Tender Parmesan

My first memories of the power and pull of cooking were born in my grandmother’s kitchen.

I’m not sure if it’s partly or wholly genetic, if it seeped into my blood and hands osmosisically, or if it has anything at all to even to do with nature, nurther, or neither. But I remember that kitchen and all of the food that came out of it. I remember big family meals, and smaller, quieter ones on weeknights. On nights I got to sleep over, I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of pancakes sizzling in the pan. On many an evening, I was lifted in my grandma’s arms just high enough so I could stir the sauce, and on summer Saturdays, it was to reach a strawberry from the army of flats waiting to be jammified.

But the significant days–the days whose tiny hands reached out to me and wrapped their fingers around my heart– were Sundays. For most of my childhood, Sundays were spent at my grandparents house “for dinner,” which was an all-day affair. Spoiler alert: we’re Italian.

My mom’s whole extended family moved from New York to Southern California when she was a teenager, so while born and raised just outside of L.A., I grew up in a sort of sunny version of Little Italy. My grandfather was a meticulous gardener, and I don’t know the history of how they landed their great little house, but it was small on dwelling and huge on yard. The lot was enormous, and it was filled with fruit trees. In the summer, when the trees were heavy with apricots, peaches, and plums, all the cousins climbed up inside them, and for hours and hours, we picked fruit.

Those fruit-picking days were great, and you could almost always find a game of croquet or Yahtzee happening; but for me, all the action was in the kitchen. Like I said, the house was small, and thinking back to those days, I can’t believe the meals my grandmother produced from that tiny space. The kitchen wasn’t a galley exactly, but there wasn’t room for more than one person at the stove, and the refrigerator was in its own little alcove, through a little doorway, on the way  to the backdoor. There was room for one to move between the sink and the stove, and across the room, in another little alcove, there was a small round table covered in a lace tablecloth, which was my grandfather’s grating station. There was no room to stand and loiter, and my grandparents, while incredibly warm and kind, were pretty much all business. And food was no exception. Cooking and eating were a serious endeavor. There was no hanging around in the kitchen shooting the shit, and I don’t remember anyone ever in there “helping.” My grandma was some kind of lone wolf cooking machine, now that I think about it.

But while there was no standing room, there was  a small stool–one of those old fashioned kinds with the slide out step underneath–right next to the stove, filling up exactly the eighteen-ish inches there was between the stove and the doorway. That was my favorite spot in the house. And if I was quiet and behaved like a little lady as opposed to an ill-behaved wild animal, I got to sit there. Mostly I watched, but I think my grandma knew how much I loved being in there, because whenever she could, she gave me little jobs. Sometimes that meant occupying the grating station to chop carrots or put olives in a bowl, and sometimes–more often than not–it entailed watching the sauce, and, when needed, giving it a little stir. When I got old enough, I was the designated pasta taster, testing for doneness, and as I grew through the years in that kitchen, the one constant was being invited into my grandpa’s lap to help with the cheese grating.

My grandparents didn’t have a lot of money, and I have no idea if they ever splurged on a single thing in their whole lives. But one thing they didn’t scrimp on was parmesan. It was perfect in every way. Just the right amount of dryness, nutty, light as fresh fallen snow when grated, with just the faintest sheen of oil on the outside of the block. My grandfather used a box grater with a plate underneath, and when he was usually about halfway done, he’d invite me off of my perch to come help him. What it really was was an excuse to let me eat the chunky bits that fell off the grater, but those afternoons grating cheese with my grandfather are the closest I’ve ever gotten to cognizant transcendence and pure joy. No matter what was going in my little child heart and head, all my pain went away in those moments. With every grate, the cheese fell to shards on the plate, and in return, I was made whole.

I’m old(er) now, and my grandparents are long since gone. I’m not sure how or when it started, but over and through the years I have built and found my heart beating right in the center of my own kitchen. Food equaled love for me long before I was old or smart enough to realize it. It wasn’t obvious or forced upon me, and I was never made to feel it was a debt to be repaid. It was an act of complete selflessness and the essence of pure generosity.

