Saturday, August 21, 2010

Being There

Morels, cereus flowers, fiddle heads, tomatoes—I adore all of these plants that are so dependent on season and in some cases luck. I have never actually eaten a morel. However, I have heard them referenced often and have always thought they sounded delicious. I cannot imagine feeling anything but love for a secretive mushroom that is best cooked in butter and cream. It is my hope to someday find and gorge on my very own patch of morels.

The other plants I have consumed and/or gazed upon, and can say that my life is richer because of them. They all have a short window in which they can be optimally enjoyed. Of course you can buy a tomato at the grocery store all year long, but I am not talking about that kind. The ones I am thinking of are the tomatoes that are a vibrant red or gold color (not necessarily uniform), which are so ripe that they sometimes burst their skins leaving a fissure that extends deep into the meaty fruit. When you cut them open the meat falls apart into thick steaks and I like them best with a sprinkle of salt. It is the end of the summer and the tomatoes in Upstate New York are replete. I am doing my best to eat as many as possible.

There is voracity to my eating. Not only do I love fresh garden grown tomatoes, but while salting the slices I recall that there were no tomatoes last year. The blight took them all; only a few green tomatoes were salvaged, picked way before their prime. I breaded and fried them but they are incomparable to this year’s crop. I eat more than I should; I eat for when they are gone.

Last year I was introduced to fiddle heads. They are something that must belong to the world of elves. Small green coils, like the wood carving of a fiddle’s head, they push up in early spring and within a week start uncoiling and become mature ferns. For that week, I picked them, making sure not to thin out the patch too much. I sautéed them to eat plain and boiled them in soup. They have the snap of a green bean and were the first living color after a longer winter of root vegetables.

The night-blooming cereus flower, a native of the Sonoran Desert, is a feast for the eyes. The large bloom with its white petals and coral-like inside parts releases a strong perfume. The flower spends all her beauty in one night; by morning, she is ragged and limp. I was there. Last night, under the full moon one bloomed on the patio below my window. It was everything fresh, new, and fleeting. It was the debutante at her first ball, the wedding, and the wedding night. This morning, to my surprise she was fading but was not completely gone. By noon she was dead. What glory and tragedy to live a lifetime in one magical night!

The fleeting nature of these plants encourages me to be single-minded. I cannot be stopped. I will eat tomatoes three meals a day, troll the river banks for wild fiddle heads, and continue to search for my very own morel spot. And should I be privileged to see another cereus bloom, I will stay in the dark watching and wordless.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Escape Story

I finished Bread Loaf two weeks ago and have been back in Essex for one.  Strange to go from being fully occupied to having all the time in the world.  For the past week I have been working at finding work and taking time to read anything that I could not during the summer.  Sometimes reading is an escape from dealing with the messiness of life.

A perfect example of this involves me, a mouse, and a semi-effective mousetrap.  The background to this story is: my house has a mouse, or rather several mice.  We had some last winter and thought they were gone but not so.  I cooked a large dinner last week and put off doing the dishes ‘til the morning only to find the plates cleaned off and the counter covered with tiny droppings.  Tim set the traps and we were in extermination mode. 

The inhabiting mice are smart(er than we thought) and quickly figured out how to snag the bit of ground sausage and peanut butter without tripping the spring.  Ingenuity on their part led to Tim’s greater ingenuity—BACON.  So the trap was set again, this time with a piece of fatty bacon hooked to the platform, and presto, the very next night the trap was sprung killing a tiny field mouse.  Tim disposed of our intruder in the woods and reset the trap.  I was sure that was the end of our mouse trapping.

Not so…the next morning, shortly after Tim left for the farm at 3:45 am, I went into the kitchen to get a bowl of homemade pasta (the pasta hell that I went through the day before merits its own story) and made a conscious decision to not look in the direction of the trap and ruin my snack.  I ate, read, and went back to sleep. 

Waking up, I returned the bowl to the kitchen and was starting to run the dishwater when I stopped to look over at the trap.  It was sprung, but no mouse.  I looked closer and saw a small trail of blood leading to the corner where a tiny mouse with a black tail the length of it’s entire body was hunched.  I looked closer.  It quivered a little and then seemed to move. 

