Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adventures in eating

Friday, August 29, 2008
9:05 pm
Red Bank, NJ

I am in my pajamas. OK, perhaps I should say STILL in my pajamas. Never got out of them today, a fact I am more than a little embarrassed to admit. I have heavy duty plans. The last Friday I have to spend at the Jersey Shore, almost perfect weather, the holiday tourists yet to descend for Labor Day weekend. Gone.

To backtrack. Yesterday, I rode out to an adult community in Monroe County to see my Aunt Sally. I make the trip mostly on muscle memory, as my parents lived in that community for the last 20 years of their lives. More than a decade has passed since their deaths, yet I slide backwards in time as I get closer to the gate. I can never resist turning down Chatham Lane and slowing down in front of their unit.

I don’t know if it’s a common skill, but I easily and often time shift. It matters not the current paint color or the now maturing new vegetation, I do not see nor smell it. The house morphs before me. It’s gray-blue, with an oval "The Rosenfield’s" sign askew over the prominent double garage door. Fuchsia azaleas lead to the door, where I never know what song will ring out when the doorbell is pressed. Hava Nagila is my dad’s favorite. The notes bounce around in my brain as I pick up speed and head toward my aunt’s house.

I flat-out love my Aunt Sally. At 77, the last of my mother’s sisters, she remains active and attractive, still counting every mouthful of food. She goes to at least three stores to get the freshest supplies for the simple menu. As we sit down to our traditional lunch of bagels, cream cheese, smoked whitefish and a composed salad, I watch her unconsciously perform her rituals. I can’t recall the last time I saw my aunt just eat a bagel. She slowly turns each half in her palm scooping out the inside, leaving a shell, onto which she allows herself a schmear of cream cheese. I wager she knows the calorie count of every edible item in her kitchen.

Ironically, as a child,one reason I adore visiting her Brooklyn apartment is the food, specifically the candy. Atop the console TV in the front room, there sits a green ceramic lazy susan filled with assorted chocolate covered treats—marshmallow twists, jellies, nuts, creams—you name it. And in her old-fashioned walk-in pantry, there are boxes of cookies, almost always the favorite Mallomars. Her cabinets are still filled with bags of chocolate miniature sweets, and often the garage frig is stocked with Mallomars, so she will have them through the summer months when they disappear from store shelves.

Here’s the thing. She keeps all this stuff but doesn’t touch it until company comes. She is the strongest and most disciplined person I’ve ever known. All her life, it has fallen to her to care for aging in-laws, a young son dying of cancer, her mother, and then her husband after a major stroke. This, in addition to the normal stress of raising three daughters. She is excitable, smart, funny and a joy to be around.

As a young adolescent, I spend summers with my aunt and uncle in the bungalow colonies that dot the Catskills of the 1950s and ‘60s. As she’s a full decade younger than my mom, I feel even closer to her. Although, living in such tight quarters we are all “close”. We sleep in the same bedroom, and she testily informs me one morning that my teeth grinding is driving her nuts. Who knew? At home I sleep alone behind a closed door.

By now I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with my pajama day. Hang in there. It’s coming.

So I arrive about noon. We eat and talk—and talk, and talk—and when we look up, it’s almost 7 pm. (Oh, I should add that I do a load of laundry. I like to do my laundry there. She is a stain maven, never meets a stain she can’t defeat.) What’s left to do? Why go out to dinner of course, either at the diner or local Chinese restaurant. We choose the later.

I’ve been to the low key family restaurant more times than I can count with my folks. Since we’re eating “late” the place is deserted, which turns out to be fortunate. We order our soup and combination plates, sip our tea and crunch our tasty fried noodles. And we—what else—talk. We continue nonstop as our combo plates arrive.

I’m not paying attention to my food. I pick-up a small piece of General Tsos chicken, covered in sauce. I chew lightly and swallow. And start choking, retching, and other stuff too gross to mention. It’s a red chili. I pace, unable to breath, wheezing and coughing. I know enough not to drink water, but I do and it’s worse. My poor Aunt Sally starts to panic. I’ve seen that look in her eyes when I was 12 years old.

