Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009-Things that Sucked

I started to write this column because some of my facebook friends were listing the 10 most significant things that had happened to them this decade and I realized that a good portion of the things on that list had happened to me in the past six months.

I've often said that the older you get the worse your definition of "really bad things" gets. (in 6th grade it's a pantsing or a bad grade, in 12th grade it's getting dumped by your SO of 3 months, in your 20s it includes death of family members, etc.) If you're lucky you don't get hit with the heavy stuff until you're ready for it. I've also occasionally observed that grief is something we get an apprenticeship in.

In 2009 a whole bunch of sucky things happened to me and around me. A friend of mine got laid off, another one got arrested and another one died. Some good things happened too-most of them the results of the bad things that happened (which makes it hard to think about them.)

In the Spring of 2009 my friend and partner/mentor was laid off. Despite the fact that she assured me that she was going to A Better Place, I was angry at the powers that be for laying her off and terrified from my own point of view-how would I survive without her. Surely there would be challenges that were beyond my skill set-how would I face them and, just as bad, there would be no one to talk to who understood what I was saying. In the long run she really *is* in a better place, and I'm more confident in my ability to stand on my own two feet.

Not every cloud has a silver lining-or at least one that makes up for the cloud's existence. I mentioned about that (if we're lucky) we get an apprenticeship at grief-first we see grandparents and great uncles and aunts die and we're more sad that our parents are sad than we are that Great Aunt So and So (who we'd only seen twice) died. This year someone more important to me died. Irving Liss, proprietor of Hilton's Tent City; a man who'd been *wicked old* as long as I'd known him and a man we all thought would live forever, was hospitalized in the beginning of June and died the day after Labor Day.

His illness and death were not entirely without small blessings (we saw him more and talked to him more than we would have otherwise-we got a small chance to give back for the many things he'd given us, the Hilton's Family grew closer as a result, etc), but nothing quite makes up for the fact that he's not walking around in the world anymore. I know he went quickly enough that that it wasn't too bad for him and slowly enough to let everyone who needed to say good bye could show up and do so (and an awful lot of people saw him in the last few months of his life), but it still sucks.

And of course, lets not forget the part where my boyfriend of nine years decided he couldn't live with me anymore-a week after my birthday and the day before Ted Kennedy died. I had felt it coming all summer. I don't remember when I first noticed that the glue that stuck us together had come undone, but I had been noticing it for months and still I was shocked and hurt. It was one of the worst things, if not *the* worst thing that has happened to me in my 34 years on this planet*.

Yes, I'm much happier now than I was hiding from people in my apartment in Cambridge but that doesn't mean that it didn't/doesn't suck a whole lot.

But now let's move on to the good things that happened this year; many of which are blessings unalloyed.

At the beginning of 2009 I made several resolutions (I may have even put a blog post listing them.) I resolved to fold 10 paper cranes a day, learn to drive, get into business school and wear heels more often. I don't feel too bad about failing to do some of these things (there's always next year to start my crane collection) since I managed to achieve one of the big things. Even though I procrastinated and didn't work as hard as I could at it, I got into UMass Boston's MBA program (now all I have to figure out is how to pay for it!)

Accomplishing this meant taking a GMAT, getting recommendations and writing two essays. Each of these things was a challenge and I am proud of myself for accomplishing them. Taking the GMAT meant relearning geometry. As strange as it may seem this was probably the highest barrier to me achieving post-graduate education. I really, really didn't want to relearn junior high school math. I was sure it would be an exercise in mortification. I was right. It turns out I still really suck at geometry and arithmetic-even with an adult's study habits, I couldn't make a go of them-my brain is just wired wrong.

The verbal on the other hand... I won't lie and say it was a piece of cake or that it was fun, but I came away from the verbal instruction with better grammar and with confidence in my ability to write coherently.

The recommendations were a different challenge. I know you might find this hard to believe, but I really don't have much self-confidence. I couldn't possibly imagine anyone would be willing to sit down and write a letter of recommendation for me (It's one thing to ask people to serve as references-then they only have to answer a phone call-but to ask someone to sit down and *write* good things about you requires a certain amount of chutzpah-more than I'd have thought I had.) But the very nice people I work with wrote me recommendations, for which I am very grateful.

I've whined at great length on this blog (and on facebook) about how little fun writing the two essays (for a grand total of three pages) was. But having gone through the GMAT experience and posting more often to this blog I no longer assume my difficulties with the essays were due to an inability to write properly. I was willing to take my copy editrix's word that no-one is any good at writing That Sort of Essay (kind of like writing two cover letters for the same job.)

