Counts for Easter

lamb cake
He is eaten.

Among my mom’s many mildly annoying sayings was “Well, this counts for eatin’.” I was never sure what it meant, whether she hadn’t really enjoyed the meal or she really had. Or maybe that she wasn’t hungry but felt obligated to eat. Or maybe it referred to something specific the first time and she enjoyed saying it so much she just kept doing it. If all the annoying habits of my family could be charted on a huge tree there’d be a dotted line running from “Well, this counts for eatin’” to her mother-in-law’s standby, “I wonder what the poor people are eatin’ tonight.” I believe that was meant to be a compliment to the cook.

Saturday night I saluted the end of Lent with a cold glass of sake at Katsu, where Dave and I went with Xeena and Buck. Usually we meet at our old standby, Midori, but we decided to try somewhere new because there are a million restaurants in Chicago, for Pete’s sake. We agreed that the quality of the sushi at Katsu may be superior, but we enjoy Midori more. Not just because it’s cheaper, though that helps, but we’ve gone there together enough that it feels like ours. I crave my favorite rolls there, and the margaritas, and the familiar faces.

At the table, Xeena said she misses ritual. “Holidays come and go,” she said. For Easter they were having her family over for barbequed fish tacos.

“I thought we were going to try going to church sometimes,” I reminded her. We had talked about it maybe a year ago, on a Sunday morning when we were all at Ann Sather, how we could check out churches of different denominations around town.

“We were,” Xeena agreed. She asked Dave and Buck, “You guys interested?” Buck stared blankly ahead, just as he did when she mentioned it at Ann Sather. She added quickly, “We could go to brunch afterward.”

Dave replied in the same words he used the first time, “Couldn’t we just go to brunch?”

Our Easter dinner was mostly traditional. Ham at my brother Rolando’s. They also served eggplant parmesan for the vegetarians, and many side dishes. I laughed more than I have in weeks, sitting with my brothers and their wives and their kids and Dave and cousin El, who’s more like a sister. El made two lamb cakes, just like last year, and this year both their heads stayed on. However, one lamb fell face forward into the green coconut grass, so it seemed to be sniffing the other lamb’s butt. Also, the upright lamb’s ear fell off so she re-attached it with a dental floss pick. She swore it was unused.

After just a few years of El bringing two cakes instead of one, I now expect two. The first time she was trying to make up for her ugly homemade one with a bakery one, which froze  and shrunk in the car so it actually looked worse than the homemade one. Last year she made two recipes, pound cake and chocolate zucchini. This year they were both pound cake, the difference being that the upright one with the dental floss pick ear had white frosting while the toppled-over one had white frosting plus a layer of coconut flakes. I’m not sure how many years it takes for a pattern to become a ritual, but there’s a little place in my heart now that longs for a pair of lamb cakes this day every year, ever striving for perfection, always failing in their own perfect way.

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.

Nothing but trouble

Everyone dressed up for the Oscars. No lie.

I dreamed I went to young John Malkovich’s apartment to cancel my lie audition. He was about 30 and dressed in evening clothes. His huge 1930s apartment was lit with chandeliers and filled with people drinking cocktails. He came toward me with arms outstretched, very elegant with that leonine Malkovich walk but also like a society hostess.

I’d come to use Malkovich’s computer to email my cancellation, but I suddenly realized the auditions were actually being held right here in his apartment, right now at this moment. Yes, I’m having audition anxiety.

I tried a couple times over the weekend to cancel my audition. I told Dave, “I don’t think the story I came up with is the kind of story they’re looking for.”

“You don’t know what they’re looking for,” he said.

“But I don’t even want to get cast,” I reasoned.

“But you don’t think you will get cast.”

“I know.”

“Go ahead and cancel,” Dave said. “Then you can stay home all day Tuesday and not go out at all.” I have anxiety about turning out like my mom, who never wanted to go anywhere except TJ Maxx. That shut me up for a while.

But then Scheherazade called when I was at Walgreen’s, buying a curling iron for yesterday’s Oscar party. She’d heard about the audition and said her impression was that it was more for guys who would be one-upping each other with outrageous stories. “Like drinking stories,” I said, trying to choose between a 39-dollar ceramic curling iron and a 9-dollar non-ceramic one.

“Exactly,” she said.

“It’s not that I’m scared of auditioning,” I said as I pulled a 19-dollar compromise curling iron off the shelf, ceramic but only two heat settings. “I just feel like there are more important things I need to be working on.”

“If it’s not your thing, honey, don’t sweat it,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said, “it’s not my thing.”

“So don’t sweat it.” I love Scheherazade.