I know now, looking back on all the dinners, that while words have come up lacking more often than not, a hot bowl of polenta never has. I’ve said I Love You to many friends with braised short ribs on a rain-soaked night, and I’ve gotten to have my own family in my own kitchen, with a simmering pot of sauce on the stove. My kitchen’s a little but not much bigger than my grandparents’, and unlike theirs, it’s often full of people milling around and shooting the shit with drinks in their hands.

And as I look around my little kitchen space that I got to design just how I wanted it, I see that without even realizing it, I built into it, off to the side at the far end, in a little alcove, my very own grating station.

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The root canal

I hate the dentist.

It’s not because I’m a coward or a chicken. I’m strong LIKE a girl (that’s right, not FOR a girl; I know what’s viral), and I can withstand a high level of pain. I’m no pussy. But when it comes to the dentist, I am basically a big fat baby. Everything the dentist does hurts. Spraying “air” on my teeth? I’d rather break a bone. “Tapping” with that pointy picky instrument of destruction at my gums? Torture. That new shooting water thing they use to clean your teeth that is like a high-powered stream of liquid nitrogen? Excruciating.

My teeth are sensitive to air, liquid, hot, cold, temperate; chewing anything crunchy, soft, hard, or medium; and to any level of touching. Breathing with my mouth open hurts (thankfully). Aside from causing my heart to race and sweat to drain from every pore of my body at the speed of breaking the sound barrier, novocaine does little except dull the pain for about six and a half seconds. There are spots in my mouth that, when touched, make me feel like I’m being electrocuted. I’ve asked every dentist I’ve ever had to replace my teeth with titanium studs, and I’m not joking. Sadly, none have agreed.

The unfortunate part of all of this is that I have shit teeth. I’m pretty sure every tooth in my head was filled by the time I could spell, and to date I’ve had two root canals and just about every molar is crowned. I’ve had each quadrant (dentist speak, yo) redone, which means old fillings excavated and new ones put in, at least four times. You’d think I’ve paid my dues. And yet, those little bastard remnants rot and die. I also grew up with a sadistic dentist who literally tortured me (so: MEMORIES. TRAUMA.), but that’s a whole nuther motha, people. Not happening today.

Anyway, a couple of months ago I started having the kind of pain you get in a tooth where you know  you are being sent a signal from some deep primitive place in your cells that you don’t want to hear from. The pain critter that is like a physical manifestation of morse code for “something bad is on the horizon.” It starts out worse than the normal everyday live-with-it pain, and it builds. First it hurts more than usual when cold things hit it, and then it bleeds into warm and hot things, and then throbbing happens. And then, you can’t sleep.

When I get this type of tooth pain I go into a state of denial that I should like to bottle and sell. I can deny the shit out this tooth pain and convince myself that this pain isn’t really that bad. And, it’s probably going to GO AWAY. Hahahahahahahaha!!!!

Over the course of the next ten days I proceeded to behave like a normal person. I ingested all the pain pills I had in the house from every surgery I’d ever incurred, and somehow managed to not die. Next, I  broke down and went to see the dentist, who prescribed a course of antibiotics, which I made my way through with the help of my friend Mr. Makers. Moaning and more sleepless nights happened, but no pain cessation. Finally, I called the endodontist.

By the time I arrived at the office of the endodontist, I was a little worked. I was in so much pain at this point that my brain was bubbling. I didn’t look very, um, fresh, let’s just say. And also, I was already sweating cuz dentistry was about to happen. The very nice dental assistant sweetly ignored my visage, showed me in, the doctor came in and examined me, and we all agreed that the best course of action was to go ahead and do the root canal that second.

I crazily turned to the nice lady and said, “YOU HAVE TO GAS ME!” She looked at me like I was some kind of wild animal. “Nitrous,” I managed. I think clarifying that I wasn’t asking her to kill me calmed her down, and she helped me understand that yes, they had the nitrous, and that yes, she would give it to me. The doctor then proceeded with the things: sunglasses, iPod+ headphones, tilting me back in the chair, and shooting me up.

As soon as the novocaine hit my bloodstream, I basically turned into this:

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Dentist: Whoa there, how are you doing?

