Beautiful thoughts

a bay of new blooms
Almost literally.

I went to get my hair cut. While my color was setting I looked at some magazines. I read about People’s Most Beautiful and looked at pictures of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo in Vogue or maybe it was Vanity Fair. And I thought about Sherry, the second wife in a play I’m working on, and wondered if she hates her husband’s first son because he reminds her how beautiful the first wife was.

How hard it must be to feel ugly in a world where beauty is pictured all around you. I think this Sherry character feels ugly. I see her surrounded by nail salons, tanning salons, walk-in spas, women’s magazines, hundreds of headlines about best-ever sex and perfect skin now and fashion must-haves for the coming season. How do you combat that?

While my stylist was chopping off all the hair I’d been carefully growing out for months, another stylist put down a magazine and said, “I cannot believe Kim Kardashian is having another baby shower. Didn’t she already have one?”

“I am very careful not to know anything about Kim Kardashian,” replied my stylist.

“I know, but isn’t the custom like, you have one and that’s it? Having another one is so tacky.”

“I don’t know anything about her,” said my stylist in her calm, steady voice.

“Me neither, but they are everywhere. I hate the Kardashians.”

“I ignore them completely,” said my stylist.

“Me too.”

I considered asking, “How can you simultaneously ignore them and know when one of them is having a baby shower?” But that’s the thing about salons. The magazines are everywhere. There’s no getting away from gorgeous women. If they weren’t stacked on every side table, convenient to every fingertip, displaying the latest in hair and makeup and health and celebrities and relationships and fashion, I’d feel shortchanged. I choose the first magazine carefully, page through it rapidly, and then choose the next not quite as carefully. They begin to run together, but I need to get through as many as possible.

It reminds me of being at Urhausen the other day with Syd. It was the largest single greenhouse I’ve ever been in, rows and rows of flowers, literally—well not literally, even David Sedaris isn’t safe these daysalmost literally, as far as the eye could see. I had to walk it twice before I could even begin to think about what I wanted to buy. Okay, not exactly twice. I walked it once and then started again, and then got a cart and started again. Does that count as twice?

The abundance of flowers was mesmerizing. Row upon row of zinnias and begonias and petunias and snapdragons and vinca and phlox and delphinium. I saw a man in the distance, watering things. On my second pass through I came across him and a younger man, setting up hoses at one of the million (I exaggerate) rows of flowers, each in its own long bay, with just enough room for a person and a cart in between. Many in the further bays, like the ones pictured, weren’t for sale yet. I guess they were still growing, or still in reserve. It was sobering, to see how systematically these huge flats of blooms are started and tended. I tried to meet the eye of the older man, first to smile sycophantically and tell him how beautiful everything was, and then to get to my point, finding out whether they carry lilac bushes, but he didn’t meet my eye. He was all business, and his business apparently was to tend the fledgling flowers. Like so many beautiful perfect women in magazines, the flowers were unique and fresh and yet strangely uniform.

It turned out to be a good thing I didn’t find a lilac bush at Urhausen, because my stylist recommended that I don’t buy just any lilac bush. She recommended a Miss Kim.  “They don’t get leggy like a lot of lilacs, and the blooms are very dense,” she said as she snipped away.

“I love the name,” I said. “Miss Kim.”

“Me too,” she said. “Like an Asian Southern belle.” Not too leggy, deliriously scented, mint julip with a lychee twist. Top that, Kim Kardashian.

Before’s and after’s

trimming trees
Durings.

This morning when I was out walking the dog, we passed a woman I’d seen at a wedding over the weekend. I don’t know her but I see her all the time, walking her dog or with her kids or out running. Always with her hair pulled back, a scrubbed-looking face, in jeans or running shorts or dog-walking gear like she had on this morning, a Labradoodle by her side. I can’t believe Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize Labradoodle.

But at the wedding she was stunning. Simple dress, hair down, just a little makeup, luminous. I couldn’t place her at first, until my friend said, “You know her. She’s got the Doodle.” When we passed each other, the dogs sniffing in other directions, I said, “Now I know what you look like all glammed out.” I realized too late that it sounded creepy. Like I had something on her. All I meant was that I hadn’t realized how beautiful she was. But that’s also sort of creepy. Like, who cares? We don’t even know each other.

The fruit trees in our yard got trimmed yesterday. We’ve been waiting and waiting for that to happen, because they were far too high, their spindly branches reaching well above the power lines that run along the back fence line in the alley. There were all sorts of delays, even after we’d booked the tree guys, because of ComEd and scheduling and weather. But finally yesterday, in all that wind, they came and reshaped them into the small dwarf fruit trees they were meant to be. I’ve always had a hard time saying dwarf. I’m still not sure which is right. Do you pronounce the “w” or not?

