Archive for October, 2012

Sandy’s Tidal Surge

October 30, 2012

If you prepare for the worst and the worst doesn’t happen, does that mean your preparations were unnecessary? I don’t know.  But that’s our Superstorm Sandy story.

When Hurricane Irene came through Rhode Island last year, the silver maple beside our driveway lost a major limb, and our power was out for days. We wrapped quilts and blankets around our freezer, and eventually dropped in a box of dry ice we bought from a welding supply company. We played Scrabble by candle light and drove to David’s office to plug in our lap tops and charge our phones.

This year, as Hurricane Sandy was churning up the Caribbean, we filled our bathtub, and stocked up on gallon containers of drinking water. We put away our porch furniture and harvested the last of our tomatoes. We bought canned fish and beans, and sturdy produce like apples and carrots. We brought out our boom box and flashlight and bought an extra box of candles. We pulled down the storm windows and plugged a leaky door frame with cellophane and rags. We did everything we could think of doing. And then we waited, braced for the worst.

Here at our house, the worst turned out to be not so bad. While our family and friends in New Jersey and New York lost power and tree limbs and worse, and flooding from the tidal surge forced neighbors just a few blocks away to evacuate, we lost one tile from our roof, and some leaves from our trees. Somebody’s take-out coffee cup blew into our yard. Our electricity blinked twice, just long enough to force us to reset our clocks.

The rain and wind were supposed to continue through today. But the sun is out and the breeze is gentle. I took a walk, to see how the tiny corner of the world beyond our yard had fared.

At Stillhouse Cove, the ducks and swans grazed as if nothing unusual had happened. Never mind the orange construction drum that bobbed in the water, the fire extinguisher and tiki torch that had washed up—wittily—onto the same rock. The shell of a horseshoe crab lay in the middle of the street. A saw horse and caution tape warned passersby away from someone’s broken fence. And all along the shore, an undulating swath of debris showed how high the tide had risen.

I started taking pictures, as I always do. And that’s when I really saw what the storm had left us.

Marsh reeds and plastic drinking straws and scraps of wood were laid out together in perfect waves. The shape of the line recalled the flow of the watery waves that sloshed up and left them there, and revealed the contours of the land. Depending on the force and direction of that final wave, the obstacles it met and the topography beneath it, the line widened or narrowed, hugged rocks, formed piles, or snaked over the grass. Within the line, organic and plastic matter commingled  autumn leaves and cigarette box cellophane paired and positioned according to their shape and weight, and random happenstance.

Once I started looking, I could hardly tear myself away.

With schools closed and many offices shuttered, lots of families were out, doing the same. There was a quiet, holiday atmosphere—our gratitude for the unexpected day off, and for the fate the storm had spared us, tempered by our awareness of what so many other people are going through. Everyone was chatting, in the way people will—even strangers—when they have been through (or averted) a disaster together.

“How’d you do?”

“Not so bad.”

“Same here.”

“Guess we lucked out.”

“Sure did.”

“Finding anything good?” one guy asked me as I brought my camera close to a blade of grass wrapped around a tampon applicator.

“I’m just enjoying the way everything got left,” I told him. “Look at how that line squiggles over the grass.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. “I should come back with my metal detector.”


Urban Arts

October 22, 2012

David and I spent this past weekend in New York City, where we got to watch a workshop production of “Fun Home: The Musical,” which is based on our friend Alison’s 2006 graphic memoir about her closeted gay father’s suicide and her own coming out as a lesbian. The show is still being tweaked, and the final production may be quite different from the performance we saw. So all I’ll say about it this. That it was fascinating to see how the producers translated the book’s multi-layered structure and nonlinear chronology to the stage. That the cast was incredible. And that it is very strange to watch an actor portraying someone you know in real life.

The whole experience naturally got me thinking about how we turn life into art, and bring art into life. New York City is a great place for this, because it’s so packed with people who are doing both those things, and very often in public. Walk around town with this mindset, and the abundance of free drama, art and entertainment is staggering. Most of it is even intentional.

Our walk from the bus to our hotel took us through the Avenue of the Americas street fair. We didn’t buy anything. But lots of the wares sure were pretty.

On Saturday night, we went to dinner and the show with my aunt — a great evening all around.

The next morning, we walked out of our hotel to discover a bit of unplanned drama. Thick grey smoke, rank with the smell of electric things burning, billowed from two manholes at the corner of St. Mark’s Place and 3rd Avenue. Firefighters, police officers, and passers-by stood around and watched. The occasional pops and sparks and smoke rings were mesmerizing. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

We walked west to Washington Square Park,

where we paused to listen to a little piano music.

Sitting in the sun beside the fountain, we watched a crew from Dr. Playground retrieve the lime-green shoe a toddler had dropped through the grate.

On Waverly Place, we enjoyed an over-the-top, fantasy feast, courtesy of Babbo.

Continuing through Greenwich Village,

we admired the streetscape…

…and took in some local history.

Then we headed over to the High Line.

I would have been happy to have spent the rest of the day there, just listening to the snatches of passing conversations, trying to fill in the blanks or, in lots of cases, identify the language.

But we didn’t have all day. For one thing, we had to eat, which we did at Bombay Talkie. Our waiter was eager to chat. He told us about economics and religion in his native Nepal, his college courses in criminal justice, his brother’s life as a monk back home, his hopes for the future. “When I tell my professor I want to go into law enforcement, he says I’m too skinny to be a police officer,” our waiter told us. “I want to tell him the police commissioner for the city of New York is also skinny.” We wished him good luck, and he thanked us as if our words had the weight of coins.

