30 September 2017

Civility War




Anxious to get home but not wanting to miss the sunflower photo op for yet another year, I pulled my convertible over for a quick few seconds on Route 16 in Milton, Del., raised my BlackBerry too high over my head to see the screen, and somehow managed to capture a gorgeous, miraculously only slightly atilt image.

In victory and haste, I cruised past the old gold 1974 Chevy pickup I'd been crushing on at the edge of the field, then lamented the whole way home that the truck would be gone and/or the sunflowers would be toast a week later when I'd pass by again.



But a few days into August, with the field only slightly on the wane, I got the photo I sought, complete with side window-mounted American flag waving in the breeze. I could see how that 1970s ad campaign extolling baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet practically wrote itself.

Ten minutes west in Ellendale, where the 25 mph limit is strictly enforced and the old houses all but overhang the street, a familiar beat up Victorian was newly flying a Confederate flag. Pop went my happy thought bubble, and driving on in a funk, I recalled my fury following the presidential election upon finding a Dixie banner dangling — in celebration? — from a dead tree a few feet from the road in the next town toward home.

A week later, after the shameful Charlottesville white supremacy rally and death of Heather Heyer, an American flag joined the Ellendale display. I imagined the various scenarios in which it had been raised. Defiance? Pride? Pride in what? Was it calculated to make passers-by mad? Was the flag bearer hedging bets or assuaging guilt? Was there a message I was missing?

It's lotto-lucky to be American. I appreciate that freedom is far from free and that every day, extraordinarily generous and brave citizens risk their lives and sometimes die to protect it and us. On national holidays my balcony sports a jumbo flag clearly seen from across the harbor, but I have always found devotion to a piece of cloth as a kind of idolatry and often an expression of superiority meant to sigfy the “right” way to show love of country. I do not need a flag to do that, but I respect that others might. I love the flag, but for me, helping others, being kind, and working to effect social change and justice is way more patriotic than saluting the stars and stripes could ever be. I never cared a whit about the Ravens until they took a knee, making me appreciate their powerful potential as an agent for change even at the risk of their careers. But to each his/her/their own. We don’t need to agree as long as civility reigns.

Although Delaware remained in the Union during the Civil War, it's complicated (just like Maryland), so I wasn't surprised at the end of August when a New York Times article detailing the building boom in Confederate monuments on private property listed Delaware along with Alabama, Texas and North Carolina. "Ultimately, this is about competing stories, and who gets to tell the story," said David Blight, a Civil War historian at Yale University. Of monuments, the article concludes that "someone's racist is another's relative," underscoring the push to tear down Confederate statues and a help in understanding the Ellendale flagbearer’s attempt to control the narrative with so much else out of his control.

A few weeks ago on the way to Rehoboth, I spied two men sitting on that house's front porch, maybe a father-son duo, and in a rare Ellendale traffic jam, my convertible became immobilized in front of them. Our eyes locked, and I’m not especially proud to say I stared back at them with contempt and disgust — and maybe a little fear, assuming a raw reaction should they somehow discern that I am Jewish. Still, sitting so close, I would have rather acknowledged their presence more politely and asked about their flags, but I felt vulnerable in my open car and unsure I could mask my emotions. The only thing I felt safe about was that a dialogue might dissolve into a shouting match and would be to no good end.

Passing the mostly dried-up field in Milton, I imagined the few remaining sunflowers hanging their heads as if in sorrow. I hope reframers of Civil War history and/or those on the opposite side of our current cultural war at least agree with that sentiment.

07 September 2016

Why Are You Walking Your Goat On A Leash?


Do you stencil on those perfectly round circles? (No). Does her fur naturally grow short in some places and long in others to make that fancy hairdo? (How I wish). Is she a show dog? (Yes, a retired champion). May I take her picture? (Of course! Thank you!!). Do you dress in black and grey or black and white to match your dog? (No, she dresses in blue roan to match me). The title question, or some variation, all day long, because she really does, at times, look like a goat. And, no, not even my wonderful English Cocker Spaniel breeder several times over can guarantee a dog like Sister Faye. I never tired of answering those questions again and again.

On our twice daily loops from home to the Four Seasons Hotel for a biscuit, where the door men and women regarded her as their mascot and treated her like royalty, to Anthropologie, where she also reigned as their mascot, and then back home, dozens of people a day would ooh and aah and smile and point and giggle. Sister Faye's mission was to make friends with everybody, and as such, sat patiently as babies and toddlers petted her Pi Day-perfect big black spot and others snapped her into their selfies. She once wandered into a wedding party photo shoot, upstaging - and charming - the bride and groom. Smiling eyes shyly peered out from niquab slits and once a hijab-clad woman and her child, both in party dress and from a land where dogs are deemed dirty, stunned me by plopping down on the promenade to procure doggie kisses.

Sister Faye was gifted to me eight days after I lost my sister Sharon Faye, and as eight is a Mobius - an endless loop - her name chose itself. In an instant she healed two hearts and my marriage. As her celebrity handler (for lack of a better term), we constantly encountered lovely people from all over Baltimore and all over the world who were drawn in by her stunning appearance and huge magnetic personality. For sure, no black/white/grey dog was ever so full of colour. Or was chauffeured in a car bearing CHEVRE (literally, goat, from the French) vanity tags.

With one, still too sad to contemplate exception, I always said the newest dog was the best ever, that nirvana had been reached (again). That Sister Faye will have no successor speaks for itself.

Having dogs is a bargain we make with ourselves, that we will love them madly, devote ourselves and our bank accounts to their care, but eventually outlive them - and agree that is, and should be, the natural order of things. But anyone who has experienced this particular, extraordinary sort of unconditional love unavailable from human companions understands what I just said seems gibberish when the end comes, whenever and however.

Though Sister Faye's mission on earth remains incomplete, today was that day. Up until yesterday, when yet again asked her age, I replied "14 this coming November 1st," knowing full well only a miracle would render this the correct answer. 

Lost in this thicket of grief, I nonetheless sense a way forward meditating on the belief that health and vitality have been restored to my little chevre and that she's once again smiling and merry, and perfectly coiffed, holding court up there somewhere over the rainbow.

18 July 2016

It's All About The Basil

Apologies to Meghan Trainor, but I'm just stating the obvious. Tomatoes need basil more than basil needs tomatoes.

After thrice sharing my roasted tomatoes recipe yesterday at the downtown farmers market, I told the next person to check out my blog. So here's a repeat of my post from 2007:

It's a special alchemy that occurs this time of year when tomatoes and basil meet an oven. My roasted tomatoes recipe transforms even semi-mealy or bruised and broken local tomatoes into a sweetness you will mourn for after frost. The summer and early fall menu I most often serve guests includes risotto topped with roasted tomatoes, a salad of anything fresh, good crusty bread from Trinacria and sauteed peaches (bruised ones from the farmers market) with mascarpone. Your guests will likely detect the other-worldly roasted tomato fragrance before you even answer the door and you'll notice my menu omits a first course, as wading through an appetizer while the tomatoes await seems cruel.

I enjoy making this a visual feast as well, so whenever possible, I use red and yellow tomatoes. Any type of oven-safe dish will do, but I like to use an eight-inch square pyrex dish and nine big tomatoes or sixteen little tomatoes for a snappy checkerboard effect.

The tomatoes must be skinned - not a big deal. While boiling a few inches of water in a soup pot or wide saucepan, cut into the tomatoes just enough to remove the top part of the core and then make a small x on the bottoms. Place tomatoes in the boiling water, cover, and when the skins begin to wrinkle after a moment or two, remove the tomatoes to a bowl, preferably an ice bath. While they cool, wash a big farmers market-sized bundle of basil and don't worry about drying it. Coat the bottom of the dish with a little olive oil and then add the basil leaves. Carefully skin the tomatoes and place them core side down into the dish. I usually roast them at 400 degrees - but anywhere between 350 and 425 degrees works - until about after an hour or so, when the tomatoes become slightly charred.

At serving time, use a slotted spoon - these babies are soupy. And one last instruction - after your guests go home, drink the nectar remaining in the dish.

26 June 2016

And When You Stand Before The Candles On A Cake

Eight years ago today, on 26 June 2008, on what should have been my daddy's 79th birthday, I posted What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? which details a few extraordinary hours spent in my Rehoboth Beach house on 13 June 2008. Although unrelated to the piece, the 13th also happened to be my sister Sharon's 56th birthday - so sadly, as it turned out, her last.