Afterward I went out into the yard, expecting to bask in the glow of our newly proportional surroundings. Instead, the yard felt suddenly smaller and more bleak. The garbage cans in the alley seemed closer, crowding into view. The yard felt sad. “What happened?” I asked. “It’s supposed to look nicer now.” Dave didn’t answer. He was inside. It was freaking windy and cold outside.

At the reading last night, I was almost stupidly nervous beforehand. I keep telling myself I don’t get nervous at these things because you get to hold your script and you’re only being yourself. But still. Dave and I got there early as instructed, and I introduced myself to the hosts. One of them said, “Yeah, we met before, when you did a story at This Much Is True.”

“It’s the same story,” I joked.

“Really?” he looked at me seriously.

“Yeah, I just have the one,” I said. I backed away before I could say anything else. Luckily Syd came in. I tried to talk to her normally but my nervousness kept twisting my tongue. She opened a shopping bag to show me a gift-wrapped box. “You get a goff?” I asked. It was loud enough that she didn’t seem to notice. “Yeah, I’ve been running errands,” she answered.

Another friend walked up and remembered meeting Syd at our old book club. Syd said, “I’m going to see if I can find my book club book before it starts.” I didn’t want this friend to think we were excluding her from our no longer existent book club so I said, “Syd now in real bockup.” The friend smiled and went to her seat.

A third friend showed up and gave me a peaceful incense talisman she got at a retreat over the weekend. I sniffed it a few times before I went up. And after I went up I wasn’t nervous anymore.

Pizza doh

Malformed crust for a pizza
I wish I could say it tasted better than it looked.

I’m mad at food. Not all food, just the ingredients. Not all ingredients, just the ones I’ve purchased. Mostly the perishable ones. Unprepared, they wait in my kitchen. Five ripe tomatoes stare from a bowl when I pass by for a glass of water. Three bananas whisper, “Please don’t let us end up like the last bunch, peeled and shivering in a ziploc in the freezer. You say you’ll use them later to make banana bread, but by that don’t you mean toss them out?”

Saturday I cooked and prepped all sorts of fresh ingredients for a bunch of pizzas. We were having a birthday party for Xeena and Starbeck. Syd was making the crusts and bringing them over in the evening. So I browned sausage, roasted sweet peppers, sautéed potato slices, shredded prosciutto, cut up pineapple, cleaned arugula, sliced mushrooms, made sauce, and had Dave shred mozzarella, provolone, and parmesan. By the time Syd arrived, everything was arranged in bowls on the counter.

Her beautiful crusts were already stretched on pizza trays and cookie sheets, stacked and carried in by her brother. It was no work at all to load them up and pop them in the oven. “We should start a business,” we agreed.

The next afternoon, seeing the containers of leftover ingredients sitting in the fridge when I opened it to snack on leftover tiramisu from Xeena’s sister Esme, I said, “I should make a couple more pizzas, to use up that stuff.” It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my evening, it just seemed to be the thing to say.

“That sounds amazing,” said Dave. First I did what I actually wanted to do. (Raking and mowing the lawn. Heaven. Chilly and quiet in the yard, sun going down.) Then I looked up an easy crust recipe because I didn’t trust the one Syd emailed me. (It didn’t say anything about the dough rising, and now it was too late to call and ask her about it.) The easy crust was my first mistake. Pictured.

No, my first mistake was letting the ingredients in the kitchen. If they hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have had to top my poor crusts, who’d clearly been saving themselves for a Red Rock canyon diorama, with savory sauce and fresh pineapple and sharp arugula and sweet peppers and perfectly blended cheeses, all of which could be enjoyed only by being scraped off the canyon floor with a fork.

A well-stocked kitchen is a constant reminder of what’s wrong in the world. People like me have too much food while others don’t have enough. The staring tomatoes remind me that I need to get on the neighborhood food bank donation list. Of course, I can’t donate the tomatoes and other fresh ingredients we all need more of. But at least I can make some room by getting rid of canned goods.

What I really ought to do is quit buying ingredients. Ordering takeout makes more sense and is a better means of overall food distribution. People who can handle all those ingredients can prepare the meals. People like me can order one meal at a time. And five ripe tomatoes can get the respect they deserve, without tormenting my psyche in the process.

Reality shows

It's like a show within a show.