I typed up my story and had the lady from Final draft read it. At the Oscar party, I told my friend Xeena how this lie thing is taking too much time when I really need to be working on my play.  “So it’s not a fear thing,” she said.

“No, not at all.” I love Xeena, but she has these crystal clear eyes that seem to stare right into your soul. “I don’t think so. Maybe a little. But also I need to write a new scene for my play.”

“Hm. It’s hard when it’s both.” I got another plate of food from the Oscar buffet. My favorites were the spinach balls, blue cheese gougeres, mini fruit tortes, Nutella sandwich cookies, some kind of cheese that you put on a tiny skillet ‘til it melts and you put it on flaky cracker, peanut butter buckeyes, and champagne grape focaccia slices. All homemade by Vandamm Lovely and Kismet. I’ve given up drinking for Lent so I ate as much as possible.

When we left, a lovely young woman who was extremely drunk was also leaving, so we walked her to the train. Dave asked if she was from London and she said, “No, Pakistan.” Then a minute later she added, “I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. Yes, I’m from London. I’m really sorry.”

Then she asked what we did and when I said Dave was a violinist she said, “That’s brilliant. No one plays violin anymore. Everyone plays fucking guitar or fucking bass, I hate fucking bass.”

“I play bass,” I said.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

I laughed, “No I don’t. I was just messing with you.”

“Oh God,” she said, “I’m always saying these stupid things. Why do I–”

“No,” I interrupted. “I was lying.”

She didn’t seem to hear me. “I don’t know why I say these things.”

“But I was lying,” I said.

She didn’t seem to hear. “I’m British so I’m always bloody polite even though I’m always swearing and saying something insulting and then I’m always apologizing.”

“But I really don’t play bass. I wasn’t insulted.”

“I’m really sorry,” she began again. We were still a block from the train. This lying business is nothing but trouble.

Longing for normal

a sign hanging on a tree
Always and everywhere.

I keep longing for normal, like I’m saving up rewards points. Dave says, “Why waste time on normal, what I want is extraordinary.”

He’s probably right, but the normal I long for will feel extraordinary. I know it. I can’t articulate the feeling, but I know it will be tangible and complete.

Maybe it’s what my mom meant when she’d say, “I got nothing to do today, and that’s exactly how I like it.” I used to get angry at her, willfully wasting her life. But maybe she was just looking for normal. Maybe she thought if she got all the actual living stuff out of the way, normal would seep in, like fog across a bridge.

In my mind, here’s what a normal weekend looks like: Friday night is a movie at the neighborhood cinema. Perhaps a bite afterward. Saturday is errands and small home repairs – cute ones, perhaps requiring dungarees or a bandanna. Then it’s a leisurely dinner with friends. Sunday is a walk to the park, reading on the couch, and cooking a big pot of soup for the week. Don’t tell me how Saturdays are the worst traffic days to run errands, and all the pit bulls are loose on Sundays. This is my ideal. Week after week, when I’m in the middle of doing something I absolutely did not plan for, I think, okay, scrap this. Next time will be normal. Must purchase dungarees.

This weekend was going to be It. Our huge freelance project just wrapped, so we didn’t need to work through Saturday to catch up. No house emergencies, no big plans. We were set. Friday I figured we’d either see “The Descendents” or “The Artist” at the Davis. I warned Dave to be ready. But first I had to go to the hospital because the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park is ill. So I went there and had my heart broken by the new set of indignities life is hoisting on this most fragile of survivors. Then I stopped at Harvestime for groceries—the clock was ticking but the store was right on the way.

I got home just in time to meet Louella and give her a quick lesson on how to work the Roku and not lock herself out. She’d come to town on Thursday with her ailing dog Lancelot. The downstate vet said this handsome and debonair creature could go at any minute, he has unspecified heart problems and probable cancer in addition to the stomach ailment that had brought him in. “Be prepared, he doesn’t have much time.” Another friend had invited her to come and stay so Lancelot could say goodbye to all his Chicago friends and so they didn’t have to deal with all the stairs at Lancelot’s castle.

But when I stopped there on Thursday Louella was panicking because Lancelot had peed on the rug and her host was upset. She was steam-cleaning an already clean spot for the fifth time, like Mrs. Macbeth, while Lancelot lay very quiet, with that absent look dogs have when they’re close to the end or just temporarily sick. You never know. When I got home Dave said, “They should come here.” We already had Miss Hepburn’s dog Zoe, but she’s not the bullying type, and Django loves Lancelot, so here they were, setting up on a big waterproof sheet covered by blankets and pillows. Lancelot was looking a little better, and Zoe and Django were gentle with him.

