Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why I want to be a cat

We have SNOW!  And even though I hate trudging around on streets (why do so few people shovel their sidewalks?), it makes even Quincy look beautiful.  This was our back yard on Monday morning:

During our snowy time, Anya has also discovered the importance of accessories when making food.  That's my girl!

Being housebound for a day or two has also reminded me of some of the reasons that I might enjoy being a cat. 
1.      I could snooze on top of radiators.
2.      If I were a cat, I would  have ears that I could twist around to let people know “I hear you, but I deem you unworthy of my full attention."
3.      Rubber balls, rubber bands, and yarn would be endlessly fascinating.  I would never be bored.
4.      I’d naturally go after anything interesting with gusto.
5.      I wouldn’t have to please anyone.
6.      I could purr.  And hiss.  That would be fun.
7.      I could sleep.  A lot.
8.      I would have an air of mystery about me. 

A few obvious reasons I am glad not to be a cat, despite the many benefits listed above:
1.      Cat food.  (ergh)
2.      Lack of opposable thumbs.
3.      Cat litter boxes.  (ergh again)
4.      Even little children would be big enough to terrorize you. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Real Food

On Friday (after working all morning on the conference paper still hanging over my head), I decided to cook.  My brother Kevin was coming over on Saturday to hang out and have dinner, and I’d been craving a real meal.  One in which I know every ingredient we’re eating.  I landed on golden splitpea soup (from one of the Moosewood cookbooks), bread machine whole wheat, and spinach salad with home made peanut dressing.  My meal looked like this:

Now, I am of course a “betwixt and between gal” with regard to slow versus prepared food, as I am with just about everything else.  Almost every meal we eat includes home made food, often things that we have done completely from scratch.  I make my own soups, we buy fresh (non-antibiotic) meats and fresh or frozen vegetables.  (How I managed to be a vegetable lover after suffering canned vegetables as a child, I do not know.)  But, we also use prepared breadcrumbs in our meatloaf and meatballs, canned tomato soup in our American chop suey—you get the idea.  So the “complete slow food meal” doesn’t happen all the time, just sometimes.  Saturday was one of those times. 

Making foods from scratch was also the perfect way to spend my Friday afternoon, which is after all a period of segue between work week and weekend.  And the sights and smells of cooking or baking are so lovely.  One of my favorite things to do is to listen to music (or the radio) and cook at a leisurely pace.  One of my least favorite things to do is to rush in order to get dinner on the table. 

Of course, it helped that I was wearing cat ears while cooking.

Attitude is everything, after all.

I even made dessert which, since it was for Kevin, had to be sponge cake.  I didn’t take a photo of it—and really, sponge cake looks pretty bland even though it’s tasty.  So, in lieu an image, I’ll share the recipe.  It’s very easy, and very good.

June Sullivan’s Sponge Cake**

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease and flour an 8x8 inch square baking pan. 

With an electric mixer, beat together (for about 3-4 min):
1 cup sugar
2 eggs

Sift together:
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Pinch salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Heat together:
½ cup milk
1 Tbsp butter

Add wet and dry mixtures alternately into egg-sugar mixture, beating for about a minute in-between each addition. 

Bake for approximately 35 to 40 minutes, until the top springs back upon touch and a knife or toothpick comes out of the center clean

You can put on powdered sugar, or glaze, if you want.  But really, this simple cake is good just the way it is.  This cake is also easy to double, in which case you should use a 13x9 inch pan.

**The Sullivan family in Rockport was almost as big as ours—7 kids.  Not only did we get this sponge cake recipe from their matriarch, but I was named after one of their daughters.  (After seven other kids, my parents were running out of names.  I was almost stuck with the name Donna, which in MA would have made me "Donnah O'Connah" my entire life.  Eesh.)

What is your favorite home made food?  Where/when in your life does it come from? 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This Season.

Chanukah has come and gone.  I’m glad that it was early this year, because we avoided the mad rush at the stores.  Now, early winter is setting in, and the cold outside is juxtaposed with the coziness of home.  A few of my favorite times from Chanukah and early winter so far are:
Samuel made me a lovely picture mat (a kind of “stained glass effect, with some animals hiding in the design).  It frames a picture of a (Boston?)  vine that Samuel, at age 2, declared to be a dragon.  I’ve been meaning to blow up and frame that photo for almost eight years now…

Another homemade favorite: the apron that Anya decorated for me.  Here she is modeling it (kind of.  She’s in a bad mood tonight).