Kismet and I went to Cici’s–or maybe it was Ceci’s–for mani-pedis. First we went to Whole Foods for groceries. I thought we’d need to drive, but Kismet said she’s used to going grocery shopping on the train. She shops from a detailed list. I made a list too. I almost stuck to it exactly, and only had to purchase one additional thermal bag when I checked out. We carried our purchases to Ceci’s or Cici’s or maybe it was Cice’s.

“Put them down!” they cried, pointing to our bags. “There!” They pointed to a spot that looked like it would be in the way. We smiled and nodded, but held onto our bags as we studied the wall of polish, choosing our colors. “Put them there,” my nail technician demanded.

“We’re okay,” I smiled, trying to decide between a dark glittery gray and a pale green.

“That’s a nice color. Very pretty. Put bags here.” Things went along as they usually do in a salon, me not sure how much conversation to make, messing with the chair massager controls, feeling nauseous when the massager thing pounded on my shoulders but embarrassed when it thumped my kidneys and pushed my hips out. Kismet paged through a magazine.

Finally I turned off the massager and looked at the TVs. There were two or three installed high on the walls. A reality show was on. Although there was too much salon noise to hear, closed captioning was on so I could read the lyrics and dialog. “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h.” “Great job, dude.” “Thanks, bro.”

When my nail technician sat me at the drying station, I was right across from a screen, so I could hear a little. Kismet sat across from me, so she could hear, too, though she couldn’t see the screen unless she turned around. Bro the team leader had to choose between Dude and a guy in red pants. He had them both sing a U2 song. I loved that they sang at the same time, like a high school audition.

Kismet and I agreed that we liked Dude better than Red Pants. Kismet turned around to check them out and didn’t like Red’s swagger any more than I did. But I felt Dude’s blazer and jeans looked too straight-laced compared to Red’s pants. I was sure Bro would pick Red. Kismet seemed less worried, or maybe less interested.

Bro: I love you guys both so much.

I tell Kismet, “He loves both the guys so much.”

Kismet smiles.

Bro: This is an incredibly hard decision. I never thought I would have to choose between two such incredibly talented people.

I tell Kismet, “It’s an incredibly hard decision, and he never thought he’d have to choose between two such incredibly talented people.”

Kismet nods.

Bro: Red Pants, you really surprised me today. I knew you’d bring it, but your theatricality really blew me away.

Me: “He’s talking to Red Pants. He knew he would bring it, but his theatricality really blew him away.”

The screen shows a woman and two little girls. A caption reads “Dude’s wife and two little girls.” Under it is the captioning of what Bro is saying to Dude. “There’s Dude’s family!” I say. Kismet turns around but they’ve cut back to Dude, listening to Bro. Kismet turns back around to face me. “Sorry,” I tell her. “They looked worried though.”

Bro: You were amazing and I knew you would be.

Me: “He’s talking to Dude now. He was amazing and he knew he would be.”

Bro: Your first notes were really strong. Really right on. And I thought, he’s gonna do it. Then your next note.

Me: “His first notes were really strong. Uh-oh, it doesn’t look good. If he doesn’t win he has to start all over, he was saying before. He’s got to support his family. They’re showing the family again!” Kismet turns back around but they’ve cut back to Bro. “Sorry,” I say again.

Bro: You are incredibly talented, there’s no doubt about it. This is such a hard choice.

Me: He’s incredibly talented, there’s no doubt about it. This is not looking good at all.

Bro: It’s really hard. But I’m going to have to say…

Me: “He’s going to pick Red Pants. I knew it.”

[Tense music plays]

Me: “Tense music is playing.”

Bro: I’m going to have to go with…

Me: “They’re showing the two guys. They’re cutting to their wives. Tense music is still playing.”

Bro: … I choose Dude.

Me: “Oh my god he chose Dude!”

“Yay,” says Kismet. She waves her new gorgeous nails. “I think we’re done.”

“Maybe we should give them a few more minutes.”

“I need to make appetizers,” she says, getting up. It’s Syd’s birthday dinner tonight. I can’t argue. I still need to make my salad.

We sling our insulated grocery bags over our shoulders, clearing a space in the salon large enough for four more women. I take one last look at the TV before we head out the door. Dude is hugging his family. “I’ll TiVo it for you,” Kismet offers.

“Please don’t,” I answer. We head to the train.

Deep Pace Mine

Let’s not waste this fine Spring day.

Django is waiting. I know I know. But I had to go for a run with Syd first. Yep, I’m a runner. Kind of. Syd went on her real run early in the morning, and then when she finished she ran here so we could go for a lap around the park. I was almost ready when she got here. I’d gotten up quietly when my alarm went off, hoping that the dog, like Dave, would keep sleeping.