Chinese people keep patting my back, telling me drink tea. No use. When I catch my breath and can spit out a few words, I ask for a piece of bread. There is none in the restaurant. (How the hell do they make shrimp toast?) I stop my aunt from running next-door to the Quick Check to buy a loaf. Small cubes of pineapple help. I slowly eat a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I am sore but calm. We go next-door to buy Aleve which I down in case the inflammation decides to close my throat, windpipe, et al.

However, I almost don’t make it out of my seat. Not only are my chest muscles aching, but somehow the spasms manage to severely wrench my back. Walking isn’t easy. My aunt wants me to sleep over, but the drug kicks in and I'm even able to set up her Kureg coffee machine. I make it back to Red Bank at midnight.

I sleep in a bit, eat a bit, down more than a bit of Aleve and decide to take a bit of a rest. I awaken late in the afternoon and can summon no energy. Come to think of it, I’m really tapped out. Time to head upstairs for the night. It's been a rough day.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Walking Angel

10:49 am

I take Angel out for our last summer walk about 7:30 am. The dear was up late last night watching the Olympics with me and slept in. She is an 11-year-old lab/chow mix, adopted last year by my friend Martin. They are meant for each other. Both are from broken homes, hers by divorce and his by death. Now they are a couple.

The first and longest of her three daily walks falls to me. And once I relent to her constant prodding and bid a reluctant farewell to a delightful bed, it’s a joy. The route varies some, but always includes the outskirts of two abutting country clubs. (If there is a social distinction between the two, it escapes me.)

This morn we pass by to the tune of ponging tennis balls from a social foursome. We cannot see the men through the solid fencing but their repartee is clear.

“Do you want me to serve this to your forehand or backhand?”

“How about right down the middle?”

“Well, that begs that question. First in?”

“First in.”

Not exactly the Open, but probably much more fun. Then Angel and I find a treasure, a bright yellow tennis ball napping under a bush. I scoop it up for later. She is generally quite frisky on these forays, prancing up and down the hilly terrain, sniffing and aching to go full out in a futile attempt to catch a bunny. The only sign of her age is arthritis which acts up at times. Then again, so does mine.

The other day, I take a pass-through instead of turning around, and she bounds to a skinny, shallow brook for a drink. Before I can react, Angel jumps in, splashes around and emerges with black muddy legs. On our return, I am treated to a Lucille Ball-moment, as I chase her around in circles trying to get her into the tub. Finally, I settle for washing her legs one by one with a cloth, as her highness stretches out on her bed. I abandon that route reluctantly.

After all, Angel is 70 pounds of the finest food available. She is fed three times a day—at least. Then again, you can say that about me, also. And while I am here, I eat as well as she does, which is to say T-bone steak (bone in, please), salmon, ground beef, loin lamb chops, brown rice, couscous, pasta, veal parmesan, pizza etc. She is definably a Jewish dog, with a real taste for bagels and lox, herring in cream sauce and matzo brei.

She does have her quirks. Thunder storms and fireworks being the most troubling. They send her into a quivering, drooling frenzy. She is known to throw herself into the bathtub, under tables or the car in the garage. Unfortunately, the house is a mile or so from Playland, an iconic New York summer getaway, so fireworks are scheduled twice a week. And let’s not even talk about holidays.

I spend July 4th on the floor, huddled with Angel under a table, covered in doggy drool thanks—not only to Playland’s extended display--but to celebrations from the numerous boat and country clubs in the area. Geez, I wonder what Labor Day weekend will be like? Instead of being relieved, though, I am surprised to find myself disappointed I won’t be here to help a bit. Back to the Jersey Shore for a week, then on to Sarasota.

