Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Quarantine: Siblings

When you are an only child and spend a year in your house because of a pandemic, you start talking frequently with your cat and your dog.  You build alliances, which fracture and dissolve and are built again.  You have a buddy one day who is a frenemy the next.  This week Owen is pro-Maple and anti-Plum. 

Plum, about to turn 16, is an old man who likes his sleep.  He does NOT like when people tread past him repeatedly and noisily.  He’ll put up with one or two times, three or four perhaps, but the fifth time he will be forced to show you how rude you are being.  He will puff his tail up and start marching angrily towards Owen, upon which Owen will get treed on the couch and call out, “Mom!  Plum is trying to attack me!”  And I – I admit – will giggle a bit before going to Owen’s rescue.  I’ll walk in the living room and find Owen backed into a corner on the couch, while Plum lectures him on all he is doing wrong, before going in for the slap.  (In Plum’s defense, he doesn’t just pick on the child:  he’ll do the same thing to Sean when it is a rainy day and Sean is trying to get his steps in.  Plum will attempt to cut Sean off at the pass, upon which they’ll have a mock boxing match which ends up in a purr and cuddle.)


Owen’s relationship with Maple is more of a competition.  I’ve learned, while out on a walk, that the easiest way to get Owen to speed it up a little is to have Maple walk beside him while I remark, “She’s ahead by a nose!”  Instantly Owen breaks into a trot!


Owen cannot pass up the chance to mansplain something to Maple, and this morning I overheard him telling Maple that the reason why Plum always had food in his bowl and Maple does not is that Maple does not understand the meaning of the phrase “save for later.”  Indeed she does not, as Owen continued, “know what the phrase means when used in a sentence.”  Owen is always happy, though, to take Maple out into the yard to putter.  I’ll check outside frequently and find them playing sometimes together and sometimes apart, and problems only arise when they both want to play with the same stick.  And even then, it is a skirmish that ends in zoomies, so all’s well that ends well.


Plum wondering if peace and quiet is too much to ask?

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Quarantine: The Commute

It is never a good sign, when you are driving home from a long day at work, to realize that there are four helicopters hovering overhead.  I saw them above and at first tried to pretend that they were really to the left of where my road was going, but soon enough reality invaded this fantasy and I was stuck making the slow choice, along with all other traffic, of turning left or right instead of continuing straight.  I was in a part of Philadelphia that I didn’t know much about other than I didn’t really want to be there, lost, after dark, even in a locked vehicle.  But after choosing to go right, I didn’t have any decisions to make, since we were all moving an inch to the hour down twisting semi-residential streets.

I decided to call my husband, a Philadelphia native, to see if he could help me navigate.  My thinking was that he could look at where I was on his “find my phone” feature and then yell directions at me, like “For the love of god, don’t go down that street!”  Or maybe:  “Turn left!  Left!  No, the other left!”  Etc.  Strangely enough, however, Sean wasn’t so keen on this idea.  He reminded me that our car had a garmin navigator and suggested that I use it.  But forcing me to make a dangerous U-turn only to take me back to the main road still closed off by police and ambulances and mayhem sounded like just the thing our garmin would do.  (We often fight, garmin and I.)


Sean then told me to choose the address of his workplace in the garmin and then once I had headed in that direction for many miles, click my ruby slippers and tell garmin I want to go home.  This is what I did, even though this entailed driving white-knuckled in the middle lane of a seven-lane highway, trying to figure out how to get to the left lane to make a left turn while garmin got increasingly disappointed in me.


At one point too I heard a ding from the Subaru dashboard, upon which a message came up that said something along the lines of, “It has now been two hours since you put your key in the ignition!”  Thanks for pointing that out, car; time flies when you are having fun.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021


I am generally a serviceable cook, in that I can follow a recipe and have whatever I’m making (mostly) turn out.  There are exceptions to this rule, however, one being pie (damn you, pie crust!), and the other being cheesecakes.  I would say 3 out of 5 cheesecakes I make turn out perfectly, and the other 2 end up edible but nothing you’d serve to someone proudly.

(Which reminds me:  years ago in my twenties I made a cheesecake for a book group I was in, and it turned out an absolute disaster.  However, since I was in my twenties, it didn’t really occur to me NOT to bring it, and to, say, pick something up at a bakery on my way there.  Instead I brought the brick of a gloppy cheesecake to the meeting and served it miserably.  I think I was hoping that it wasn’t as bad as it so obviously was.  It’s something that now appears in my head from time to time:  why did I bring that cheesecake?)


A couple of months ago I kept reading about the Basque cheesecake that you cook at a high temperature for a short amount of time and it gets all blackened on the outside.  This appealed to me so much that I even got a special little six-inch pan to make it in.  I used a recipe from the blog, The Little Epicurean.  This one is more of a basque-esque cheesecake, since she very wisely added a crust made from ‘nilla wafers.  (I mean, is not the crust the best part?  I think if I got served a crust-less cheesecake I’d cry a little.)  Anyway, this was one of my 3 out of 5’s:  it was a beautiful little thing with an almost feathery texture.  I recommend.