In the bathroom I changed into the clothes I’d set there the night before – leggings and two tee shirts and a warm-up jacket. Then I tiptoed into my office and did some yoga to un-creak a little, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what if Syd came early and tried to come in the back door, which I’d said I’d leave open? I didn’t want the doorbell to wake up the dog, who would immediately want to be fed and walked. Dave, I wasn’t as worried about. He’s been staying up way too late watching Deep Space Nine, so too bad.

I decided to do yoga downstairs instead. I went down and unlocked the door, but Django must have heard me turn off the alarm, because when I headed in to the living room she trotted in, wagging her tail. Okay, yoga in a minute. I let her out, fed her, and leashed her up for a quick walk around the block.

But just outside we ran into another lady and her dog. Pino? Pina? He too didn’t like being held back on his leash so he barked at Django, who was quiet and docile until he leaned in to sniff her mouth. Then she let him have it. “Sorry, sorry,” I pulled Django away.
“No, it’s okay, he does the same thing.” Pino or Pina looked up at me pitifully. I squatted down to pet him. Django sniffed the parkway, her work done. The lady and I talked about how cute our respective dogs were, and what breeds they might be, and how unpredictable they can be on leash. Luckily Dave wasn’t there to add, as he always does, “She’s unpredictable off leash, too.” He’s been staying up way too late watching Deep Space Nine, so whatever.

Django eventually came over to be patted by the lady and to be sniffed, more politely, by Pino or Pina. Then we continued on our walk. Soon as we got home, Syd arrived. So much for yoga. We went for our run and I felt just like those people I see running at the park. Really cool. I was wearing proper running clothes and I had a running partner and we were even talking like other runners do, in short casual bursts. At first I tried to smile at the dog walkers, because I always feel like runners are looking at me angrily for having my dog at the park. But I realized today that they’re probably just concentrating. After my first smile or two I didn’t have time to worry about those losers. I had to focus on keeping pace with Syd. She kept asking, “Want to slow down?”

“No, I don’t want to slow down now because I want to reserve the right to walk later.”

“We can take whatever pace feels right. It’s up to you.”

“Uh-huh.” She didn’t realize that if I started walking it would mean that we’d stopped running, so it wouldn’t count as running so I wouldn’t feel like a runner so I wouldn’t feel cooler than shit. When we got home, Django was sitting in the window, staring at us like she couldn’t believe we’d go to the park without her. “I guess Dave didn’t walk you,” I said when I got inside. He was still sleeping because he’s been staying up way too late watching Deep Space Nine, so I had to go upstairs and say it louder.

Now I’ve had my shower and some breakfast, and we’re heading back to the park for a dog lap. Dave is joining us. He should probably stay home and work, but I notice that if I just ask how Deep Space Nine is going, he will pretty much do anything I ask.

The cling wrap next door

package of Press n' Seal
Historical re-enactment.

The only problem with getting a gift-wrapped package of magical crinkly and non-sticky cling wrap is that I don’t want to unwrap it. It’s sitting on the desk in the front hall. I really needed it last night, but I just couldn’t unwrap it. Couldn’t even bring it in the kitchen. Officially it’s called Press ‘n Seal. I have to keep checking the name because I can’t keep it in my head. I know it only as the magical crinkly-but-waxy-so-how-does-it-stick-cling wrap.

Apparently it’s been around awhile, but I first saw it, really saw it – the way you really see the boy next door for the first time when he checks your receipt at Best Buy – at Syd’s barbecue. Stretched over a tray of bruschetta that Xeena carried in. She pulled off the crinkly magical stuff and I held it in my hands, marveling. “What is this stuff?”

“Oh I love that stuff,” said half the women in the room.

“Why don’t I know about this stuff?” I stuffed it into a ball, feeling its strange tackiness, feeling how right it was for so many of my food-covering moments that heretofore had been so unsatisfactory, thinking vaguely about taking it home to reuse, but sensing it wouldn’t rinse well. Already I knew its limitations, and loved it the more.

The next morning, like the Best Buy security guard neighbor who rescues your newspaper from the driveway and sets it on your porch before you even wake up, it arrived. Virtually wrapped in thick red ribbon that covered it on all sides. Dave had gone down around 8 to check for my cell phone, which I’d left at Syd’s and she’d kindly offered to drop off on her way to an early-morning graduation. I’d left a big pillow just inside the door so the phone would have a soft landing when Syd pushed it through the mail slot. Dave brought it up with my coffee, and that was magic enough for one morning – forget your phone at a friend’s, and have it delivered right to your bedside table before you even wake up.

