On Snow Days, Then and Now

On Snow Days, Then and Now

Infrastructure matters. Growing up in snowy, cold places with plenty of snow and ice, we got through winters easily, because you know, we owned mittens, and a snow scraper and heavy pants. We Texans are not being weenies about this week’s winter storm. People are being remarkably resilient here as we lose electricity and heat, pipes burst and flood our homes, or pipes freeze, and we have no water. Getting around is hard when there are no snowplows, and no sanding or salting being done even on the busiest streets. It’s starting to warm up after a difficult week, and it’s made me asses my feelings about snow and cold, and how wearing two pairs of leggings does not equate the warmth of a good pair of snow pants.

I grew up in Iowa. Iowa has outstanding snow days. I have fond memories of tobogganing down the rolling hills that cozy up to the Mississippi. Sledding never really worked out well, as the runners would get stuck in the deep fluffy snow, but on a toboggan, you could fly. My dad would climb on the back and then the rest of us neighborhood kids would pile in front of him. Shoving our heels in and inching forward, we’d gain speed and then whoosh down the hill. I loved being in the front. The snow would cut up over the curved edge of the toboggan, and hit me full in the face, the sharp of the cold dulled by the sheer joy of the ride. The ending was always the same, a slow tip and roll to the side to stop before we hit the trees at the bottom, then brush off, and start the climb back up to the top again for another ride.

We neighborhood kids did everything together, including trying to burn down the side-yard pine tree of the mean neighbors across the street, but that’s a story for another day. We walked four blocks to school together even on the coldest and snowiest of days (uphill both ways, literally). I may have fulfilled my heroic mandate here on earth early one morning in kindergarten on one of those walks. Little Anne, who lived next door to us in Dubuque with her six annoying brothers slipped on an icy patch at the curve in the road just as a car slid on the same patch and careened toward her. I remember the slow motion of watching my hand reach out as she fell, grabbing the hood of her coat and yanking her back towards me, as the car wheels missed her by a frozen eyelash. We both fell backwards onto the frozen sidewalk and slid down the hill into the legs of the parent who was walking with us that day. I’m fairly sure that was the first time I heard a string of swear words out of a grownup as she picked us both up and shook us to be sure we still had all of our bits.

Later, after a move to Kansas, being outside in snow took on a different meaning. It can be a mean snow there, wind-driven straight down from the Arctic circle with nothing but a few strands of barbed wire in the way. The wind is no joke in the Plains States, and made snow days a ferocious beast, but still beautiful after the winds died down. I walked to school both ways back then too, downhill to get to grade school, uphill for home. I walked alone instead of with a gang, as we had moved into an older neighborhood without a lot of kids in it. I was also that plump weird kid with granny glasses who liked to read. I’m sure that had something to do to create my solitary walks.

There was a pine tree on my walking route about half-way home. If you crawled underneath the branches you’d find a perfect sitting branch, curved invitingly. You could look up into green branches that towered above, and listen to their whisper as they moved in the wind. The branches would creak a bit too, the way an old rocking chair creaks, in a steady soothing rhythm. In winter, while there was never much snow under the tree, flakes would filter down like tiny pinballs in an arcade, catching snippets of light as they turned back and forth on descent. The base of the tree was crunchy dead pine needles, still releasing that pine scent. It was a safe haven and at its best on snowy days.

Snow as a teenager meant a long, but worth-it drive to the mountains of Colorado to go ski. It would take about 10 hours all told, more if the last bit from Idaho Springs through the Eisenhower tunnel to the other side of the Continental Divide was slick. We would ski my favorite, Keystone, or icy A-Basin, freezing cold and windy Copper or Breckenridge. We never really went all the way over to Vail, and Beaver Creek hadn’t been built yet. I learned to ski at the base of Peak 8 over at Breck. I had trouble learning how to stop and found myself drifting into fence and then into the parking lot beyond it the first few tries, but aside from a few moments of terror, I loved being out in the snow and the cold, and had the right clothes for it.

There is an interim between joyful memories of snow and how I feel about it today when I hated winter weather. I lived in Chicago and surrounds for college and a while after. It gets insanely cold and snowy in Chicago. There was a time back in the early 80s when I was still in college, when the wind chill was -80. Not a typo. Eighty below zero. I lived in an aging apartment with a cracked window in the bathroom, so in winter the water froze in there, me along with it. I slogged through thigh-deep snow drifts to get to the Belmont El to go to work downtown while it was still dark out. I have never been so cold as standing on that El platform, waiting for the train to come.

What I’ve learned over this past week of very cold temperatures and a good dump of snow here in Dallas, is that my happy opinion of snow has come back. I’ve reveled in the squeaking noise my Merrell boots make as I walk through it on below-freezing days. (Side note, these are great boots – I got them to hike in Colorado with, and they’ve turned out to be great snow boots too.)

