A Moment with Robin Williams

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For years I’ve had this fantasy about being the second guest on Jay Leno, invited on to promote my latest novel.  Robin Williams would be the first guest.  Being a totally cool first guest, he’d move over on the couch and stick around when the second guest came on, interested in what he or she would have to say.  I’d walk in, hug and kiss Jay, then Robin, and then surprise them both with my own anecdote about Robin Williams.

 

***

 

For the year of 2001, my husband and I lived in San Francisco’s Richmond district, a few blocks south of the Golden Gate Bridge and a few blocks north of Golden Gate Park.  We were also a few blocks to the east of Sea Cliff, a small neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes that overlooked the Golden Gate entrance to San Francisco Bay and its spectacular ocean scenery.  Ray and I liked to hike the Lands End Trail on the top of the peninsula and follow it onto China Beach, then through Sea Cliff, appreciating the eclectic architecture of the mansions on our way home.

 

China Beach

Sometime during that year our friend Trudy visited, and we gave her the tour of our latest home city.  A month earlier I had taken a Barbary Coast walking tour of San Francisco and had pretty much memorized everything the tour guide said.  With Trudy we followed the Barbary Coast Trail through Chinatown, up Telegraph Hill, down to Fisherman’s Wharf, and ended in Pacific Heights.  My tour guide had pointed out the house where Mrs. Doubtfire had been filmed, and I pointed it out to Trudy along with the private school that Robin Williams’s son attended.  Later that evening we took a walk through Sea Cliff and remarked when we passed the house where Robin Williams lived.  The tour guide had been full of celebrity information.

 

“So, you guys hang with Robin Williams these days?” she joked.

 

“Oh yeah, sure.  We’re neighbors!” we laughed.

 

It rained the next day, so instead of walking up and down hills, we visited an art museum close to our apartment, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park—and adjacent to Sea Cliff.  On our way to the European paintings, we noticed groups of well-behaved boys in blazers clustering in the hallways of the museum.

 

A few minutes later in front of an Impressionist work, Trudy whispered in my ear, “Don’t turn around, but I think Robin Williams just walked into the room.”

 

I didn’t turn around so much as look over my shoulder, and yes, it looked like him.  I elbowed Ray, and he did the same.  We looked at each other a little wide-eyed, with slight shoulder shrugs, but there wasn’t much else to do about it.  The three of us were alone in a roomful of art with Robin Williams.  We continued along the path we’d already chosen, but I stood a little straighter, conscious of how my hair might be hanging and wondering if my makeup had smeared in the rain, trying not to say anything too stupid as we pretended to analyze the paintings.  We’d just moved back to the U.S. from France, thus thought we knew a lot about art, but I kept my mouth zipped shut, for once not spewing tour guide trivia.

 

We played it cool—looked at the paintings, then went into the next room to look at some more.  Robin followed, looking at the same paintings, continuing into the same rooms.  Trudy and I mouthed to each other, through our teeth, “Robin Williams is stalking us.”  At one point all four of us stood in front of the same painting, and Ray gave him a nod and raised eyebrow as if to say, Nice one, huh?  Robin smiled and nodded back to us, his kind eyes sparkling.

 

It continued for a few more rooms, Robin’s stalking, and then we lost track of him.  A museum employee mentioned that he’d been accompanying his son’s field trip that day.

 

We giggled about ‘the incident’ on the walk home once the rain had stopped, but kicked ourselves for being too chicken to say anything to him.  This week, though, after hearing the very sad news of his death, I’m glad we didn’t say anything, that we’d let him stay in a private moment.  Of course he knew that we knew who he was, but on that day he was just another person that we smiled with in front of a painting in a museum.

 

***

 

In my Tonight Show fantasy, I’d imagined Robin and Jay cracking up about my ‘you-stalked-me-in-a-museum!’ comments (I’d have been a brilliant and witty guest, my hair and makeup perfect), and Robin would have said, That was you?  I remember you guys!  I’d have told him about bragging to our friends that we ‘hung out’ with Robin Williams, and he would have gotten a kick out of it.

 

It won’t happen now—Jay’s no longer the host of The Tonight Show, and the world has lost Robin Williams—but I’ll remember with a smile the conversation that never was and the brilliant, lovable man that charmed us with his radiance.  Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for sharing yourself with us.

 

The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin

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The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin - Order it here!

The Lincoln Letter opens with a glimpse of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life.  The letter alludes to a lost diary belonging to Lincoln and sets the stage for the historical suspense that William Martin writes better than anyone, a novel winding around the irresistible theme of a treasure hunt—this time in Washington, D.C.—and complete with hidden compartments, shootouts, and bodies floating in the Potomac.

 

Martin sets the action in two time periods, one during the Lincoln presidency and the other in the present day, in which he brings back the sleuthing team of Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington.  In Lincoln’s time, we follow the actions of Halsey Hutchinson, a fictional officer in the War Department’s telegraph office.  Halsey has unique access to President Lincoln and has found himself in the predicament of having lost the president’s diary, one which contains Lincoln’s intimate thoughts on the institution of slavery.  In the wrong hands, the diary’s contents could be used for many a political contrivance, potentially altering the course of the war and the path to freeing the slaves.  It is as essential that Halsey finds the diary in the past as it is that Peter Fallon finds it in the future—in both cases to keep it out of the hands of political forces that would manipulate Lincoln’s words for their own agendas.

 

The richness of Martin’s historical research shines on every page, first of all within a divine sense of place, his narrative defining a historical geography, a skill that he’s honed to perfection in each of his novels.  The map of Washington in 1862 at the beginning of the The Lincoln Letter is helpful, but it’s the vivid, lively descriptions that have the reader walking the muddy streets and smelling the stagnant canal running north of what we today call The Mall.  Martin offers us the imagery of the unfinished ‘ribs of the Capitol dome’, the Washington Monument under construction ‘shimmering in the sunlight like a shard of reality in an unfinished dream’, and Washington in June, with a ‘heat that felt like clear, sticky syrup poured into every corner and every crevice of the city’.

 

We get to know Halsey Hutchinson by way of Martin’s insightful, yet subtle details, like how Halsey had been to Pompeii, comparing Vesuvius erupting to what it felt like in the midst of rebel fire.  It makes us know better a man living in the 1850s that had traveled as far as southern Italy, who had walked among the ancient ruins of Pompeii much as we do today, taking us inside the mind of an American who had found himself fighting in the Civil War 150 years ago.

 

Martin doesn’t shy away from breathing life into well-known nonfictional characters, in particular John Wilkes Booth and of course Lincoln himself.  Martin doesn’t just give us a physical description of Booth, but shows us how he behaves as an actor and human being:  ‘turning, pushing through the crowd, in and out of the torchlight, his face flashing an actor’s angry scowl’.  Martin plunges into Lincoln’s interior ponderances over slavery and race, bringing us closer to Lincoln as a living, breathing character than ever before in popular culture.  He shows Lincoln’s agonies over what direction to take in the Civil War, so very relatable to the horrendous decisions facing any president.  We see a president plagued with criticism and questioned on the constitutionality of his every move.  We live alongside Lincoln’s personal and physical deconstruction during the war-ravaged years of his truncated presidency and witness his humility.

 

A story about Lincoln would be incomplete without ominous foreshadowing of the inevitable, of the event which we optimistically, naïvely hope will not happen.  Martin flawlessly creates this foreboding with descriptions like ‘the gaslights around the White House glowed like footlights in a theater’, but while maintaining stunning authenticity, he treats the subject (and scene) of Lincoln’s assassination with gut-wrenching poignancy that is equaled only by the description of being in the Twin Towers on 9/11 in his New York novel City of Dreams.