Me: I’m really hot.

Dentist: I can see that. How bout we clear out of here for a little bit and let you get some air while that novocaine does its job?

With that, he turned tail. The nurse set up THE TRAY, hooked me up to the nitrous, and she was right behind him.

Me: loooong yoga breaths. Cold but hot too. Sweating, sweating, sweating.

And then one of the nitrous delivery tubes sprang from it’s connector location and started flying around the room. I panicked and tried to grab it but it was like a chicken wing springing free. I hit the tray with the instruments, and sent them flying. Then the other nitrous tube flew out. Room filling up with nitrous, dentist tray with all those instruments all lined up in rows crashing to the floor. Loud and quiet and fast and slow. And now very, very, very sweaty.

The nice nurse ran in to address the commotion, and said only, “Oh my,” and then shut the door. “You don’t want us on the nitrous too, do you?! Though, that might be fun!” Then she went to work like a squirrel in the fourth dimension. Nitrous off; tubes reconnected; then back on; instruments off floor and whisked into some re-clean-later chamber; new tray out, replete with proper rows. Door open.

An hour later I was on my way and completely out of pain. I vowed to thank them by choosing a new endodontist next time. Cuz I know there’ll be a next time. Because at the end of the day I know that this root canal is how it’s going to be; how its always been. The pain comes in waves, small at first, and then big enough to knock you over and drag you out to sea. And if you’re lucky and strong enough, and most importantly, interested enough, you fight your way back to the shore. Maybe you even pause a few times along the way, rest in the sea’s arms, lie back, look up, take note of how weird and hard it is to be human and alive. Then, when you’re ready, gathering up the strength you can and swimming back.

 

 

 

Don’t write. Just type.

So…. yeeeeah, we’re home. Sad face.

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Had I written this two days, or even possibly four days after we got back, I might (MIGHT) have said, So, hey, yeah! We’re home! Yay! Yay us! Yay Seattle! Yay house! But, alas, the window of gladness was narrow and short-lived (except for Yay, Tigger! (our cat)).

We rounded the bend between the bays that officially mark, “we’re almost home,” (Shilshole and Elliott), Sunday before last, and it felt like when you’re eight and staring down the first day back to school after summer break. Like you want to kill yourself. Only when you’re eight you don’t want to kill yourself (because hi. birthdays). A less dramatic articulation of the we’re-home devastation is that we wanted to just keep on sailing. Past our bay, past all the bays, and back out. To wherever.

For background: Besides a really amazing vacation, we approached this trip as a shakedown cruise. We wanted to go and experience the adventure of course, but we also wanted to stress-test ourselves and the boat for bigger trips. Longer trips. For leaving it all behind and facing the ocean. That’s right. We aspire to live the dream. You heard me.

Now, before you get all eye-rolly, just give me a second. Because I know. I know how that sounds. I know the wincing, eye-squinting, one-shoulder-creeping-up-under-your-earlobe. I know the breaking out in a rash. I know the disappointed, I-don’t-like-you-anymore-which-is-too-bad-cuz-I-had-started-to-and-I-mostly-don’t-like-anyone thoughts that are floating around in your head about me right about now because I’m not who you thought I was (i.e., someone you like). And I totally get it. I have that reaction to pretty much everything in life. Ev.Ah.Ree.Thing.

But hear me out. This isn’t the result of some Oprah-ism (at least not directly, but very possible directly. Or indirectly. Nevermind about it not being about Oprah.) or a passing whim (read: I’m going to learn carpentry! I should go to med school!) This is real, bitches. I know talking about and actually doing a thing like sailing to Tahiti or the Bahamas or Hawaii or the Mediterranean or [insert seemingly out of reach yet amazebalz destination here], while seemingly sexy and cool, and definitely something you should do before it’s too late so you don’t rot away at a job you hate and have no joy and then die, is almost always just the thing you think and dream and talk about but never do. So, in addition to doing all the thinking and dreaming and talking, we knew the only way to find out if we really wanted to do it was to start doing it.

So, the trip.

