skating. Everybody groaned but I insisted. Off we went.
We were the oldest people at the rink. Everybody else was kids or adolescents. More groaning.
It had been years since I skated. As soon as I stopped wobbling, I tried doing the grapevine, the heel-toe and the moonwalk.
When I got a few basic dance moves under my belt, I flipped around and started skating backward.
BOOM! BOOM! (Sorry kid, didn´t mean to knock you down.)
When I got comfortable going backward, I decided to try a pirouette.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
I finally managed a turn, but it wasn´t very elegant and involved a lot of arm flapping. I looked down at my torn jeans and laughed, pushed off and tried again.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! One of my braids came undone.
When it was time to go, the strangest conversation took place among my acquaintances as we were unstrapping our skates. It went like this: “I only fell once”, “I didn´t fall at all”, “I saw you fall three times.” My friends were focused on not falling. The fewer times they fell, the more successful they felt. They skated to avoid falling rather than try something new.
Meanwhile, in Spain, my friend falls 75 times and gets back on his board. In the afternoon, he is taking French lessons, no doubt making hundreds of mistakes. I can hear him laughing from here.
I have been thinking about number 75. We need more stories like that. The stories we tell each other matter.
Students who study at Le Cordon Bleu receive an apron. (The word apron comes from the French word ‘naperon’, meaning a small tablecloth.) However, the woman cooking beside me refused hers. She explained to the chef that aprons were sexist symbols she wanted nothing to do with them. Later, I asked her how she protected her clothes. “I don´t,” she replied. “I would rather let them get dirty and stained than wear a symbol of female repression.”
I can´t imagine having so many clothes that it doesn´t matter if I stain them. In many parts of the world, people only have two or three changes of clothing: one or two for everyday, one for special occasions. Aprons are the clothing of the frugal, worn to protect their clothing and to keep them clean. In Mexico, it is not uncommon for women to wear their aprons to the market.
Aprons have very little to do with gender. The first apron was a loincloth. Its purpose was to protect one´s nether regions. In 19th century Europe, aprons distinguished the trades. Barbers wore checkered aprons, butchers wore stripes. Stonemasons wore white, cobblers black, butlers green, and textile workers blue. Tradespeople like welders, chefs, artists, butchers and waitstaff still wear aprons today.
Aprons became a fashion statement among the wealthy in the 16th century. A new type of apron appeared alongside the sturdy, plainer varieties. The new style was made of more delicate fabrics and embellished with lace and ribbons. The lacy aprons were served tea by hard-working plain aprons.
There are three types of aprons: the bib, the half and the pinafore. Mexican aprons are bib or pinafores. Half aprons can be long or short. Waiters typically where a half apron that goes down to their ankles. The aprons of 1950`s housewives were much shorter.
Aprons are usually the first garment made by someone learning to sew. My first apron was a blue-and-white flowered gingham. It hung crookedly and one tie was longer than the other. (I was eight. I thought it was beautiful.)
I grew up in an era when aprons were iconic. The people of my parent´s generation experienced the deprivation of the Great Depression, when mothers cooked in aprons made out of grain sacks, trying to stretch too little food to feed too many, and all too often watching their kids go hungry. For those who survived the horrors of World War II, to come back home and be reunited with one´s family seemed like paradise. The apron was a symbol of a powerful yearning for domesticity.
It is a yearning I understand.
Aprons remind me of the fragrant kitchens in the Mennonite community where I grew up. I collect aprons, and have a special fondness for the sexy little pocket aprons of the 50’s. When I travel, I pack a plain chef´s apron and a roll of knives.
Wherever I am, when I put on my apron and start cooking, I am home. I travel through my senses. Sometimes I study at a school like Le Cordon Bleu, but just as often I study with a local woman in her kichen. When I come back to the States, I trick out my VW bug with pots and pans and kitchen tools and drive my kitchen on wheels to cook for friends.
The other day, I wrote that I did not have a split personality, which is true. I have more than a dozen bitches living in my attic. It´s a full house.
This post would make a good introductory pamphlet for the guys I date.
THE DIVA. She`s the stiletto in a room full of flats. Hates working out, loves shopping at thrift stores. Would wear a pink boa to brunch if we let her. Slips a tube of lipstick into our backpack when we go trekking. Wears Channel to bed, just because.