It took no more than that to send me running out of the kitchen and to keep me out for the rest of the day.  When Tim got home I was in the bedroom, escaping the messy kitchen scene, reading.  He said, “There’s a mouse in the kitchen.  Did it just fall out of the bag I brought home?”

“Where is it?” I asked.

“On the floor by the door.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Look near the trap.  Is there a mouse cowering in the corner?”


This Hercules of a mouse had managed to deliver it’s crushed frontal lobe (with a smashed nose and eyes) from the death grip of the trap and then pull it’s bleeding body from the counter across the kitchen to the door.  He was not lively, but certainly not dead.
I sat up high on my pillow with my feet tucked under me and asked Tim not to bring the mouse near the bedroom.  He took it outside and left it near the woods where it could die, or, maybe through some valiant effort, live and become a legend in the mouse world.  For my part, I promised to do the dishes the next morning.  I meant it too.  But I heard the mouse trap snap and now it seems easier to stay in bed writing this silly story.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The North Country

I sit in the diner with the chalkboard of specials and the stuffed bobcat leaping off the wall. From my seat at the counter, I can hear the griddle sizzling. I see the grease stained cabinets through the window, a sometimes the cook—a woman with hair coiled tightly into a bun and a matching moustache over her lip. I know her habits and her vices. I’ve watched her drink cold air on the deck off the kitchen, and sometimes cigarettes too.

See, my office faces the diner. We share a bank of the frozen Boquet River. We are set in the North Country, carrying out our lives as stories. It is a place where people get stuck, lost, or born. Those who weather a few winters rarely leave. The freeze and melt seem to push their feet deeper in. They are united by their resolution to love this land despite itself. I finish my sandwich and watch the neon clock above the window. I can’t be sure if I am sinking or leaving. I suspect that they might not be that different.


The Essex Ferry stopped running three weeks ago. Now the ice has collected at the dock; it rattles. There is no traffic on the road when I come and go. I pull out from the driveway after glancing just once in each direction. I won’t travel as often to Burlington and I am tired of the strip malls that Plattsburgh offers. A sleepy cold has settled in. It holds me to its lap, making me nap too. I think of my mother, tired of watching me, hugging me as she dozed in the late afternoon. So, I settle and watch the grey sky from my window.

These days have little curiosities. The nimble fox darting around the corner of the barn, the five deer standing together, as if conferencing, in the middle of a field, and the Asian man who rides his bicycle down Essex Road. He has not abandoned his bicycle like I have. I am in awe of these small things.

The Farm and the Farmer

My life in Essex, NY, where I now live, is complete in all the ways it was deficient in Manhattan. I landed here by chance, which is perhaps the reason that I stayed. I am a believer in following the unexpected.

I came to Essex by chance; it was a stop on my way to South America. I already had my ticket to Lima, Peru. At the time I was teaching English to Saudi Arabians at the University of Northern Iowa. I had moved back to Iowa and taken the job so I could save money for the trip. The one-way ticket was scheduled for June.

In early March, I received a call from my aunt in Essex. My uncle, who suffered a brain injury in a car accident 6 years earlier, had begun having grand mal seizures that shook up all the fragile pathways his brain had rerouted after the accident. He couldn’t remember where his friends lived, even though their house was a block away from his and he had known them for 20 years. He couldn’t remember his children’s names. He cried often and could not explain why.

My aunt wanted to know if I would consider spending two months in Essex with my uncle before my trip to South America. I agreed.  He has always been a favorite uncle of mine. As a child, I visited him often and have fond memories of hiking with him in the Adirondacks. Always a prankster, he would pretend to hear rattle snakes and send me running up the trail. He was also a fantastic chef and I remember eating pizza from the brick oven he built in his backyard.

I was nervous about going to Essex in early March because the hamlet has only about 60 year round residents, most of which are retired. I made peace with this reality by thinking of these two months as a time of quiet, introspection, and writing before the heat, noise, and distractions of South America.