Another favorite from Chanukah: my new flannel bathrobe (supposed to be a night shirt, but...).  It's purple, has tree branches, stars, and owls.  How can you go wrong with that???

The kids were also quite cute in their new pajamas.  You might recognize Anya's...

And, once Chanukah was over, we spent a wonderful evening with my sister Kaethi.  There was a fire going.  Kaethi and I knit.  Anya and Sam drew many pictures.  Howard…well, let’s just say after a while there was audible snoring.  In other words, we were all content. 

Other seasonal favorites:
1)      Walking on cold-ish winter mornings (27 degrees is nice.  It will, alas, get colder…)
2)   Tea.  Gotta have tea.

3)      Making cards and hats and food for people I love.
4)      Making calendars!!!!  I’m positively obsessed.
5)      Getting a REAL LETTER in a season’s greetings card from one of my dearest “old friends.”  (I’ll write back soon, Nancy, I promise.)
6)      Playing the Charades game that Anya got from Samuel. 
7)      Soup.  (see #4 regarding obsession.)
8)      Candle light.

What brings you joy in December?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thanks, Dad.

A year ago today, we had heavy, wet snow in the morning.  I took this picture. 

It was the day that my Dad died, and my heart was broken. 

I thought a lot about whether to post today.  In the end, I decided that I need to write about Dad, but not necessarily about his death.

Instead, I want to write about things I will always remember about my Dad.
1.      Dad taught me to recognize cardinals, blue jays, and chickadees when I was a kid.  I still think of him whenever I see any of those birds—which is often, since we have blue jays and cardinals living in the pine trees next to our house.
2.      Dad had a rough exterior, but he was a “softie” in many ways.  Every Valentine’s Day, Mum would get a big heart box of candy, and each of us “girls” would get a little one.  Later, when I was in my sophomore year at college, he sent flowers to my dorm.
3.      My father loved my mother from the moment he first laid eyes on her.  Here they are as newlyweds:

4.      There is no way to think of my father without recalling his numerous WWII stories.  He never (or rarely) discussed the horrors that he saw—and there must have been many—but he told foolish stories over and over and over again…
5.      Dad was really smart.  I think that he was intimidated by my education--he certainly was defensive about it.  But I don't think he realized fully that my analytical abilities came from him. 
6.      Dad was incredibly responsible.  Whenever he went out to dinner, he would order one Southern Comfort Manhattan.  If he wanted a second one, he would first ask Mum if she was willing to drive home in his stead. 
7.      Dad was a party line democrat and union man.  Ever since I turned 18 and was eligible to vote, we talked (either to celebrate or mourn) after every major election. 
8.      For years after he retired, Dad made seafood chowder every Christmas Eve.  Everyone in the family would come by at some point to have chowder and chat for a while. 
9.      My son, Samuel, looks just like my Dad—including the way he furrows his brow when he concentrates.  My daughter looks nothing at all like him, but she adored him from the time she was an infant.  These are two of my favorite pictures of Anya and Grandpa together when she was a babe.

10.  Star Trek fans would recognize my Dad as “Scottie.”  Dad was a machinist at Gorton’s of Gloucester for decades.  He used to say that if a machine is broken, you should always tell your boss it will take twice as long to fix as you think it will—that way, when you’re done early, you’ll be a hero.
11.  Dad loved strawberry shortcake.  I plan to eat it on his birthday every year. 
12.  Dad would argue with you even if you agreed with him.

There are plenty of other stories, unpleasant as well as pleasant, that I could tell about my Dad.  But right now, I just want to remember this ordinary, quirky, salt-of-the-earth man who shaped my world in profound ways.  I miss him still.

What do you cherish about your Dad, or your memory of him?  What would you like your children or other loved ones to remember about you?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Slip Sliding Away

I love the world of ideas (and, really, it’s about the only place on earth where I feel “at home” besides my house).  However, I absolutely hate—got that?  hate—trying to get momentum going with new projects. 

And that is where I am right now.  I have to present a paper in a little over a month, but because I don’t yet have what Howard so aptly calls “traction,” I am lost and fumbling.  Sliding around hopelessly and finding mostly ways to distract myself from working. 