And I know that while thirty days and five-hundred-ish nautical miles is no crossing of the Pacific, it’s also not nothing. Thirty days. Thirty-eight feet of “living” space. Ninety-ish gallons of fresh water. Two burners in a foot-and-a-half-long “kitchen.” Stinky pump-outs that stink and don’t work. No freezer. Fiercely high-wind anchorages. Angry old men in their PJs yelling at you to turn off your generator. Fifty-knot winds. Dinghy repairing. Oar losing. Gas dock skirmishes. Conflict resolution. Trials of perseverance and patience and testing our resolve, skills, and emotional boundaries. And love, love, loving all of it and each other all along the way.

It’s not selling our clothes and our house and our car, but it was a step. It was also the trip we knew would lead us to the big answer, which I’m happy to report is Yes.

There will always be scary things, and I know that that’s good. Fear keeps us safe and alive. A very wise man reminded me recently that scary things become not scary once you master them, and on their heels is a big long list of new scary things that will be scary until you learn them too. It’s only when you stop being scared of the things and the list that it’s time to be scared. And I know he’s right.

Before the trip I was scared to be in 20 mph winds. I was scared of dropping the anchor and pulling it in and of Canadian border patrol agents rapping on the side of our boat in the middle of a GIANT STORM to ask us our clearance number. I was scared to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I was scared to write because I believed that everything I write will go down in the Hall of Worst and Most Embarrassing Things Ever Written and I will be finally once and for all revealed as a failure. And then a very inspiring and supportive friend who knows just what to say and when to say it sent me four words: don’t write. just type.

So, I’m working the list.

Wake

I have a gene that enables me to withstand inordinate levels of heat–both spice and temperature–in food and drink. What this translates to is the consumption of large amounts of hot sauce, peppers, chilies, horseradish, wasabi, etc., and eating food that is rarely hot enough by the time it leaves the oven or cooktop and makes it to my plate.

Coffee? Forget about it. I think I’ve experienced two times in my entire life taking a sip of coffee that felt hot to me, and both times the actual temperature could probably have melted a star. I’m not right.

I accept this condition however, with neutrality. I neither wear like a badge of honor nor etch into my psyche an emblem that I’m somehow less than, due to the fact that being asked how many stars I want my Thai food feels like being asked, How vast is the ocean?

Sure, I’d like hotter coffee, and even more so, eggs, but I’d also like to play piano like Rachmaninoff. I’ve learned to live with disappointment.

Separately, but somehow similarly in my mind, I don’t have the gene for spatial relationships. I’m a visual learner, so if the thing at hand is drawn out (well) and accompanied by thorough, clear, and correct instructions, I can usually get or assemble whatever it is over time with enough study and practice. But. If there are no pictures, and/or no (or poorly written) instructions, I’m f*cked.

Here’s Loren: open the box, toss aside the instructions, take out the pieces, barely look at them, put it all together, go start using it, or go do something else fun.

Here’s me: take out and read in their entirety, the instructions. Take all the parts and pieces, count them (cross-checking with the instructions), and put them into discreet piles. Go back to the instructions and start from the beginning. Get hung up on step one because it doesn’t make sense and the picture looks like it belongs in a kit on how not to draw things. (What is this arrow pointing to? Is this the long screw thing, or the medium one? Which side is the back? What is this black dot?) Get frustrated. Re-read the instructions. Force pieces into one another through the first two thirds to three quarters of the steps, only to discover I’ve assembled the whole thing backwards, upside down, or otherwise completely wrong. Go get wine.

Im 48, and I never mastered the Rubik’s Cube. You do the math.

Last Saturday marked the beginning of week four of our sailing trip, and it came in with a wee bit of bad weather. Winds reached, we found out two days later, 90 knots on the mainland (Vancouver). They experienced their worst power outage in a decade. The drought over the past year has dried out the soil, weakening root systems. Branches and leaves became sails, toppling countless trees onto cars and homes. We heard reports of people anchoring their boats and heading to shore, only to find out later their anchors gave out, and their boats went aground.

Meanwhile, we had had amazing weather for the first three weeks. Hot, hot sun balls, clear skies, and warm, swimmable water. We did not see this coming.