 

We get the idea that William Martin has actually lived in the time period of the Civil War.  In his talks promoting The Lincoln Letter, Martin recounts how he does his research by examining old photographs, and it’s a delicious pleasure to see his protagonist Peter Fallon and other characters doing the same.  Through their points of view we discover what Martin discovered when he pored over the same photos and engravings of the past.  Martin has also shared that he’ll go to the library (or these days, online) and read an entire year of newspapers for the time period in question, even—and especially—the advertisements.  Likewise Peter Fallon tells another character in the book, ‘You read everything, even the advertisements.  They tell you how people lived in the details.  And we look for God in the details.’  Martin pulls a life, an intrigue out of those details, and the result of his excitement for documents of the past is that we feel as if we are there, too.  His characters can tell us ‘what a bowl of she-crab soup cost at the Gosling Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue’.  They can tell us ‘that Laura Keene is playing all week at Ford’s Theatre, closing on Saturday night before Easter’.  And we get to witness the see-and-be-seen action, gatherings, and plotting in full public display at the political hot spots of the Willard and the National Hotels in Civil War Washington.

 

Martin cleverly intertwines Civil War reenactors into his intrigue, the reenactments the perfect stage upon which to juxtapose and link events occurring in the timeline of the past and in the present-day timeline.  We get into the psyche of the reenactors and what makes them tick.  We see them reenacting the treatment of battle wounds in a hospital, and in a following chapter, experience from the point of view of a soldier what it was like to recover from a wound with only opium pills and needles of morphine to kill the pain, shedding fascinating light on the types of wounds that would be caused by Civil War-era ammunition as well as the types of physical therapy in practice 150 years ago.

 

Finally, The Lincoln Letter doesn’t pull punches with hard language on slavery, yet Martin treats the subject with respect as when one of his characters asks, ‘What godly nation would do such a thing?’  The Lincoln Letter transports the reader back to a fascinating, albeit difficult period in American history, and William Martin, even while providing a rich history lesson, delivers an exciting yarn that will give his readers much to think about long after they have turned the final page.

Remembering Nancy Erck

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This week I lost one of the best friends I’ll ever have, and I’m at a loss at how to contemplate it. To say that I’ll miss her doesn’t come close to expressing the void that her passing will leave in my soul.

 

I can think of many reasons why Nancy and I should have hit it off, starting with the simple geography of our births. She was from Pittsburgh—not too far from my hometown of Canton, Ohio—which made it easy for us to compare feelings of being misfits in South Dakota. Like me, Nancy had no children, and she understood the joy and sometimes heartbreak of loving nieces and nephews like they are one’s own. So yes, we were both blond Midwestern girls (but from the Steel Belt part of the region) and ‘got’ each other from Day One, but any similarity to me wasn’t what made Nancy special. To begin to understand the magic of who she was is to go back to the first day I met her, when she was a student in the nighttime section of Beginning French that I taught in the fall of 2006.

 

On the class roster, I’d noticed that a married couple had registered, but I was unprepared for their enthusiasm on the first day of class and unprepared for Nancy’s warm smile, one which would color the seven years I would enjoy as her friend. In their 60s, Nancy and her husband John out-aged my other students by decades, but this didn’t bother them at all. It gave everyone a little more practice with higher numbers when we learned the “I’m ___ years old” vocabulary. I admired them for taking the class, figuring they’d read the press about foreign language being good for the memory as one gets older. They were great students, always doing their homework and happily volunteering when I needed role-play victims. Nancy let herself get stressed out taking exams (which was my fault for making them too long), but I never understood why because she did so well on them. I liked to cook French dinners for my classes, and through them Nancy and John got to know my husband Ray. (I made him pose as a French waiter for the dinners.) They signed up for the second semester, and by the end of the year, we had become fast friends.

 

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the real story of why Nancy and John had signed up for my French class. After long careers in Washington, D.C.—Nancy as a psychiatric nurse and John as a federal judge—they had recently retired in South Dakota, where John had been born and raised, and had settled in Mitchell, the town where I taught. One night in the spring, they attended a music recital at the university which featured three faculty members—one of them being me. For my set, I played a collection of 18 short Gershwin piano pieces. Unfortunately, I had a horrible cold that night and forgot the ending of every piece (and did a bad job of faking it). Nancy and John, however, had a different opinion and decided then and there that we were going to be friends. So when John saw the announcement for my French class that fall, he signed the two of them up.

 

“You stalked me!” I said when they told me about it over dinner a few years later. “I can’t believe you stalked me for a whole year, taking French just to get to know me!”

 

This was the kind of thing these guys did. John and Nancy told us about how just for fun they’d driven up to North Dakota at the dawn of the big oil boom to find out what was going on. Posing as reporters, they interviewed people on the street, trying to ‘get the story’. That was the zany magic of the couple who would join us for so many good times throughout the year. We’d take turns throwing themed dinner parties—many times just the four of us—learning more and more about each other.

 

Celebrating with another couple and Ray’s brother in 2009 on Ray’s birthday—and during the great stock plunge of 2009—the seven of us got into an impassioned eco-political discussion, arguing about who would win what elections and when or if the stock market would ever recover. Not able to come to agreement on how to solve the world’s problems (that night or on any other night), we agreed to meet one year later on Ray’s birthday and see who had called it right. We kept everyone’s predictions sealed and kept the appointment a year later. That year we made new predictions for the following year, and so on, the whole thing evolving into an Oscar-like excitement each year when the predictions were read aloud along with what had actually come to pass. We argued a lot, behaving like The McLaughlin Group, but kept it friendly. We called ourselves The Meteorologists and enjoyed making predictions each year on the political and economic climates. We treasured these times together as well as on other occasions throughout the year: the Fourth of July, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve; you name it, we celebrated it.

 

Nancy and I realized at lunch one day last summer that there were almost exactly 20 years between us in age—it hadn’t really occurred to us before. It seemed like it should have been remarkable, the age difference, but it wasn’t really. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have close friends of all ages throughout my adult life, and Nancy was no exception. Out of necessity I’d learned what kind of personal friend Nancy could be, as well as being a role model of a truly empathetic person. In low moments, I could count on her to be my cheerleader, expertly making me feel good about myself. We used to laugh about how lucky I was to have a shrink for a friend. As selfless as she was, she never failed to encourage my narcissistic pursuits, like the novel that I’ve been writing (and whining about) for over five years. That she believed in me is one of the reasons that the first draft is nearly complete. It makes my heart ache knowing that she’ll never read it.

 

On the topic of Nancy’s selflessness, I remember the time I was sipping on a glass of wine and she told me she was an ex-nun.

 

“You were a nun?” I said, snorting the wine out my nose.

 

I thought it was hilarious. How many ex-nuns does one meet?

 

“Did you think nothing but pure thoughts all day?” I asked, stealing my favorite line from the film Mermaids.

 

Nancy explained that she’d wanted a career through which she could help people. She spoke fondly of that time, but said she ultimately left the order when she decided she could better care for people by becoming a nurse. She stayed active, however, with the sisters and their mission, maintaining contact with them for the rest of her life.

 

When I announced to Nancy in January that Ray and I would be moving to Boston, she was so excited, not because I was leaving town, but because I would get to experience Boston. It was then that I learned that she had spent considerable time here studying to become a psychiatric nurse and then practicing in Cape Cod before eventually setting up her practice (and marrying John) in Washington.

 

Her blue eyes sparkled that day as she told me stories of living in a small apartment on Beacon Hill and on nice days of walking all the way to and from Boston University, walking through Boston Common, the Public Garden, Back Bay—all the places I’ve come to love since moving here in February.