I love the fresh cold air, and burying my nose in a scarf. I feel alive and happy, especially when the sun comes out and the sky is a brilliant blue, and the snow transforms into millions of sparkling diamonds. My old dog positively frolics in it, and that makes me happy too. What I don’t love is living in a place that isn’t ready for this kind of weather at all – it changes the equation into a difficult and dangerous one that would challenge anyone, even a snow-lover. So don’t armchair quarterback Texas too hard this week please, or at the very least, send down some long johns and de-icer, we could sure use some.

On Learning a New Language and Long Walks

On Learning a New Language and Long Walks

So. I’ve been learning Greek. If you’re like most of my witty friends, your first reaction after a slight step backwards will be to quip, “It’s all Greek to me!” Ha, yes I see what you did there, very funny. I should let you know that the Greek language has this helpful word δεν (den) that creates what I call “opposite day.” It makes the sentence state that you do NOT have the thing you are talking about. So please revise my earlier sentence to say, “Ha, yes I see what you did there, δεν very funny.” Super convenient.

I am learning Greek for a reason, it’s not just some random New Year’s resolution. I plan to go to Greece, specifically Crete, in the late fall of this year with some friends for a swim vacation (#swimtrek) in the Aegean sea. Besides swimming in those incredible blue waters, I’ll be visiting the palace of Knossos, which has loomed large in my personal mythology for years, since 4th grade in Mrs. Sandberg’s ALC class to be precise. We did a whole semester on the Greeks and read Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey. I was captivated by those stories, most particularly the ones of the half-man half-bull Minator roaming beneath the palace of Knossos, and Ariadne using her magical thread to help her lover escape the maze. I read about the excavations Sir Arthur Evans did on the site (ones that would make modern archeologists cringe, sad to say). I even made a to-scale model of the palace out of sugar cubes for extra credit in Mrs. Sandberg’s class. I dislike the term “obsessed” in general, but it might apply here.

Languages fascinate me, and I try to learn a few words for the country I plan to visit, although I’m also okay with falling back on exaggerated hand motions. I have a smattering of Spanish and French. The physical equivalency of those would be the pathetic random paint drips an inexperienced wall painter leaves behind. I have a larger bunch of drips and blots – say a vigorous Jackson Pollak – of Russian. During this process of learning Greek (#duolingo), a backwater section of my brain where I evidently kept these languages creaked open and now random words bubble to the surface. The Spanish ones are mostly filthy swear words, as I picked up the majority of that language working in restaurants. The French bits are an amuse-bouche of words for colors and food. The Russian has a bigger footprint and whole phrases are coming back there. I could perhaps have a jagged chat with someone who is forgiving of my appalling accent. My Russian teacher in college would tell me, “Is uzhasnyy, like Volga boatman.” I’m sure my Greek is equally risible.

The Greek is full of fun surprises like εγώ means me, or I. Pronounced Ee-go, you can see where we get ‘Ego’ from. That connected line over thousands of years from ancient speakers to our English language of today makes me feel grounded. Greek has its horrid share of male/female/neuter endings and don’t get me started on the possessives, but it makes up for it in other ways. For example, every letter is pronounced, none of that silly “silent letter” bit that makes English so sneaky. They also put helpful accents on the vowel of the syllable that needs to be emphasized, so you can avoid putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.

It’s hard learning a new language at an *ahem* advanced age, but I’m a fighter. I tend to learn language by brute force, simply jamming it into my head over and over. I also steal a trick from Mark Twain, and try to connect to a word picture. For example, the word for ‘Greece’ is Ελλάδα which sounds sort of like Aladdin, so I have a word picture of Disney’s Aladdin doing a dance on top of the map of Greece and I remember it. I am doing this with the important words, like Παγωτό, which means ‘ice cream.’  Παγωτό starts out like pagoda and ends in close to gateau (cake in French) so I imagine a pagoda built of ice cream and a birthday cake on top of it. Or cheese is τυρί, pronounced tee-ree so I imagine a golf tee stuck in a hunk of swiss… speaking of cheese, I really love Greek food, and am looking forward to lots of tasty dishes. Below* is a recipe for one of my favorites, Tzatziki.

I’m enjoying the learning, and having fun noticing quirks. Like the word for lunch is super long, μεσημερπιανό, which makes me imagine it was reserved for those who had the time for long chats, as opposed to the short and prosaic πρωινό and δείπνο, breakfast and dinner. I remember μεσημερπιανό because I like lunch, and because it sounds vaguely like a good Mexican restaurant called Mesomera here in Dallas.

