Monday, November 25, 2013

I'm in a "Nora" York State of Mind

It started with "Crazy Salad". I was in college and despite all that higher learning, I had not  yet grown into my own mind and was certainly not confident about thinking my own thoughts. However, it was clear that the author of the little Bantam paperback I purchased for $1.95 was very much in possession of her thoughts and she did a good job of sharing them. The book was dedicated to her sisters and it was forwarded by a quote from Yeats:
                                      It's certain that fine women eat 
                                      A crazy salad with their meat.

 I fell immediately and madly in love with Nora Ephron.

I have every book Nora ever wrote and I believe I am also correct in thinking that I have seen every movie she has written or directed. Even the not-so-good ones. When she died a year ago this past summer--and I was sitting right where I'm sitting now when I read the news blurb and I blinked several times, because I felt so sure (and at the same time so dreadfully unsure) that I was reading it wrong--a little bit of my world caved in.

Years ago my sister introduced me to one of her favorite movies, which quickly became one of my favorite movies: "Desk Set". Nora's parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, wrote the screenplay for it and when I made this connection, it only intensified the abiding respect I had for my girl Nora. In writing about those same parents, she was honest about their alcoholism and philosophically forthcoming about their distracted methods of parenting four girls without drawing out the obvious drama that must  have provided the background noise for her unfolding life. Ditto for being married to that hot philandering mess of a husband -- Carl Bernstein. Nora's newfound religion was something she called, "Get Over It" and this she did by throwing her considerable energies into crafting a book about the episode and moving on.

I vacillated monthly between wishing desperately to be Nora Ephron's friend...or simply to be HER. On that aforementioned June day however , it became patently clear that I would never get to be either one.

Lately, I've been listening to Nora's books through an app on my phone because, even though I'm already familiar with what they say, it's her reassuring voice in my ear while I'm driving to the cleaners or chopping carrots for the soup or when I'm closing the drapes and turning on the lamps against the chill of our currently rainy autumn weather that I relish. It's not just what she says, but it's how she says it with her very deliberate and yet conversational pacing. Listening to her speak her own words is a smooth one-two punch of well considered prose that is rendered like sage advice from an experienced woman who has been there but lightly delivered as though you were just two close friends eating good Chinese dumplings in a crowded restaurant where you both have to lean in close over the table to hear and be heard.

I'm homesick for the way she explained about why her sofa must always be beige or how her mother served crispy potato pancakes with the roast beef.  I've listened to her talk her love affair with the Apthorp when it was rent controlled and and how it's no use getting the skin on your neck fixed unless you go in for a full facelift, which she will definitely not do. There was her addiction to online Scrabble, the pitfalls of becoming a slave to moisturizer and her love of dinner with friends. There were the accounts of her early years working for Newsweek magazine and the end of her parents' lives with her dying mother in her hospital bed reminding her daughter to take notes because "everything is copy".

She offered up recipes for fail-proof egg salad, ricotta pancakes, and meatloaf as well as tips for grilling steak with a big pat of butter on the top, which--interestingly enough-- is exactly how my grandmother used to do it. But it was the last section of "I Remember Nothing" which offered up the eerily prescient remarks wherein she itemized the things in life she would miss. As though Nora knew --and it turns out that she did know--that she not have long to live. Among those things: her husband, fall, her kids, twinkle lights, reading in bed, Pride and Prejudice, waffles, Thanksgiving dinner, the park, the view out the window, and coming over the bridge to Manhattan.

Nora's second to last book revealed how very bad she felt about her neck and I understand it.  I feel bad about mine too, though mostly I just feel bad that I've lost my sherpa in all matters, neck and otherwise. The hopeful prospect of visiting the Shake Shack on my next trip to NYC and patiently waiting for her to wander in for a custard is no longer even a remote possibility, but I suppose she would shake a finger at me for allowing her absence from the planet to prevent me from enjoying the city that she loved--that I love--so much. And she would be right. The point is to keep appreciating and notating the good stuff in life. Because, in the world according to Nora Ephron, even the bad things are worth writing about.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Yes, I Would Like Fries With That.

