On Nostalgia and Things I Could Do Without

Since I’m the middle of writing a new novel, I welcome distraction. Going for a walk or cleaning the fridge have new appeal. So does thinking about anything other than my new characters. In my mental wanderings this week, a few things popped up. Specifically; nostalgia for items that will never have a comeback, things that puzzle me as to why they exist (and I wish they did not), and finally, two secret cooking ingredients.

NOSTALGIA

I miss real keys to hotel rooms. You know, the ones that if you forgot to turn them back in, you could “put in any mailbox to return.” Part of the fun of staying in a hotel was those keys, the way they snicked the door open as opposed to the little chirrup you get now from the electronic ones. If you go into the way-back machine, there were even bigger keys to bigger locks that had teeth in them that looked like they could open a castle door. Those needed a hard turn and gave a solid thwock as it moved the heavy lock. You knew you were safe on the other side of those doors. Another thing in favor of the old-fashioned ones is that you could opt to hand it to the desk person on the way out, so you wouldn’t lose it, say at the beach. They’d put it in your numbered slot behind the desk, and pass it back with any phone messages that came in when you returned. I don’t know about you, but we regularly left things behind at the beach. Everything from hair ties to sunscreen would sift away into the sand. When the kids were young, it was the sand toys that went missing. I feel bad about that now, adding to the ocean plastic and trash problem with our inability to hold onto the things we brought with us. But you wouldn’t lose your room key back then, for sure, as it was living back at the front desk of the hotel. Now with its credit card size and disposable nature, hotel keys are easily misplaced and forgotten. Just as easily replaced of course by the machine they have at the desk, but in the end just not as satisfying as a real key. I will say I rather liked the waterproof plastic bracelets we were given in our last outing to Mexico that both opened the doors to the hotel and were also scanned at our meals. You couldn’t lose those either.

Another thing I am nostalgic for, in a pink hazy memory way for how it was, rather than the actual annoying reality are the Thomas Brothers Guides. Those in the know, raise your hand. If you lived in a large city, you HAD to have one of these or else wander, lost and doomed for the rest of your days. The Thomas Brothers Guide was a large, spiral-bound map book of every single address in the city. You went to the back, and looked up the address of where you wanted to go. It would give you a page number and grid letters and numbers such as G-20 for that address. Then you would go to the page number and look up G-20 on the grid, and somewhere in that square was your address. You’d figure out by flipping map pages how to get from where you were currently to there, and write down directions on a piece of paper. Party invites would include the page number and grid of the address you would need to find. If you were verbally giving directions, you’d say you lived in B-15 on page 82. I swear the seat-back pockets in cars were created specifically to hold your Thomas Brother’s Guide. Yes. I miss them. It was like a treasure hunt, and there was real satisfaction in successfully arriving at the destination using this technique.

The final thing I am nostalgic for (this week) is when movies at the movie theatre didn’t have ads. You heard me. No, really. You’d get your popcorn, grab a seat, and then watch previews, and then the movie. No ads. I really miss this one.

THINGS THAT I COULD DO WITHOUT

1. Infant Shoes. The ones people put on defenseless babies when they are still far from crawling, let alone walking. Yes, they are absolutely precious in that way that all wee things are. They are however, not needed. I’m guilty of having bought a pair of these once for a baby shower before I had my own kids. The cute factor got me. But when I had my own, I realized how impractical they were, as well as being pain-inducing if the kid had some on and was kicking you as you carried them.

2. Long, Dull Stories Before the Recipe. I don’t mind a few words like, “My grandmother made this for us when we were kids,” that’s fine. But OMG someone get these folks an editor! There are sometimes buttons for “skip to recipe,” but these stories are not that interesting. And most good recipe-folks are not good writers. Just saying.

3. Ads Before Movies at the Theatre. *sigh*

TWO COOKING SECRETS

1. Worcestershire Sauce. Yes I had to go look at my bottle in the fridge (sparkling clean, thanks to aforementioned avoidance of ‘staring-at-my-computer-screen,’ also known as ‘trying-to-write’) to spell that one correctly. Brits add all sorts of extra letters to their spellings. Extra U’s add special panache; colour and flavour. That aside, if you have a savory dish, I recommend you add a generous splash of this magical sauce, it makes everything taste better, and your friends will love it. Turkey Chili benefits greatly from this addition.

2. Buttermilk in Baking. This is a relatively new discovery for me, but after seeing several recipes using buttermilk in cakes, I have incorporated it into more things – when milk is called for I will add buttermilk instead. It’s wonderful.

Of course if you are vegan, don’t do either of these things. I have no idea what is in Worcestershire sauce, it’s a secret and could be boiled innards for all I know. Oat Milk will do almost as well for your baked goods. And it’s sustainable.

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On Death and Taxes and a Weekend Trip to Fort Worth

“Mom, I can hear you sighing through my noise-cancelling headphones and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.” For those not in the know, the latter is a psychedelic rock, head-banging sort of band, so my sighs must have been hefty indeed.