THE DYNAMO works out, hikes and kayaks. She has lived in Alaska, worked above the Arctic Circle, and hiked El Camino. Her idea of shopping is REI, Army Surplus and the hardware store. She carries a pocket knife and a Leatherman. She leg presses 209 at the gym. The Dynamo fights with the Diva all the time – and loses frequently. She shamefully carries the Diva´s lipstick in her backpack.
THE COOK has had spectacular moments in the kitchen, some of which have required a fire extinguisher. She has studied different cuisines allover the world. Her culinary knowledge is expansive. Her favorite incense is baking bread on a cold rainy day. Her favorite place to dance is the kitchen. The Cook is the only one who gets along with all the other bitches in the attic.
The TRAVELER appears frequently. She doesn´t take trips, trips take her. Her experiences have turned her into an accomplished storyteller. The Traveler´s trips have given her an appreciation of diversity, a love of languages and new eyes. Her world is a vast and rich tapestry. The Traveler prefers to travel light, but the Diva needs her pretty things, the Dynamo needs gym clothes, sneakers and hiking boots and the Cook needs her roll of cooking knives. The bitches in the attic need their stuff. It is what it is.
THE ARTIST dips her brush in her soul and paints. She closes her eyes and sees with her imagination. She is wild and free and as joyful as the first flower of spring. On the other hand, her nails are a disaster, and when she is working she forgets to comb her hair. The Artist can be messy, pots of paint and pencils everywhere. She plays her music loud and late into the night. The other bitches complain about the clutter and the noise. She ignores them.
THE DANCER is passionate, she dances with her heart. Her favorite instruments are drums. There are shortcuts to happiness and the Dancer knows dancing is one of them. She never misses a chance to dance. She likes the natural high.
THE NERD has been around for a long, long time. She was reading before we entered Kindergarten, and she has never stopped learning. Her mind leaps like a dolphin. She cuts her bangs crooked and stops sorting her socks in the winter because she wears boots and nobody can see them anyway. She is an introvert who would rather have a root canal than go to a cocktail party.
THE SEEKER shows up periodically but is more interested in a stable, balanced mind than discovering the meaning of life. To tell the truth, she finds esoteric discussions boring. The Seeker is an atheist. Her idea of a spiritual experience is a photo from the Hubble spacecraft.
THE GOOD GIRL was raised in a Mennonite community. She may have left the faith but she carries with her the ethics and moral lessons she learned. It was here that she learned how to cook and make a house a home.
RUBY is a bouncer in a biker bar. She´s seen it all. She´s a ham-fisted, chain smoking, Harley babe with a heart of gold. She don´t take shit off nobody, so don´t push your luck. What doesn´t kill her better start running.
MAUDE runs the show. She gets all the bitches on the bus and drives them to madcap adventures. She is our model for growing old with style and wisdom. She is the only one all the bitches listen to.
The DARK LADY hasn´t been seen in quite a while, but we keep an eye out for her. She nearly burned down the attic with her wicked ways.
The NEAR tried reading self-help books to her but she just sneered. The GOOD GIRL was so humiliated she stayed in her room. The ARTIST stopped cleaning her brushes and eventually stopped working altogether. The TRAVELER stayed home and watched reruns. The DIVA started wearing sweat pants. The cook ate junk food. The DYNAMO stopped getting out of bed. The DANCER was in a wheelchair.
Nobody opened the door or picked up the mail or answered the phone anymore. The sink was filled with dirty dishes. The plant were dying.
One night, Rubby came home from her job as a bouncer. She was in a foul mood. She had a butterfly bandage over her left eye from a customer who wouldn´t leave quietly and a knot on her forehead. She looked around at the sorry-ass bitches in the attic and decided enough was enough.
She grabbed the DARK Lady by the hair.
The fight began. Chairs were thrown. Crockery was broken. A mirror shattered.
It wasn´t clear who was going to win. RUBY was strong, but the DARK LADY was a demon.
The other bitches watched. One by one, they entered the fray.
The DYNAMO landed a solid right hook. The DIVA pulled out a can of hairspray and used it like mace.
The READER hit the DARK LADY with a ten-pound Larousse dictionary. The ARTIST smacked a canvas over her head. The DANCER tried to strangle her with an old pair of pink tights. The The COOK sprayed down the entire group with her fire extinguisher.
Finally, they subdued the DARK LADY. The bitches wanted to kill her.