That day started out like every other day before it, and by 5:30 we’d settled into a nice big bay. We were all alone, in perfectly settled weather. It was idyllic. Flanked by busy coves packed with boats, we were doubly happy with our choice of anchoring in the cove of a privately held island, as we had no plans to go shore excursioning that night.

We’d set the hook, cleaned the cockpit, and coiled the lines. Chores done, we were on to contemplating happy hour and dinner. First though, for some reason I still don’t know, I checked the weather.

Hmmmm, that’s weird, I said. They’re predicting 30-knot winds tonight.

And so it began. We surveyed our position in the bay with regard to exposure and wind direction. The mouth of the bay faced the direction from which the wind would be coming, and there wasn’t enough depth in the protected end. We couldn’t stay.

We hauled up the anchor and set out to find shelter. Every time I checked the weather, the predicted wind speed was higher. By 7:00, three anchorages and the most protected bay we could hope for later, we were in for the night. Winds were predicted to hit 45-50 knots.

There are few topics as debated amongst sailors as how to properly anchor. The short answer is get the heaviest anchor you can afford to carry, add a line, and make sure the bitter end is attached to your boat.

The debate between that and all the other theories is endless, but all things considered, our approach is a good anchor that’s weighted for our boat, all-chain rode, a minimum of 3:1 scope, and 100% agreement that 1) we grabbed; and 2) we’re confident we can sleep. At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance between art and science, but if we both sign off, we stay.

Until this trip, I wasn’t the anchor-dropper; I took the helm. We’d find the spot, survey the depth, check for swing, consult the tides, and then Loren would go up and dropped the anchor, and I reversed the boat until the hook was set. Aside: After many anchorings and much yelling, we invested in a set of walkie talkies. Money well spent is an understatement.

But like everything, at some point you have to learn, so about two and a half weeks ago, we began swapping. Loren took the helm, and I started dropping the hook.

It sounds easy enough, I know, but there are angles involved. Also, a big heavy chain that, unless you control it, drops very, very quickly. There are marks on the chain you have to track while you’re lowering it so you know how deep you’ve gone. You have to know when the anchor is on the bottom and when/if it grabs and sets (good), or if it’s dragging on the bottom (bad).

Finally, when all of this is done, and if all went well, and the anchor is properly set, you have to put onto the chain something called a snubber. This is sort of like a steroided-up bungee cord that absorbs some of the shock from the chain as your boat bounces around in waves and wind.

Without a snubber, you’re fine, but you have to listen to the chain creaking and grinding and dragging around the sea floor all night, which is unnerving, and also a little like sleeping in a Vincent Price movie.

The first time I put the snubber on by myself, I think it took me a half an hour. I’m absolutely certain a very small child could do it in about two minutes. This is not a complicated operation. Unlike my ability to reason through a math problem.

The snubber has a shackle on each end, connecting a long, stretchy cord covered by essentially a webbing-like sheath. You hook one shackle onto a link in the chain, secure the chain, pull up some more chain so you have an excess, then hook the second shackle onto another link of chain so you have about eight inches or a foot of chain hanging freely between the snubber. Then you drop all of that line and snubber business over the bow but not into the water.

So, the snubber absorbs the chain stress, and that night when you go to bed, you hear silence instead of the ghost of Christmas past rattling around 5-inches from your head.

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I wouldn’t say it was the scariest storm I could imagine. I’ve seen pictures and read enough stories of sailors enduring hurricanes to know there are MUCH worse storms to weather, but it was a good starter storm. Our anchor bit (every time), and I got a lot of practice with my latest figure-this-out-without-written-instructions-or-pictures project.

The wind blew at what felt like a lot more than the actual 50-knots it gusted through our cove, and we hung tight for two days. I don’t think EV budged an inch.

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It’ll be a week tomorrow that the storm hit. We’ve anchored four of those six nights. I just came in from dropping the anchor. I snubbed it in approximately five minutes. I’m not sure, and I don’t want to brag, but I think I might now officially know some algebra.

Some days you find a nice cove to stay in

And some days you see HUMPBACK WHALES!