I’ve been eyeing a recipe for a mocha cheesecake in my New York Times cookbook, and will make it someday, even though I don’t really like chocolate in my cheesecake or cheesecake in my chocolate.  Amanda Hesser’s description of this cake however – how she thought it was too rich, but her husband got angry when she threw out the last piece, so she included it in the book as a peace offering – means that I will have to try it at some point. 


Instead I saw a recipe saved on my Instagram site from the website Kitchn for a sweet potato cheesecake.  It was a modestly sized cheesecake – it only called for 3 boxes of cheese, as compared to the 5 required for the mocha cheesecake – so I gave it a whirl.  My cheesecake fairy godmother had gone on break, though, for this cake was not at all magical.  First there was a grand canyon of a crack running across the top, despite all the different things they have you do to prevent this happening.  And the cheesecake itself was fine, except that here and there were little nodules of cream cheese and occasionally even of sweet potato.  My guess is I did not let the cheese soften enough before mixing.  The crust was great, but I will not be saving this recipe.


My college friend and I were texting not too long ago about baking, and she mentioned some cheesecake I used to make that, apparently, was very good, yet I have zero memory of repeatedly making a good cheesecake around the time we lived together in Boston!  It’s a mystery.  I think there was a ricotta cheesecake in one of the Moosewood cookbooks that I made from time to time, so surely this must be it?  But she thinks it was not ricotta.  It’s a cheesecake mystery.

The Basque Cheesecake:

it's supposed to look like this!



Monday, February 1, 2021

She Ain't Never Caught A Rabbit

Now that the weather is cold, Maple loves to go for a walk.  And she loves even more to go on a walk through the forest.  We take her on a 3.5 mile forest walk once or twice a week and she gets so excited about it.  She starts tracking the minute we get out of the car, and being a stubborn girl, it is very hard to get her to move on when she has found herself an interesting scent.  When she is really serious about a scent, she does this thing where she’ll stand on three legs, but kind of leans down on her folded right front elbow – it makes her nose closer to the scent.

She thinks she should be allowed to drink from the creek whenever she is thirsty, and if that isn’t allowed, any muddy puddle will do.  Once after a big rain storm there was a spring burbling up from the ground where she got a fresh drink, and now she finds and checks out that spot each time we pass it by, although it has long gone dry.


She loves to say hello to any dog we pass, and loves even more to say hello to people.  She’ll immediately show her belly to any person who looks her way.  And what she likes even more is if someone we pass has met her before and says, “Hello, Maple!”  She’s an extrovert in a family of introverts.


She is a mostly very sweet and funny girl, who doesn’t so much want to please us, as she wants us to be pleased with what she has already decided to do.  Perhaps that’s a hound dog trait? 


She IS a friend of mine.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Quarantine: De-Loccer

Four days a week, Owen and I have lunch together.  We used to go outside and eat on our “deck”, such as it is, but now it is too cold for that, so we eat indoors and then go outside for some exercise, and rosy cheekiness, and to give Maple some yard time.  Plum is an indoor cat only, but sometimes we start the excursion by being Plum’s rickshaw-walla and bring him outside to sniff the breezes.  I don’t put him down, and he purrs the entire time he’s out there.  He seems to appreciate a brief change in scenery, and if I hold him up to any kind of greenery whatsoever, he will eat it.  It’s his party trick.

Owen and I are currently in the midst of a tournament for a game we call de-loccer.  It is kind of like soccer, and kind of like football, and it involves a lot of cheating and shoving and laughing.  The best part of the game is that you never know when the mahogany snitch might come and grab the ball and run like a bullet in increasingly large circles.  If you are losing, you can call on the Snitch to do just that and shake up the game a little.  Maple is surprisingly fast, considering that her legs are about four inches long.  


We have two very close together trees we use as goal posts:  if you kick the ball in you get 2 points, and if you throw the ball in, you get a ha’point.  This usually causes one or both of us to burst out into the holiday song sung by muppets and involving a ha’penny.  You know the one.  The last time we played, it was 12.5 to 12 and I was victorious.  Need I explain that the victor gloats?  Today Owen won by 2.5 points.  The game is over when Owen is due back in virtual school, or I need my afternoon coffee, whichever comes first.  We feed the birds on the way in, and usually have to go get a spoonful of peanut butter to lure in the hound dog, who is convinced that the seed and nuts newly strewn on the picnic table should instead be in her gullet.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Quarantine: The Chipmunk 911

 During the first few months of the quarantine last spring, my office was the kitchen.  My work laptop was set up on the kitchen table each morning, and dismantled at night, our much-magneted refrigerator featured prominently in zoom meetings, and I could chat to myself while getting a drink of water at our kitchen sink.  Back then we were novices at the whole virtual school bit, so we had Owen set up at the computer upstairs, not realizing yet that if he were to pay any attention whatsoever we had to be monitoring him like a hawk.  Instead I sat at the afore-mentioned kitchen table and enjoyed watching the birds – and occasional hawk – out the kitchen window.