I can't stop thinking about food and clothes these days. If you knew me when I was a skinny kid, you'd know I was a frustratingly picky eater born to a mother and father raised in the Great Depression. By the age of seven I could quote you chapter and verse regarding my Southern mother's memories of rationing stamps and my Yankee father's sad saga of meals where there was no meat to eat. Only beans. To my young ears it sounded like a nightmare, albeit THEIR nightmare. At any dinnertime moment, my own personal horror story consisted of three remaining bites of tomato that taunted me from the oily remains of my salad bowl. Dinner was long over and I was alone at the table watching the clock's minute hand creep closer to the deadline my father had set for the consumption of those three red taste bud assassins with their demonic seeds encased in gag-inducing slime. Food was my enemy then.

As a skinny teenager I did not know what a temporary privilege it would be to buy clothes at the 5-7-9 Shop. I had but to eyeball a pair of pants or a blouse from Casual Corner before taking them to the cashier.  My only concern being whether the pants would be long enough to avoid the "flood look" so feared in the 70s. Food was something I ate when I got hungry and nothing more. Clothes either fit or were too large.

Even as a young married I had a pair of favored black pants from The Gap which fit me to perfection and did so before I had babies and then again after I had lost all my baby weight. All this was true for me and yet I believed that this could also be as easily true for everyone else if they just tried. Even though I didn't have to try. It just WAS for me. I ate what I wanted and when I felt I had gone too far, I would simply run it off in during a soccer game or work it off at the gym. I was the Seinfeld-ian "master of my domain". Food-wise, anyway.

At 39 I trained for and ran a marathon and I have a photograph from the following summer vacation where I wore a bikini in public for the very last time. I didn't know it then, but I looked fabulous.  I drank beer on the beach and ate ice cream at night. I was having to work harder to feel normal (thin) but I had the time to do it and youth, plus the slightest overtones of my father's Type A personality helped me keep everything in check.

Then the freight train of middle age hit about the time our kids were in constant "graze" mode. We went through eight gallons of milk and two loaves of bread per week. I was cooking and either writing part time or doing my part as PTA slave. We saw two kids into college and then I went back to teaching while attempting to monitor the last son through high school. I developed an enormous ulcer which tried to kill me and almost succeeded. I was in ICU and then hospitalized with a nasal/gastric tube for another 7+ days, after which I then had to train my stomach to accept food once I was home, one bite at a time. THIS JUST IN: I succeeded!

Where does that leave me now? Hopelessly menopausal and in possession of a metabolism that is slower than an IRS refund and pants which are visibly angry with me. I don't recognize my body or my face. Age and stress are in collusion with what few hormones I have left to make me crave food that I cannot possibly burn and then arrange the results cruelly on a facial structure which--though never beautiful--was once strong and (some said) striking. Despite yoga, everything slops over its original boundaries like that melting watches painting by Salvidor Dali. And all I want to do is eat.

I get a pedicure and--over the scent of acetone, I can smell the Vietnamese noodles the manicurist had for lunch. I want seconds on everything all the time. I actually had a dream about bacon the other night.  Salted popcorn and cashews. Chips with salsa or guacamole. Happiness would be a tankard of wine, followed by a bucket of Ben and Jerry's and a shovel with which to eat it. I eat candy corn while grading papers. I have flashbacks about visiting the Betty Bakery in Boerum Hill during our last Spring Break trip to New York. I have a juicer and dream of replacing one meal with something healthy, but I'm afraid I'm too addicted to chewing to make a go of it. My sister-in-law told me last night that she's gone mostly Paleo in her diet and the results are amazing to behold. But doesn't that mean that planning/shopping/cooking/eating will now require as much energy as my job? The thought of that just makes me want to fall down out of sheer resentment. Fall down into a big bowl of macaroni and cheese. You see my problem, no?