So I forced myself to do something difficult and I succeeded-in spite of all the less than stellar things that were happening in the mean time and I feel proud of myself for that.

Other things that have happened to me include the discovery of cheese that I can eat, and the birth of my new nephew G (he's a jolly, tubby fellow and weighs in at 15 pounds at age two months.) Some of you are laughing at me for putting cheese and the birth of a child in the same paragraph. Go ahead-laugh-you have no idea how I feel about cheese.

A few years ago I came to the conclusion that not only was I severely lactose intolerant, but that the over the counter pills that I was using to help digest cheese were not working either. I very sadly gave up dairy entirely (and started losing weight-by the time I moved out of Cambridge I had passed "thin" and was on my way to "malnourished"). A foodie friend of mine kept pushing the idea of sheep or goats milk cheese. Because he was also the guy who drives me to the grocery store, he pulled me over to the cheese collection and grabbed a block of sheep-cheese and put it in my hand. I couldn't put it back without losing face, so I took it home and ate it. Rediscovering the ability to enjoy cheese has been one of the bright spots in my existence in the last quarter of 2009 and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

In the final category, wonderful things that have happened to me because of getting dumped there's Sugar Magnolia's, my lovely apartment (centipedes and all) and the friends who helped me duct tape myself back together, convinced me I wasn't crazy (well not any more than I had been previously) and especially the ones who help me keep my appointments with my poodle therapist. You all know who you are.

And then there's me. I came out of this mess broken, miserable and pissed, but never unsure that I was human because I was sans-boy. I am not invincible and I am not made of steel, but I'm coming out of 2009 with more confidence in myself and my abilities and that is certainly a good thing.

That said, can we have a boring year starting tomorrow?

*Before you roll your eyes at me and say "well if being dumped is the worst thing that's ever happened to you, honey you've had it easy" please keep in mind that I haven't chosen to share all of the bad things that have happened to me.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Going home for Christmas

Going home for Christmas is always interesting* tiring, and tasty.

The transportation is always a bit of a pain but once I arrive there are cookies to be baked and Gravlox to be um, cooled, packages to wrap and children to amuse. There's a Christmas Eve party we attend every year followed by church at 11 PM. We watch the choir process and listen to to the Christmas homily (this year "Change brought by a Palestinian peasant lying in a feed trough") and light our candles for "Silent Night"

But the thing that's been nagging at me for a few Christmases is Christmas dinner at my sister's house. My sister's husband Miguel is from Puebla in Mexico and most of the people who attend the dinner are more comfortable speaking Spanish than they are speaking English. I have nothing against that-rather every year I grow more annoyed with myself for not bothering to take a class in Spanish.

It's not that I want to intrude on their family conversation-its more a matter of respect-particularly since I know that I am language receptive. I don't say this to boast-its just one of the things that I can do. And because language is one of the things I can do easily I am annoyed with myself for not having taken Spanish 101 again.

I don't want to be the Caucasian girl who has deigned to learn a few words in Spanish. I just want to be able to say "pass the salt" or "that's a nice sweater you're wearing" or "wow this is delicious"or "Don't clean up the toys-Susi would prefer if you left them for Jack and Juliet to clean up-since it's their mess."

As I mentioned above-I don't want to intrude-if they all spoke English there would still be some conversations I would have no business putting my oar into and I'm (hopefully) old enough to understand where not to put my foot. But when I go to my sister's house and there are a lot of Miguel's relatives around (good people all) I always feel like "That White Girl With an iPhone-Susi's Sister." Subtext-"who don't know shit."

Because I absorb languages (starting with a background in French and ill-remembered Spanish) I understand some of what people are saying. I laugh and nod, to indicate my understanding (so I'm hoping my sister's relatives have upgraded me to the equivalent of mildly retarded in Spanish)

*when I was a kid trying to describe things to the Parents they wouldn't let me use this word because its too general.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A winter day on the North Shore

Yesterday, Mike told me that he planned to drive up route 127 today to go to Sugar Magnolias and take his dog to the beach. Mike has a truck (that should be a long u truuk.) That is to say he has a giant, bright red pick up truck that (of course) has 4 wheel drive and can handle anything that old man winter throws at us. "We'll play the Pogues all the way to Gloucester!" he said.