 

I’m writing about Nancy tonight in a coffee shop on Beacon Hill. I’d already adored this neighborhood, but now I’ll think of Nancy as a bright-eyed twenty-something when I lose myself in its narrow brick streets. Beacon Hill’s gaslights on a winter’s night can carry a tinge of melancholy, and I feel it tonight in my desperation to lock the sound of her voice and the touch of her hugs in my memory, but remembering Nancy will never be an exercise in melancholy.

 

Over lunch last summer when we already knew of the tumors in her brain, she told me that she didn’t fear death, that it was another step along her journey of enlightenment. She was more concerned about leaving John alone. That she would focus on this so exemplifies the caring person that Nancy was, and if she knew that I was gaining some solace by writing about her tonight, she’d be happy for my sake that I was doing it, more so than for her own.

 

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I’m to the end, yet it feels so incomplete to finish these words about Nancy. What I write can only be a partial portrait; Nancy touched so many more lives than my own. I could write pages about this funny, friendly woman that loved to live on the water; the woman who cracked up laughing when our cat jumped on her lap during a dinner party (cats can tell who’s nice); the woman who became incredibly connected with our community’s charitable organizations in such a short time; so many rich aspects of a rich life. I had the gift of her friendship for seven years, but she impacted others for seventy-one, and I can only imagine the wonderful stories other people could tell. At the end, I am grateful for the time I had with Nancy and know that I’m an infinitely better person for having known her.

Services for Nancy will be held Saturday, November 23, 11:00 AM, at First Lutheran Church, Mitchell.

Lurking at the World Series

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I’m surprised to find myself sitting at a bar alone watching the World Series. It’s not any old bar, though—it’s the Cask ‘n Flagon right across the street from Fenway Park. I’d wanted to go to Trader Joe’s tonight, but the one I frequent in Back Bay is on the way to Fenway Park on the Green Line. When I tried to shop there last week, I found myself smashed in a subway car with a hundred or so happy Red Sox fans—that is, after I made it onto a train. The first two that came by couldn’t pack even one more person in.Fenway-1

So tonight I decided to join them. I’d ride the jovial wave to the ballpark, take a few pictures in the streets, and watch the game at the Cask ‘n Flagon with other people who didn’t have tickets. I could catch Trader Joe’s on the way back, probably around the 7th inning, and finish the game at home with my cat.

Watching sporting events isn’t exactly my thing. I like to work out, but I’ve never been an athlete by any stretch of the word. When people ask me what sport I played in high school, I say, “piano”. In many ways, however, I live a Forrest Gump-type existence, and major sporting events seem to fall under my particular Gump umbrella. I moved to France in 1998 just in time for them to win the World Cup, and I partied in the streets with several hundred thousand fans. Another time in Paris, Ray and I happened to be strolling by the Arc de Triomphe, and we wondered why there were so many people hanging out. We walked over to see Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France.

The Gumpness has continued somewhat in Boston. The weekend after we moved here, Boston had one of the worst blizzards on record, and a few months later I found myself uncomfortably close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon. For tonight, however, I’m hoping to be a good luck charm for the Red Sox in the World Series.

monsterBefore trying to get into the Cask ‘n Flagon, I took a bunch of pictures outside the ballpark, and while trying to get a picture of a Monster sign, I stepped into Lansdowne, the street that runs on the north side of Fenway. Oblivious of the curb, I fell to the ground and sprained my ankle. (My camera was okay.) Three Sox fans rushed to my rescue, and we were all relieved when I could stand up. I decided it was time to find a place to watch the game and sent them on their way through the hallowed gates.

I had to fight for my seat at the bar. The hostess told me there was at least a 1½-hour wait for a table and no one was leaving, and that I’d have better luck at the bar. One look at the bar told me that was a hopeless proposition—it was already 3-deep of people pushing up to order drinks. A few minutes of loitering—trying to look cheery, like I was enjoying the pregame commercials blaring from every TV—and I discovered within the throng an abandoned barstool, schools of sports fans swimming around it as they made their way closer and closer to the bar. I shouldered through to the barstool and put my arm around its back as if greeting an old friend. From there, I sort of danced with it, maneuvering it across the floor and through red shirts and caps and jackets emblazoned in blue Bs. I’d eyeballed a line leading to a slight gap at the bar where people were ordering, so I just kind of queued up with my new barstool friend. When I finally made it to the bar, I scooted the stool up to the bar, slid my butt onto it, and asked for a menu.sausage

I’m normally a pretty good alone person. I don’t mind going to movies or restaurants by myself—all the better to catch up on some reading. I enjoy being a fly on the wall, but this was a new one for me, and it felt odd to sit alone among the boisterous fans. Everyone was having such an animated time, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m not one to miss a happening, though, so I pulled out my journal and jotted notes in it so it would look like I had a purpose.

The Red Sox phenomenon took me a little by surprise when we first moved to Boston. Like I said, I’m not really a sports enthusiast, and the closest I’ve ever gotten to caring about baseball was when I lived in Arizona and the office gang played hooky from work to watch spring training games in March. Why would I care about the Red Sox?

It’s catching, though, once one is a resident of Boston. We were lucky enough to get free tickets—last-minute flukes—to two Red Sox games during the season, and I laugh now when I recall that we debated about whether or not to take them. How could we have known that the games would be so fun? Traditions abound, from the Green Monster to the Fenway Frank, and everyone seemed to be in such a good mood within the legendary wooden ballpark. (It helped that the Sox won 20-4 at the first game we attended.) I’d elbowed Ray in the 8th inning: Hey, I think they’re going to sing Sweet Caroline now. They always sing it at Red Sox games. He said: How do you know these kinds of things? I shrugged my shoulders and said: It’s the Hermione in me, I guess. It’s a bummer that they don’t sing Sweet Caroline here in the bar or show it—or Take Me out to the Ballgame—on TV. It’s my favorite part of the whole experience.

fansThe guy next to me at the bar asks if I’m ‘with’ somebody, and I explain that my husband is on a business trip. No, he says, pointing to my journal. I mean like with a magazine or something. You’re from out of town.

How did you know…? I ask, even while guessing the answer. I don’t have the accent—the accent I’m starting to appreciate, in fact starting to really love. The Boston accent is addicting, and I’m starting to hear it coming out of my own mouth. Ray and I regularly practice the new mantra we borrowed from the SNL skit mocking Argo, Affleck, and Ahmadinejad: “…pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd, pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd…

The guy behind me waiting to order remarks about my drinking a stout and eating fish and chips. (I hope he hasn’t been waiting since I sat down.) I’m a little confused, and he explains that it’s a Boston thing, the stout and fish and chips, me being from out of town—again, someone catching my lack of accent and noting my foreignness, though in the friendliest of ways. Apparently I need more practice with the accent. I thought about making a smartass comment about how fish and chips wasn’t all that exotic, that we even have it in Ohio where I’m from, but instead I sigh, noting the time and raising my glass in a toast to Ray, who at that moment was drinking a Guinness in Ireland with his business associates. (I know this because of instantaneous Facebook statuses.)Fenway-2

I finish my food by the 7th after a disastrous double steal by the Cardinals, and my ankle’s starting to ache, hanging as it is off the stool—I hope I can get up. It doesn’t look like I’ll make it to Trader Joe’s, but more importantly, I wonder if I have finally earned some sports-related bragging rights. Like…does a sprained ankle count as a sports injury if I got it at Fenway Park?

Smile With Your Eyes

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Di - FB ProfileI hate having my picture taken.  Bad photos have documented my entire life.  Me frowning.  Me looking mad.  Me looking sad.  Me looking bored.  I’m that person who’s always blinking.  I guess the photos weren’t all bad, necessarily, but they were never as good as they could have been.  They never seemed to look like who I felt I was.  One out of a hundred would catch it—a glimpse into the personality I longed to be—and that would be the photo I’d use for profiles, avatars, and bios.