This is made even worse by the fact that I have to read most of my documents on the computer, rather than in hard copy, since I just took images of all of them.  Given that I plan to continue to copy documents via camera—it’s better for my back, my pocketbook, and the environment—I’m going to have to get used to it. 

So, my strategies for getting this paper going this week have included:

1.      Make small goals and praise myself for anything that gets accomplished.  Every step is, as they say, a step forward.
2.      Accept that much of my time this week needs to be focused on family—Chanukah is starting, and I have had the kids on my own while Howard is away on business.  Just focus on moving ahead.
3.      Invite coffee and tea in to my writing and note-taking process, no guilt allowed.
4.      Bribe myself with treats for doing focused work (today: this blog post).
5.      Try to keep my office and desk—well, manageably clean.  Let’s face it: I’m not inclined toward complete organization and tidiness.  But, I also do not function well in total disarray.  I am using this blessed sabbatical time to work on establishing that ever elusive middle ground.  I’m kind of getting there.  Really, it’s more organized than it looks.
6.      Stop at a place where I know how to pick back up again, preferably with something that excites me.
7.      Focus on the process and the journey, rather than my achievements on any given day.  I’m getting a little better at that.

I like the number seven.  Let’s stop there.
I’m hoping that I am not the only one with this eternal organizational and disciplinary struggle!  I think it’s just terribly hard to start new projects and structure one’s own time.  If anything, having kids has made me more efficient, because I know that at a certain hour I have to transform from Dr. O’Connor back into Mum.  And, mostly, I do.    
Do you have strategies to overcome work blockages??? 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Art and Life.

As a parent, I find that long weekends are just that—long.  My kids have a tendency (like most kids I think) to fight with each other when they are at a loss for what else to do.   Don’t get me wrong—they love each other and all, but they fight over the stupidest things.  (The most infamous was last January, when they literally fought over the possession of a broken rubber band.  To this day, if it comes up, Samuel will still say “Well, it was mine.”)

But, every once in a while, they find an activity that they are happy doing together.  Sometimes it’s even quiet.  This weekend the miracle of sibling harmony came with art.  We had our dear friends Gabriela and Patrick (and their kids) over this weekend, and Patrick—a model of patience—spent time drawing with the kids.  The next day, they drew for quite a while on their own.

So, here’s a sampling of art hanging around my house right now.  Some of it will eventually get framed or saved in a calendar.  Most of it, however, is on little scraps of paper that we will enjoy for a while and then take it down or throw it away to make room for new stuff.

Yesterday before dinner, my kitchen table looked like this, and I’ve never been happier to see a mess.  Anya kept saying things like “We had a really good time drawing” or “We did a lot of pictures” whenever she looked at it. 

Of course, there was also artwork related to Thanksgiving, such as hand turkeys made on a paper table cloth (a now long-standing tradition):

There are Samuel’s drawings made from “how to draw” books.  Latest genre: monsters.

Art gifted to me and put on the fridge:

And, there is art to express emotion.  This is Anya’s specialty.  She drew these two pictures today—one drawn early this morning, before her Dad left for the airport, the other right after. 

I am not artistic, and I don’t know if my kids will be or not.  But their art is certainly memorable, and it’s one of my joys as their mother. 

What art gives you joy???? 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Blogging: Day 1

So here I am, blogging.  I never expected to be a blogger, but then again I wouldn’t have expected a lot of things that have been happening in my life in recent years. 

As my “about me” states, I started this blog to share new perspectives on life.  It’s been such a wild and wooly ride in the past five years, one that included tales of chronic illness, death, and addiction among loved ones.  But these years also included birth, tenure, new projects, healing, and joy in parenting.  All of these have changed me, yet made me more fully myself.  I am working on mindfulness, but can’t seem to silence the cynic in me.  It makes for an interesting set of paradoxical life views at times.  I find myself wanting to share some of the insights, humor, challenges, and sadness that are part of my mid-life process.  I crave creative outlets in general. 

I don’t anticipate a large following, but I hope that the friends and family who do read this blog (along with anyone else who stumbles upon it) get something meaningful or funny out of it, at least now and again.