Ruby got her gun.
MAUDE, talked them out of it.
“There is a lot to be learned from the darkness”, she told the panting brawlers.
She grabbed a broom. “We need to clean this place up. Come on girls, we have a lot to do.”
As they cleaned, the SEEKER thought about what MAUDE had said. She thought about the Hubble spacecraft out in the vast darkness, searching for life. She thought about making friends with the darkness. The SEEKER was the first to open up to the DARK LADY. At night, they looked through the telescope together and counted their lucky stars.
The ARTIST and DANCER invited the DARK LADY for tea. They realized that creation comes from both light and dark forces. The DARK LADY, they thought, was like the goddess Kali. She could enrich their creativity. (Besides, she had great taste in music.)
MAUDE watched over them. She loved all the bitches in the attic. Every. Single. One.
They loved each other. It was as simple and as complicated as that.
She was a big city girl, a journalist and a social activist. He lived in Wales, a dairy farmer with a cheese business.
They met on a trek in Colombia. She was hiking with her boyfriend.
She never saw it coming.
Sometimes you fall in love with the most unexpected person, in the most unexpected place, at the most unexpected time.
She changed everything to be with him.
She put all her belongings in storage and moved to the family farm in Wales.
Things weren´t quite as idyllic as she envisioned.
Sunny days were rare and a squall was never far off. The farm was in the middle of nowhere. His family did not welcome her with open arms. Nobody talked much or cared anything about current events Their apartment smelled like stinky cheese.
She no longer recognized herself. Somehow she had traded her life as a competent and successful journalist to be a stay-at-home rural woman surrounded by cows and family members who hated her.
She would never fit in.
And it was clear that he would never leave the farm.
She drifted into a deep depression, hardly getting out of bed some days. He didn´t know how to help her.
They still loved each other though.
On her birthday, he rousted her out of bed, blind folded her, and drove into the fertile fields surrounding their farm.
“Start walking”, he commanded, “Keep the blindfold on.” She held on to his calloused hand as he guided her, trusting he would not let her fall. When she stumbled and stumbled again, he picked her up and carried her in his arms.
“Take off your blindfold”, he said, his deep voice gravelly, almost horse, as if he had a limp in this throat. “Happy Birthday.”
She gasped. She was in an enormous meadow. The view was spectacular. Wild yellow buttercups carpeted the patchwork hills as far as she could see.
It was impossibly beautiful.
She turned around and gasped again. He had made her a heated bath in the middle of the meadow. Wildflowers floated on the water, waiting for her.
She got in, trying not to cry.
It was an animal trough pressed into service.
Like a manger for a bed.
He handed her a beer (they couldn´t afford wine.) A few cows came by, wondering what a girl was doing in their drinking trough. She laughed as their cold noses pushed against her body.
·”No matter what happens”, she thought, “I will always love this man.”
It did not last. As much as it broke their hearts, they could not stay together. It was inevitable that their paths would part
The ever-practical Chinese have a saying; “A fish might love a bird, and a bird might love a fish, but where will they live?”
There comes a time – a sad time – when we realize that love is not enough. The period between that realization and leaving is painful.
Letting go of Happily Ever After is never easy.
All relationships end, either by death or by choice. Even so, the memories of happier times can last a lifetime. For such a lovely memory as this one, we surely must be grateful.
Even for those of us who experience this story only in the telling.
Still in the doldrums about the crappy ending of a fairy-tale Parisian romance. The best way to shake off the blues is to help someone else, so I washed my face and went with CC to serve tea to refugees at Port Chappelle.
Port Chappelle, in Northern Paris, is a hood that some consider a “no-go” zone for women. (See Note) Here thousands of refugee men, mostly Muslims from Afghanistan and Sudan, sleep under bridges and on the streets in squalid and unsanitary conditions.
They have almost no access to water, sanitation or food. The area is also home to crack addicts and hookers. Added to the mix is the animosity between Afghani and Sudanese refugees, which periodically leads to fights.
CC is one of the managers of Solidarithé, an organization that serves 600 cups of tea a day to refugees living on the streets, and provides information about where to find basic necessities, learn French and start the process of claiming asylum.
These are tough volunteers, working with tough men, in a tough area of Paris. The work is physically and emotionally exhausting.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy.” CC shrugs.