Back on the High Line, the sensory stimuli kept stimulating, almost too much to take in.

We strolled the High Line to its end, and then walked around the rail yards to catch our ride back to Providence. We were ready to sit down and rest our senses. But as we waited for our bus, the weekend offered one last aesthetic gesture, cast by the sun through the chain-link fence on the back of one of another departing visitor.

Decoy Granola

October 10, 2012

I am not a superstitious person. But I am also no fool. So yesterday, when my friend invited me to come for a walk at a time when I was hoping I might receive an exciting phone call, I sent a quick email to the person I was hoping would call me. I told her I was going out, but would keep my cell phone turned up.

But because, as I have said, I am not a fool, I deliberately did not mention the real reason she might have to call. Instead, I offered her, and the Evil Eye, various alternatives. Maybe she would want to share a funny story about her dogs. Or she would need me to help her remember the words to “Ripple” (we’re a pair of old Deadheads). Or she might like my recipe for granola.

Then I drove across town to meet my other friend, which seemed like a much better way to spend the afternoon then sitting at home staring at the phone.

It was a really nice walk. The temperature was just right. The rain held off. My friend and I had a lot to talk about. We saw the mustachioed, identical-twin walkers I had previously only seen around my neighborhood. And I got my phone call.

The call made me very happy. But it was not entirely what I had been hoping for. When I answered the phone, one of the first things my friend said to me was, “Do you have a recipe for granola?”

As it happens, I do. It’s a damned good one, perfected in the course of many months and many batches. And since I can’t say anything about what we actually did discuss in the course of that phone call, I will give you what we did not discuss.

That Granola Recipe

1 part sweetener (such as brown sugar, maple syrup, honey or some combination thereof)

.75 parts oil (I use peanut or olive, since those are the only ones we ever have around)

4 parts rolled oats

seasoning to taste (I use vanilla, salt, black pepper, powdered cinnamon and powdered ginger)

3 parts chopped nuts (I have used walnuts, pecans, cashews, slivered almonds — usually all of the above.)

1 part seeds (flax, sunflower, sesame – again, usually all three. But the sesame are the most essential.)

1 part raisins

1 part other dried fruit, chopped (I like figs and dates. More figs in the mix than dates)

— Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

–Combine the oats with the sweetener, oil and seasoning. Spread it evenly on the baking sheet and bake 30 minutes, stirring once.

–Add the nuts and seeds to the oat mixture and bake another 15 minutes. Be careful not to burn the nuts.

–Remove from the oven and add fruit when cool.

I store mine in the refrigerator, so the nuts and the oil don’t go rancid. In mason jars, because they’re pretty.

I love this granola because it’s not too sweet and it’s full of goodies. The sesame seeds provide a slightly bitter counterpoint to the sugary parts, and the black pepper gives it a subtle kick. I eat it with plain yogurt and jam or fresh fruit for breakfast, or straight from the jar, as a snack.

Feasting at the Fast

October 5, 2012

For the second time in three days, I dreamed about eating at Yom Kippur services. In both dreams, services were in full swing, the clergy resplendent in their special white robes, when I realized I wasn’t sitting in a pew, but at a table for eight, set for a banquet. While the cantor continued his fervent chanting, servers brought dinner, and everyone dug in. The cantor looked annoyed, but not surprised – certainly less surprised than I was.

In the first dream, I stuffed my face, like everyone else. (I don’t remember the menu, besides a crusty baguette.) On the dream’s second pass, I was the only one at the table who didn’t indulge.

What does it mean, doctor?

My former therapist, who wasn’t into archetypes or psychoanalysis, tended to see this sort of question as an opening for more free-form introspection. “How did the dream leave you feeling?” he might ask.

And I might answer, “In the first instance, guilty. And the second time, when I abstained? Annoyed. And a little bit self-righteous, maybe. And then guilty, for judging the people around me.”

“Good for you,” I can imagine my therapist saying at this point, smiling that warm, between-you-and-me smile of his. “Even though the second time you were the one doing the right thing, you still  figured out a way to feel guilty about it.”

And then we would probably dive back into our ongoing conversation about guilt – what triggers it, its uses and (more often) uselessness, and what other emotions it might mask.

But what if my therapist’s questions weren’t about feelings, but metaphors, plot points, imagery and motifs? What if  his question in response to my question were, “How might you use these scenes in an essay, a work of fiction, a poem?”

Then I would have to say, “It depends.”

In an essay, I could use the twin dreams to illustrate spiritual indifference in today’s society. Or the social irrelevance of today’s religious institutions. A more personal essay might delve into my own passionate ambivalence around religion.

In a short story or a novel, the scenes might emphasize my role as outsider – my failure to conform with the service in the first dream, and with my co-congregants in the second. I might build in a moment where I look into the face of one of the clergy and get a glimpse of understanding, and from that an unexpected connection.

In a poem, the feast and the fast could be symbols. The diners might be feasting on the substance of the service, tanking up on prayer or tradition or regret. Or the unstoppable service could be the background of wrongdoing or good intentions that’s always there, as we blithely go on passing the bread. Living our lives.

Or, how about this? In a blog post about writing, I could use the service to stand for form – the rules that govern different genres, the structures and basic story lines we expect. And I could use the meal to demonstrate what happens when a piece breaks the rules and confounds expectations. A dream that was only about sitting through Yom Kippur services wouldn’t be worth telling. And neither would a dream that was only about eating. Put the two together, though, and you’ve got something interesting – something that opens the way to new meaning.