Two days ago we were sailing back across the Strait of Georgia, and it was that kind of perfect day where you don’t know what else to say except things like, “Hot damn, is this the perfect day, or what?!” And, “It doesn’t get much better than this.” I felt like my grandpa with these banal but benign nice-isms, and I didn’t care because the sun was out, the sky was blue, the wind was perfect, and we sailed for miles on one tack (which means no turning). It looked like this.

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We were en route from Lund to Namaimo via an amazingly beautiful island named Lasquetti. We loved that island so much in fact, that we had to stop and get real. Find a spot to stop and stay for eight years, or push on. This island is amazing, people. There’s a lot of beauty up here, but this, It’s like Portugal and Aspen had a baby and named it Lasquetti Island. You want it to be the Lasquetti Triangle so you have an excuse to disappear there.

Anyway, we frittered around and soaked it up like sun, but we opted to push on. Nanaimo or bust.

We had to detour the roundabout way because the torpedo range was in operation (this is real). And then I saw something big lift out of the water about 20 feet off the bow of the boat.

This was not like a, Oh, did you see that fish jump? Or, look! Porpoises! So cute. Or, Hi, Mr. Sea lion. No, no, no.

This was like, WTF WAS THAT?! And then two seconds later, two big spouts of water off the left side of the bow. WHALES, I shouted!!!! Whales! I looked at Loren and he looked like me. Shaking and speechless and crazy with joy. And that was the beginning of our next hour.

No other boats even took notice. It was just us and a few humpback whales for the next hour or so. We shadowed them quietly and watched them dive down and come up to breathe, and dive again, and a few times they flashed us their giant tails on the way back down.

Each time they dove, they stayed down a little longer than the time before, but they kept surfacing nearby, and we kept finding them.

Finally, though, after they’d crossed back into the bay they came out of and headed back up north, they were gone from our sight.

Our hearts still pounding after all the time that had passed when it was just us and them, we watched the water and held on to one another the way you do when grace happens.

Given to fly

Three weeks and one day ago I jumped out of an airplane.

It was my dad’s idea. Loren and I were visiting my parents over the holidays last year, and one evening, at some point over dinner, I asked my dad what he wanted to do for his birthday, and without missing a beat, he answered: jump out of airplane.

I couldn’t get the brussel sprout down fast enough.
Me: “I’ll go!”
Loren: “I’ll go!”
Mom: “I’ll stay on the ground and take the pictures!”

Now, when your father, who’s “almost seventy-five years old and can do whatever the f*ck he wants,” says he wants to skydive for his birthday, you a) deliver; and b) don’t wait eight months. Lets just say two outta three ain’t bad.

Eight months later, this happened.

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When you’re out sailing for a month, you end up with a lot of time on your hands. We’ve talked about a lot of things, and one thing we talked about the other day was regret. It’s not like either of us has an insurmountable pile, but we’re neither of us robots.

We’re human beings in the middle of our lives, and we’re the thinker, feeler, do-er types. We have some. One of mine is not being a writer. There’s a little hole in my soul that writing fills that feels like a partially healed stitched wound. It flares up–it bleeds and then stops, bruises, heals, nags, quiets. It’s not going to kill me, but it’ll never go away.

Most of the time it’s fine, but there are times of acute struggle. Times when I not only want more from language, but more from myself. The wanting to express the inexpressible is the expansiveness of the universe.

It’s what it feels like to fall from 14,000 feet without being in a THING. It’s wolves and orcas and all of the wheat. It’s everything wild. It’s feeling every cell but not knowing how to articulate the connections.

It’s also, I learned this week, Princess Louisa Inlet.

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You access this inlet by boat or plane only, and after six hours (if you’re in a boat) up three arms, and across a set of “rapids,” which is a skinny, dog-legged, current-addled channel, you arrive in this fjord that is more beautiful than anything. Except maybe Yosemite. It’s a 6,000-foot high, glacial-topped mountain valley springing straight up from the 72-degree water, fed by various runoff and waterfalls, the biggest of which tumbles into a set of pools at the mouth of the canyon.

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Being in that valley feels like being gnawed to life by a lion.