The secret to a happy marriage

Waffles on iron

There is a family at the Troy farmer’s market that sells real Belgian waffles and also various kinds of quiches, all of which I have purchased and all of which are delicious. The man is maybe in his 50s with a slight Dutch accent (or rather Flemish, which is the language spoken in northern Belgium). I end up going there every Saturday while my younger daughter takes fencing nearby. I don’t always buy Belgian waffles or quiches, but every now and then I do.

Sometime this past spring my boyfriend and daughters and I found ourselves at another farmer’s market in the town of Callicoon, some 130 miles away. Wouldn’t it be funny if they sold amazing quiches here too? I said, and then we immediately came upon a woman selling the exact same quiches that I buy in Troy. It turns out she was the man’s wife (also with an accent), who sold their quiches and Belgian waffles in Callicoon on Sundays, and he sold them in Troy on Saturdays. She was delighted to hear that we knew her husband. I bought some waffles, and they were delicious as always.

So today, when I was buying a Belgian waffle for my daughter to have after fencing, I finally got around to telling the man that I had met his wife some months ago at the other farmer’s market. Oh yes! he said, with a big smile. We work in the office together all week, you know, so on the weekends, we like to be apart. It’s the secret to our marriage! he said and laughed, but of course he was totally on to something.

I then noticed that there was a small sign explaining that the waffles contained pearl sugar, just like traditional Belgium waffles. Pearl sugar doesn’t dissolve, so you get a tiny delicious crunch of sweetness with each bite. I imagined that this man had been getting questions and/or complaints from customers about what was inside these waffles, and he was tired of answering them. Meaning that this man, who has already figured out (at least) the secret to a happy marriage, had been wasting his time explaining over and over that his waffles were perfectly fine and doing exactly what they were supposed to do.

But then, he got to come home to his happy wife, who had spent the day doing whatever she wanted to do, maybe reading on the couch with an endless cup of coffee, enjoying the cool breeze coming in through the window. I finally had to make a sign to explain what pearl sugar was! he’d announce to his wife in Flemish. And she would shake her head. What they don’t know, she would say. And they’d exchange knowing smiles.

Then: I need to start getting ready for tomorrow, she’d say, jumping up from the couch. And the man would sink down into it, imagining his perfect Sunday.

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Nächster halt

A long time ago, a few months before I turned 30, my then-husband and I spent a weekend in a wonderful little inn not far from where I live now. We had decided to leave the city and were checking out the area we hoped to move to in January, because how can you really know what upstate New York is like in the winter if you don’t visit during the most desolate time of year (we still found it lovely). The best thing about the inn (mostly all I can recall about it now) is that it had a wood stove in the center of what you might call the common room, a wood stove that was directly in the center of the room with chairs placed all around it, and all we did for most of our time there was read in this warm smoky room around the stove. (I also remember falling in love with a tiny toy poodle who was also a guest there. She sat in my lap like a cat, which is probably what I like most about small dogs.)

Whenever I go to guest houses I always like to hunt among the often randomly stocked bookshelves first to see what my options are before nearly always settling on the book I brought along with me. One exception to this occurred some years later in Cape Cod, where I found the book The Lovely Bones in our guest house and stayed up reading it compulsively way into the night, despite the fact that our young children got us up pretty early in the morning. And the other exception was this time, in that smoky warm room, where I found Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty and devoured it similarly.

I have always been a fan of Erica Jong. I first discovered her in early high school, when I was probably too young to be reading her, but what I understood then, and what I will insist on now, is that despite the fact that she is more known for the explicit sex in her books, she is a genuinely talented writer, literary really, but doomed forever to be thought of as “naughty,” a problem that never seems to follow male authors around.

Fear of Fifty is the book she wrote when she had just turned 50 and realized she would never again be the youngest or cutest person in the room. Of course, just as it happened when I read her for the first time, at 30 I was really kind of too young to appreciate it. What I remember most about reading that book was really just the pleasure of reading for hours around a wood stove with my then-husband. And the way that the book sucked me in, the way my favorite kinds of books do. But though I knew it was a sort of memoir, sort of feminist exploration of getting older, I remembered so little about it.