I’ve long fed the birds and squirrels in our back yard daily, but now I had the opportunity to watch all the activity around the birdfeeder.  It was definitely a perk of quarantine!  I got to observe my favorite titmice and red-bellied woodpeckers, and I became particularly fond of a chipmunk who lived under our porch, and made a little running trail from the porch corner to the shed corner and over to the feeder.  From April through June I’d watch the little guy peek out from his den and scamper to the shed, resting on the stone steps and enjoying what we called his patio, a wooden upright stake that he’d perch on before returning full-cheeked back from the feeder.


Occasionally I’d put some fruit or seeds out on an unused old picnic table we inherited from the previous owners, and he would easily climb up and enjoy a raspberry.  (So too, I was surprised to see, did our resident yard woodchuck, who I would have thought was too portly to climb onto a table.  She was not.)  I was very fond of the chipmunk, and felt he was my quarantine buddy.


Guess who else liked to observe the bird/chipmunk activity in our yard?  The cats from up the street.  Whenever we’d see a cat, I’d call out and Owen would come whooping down the stairs and Maple would come howling from her bed and we’d all go and chase the cats away with noise and motion and raised fists.  Until one day, when a tabby got smart and approached the feeder from the other direction.


I saw a whirl of activity out of the corner of my eye, realized it was a cat running towards a dove, and gave a little shriek.  The tabby, startled, turned towards me and there, to my horror, was my beloved chipmunk limp in the cat’s mouth.  Reader, I wailed.  It might even have been a loud scream.  At any rate, it was such an anguished sound that Sean, who was upstairs at the time, figured that something deadly was happening to me, Owen, or Maple.  He thus grabbed his phone, so disturbed at the sounds coming from downstairs, and dialed 911.  He then ran and found Owen completely fine in virtual school, and ran downstairs and saw me physically fine yet in mourning for my striped fellow.  He had to tell the 911 operator that his wife and son (and dog) were fine, that the outburst had been over the sad fate of a chipmunk.  Much giggling ensued from the operator, and much wrath from Sean.


It was a long time before I could laugh at the incident.  It played out over and over in my head.  I kept seeing the cat turn in slow motion, the spiked corona virus himself, and face me, maskless and isolated and vulnerable.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Book Reviews December 2019

Eileen by Ottesa Moshfegh.  At first I strongly disliked this novel.  Everything was so ugly!  By the end, however, I felt a slightly grudging admiration for what Moshfegh had achieved.  The narrator, Eileen, is writing about a time in her early adulthood when she was stuck in a horrible home with a horrible job and a horrible mindset.  Things come to a head and she escapes, but oh!  The ugliness!

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos.  This was an interesting nonfiction book about an intense love affair. Febos is a good writer and the book reminded me of a modern day version of Marguerite Duras's The Lover.  I do recommend.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.  I loved this novel.  It takes place way in the north of Russia and each chapter focuses on a different woman in the city.  All have links in various ways and in each chapter there is a reference to the events of the first chapter in which two sisters are kidnapped.  Phillips's writing is really impressive and it was a fascinating read.

The Problem With Everything by Meghan Daum.  I generally really enjoy Meghan Daum's writing.  She's two years younger than I am and always seemed to me to be a smart voice of generation X.  I thought she was a little "off" in this book, however -- a little grumpy and a little wrong.  She's writing about the #metoo movement and thinks that people need to buck up.  I think she willfully misconstrues the point and that we perhaps need to temporarily pass though an extreme to reach an equilibrium.  I don't quite agree with her slant, and found it an odd topic on which to base an entire book of essays.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Windgate.  This was a fun read although not hugely nuanced.  It goes back and forth between a family in the 30's who lived on a houseboat and whose kids were kidnapped by a state agency and adopted out to wealthy couples (a true story), and a modern day southern political family who discovers the truth about these origins.

The Bird Boys by Lisa Sandlin.  I read this on the recommendation of the New York Times's Marilyn Stasio, but I didn't like it.  It's about a detective, Phelan, and receptionist, Delpha, who have an agency in Texas in the sixties.  They get hired to find a missing brother and solve a few crimes in the process.  The writing is good and the story interesting enough; it just wasn't my style.

Too Much and Not The Mood by Durga Chew-Bose.  People love this book of essays, but I did not.  Her style is very stream of consciousness and veers from subject to subject in a way that I found frustrating.  It was simultaneously too personal and too random, and to me an unenjoyable read.

The Second Sister by Claire Kendal.  My response to this was similar to the Wingate novel above:  a good read if a bit improbable and a bit under-developed.  Ella's sister disappeared ten years ago leaving an infant behind.  Ella has spent the last ten years raising her nephew with her parents and searching for her sister.  The story involves two serial killers and a sudden confluence of events.