Thursday, February 23, 2012

On Cooking

Some mornings when I was working, I would open my eyes at 5:30 thinking, what am I going to have for dinner tonight. The fridge was empty, and I had no time that day to shop or prepare anything. 
I like to eat. I sit down at the table, which overlooks the backyard. I have set the table, with the silver (I gave away the stainless to people in Prattsville after Tropical Storm Irene) and a cloth napkin. I do read while I eat; I think you’re not supposed to, but I can’t resist.
James McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey, told the New York Times that he doesn’t cook, he boils badly. That was so good to read, I cut out the whole article. 
In another Times article, Lois Smith Brady—the best “Vows” writer by far—interviewed seven women and three men, some of them couples, about how important cooking and eating together were/are to their relationships. “Going With Your Gut First, Then Your Heart,” is the title (October 16, 2011).
Really depressing. 
Women look in a guy’s refrigerator and if they see a six-pack of beer and a jar of mustard they hightail it. If a guy looked in my refrigerator—well, it would depend on the day of the week. Friday morning, he might find a bottle of low-salt V-8 and one hard-boiled egg. Maybe a crust of bread, a half-gallon of soymilk, and the ongoing package of oatmeal. 
By Saturday afternoon, the fridge status would be looking up, with greens, some fish, maybe a cooked meatloaf from the farmer’s market. Still not the horn of plenty, but I’ve learned from bitter experience not to risk waste by overstocking. A can of tuna makes lunch for three days; let’s not go overboard here. 
You’re wondering if Dan was green around the gills; if I haven’t already said it, Dan cooked. Fabulously. He had a great sense of food and combinations and timing. I shopped, chopped, and washed up, while he created and cooked. I cleared the newspapers from the table and set it. We sat down together. It was delicious.
In the meantime, whatever few cooking skills I had were atrophying annually, over 25 years. And cooking and eating for one is a whole different experience. To spend an hour preparing something and then eat it, alone, in 10 minutes and then spend half an hour cleaning up—what kind of time management is that? 
Yes, presumably you have leftovers, and I love leftovers. I don’t mind at all eating the same dinner three nights in a row; people all over the world eat the same thing every day. But when the nutritionist said why didn’t I make a beef stew, I thought, why don’t you make one and bring it over. 
In summer my kitchen closes. If food can’t be served cold, I don’t eat it. 
Probably the two aspects of cooking—loving it and being good at it—go together. After forty years, food shopping bores me and there’s still a risk I’ll burn the sauce. I could take a cooking course, but I don’t want to. The other night I knew I should make a spaghetti sauce. I could visualize the spaghetti sauce. I knew how yummy it would taste, how many nights it would last. But I didn’t want to make a spaghetti sauce. I wanted to eat a Kashi frozen dinner and finish the reading assignment for a church committee I serve on. So I did that, and I was happy. 
Isn’t it great when we can be free enough to do things like that, said L. 
But in the meantime, here are all these women offering this gift of love and nutrition, and over here is me, lacking something in my heart, in the way of a nourishing spirit. I tell myself that if I had someone to cook with, it would be fun, but I’m not convinced. 
At this rate I’ll never find a man, I said to K, who is married, and she said, Yeah, but do you want one? 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Day after Valentine's Day

Notice that except for one, I haven’t told you my dreams. Part of this is simply because I don’t remember them; the other part is that it seems an imposition. 
That said, here is one short recent dream: 
Dan I have broken up. He is living in our apartment in New York City (which we moved out of five years before he died). 
I return there. Dan isn't home. I must pick up boxes of my things. There’s a strong feeling of emphasis in the dream on boxes of my things. Someone, a man, is with me; not a lover, it feels like my brother (who lives hours from NYC). 
In the apartment, I see a pretty hat—straw, with a brim and ribbons—and I wonder if Dan has bought it for me; any stylish, unusual clothes I own were gifts from Dan. But this hat isn't mine, and I realize it's not meant for me. 
In the bedroom, on top of a bureau, I see notes from a child, or children. I’m mystified until I get it: he’s dating a woman with a child. I’m not unduly upset by this. I feel a sense of regret, a sense of being an outsider, but not grief. It feels like our breakup is either mutual or caused by me. I think, he always liked children, at least on a visiting basis. I think, this is what happens when you break up, you’d better get used to it. 
That’s it.
Question: Is someone, something, telling me that Dan has moved on? He has other interests now. And, by extension, so should I. 
L., who’s much more astute psychologically than I am, says it’s more that I am moving on. Collecting my things, moving out. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Niggling Matters List

Preparing for retirement (asking myself, what are you going to do with this time?), I made a Concepts List (write, read books) and also a Niggling Matters List.

Niggling Matters were smallish quality-of-life things that I hoped to improve as an RP. 

Rereading this list, I haven’t done very well. I’ll post it here anyway; fear of looking foolish has almost never stopped me. 

When I retire . . . 

I will not do laundry on Sunday.

When I do laundry, I will put it away as soon as it’s dry, and not use the laundry basket as a bureau drawer.

I will keep the upstairs neat even though no one sees it.

I will still wear a skirt sometimes, but not buy any new ones.

I will still get up at 5:30 a.m. 

I will write in the morning. No phone, no e-mail; not even any volunteer work. 

I will not let my e-mail inbox get over 100.

I will write one nice note to someone every day, even if it’s an e-mail.

I will brush Lulu once a week.

Lulu and I will take a special walk at least twice a week. 

I will go back to cooking dinner. 

In winter, I’ll have a hot breakfast every morning, after I’ve written to a stopping point.  