I begin with pieces written from November 6-18, while I was on a research trip in Austin, TX.  The trip was a lovely period of full-time work, without distractions.  It also gave me the opportunity to miss—really, really miss—my husband, kids, and home.  I’m not sure yet if I missed the cat. 


P.S. The picture is just one of my favorites.  It’s a kind of “family portrait” that was taken during a time of healing and joy after a long and challenging year. 

Coming Home

Things I love about coming home:

1.      Having the kids clean up their rooms in anticipation of my return.

2.      Being back in my own bed.
3.      Coffee.
4.      My rocking chair (particularly knitting in it).

5.      Ordinary moments of my home life.

Things I hate about coming home:

1.      Unpacking.

2.      Doing laundry.
3.      The kids fighting pretty much immediately upon my return.
4.      Discovering unfinished (or messy) things I left behind.
5.      Discovering scary food in the fridge.  

One Stitch.

My neck aches.  My eyes are blurry.  My fingers are stiff.  But, after three (maybe more) different attempts this afternoon, I have completed the first row of my first ever knit sweater.  Knitting this row took me about a half an hour, and it included one weird stitch that I will have to be on the lookout for as I pass through again.  First rows are always hard for me, even in a hat or scarf where I am just knitting every stitch across the first row. 

This first row, however, was excruciating.  I had to knit one stitch, purl one stitch, alternating through the entire row (except for two knit stitches on each end).  With my first two attempts, I dropped purl stitches and couldn’t pick them back up (almost a year into knitting, I still don’t know how).  Unravel, begin again.  On my last attempt, I closed in on the knitting needles, scrutinizing each stitch closely under my glasses.  My eyes are old enough that I can no longer look at things closely through my glasses, which are for distance. 

After several stitches, I started talking—out loud—to myself: “Just one stitch.  Just get this one stitch.  Don’t think about anything else.”  I continued to cheer myself on this way through the entire row.  When I screwed a stitch up (it came out looking doubled over), I kept going.  Thank heavens I had the right number of stitches once I was done!

The reason that I think this row and its story are noteworthy is this: I need to do this much more often in my life.  I am a terrible multi-tasker.  I get overwhelmed and screw up and can’t figure out what’s going wrong.  But, if I take it just “one stitch at a time,” I might get through. 

This revelation is not entirely new.  I’ve decided in recent months that I am going to do as little multi-tasking as possible.  In fact, I often have it on my agenda to “uni-task” my way through each day.  Sometimes life doesn’t allow me to uni-task, and sometimes I forget to do it.  But, I always come back to uni-tasking, because it makes me feel so much more centered whenever I do.  Today’s excruciating first row of Samuel’s sweater (meant for Chanukah, but not likely to get done by then) reminded me of this commitment.  

Knitting is mindfulness with yarn. 

The Benson.

I’ve been working in Austin at the Nettie Lee Benson Collection.  I am living and breathing the research that I am here to do.  No house to distract me.  No kids to demand attention.  No little luxuries to tempt me.  No extra time to waste.  Just work.  Even the knitting I planned to do in the evenings has mostly gone by the wayside—after 5+ hours of taking photos of historical sources, followed by 3 hours of formatting and saving those hundreds of photos in different places…well, by then I am absolutely spent. 

I love libraries.  And oh, the stacks.  I wander around, surrounded by volumes of books.  And at the Benson Collection here in Austin it’s all Latin American books.  Rows upon rows, as far as the eye can see.  Four floors of open stacks.  A hidden set of rare books that one has to order through staff (wouldn’t I love to wander among those books!).  Tens of thousands of rolls of microform.

It makes me a little giddy just thinking about it. 

I used my digital camera (thanks for the suggestion, Marc!) to take 846 images today, from 18 different books, journals, laws, and pamphlets.  I downloaded and organized them on my computer.  I saved an extra copy of the books etc on a memory card.  I am sincerely grateful for the technology that allows me to do as much research in a week and a half as I once would have needed at least two or three months to do.

But, in the end, the technology is just a means to…books.  Once I get past the awe of the stacks, and pick up an individual book, the real magic begins.  First, there is the musty smell of old books and papers.  Then there are the delicate, time-worn pages of each volume of historical materials that I open.  Treasures lie within, containing the voices of people who lived long ago. 

I love old books.

I guess this is one of the reasons that I haven’t yet been able to leave academia, despite the many ways that it makes me crazy and tired.  Who can resist the call of the stacks?  The lure of old printed pages?  The fascinating surprises and discoveries waiting to be found? 