Unlike the sudden, Rain Man-like realization on that day that I was exactly the same age as my mother when she died (48 years + assorted months and days), I knew well in advance that on this just-past 14 May, I would equal Sharon's time on earth. Some snicker at my compulsion to quantify things, but numbers and symmetry have always served to inject calm and order into the aftermath of the extreme dis-order thrust upon my family in 1973. Whatever coping mechanisms we developed, I am proud to say that at least they did not include drugs or drink.

As eight is a Mobius - an endless ribbon representing infinity - it seemed impossible NOT to post again today, on what should have been my daddy's 87th birthday, about something that happened on 13 June, on what should have been Sharon's 64th birthday.

After seeing the 3 April New York Times Book Review article on Alligator Candy, written by David Kushner, who was four when his brother was murdered and mutilated in 1973, I did not rush out to read it. Without meaning to dismiss - at all - what happened to his brother, or rate its effect, I am nonetheless positive that the sensational slaughter of my father that same year, when I was 13, and the four heartbreaking weeks after, and the development of cancer that ate away close to half of my mother's face, and the death of my grandmother, and a very public trial (all within a year), and my mother's hideous death a few years later, and the decades of dysfunction, couldn't help but affect me in a more profound manner. Maybe it was that three years earlier, after inhaling After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey, who was six when his father died of natural, yet mysterious, causes, I finally found the voice and the courage to break my 40-year silence. Maybe it was enough and I was done?

I didn't even plan on attending Mr. Kushner's talk at the Baltimore Sun on 14 June. But the nagging knowledge that Honor Thy Mother And Thy Father oddly put to rest only my mother issues, plus curiosity about Mr. Kushner and who would attend his talk - people who weirdly thrill to true crime stories or people, like me, who could write the same story? - got the best of me on 12 June, resulting in a late-evening purchase, and then a non-stop read the next morning, crowding out thoughts that it was Sharon's birthday.

With both books running approximately the same length, I noted 28 pages in After Visiting Friends where Mr. Hainey and I shared exact thoughts and words, but Mr. Kushner and I were parallel on more than 90 pages - including page 171, where he shared a letter his father wrote, asking - can't make this up - "What shall I do with the rest of my life?" Elation, eight years to the day, in finding a few other humans who spoke the same language became the catalyst to neatly tie up this 43-year-old tale.

What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? by musical geniuses Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman, was covered by multiple major recording artists, most notably (to me) Barbra Streisand. I used the second line, "North and south and east and west of your life," to title a post written seven years ago today in my East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) blog, Changing East Baltimore Together. Things come in threes, so today I've borrowed "And when you stand before the candles on a cake" because in July, I will celebrate 57 years, having received three months ago an early, most unexpected gift of at least some sort of closure.

When the assistant state's attorney rang my phone on 28 March, I expected to hear yet another twist or turn in the latest of the unending (not an exaggeration), always lame attempts of my father's confessed murderer-cum-jailhouse lawyer to get out of prison - charades that I could only silently witness in post-conviction hearings, literally multiple dozens of times over decades, from my seat but a few feet from where he sat shackled. If only Maryland taxpayers knew prisoners are entitled to such shenanigans.

Or worse, maybe I'd hear he had filed for his Unger case, where a new trial could be granted because of a technicality in juror instructions in the 1970s and 1980s. Many convicted beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt murderers now walk free among us because of Unger - some without trials, because witnesses and/or survivors died and evidence was destroyed and/or lost.

But instead, I was stunned to learn the animal had died the day before in jail. It simply never occurred to me that I would be released from the particular hell of attending court sometimes up to seven times a year or that I'd wouldn't have to endure a new trial and the attendant media circus.

I am often asked to consider turning what I have learned over 43 years into a book, but Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father, and now this, is pretty much all I want to say about the journey from unfathomable tragedy and sorrow to acceptance and everything in between and after. While Mr. Hainey and Mr. Kushner felt free to share, I still question if this genre is merely attention-getting and needy, narcissistic and pathetic - or, maybe, just possibly, brave. Whatever. Enough. Dayenu.

And anyway, to paraphrase my words of eight years ago today, I'm busy being grateful for surpassing my parents' (and Sharon's) days on earth and the ability to joyfully greet the future. Bring it on.

09 May 2013

Honor Thy Father And Thy Mother

Today is 40 years since what happened to my father - and the beginning of what happened next (including what happened to my mother), some of it still happening - all of it The Thing That Cannot Be Discussed.

The Hebrew sages declared 40 as the minimum age for wisdom and spiritual maturity. The Hebrew word for soul is comprised of the letters that also form the number 40. Noah and his ark withstood trial by flood for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses' followers wandered in the desert for 40 years while he took up residence on Mount Sinai for that same length of time - all inspiration that perhaps today's sad anniversary might finally merit a step from the deep shadow to honor the memory of my parents.

But doing so would dirty the clean slate of silence I cultivated decades ago in response to the discomfort, pity, and rejection I often experienced upon baring my background - natural reactions, really, as what happened to both my parents is so off the charts that it almost seems unkind to unload that sort of information on someone so unsuspecting.

But after all these years, I'm sad/mad that saying Sam or Char can still suck the air out of a room, their names still an instant reminder only of how they died. And it's outrageous that after 40 years, what's left of my siblings and I continue to be victimized by the criminal justice system (we'll be in court again four days from now).

But I'd be aghast for anyone to think that this is what defines me. And wouldn't a better investment of my time be finishing my bathroom ceiling, the key to finishing my condo and to getting on with whatever career comes next?

Michael Hainey, author of the extraordinary new book, After Visiting Friends, would understand my apprehension, fears, guilt, shame, and doubts. Although most of the details of our fathers' untimely demise differ, we share so much of the same aftermath; it's no stretch to say he wrote the book I would have if I had a fraction of his courage and talent. We're parallel in passages beginning on page 40 (there's that number again - no coincidence). Reading his book may answer those questions you so naggingly couldn't quite figure out to ask me, but be grateful After Visiting Friends is remarkable in a way you are most likely lucky to never fully comprehend.

Mr. Hainey needed to tell his story to be free of it. Last Thursday, after three frustrating months attempting the same feat, feeling for sure that doing nothing was, by far, the best option, I sat down for my afternoon guilty pleasure, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, when the perfect episode not featuring Sully without a shirt appeared, wherein he counseled, "When you don't talk, it's worse than anything you can ever say." Oh, Sully. OK.

But you'll pardon me if you find what follows self-indulgent or too much information. Know that I don't normally dwell on this stuff and that getting here has been a gradual process, albeit one accelerated by today's self-imposed deadline to put up or shut up.

So here it is, however opaque; use your darkest imagination to fill in the blanks:

For my family, for which just one photo of the seven of us was ever snapped, late spring 1973 should have promised a plethora of photo opps at lifecycle events for four of my parents' five children. But the death of my father's father, my zayde, in March 1973, on my parents anniversary, foreshadowed the madness in May that so violently claimed my 43 year old daddy - a crime so sensational it commanded headlines for weeks. Jewish weddings can't be cancelled, so we rose during shiva for my oldest brother and made the best of the most modest of ceremonies. And then, still within the month of mourning, my other brother graduated from high school and my younger sister and I got bat mitzvahed, black ribbons pinned to our fancy white dresses that would never see what should have been a backyard bash in our honor.

Eighth grade ended/high school began and as winter closed in, my mother got cancer. Completing my annus horribilis, my mother's mother - my grandma, my savior, my absolute everything - died in March 1974; how could I not know she had been so sick? In May 1974, another month-long media circus ensued around the trial, at which my mother sat stoically everyday.

So it's not surprising that my mother's simple skin cancer would soon leave her a Cyclops - only far worse. I'm not sure from where she found the grace to face the day with what little was left of hers. Twice a year, dermatologists-in-training at Hopkins tell me medical literature has only a handful of humans to whom this has happened, that I need not fear such a statistical blip.

Make that blips. But the law of averages just has to be on my side now.

Other silver linings? Still searching, though I suppose resilience, resourcefulness, perspective, empathy, and gratitude count for a lot. So does the ability to tell you this:

Sam Shapiro was renowned for his perennial mayoral and congressional campaigns, highly publicized capers and hijinks, and the compulsion to express himself; there's no doubt I am my father's daughter and I am grateful for all that DNA. He taught me how to sew by machine and by hand when I was six; that wearing a hat will get you noticed; to see the world through an entrepreneurial lens; the importance or reading the Baltimore Sun every day (I haven't missed a morning, evening - RIP, or Sunday edition since kindergarten - no kidding); to be self-sufficient in case something happened to him (oy, did it); to promote a cause (or myself) with humor and style; to be a Renaissance woman (otherwise known as giving in to your ADHD); and (inadvertently) that life is short, so have as much fun as possible. And did he ever know how to have fun and to corral others into having fun watching him; we sure could use more of that levity today.