 

It didn’t help to grow up with two photogenic sisters.  Cameras eat up their beautiful smiles, and when I’m not wasting my life being envious of them, I feel like being related to them elevates my own cachet.  My brother didn’t help matters—he married a woman that could be mistaken for a model, one who’d actually done some modeling!  I don’t hold this against her, however, and as with my sisters, I’m happy to catch some of the beauty karma whenever I’m in her airspace.  Beauty by association works for me.Doreen-photogenic

 

But physical beauty only scratches the surface of what a person actually ‘looks like’.  Since passing the half-century mark, I’m all too willing to accept the beauty-is-only-skin-deep adage.  These days I find myself instead searching out beautiful souls, and I’m discovering that this is in fact the beauty that is ending up in their photographs.
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A few weeks ago I met my sister-in-law and my mother in New York for a girls’ weekend.  I arrived by train and had a half-hour to kill before they landed at JFK.  It was a picture-perfect September morning, so I tried to take a selfie or two on the street outside of Penn Station, one with the Empire State Building in the background.  Over and over I posed and clicked for the front-facing camera on my smartphone, trying to get the light and my smile right—as usual, with substandard results.  Two people volunteered to take one for me, and I had to say no, not wanting to waste their time.  At the end of my half-hour, I sighed and posted the best of the mediocre on Facebook—evidence of how lucky I was to be in New York on a fabulous autumn morning.

 

amy-photogenicThe three of us did the normal New York City tourist stuff: a Broadway musical, the Statue of Liberty, and—it being Fashion Week—a fashion show.  Awesome, I thought.  Photo-op city.  Around a bunch of models.  My favorite thing.  Somewhere over the course of trying to force loveliness onto my face for about the millionth time, however, Amy stopped mid-click to address the problem.

 

Now, although my sister-in-law is 16 years my junior, she sometimes feels more to me like an older sister rather than one practically a generation younger.  She twisted my trunk, made me jut out my knee like Angelina Jolie at the Oscars, put my hand on my hip, and flipped my hair in front of my shoulder.  She snapped/tapped a few more photos on my phone, but I could tell by her face that they weren’t cutting it.  While most people might have said, “Oh, they’re fine!  You look great!”—Amy wouldn’t.  Not because she’s not a nice person, but because she knows what I look like—on the inside—and she knew that it wasn’t making it onto the photos.

 

She looked up at me then and said, “Smile with your eyes.
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For only a split second did I wonder what she meant.  If you google “smile with your eyes”, there’s a wikiHow telling you how to do it in 7 steps and a 9-second YouTube video of Tyra Banks demonstrating the magic, but all it took was Amy planting the idea in my head.  My eyes knew what to do, along with the rest of my face.  And with that, we had a few pictures—not supermodel material, but me the way I imagine myself to be.  It has since occurred to me that every one of my favorite photos of myself have been taken when I’ve been smiling with my eyes (even the ones with sunglasses—you can tell!), and it’s likely they’ve been taken by someone I love.

 

SupermodelsI’m reading The House of the Seven Gables at the moment, and I find myself relating to poor Hepzibah, her face marked with a perpetual scowl, so wrinkled by nearsightedness that she appears to be unhappy or grouchy all the time when actually she’s not.  I’ve seen a similarly crabby face for years showing up in my photos and ever more frequently in the mirror now that real wrinkles are making their appearance.  In reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s disturbing New England classic, I wish I could tell Hepzibah to just smile with her eyes.  It seems to be working for me now—not only in the photos and in the mirror, but hopefully to anyone who runs into me on the street.  Maybe when I smile with my eyes, people will see into my happy soul instead of seeing the sad crow’s feet of an aging woman.  I guess it’s not that I mind looking older so much—it’s inevitable and I can accept it—but I hate giving the impression that I’m unhappy or angry.

 

But that takes me to one other thought: maybe if I just smile with my eyes in general—even if I am a little crabby—maybe it won’t be just for a camera or for another person, but it’ll reflect back and actually make me more happy—a positive feedback loop in more ways than one.
smiling-with-eyes

 

Smiling with the eyes.  It’s kind of like instant makeup—but for the soul.

 

Raspberry Chambord Sauce

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This intense, tart sauce is wonderful with anything chocolate, and I love to garnish my Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte with it. Swirl it on a plate or on top of a dessert for an elegant decoration. What little sugar there is in the recipe goes a long way thanks to the raspberries.Raspberry Chambord Sauce

Ingredients

12 ounces fresh or frozen raspberries
1/3 cup Chambord liqueur
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1½ teaspoons water

Instructions

In a heavy saucepan, bring the raspberries, Chambord, and sugar to a boil. Simmer 2 or 3 minutes, stirring often, until the raspberries have broken down.

Run the raspberries through the sieve into another saucepan, using a rubber spatula to scrape the pan and aid in urging the sauce through the strainer. Bring to a simmer.

In a medium bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in water. Slowly whisk the simmering sauce into the cornstarch and water until thickened.

Chill until ready to serve.

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Equipment

medium heavy saucepan
wooden spoon
medium fine wire sieve/strainer
rubber spatula
medium saucepan
medium bowl

 

 

 

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Note on raspberry seeds:

I like to mix the strained raspberry seeds with some boiling water and then strain them a few more times to make a sort of weak raspberry “tea” out of them. Refreshing over ice!

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

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I love chocolate, but I don’t love it super sweet. This recipe uses 85% chocolate and little sugar, resulting in a very dense and dark torte. Red raspberries, Chambord liqueur in the torte itself, and each slice topped with Raspberry Chambord Sauce marry the intense tart flavors of chocolate and raspberry in this elegant dessert. I like to make the sauce while the torte cools. As this chocolate cake is very rich, it will easily serve 16.

chocolat-bars

Ingredients

1-2 tablespoons butter
1½ teaspoons superfine sugar, for dusting

10.5 ounces dark chocolate (85%), broken into pieces
2 sticks unsalted butter, sliced into ¼-inch pats
6 eggs
¼ cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
3 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon Chambord liqueur

3-4 cups boiling water, about a teapot full

cocoa powder, for dusting
½ recipe Raspberry Chambord Sauce
fresh red raspberries

Instructions

Prepare the Springform Pan

butter-springform

Butter the sides and bottom of the springform pan. Cut a 9-inch circle of parchment paper to use as a lining, and place it onto the buttered base of the pan. Butter the paper and sprinkle it with the 1½ teaspoons of superfine sugar. Tap and shake the pan to even out the sugar across the base.

Tear a piece of foil three times as long as the springform pan diameter—roughly 27-30 inches.

Fold it in half once, doubling it. Place the pan on top of the foil and push up on the sides all the way around to form a lining of foil around the pan. This is to keep water from leaking into the cake when it’s placed into a larger pan of hot water while baking.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

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Prepare the Chocolate Batter

Over low heat, melt the chocolate and butter together slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat immediately once the mixture is smooth. Do not overcook, or the chocolate will turn grainy.

With the electric mixer, beat the eggs and ¼ cup of superfine sugar just until combined, about a minute. Sprinkle the 1T of cocoa, 3t vanilla, and 1T Chambord into the eggs and sugar and beat another minute or two. Fold the still-warm chocolate and butter into the egg mixture until it is well blended.

melted-lores

Bake the Torte

Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan, gently tapping the pan to even it out and remove any air bubbles. Place the pan into the larger shallow pan, and pour the boiling water into the space between the two pans until it reaches halfway up the sides of the springform pan, but not higher than the edge of the foil. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. It’s okay if the center is still a little moist. Do not over-bake, or the torte will be too dry.

Remove the springform pan from the water and place on a rack to cool. Remove the foil and the sides of the springform pan just after placing it on the rack. Let the torte cool completely before taking it off the base.