Apparently, not me. 

Trinkets I travel with.

Let me start by saying that I always (absolutely always) bring more than I need whenever and wherever I travel.  I can’t stand the idea of “not having something vital.”  I seek security in things.  I know, I know—I’m working on letting go of that. 

But there are a few truly meaningful things I always have with me when I travel, particularly when I travel alone.  They have joined my travel experiences at different times over the years.  Once they are added to the mix, they seem to be permanent.

The oldest: a small zipped bag that I always use for my jewelry when I travel.  Anyone who knows me knows how important it is to me to have sufficient earrings and rings with me, and possibly a necklace or two as well.  So, it is appropriate that I have a very, very special case in which to put my baubles.  My friend Nancy, one of my oldest and dearest friends, made it for me…well, I don’t know how many years ago.  Many.  Every time I travel, I pull it out and remember that she made this just for me.

Second oldest: My “friend.”  Samuel made this for me when I went to a conference (the Americanistas, for anyone who knows about such things) in Seville in 2006.  It was the first time I was away from the kids for more than a night or two.  I had never been away from Anya, who was then only 17 months old and still nursing.  Samuel made me this friend so that I could “do boring things with him and not be lonely.”  (My boy, then five, had been begging to come with me, and to fend him off, I kept telling him I was just going to do work and “boring things.”)  I take it with me whenever I travel alone.

For the past couple of years: I go nowhere without my journal.  I write in it daily, with few exceptions.  It is my greatest personal tool.  The particular notebook changes, but the process is a saving grace in my life.

Newest addition to the group:  A “god’s eye” that Anya made me.  When she gave it to me a few weeks ago, she told me to bring it with me to Austin to “rememory” her.  (I think that was the word she used).  My sweet, sweet primal child.

Other things come along on every trip, of course—my ipod, too many clothes, novels, scarves (one should never travel without cotton scarves).  But this little group of items pictured above are the ones that can comfort and ground me on any trip, no matter how uncertain or tired or lonely I am.  Because they remind me of what’s really important to me.   

My Thumb

At some point on a four-hour plan ride yesterday, I looked at my thumb…and saw my mother.  It’s a utilitarian, middle-aged digit.  Not as skinny as Mum’s, but the same wrinkles, short nails with ridges, dry skin. 

It’s disturbing. 

I don’t like getting older, looking in the mirror and seeing new sternness in my facial features and wrinkles and gray hair (let’s not start on the body changes, okay?).  However, every once in a while I see my mother in a way that surprises me.  And when I do, aging doesn’t bother me quite so much.

What do I recall from my mother’s hands? 

They were constantly busy.  My mother was rarely still.  Even when she watched television, her hands would be busy, knitting. 

Their rough texture and short nails came from years upon years of scrubbing floors, doing laundry, washing dishes, and tending to babies.  Cleansers were abrasive and took a toll on her skin over time. 

I never knew my mother with young hands.  I was born when she was almost 39.  My daughter will never know my hands young—she was born when I was almost 40. 

Anya told me a few weeks ago that I am getting old because my hands are wrinkled.  And then she admitted that she was worried about this because if I get old I will die.  My sweet girl.  I remember being worried about losing my parents when I was around her age (maybe a little older)…because they were older than most other kids’ parents.  But here I am, at 45.  My mother is 84 and, although weakened, still going.  My Dad died only last year, just short of his 90th birthday.  In contrast, my husband’s father died …I think before he turned 60.  Howard was only 25. 

You never know what life will bring.

Before my father died, my mother spent a lot of time holding his hand.  One of the last times that I saw them together, they were holding hands and singing a song from their youth.  My father had lost almost all touch with reality, but now and then my mother’s touch could bring him back to a different and happier time.  I got a picture of that moment, a little blurry, that I named “true love.”

I spend so much time loathing the aging process, and resisting my tendency to “turn into my mother.”  Today I’d like to take a look at my thumb and celebrate this process. 

My hands are always busy.  Typing.  Knitting.  Cooking.  Sometimes cleaning.  Opening books for my children and bringing them to new imaginary worlds.  Opening old documents and searching them for clues about the past.  Taking pictures to capture ordinary moments that fascinate me.

My thumb.