Charlotte Shapiro was a perfectionist (it's a good thing) and a pragmatist, so I come by all this naturally. She knit like a machine and insisted on casting on my stitches and knitting the first row. She best loved clicking her needles watching/listening to the Orioles game on TV and radio simultaneously, as she enjoyed Chuck Thompson and Bill O'Donnell equally. Her favourite hue was turquoise (mine's a greener version) and so I can only assume she bought that crazy dangerous 1972 Gremlin for colour, not comfort. "Please," "thank you," and especially, "excuse me," were non-negotiable. She gave great advice: "It's not for me to count someone else's money," "That's why they make chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry," and "Have exactly what you want or you'll never be satisfied." I was her major caregiver and at times it was all too much and I was convinced she gave up and died because she knew it. It haunted me all of my days, until the early evening of Saturday 8 May 2004 (9 May cruelly being Mother's Day), when, as I cried inconsolably in my Rehoboth house, she somehow appeared before me and in that instant it was OK and I was free of it.

And now, somehow, I feel free of ALL of it. Excuse me while I go tackle that bathroom ceiling and get on with the rest of my life.

18 February 2013

I Love My Truck

Now no more than a country music cliche, back in the day Glen Campbell nailed the crazy affection an owner sometimes has for his or her truck. Released in 1981, the year of my first, highly utilitarian Suburban, I'm meditating on "I Love My Truck" after sending my beloved, plush 1991 Suburban down the road. Appropriate to her Texas-sized girth, her issues, however few, were outsize enough to have prompted my mechanic to tell me he wouldn't anymore take my money.

I love my truck
She's right outside
I ain't got much love
But I sure got a ride
It don't matter who lived
It don't matter who lied
I got my truck right by my side

A former mechanic liked to say I could drive a village around in that tank, maybe because I am so small and it is so very big. Boog Powell, a former Chevy spokesman, once gave me a very big smile and thumbs-up as he crossed on foot in front of me. Every state cop who ever stopped me for speeding (hey, it was made to go fast - 14 mpg at 55 mph, yet 17 mpg at 80 mph!) laughed and let me go. Even the trooper assisting me as I sat broken down on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle lane of the west-bound bay bridge somehow found it funny. On duty for my city job, always dressed to the nines trolling through broken-down neighborhoods, dealers and look-outs would approach my open window and ask if I were a police officer (who else would be that meshugana?). No air bag, no problem. No matter what, that truck made me feel safe.

You got Sally and you got Sue
And I got a Chevrolet
She takes me home after work
Don't ever miss a day

Other than chewing through batteries, she was no drama queen until the first head gasket blew. Repaired, she returned to her retiring ways, though her creeping rust was of growing concern. The recent, second blown head gasket sobered me plenty, but I couldn't square junking my Barcolounger on wheels. The back seat seems never sat-in, though I did once hide there, un-watched through blacked-out windows, eating a friend's homemade hot cross buns during Passover (though absolutely no one else was ever allowed to eat or drink in my truck) and I'll never forget my dear departed Sophie sprawled out, diva-style, making a show of ignoring eight-week old Hennie as I hurtled that aforementioned 80 mph towards home from Virginia. With the seats folded down, I moved clothes by the armful to Bolton Hill and then here to the harbor. That 4 x 8 bed also conveyed lumber and flea market finds and bicycles and wedding cakes, but the most precious spot, the front passenger seat, ferried an eclectic assortment of folks who mostly are still my friends.

She don't care what I am
She don't care what I ain't
But she ain't no cheap pickup
She just needs a couple coats of paint

After the 2010 back-to-back blizzards peeled part of a re-paint, I floated the idea of replacing the truck with the Chevy HHR (modeled on a '49 Suburban) I had long been crushing on. Though I chickened out, I never stopped pining away for that car. A chance encounter yielded a priceless photo of a white HHR parked next to my white Suburban; indeed, it's clear from that rear view how senior begat junior. A few weeks back, with the Suburban beached after belching the tell-tale, blown head gasket white smoke, fate intervened with the incredibly low-mileage, exact HHR I wanted - white, with rare cashmere leather interior, and tons of bling. Lots of phone calls and photos later, this Texas (!) car came home to me, and today, in a veritable game of motoring musical chairs, my Suburban went home to Harford County, from where she originally hailed, to the son of the Chevy dealer service manager who oversaw the few nips and tucks needed to sail my mini-Suburban through Maryland state inspection. This morning, I joyfully passed the keys to that ecstatic young man possessed of the resources necessary to keep the truck-love rolling on.

26 July 2012

My Heart Will Go On

Today I pre-sign away my dream home, 13 years to the day I learned it was to be mine. I suppose it's fitting that my attention span so often runs to that baker's dozen of years, the same number I operated the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room and the amount of time I maintained an all-but-shaved head. Misunderstood and feared by many, the number 13 is instead regarded by numerologists as a number of re-birth, a theme I'm choosing to embrace as I move to a much more stripped-down existence.

I can't take the original mirrors and medallions or piece-parts of my magnificent kitchen (and where would I put such things in the glorified closet to which I am moving?); my only keepsakes will be my memories, mostly of things impossible to photograph: early morning impatient stares into the vestibule, willing the arrival of the Baltimore Sun and New York Times; the fragrance that quickly floats to the third floor whenever something citrus is peeled two floors below; the sound of Oregon Ridge fireworks 20-some miles north, heard through the skylights when the wind is just right; the beautiful colours I saw and the endless joy I felt heading Grandma's table full of happy friends laughing their way through my legendary feasts.

Despite being less-than-photogenic and way more comfortable behind the camera, I nonetheless wanted a portrait of me in my milieu - my beloved kitchen, garden and carriage house, the most important parts of the house, the places built from scratch - so I asked my friend and (so lucky for me) past colleague, retired Baltimore Sun photographer extraordinaire (mentioned in the same breath as Aubrey Bodine in the Sun's recent 175th anniversary publication), Jed Kirschbaum, to do me the honor, never thinking he would say yes. But Jed quickly did say yes, though he would need to retrieve his long-ago lent-out camera. Wow. Me without this kitchen and garden and Jed without his camera - and the world still turns. Well, check back with me on that next week, but I found an enormous reserve of courage in of what he so easily let go.

Yesterday, my big black Hobart was carted off for safekeeping and because the kitchen was conceived as a complete package, suddenly my sanctuary was no more. Today the yellowware bowl collection comes down, and while the handcrafted cabinets below will still stop traffic, they're not really mine anymore. Same with my huge oven after the last loaves emerged. My grandma's dining room set departs tomorrow for a well-deserved restoration; its leaving will all but drain away the ruach (spirit) of this house.

Most of my roses saluted me last week with a third flush, though I hope they remain quiet the next few days, as saying goodbye to my 31st Street garden in full flower nearly did me in. This time around, I leave not only roses, but boxwood-rimmed parteres exploding with herbs and vegetables - in contrast to my new home, with but a tiny (really really tiny) balcony to farm. But weeks ago, I planted two Madame Isaac Pereire roses (my forever favourite) in lattice-patterned urns and so far the bushes thrive in their Inner Harbor perch, soon to be joined by a jumble of potted herbs.

Everything else, oh my, so much else in my magnificent house and garden and neighborhood of a lifetime, can only remain in my heart. But this drastic sizing-down has taught me that I need not necessarily possess something to actually have it, or hold something in my hands to have it firmly in my heart.

02 December 2010

Chanukah's First Miraculously Normal Candle

Last night by the light of my front window menorah, proclaiming for all of Park Avenue the first of eight miraculous nights, I texted back and forth with my niece Jade, sweet-sixteen yesterday, about her birthday dinner and other everyday things. It wasn't until this morning that I remembered the silly promise I'd made her when she was eight and at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children's Center, so suddenly seriously sick with aplastic anemia. Though I was unshakably sure she'd survive what most don't, this piling of yet another hideous ordeal upon my already over-burdened family tripped my potty-mouth, which proved infectious. Realizing the unlady-likeness of our coarse gutter discourse, I told Jade we should curb it until we could celebrate her sixteenth birthday with a cuss-fest, at which we'd release a torrent of what, on those bleak April 2003 days, seemed so unfortunately fitting as chemo poison took her to the brink, but then re-booted her blood.

The jokes about it over the years fell away, as did my fear of losing her to a relapse. Now I rarely regard her as anything but a typical teenager. Yesterday's utterly ordinary talk by text was the stuff of which Chanukah miracles are made.