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Serve

Place a platter (or large plate) larger than the torte diameter onto the torte and, hanging on to both the top and bottom, invert the cake onto the platter. Remove the springform base and parchment paper. Scoop a few tablespoons of cocoa powder into the wire strainer, and tap it gently over the torte to dust it with the cocoa.

slice

Decorate the torte or individual slices as you like with red raspberries and Raspberry Chambord Sauce.

Equipment

9-inch springform pan
parchment paper
heavy duty foil
medium saucepan
wooden spoon
electric mixer
large mixing bowl
shallow pan larger than the springform pan
platter or large plate for serving
small fine wire strainer

Movie Review: Dust of War (2013)

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Official-DoW-PosterDirector Andrew Kightlinger has suggested that his film Dust of War is something on the order of “Mad Max meets Terrence Malick”, and if that was what he had in mind, he can call it a success.  It doesn’t disappoint as an action-filled post-apocalyptic adventure following a hero along a rugged quest in the wastelands of the aftermath, but—as in a Malick film—our hero is a strong, silent type, and the film is shot with appropriate grandeur against the stark, raw beauty of western South Dakota.  Unlike Malick—whose first feature in 1973 was titled “Badlands”—Kightlinger actually did shoot in the Badlands, as well as in Pierre and Wall, South Dakota.  Stunning cinematography by Director of Photography Peter Wigand plays a major role in Dust of War’s visual storytelling; it takes its time, showcasing the inhospitable splendor of the rolling open terrain.  In particular, Wigand’s handheld camera work accents the dark edginess of the movie, making fine use of a setting that plays an important role in revealing the intrigue.

The film’s producing trio—Luke Schuetzle, Adam Emerson, and Kightlinger (who together came up with the story for Dust of War)—come into Dust of War on the heels of a successful festival run for two award-winning shorts, Paper People and You Don’t Know Bertha Constantine, and with Dust of War—their first feature—we’re treated to the same attention to detail that made the shorts such favorites.

Dust of war opens on a wispy prairie landscape, and a voiceover by the protagonist Abel (Steven Luke) sets up the story and its ironic premise:

For centuries, the human race looked to the stars, searching the heavens for signs of life, wondering if we were alone.  Then one day, the stars fell from the sky in swords of fire, and an alien civilization invaded Earth, bringing humanity to its bloody knees…

He continues, telling us that the unconquered lands have filled with tyrants and that a ruthless warlord, General Chizum (Shutter Island’s Bates Wilder), has captured a young woman—reputedly a harbinger of peace and the possessor of a secret so powerful even she has been kept out of the loop.  Two bounty hunters, hired by the resistance—the ‘Free Legion’—have been tasked with her rescue.

Dust of War establishes the brutality of General Chizum’s camp within seconds, opening on a guy puking, the biting off of a…well, I won’t tell you… and close-ups of armed children.  Here we see the first of the top-notch ensemble of extras that Kightlinger has enlisted for the hot and dusty days of shooting in the near desert.  We see Abel for the first time, undercover as a recruit for the general, being subjected to a rough and tumble inspection of ears, eyes, and mouth.  The camera doesn’t shy away away from the bodily grossness, rather delights in it, making us feel and smell the swallowing of messages and subsequent regurgitations—you get the idea—and all of it timed perfectly in the editing, enough to make us gasp, then relieving us from the image and moving the story along.  These are harsh times in a world of few loyalties, where civilization has moved on and aliens hold dominion over what’s left of humanity. Manual-Labor-1024x438

Steven Luke communicates Abel’s strength, pain, and transformation throughout the course of the film primarily with his body and to a further degree with his face and eyes—much as he did in playing the lead actor in Paper People, for which he nabbed numerous Best Acting awards—a difficult task since our man of few words doesn’t actually say very much.  He keeps the real Abel at arm’s length from his compatriots—and from us—while at the same time making us curious about his quest and his elusive past, about how he got mixed up in the Free Legion in the first place.  His name—the biblical ‘Abel’—conjures up symbolic suppositions on his role in the creation of the next world and how he might be treated by his brethren.

Jordan McFadden’s charter as ‘Ellie’, the girl—the harbinger, the one who heralds what is to come (hopefully peace)—is to be strong, mysterious, vulnerable, and of course, beautiful—all of which she pulls off with aplomb.  Even out on the godforsaken prairie she manages to provide an element of innocent sex appeal to an otherwise macho canvas.  Within her first few moments on screen, we get a taste of the humor that Kightlinger has sprinkled throughout his screenplay when she pokes fun at Abel, to the effect of “…man of few words…a little overdone, don’t you think?”  It’s a serious film, but yet one that doesn’t take itself that seriously, and that makes it all the more fun to watch.

As a good screenplay should, Kightlinger’s takes us through the ups, downs, twists, and turns of a roller-coaster plotline.  His well-structured script offers much more than a one-dimensional perspective into what could have been nothing more than a bleak passage through dry, dusty scrub.  Plot devices such as the presence of pressure mines give the voyeur something to hang onto as we peer into Kightlinger’s world, one that appears disturbingly similar to our own.  Tantalizing references to place names like Pittsburg, Chicago, Carnegie Hall, and Madison Square Garden reinforce the idea that Dust of War’s reality is our reality.

Kightlinger’s best gift to the viewer, however, comes in the form of the lighter interludes—the reminders of the happier world that came before.  We drop in on a camp of survivors—the good guys—lead by a larger-than-life character called ‘Crispus Hansen’ (played by Tony Todd, in a large performance by a giant of an actor, his character embracing the film within his widespread arms).  During the minutes in the camp, Todd’s Crispus stamps a lost humanity onto the film’s brutal backdrop.  If we ever found ourselves in a post-apocalyptic situation, we’d want to be within his shelter.

Doug Jones (of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy renown) as Jebediah Strumm holds up the other end of this wondrous episode with spectacular zaniness and a sensitivity that makes us laugh one moment and be in tears minutes later.  Jebediah entertains the children of the camp with tea parties and sings them quirky tunes a cappella, all the while endowed with a gift of ‘visions’—another device used effectively by Kightlinger to build enigma into the story.  Again, Jebediah is someone you’d want in your post-apocalyptic camp.

A camp isn’t complete without a campfire, and a film shot in this part of the world wouldn’t be complete without the requisite grilling-up of rattlesnakes.  Happy images around a normal-seeming campfire complete with hoedown-style music and dancing are captured and edited with bokeh blurring techniques and slowed action that achieve the effect of immersing us deeper into the comfort of being with people we can love in an adverse time, displaying well the poignancy and joy of the human condition around something as simple as a campfire.

In many ways, Dust of War is the culmination of everything that’s good about independent filmmaking.  One enormous accomplishment was in rounding up a stellar motley cast of supporting character actors—comic book characters brought to life by impeccable acting.  Kightlinger wrote colorful characters and populated them with experienced, finely-honed actors that nail their performances and make us believe that these bizarre personnages would indeed thrive in such a world.Tony-Todd as Crispus Hansen

Along with Todd and Jones, Dust of War stars David Midthunder as the tracker ‘Dark Horse’—an essential presence in perhaps a stereotypical American Indian role, but one that works.  It’s not an accident that the malevolent General Chizum has exploited a Native American for his vile purposes.  And as General Chizum, Bates Wilder embodies the classic evil villain.  Hank Ostendorf’s ‘Klamp’ and Paul Cram as ‘Gelman’ take the comic hits for both sides of good versus evil, allowing us to chuckle even as they find themselves in the most gruesome of situations.  The darkly handsome and sinister Tristan Barnard as ‘Giger’, quite convincingly in the bad-guy camp, is a filmmaker himself with an already rich cinematography résumé in western South Dakota and beyond, and he double-duties behind the third camera, another example of what independent filmmaking does best.