I'm open to any helpful suggestions you might have, dear readers. Meanwhile, I must attend a birthday lunch for my mother whose own "love language" is food. Not eating very much will only send the message that I hate her, am not enjoying myself and that I wish nothing more than to destroy her birthday. But that's another Oprah entirely. What else is there to say but, Bon Appetit?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sweater Weather

NOW is usually my favorite time of year. The beginning hurdles of the new school year have been somewhat successfully cleared and the cool weather is settling in nicely. Today I took down all the overtly Halloween-ish decor, turned all the jack-o-lanterns around so as to enjoy another festive month of pumpkins with their visual punctuations of orange, and brought out the turkeys made by little boy hands in pre-school art class all those years ago. The happy echo of Trick-or-Treaters still lingers faintly on the breeze and the end caps on grocery store aisles are now laden with pie filling, shelled pecans, and brown sugar as Thanksgiving looms. Christmas seems--thankfully--far enough away to avoid a panic attack over card sending and gift buying. It's a good in-between place to be.

And yet I can't shake the sad. I've been an empty nester for 13 months, a veteran in that department among a few of my friends, but I have no easy answers that would explain how to navigate that world. No treasure map nor operator's manual showing one how to extend a willing hand to the future while letting go of the nostalgic past. Each day is its own unique sampling of joy or angst and either can show up on my doorstep with little or no warning.

These days, any random memory of holidays with our children--when they were children-- can just as easily provoke tears as they can a smile. Those of you still in the trenches are probably asking if I have lost my mind don't remember the torture of late evenings overseeing countless homework or projects, sitting on cold, aluminum bleachers at yet another school baseball game. The PTA meetings or yet another birthday party for some unknown classmate at the Skate Palace. The OMG! emotional firestorm of adolescent relationships...or  your kid's desire for one when there were none being offered. Of course! I remember all of it as well as wishing for (what seemed to be) mythical time in the future when I didn't have to worry so damned much. Raising kids could sometimes be its own brand of emotional "house arrest" but I can tell you now that the silence when it is over can be just as deafening as the sounds of chaos when we were in the thick of it.

Their empty rooms are so still. Beyond silent. And despite the twice-monthly attentions of vacuum and dust rag? Musty.  Much like a museum filled with relics that no one uses anymore.

Sure, Thanksgiving is coming up. The visiting offspring will arrive armed with boundless energy and stories of people I don't know taking part in events I didn't witness. They will wear clothes I didn't purchase and they will exchange secrets with each other that we, their parents, will never hear.  At night they will awkwardly climb into old beds that no longer feel as though they fit and drive away the next day with leftovers and full gas tanks, courtesy of Mom and Dad. It's the least we can do and our parting benediction for children who are growing up and away with a speed that leaves me absolutely breathless.

The other day our youngest called me... bemoaning Halloween as a college student in a house with no visible vestiges of the holiday. At least, the kind he grew up with. He was throwing together a last minute costume for a party, but he said it didn't feel like the old Halloweens of his childhood. His words connoted an ersatz thank you for the years of pumpkin carving, costume making and skeleton-themed paper napkins lovingly tucked into school lunch boxes for every day in October.  In that moment, we were two interlocking puzzle pieces: He with the multiple friends in costumes but no familiar (read: home-y) reminders of the holiday and me with the house full of tangible memories and themed artifacts...and no kids to enjoy it.  Two people standing on separate islands sharing the same sweet memory through two tin cans and a piece of string.

Childless people are going to read this and think,  "Move on, Nancy"!" They would be justified. And perhaps those who have actually lost a child are simply going to want to throw up after reading my self-indulgent drivel. I get that too.  It ought to be "Hakuna Matata" around here all day long, right?  Elton John singing The cirrrcle of life while we nod enthusiastically and then make the kind of weekend plans couples typically make when they only have to worry about themselves after 24 years of living life "on call". We're all okay and we have our health! It should be enough.

How ironic is it that we spend our childhood simply wishing for time to go forward and then spend the rest of adulthood wanting to go back? Maybe I'm not asking to go back and start all over again and upon reflection? I'm not.  But what I wouldn't give for one last brisk autumn night in order to escort a mummy, a spider and a tiny pirate down down a leafy neighborhood street on a quest for candy.