So now, at the age of 48, though I find myself delighting in the fact that I will never again be the youngest or cutest person in the room, I decided to read it again. This time I am spending the day on my couch in a town not far from that inn, in mid-summer, reading this book with the same sort of compulsiveness. It hits me that I am finally reading her at exactly the right time. (Though, of course, this book was written in the mid-1990s and now she’s 76. But still.)

The story of her life is what fascinates me most. The fact that she says that the only way she could write anything like Fear of Flying was to pretend that she was writing it for herself and would never show it to anyone. I keep thinking about this. What if I wrote like that too? Without the voice in my head that reminds me that no one is interested in what I have to say, that it’s all been said before, that I keep repeating myself. What if I could just write for myself?

I keep trying to trick myself into writing, trying to treat it like a habit I can incorporate into my day, the way I have somehow been doing yoga every day for nearly three years without missing a single day. But I don’t think all habits are the same. And a habit that allows you the freedom from your own constantly chattering mind is a lot different than one that insists you listen to that constantly chattering mind and figure out what it’s saying. It’s so much work! It’s strange that writing comes to me so easily and yet it is also so freaking hard. I both love writing and hate it. I am compelled to do it and often feel relieved when it’s over. I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly surprising here.

As for turning 50, well, I’m watching it happen all around me. Because I was skipped in school, many of my friends are turning 50 this year, and I’m just observing as I always do. Sure, it doesn’t sound great. The number itself. And I love so much being in my 40s that I feel so sad thinking of leaving them. The remarkable thing is that because my parents had me so young, I clearly remember my father’s surprise 50th birthday party because I was a married adult when it happened.  That’s the other thing. Many of my friends have parents that are older or much older than mine. We are not all going through the same things at the same time. And yet. Of course we are. But what’s happening to us? We’re the same people, we are really the same people we always were, and yet there’s no denying that we are all in unexpected places now.

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As for me, my older daughter is leaving for college in five days and I don’t yet know what this will be like. Nothing is like what we expect. It will be just me and my younger daughter here with my older daughter 3 ½ hours away and I haven’t still quite processed this. And I certainly won’t in five days’ time. Because how I feel is that there was this time line. We knew about it from day one. The clock starts the minute your baby is born.  And this clock was somehow in the background all the time, but you could forget about it, especially as your children became some of the best roommates you’ve ever had, and it seemed like things were really going to be great for a long, long time. And then, one of your roommates decided (or so it seemed, even though you helped her every step of the way) that even though things were going really well, she just felt like moving out. Oh, you said, that’s so great! But your heart was sinking sinking sinking. This was it. You’d always known it was coming, and many years had actually passed, but you still felt it had come too soon.

Once upon a time, you were reading a memoir about turning 50, and you were not quite 30 yourself, and just a few months married, and you had no children, no debt, no worries, and you delighted in a sweet little poodle who curled up on your lap in front of a wood stove. And now you are reading that same book, approaching 50, no longer married, no longer debt-free, full of worries, with two children that have been delighting you both like and unlike that poodle for years, and things are going to change yet again. I suppose the one thing that has not changed, that has never changed, is my love for finding a good book and reading and reading until I feel like my real self again, the one that devoured books as a child when the whole world was ahead of me and would turn out to be, forever, a complete mystery.

Things in plain sight

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It was when I saw the second person in as many days walking past with half a watermelon covered in plastic wrap that I started to take notes. We were in Munich, my two teenage daughters, my boyfriend Tony, and I, and among the other things I noted about this wonderful city (there are bakeries in every single subway station, everyone rides bikes, kids roam around on their own, and no one smiles unless they mean it), I began to notice that people just carried odd things on the subway (more accurately, U-bahn).

Perhaps the things themselves weren’t so odd, but rather that people were just carrying them out in the open. I wondered if it was because they don’t use plastic bags in Munich; in grocery stores, people bring their own bags, or you can buy a cloth bag there (which we did). And in other stores, you might get a paper bag or just nothing at all. So perhaps people on the U-bahn had nothing in which to put their items. Except that, no, people carried bags, just not plastic ones. Though in the U-bahn, many didn’t carry bags at all, which meant that whatever they carried was right in plain sight and exactly what I wanted to see.