But it was not a time of introspection. Three weeks after arriving in Essex, I met Tim at the farm where my uncle was supposed to do some rehabilitation work. The day we were supposed to go to the farm, my uncle had another massive seizure and went back to the hospital. My aunt asked me to go to the farm anyway, to get a feel for it. When I arrived, the task at hand was to slaughter a steer.

As a vegetarian, I found the whole scene horrifying, yet fascinating. I couldn’t look away as the man steadied the rifle and then shot. Quickly the steer fell to the ground flailing and another man jumped in and cut across his throat letting the warm blood run. After several other grisly cuts, I needed a break, I walked around the shed and found Tim there boiling sap into syrup. It was such a lovely thing to smell and see after the slaughter.

Tim was checking thermometers and draining sap at exactly the right time. He was handsome. Slender, well built, hair in a thick plait that extended down to his waist, green eyes, and freckles. He gave me sap to drink and we talked about where we were from who we were. At lunch time, I decided to go home and Tim and the others went toward the house. I opened the car door and mentally chalked up the whole morning to Well that was Interesting. But before I could slide into the front seat Tim turned around and walked back.

“Hey, I know you’re probably really busy hanging out with all the young people around here, but would you like to go out with us on Friday to the North End?” he asked.

I paused for a minute and said, “Sure.”

He took out a little pad of paper, asked for my number, jotted it down, and walked away.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Big Apple

I have been a late night, late morning girl. I used to live in Manhattan, where I thought about heading home at 11 pm and stumbled into work around 10 am. My studio was always warm; I walked around my room in silk slips even on the coldest days of winter.

I was happy sometimes and sad others. I triumphed in little writing successes—a restaurant review published online, a part-time freelance gig with a travel magazine, a positive critique from my writing group. I worried too. I wondered about my job security and where I was headed. Was the ocean still waiting to swallow me?

Another Country

Like their gods, the Inca of the altiplano must have been fierce and exacting. The city they carved, hauled, and stacked out of rock is a feat that could only have been accomplished through the subjugation of a large workforce, some of whom undoubtedly became casualties of the effort. At the Picchu Mountains (Though Machu Picchu is the center of this Inca settlement, the city extends to two lesser known peaks Wayna Picchu and Huychuy Picchu.) the scale and the height of the settlement is as impressive as the Empire State Building or the Eifel Tower, given the antiquated building equipment of picks, axes, ropes and pullies. And all this construction done along precipices that made my body tingle when I peered over.

I’d like to say that visiting Machu Picchu was a spiritual experience. It was for an acquaintance who credits the site for helping her realize her healing powers. During a visit, she was struck down by a mystical force that left her convulsing and speaking in tongues. When she returned to a semi-normal state, she discovered that she had the incredible ability to heal and harm those around her through mental concentration. Today she works as a healer most of the time, taking on clients at no charge for the first year. After a year of receiving her healing intentions, the healthy client is expected to repay the healer $400 a month for the rest of his/her life. Though this may seem like a high price to pay, there is added incentive not to renege on one’s agreement. The healer can retaliate by striking an ungrateful client with a furious case of appendicitis.

For me, there was no convulsion or spiritual awakening, nor was I struck down by an angry god. I can only say that sitting atop the highest peak, Wayna Picchu, I was in the sky with the birds surrounded by clouds and I was happy. And right before I descended to mortal heights the clouds opened a hole to the world below. I saw the mighty Urabamba, now a thin writhing snake, the trees, the rocks, and the toy houses. And for a minute I saw my smallness in space and time.

Another City

When I was 18, I worked with inner city youth in Boston. There I met a girl by the name of Ming; she had immigrated to America two years earlier when she was 12. Previously, she lived in a rural province of China where she and her family were agricultural workers. Ming stepped into her 6th grade class in Chinatown, Boston an illiterate. At the time we met, she was repeating 6th grade for the third time.