Gary Graham (Star Trek, Alien Nation) as ‘Tom Dixie’—Abel’s fellow bounty hunter and sidekick—steals the show, his performance bringing much of the humor into the film as well as providing a story-telling cohesiveness to it.  He and his character are all-in, and we can’t help but like the guy and cheer for him at every turn.

The soundtrack and sound editing are as well-balanced as the film’s screenplay, ranging from cowboy music to ethereal, wind-chimy tones that rhyme well with those found in a Malick film.  The placement of cheery, light-jazzy music coming out of a car radio jars us momentarily out of dystopia, then just as we start humming along, it’s juxtaposed with the cranking of klaxons and the underpinnings of an ominous soundtrack peppered with low, heart-pounding drumming reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 classic Kashmir—an ironic similarity since it was on a road cutting through the desert of Southern Morocco that Robert Plant was inspired to write the lyrics to Kashmir.

Dust of War delivers on intense action sequences, with a crazy car chase across the desert in a vintage Mustang, lots of hand-to-hand clashes—swashbuckling, even—along with wild-west-style down, dirty, and bloody shootouts—and they’re all taken to higher levels with impeccable sound effects, another example of what attention to detail has brought to this film.

And finally, the costumes and military equipment provided by Schuetzle’s own production company lend an unheard-of authenticity to Dust of War’s overall look.  Broad landscapes of military vehicles in desert camouflage caravanning across the open prairie and hundreds of extras appropriately garbed only enhance the artistry of the film.

And art is what Dust of War is—a sometimes disturbing work of art—but art that invites thought as good art should.  Abel’s tale comes to a satisfying denouement for the viewer by way of Kightlinger’s structured writing, yet it leaves us with subtle unanswered questions—and it doesn’t fail to throw in a good twist, one that makes us suddenly wonder about what happens next.  And wonder whether Kightlinger and Schuetzle have a Dust of War 2 up their sleeves.

Movie Review: Don Jon (2013)

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donjon3(This review is based on an advanced screening at the Revere Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts.)

 

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start:  if you will be offended by a movie with lots of F-bombs and/or one that’s about a guy from Jersey who’s addicted to porn—or more specifically, masturbating to porn—then Don Jon isn’t for you.  That said, there’s a lot to like about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s feature debut as Writer/Director and as starring actor.

 

Don Jon doesn’t waste any time letting us know what it’s about.  There’s nothing subtle in an opening that shows Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Jon Martello, masturbating to porn.  His matter-of-fact voiceover explains precisely what he likes about getting off to porn and why he prefers the women on the screen to actual warm-bodied women in his bed.  His friends call him ‘Don’, though, because he manages to score ‘dimes’—meaning a ’10’—whenever they go out.

 

Enter Scarlett Johansson (for whom Gordon-Levitt wrote the role) as Barbara, a 10 in any movie, but especially in this one.  It’s a jolt initially to hear her accent—which some argue sounds more like one from Staten Island—but if you’re not from New Jersey, you won’t have a problem with it.  Barbara is the game changer for Jon, perfect in every way, except for one minor problem:  she’s not happy about the porn.

 

Julianne Moore and Tony Danza round out a stellar cast that includes cameos from Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway, and Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Danza plays Jon’s dad in a performance reminiscent of (and just as strong as) Robert De Niro’s fatherly role in Silver Linings Playbook.  Moore plays a middle-aged student in a night class with Jon.  She provides an older woman foil for Jon’s girlfriend/porn issues—someone other than his buddies and family to heckle and care for him.  Moore gives a layered performance, ably demonstrating the disappearing effect of age when hanging out with students half her age, gracefully revealing that there is much more under the tender shell of her character Esther than Jon can possibly imagine.

donjon1

Gordon-Levitt’s screenplay is solid and well structured, built around themes like the fact that Jon Martello is a devout Catholic.  With welcome regularity, we see Jon back on the pew with his family, followed by a weekly rendezvous in the confessional in which he itemizes his sexual transgressions to the priest on the other side—the number of times he had sex out of wedlock, how many times he masturbated to porn, etc.  The next scene invariably shows him in the gym working out to the prescribed number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers (and we get to peek at just how buff Gordon-Levitt has been keeping himself).  The laughs get louder every time the screenplay whips around to this place keeper, and we fall into pace with Jon and his routine as we get to know him.

 

Gordon-Levitt takes what should be a ridiculous premise for a movie and through strong writing and directing outputs a sincere plot.  Though full of the American Pie-style humor requisite for a story about masturbation, Don Jon more importantly takes its characters (and us) somewhere—and it’s not where you think.  In the wasteland of cookie-cutter movie plots, Don Jon’s story is a breath of fresh air—one that makes us laugh, makes us think, makes us cringe, and makes us come out wanting more from Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Birthday Cakes, French Lessons, and Tooting

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I don’t have children of my own, thus my nieces and nephews hold the position in my heart that my own kids would have had. They know that they can get away with a lot when they’re with me, albeit different things than their parents would have allowed. I’m not afraid to say no when I feel like it, mixer1-loresthough, especially when they’re beating each other up or screaming. (This happens a lot: high-pitched squeals of delight or shrieks of agony from bonking each other in the head.) During a recent sojourn in Ohio, I found myself in the enviable position of taking care of the three youngest—2, 4, and 6 years old—while their parents were away on overlapping business trips.

I’ve managed to build a relationship with them over the last few years, even while living far away. I met Brynn, the youngest, when she was four weeks old, and by the time I left 10 days later, she had started to look into my eyes and smile. Last summer, I saw her take her first steps. Since I’m really quite clueless about kids, I’ve had to invent things to do with Colson and Audra, Brynn’s older brother and sister. I spend my life among adults for the most part while most of the world is involved in the eternal cycle of bringing children in the world, so it’s not easy for me to figure out what to do with them or what to say to them. I didn’t even know what to say to other kids when I was one. Therefore, I more or less treat them like very small adults or act myself like a very large child, and this seems to work. We make videos together, play ‘bake-Catwoman-in-the-oven-and-serve-her-up-for-dinner’ (Hansel and Gretel-style—Audra’s idea), and I teach them to play Carcassonne, the latest in the favorite-family-game category. I indulge them in their favorite word: toot. Toot in its noun forms and as a verb in all of its conjugations. I toot. You toot. We all toot.

Audra, you’re a tooter,” says Colson.

I know!” she squeals. “I’m the best at tooting!

I like to mess with their heads and teach them French. The first hurdle was convincing them that it wasn’t Spanish. They were under the impression that all foreign languages are Spanish. They ask me how to say different things in French, and I make them repeat it back, jealous of their accents. Even with my imperfect pronunciation as a model, their still-developing vocal cords and tongues wrap around the Rs and dance around the subtle differences in vowel sounds as if they were little French kids. Totally not fair.

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

The other day I taught them to say “my name is…”: “Je m’appelle…” In angelic voices, they produced “je m’appelle Audra” and “je m’appelle Colson”. Then I got the brilliant idea of teaching them to say “your name is…” I had them repeat to each other: “tu t’appelle Audra” and “tu t’appelle Colson”.

Tu t’appelle?” they echoed.

“TU t’appelle?

“TOOTappelle?!?

Toot, toot, I tooted,” they sang, dancing around the room. “You’re a tooter. No, you’re a tooter. Up, up, and I tooted…!

French lesson over.