In the course of our week there, I saw the following, in addition to the two separate men each carrying a wrapped half watermelon: a woman who wore a jacket that said “Lady Gang” on the back holding a flowering cactus, a man holding chocolates and a small toy, a man holding a spade and bag of potatoes, a man holding a small wooden model of a house, a man holding  a non-flowering cactus, a young woman holding a fancy homemade cake which had a sort of shower cap-like contraption around it, protecting it from, well, us. I think that if I lived in Munich I would have an endless list of Things People Carried in Plain Sight, and I would never tire of it.

But why do I mention this, why is this the thing from our marvelous week in Munich—in which we saw gorgeous churches (and attended a concert in one of them), strolled through an ancient cemetery, watched people surfing in a river, climbed the German Alps in a cog railway, visited an outdoor market, and ate delicious food—that delighted me so much it is all I want to write about now? I don’t really know. Of course, I probably don’t have to say this, but it was a total joy to notice such things. To notice such things Somewhere Else. I felt happier in Germany than I have in a long time.

And seeing “Lady Gang” with her flowering cactus reminded me that I was on vacation. I had stepped out of my own life. And as always, I was paying attention.

Look it up!

What I don’t understand, truly, what actually enrages me when I think about it, is the fact that people still ask questions out loud and expect that someone else will answer them. Why do they not use google? I think about a million times a day. I am baffled by this and continue to figuratively shake my head (and literally get angry) every single time I see someone post something online, who then gets a comment like, What is <topic, object, etc.>? LOOK IT UP FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

I honestly don’t get it. I am pretty much someone who spent her childhood waiting for the internet to be invented. Sometimes as a kid, I would come to my mother with a word in a book that I didn’t know, and she would say to me, Look it up! Which was, I guess, a way to teach me to use the dictionary, but was, in fact, a total drag because it meant going to the dictionary and flipping through the pages and, really, I just wanted an answer right now! I didn’t want to stop reading. I wanted an answer quickly so I could get back to my book. Do I remember the words I learned by looking them up in the dictionary? No. But how vividly I remember that frustration of wasting time to get what should have been a quick answer.

Just today I overheard someone ask my 70-something coworker (a retired newspaperman) why the word “lede” in “burying the lede” is spelled that way, which immediately interested me, but when I could not clearly make out the mumblings from behind me, I simply looked it up on google! I mean, it’s not like he was sharing a newspaperman story from his past (that I would have listened to as he was working in Washington during the Watergate era), but just a simple fact that anyone could look up.  Anyone. You don’t need to turn to an expert on newspaper facts anymore. You could find the answer yourself! (“Spelling the word as lede helped copyeditors, typesetters, and others in the business distinguish it from its homograph lead, which also happened to refer to the thin strip of metal separating lines of type (as in a Linotype machine). Since both uses were likely to come up frequently in a newspaper office, there was a benefit to spelling the two words distinctly.”) (You’re welcome.)

I get that people are lazy. I get that maybe they just want someone to tell them that one simple thing instead of finding themselves spending hours down google rabbit holes after looking up one simple phrase (“why burying the lede not lead?”). I even get that sometimes people would rather engage others in conversation instead of spending their time alone with their computer. I do get this. And I like stories just as much as the next person (in truth, probably more). But when one simple google search would satisfy a person’s curiosity, I just have no idea why they can’t just do that.

Googling this very question turned up an article that asks the question that I’m asking and basically comes to the same conclusion: people are lazy (also, a lot of people don’t know who Arcade Fire is, which I find forgiveable). But it’s one thing to be lazy (I can’t put this book down to look something up in another book), and yet it’s another to be publicly lazy. Seriously, everyone who is reading this: the next time you are about to publicly ask someone a question about something, ask yourself, Could I actually find the answer in like two seconds myself? If the answer is yes, well, you know what to do.  I am obviously never going to say, “Wait, let’s just not look this up. Let’s just not know!” I want to know everything. All the time. Everything. I wish everyone did too.