We didn’t get to the Davis in time for the early movie, so we had dinner instead, and gelato at Paciugo. Saturday we ran errands, taking Zoe to the groomer, returning a Christmas present, and letting a Vitamix rep at Merz tell us why we might need a five hundred-dollar blender. We don’t, but I got a free mini-smoothie. Dinner was appropriately leisurely with Xeena and Buck at Fin. Then we all headed back and had drinks with Louella and Lancelot, who was now walking a bit, wagging his tail, and eating small morsels.

After Xeena and Buck went home, I did what I always do at the end of the night: gathered up any random cups and glasses to load in the dishwasher before Dave ran it. I pointed to a small blue glass on the coffee table and asked Louella, “Is that yours?”

“Oh yes,” she quickly grabbed it, “I was just going to put it in the dishwasher like you said.”

“No, no, I didn’t know if you were still using it, or if it was Buck’s…” Too late, she’d already rushed it to the kitchen. I suddenly felt like some maniacal hausfrau who must have everything perfect at all times. I tried to mitigate. “Did you want a new glass?” I offered.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“That glass is so small for water,” I said lamely. I whispered to Dave, “Do you think she thought I was trying to take her glass away?”

He shrugged, like “Why worry about it?”

“I don’t want her to think…” that I’m abnormal. But I am. Because I have this picture of normal, and it includes everything being back in place at the end of the day, as if the humans were never here. Normal means absent, I realize. Fitting so well into the groove that you can’t be seen or heard. Longing for normal is like starving myself to fit into a fabulous dress I have no occasion to wear. I still long for it, but I’m trying to recover.

Will you be my one good action?

foster dog
Come on, will ya?

I got to have my fake Friday night last night, like I asked for on Facebook. But now I have to admit that the pub I want to love just ain’t cracking up to it.

I wanted my neighborhood pub to be snug and delicious and sparkling with the soft light of friendship and a pretend fireplace. Instead it smelled bad and the food was partially inedible and the service—which normally I don’t even care about unless I’m in a hurry—was random. Three waters for four people, no plates for the deep-fried apps, which thank god killed the other smell – magic markers? mold? – I noticed when we came in.

Why didn’t I say something? Because I didn’t want it to smell bad. It was my idea after all, dragging my friends out on a Wednesday night, and we were having fun, coming in from a brisk walk, happy to get a good table by the window. The waitress was smiley. There was just this faint…magic marker? Yes, it must be magic marker…smell. Once we got our drinks I forgot all about it.

Then Xeena and Buck showed up, Xeena who is allergic to everything and can smell everything, even styrofoam – that’s what she gets for being open to the universe—and her first Coke with lime was flat, and the second one was also flat and also tasted of something that was neither Coke nor lime. And they didn’t get silverware so they couldn’t enjoy the apps before they congealed.

But as long as no one wakes up sick today – and I don’t see how Xeena can get sick when she didn’t eat two bites of her shepherd’s pie—I’d say it was a fun evening. Vandamm showed up for an after-dinner drink that seemed to taste okay. And as we were wrapping up the confusing bill, Starbeck showed up outside the window with a new foster dog. Very cute black and white pointer mix? Not quite right for a Django companion, but really sweet. We all walked back together and then watched foster dog play with Kismet and Kyle’s cartoon dog. It was fun until Django started flying into them and barking her shrill cattle dog bark, trying to break up the fun. Foster dog had already had a rough day, so we left.

I should do a Yelp review but I don’t trust Yelp lately. I keep hearing troubling things about their advertising programs. Plus, I still want the pub to thrive. Would a review kick their butts, or lead to fewer customers and a failed business just because maybe they had an off night? I don’t know what’s important in this world where everything seems to be falling apart. When news about the central banks sounds so hopeful until I hear the analysis that predicts there’s an even bigger disaster they’re trying to avert, and the water in the world keeps rising, and nonprofit agencies keep sinking, and the Occupy movement gets more marginalized, and the wars keep multiplying, and for each of these things there is a perfectly good reason, all organized into stories in my hand, but all at once, all right now and constant, and yet I can easily turn them off and dip into entirely different banks of news and entertainment. So I’m confused.

I don’t know what’s important. And I don’t want to sit here and remind myself about the importance of just one action. I already know that. What I really mean is, I’m looking for the one action and I’m annoyed that I can’t find it. Foster dog arrived in Chicago after a 16-hour ride in a cage on a church bus filled with other dogs from a shelter in the Southwest. He ended up homeless because his elderly owner moved into assisted living. He’s almost a year old, extremely good-natured, has soft fur and one blue eye. He needs a good home. Why don’t you adopt him?

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.