Incommunicado

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The Internet has been down at my place for the past week. I’ve used my cell phone’s hot spot to get on, but only when I absolutely must because I’m already into data overages and extra fees. And today my (awful) Internet provider robo-called to let me know they could not fix the problem due to “unforeseen circumstances,” until further notice. (Read: we’re all on strike and we’ve got you over a barrel. Take a number and get in line.)

If the past two years’-worth of personal austerity measures have taught me to trim the excess and live lean, the past week has reminded me how to get on in the great void of communication with the outside world—you know: how to live like we all once did, without the Internet, without easy access to pretty much anything in seconds.

What I’ve learned is that I have devolved into a lazy person who has not opened a thesaurus or dictionary’s pages in a while save when Handsome Chef Boyfriend urges me to look up something to guess a crossword puzzle clue (he believes looking on the web is cheating). I waste all kinds of time every single day researching things I convince myself matter, but really do not at all. I’ve started saving my hot spot for twice-daily Internet usage, and more often than not, outside of quick email responses, there is just not much I need to do online that is of immediate and critical importance.

My conclusion is that I mainly use the Internet for work avoidance. I’ve gotten all kinds of things done in the last week—things long put off because I felt too pressed for time. I had lunch with a friend (how delightful). I sat down to read a couple of times. I even went to the tiny library that serves my town and chatted with its interesting, bilingual librarian while I was pulling DVDs from the shelves to borrow (no Internet = no Netflix streaming). I learned some stuff that day I would not otherwise have known (including the fact that the tiny local library has lightning fast 24/7 wifi, ironically—you can sit in your car and use it after hours, if you want, and the librarian said she’d let me in if her car was there). I also got out my beautiful Martin classical guitar, cleaned and maintained it a bit, and played some scales.

I’m antsy to be reconnected—this is not a Luddite-style anti-Internet argument, just an observation about me and my habits.

I miss y’all; call me if anything exciting happens.

My Ageing Dilemma

Photo courtesy of Tom Atkins
Photo courtesy of Tom Atkins

A friend snapped this photo of me last month at an event in Cambridge, New York at the home of writer Jon Katz and his wife, artist Maria Wulf.

Confession: seeing it the first time gave me a little jolt. I think many of us carry around an idea of how we look in our mind’s eye which may or may not have anything to do with our actual appearance. I think I have a reasonably true mental self-image, but it’s maybe a tad less wrinkled and grey than that woman in the photo.

I am actually growing more comfortable with the idea of ageing. I am not Botoxified (not holding anything against folks who are), I don’t have any kind of implants, I have not had things removed from my person (except once where there was some concern about a malignancy), and some time ago I made the decision to allow my hair to grey naturally, as the color I had used for the better part of a decade to maintain the super dark brown hair I’ve had all my life was starting to damage it. The result was that I looked, well, older than I did without fake color.

And I’m getting spots.

I once investigated what it would take to remove the spots (you know the ones I mean—the little brown splotchy things that start showing up sometime in your 40s). You need a chemical peel, my doctor explained, where your entire face essentially turns bright red for a couple of weeks and melts off, but ostensibly the effects of age and sun disappear and you’re left with skin as smooth as a baby’s butt.

I’ve known two people who had a chemical peel. Each of them came down with a horrible case of shingles afterwards. One of them suffered so much damage that she ended up for months undergoing expensive repair treatments in a faraway city.

I know: the sample size is way too small to be statistically significant. (At least, I think that is what I remember from my statistics class in grad school eons ago.) Still, no thanks. I will take the brown spots. They are a monument to all those hours I clocked doing fun stuff outside with my boy during his growing up years. (Yes, I used sunscreen.) For an even better celebration of wrinkles, take a look at this Huff Post article about art photography made using centenarians as subjects. I love the idea of wrinkles as art-worthy.

I went to NYC in 2010 to sit for the amazing young photographer Matthew Murphy for my headshots which I needed for my classical ballet curriculum vitae; the makeup artist who worked on me that day quipped, “Love the granite!” This was in reference to my hair, and it was a new one on me. I love it, too, actually. (Granite = timeless and classic; thank you, Alex Michaels.) It definitely suggests age, though, no way around it. Even if you are not all that old. (Anybody whose hair is really dark knows exactly what I mean; the first grey hair you sprout sticks out like a sore thumb. My dad plucked mine from my head on my high school graduation day while I stood in the sun in my cap and gown, waiting for him to snap my picture. So be it.)

The upshot is, I am okay with my grey hair, and my brown splotches, and my wrinkles. We’re all going there, Botox or not, chemical peel or not, like it or not.

This peace with ageing is huge for me. I grew up in a world where appearance is everything, where you work mainly naked in a roomful of mirrors, as I like to say, where you are under constant scrutiny by a very few people who are looking at how you are put together and how you move and who have the power to decide your future, and where you learn to scrutinize yourself even more. Ballet is unforgiving, although I will say that over the last couple of decades it has granted admission to body types and physical attributes that in a bygone era would have been passed over as imperfect in some important way. It’s the evolution of the species, we hope.