13 June 2010

Pretty in Pink

I've avoided steering this blog back to its stated focus, consciously equating covering up the two posts about losing my sister Sharon with having found, as they say, closure (and to them I say, good luck with that) or the notion that a recipe for roasted tomatoes makes for more worthy a topic. Losing my job, the fits and starts of what might come next, and the Canadian-type winter heaped upon my normally neat-as-a-pin (in contrast to my house) garden - my happy place, where roses bloom into January - did little to distract me from months of mourning for a relationship that only got harder to understand.

Today, 6.13, should have been Sharon's 58th birthday. What remains to me my most meaningful post details the events of this date two years past; last year also merited a mention. So with a tip of the hat to my very-missed Mommie for her oft-repeated observation that things come in threes, and in the spirit of the name Nesting Baltimore, it's truly time to spring this particular, familiar, a-little-too-comfortable cocoon of grief and regret. Yes, other topics will soon top this blog, but without diminishing Sharon's memory.

On Memorial Day (of a different sort), I ventured forth beyond city limits to Valley View Farms to find, I hoped, a no-kink hose in a colour I could tolerate, but what held my gaze was a pink version of what lay in a twisted mess at home. Skepticism about profits from breast cancer merchandise had previously kept my wallet snapped shut - well, that, and an extreme aversion to the usual chalky pepto bismol hue, but I got sucked in by this hose, the same blazing shade of my beloved, almost non-blackspotting Zephirine Drouhin antique Bourbon roses blooming literally by the hundreds at that moment in my garden on their thornless canes spanning more than 20 feet, the whole mass of which fell from my lattice fence in the aftermath of The Winter From Hell. The hose simply made me happy, so home it went.

Perfectly paired with a made-in-the-USA, all metal/no-fuss nozzle, half now snakes demurely around the shadier side of my symmetrical formal garden, the balance coiled neatly and non-kinked under exuberant Baltimore Belle. Sharon comes to mind every time I see and use it, rendering watering much less a chore and my garden an even cheerier place. After the carnage wrought by blizzards and beyond - climbing roses breaking while being re-lashed to the fence, damage to over 200 boxwoods and to me from wrestling violently-thorned rose bushes (I always say my roses are going to kill me and this year I almost was right), my garden thrives as never before - tomatoes setting fruit early, herbs bounding far beyond the borders, and roses - oh, the roses! An unprecedented month and a half in, and the big show's still not fully abated. Funny, but deep pinks Madame Issac Pereire and Rose de Rescht advanced early into second flush as if in harmony with ZD and that hottie of a hose.

This morning's downtown farmers market bursted with the beginning of summer's bounty, prompting a close-out of the flowers and herb plants that crowded tables for the first few fallow weeks. I spied six enormous Maverick Pink geraniums among a jumble of dollar-each pots, a bargain of which Sharon certainly would've approved. Exactly the colour of the new hose, I potted them up with forget-me-nots acquired last week awaiting their mission.

18 June 2009

Sister Act

Four month old bits of Beth Tfiloh Cemetery dirt from the burial of my beloved Aunt Merelyn still clung to my heels as we approached the implausibly technicolour red clay piled next to the void awaiting my sister Sharon's plain pine box, the simplest one Sol Levinson offers and so appropriate for a woman so frugal that the theme humorously permeated the remarks made at her funeral an hour earlier. All I could think was that Sharon, who favored clothes in jewel tones, would nonetheless never wear that colour. I also wondered why the earth was so much redder than across the way where Merelyn lay and I uttered a thank you to the universe for amazingly saving the single burial plot just steps from our parents' resting place so suddenly, shockingly needed, acquired and half-filled 36 years ago.

The dirt-shoveling seemed unusually endless and all the mourners eventually drifted away until only Fred and I were left to assist an anonymous rabbi complete the task of filling in the grave. The clay encased Fred's shoes and my favorite sassy boots, worn hundreds of times, but forcibly retired that April day - such a sad metaphor for saying goodbye to Sharon.

I had prepared for my return from the cemetery by leaving a jug of water and a linen towel in my vestibule, but the customary routine ended there with drying my hands, as Passover precluded shiva immediately following her death. Maybe it was that lack of continuity, or my complicated relationship with Sharon, or losing my first sibling, or coming home to a house where I was the only beating heart, or tossing those pointy black (and red) leather boots, or not knowing what to do with the slashed black ribbon, a modern adaptation of rending one's garment, as I unpinned it from my coat, but the experience left me much bluer than what is usual.

On 18 April, the eighth day following her death, one blue replaced another with the unexpected gift of my English cocker spaniel breeder's retired blue roan champion. When Mary Ann affirmed a few days later that this headstrong six year old "danced to her own tune" - the very words I had used to describe Sharon in the Baltimore Sun obituary - I knew the name I chose, Sister Faye, to honor and memorialize one Sharon Faye Shapiro, could not have been more apt, and the timing certainly no coincidence, as 8 is the symbol of infinity (the number is an endless ribbon) and in Hebrew the number 18 is comprised of the two letters that also spell chai, the word for life.

Sister Faye both restored the equilibrium to my house (being dog-less was, quite simply, unnatural) and totally shook it up (every plan now revolving around my new best friend). Tumult of a different sort then set in, entangling me in the emotions of soon turning 50, survivor's guilt/Sharon's ridiculously short life/our parents' even sickeningly shorter ones, but then, almost mercifully, the more concrete problem of a patch of repairs to my awesome 18 year old Suburban, prompting my normally frugal brother Allan to urge me away from my safe and huge old friend (my words)/security blanket (his words) and towards a replacement (how is that possible?) with something more sensible (yawn).

Admitting I do very little for myself (I've never even had a massage) and even less for fun (despite what I learned from my Daddy - gone at age 43 - that life is short, so have as much fun as possible), I did some homework and then went shopping for a second vehicle I wasn't sure I should/could have. The universe, as usual, put the kibosh on two cars I thought I could stomach and just as the journey quickly led me to my long-time, modest dream car/colour, I was stunned to learn Sharon had remembered me in her will. A riff through the range of emotions resulted in the realization that the only way to thank her for her extreme kindness, besides supporting her favorite charity, was to find that elusive fun in what she had made possible.

And so on 18 May, I took ownership of that Aquarius blue 2006 VW New Beetle convertible with 36 (double chai) thousand miles, placed the ripped black ribbon in the glove box as a reminder of my sister's generous act that sealed the deal, and drove off into the wild blue yonder, praying all the while for the blessing of blowing way past Sharon's scant 56 years.

Not long after, I drove the Bug to Sharon's house to scout for a memento, but all I could focus on amid her things - and all I really want, anyway, to honor where we always connected - were CDs from her voluminous collection. Turning to leave after sizing up the mountains of music from which to choose before the house empties, my eyes fell back on a pile already scanned, yet on top perched an item seemingly shot up like a springtime seedling, a sealed package bearing a "VW Drivers Wanted" CD case. Why did she have this? - as the former owner of a 1977 oil-obsessed Rabbit, Sharon was certainly no VW enthusiast. How long did she have this? - Volkswagen discontinued use of this long-time tag line on 18 April 2006, two months before my Bug was born. I took all this as affirmation that she approved of my appropriation of her gift.

Driving home on 95, lustily singing along with Andrea Bocelli, I was slowed to 20 mph by rubberneckers. Down rolled the window of the car to the left and a lady with a lovely lilting African accent shouted "I just had to tell you how great you look in that car." Fun found, for sure.

I spent part of 6.13, Sharon's birthday, in Rehoboth, remembering how she and I so painfully passed that day together there a few years back, which so oddly made me miss and appreciate her more. Heading home, the sky opened over the Bay Bridge, drenching Sister Faye and me. It was bound to happen sometime and I was somehow comforted that it had befallen on her birthday, reminding me that although Sharon's kindness insures that getting there, wherever that might be, will always be more than half the fun, I'll never forget what I lost to find that.

10 April 2009

Why Is This Night Different?

My sister Sharon was mercifully released from the grips of breast cancer this morning. She and I had a complicated relationship. So much lost, too little found.

We shared a love of music and my nascent tastes were the fruit of hers - Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Laura Nyro – though through the years, I'd occasionally return the favor. She worked as a sound engineer at several D.C. venues and well-known artists would specifically request her services, such as Nancy Wilson, who wrote Fred and me a note of apology and good wishes a week before our wedding when Sharon was supposed to be at a pre-nuptual event, but was instead with family of a different sort. In fact, the majority of my favorite memories center on the ways music enabled her to connect, and not just with me – on the Kirby Scott show (in an orange windowpane suit she sewed); at the Civic Center seeing the Beatles; in musicals at Northwestern High School; playing her guitar; scrubbing Anita Baker and Patti Austin tracks of vocals so I could serenade Fred at our wedding; and the haunting and ultimately heartbreaking full-length feature of my family she crafted from home movie patches and tape-recorded snippets, on top of which she laid the perfect soundtrack. I can’t bear to watch the thing, what with the shots of Daddy cuddling little blond me in Bubbie and Zadie’s backyard to the strains of Debarge’s “Who’s Holding Donna Now?” and the video and audio of Shabbos dinner at Grandma’a house around what is now my table, set to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and Grandma’s surprisingly thick Russian inflection.