But an hour later, when I was downstairs eating breakfast, Dave brought in a second item, the item. He didn’t think it had been there when he grabbed the phone, so it couldn’t be Syd. Xeena doesn’t get up that early, though she does go in for fancy gift-wrapping. Kismet also denied responsibility. That left only the Lovely sisters, Vandamm and Starbeck. They would neither confirm or deny, though Starbeck replied something about a possible “group of Santas” being responsible, and Vandamm added something about “Mariachi Santas.” Also, I know from previous experience, namely being at a David Wilcox concert where Vandamm left early to join Starbeck at a late-night Kohls sale, that they are intrepid shoppers. So if anyone is out grocery shopping at the crack of dawn it’s the Lovely sisters.

I am so delighted with this gift, and delighted with friends who deliver gifts early in the morning, and delighted to own for myself the means of covering any plate or bowl tightly, without the hit-or-miss heartbreak of Saran wrap. And yet, I can’t seem to use the stuff. I don’t even want to take off the ribbon. I thought about it last night, when I needed to wrap up the leftover vegetable rosti, but I got by with a layer of saran wrap and another of aluminum foil instead. It’s like the very day the boy next door moves back from that ecovillage in Ohio. You want to get the scoop, and for all sorts of reasons you should do it sooner rather than later, but… not just yet.

The peculiar sadness of my potato cookbook

potato salad and mixing bowl
Desaturation makes everything sadder.

I was making potato salad for a bbq. I’ve never made potato salad before, but when I asked what I could bring, Syd said, “Maybe potato salad?”

“Sure.” I got a recipe from a potato cookbook my mom had given me. She’d found it at a yard sale. There was a Christmas card in it, presumably given to the original book owner with the book, or maybe just stuck in to hold a page. The note on the card hints at some kind of estranged relationship, or maybe not, that my mom and I had puzzled over. It doesn’t feel right to reveal the whole thing, but here’s the first chunk (names changed):

“Dear Chuck, Janice, and Arthur,
My appreciations for the New Year:
To Arthur:
–for being born
–for always being yourself
–for melting my heart the first time I held you (at the Jewel)

The note goes on to reveal that Chuck is her son, so my mom and I always wondered, what’s with the Jewel? Was she shopping with her daughter-in-law soon after Arthur was born and the new mom suddenly needed mom-in-law to hold the baby? Or, as we suspected, did Grandma and new mom run into each other at the Jewel, months after the birth, and Janice was like, “This is your grandson. Want to hold him?”

The note goes on to thank the son and daughter-in-law for making her feel welcome and loved, so maybe everything was okay, but still… something seemed off. A little sad. Like, too much detailed gratitude extended within a Christmas card that would have been a lot shorter if everything had been okay between them. Or maybe not. But I tend to read the card every time I open the cookbook, and wonder.

Anyway, Syd said potato salad, so I went to the bookcase in the living room, where there’s the shelf that holds the urn of my mom’s ashes (sealed properly for a Catholic cemetery, though we haven’t gotten around to burying it), and also her prayer book and rosary, and on either side of that little shrine all my cookbooks, starting with Where’s Mom now that I need her?, which she gave me when I graduated college. I pulled out the potato cookbook, re-read the Christmas card, found a potato salad recipe, and stuck the card in to hold the page.

The recipe said three pounds of red potatoes, but I discovered on my Harvestime receipt that I’d bought five. So I almost doubled the other ingredients, except for the mayo and sour cream, because I didn’t want it too creamy. Before I even started chopping I grabbed two glass bowls that have plastic covers. I mixed everything, and the results were okay. Not bad, but not great. Which, sad to say, is the case with most of the recipes in the potato cookbook. Sweet Potatoes Anna, bland. Parmesan-Roasted Potatoes, did I forget an ingredient?

But what amazed me was that I’d randomly chosen two bowls, randomly sort of doubled the recipe (wait, that could be a clue…never mind), and then when I transferred everything from the mixing bowl, the amount filled both bowls exactly. Right to the top but not over it. Is there some part of our brain that figures that stuff out, that calculates spatial tolerances and then safely guides us to the right bowl choice, the right number of celery stalks to chop? Or is it just dumb luck?

It’s another mystery of the sad potato cookbook. On one side, a possibly estranged relationship. On the other, mildly disappointing flavors. And smack in the middle, incredibly perfect storage container results.