This is not a commentary about the self-image of young girls, or advertising, or unimaginable standards of beauty, or retouched photography that glorifies the perfect female body. I will leave that discussion to others. This is more about longevity and the vessel that we carry with us into our aged lives. I won’t champion any kind of philosophy that says, it’s okay to eat what you want and be obese as some kind of antithesis to skinny girl American pop culture. It’s not okay, your frame was not designed to sustain it. You will march through your years with all kinds of physical problems that are tied directly to weight. Your personal vessel will not serve you well, and it may in fact simply give up long before it’s due. I’ve got science to back me up on that.

It’s not only that I want to live for a very long time, I want to feel good on the journey. I feel much older than my years, though, thanks in no small part to more than a decade of trying to model a perfect fifth position for my students every day of the week (long past the time where I could reasonably do that), and several years spent running more than twenty-five miles weekly on a badly compromised foot, because the euphoria I felt from that seemed worth it. All this concerns me, more than a little.

I feel lucky beyond measure to embark on a new life with an incredible man, an amazing companion, and I am ecstatic that we see well past each other’s wrinkles. I just want us both to be around for some time to come, to enjoy the ride together.

I think it is possible for most of us to age gracefully, as they say. I nod to my own mom, who has held up quite well, now into her 70s. I wanted to post a photo of her with her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, at the school’s 50th anniversary celebration a few years ago. I could not obtain a copy of it but if you are of a mind, follow the link. When you open it, look in the sidebar on the right; scroll down to the box that says “Alumni Reunion Class Photos.” Clicking on the box opens a slide show; you’ll see mom in the first two pictures, front and center. She’s in the yellow shirt and she is totally rockin’ a plaid mini-skirt.

She’s also totally rockin’ her wrinkles.

Mise En Place

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Today I had a huge, long list of stuff I planned to do. Some was work related, some was house related (actually most was house related), and there was the usual catching up on correspondence. Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s mandate to me as he was leaving this morning: go out and pick up sticks. (Manly Vermonter translation: get ’em now, you are almost out of kindling, and don’t be whining to me about it when the lawn is buried under ten feet of snow.)

I did try to pick up sticks. I’ve been under the weather for the last week, though, and every time I swooped down to grab one my head felt like it was exploding off my neck.

So I did the sensible thing and went back inside and baked cookies.

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I had all the ingredients for molasses cookies and decided that since they have molasses in them they must be health food. (Ergo, cookies equal health food.) Lately my life has felt distinctly un-mise’d en place. During an afternoon phone chat I whined to HCB that I have felt unsettled for three years. Would I feel the comfort of being settled, ever again? He assured me I would.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies came out of my mom’s third grade cookbook. I remember that rumpled book, its faded blue pages held together with faded ribbon, a contribution from every member of the class therein. (Betcha anything she still has it.) We made those cookies all the time when I was a kid. The summer before my sophomore year in college I sat down with pen in hand and copied recipes I wanted, from that book and others, so I’d have them in my very first apartment. My own collection is looking pretty aged now.

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My mom did not own a stand mixer when I was growing up. We mixed the batter with a wood spoon and it was stiff as all get-out. This afternoon while I watched the mixer whir around, effortlessly blending the flour and egg and gooey molasses, I wondered about Mary Ann. What kind of a kid was she? Was she nice to my mom? (Was my mom nice to her?) Is she still alive? What did she do with her life? Was it a settled life? Did she marry and have kids? Did she divorce?

One thing I know for sure. That cookbook was a product of WWII-era Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where my mom and her family lived at the time. Her parents, and her grandmother (my great grandmother Gracie) all lived under the same roof in G.I. housing and contributed to the war effort in one capacity or another. My great grandmother was a librarian, and my grandmother was a lab technician, each of them at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the bomb that would end the war was in development. I am fairly certain their lives did not feel mise’d en place, either–probably not many Americans could make that claim.

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Another thing I know for certain. Neither mom nor Mary Ann had Silpat. What a glorious invention. Had the outcome of that war been different, maybe none of us would have Silpat. (All hail Silpat!) Have a molasses cookie, on me.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup shortening (it’s Vermont: use butter, dammit)
  • 4 T molasses
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t cloves
  • 1/2 t ginger
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt

Preheat oven to 375º. Mix and work with hands or mixer. Form into small balls. Roll in sugar. Bake 15 minutes.

Yield: depends. How big are your balls? (Ha.) And how much cookie dough did you eat while you were baking? (Please, no sanctimonious speeches about raw eggs–you know you do it, too.)