I sat at that table tonight and remembered Sharon was smart, sensitive, a wicked Scrabble player, articulate, funny, and the sweet side of saucy and sassy. The me who emerged from my chrysalis in my twenties and gained so much confidence in my thirties is partially a product of trying to emulate the best of her. Why she and I never could connect long-term is a question, one maybe I’ve wrongly avoided asking, even today in my grief, though until a few years ago I didn’t fully appreciate her significant challenges. It was more than the cancer that made her disappear. I used to describe the twenty-two hours she spent as a guest in my Rehoboth house as the worst in my life, and it’s not because she ran into it with her car, but because of the crash course I got of another kind.

It is somehow appropriate that freedom was delivered during Passover. The fifteen stanzas of Dayenu, for her (and my mother) the pinnacle of the seder, all conclude with the word dayenu, the translation of which means "it would have been enough," and though for any of us there could probably never be enough, she miraculously managed to eke out another year after last year's crisis. She even breathed two days past Wednesday morning's dire prediction. I wish she had fought as hard to live her life as she fought having it taken away.

24 October 2008

The Colour of Happy

Just before EBDI quitting time late last Friday afternoon, the west wall of our Ashland Avenue Victorian jewelbox, to which my office is attached, bounced the sun into the north-facing windows of my carriage house perch, transforming my ho-hum-hued office with sublime light the most exquisite shade? tint? colour? Of what? Light definitely has a colour - just go fluorescent or incandescent bulb shopping, at least while you still can. Notice the way a room colour changes throughout the day. Think about why painters prefer north-facing studios.

Perhaps what I observed best resembles the look of a simply celestial Rehoboth summer sunrise, the early-morning uber-rosy glow of the east-facing salmon-pink brick rowhouses meeting my gaze across the way, that same glow infused with unobstructed mid-summer high-octane first light pouring in from across the Fallsway and settling on everything near the corner of Calvert and Chase streets (stand there - you'll get it), and the late afternoon fire that ever so briefly blazes the cornices of Oliver’s ramshackle grand houses lining Preston Street.

But no words sufficiently capture what I mean and what I see. Maybe Anu Garg, founder of Wordsmith.org, which five days a week sends me A Word A Day (with which my chum Albert and I compose dueling haikus), might know a word that means TGIF, as I associate last Friday's type of light with almost every sunny Friday of my life, beginning with the flat-out happiest times of my childhood - late Friday afternoons, particularly in fall, often clad in plaid, venturing a few miles over to Grandma's house for the warmth and comfort and pleasure of Shabbos dinner the way it's never tasted since, for seemingly the briefest moment in time with my parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and Grandma and step-grandfather all squished together 'round that precious mahogany inlaid table that became my most prized possession, along with the matching demilunes, Hepplewhite chairs, and Potthast breakfront. In June 1999, I marched into the crowded Bolton Hill Wednesday broker's open for my house, whipped out my tape measure to confirm my eyes had accurately assessed that the demilunes would neatly tuck into the recesses either side of the tiled, pier-mirrored fireplace, and proclaimed victorious my search for a house worthy of Grandma's furniture.

More than nine years and countless dollars later spent mostly on things not seen, rehab still hasn't reached the dining room, which still wears colors (spelled without the u on purpose) chosen by the clueless owner twice removed - idiotic imperceptibly pink walls plus crown moulding and a jaw-dropping Eastlake ceiling medallion polychromed in puke - but even with my hypersensitivity to colour, I love and revere that room.

My friends gather there and I serve them approximations of what Grandma made and when they ask for recipes, I repeat her oft-used line: "I'll make it for you." It wasn't about wanting to keep the recipe close, but keeping her family close by.

She was my champion, my biggest fan, and the most important person in my life. I dialed her every single day right after school (484-0098). If I could have five minutes more with anyone, it would hands-down be with her, though as I strongly feel her presence in my dining room, she's always with me. Every day I sit at the head of the table for a moment or two after work or when I need clarity and courage. If need be, I lay my head on the table like an ear to the ground and always hear which way to go.

I focus on the Bradbury and Bradbury Aesthetic Movement and Herter Brothers wallpapers tacked about and dream of the day twenty or more might, in Eastlake fashion authentic to this house, co-mingle on the walls and ceilings, restoring this room, and the rest of this spec-built 1883 house, to its original papered glory touted in an 1884 Baltimore Sun for-sale ad; and hope to see the mouldings and the shutters liberated of layers of haphazardly applied white paint obscuring poplar masquerading as walnut. I fantasize how food, simple or opulent, will look against a crazy quilt of colours and patterns and imagine I’ll savour, even more, my guests enjoying those beautiful meals. It’s endlessly amusing to remember that Grandma's walls were white, a room colour I neither understand nor tolerate, though of course it mattered not a whit then, as now. Friends and family are the real colour in a room.

But absent beating hearts, or on a cold grey dank day, my dining room is still filled with an ethereal light maybe only I can see. It is the colour of happy.

01 August 2008

My Blue Heaven

The value and importance - really the necessity - of home clearly cuts across class. Everyone seeks comfort and shelter and sanctuary in some way, even those with next to nothing. Two Baltimore Sun items yesterday morning speak eloquently to this point.

Stephen Elliott, a former heroin addict, was homeless until Deanne Callegary and L.R. Wagner, volunteers at a shelter he frequented, performed an audacious act of tikkun olam (Hebrew for repairing the world) and invited him to live in their barn and tend their goats. I often question the worthiness of human-interest, front-page Baltimore Sun picks, but not this one. Mr. Elliott understands and appreciates his great good fortune, channeling, in an admittedly unusual way, the words I wrote two months ago "If you're lucky, home is where you're comfortable, safe, and loved." I hope and pray this humble place of healing and blessings will compel Mr. Elliott to find his way all the way home, whenever and wherever he himself determines that to be.

The second article appeared, oddly, in the police blotter (are certain items included just to make sure we're paying attention - I mean, who doesn't remember last year's theft of the Woodlawn garden tomato with a street value of three dollars?). Too short to excerpt, here it is in its entirety: "Police were seeking an apparently homeless person who forcibly entered a storage locker in the basement of an apartment building in the 300 block of Pleasant Ridge Road on or about July 25 and lived there for a short period of time. While in the storage room, the person painted the walls blue and improvised a burglar alarm by placing a bucket full of water atop the door so that anyone who attempted to enter would be soaked."

Blue hues prompt feelings of relaxation, harmony, and holiness and in some cultures the colour blue is thought to chase away evil spirits. Our enterprising storage room resident made himself comfortable and safe and, my, he must really love blue. His temporary lodgings may have been his Taj Mahal to Mr. Elliott's barn to the place from where most of us are truly lucky enough to be reading this.

20 July 2008

Cross Hairs

While I prefer to think I'm found memorable for my mind, it seems I'm often unforgettable for my hair - or, for the past ten years, the lack thereof. My hair has been up, down, and all around. Its current length is no declaration of my politics, sexuality, or anything else. Quite simply, it makes me feel utterly and completely beautiful. I've stopped being astounded at the reactions I get, every day, often multiple times a day. Women constantly tell me how good it looks and how much they admire me for it - the caveat being that some of my female friends worry it's an impediment to happiness. Gay men generally love it and hetero men mostly hate it or have to work their way into acceptance. So silly - I'm still the same person (well, actually, better with the perspective age brings) who had a braid down to the tush, a perfect Louise Brooks bob, a short curly (constantly expensive) perm, and everything in between.

For the past few weeks, for reasons completely incomprehensible to me, negative comments on my hair have ramped up to a level difficult (even for me) to ignore - prompting even more navel-gazing in a summer already way too stuffed with it (as readers of my three blogs have no doubt observed). I never say never about anything, so, sure, I'd let it grow for the right reason, whatever and/or whenever that might be, but in the meantime - if this is one - please just leave me be.