 

One more cup of coffee for the road

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My earliest memory of coffee was the kind that I witnessed blurbing up in my grandparents’ percolator every morning I spent at their house. Watching my grandfather pour himself coffee was thrilling for a couple reasons: first, the kitchen was my grandmother’s territory, but he was somehow allowed to use it for breakfast (this involved my grandmother suddenly slipping out of the kitchen as they could not stand to be in a room with each other for a single second). Second, my grandfather seemingly knew his way around the kitchen beyond just coffee, which surprised me every single time I watched him make himself sunny-side-up eggs or scraped the burned parts off his toast before buttering it. It was as though all the intervening years were slipping away and he was again a young bachelor living on his own in some different apartment in the Bronx. He took his coffee with lots of milk and sugar. I thought, as a child, this was the right way to do it.

Throughout the 1970s, my mother and stepfather drank instant coffee, which involved pouring hot water on some brown powder in a cup.  This seemed so totally boring that I didn’t even really consider it coffee. I tried instant coffee, once, many years later, when my grandmother was living on her own in a different apartment, and she insisted I have coffee. When she brought out the container of instant coffee, I didn’t know what to say. When did she stop using a percolator? When I actually tried some of the instant coffee, I knew what to say: Oh, I can’t drink this.  My grandmother understood.

I didn’t really start drinking coffee regularly until the mid-1990s when coffee came to New York City. Yes, of course, it was always there, but I just hadn’t known! Now every four blocks, I could get a mocha latte. Life became more thrilling. But at the same time I was enjoying regular espresso drinks, I noticed a kind of pain in my chest. I thought maybe I was having a heart attack or cracked my ribs or something. I was 26 years old. But when a doctor mentioned that it was likely acid reflux, I pretty much knew what was to blame. And so, for the next approximately 20 years I experimented with drinking coffee and not drinking coffee. I’m still figuring it out.

But just this evening, while making dinner, somehow I knocked the glass carafe of my coffee maker onto my kitchen floor and it shattered.  This carafe has been cracked for years. Not so cracked that it couldn’t be used, obviously, but cracked enough that whenever my boyfriend used it he tended to pour himself coffee over the sink. This coffee maker was from a previous life, one that I shared with my ex-husband. I don’t even remember how it cracked, but it never seemed bad enough to actually replace. Or I just couldn’t be bothered. Or something. (Once, when my ex-husband and I were in an obsessive juicing phase and our juicer broke, he got into the car that very second and rushed to Target to get us a new one.)  Maybe I wasn’t even a committed coffee drinker, since I really did take long breaks from it where I would only drink black tea (I’m not giving up caffeine, I mean, come on).  But now I’m in a coffee phase again and I ordered myself a new coffee pot.

There are times when objects from our past lives are so personal, so connected to our past selves, that when something happens to them, we are crushed. Or saddened. Or even relieved. But sometimes devastated. And then there are those other times when an object from your past falls to pieces. And you just sigh. And then sweep it up. And then you throw it into the garbage and order a new one.

It was just a coffee pot. Easily replaceable, as it turns out. Who knew.

A tale of kielbasa

I was looking at a recipe today for lentil soup and noticed a suggestion for adding kielbasa, which immediately led me through a long chain of memories about kielbasa (I am reading Proust’s Swann’s Way now, and I’m trying hard not to make the madeleine comparison here), which is what I’m going to write about now.

The best kielbasa I have ever had in my life was from a butcher shop in my ex-husband’s hometown, a little farm town in western Massachusetts that has or had a large Polish population, including a number of my ex-husband’s relatives on his mother’s side.  Not only was this butcher shop in my ex-husband’s hometown, it was actually across the road from the house he grew up in, where his parents still live, which made getting the kielbasa a challenge when he (and therefore we) stopped talking to his parents. But I’ll admit it was also kind of a thrill. We continued to visit the area with our kids after my ex-husband cut off contact with his parents because it was an area we all knew and loved, and there was plenty to do there. Plus the kielbasa, which involved driving somewhat furtively into the butcher shop’s parking lot (with a glance at the house across the road) and then me rushing into the store as quickly as possible. Obviously the owners (and generations of the butcher’s family) all knew my ex-husband.

I’m not even sure what made this kielbasa so great, but it is the kielbasa that I defined against all else and found all else lacking. Back when we still lived in the city, my ex-husband would get kielbasa from the Polish butchers on First Avenue, but it wasn’t until I tried the western Massachusetts kielbasa that I truly fell in love. I’d never even had it until I met my ex-husband. I found this weird because my own grandmother was Polish. But I don’t think Polish Jews ate kielbasa, I explained once to a friend. Nazis ate kielbasa, she responded. Apparently so did large Polish families, including in something called “white borscht,” which I thought my ex-husband was making up when he first explained it to me (I also thought he was making up “canned bread,” but no, that is real too).  White borscht is a thick potato soup with kielbasa and hard-boiled eggs and sour cream. Some might call this excessive.