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Note: the cookie jar was made by a Memphis potter and sculptor named Ellen McGowan; my mom bought it at a crafts fair on the lawn of the Pink Palace Museum in the mid-1970s. (It says, Tomorrow I go on a diet!) My dad once told Gelsey Kirkland that we lived in the Pink Palace while he was schlepping her around town during one of her many guest appearances with Memphis Ballet. She believed him. True story.

 

The Best Medicine

Tom Magliozzi

June 28, 1937 – November 3, 2014

 

I remember the day Tom and Ray Magliozzi (Car Talk’s hosts, “Click and Clack–The Tappet Brothers”) congealed on my cognitive landscape. I was sitting in my car listening to them at a neighborhood shopping center. A caller was explaining that his expensive Italian car (I am pretty sure a Ferrari, but don’t quote me) had significant transmission problems. Reverse gear did not work at all, he said. He had taken it to several “boutique” mechanics known for their prowess with imports, to no avail. Tom and Ray of course had a field day with him. How, they chided, could he possibly drive the car without reverse gear? The caller, enjoying his Car Talk moment in equal measure, explained his creative driving and parking strategies to the delight of the hosts.

Eventually the chatter turned to the pragmatic, the how-to piece that is usually buried somewhere near the end of the conversation. Tom and Ray told the guy that really his only option was to ship the car back to Italy, where he could have it repaired by proper Italian mechanics with access to proper Ferrari transmission parts, which was of course out of the question. In all seriousness, though, they went on (now they had the full attention of the caller and their radio audience): there was a better solution. BUILD A CIRCULAR DRIVEWAY, one of them bellowed, and then both exploded in laughter. IT’LL BE WAY LESS EXPENSIVE THAN FIXING THE CAR! (More explosive laughter.)

With the passing of Tom Magliozzi on Monday the world lost a giant (and you can just imagine him turning that phrase to spawn more thigh slapping). I never thought of him quite like that for the decades I listened to the show, though. He was half of a twosome who made a lot of people grin and giggle on Saturday mornings, end of story. Still, an NPR radio spot yesterday paying homage to him really got me thinking. People kept talking about Tom’s laugh, how big it was, how when you were in the same building you could hear him coming because of that unmistakable bellow that made people feel “okay,” whatever else may have been going on in their lives or in the world.

More and more I have come to believe a sense of humor is probably the most important barometer of a person’s true character. I am dead serious. Its obverse, self-importance, the red flag warning there will be trouble. In my past I’ve ignored this trait in others to my own detriment. But I think it is a simple litmus test for whether a relationship–of any kind–has the potential to work. It is not rocket science, but my gut tells me the capacity to laugh, to find joy and humor in life even in the face of adversity, and to parlay that to people around you, is profound.

I leave you with this brief, thoughful remembrance.

Rolling Back The Clock

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Ever played that game where you imagine you could go back in time to some watershed moment in your life and make a choice that would instigate a dramtically different outcome? I do it all the time. Lately the theme has been work related for pretty transparent reasons. If I found myself poised on the threshhold of college life again, I’d choose architecture in a nanosecond.

This weekend HCB and I were in Lake Placid for the Can/Am Hockey Tournament on account of a particular young man, not for the first time. In some ways I find the built environment of the town a reminder of better days, and this is absolutely true of the 1980 Olympic rink where the U.S. Hockey team made history. Sitting there for Saturday’s first game reminded me of the times I have been at American Ballet Theatre’s lovely old neoclassical building at 890 Broadway in NYC for teacher training: important things have happened there, and I can feel that. But each of these facilities has seen better days.

That’s where the metaphor falls apart, though. 890 Broadway possesses soul and a depth of character that the Herb Brooks Arena lacks. Is the building’s age the thing? Maybe, but also a softness in its design I think, like the difference between old and new cartoons–call it the Warner Bros. factor. Scooby rocks, but he can’t hold a candle to Porky.

Saturday’s second game was in the 1932 rink (the Jack Shea Arena) down a long, connecting corridor. I love the lines and geometry of that space. It is a more intimate rink than its massive cousin, imposing nonetheless. Also, I am a sucker for curvilinear structure, and the ribbed cathedral-style ceiling of the Jack Shea Arena has it in spades. (Look at 890 Broadway’s facade!)

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890 Broadway

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Beauty is also in the details, here in the concrete joinery. And the concrete itself sparkles, with tiny pieces of what? I have no idea. I do know that the composition of concrete has changed through the years, and if anybody out there can tell me what I am seeing, I’d love to hear from you. I assume that the concrete structure of this building has remained more or less unchanged since it was built (not so the seating, now red plastic stadium chairs, remarkable only because they are misnumbered like crazy–a sure sign they were repurposed from elsewhere).

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Tomorrow morning I still won’t be an architect, but I will always enjoy studying what we build to shelter us as we sleep and eat and work and play, and how we design and build it in a particular way, and why. What would you do with your life if you could start again?

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