* * *

Amy’s birthday was the day before she was to leave on her trip—the kids’ mother, my sister-in-law. I happily volunteered to make her a cake—a Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte with a Raspberry Chambord Sauce—and enlisted the aid of Colson and Audra. They like to help in the kitchen, pulling chairs over so that they’re high enough to reach and lean over everything on the counter (and the stove). It’s always a challenge to figure out what I can safely let them do, so I opted first to have them break up the chocolate that I’d be melting with the butter. Keeping them from eating every other chunk was the big trick. Ultimately, we sacrificed half a bar to tasting, but it worked out, bringing our ounce count down to that in the recipe. Audra wouldn’t quit eating it until I threatened her (with what, I’ve already forgotten). Colson spit his out, saying it was ‘too spicy’. He doesn’t appreciate dark chocolate yet.

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Audra wanted to eat some butter. I shaved a tiny sliver off one corner of the stick I was slicing and let her pop it in her mouth. Then she wanted another. By the time I finished, she’d talked me into giving her all four corners of both sticks. I had them pick the pats off the cutting board and throw them in the pot with the chocolate. When I turned back around from rinsing my knife and board in the sink, I found them both taking pats of butter and pieces of chocolate out of the pot, licking them, and then throwing them back in. I rolled my eyes, thankful that I wouldn’t be serving it to anyone but their mother. At least the pot wasn’t on the stove yet. Once we’d mixed it all up, they asked if they could lick the beater. I said yes, my back unwisely turned. They didn’t wait for me to remove the beater from the mixer before descending on it like a couple of hyenas on a wildebeest. I ran over from the sink to unplug it, well beyond worrying about their drool dripping into the batter.

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I had them help me butter the springform pan, cut out parchment paper to line it, and dust it with superfine sugar, and after we’d put the torte in the oven, they asked: “How do you say ‘toot’ in French?”

Péter,” I answered, not missing a beat.

PEH-TEH,” they repeated perfectly.

“But how do you say, I’m tooting?” asked Audra.

Je pète,” I told her. “Je pète. Tu pètes. Audra pète. Colson pète. Vous pétez, nous pétons, ils pètent…

It was the best French lesson to date. They really paid attention.

* * *

My brother came home before Amy did, and he, the kids, and I went to their club together—he and I to do the spinning class and the kids to ‘exercise’ in the club’s daycare room. Brynn got punched in the face by another kid when we dropped them off, and I had to admire my brother’s calm. I wanted to take out the rotten little boy who’d socked my cherub-like niece. His mother kept apologizing to me, and I pretended to smile through my inexperienced-with-kids outrage.

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Walking in from the parking lot, Colson and I were ahead of everyone else, and he said, punching me:

“You’re a tooter.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “You’re the tooter.”

“You’re a bigger tooter.”

“You’re the biggest tooter. You’re such a big tooter that your toots are really poop.” (I don’t know why I said that. I really shouldn’t have said that.)

“Ew, that’s gross,” he said, screwing up his face in disgust.

“Yeah, I know. Don’t tell your mom I said that.”

A few seconds later, he said, “I’m gonna tell my mom on you.”

“If you tell on me, she won’t let me come back.”

“Okay,” he said, thinking about it. “I won’t tell her you said poop.” After a few more steps, he said, “Really, I’m gonna tell on you.”

mixer2-lores

I knew he wouldn’t be able to help it. Colson’s so honest he tells on himself, and I’m going to get in trouble one of these times. The other night when he boasted for the hundredth time that he was going to ‘smoke’ me during the Carcassonne game, I knew that I shouldn’t have said I was going to serve him his butt on a silver platter, but the words were out of my mouth before I could help it.

“What?” he said, both eyes wide open.

“Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn.”

* * *

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

I relaxed and recovered on the plane home, but I was already missing the maniacal imps. They are a handful, and I don’t know how real parents actually do it, but I grin thinking back on those couple of weeks and the cherished moments. When I had arrived in Ohio, Brynn could barely say, “Hi”, and four weeks later she was saying my name. She even wailed for me once when I’d left the room, and I have to admit that I was pleased about it in an evil and sadistic way. Audra didn’t say a word when they took me to the airport—too choked up to risk saying goodbye—and Colson wouldn’t let go when he hugged me for the last time, leaving my neck aching along with my heart.

———————-

You can find the recipes in this blog at:

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte

Raspberry Chambord Sauce

 

 

Proposal in the Barn

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couple-marriedRay and I never intended to get married. For twelve years, we felt that our commitment to each other had nothing to do with the government. It wasn’t necessary to have a document to certify that we meant to spend our lives together. You’ve heard the story. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell? Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt?

This all changed for me, however, during Memorial Day weekend of 2002. We’d visited the graves of Ray’s family members, and as I read tombstone after tombstone it hit me that I wanted to be buried with Ray some day, but that I wanted us to have the same name on the marker. I didn’t want to be remembered as the old lady who’d shacked up with him for all those years.

couple-barn

The subject of marriage had come up a few times already that year, and we were both warming up to the idea. Watching the reruns of Monica and Chandler getting engaged on Friends had spurred on a few conversations, but I’d hesitated to bring up the subject for real for fear of spoiling a proposal he might have had in the works. My birthday in September was coming up, which could have been a good time. Then he had Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve—any of which could have been fine dates for a marriage proposal. I wouldn’t wait any longer than that, however. I promised myself that if he hadn’t asked me by New Year’s Eve, I would do it myself on New Year’s Day.

My birthday came and went without a proposal, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. I woke up a little groggy on January 1, 2003, wiped out (hungover) from the night before. We ate breakfast while watching the Tournament of Roses parade, and afterward Ray put on his coveralls and went out to the barn. He was renovating the fifty-year-old structure, working on raising the floor of the loft. Inside the house, I looked at my sorry reflection in the bathroom mirror and suddenly realized it was the day on which I had intended to propose. Not like that, though.

I started some bath water and ran around the house trying to figure out what to wear. I decided on the pink tiara I’d worn the night before, a purple suede knee-length coat with a purple rabbit fur collar, and black suede boots. After the bath, I made up my face and styled my hair around the pink tiara. For the finishing touch, I grabbed a long-stemmed metal rose that my dad had given me on my 40th birthday. I took a breath and marched out to the barn. It was 32 degrees that day, but I wasn’t cold. I was nervous and sweating and praying he wouldn’t say no.

As I entered the barn, Ray grinned and said, “Hey, check this out,” and motioned me toward his latest project. He didn’t notice my tiara or strange outfit.

down-from-barn“I need you to go upstairs with me,” I said, my voice shaking.

“What, right now?”

I didn’t say anything else, but started climbing the ladder into the loft.

“Oh, I thought you meant in the house,” he said, following me. “Hey, you don’t have anything on under there.”

In the loft, I had to work quickly. I hadn’t really thought out how I would do this. Sunlight shone through the two windows near the peak onto the middle of the dusty wooden floor. I hesitated for a second, but then took off the coat and looked for a place to hang it, somewhere where it wouldn’t get too dirty. How he could he say no to me like this?

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, helping me with the coat, “but I think I like it.”

I manoeuvred him a few feet in front of the spot of light and positioned myself in the direct ray. I shivered in my boots and my crown, but not from the freezing temperature.

I held out the rose and said, “Ray Sundstrom, will you marry me?”

His eyes opened wide, and he said, “Are you serious?”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded, my heart pounding.

He said, “Okay,” and I about died of relief.

We laughed and talked for a few minutes, joking about my nervousness. He admitted that he’d wanted to ask me over the holidays but hadn’t figured out what to do about a ring. He went back to his work in the barn, and I ran into the house to call my mom. My grandma was on her deathbed, and I wanted her to hear the news before it was too late.

ray-proposal

 

di-proposalWe married the following July in the same barn, in the same loft, with one hundred close friends and family there to witness the vows.  I wore my mother’s wedding dress, and Ray had finished the barn renovation in time for the event. There are many stories to recount from that day and the days leading up to it, but I’ll save them for another time.