I soon discovered that Ming could not read or even string together a complete sentence in English. Not only that, but she was not fluent in her native Cantonese. I was determined to help. If I willed her to read, she would. I took notes as she read out loud from her 2nd grade reading level book. I furiously marked each fumbled word. The next day I returned to reading group armed with a neat stack of flash cards.

First up was a card that read C-L-E-A-R-L-Y. She studied the letters and proudly announced,

“Car.” Her pronunciation sounded more like call, but I chose to pick my battles.

I said, “Listen. Clearly,” sounding out every letter as I ran my finger beneath it. Ming repeated some semblance of the correct sounds and we moved on.

By the end of the week we had regressed back to flash cards of the alphabet. I continued to drill her and while there was improvement it was never a fluid internalized recognition. There were pauses and occasional mistakes. After a few weeks she grew tired of our game, I had begun bribing her to focus by offering mini candy bars. When she decided sugar was no longer enough motivation, I was forced to abandon my plan. She took to reading comic books and I went back to making my rounds helping students with an occasional unfamiliar word or phrase.

The summer after, Ming ran away from home and moved in with her 19 year-old boyfriend. In the fall she entered a school for children with behavioral problems and on her sixteenth birthday she withdrew taking a job in one of the greasy cramped kitchens that are only visible if you venture down the back alleys of Chinatown. I too went back to school that fall, floundering in the decision of what to study. I could be anything I wanted to be and that knowledge invoked guilt.

The Environment

I learned to care about nature as well as people because my parents did. It was my father’s job. He is an environmental scientist and when I was young he researched environmental impacts such as acid rain. He worked long hours, he wrote books, he skipped dinner.

My mother took us to a farm for summer vacation. We played with the chicks, watched the cows being milked, stomped in the piles of grain in the yard, and hiked in the Alps. My father visited one weekend.

I grew accustomed to not seeing my father often; I knew his work was important. I listened to him talk to colleagues he brought home about the world heating up and the oceans rising. He sounded worried and said no one was listening. I was afraid of being swallowed by the ocean.

I remember my father best in the evening when the sun softened and the wind cooled the patio. I would stand on it, warming my feet and waiting for him. I would wait there until my mother told me to come inside and then I waited at the window, pressed to the glass. I waited for the white helmet to glide above the leafy wall, for the gate to open and my father to step through supporting his bicycle with one hand. He would put his bike in the garden house and come inside smelling like sweat and wind. It was my turn.

I would jump on him and say, “Let’s do ‘Come on again let’s twist like we did last summer.’” He would put his bag down and sit on the couch while I stood up on his knees. Then, he would take my hands and begin to sing. I twisted like a wild woman, until the room turned to a blur, my head felt hot, and my stomach turned upside down. I shrieked with joy and my father smiled a big smile that squeezed his cheeks and squinted his eyes. We were in a good mood and I didn’t want it to end.

“Come on again like we did last year,” I would beg, and we did.

The City

I grew up in the outskirts of Vienna, Austria during the 1980s and 1990s. My earliest crystallized memories are set in the bustling city navigating the train system. The shrill sound of the metal wheels on the tracks and the clang of the locomotion terrified and excited me. But even more than the sounds of the train and the sights that flew by the windows, I was fascinated by the people. It seemed like the whole world rode the train—the punks, the gypsies, the businessmen, the old ladies, the children. I liked the feeling of being one of many people moving in unison. Without a conscious effort, I observed the others: their clothes, their mannerisms.

I didn’t know that my ability to notice and remember people was anything unusual until I got home from the first day of kindergarten and began to tell my mom the names of all 26 classmates and describe what each was wearing. My mother was surprised by how much I could remember. She made it a game we played as we walked home from school.

My observation was not limited to the people I met; I was also watching people far away. Though I was not allowed to turn on the TV, guests that came to the house were. I looked forward to my father’s colleagues coming for dinner because they would turn on the CNN evening news broadcast while my mother did the dishes. That was how I watched the Berlin wall fall and learned about the first Iraq war. The faces of people on the news looked very different from the faces on the train. This time I made myself remember them. As I went to sleep at night I recalled the images of people, some horrified, some in pain, and some almost dead.