“But I get to go home,” she adds as we pass a junkie smoking crack, “It`s nothing compared to what these guys live every single day.”
I grabbed a trolley of tea supplies and set off, stopping a moment to watch two hookers fight. One of them, crazy-eyed high on something, leaps on top of a car stopped at the light. She jumps up and down on the roof, ranting and rocking the car with its frightened-eyed passengers. Their opened mouths make them look like fish.
My fairy-tale romance seems a million miles away.
All of a sudden, I am awake. Alive in every fiber of my being.
We set up and began to serve tea and coffee. Hundreds of refugees appear.
The survival of the men who live here lies almost entirely with volunteer and aid groups that deliver food, warm clothes, and medical supplies to the men.
They have lost everything. They live at the mercy of others. Most are young. PTSD is the norm. Nothing in their village lives has prepared them to survive on the streets of a city the size of Paris.
They miss home.
More than just something to drink, the men are hungry for any shred of normalcy, any social remnant from their past lives.
“Salaam alaikum” (Peace be upon you), they say politely.
“Alaikum salaam” (And upon you), we reply.
“Chai o gawah?” we ask (Tea or Coffee?), although we can guess because Sudanese drink coffee, while Afghanis drink tea.
“Shukran” (Thank you), they say.
“Afwan” (You are welcome), we answer courteously.
The scene on the street changes before my eyes as we work. The men stand around sipping beverages. I hear laughter. A guy comes up and asks me to check his homework from his French language class. Someone begins playing a musical instrument.
I learned something yesterday.
I learned how to pour tea with an open heart.
And that is better than any fairy tale.
NOTE: The “no-go zone” appellation is a controversial issue. Recently, two neighborhood associations, SOS La Chapelle and Demain La Chapelle, launched a petition asking the government to step in to reduce harassment and discrimination of women, petty theft, drug trafficking, the accumulation of garbage, and public intoxication in their neighborhoods.
The petition gathered thousands of signatures. Although neither neighborhood association is affiliated with any political party, the petition caused a political controversy.
Elisabeth Badinter, France’s highly-regarded feminist, weighed in. According to Badinter, there has been an “unquestionable” regression in the status of women in France, particularly in poorer suburbs. “Try going out in a dress in certain areas,” she said in an interview with Le Point magazine.
Refugee activists maintain that feminism is being used to hide what is, in reality, a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political agenda by conservatives.
Both sides have validity.
Meanwhile, the refugees languish on the streets. Being granted asylum can take years. Without papers, they cannot work, they are in limbo. The refugees don´t want to sleep under the bridges any more than the residents want them there.
There are days when whatever I do in the kitchen is a disaster: souffles fall, the oven is set to broil instead of 350, a key ingredient is missing, the sink stops up, the dishwasher breaks, the kitchen curtains go up in flames. At times like these I am cooking under a dark star.
The best thing to do is order a pizza.
I was cooking under a dark star on Friday at Le Cordon Blue. My choux dough was too thin and oozed out of the pastry bag. Before I could get the pastry bag back over the bowl, a dollop the size of a cow paddy plopped on my shoe. The floor was a mess. Greasy or wet floors are dangerous in commercial kitchens, so I had to clean it up.
By the time I got back in the game, I was behind.
I felt like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory.
Next, I ruined the pastry cream. Because I was worried about over-cooking the eggs and curdling the mixture, I pulled it off the f
ire too fast and it turned out runny.
There was no going back. I had to start over again from the top.
It was humiliating. The chef clicked his tongue at me when he passed.
At least the meringue turned out OK. There are three types of meringue. French meringue is made by whisking sugar into beaten egg whites. It is the easiest to make. More difficult is Swiss meringue, which is made by beating egg whites and sugar together over a bain marie (boiling pot of water) until the sugar is dissolved, then beating until the mixture reaches stiff peaks. Italian meringue is the most difficult. It is made by whisking a hot sugar syrup into beaten egg whites. Italian meringue is popular with bakers and caterers as it tends to hold its volume well.
I assembled my dark star eclairs. Because the choux pastry dough was too thin, the douch never puffed up in the oven. The eclairs looked like long flat tongues. Since there was no place to insert the pastry cream, I piled it on top, then topped the cream with the meringue.
When I passed the blow torch over the meringue, I did it perfectly, just kissing the meringue with the flame, turning it a light toasty brown.