If the situation becomes such that I must let go the cleaning lady or eat nothing but chicken broth for a week, I will eat chicken broth for a week. 

* * *

Kind of sweet, isn’t it, in its hopeful organization. I was going to comment on each entry, but it was too depressing. I do get up at 5:30, but my e-mail inbox this morning is at 341, and that’s even with folders to file mail in and then never think about it again.

Later I discovered, with pleasure, niggling matters that hadn’t made it to the list. For example, I no longer pack my lunch at night. As a writer with an unremarkable income at best, I have always carried food—coffee in a thermos, lunch, snacks. For as long as I can remember I put my lunch together weeknights, because there wouldn’t be time before work in the morning. 

I hated packing my lunch at night. I don’t know why, I just did. I was happy the next day when I had my own food, and I would remind myself that on a global scale, this was a very minor problem, but I still gritted my teeth over it. 

Now I don’t have to think about lunch before noon. Amazing how such a minor change can improve quality of life. 

Outdoors, I have time to explore. Despite my terrible sense of direction, I am now never really lost—I’m just driving through new territory. This applies whether I’m seeking out the starting point of a Columbia Land Conservancy hike or shopping. 

The month after I left Bard College, the kitchen dispose-all gave up the ghost. It was not an appliance I would have asked for, but having overcome my fear of it, I’d got used to its reduction of smelly garbage. 

With a couple of phone calls I found a store that would sell me such an item, on a street, about a mile from my home, that I had never before traveled. I mean, I had trouble finding the street, and then trouble finding the store, which is so confident of its value that it doesn’t have a sign. Driving up and down the street, I discovered a collection of useful businesses, selling things that many of us would one day need. In the store, I met the Bob and Ray–type proprietors. We chatted, and they sold me a new dispose-all. 

But I hadn’t so much shopped as explored, and discovered. To paraphrase Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel, if we consider everything of potential interest, then objects and people release latent layers of value. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

More on loving what you do

Or, why I bailed out on a worthy cause I had my heart set on. 
In addition to write and read books, Literacy Connections, which helps adults with their reading skills, was right up there, #3 on my Concepts list for retirement. 
I’d wanted to be part of it for years, had watched sadly as they scheduled the required two-day training and the tutoring sessions during my workdays. As soon as I left Bard College, I kept an eye out for the next training, and when I saw it last April, I called immediately and showed up, one of a group of about eight women.
The training was well organized, carefully done. I began to get a better picture of the current client that LC assists. I had imagined myself sitting next to an adult while he or she read to me. I would help with new words, pronunciation, comprehension. This person wanted to read, that’s why s/he had signed up. We would have fun. 
My picture was askew. We discussed instead examples of anonymous clients with no reading skills. Some could identify words, some could identify letters but not words, some didn’t really know the alphabet. 
Some had only minimal interest in acquiring these skills. They’d got along OK till now, then maybe bumped up against the need for a GED, a high school equivalency degree, in order to get a job. 
In short, I would be not a tutor but a teacher, of students who had not previously seen the value of reading. I know people who went to graduate school to become reading specialists, but in the meantime, kinesthetic was the word of the day; our lessons needed to be kinesthetic, in order to interest our students. No sitting and listening—the spotlight would be on me, the teacher, as I moved around, charmed my student, drew out him or her with new exercises and activities each week. 
I’m probably the least kinesthetic person you’ve ever met, I said to four classmates as we ate our lunches at a picnic table outside the library. They reassured me, reminding me that the LC office, right here at the Hudson library, was full of instructional materials and staffed by people who would help me develop lessons. 
At the end of the day we had an assignment for the next, final training session: choose a student from the list of anonymous examples and develop a lesson plan for a one-hour tutoring session for that student. We had been given numerous handouts, and we were encouraged to come into the office as needed for advice and more materials. 
I don’t think I can do this, I said to my classmates as we parted in front of the library. Again, they reassured me—support was there, I would develop the skills, I could do this. 
In the next 24 hours I, who have a tendency to leap into things, thought about this harder than I’d ever thought about anything. 
I had wanted to do this for years. But I have no training as a teacher. I’ve taught a few writing workshops to adults, usually in libraries. The workshops were free, but the students were motivated, library patrons who wanted to go beyond reading to telling stories themselves. 
I had wanted to do this for years. But I could see myself spending hours each week in the LC office developing a lesson plan for a one-hour tutorial and then as soon as that was over, coming back into the office to develop the next plan. I wouldn’t be a writer, or an editor, or a retired person. I would be a reading teacher. 
I had wanted to do this for years. One of my earliest school memories is sitting in a circle of little kids, reading out loud for the teacher. This was decades before Sesame Street and early reading readiness. Probably Dick and Jane and Spot were our subject matter, and I read carefully during my turn until I had to pause for a second at a new word (help!): see + s . . . sees! (Whew.) I read it and went on, but the teacher stopped me for a learning moment: Did you see what Debby did? See + s = sees. The other kids probably hated me, but it was my first professional compliment, and I’ve never forgotten it. 
Didn’t I want to pass along that pride, that pleasure? 
A few years later, in fifth grade, I was assigned to help a big tough kid with his reading. Perhaps not the smartest assignment for a shy, bookish girl; the big kid bossed me around and his reading didn’t improve. These days I’m not afraid of bullies, but my interest in people is as an observer.
Not as a teacher. 
In the end, it was visualizing the disappearance of all those hours—days—into becoming a teacher that precluded my career at Literacy Connections. I called the office and brought back the materials. The trainer was polite; better to withdraw now, she said, than after I’d been trained and assigned a student. 
If you have the time and the interest, it’s a really worthy cause.