And so from the "I Couldn't Make This Up If I Tried" department, walking through Mount Vernon last night en route to Iggies (OMG the funghi and Alice pizzas), deep in thought the entire way about my hair (what a thorough waste of time), I encountered a conventional-looking chap about my age, wearing an Orioles shirt, baseball cap, etc., who, as he was about to pass, said "Nice hair!" Of course, that stopped me in my tracks for all the obvious reasons and a brief conversation ensued, during which he asked if my 'do posed a problem at work (I'm still puzzled by this question), and as it was just cut (every two weeks - thanks Linda) and still looks and feels like lush silk velvet, he asked what a lot of people ask - could he touch it? - and I saw no reason not to oblige.

The universe, as usual, provided exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it, and today, this velvet head is busy thinking about things much more important.

26 June 2008

What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?

I wasn't a minute into my Rehoboth house when something told me to flip on the TV and there it was - mid-afternoon, wall-to-wall coverage of the sudden passing of Tim Russert, my secret Sunday crush. My usual blue May/June bad mood went black and I practically unprecedentedly took to my bed, pinned by emotional G-forces beyond my comprehension and control.

And then, thankfully, as the sun sank, my mood rose. I'm not sure how or why I was suddenly aware that on that day, the thirteenth of June - 6.13 - I was the exact age - 35 days short of 49 years - my mother was on the day that she died. If there was any comfort in that realization, it's that 613 is a very significant number in Judaism - the number of commandments in the Torah.

Today, on what would have been my Daddy's 79th birthday, I remember that in 2003 - though I didn't realize it until a few months later - I had visited Amish country, a close-by, but nonetheless, never-explored place about which I had always been curious, on the day I was the exact age - 48 days short of 44 years - my father was on the day that he died. I spent a fabulous day antiquing, eating, and buggy-watching with a treasured friend, capped by a return trip in a thunderstorm so torrential that it brought all highway traffic to a halt. I smile and think of that day every time I (try to) use the long-sought and procured that day, over-priced, 1930s green-handled cherry pitter that refuses to stay clamped to the table.

On 6.14, I embarked on my customary 5:00 AM sharp, four mile bike ride to the boardwalk, having outlived both parents - a little scared, but ultimately joyful and grateful to be launched into unexplored territory.

16 June 2008

Not For All The Tea In China

As owner of Baltimore's favourite tea room, I harbored a pretty fantastic secret - I was, and still am, a total coffee maven. Even the prized Old Waverly tea, a secret blend concocted by me and the late Tom Thompson of the Coffee Mill, failed to hold my interest. The only tea I truly enjoy, even sometimes crave, is oolong. Twining's oolong. In the bag, if you must know. Been drinking it for decades.

So imagine my surprise when a search of Giant, Super Fresh, Eddie's Saint Paul, Eddie's Roland Park, and Whole Foods yielded none - and it was not merely out of stock, but eliminated from their product lines. Instead, their shelves are crowded with a jumble of black and green and (the newly sexy) red and white teas in pretty boxes, all pretty much tasting the same.

Black tea is fermented, green tea is not, and oolong is right in the middle. It's not accurate, however, to say the taste is an average of black and green. I liken it more to tea as liqueur. All three types have essentially the same health benefits, though I am amused at endless on-line stories reporting oolong tea as a weight-loss tool. If that were true, I would have looked like a super-model in college and grad school.

I never buy in the county what can be obtained in Baltimore City and I never buy on-line what can be had somewhat locally. So it was with an air of exasperation and resignation that I clicked the amazon.com checkout button to order this staple of life.

04 February 2008

Good Night, My Sweet Pet(s)

It was one of those life-changing, door closing/door opening (though I didn't immediately know it) moments. I was at the Waverly Farmers Market in February 1993 when I saw a man with two of the most breathtaking dogs (that were not mine), spaniels of some sort. I could tell he was asked about them endlessly as he patiently told me they were English cocker spaniels and gave me the breeder's name.

I called Mary Ann Alston the same day and told her I would be interested in a puppy sometime in the future, as my Sascha, my first dog - a spaniel-sheltie mix and the greatest birthday present I have ever received - was thirteen and a half and I was just trying to be realistic. Little did I know I would call her again just two weeks later, as Sascha collapsed the night after my initial call and died two weeks later of cancer.

So afterwards, immediately needing to give my heart away again, I called Mary Ann and inquired about puppies. She told me she had a four month old puppy she still had not decided would be pet or show (usually determined by two months), but that the puppy was going to a new home in Japan. I was invited, nonetheless, to experience what English cocker puppyhood looked like.

Knowing I could not have her, I hoped the fence separating me from the puppy would also foster emotional distance. Fat chance. With her blue roan coat, she was a thousand times more exotic than the black and white-coated dogs I saw at the farmers market. Every description of English cockers includes the words "merry" and "melting eyes" and I knew at that moment that the puppy stage of all this would make every frustration of housebreaking and training worth it. I left Millersville dejected and heartbroken that the love of my life would soon be on the other side of the world.

Cut to the very next day and the miracle. Mary Ann decided the puppy just didn't quite measure up to show quality - or should I say measure down, declaring that the tail sat the tiniest smidgeon below the breed standard. With that, the Japanese buyer backed out. I still consider that Mary Ann performed a mission of mercy for the puppy, but even more so for me.

Sophie (named after Sascha, who was named after my daddy, Sam) came home and as soon as I set her down, my perfectly-behaved greyhound, Hannah, promptly clamped down on Sophie's entire face, as if this were the hors d'oeuvre of her dreams. With my scream, Hannah unclenched, but the very next time I let the two near each other, Sophie walked right up to Hannah and patiently waited for her to do it again. After six years of regarding Hannah's extreme interest in squirrels and bunnies, I realized she had no bloodlust in her eyes for Sophie and I came to understand it was all about dominance and not dinner. This particular manifestation of their lovefest continued for years, with Sophie usually initiating the game. Hannah would ever-so-tenderly clamp Sophie's snout in her mouth, and as soon as she released it, Sophie would bug her to do it again.

I often joked that I maintained an almost hairless head so as to finance Sophie's monthly grooming appointment and I was never ashamed to proclaim how vain I was about her beauty. She sometimes glared at me while being groomed and I told her being fabulous was hard work, but once off the table, you could almost hear her say "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." And it was her beauty, not to mention her quintessential English cocker merriment, that delighted all who encountered her.

Hannah dropped dead at thirteen and a half, probably from a stroke. Up to that day, she had been hale and hearty and looked years younger. I think she just didn't want any part of moving from Charles Village to Bolton Hill. It was obvious Sophie missed Hannah and once ensconced in Bolton Hill, would moan and wail endlessly whenever left alone (the kitty, Simcha, apparently not providing adequate company). I could hear Sophie howling up and down the block and my new neighbors were beside themselves. Sophie was pining away for her former habitat, and I imagined, a canine companion, so I called Mary Ann again.

Hennie, the exceptional blue roan offspring of Playboy and Peaches, arrived after a long wait for her conception, gestation, birth, and vetting, but this is not a completely happy story. After the first few years, an exceedingly rare condition emerged, ideopathic aggression, with no known cause or cure. Drugs can't completely control Ms. Jekyl/Hyde, and after winding up in the ER one Christmas night with a bite to my face, I should have said enough is enough. What stopped me, I suppose, was the sight of Sophie and Hennie mostly snuggled together like puzzle pieces and the intoxicating combination of pride and vanity I felt when accepting the constant compliments on my two stunning dogs.

Hennie attacked Sophie about a dozen times over the years, though never once drawing blood. But in the middle of the other night, she did. And although just last month, her vet, the amazingly intuitive and compassionate Dr. Bill Benson, marveled while treating her for high blood pressure at just how young she was for a fifteen year old English cocker, this episode proved too much for her - something about platelets and red blood cells and her age - and at 6:13 PM tonight, she was gone.

English cockers rarely make it past twelve, yet even recently I was asked if Sophie were the younger of the pair. Every day with my best friend was a blessing, especially those of the bonus years. In my last hours with her at Dr. Benson's, I told my still-stupendously gorgeous Sophie how much I loved her, asked her how she heard cucumbers being removed from the fridge (not carrots, not peppers, not cheese - only cucumbers), and thanked her for taking care of me in ways only a dog can.

Instead of cruising 695 and 795 earlier today to Dr. Benson's in Reisterstown, I snaked my way through Greenspring Valley, imagining all the while that it was the British countryside and I was in a pair of Wellies and Sophie and I were romping in the mist and headed towards tea by the old Aga stove after a day flushing out birds. That hazy fantasy, and the knowledge I could not have loved her more, plus the unwavering belief that she and Hannah have been reunited, is what holds me together at this moment. And I’m secure she's in a place where every day will be a great hair day - without ever again enduring the groomer.