This language learning makes me sit in my office chair too long. To combat the rear spread, I’ve started doing long walks early in the day. My favorite is taking on various 3-5 mile stretches around old water source for Dallas, White Rock Lake, with the goal of sometime in the spring being able to circumnavigate it in one go. I think it’s 9 miles all the way around. I like starting my walk in the dark before the loud and stinky shorebirds (cormorants are the WORST) wake up and start quarking and taking poos on the sidewalk where you want to walk. Predawn is one of my favorite times of the day. Dawn itself over the lake is a gift. I’m working on walking faster and adding a bit of a jog in stretches. I say that tongue in cheek, as I’m absolutely the person you pass, the one who makes you feel good about yourself and your speed. I don’t mind. I’m working up to greeting folks who whisk past on their bikes or bypass me with a Γεια σου or a καλημέρα soon, hello and good morning, respectively. So if you’re out there on White Rock Lake in Dallas in the early morning, you’ll know it’s me!

*Tzatziki (τζατζίκι)

Grate ½ of a large cucumber and squeeze out the liquid as much as you can.

Add in 1.5 cups plain Greek yogurt – nonfat or full fat your choice –, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 T of olive oil, 1 T of white vinegar, ½ t of salt and fresh or dried dill weed to taste – at least 1 T though. Mix well and refrigerate until ready to enjoy.

Serve as a side dish, a sauce for meat, or as an appetizer with olives, veggies, and crusty bread for dipping. For vegans: use coconut milk yogurt instead of Greek yogurt.

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ON THINGS LOST AND FOUND

ON THINGS LOST AND FOUND

Goodbye 2020. I’ve been reading many fine perspectives on the past year as we gather up our collective skirts and make a run for 2021. I bounce between describing this past year as either an exhausting, unmitigated shitshow, or a begrudgingly grateful forced discovery of what really matters to me as the distractions and daily bustle were stripped back. It has to do with point of view of course. I’m sorry if you lost a loved one in 2020. Many of my friends lost their moms and dads this year. Losing parents, uncles, and aunts is partly due to my generation’s advancing age of course. We cannot hold onto not being orphans forever. However. I’m sad that at current count over 300,000 deaths could have been avoided if everyone had taken wearing masks seriously. Living in country where people sneer and in mocking tones ask, “why’re you wearin’ that diaper on your face for?” during a global pandemic has shaken my hopeful world view this year. I am a mask-wearer out of respect for others. I don’t like wearing masks. I feel short of breath, and my face breaks out and my glasses either fog up or fall off. I wear one in public though, just like I put on a bra every day I go outside my house. Because it’s just not all about me and my comfort. I suppose it’s heartening to know I’m not that selfish after all. Plenty of people are, though.

I can understand initial denial at a deep level. I can jump into denial about things. How often I really need to go to the dentist, for instance. Or that croissants really are about 600 calories apiece.

However, continuing denial that the virus is “not that bad” in the face of proven science and the mounting dead stuns me. I had someone who was getting worked up about “fake news” tell me that a 1%, 2%, or even 3% mortality rate was “just the way it is, they would have died anyway.” They continued with their charming rationale by saying, “those folks” were “old, fat, and diabetic anyway, their own damn fault, no wonder they got it.” And here I thought Scrooge’s comment in “A Christmas Carol” about “reducing the surplus population” was an outmoded Victorian idea that no longer existed.

It made me ill to hear that opinion from a person I’d thought of as a friend. I had held a higher opinion of both them and my discernment. Realizing how wrong I was about some people has been a bitter pill. It’s my greatest loss of 2020 I think; needing to let go of people I’d thought of as friends, but who profoundly disappointed me with their attitudes. There were other disappointments as well. The dear and lovely “You Can’t Take It With You” I directed for Garland Civic was canceled a few days before opening. My new play didn’t get its premiere. My youngest son didn’t get a real graduation in Washington DC from college, just a lame virtual one. Many fun travel plans were cancelled. My creativity took a hit, and I found myself unable to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard for many months.

So those were the things lost. I’m not sure that the things found 2020 brings the scales into balance, but there were some bright bits and realizations. Here are a few, along with generally being grateful for clean water, baking, and a roof over my head.

1. Our rescue doggy who we think is somewhere around 14 or 15 years old made it through 2020. She’s slower on her walks, and sleeps a lot these days. But she’s still with us, her tail ready to wag, to be part of our pack.

2. I got the gift of “Master Class.” I love learning about all sorts of things, and this is a very digestible way to do it. And plenty of time to watch it too.

3. Having our youngest son move back in with us instead of going on to a post-college job was an adjustment for everyone, but we treasure the extra time with him. He’s a good cook too, albeit on the spicy side. I love that he kept his knees bent, and opted to do virtual grad school when all the job prospects went on a sustained hiatus.

4. Finding out that I can easily be by myself for days on end was a gift too. Being an only child pre-disposes one to happy solitude perhaps, but the quarantine months were not particularly hard on me emotionally.