I found the idea of driving up beautiful 127 in the snow in a high truck cab with good heat, an ipod input and a cute fluffy poodle compelling. Especially since we'd get to see Gloucester and the beach all covered with snow. And also, you can tell me I have to wake up at 6:30 on a Saturday to go to Sugar Mags and I'll do it happily.

But , although this pains me to admit to it since I'm one of the people who ragged on Mike when he bought the thing, it really was all about the truck. Mike had a shiny tool that could handle this "butloads of snow thing" and I was happy to see it in action.

In execution the plan failed at one of it's objectives (Sugar Magnolias was closed when we got there) but I feel it was a success overall. Mike and Ellen picked me up and we drove on the beautiful coastline and there was no sliding. As we drove (listening to the Pogues and petting the poodle) Mike (who is from Pennsylvania) explained what he was doing and how to drive through the snow to Ellen (who is from Virgina.) I would reproduce their dialogue but since I don't drive myself, I only sort of understood it. It had to do with what gears to use uphill and downhill and with making sure you (and not gravity) were in charge of the tires.

And there was no condescension in the discussion at all. No hint of "I can't believe you don't know this" or "Honey, I'm not gonna allow you to drive when it's snowy." Here Mike knew how to use a tool (the truck in the snow) and he was trying to teach Ellen to use it-the same way I'd show her how to use ccleaner.exe or she'd explain capitalization to me.

So we took the truck to Gloucester and found a place that would serve us breakfast at 2 PM and took the dog to Good Harbor Beach. We discussed whether Tanya Huff should get a new editor, and horrible things people we know have done with toilet plungers (think twice before inserting one into yourself or someone you love) while admiring the scenery and noting the bad driving of our fellow travelers.

When we got to the beach we discovered that the wind had mixed the snow with the sand. We tromped through it and the dog bounced through it. Mike walked down to the tide line and mucked through some of the wetter sand and snow mix and said "oh do you know what this reminds me of? Boston?" As he stood there up to his ankles in sand and snow we could not but agree with him.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Good News for the Universe

According to Wikipedia this December's volume of the journal of Current Biology reports that the veined octopus uses coconut shells to create an exoskeleton-like fortress for itself. This is the first recorded example of an invertebrate using tools. See the video below-it's pretty cute.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


I was talking with my upstairs neighbor about the Thanksgivings of our respective youths and I came to the (admittedly belated) conclusion that some people just had much better Thanksgivings growing up than I did.

For example, my neighbor told me that when he was a kid "it was all about the food" (he's Italian). His family would cook a nice big meal for Thanksgiving and they'd eat it and then later they'd all go out for dinner. "Wow." I thought "How simple and how pleasant."

Thanksgiving was never my favorite holiday-even in college when it's advent signaled the end of a trimester. I never understood why some people liked it (unless they were really into football.)
My objection wasn't political (way to thank the Native Americans!) It's just that Thanksgiving when I was a kid was never any fun. It was always more of a ceremony than a celebration. It involved dressing in Nice Clothes (for the people who saw you in your pajamas a few hours ago) and eating food that we would never otherwise prepare and eat at an odd hour. Usually after having driven up to Massachusetts from New York.

Memorable Thanksgivings include the first year I was a vegetarian. My younger sister was also enjoying a spot of vegetarianism at the time. My mom asked "but you'll eat your grandma's turkey-right?" and was upset when we explained that turkey is not a vegetable. My father refused to take us on an extra shopping trip to get anything for us to eat. So I made Pasta Primavera with what was in my grandma's house-canned peas and french green beans and at least a fresh tomato and some garlic. In hindsight, we could have done what I usually do at Thanksgivings-eat only the sides and still leaved the table sated. But the sides at our Thanksgiving (with the exception of the mashed potatoes) had never appealed to my sister and I. They were mashed turnips, mashed squash and stuffing. None of it had any garlic in it and none of it would have been presented for us to eat at any other time of the year.

Then there was the Thanksgiving my senior year of high school. I got menstrual cramps for the first time. I had never experienced such outrage to my body before. And since I had no idea this could happen (I'd heard rumors-although none to explain how horrible I felt-but it had never happened to me) I didn't have the forethought to pack Advil. I was clearly incapacitated, but I was too embarrassed to explain why and it wouldn't have done any good anyways. It was Thanksgiving and there were no drugstores open. So I told them I had a horrible headache and they came up with the only pain killer in the house -very old baby aspirin. None of us cousins had been young enough to need such a thing for quite a while so who knows how old the bottle was. I took four. They didn't really help.