Sighing is a stress-reliever in my tool belt that gets frequent use. As opposed to say, stabbing people in the eye with a fork, or dunking my head in a tub of water and screaming until I cannot scream any more. We are probably all glad I sigh a lot.

The cause of this particular bout of impressive sighing was the torture of doing the taxes. I was in the midst of collecting all the receipts and totting them up and then putting them in appropriately marked envelopes so I could then correctly fill in the form our tax accountant sends us yearly. Piles of receipts and printed-off documents from my “keep me” file on my computer subsume whatever part of the house I commandeer for this task, and everyone knows to just leave me alone until I’m done. It’s a chore I loathe, one that must be scheduled with myself in advance on the calendar like a trip to the dentist. An entire 24-hour period is devoted to doing this one thing. On that awful day, it requires a stern personally-directed scold that it IS happening today, no backpedaling. Then I gird myself and sigh my way through it. Thank goodness for our calm, competent tax fella we’ve used for the past 17 years. I write him appreciation notes along with our checks. I’d take him baked goods if we lived closer.

My mind drifts as I sort through the detritus of a year of living and turn it into little numbers that go into little boxes on a form. This year brought a bit of musing about death. A nice woman in our apartment complex died just a few days ago. Janie’s porch had the disappointing view of the building’s parking lot near my car space. I often saw her in my coming and going. We’d say hello, and chat about inconsequential things. She was kind and considerate and remembered my children’s names. Janie died in her sleep. The cops had to break in her door when she didn’t answer on a welfare check instigated by her neighbor a couple days later. The hole is still in her door, a daily reminder that we are not guaranteed anything in this life except the leaving of it. And taxes of course. And sighing.

Conversely, I didn’t sigh much at all on our recent belated 27th Anniversary jaunt to Ft. Worth, except when we learned that the advance tickets we’d purchased to see the “Queen Nefertari*” exhibit were not timed, and that members of the Kimball always just walk in ahead of the rest of us plebian rabble. We got to the museum when it opened at 10am, and stood in line for nearly two hours before gaining entry. Museumgoers are oh-so-polite but everyone in that line was pissed, and I wasn’t the only sigh-er. I know it’s partially due to Covid and also probably an efficient way to get more people to join as members. I thought about it, but was too irritated at that point to give the Kimball any more money. Yes, the exhibit was worth it, no I won’t go back to another exhibit there until they change this policy.

Other than that, we had a ball, stayed downtown in a nice hotel, and walked a lot. My favorite amble was at the Botanical Gardens. They have the most enormous Koi fish in various ponds throughout various garden habitats ranging from a giant conservatory with jungle vegetation to an Italianate parterre to an extensive Japanese-themed area complete with pagodas and arched bridges. We arrived as it opened too and even on a lovely Saturday morning it was uncrowded. We particularly liked the giant living sculptures that looked like giant Chia pets.

The Water Gardens in downtown Ft. Worth were also a nice diversion, as were the plaques outlining the city’s history. Ft. Worth was a happening place in its heyday. The start of the Chisholm cattle trail was here, as was the western-most stop on the train that could take you back East if you couldn’t take any more rootin’-tootin’ cowboys. From Ft. Worth it was stagecoach only further into the west – next stop, Yuma, AZ some 1500 miles away. Can you imagine? The place was ripe with ornate hotels and plenty of saloons. Butch and Sundance had their picture taken here, along with the rest of the gang.

Doc Holliday was a regular at a local bar. Walking around the downtown area is a recommend from me. It was extra fun on this trip, as the National Cheerleading Convention was in town. It was fun dodging batches of gals and the occasional guy in bright uniforms hauling pom-poms and banners, practicing tosses and high kicks at the stoplights. Their moms and coaches were with them. They were intense and very focused, having flopped over that line of too much coffee and Lululemon.

Lots of good eats in Ft. Worth. Magnolia street on the south side of the city is an up-and-coming hipster strip with coffee roasters and bakeries and other assorted stores, including a glass-blowing place that gives classes. We had a great Mexican meal at Salsa Limon which has other locations too. Great guac. Our favorite eating place over the weekend was a fun little mom-and-pop breakfast joint called the Montgomery Street Cafe that had been on location since 1948. Still family-run, it boasts freshly made cinnamon rolls on Saturdays. The cheese omelets had cheese all the way through to the edges, not just glopped in the middle, a pet peeve of mine. The line out the door to get in is worth the wait, and unlike the Kimball, I will certainly go back to this place again.

It was good to end the week in a different city seeing different things than our norm. The time away from the sameness of getting through the days along with the added ooompf of tax day and losing Janie was much needed. Here’s hoping you have a weekend getaway in your future. In the interim, I recommend a few good, gusty sighs to tide you over.

*is it just me, or are you also dismayed that they had to give serious consideration to the name of this exhibit? Her actual Egyptian name is Nefertiti, but, you know it has that tit word in there, so they RENAMED the exhibit to avoid the – oh I cannot help myself –  tittering about the name. Really? Is this how lowbrow we have all become? 

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

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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