I’m really gonna miss you, girlfriend.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"What I did on my summer vacation"

Rye, NY

Ah, how those of us of a certain age would wince when confronted by that infernal perennial composition each fall. However, half a century removed from grade school, I find myself dwelling on that very subject.

Thanks to a generous, if unpaid, summer leave from my day job (due to a lethargic economy) I'm enjoying a longer than usual respite from my "real life" in Sarasota, Florida. With less than 2 weeks left I savor every nanosecond. As I tap these keys, I sit propped up on a heavenly king-sized bed, a briny breeze wafting in from the Long Island Sound. The posh setting courtesy of the dearest of friends.

The sights and smells of this place transport me back to the Catskill summers of my childhood and a brief college career at Bard. I relish the contrast between the mountains and the former potato fields of my suburban tract Long Island home. When people talk about "the smell of fresh mowed grass," this is what they mean... a lushness so intense I walk about without sunglasses, unheard of. During early morning walks with Angel, my friend's 11-year-old Lab, the silence penetrates. I hear myself think.

I recall a youthful vision. THIS--where the hills meet the water, where Manhattan is but 45 minutes away, this is where I would live, this is where I belong. Life washes my body away, but bits and pieces of my soul remain. The recognition is sweet. This is a place my childhood lives, my salad days.

The meat of my life lives at the Jersey Shore. It's where I marry, divorce, raise a family, finish college, work as a journalist, fall in love, write a book. It is my adulthood. I fall in love with the Jersey Shore slowly, maturely. As the frantic summer melts into fall, I walk the nearly deserted boardwalk, bracing against the coming chill and breathe the unique saltiness of the Atlantic.

Fortunately for me, it's also where my dearest friends still live, so I am treated to a shore vacation as well. My closest friend opens her Red Bank home to me each year. As we visit, I renew my affair with the boards and the eternal surf. The unique aromas of the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk evoke specific images from decades lived within its reach.

I can't help but giggle with the fuss made this year about "staycations," as if high gas prices are the mother of this invention. Not to sound like Al Gore, but many many summers ago, we took them every year. Just ask my kids.

For too much of their growing years, we live a hand-to-mouth existence. (A story for another time.) Desperate for some way to amuse them, I "invent" a vacation at home. It would be a week when we would be "Bennies," the Jersey Shore term for tourists. Borrowing from Zen, we use "beginners mind," fresh eyes. We eat all meals out, troll the boards for junk food, attack the rides...etc. Our home is our hostel. Rules for TV, curfews and the like are suspended. It's the best I can do. There are some perks to living in a resort town after all.

The first time we are to take a "real" vacation, driving (where else) to my aunt's home in the Catskills, I lose my glasses in the surf and the kids are scared the replacement cost might sour the deal. We do go. I have proof. Photos taken when the motor of my aging Datsun gives its all and dies on the way up a "real" mountain. My mom arrives and rescues our "real" vacation.

And that's what I did on my summer vacation. 'Nuf said.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Brit

Rye, NY
12:30 pm

I had a cozy, very long distance chat with my daughter on Sunday. I inquired as to whether she was following the Olympics'

"Yes, I watched the rowing."

The ROWING, thought I, ashamed to admit I didn't even realize it was an Olympic event.

"...and I'm dying to know who won the women's marathon." She was totally disinterested in swimming, Michael Phelps or gymnastics. My eldest daughter is truly a Brit. This isn't exactly a shock. I've seen it coming in bits and pieces since her move to London about 6 years ago. She actually follows soccer and carries a "mobile phone." During my first visit across the pond several years ago, she cautioned my against referring to my "cell phone" as it would out me as an American. I broke up laughing. Honey, I replied, as soon as I open my mouth everyone will know I'm an American. Besides, I thougtht, I have no desire to hide my origins.

There is no denying it. My daughter is a fully functioning ex-pat. Her life is now an ocean away. And I miss her deeply. She seems much farther away than when she lived in San Francisco, although the actual mileage is likely about the same. At least she hasn't adopted the accent--for the moment.