So until I met my ex-husband, I had never had kielbasa, but once we started dating I was eating it every few weeks or so, always roasted with potatoes and other vegetables, and served with horseradish mustard. It was quite good. Except that when I was pregnant with my first child, I developed a terrible aversion to the smell of garlic, which is basically the smell of kielbasa. Not long before I had developed this aversion, when were still living in the city, my ex-husband had bought some kielbasa, probably from First Avenue, and every time I opened the fridge I wanted to die. I think we may have put it into the freezer, but even then the faint smell continued to haunt me for months. (Funny enough, the smell of garlic would torment me some years later, when my ex-husband took home, from the bakery he worked at, a huge empty container that had contained crushed garlic, tossed it in the trunk of our car, and promptly forgot about it. For days, I was haunted by the same smell, and thought I was losing my mind, until we finally located the source.)

And now, I am no longer married to the man who introduced me to kielbasa, and I have not had kielbasa in years.  I don’t miss kielbasa exactly, but I do miss something. Maybe it’s simply my younger self, which I am always missing, even though I tend to like my older self more. It’s the way I miss my children. There were once these babies that I knew and loved and lived with, and then they just disappeared.  I am living with these teenagers now, who are just terrific people, but I sometimes think, Where are those babies that used to live with me? They’re just gone. And my 20- and 30-something selves are gone too. And I never even tried white borscht. I probably never will. The one thing I will do, probably forever, is miss people and moments from my life and food I will never eat again. It just comes with the territory of being a writer. And being a parent. And being a human.

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Backstage fury

As a parent you are told, pretty much from the moment your child is born, Just wait till they’re teenagers! This is never said with delight. Usually it’s accompanied by a shaking of the head and an oh-man-how- did-I- survive-that smirk. You might answer, Oh, I know, believe me (even though you certainly don’t know, but it’s what you are expected to say, though actually the thought of a walking, talking person slamming their bedroom door to get away from you seems almost thrilling during those early years). And I will confess that the first time my daughter, at the age of 13, yelled at me to get out of her room, I actually had to turn away so she couldn’t see the astonished smile on my face. It was happening.

However. That was probably the last time I smiled about it.

Instead, I find myself regularly reminded of the summers between college when I worked backstage on some professional theater productions. The actors in these productions were very likely to snap at you in those frantic backstage moments when, for example, they couldn’t find their other shoe or you showed up one second later than you were supposed to in order to zip up the back of their gown. My immediate understanding was that that backstage moment was charged: they were going to hiss at you and possibly say awful things, as you were very calmly searching for their shoes and/or promising over and over that you would be two seconds early next time, and you were to forgive them always. What I understood then was that these actors were under an enormous amount of stress for a relatively short period of time and that I was to take nothing personally and let all that fury just wash over me as part of my job. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even getting paid.

The realization that I was not to take anything personally, that I was going to get snapped at regularly by people under an enormous amount of stress, seems prescient now that I am a parent of teenagers. When I am in the right frame of mind, I can let all that backstage fury wash right over me. It’s not my fault, I tell myself. I just happen to live backstage pretty much all the time now, and my children are frantically losing their shoes before they have to go onstage on a regular basis. I don’t always remember this, of course. Instead, there have been times where their fury or cold dismissal has not washed over me, but rather worked its way in. I have sat, miserable, on my bed and thought, This totally sucks.

And yet. For whatever reason, people never tell you the other part. They actually keep the other part from you. I’m talking about the fact that these teenage children of yours are actually people, funny interesting people that you would like even if they weren’t your own children. Somehow, while they were busy snapping at you and watching youtube videos, they were also turning into engaging young adults that you end up enjoying having around. I mean, most of the time.

It’s quite possible that no one tells you this because it is your reward, your secret reward, from parenting teenagers, the one that you get to discover yourself, as you’re peering from behind the curtain and then slipping off into the wings.