But nothing will assuage very different feelings, of guilt and regret, as I prepare to put Hennie down. Mary Ann and Dr. Benson tell me there is no escaping the illness that sends her growling and snarling at me for no reason. Sometimes I am afraid of my own dog and worry she'll bite someone else. Of course, she must be gone before I can get another dog. Due to liability issues, English cocker rescue and the SPCA will not take her. For years, until I had to confront it, I pooh-poohed the notion that we know the exact right time to ease a pet to a painless end. This is different. She's sick in mind but not in body. I am bereft in a whole other uncharted way.

Almost instantaneously going from a two-dog household to a no-dog one is unfathomable and cruel beyond belief, and all because one dog hastened the other's death. I got Hennie because Sophie needed a companion, but this fairy tale ends in a nightmare.

23 December 2007

My Christmas Prayer

Here it is, well past noon on Sunday, and by now I'm usually long-finished with the Baltimore Sun and deep into the New York Times, but not today. I tire of those who say there's nothing to read in the Sun and today, there's almost too much.

The Ideas section is especially rich today. If prioritizing because time is short, don't miss the Q&A with Dr. William Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, where he defines success as "a combination of preparation and opportunity," - in other words, recognizing good fortune when it comes your way and then acting upon it. "Writers, Book Trade Face Aging of Readers" poignantly reminds that we only have but so much time to do what Dr. Brody suggests.

But today's cherry on the sundae is the Viewfinder column, guest-authored by photographer Jed Kirschbaum. The Sun has a stable full of gifted photographers, many with whom I have had the privilege to work, and Jed's talent awes me. But today it is his words that move me, as he discusses balancing the need to take pictures for the 6 December 2007 article about the homeless encampment beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, while at the same time respecting the dignity of his subjects. The published photo, so brilliant, captures a homeless man shoveling a path in the snow to his ramshackle shelter. Jed then recounts a past, cold Christmas Day, when he "saw three homeless people taking their overcoats off and handing them to one another. They put on one another's coats, which made me curious enough to ask them why. They said the only things they had to give each other were the jackets on their backs."

It matters not what holiday you celebrate (or not) this time of year to be deeply affected by that exchange of gifts. They gave each other the most valuable thing and maybe the only shelter of sorts they had. For most of us, our homes, our shelters, are our most valuable possessions. People become homeless for many reasons - loss of jobs, relationships, and minds.

My Christmas prayer might seem odd, as it is actually a Jewish one that concludes the Passover seder. But "Next year in Jerusalem" is also an all-purpose expression conveying optimism and even hope for miraculous wonders. Baltimore City will always be home to poor people, but I pray home, one day and for each and every one of us, will mean shelter beyond coats and cardboard shanties.

20 November 2007

Inspired by the Gift of a Sage Wreath

I am blessed, though that is not nearly strong enough a word, by the friendship - again, an inadequate word - of two men I would not want to imagine life without.

Friendships come in all shapes and sizes. The friends we spend the most time with are not necessarily our closest confidants. My two special guys have incredibly demanding careers, including commutes that take one from our Bolton Hill neighborhood into D.C. and the other from Mount Airy into Bolton Hill, so while one or the other is usually nearby, there is little time for the face-to-face interaction that typifies most close relationships. We don't even e-mail. Instead, we spend hours on the phone as they drive and drive and drive. Hence, time spent together at dinners and celebrations, even neighborhood meetings, is truly savored.

It's odd for me that this is OK, as I thrive on doting on my friends, particularly feeding them. I generally believe the fires of friendships need to be stoked, that a constant diet of virtual or phone contact can never substitute for being in the same place at the same time. But because these gentlemen are as essential as breathing, the compensation for not being able to see them often is the comfort of knowing their love is like the Wi-Fi network in my house - always surrounding me and always available to tap into.

One of these gents recently left the gift of a homemade sage wreath on my doorstep. The wreath was accompanied by another present, a beautifully-penned, heartfelt note explaining the offering followed in the tradition of his Italian grandfather, who would craft sage wreaths for those close to him experiencing challenges. The wreaths apparently always brought relief to the recipients. Why and how, I am not exactly sure, though doubtless there's anyone who doesn't benefit from knowing that someone else is thinking of him or her and has taken the time and care to handcraft an exquisite gift, particularly one that is so meaningful to the giver, who in turn knows it will be just that to the receiver.

While not every nice thing needs to be dissected to be enjoyed, my curiosity about the sentiment behind the wreath got me Googling - frustratingly, to no avail. I inquired of the giver for additional clues and he mentioned the possibility of a connection with the French beaujolais nouveau celebration held the third week of November every year. But plugging that into Google also proved fruitless, so I let it drop.

Last week, while reviewing my Thanksgiving menu, which always includes a self-concocted cornbread, leek, and shitake mushroom stuffing recipe perfected a few years back by a cornbread recipe supplied by my buddy Keiffer, I realized this year's stuffing would be even more special with the addition of the now-dried sage from the wreath to supplement fresh sage from my garden. That sparked my curiosity again, so I got on the phone and called several wine shops, including Chesapeake Wine Company, owned by Mitchell Pressman, who lived just a few doors from me when we were kids.

I do not drink much in the way of alcoholic beverages. As a formerly overweight person battling to stay thin, I simply have no wiggle room in my daily caloric intake. Alcohol consumption is directly linked to certain cancers so rampant in my family. And as a foodie and a frequent hostess, I'm totally embarrassed to know next to nothing about wine. My other special gent and his partner always supply my dinner party wines - sumptuous wines, I am told. I rarely imbibe, unless it's Champagne (a few sips of that and I am invariably told I ought to drink more often, that I'm a lot more fun).

Wine shops intimidate me. I venture in only to buy essencia orange muscat for my poached quince, Manischewitz concord grape for my poached pears, Pikesville rye for my honey cake, and Kahlua and Amaretto for coffee and ice cream. I know only the basics, and I probably know less than I think I know. Again, for a foodie, it's embarrassing.

When Mitchell answered the phone and I announced myself, he was amazed - seems my name had literally just come up in conversation a few days earlier, though he could not recall why and with whom (stuff like this never surprises me, and those who know me understand every nuance behind that statement). After a brief chat about the wreath (no, no knowledge of any connection to beaujolais nouveau), I headed down to visit with him in what I found to be his fantastically warm and welcoming shop at the American Can Company in Canton.

After Mitchell and I hugged hello and caught up on the last, oh, 40 years, we got to talking about folks like me, who are curious about wine, but much too intimidated by the vastness of the subject to even approach it. He said that even though he's been in the wine business for 30+ years, and even though no wine is offered for sale in his shop unless he himself has tasted and approved it, he still considers himself a novice.

That statement not only rocked my world, it changed it.

I don't merely like to learn something new, but rather conquer it, so consequently, I only consider learning the skills I am confident I can quickly master. Cake decorating is a perfect example. In 1996, in the space of less than a year, I went from knowing nothing to being able to skillfully copy Martha Stewart Weddings Magazine cakes, down to the fondant and gum paste flowers. In 1981, I bought a brand new five-speed VW Jetta, never having previously touched a shift knob. Granted, dropping ten thousand dollars on what economists call a commitment device pretty much guaranteed I would learn to drive a manual transmission quickly. But that is the speed with which I have a compulsion to learn. I've been this way since childhood. I want to know everything and I want to know it now.

Mitchell's comment forced me to realize that I have continuously and profoundly deprived and limited myself. I've wanted to speak Spanish, design with Photoshop and CADD, write with a calligraphic flourish, grow the more exotic orchids - and understand and appreciate wine - but my fear of not being quickly proficient has put the kibosh on a whole lot of learning.

There's not a day I am not supremely grateful for the talents with which I am blessed, but the flip side is the frustration with what does not come easily - musical instruments, foreign languages, crocheting, catching a ball, etc. I am reminded of these blind spots every year at this time as I choose the skills I'd like to acquire in the coming year.

Tick-tock. Life is short. Do it now. But I'm not this driven and impatient in all areas of my life. My friends know me to be instantly and endlessly available to listen and give counsel. I knit with ultra-skinny yarn and teeny-tiny needles. And I need look no further than the amaryllis bulbs on my windowsill to note that progress in the garden is often imperceptible.

Hmmm, but what's this?

Every gardener knows success is not even guaranteed, so I'm not sure how to explain what keeps me with my hands in the dirt year after humbling year. Even after 30+ years in my garden, I, too, am still a novice.

Wow. What a kick in the fanny.