5. I rediscovered the long walk and the jog. I still prefer swimming, but there sure is something about putting one foot in front of the other, waving at the folks passing on the other side of the street and saying hello, and circling back towards home that is deeply satisfying. We are built for it I think, the walking, the returning home, and being friendly to those we see along the way.

I hope your 2020 brought you at least a few things that were good, and that your 2021 will be like a nice long walk that circles into fun and interesting places and then safely brings you home again.

On Mom’s 90th Birthday and Lemon Raspberry Cake

On Mom’s 90th Birthday and Lemon Raspberry Cake

My mother turned 90 years old last week. Born in 1930 in England, as a teenager she had bombs dropped on her during WW2. She would scurry to the dug-out shelter in the back garden, carrying her quilt with her in the night. The bombs always came at night. The worst ones were the “buzz bombs” that you’d hear buzzing from quite a far distance away, and then the silence when their tiny motor stopped. That’s when you knew they were dropping near you, that silence. My mom still has night terrors from those days, and she won’t talk about the war much, except in snippets. It’s like a view from a fast-moving train. Images from her past slip past in a blur of words filled with vibrant images that vanish when she diverts the conversation to pretty flowers or what’s for lunch.

Taken over time, it’s possible to put her war-torn early life together. Her childhood studying at a Convent school where she was taught useful things like French, sewing, and drawing by the nuns. Not being able to find shoes that fit just as she was growing fast, resulting in painful bunions, and having to cut the toes out of the tops of them. Walking down a street one day that was full of shops, and the next day was rubble. Finding bits of still-warm shrapnel on her doorstep. Happy memories get scattered in too, bursts of sunshine in this speeding landscape. The luxury of getting more than one egg a week per person or the taste of chocolate for the first time in years. It’s always in tiny blinks though. I’ve found it impossible to get long cohesive stories from her. I think she’d just rather not remember.

We got her to talking a little bit over cake. My mom left school at fourteen. Her dad wanted her to work at the family pub, “The Duck in the Pond,” but washing glasses and dumping ash trays wasn’t for her. She lasted as a shop girl for exactly half of a day. Instead, she decided to become an ice skater and took two buses and walked a little over five miles to take lessons every day. She excelled and was hired by the touring company of Holiday on Ice at eighteen. Mom toured the world as a featured skater for over a decade. Here is a clip, she is one of the ensemble skaters in this Sonja Henie TV show:

Mom met Dad when she booked the prestigious American tour, which practiced its new show in a small town in Iowa. He was part of the Chamber of Commerce which threw a reception for the skaters. He fell for her hard, and invited her out to a steak dinner, which was a treat for Mom on skater’s wages. A few months later he proposed over the phone while the show was in Toledo. “These phone calls are getting too damn expensive, why don’t you come marry me?” Mom thought about it, and got off the show train in St Paul, and they got married. Still are.

As we celebrated her birthday, over a lemon raspberry cake I baked (I am sharing that recipe with you below), I asked her what words of wisdom she had on her 90th birthday. She crinkled her nose, and then with a half-smile said, “Don’t count.” She’s hilarious. Her vote for best invention since she’s been born – not the internet, or a television in every home, or even Velcro. The automatic washing machine and dryer were her surprise pick. Another story flashed out as the reason for that choice. As a girl it was her chore to hand-agitate their clothes, and then use a mangle to wring them out. A terrible job, especially in winter, with woolen clothing and freezing temperatures, Mom said it was a hard job turning the crank, and it was done in their dank, grotty basement. Her face clouded, and the memory became visceral — the heaviness of those damp clothes in her hands, the drips of wet down her arms, the smell of the basement. She cut off the memory then, and politely asked if we wouldn’t want more cake. As I looked at my Mom, deflecting as usual, I saw all of it — her as a young girl in the basement, huddling in the bomb shelter, spinning on the ice, getting off the train to go make a life with a man she barely knew in a country not her own — all those moments and adventures all in one person. It’s astonishing what a person can get up to in ninety years. I’m glad I get to call her my beautiful Mom.

The lemon raspberry birthday cake was tangy, rich, and delicious. It’s from bakerbynature.com. Three things about this recipe – the first is that although the author claims to be able to make this in an hour, it took me three and a half. Second, she gave a great tip about making your own cake flour, as finding any sort of flour has been challenging of late. For every cup of flour, simply remove 2 tablespoons of flour, replace them with cornstarch, and mix well. Voila!  Cake Flour. Third, tossing the raspberries in flour before adding them to the batter assured that they did not just sink to the bottom of my pan. I used parchment instead of oiling my pans, and it worked great. I did not use lemon extract, but it was delightfully lemon-y all the same. I’d make this again. Here is the link for you: https://bakerbynature.com/lemon-raspberry-cake/cookbook-print/37660/#