I can still remember my dad's smile as he doled them out-he joked with me about exceeding the maximum dosage because I weighed more than the expected consumer of baby aspiarin-and my embarrassment as to why I needed them. In hind sight, my grandma, who suffered from arthritis probably had a good deal of different kinds of pain killers-but I can understand why she didn't think they were appropriate for her teenage granddaughter.

There were fun moments as well of course (I strongly suspected there would have been more if the New York City Public school system hadn't decided to assign my sister and I extra homework for the long weekend.) There was the year my mom read that a good way to keep your turkey moist was to put the bird in men's briefs. So she bought a set of XL tighty-whities for the turkey and we soaked them in butter and put them on the bird giggling all the while.

Thanksgiving also, for some reason or other always had a course of Weird Fruits Dad Got in Brooklyn. So my sister and I were introduced to pomegranates, quinces, star fruits and kiwis decades before the rest of the world caught on. This course also contained Mozart Balls. It took me years to figure out what all the wonderful, nutty tastes were and nothing else I've eaten since then involves all of them at once.

And then there was the last Thanksgiving before my grandmother died and we stopped coming to MA. I don't remember much about it but I remember one small moment. It was a nasty day and my dad and I were sick of being cooped up in the house. So we took the car and went to West Beach. We walked maybe a quarter of the length of the beach-to about where the pilings stand from an old dock that used to be there-and then we had to turn back because it was too windy for us to hear what we were saying to each other. Also, our ears hurt from the wind. I was surprised and disappointed. I'd never been turned back by conditions on that beach before (we just wanted a walk-it's not like we planned on swimming.) But as we got back to the car I noticed something which redeemed the visit. There were bunches of seaweed at various high water marks on the beach and the seagulls were pulling mussels out of the seaweed-and dropping them back into the seaweed again. This "Pick the mussel up and drop it" instinct works okay when you've pulled the mollusk out of the rocks, but it's useless when you've pulled it out of seaweed on sand. So the seagulls would pick things up and drop them and then not only did the shells not break, but another seagull would pick the same mussel up and drop it into the same pile of seaweed and watch the shell not break again.

It was at that moment when I realized why seagulls are not the master race on this planet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In praise of the Cityside Diner

I love weekend brunches. I love them so much that when I've placed an order I feel sad-because that means I've made a choice and I don't get to eat all the *other* breakfasts-yes the Spanish Omelette is wonderful, but because I've ordered it I can't get the Eggs Florentine, or the carrot-cake pancakes. I am also happy to eat these things for dinner. This might be because I'm a vegetarian or it might be because I really like omelettes and home fries.

All of this makes me a big fan of breakfast joints and diners. And I have to say that the North Shore selection kicks the Cambridge/Somerville selection's ass. Sugar Magnolia's in Gloucester is better than all the brunches in Cambridge combined. I would happily get up at 6:30 AM on a Saturday to go eat there. A foodie friend of mine admitted "I come here to overeat" on one visit and really-who wouldn't want to order pineapple fritters and dropped eggs?

However much I love Sugar Mags, part of my heart belongs to the Cityside diner on Cabot Street in Beverly. I have been there for dinner when it's been empty and for brunch when it's been full and never have I ever gotten less than wonderful, friendly service and cheap and tasty food.

When I go there on the weekends they have both grills going-one full of hash browns and bacon and one for pancakes and eggs. I think a grill full of fresh bacon is beautiful-even though I'm a vegetarian. It is wonderful to watch the two fry cooks work together and slide the eggs or pancakes onto the plate while respectfully (!) telling the waitress that one of her orders is up. Really, I wish the place I worked ran so well. In spite of the fact that it's they're busting their asses the cooks are happy to talk with you if you sit at the counter. They brew good coffee and the friendly waitresses keep your cup topped off. Even at the busiest they have a cheerful word for you even if it's just "Take care dear and have a nice day."

In the evenings on weeknights it's quieter and there are different people working but it's still awesome. The evening staff remembers me from previous visits and the fry-cook (instead of insisting on waiting for the waitress to take my order) will ask me what I want tonight. If they are out of home fries she will cook me fresh ones instead of making me french fries. And one of the waitresses has (more than once) noticed that I was reading and muted the TV (which at least is not showing Fox.)

Tonight I went there for dinner because I'd stayed at work late and it was cheap so I could justify eating out instead of coming home and waiting longer to have dinner. As well as an affordable that someone else cooked I got smiling, intelligent dinner conversation. This last is something I couldn't get at my own table in Cambridge-let alone at The Friendly Toast in Kendall Square.