With that, it's clear I have no excuse left not to learn about wine, no matter how long it takes to voyage from Manischewitz to Malbec. And it's time to start chipping away at the wish list. Yes, it will take aeons to master certain subjects, in some cases a lifetime. But there's so much to be learned, however slowly and in whatever way I can. The journey of a thousand miles beginning with the first step will be an ever-present mantra.

Since everyone will soon need an understanding of Spanish, if time/money prevents me from taking a class, then I should at least be going on-line for vocabulary words. Other people learn Photoshop every day; I just need to declare I will be one of them. And with only twenty-six letters and ten numbers to form, my steady hand certainly can grasp the basics of calligraphy.

Learning something new compels us down other avenues we can't even yet visualize, just as my curiosity about the sage wreath detoured me into Mitchell's wine shop. Those two hours re-connecting with an old friend led me to grant myself permission to not always be an instant expert. One gift leads to another if we let it.

The gift of a sage wreath hit its target by cheering me up, but then unexpectedly set me on the path to losing my fear of the fermented grape.

May the gift continue to bear fruit.

24 September 2007

Trinacria Macaroni Works

In profile, I've got a Nefertiti head and the length of my hair, cut every two weeks, is just short of shaved. The only down side to my trademark look is a bone-dry scalp during heating season that no dandruff shampoo can cure. So I started rubbing my favorite extra-virgin olive oil, Colavita, on my head before showering. I jokingly refer to my head as a salad bowl.

One day, when buying an extra bottle of Colavita, I mentioned all this to Vince Fava, the owner of Trinacria Macaroni Works, the 100+ year-old Italian grocery founded by his grandfather with the same name. He informed me that Colavita makes a shampoo with olive oil and he would soon have it.

That got me thinking about how little Trinacria has changed over the years and how unusual - not bad, just unusual - any changes have struck me. Things like finding shampoo, body wash, and soap on the shelves; or the impossible-to-miss stainless steel 55 gallon drum holding olive oil that is decanted to order (by the way, it has a lighter taste than Colavita); or the staff's use of electronic devices rather than their brains, paper, and pencil to tabulate purchases – amazingly, the manual method persisted until just a few short years ago.

Located at 406 North Paca Street, it’s the lone retail outpost on this block, though that hardly deters the hoards seeking farfalle, farfalline, linguini, and linguini fini. Once in the door, the nose immediately alerts that Trinacria is so much more than just pasta, with the scents of cheeses, olives, breads, cookies, and deli combining into the finest kind of Italian perfume. Non-odiferous pantry items include a wide variety of canned and jarred sauces, tomatoes, peppers, etc.; arborio rice for risotto; quick-cook and conventional polentas; bottled and tinned olive oils; plain and fruity vinegars; locally-roasted coffee beans; and a plethora of well-priced wines. Actually, everything in Trinacria is well-priced, including cold case items such as make-your-own pizza components, heat and serve chi-chi dinners, and tubs of mascarpone. And the cherry on the gelato? - the overstuffed, made-to-order Italian sandwiches.

Here are some words of wisdom for first-timers: Trinacria is closed on Sundays and Mondays, bring quarters for the parking meters in case you’re not lucky enough to snag a space in the alley just north of the building, and don’t be dismayed by the crowd - the line moves pronto. Take a number and start assembling a pile on the counter. Chances are when it’s your turn you’ll still be marveling over the beet and squid pastas. It’s a safe bet that founder Vince Fava never sold these 100 years ago. Change can be good.

20 September 2007

The Great Triad

My all-time favorite Sunday summer at-home supper is what I call the great triad – green beans, corn, and tomatoes.

I have a favorite bean man at Baltimore’s Downtown Farmers Market and his beans can best be described by the lyrics of “Farmer’s Market” by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - “They’re the finest beans, the coolest beans, the best beans that you will find in this or any other market place.” (If you’ve never heard of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, get thee to Amazon.com and treat thyself to “The Hottest New Group in Jazz,” originally released in 1959. These lyrics and more are there for the listening on the Amazon site if you want to try before you buy).

Crazy, but after all these years, I’ve not a clue what the bean man’s name is; he’s just the skinny, nice blond guy on the corner with the best beans (and beautiful cantaloupes starting at fifty cents). Guess I shouldn’t beat myself up about not knowing his name. I know Doug the quince guy and Kathy and Dave, the heirloom tomato and apple folks, and that’s about it. Still, after shopping this market for twenty-five-plus years, it feels a little odd to not know the names of most of the farmers who provide my main source of sustenance.

I prefer my beans straight up, cooked for just a few minutes until they’re worthy of a Technicolor close-up. I immediately toss them into a colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking, then usually eat the whole pile before biting into anything else.

But every once in a while, especially at the end of the season or if somehow they’ve escaped notice in the veggie bin, I do cook them. I’ve always considered one of Ikaros restaurant’s chief drawing cards their green beans cooked in tomatoes. I suppose I should have just asked my friend Xenos, one of the owners, for the recipe, but it always seemed rude, so I made one up. Sometimes, with a beer in me, they taste the same.

I sauté a few cloves of garlic and a big onion in olive oil, then add a can of Cento tomatoes with basil leaf (Cento is by far the best brand of canned tomatoes I have ever had. I order them by the case at Eddies Market on St. Paul Street in Charles Village). It makes less mess to chop the tomatoes in a bowl and then add them to the pan, so there’s no plop. After reducing that for a few minutes, I add a two-dollar basket of beans with stem ends trimmed; there’s no need to chop the beans because they will cook down. I also add at least a heaping tablespoon each of cinnamon and dried Italian seasoning, and also a bit of sugar and a little salt and pepper. There’s no right or wrong here – just adjust to your own taste. I let the whole affair cook til I just can’t wait any longer.

Corn is another vegetable that should be cooked only slightly. I was multiple decades tardy learning this. I remember the corn of my youth boiling endlessly in the pot. I don’t know why. Maybe there was a good reason.

Corn certainly tastes sweeter now; the name Silver Queen seems to have lost its cache, as every variety is sweet, and stays sweet longer. Maybe fooling with corn’s DNA to increase the sweetness also changed the cooking requirements. At any rate, just a few years ago, a friend told me she cooks corn by boiling the water, putting the corn in, covering the pot, and then immediately turning off the flame and letting the corn sit for two minutes. That’s it. That’s all it needs.

As much as I love the beans and the corn, I really only have eyes for the tomatoes. I grow heirloom tomatoes of all colours and descriptions, but I rely on Kathy and Dave at the market for the bulk of it. For eating out of hand, my favorites are anything black, especially the small oval black cherries and any other smallish black variety. I’m convinced all those best-tasting tomato contests that Brandywines usually win are rigged – or there are never black tomato entries.

Again, the simplest preparation is the best for these sweet treats. I cut up what I haven’t already pilfered before dinner and add a little salt and pepper. There’s no need for basil, olive oil, or vinegar.

Or dessert.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, er, Peaches

At 6:00 AM, between the beginning of May to just short of Christmas, you will find me at the downtown Baltimore Farmers Market each and every Sunday that I'm not at the beach. During every phase of peach and nectarine season, I'm on the prowl for the white varieties. Not to disparage regular peaches and nectarines, but the white ones are different fruits entirely. Their spellbinding perfume and liquor-like taste makes their intermittent appearance at the market a source of frustration for me.

As a foodie and a gardener and an artist, I find inspiration at this market even if I leave without the ultimate prize. No matter how scheduled the rest of the day will be, I try to relax and enjoy the time going round and round as the market wakes up and more wares come off the trucks and onto the tables. Only a few farmers are ready and waiting for early-birds like me. Luckily, one is Doug, my quince guy, who is also my main white peach and white nectarine guy. He's also my main bruised regular peach and nectarine guy. Two Sundays ago, he brought no bruised ones, but that disappointment was erased last Sunday, when the end of his table brimmed with baskets of gorgeous, and therefore, puzzling, cut-rate peaches. I truly couldn't discern the fruits' faults and didn't take the time to ask. Competition for this stuff can be fierce, so I've learned to claim my fruit, pay quickly, and go, and anyway, there's ample opportunity for conversation at quince time.

I was also a bit distracted because a treasured friend was expected at my house for an eight o'clock breakfast and I was pre-occupied with a work-related project. So I hurried home and dumped the dozen and a half not-quite-ripe peaches in the rare black yelloware bowl that holds pride of place atop my stove.

Breakfast with my friend might have been the only relaxing moment between Sunday and yesterday, when the peaches ripened. While I am jazzed and excited by my project, it has pretty much dominated my thinking and made me less than mindful about almost everything else. So imagine my surprise - and delight - when I opened the kitchen door and was knocked over by the fragrance from the bounty in the bowl. Not just peaches, but white peaches.