I will, however, close with a last remark. We thought that nothing would change in our relationship once we were married. The lifetime commitment had been made years before, and we couldn’t imagine loving each other any more or any less. The big surprise? The relationship did change. Even today, nine years after the wedding and twenty-one years since we started the whole thing, somehow we feel more like a family, and we grew closer even though we didn’t think there was any closer to grow into. I’m happy to be called Sundstrom and will be until the day I’m put beneath a stone bearing that name.

happily-ever-after

Movie Review: To Rome with Love (2012)

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When I left the theater after Woody Allen’s magical Midnight in Paris last year, my cheeks hurt from grinning from start to finish. Woody’s love letter to Paris, filled with lavish photography of the city’s most famous sights had me scrambling to book tickets to the City of Light. Could he top it with To Rome With Love, or even come close?

To Rome With Love opens with Allen’s characteristically simple credits rolling to the nostalgic strains of Volare. I didn’t mind the cheesy Italian tourist music. It proclaims from the start what kind of movie To Rome With Love is: a fun frolic through Rome, through its ruins, through its romantic traditions as passed down by decades of Roman Holiday-types of films.

Four separate vignettes reveal the plot of To Rome With Love. The unconnected narratives interweave in no particular order, each illuminating a different Italian motif.

Woody Allen’s films attract top actors, and his direction and screenplays tend to bring out their best performances. In To Rome With Love, this is best seen in the sketch involving the American couple Sally and Jack (Greta Gerwig and Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page), visiting them in Rome. Sally constantly frets that Jack will fall in love with Monica, an actress who possesses an uncanny sex appeal. I initially had doubts as to whether Ellen Page could pull this off, but the Oscar-nominated actress (for 2007′s Juno) and actor (Eisenberg, for 2010′s The Social Network) make us believe it when Jack starts to cave in to her magnetic sexiness. The presence of Alec Baldwin’s character John provides an interesting temporal twist to this storyline. He plays an architect that Jack, an architecture student, has idolized. The two run into each other in Sally and Jack’s Trastevere neighborhood and from then on John serves as a kind of Greek chorus to Jack (and sometimes to the women), warning him of Monica’s less-than-authentic cultural qualifications, warning him about blowing the good thing he’s got going with Sally.

The conflicting placements in time between Jack and John’s mini-storylines will bewilder some viewers, but in this sketch Woody leaves us the key—much like he did by opening the film with Volare. At one point, Ellen Page’s Monica gushes over the significance of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, the quintessential Absurdist work that compares the plight of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus with the absurdity of humanity. Allen has given us his own Absurdist take with To Rome With Love, not spoon-feeding us a straightforward intrigue, but asking us to suspend logic for several hours and enjoy the human spectacle as portrayed against sumptuous Roman scenery.

In another yarn, Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni (for 1997′s Life is Beautiful) plays Leopoldo Pisanello, an ordinary man suddenly beset with inexplicable fame. There is nothing subtle about Allen’s intention to poke fun at the fickleness and aggressiveness of the paparazzi and at the public that accepts whatever the press feeds it. Benigni’s troubles entertain us as we follow his character cycling through the phases of his notoriety.

Spain’s Penelope Cruz (another Oscar winner, for Allen’s 2008 Vicky Christina Barcelona) shows off her linguistic chops with a role as a prostitute in a third sketch completely in Italian. This one, an outright sex romp, follows the mayhem that ensues when a newlywed Italian couple arrives in Rome. The husband is there to take a position with the family firm. The wife disappears while out to get her hair done and Cruz’s character assumes the role of his wife when the stodgy aunts and uncles misinterpret why she’s caught in bed with the husband in the couple’s hotel room. Sounds implausible? Yes, and silly, but mostly it’s Absurd, and throughout the rollicking action, we explore ideals of Italian love and sex, of the absurdity of star-struck fans hopping into bed with film stars, and we get to peek at the lovely Roman scenery behind it all.

The fourth tale is that of Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato), a mortician who sings like an opera star—but only when he’s in the shower. Woody Allen plays a music producer in retirement that overhears Giancarlo and insists on bringing his talent before the masses. Their respective children Michelangelo and Hayley (Flavio Parenti and Alison Pill) are engaged and Jerry and Phyllis (Woody and Judy Davis, who is excellent) are in Italy to meet Michelangelo’s parents. There are funny moments throughout To Rome With Love, but this was the sketch that had me laughing out loud. The full theater chuckled almost every time Woody opened his mouth (especially when repeatedly mispronouncing “Michelangelo”) and roared at the opera scenes. Stupidly funny, yes, these scenes, but again—pure Absurdity is the point. How refreshing to belly laugh at a musical form like opera, one that takes itself so seriously.

To Rome With Love carries an “R” rating for the sexual references, and there is a lot of hopping in and out of bed, but really there’s not too much to offend the sensitive viewer. I counted only one F-word, and it was appropriately placed. As with Midnight in Paris, there was a bit of foreign language spoken, with subtitles. Two of the sub-stories were completely in Italian. The Italian language, however, adds to the charm as much as do the vistas of the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the picturesque alleys of Trastevere.

I could have done without the bookending of the film with two different characters talking to the camera, explaining that there are all these stories taking place in Rome. The one at the beginning was mildly amusing, a flamboyant policeman directing traffic on the Piazza Venezia. I would have kept the scenery, especially of the spectacular monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, but cut the policeman’s dialogue along with that of the man on the balcony overlooking the Spanish Steps at the end of the film.

To Rome With Love wasn’t Midnight in Paris, but I’m not sure anything will ever match that particular treasure. As with Midnight in Paris, though, I did grin throughout, and I do find myself inclined to get on a plane for Rome. To Rome With Love has received criticism for not acknowledging the current economic woes in Europe and in Italy, but it shouldn’t have—it wasn’t that kind of movie. That movie’s soundtrack wouldn’t have opened with Volare.

Love and Divorce in the Workplace

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When Too Much Fun at Happy Hours and Christmas Parties Leads to Public Shunning

We worked for the same company, in a bullpen of a hundred cubicles, and I couldn’t believe my luck. A fresh college graduate, I’d landed in that rare paradise of a work crowd that liked to socialize. Art was my boss at the beginning. In fact, he’d been the manager who’d hired me. Once the news of our blossoming love affair became public knowledge, however, the powers-that-be gladly scooted me to another middle manager-with everyone’s blessing.

Two years of frolic ensued, filled with happy hours, Christmas parties, ski trips, camping trips, and houseboat trips-an unending revelry of laughter and too much alcohol.

We held the wedding in our backyard-a simple affair and no gifts, since it was his second wedding. I made lasagna for a hundred and wore a form-fitting satiny blue dress with a big, poofy ruffle at the bottom. The work gang attended, and we danced like fools.

Two years later, I realized that it wasn’t working and would never work. I tried to visualize growing old with him and couldn’t. It was like our future couldn’t exist.  [more]

(published in its entirety on Yahoo! Voices)

The 1 and Only: Cruising California’s legendary coastline

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I couldn’t help giggling last night, looking forward to the next day’s adventure: driving to Los Angeles to visit my friend Beth, my cohort in crime in graduate school. We’d spent three summers together at UC Santa Barbara earning our masters’ in French, and I couldn’t imagine a better apartment-mate and friend with whom to share such an ordeal. That’s us in the picture below with all the bottles. We studied very hard—Beth more than I did, I’m afraid—but we managed to throw a party or two. This photo’s from the last of our now-famous chocolate tasting bashes.

I giggled, too, about the last-minute decision to go south on Highway 1 instead of Interstate 5, even though it would certainly take more time. I-5 is the straightforward choice between Silicon Valley and LA—an easy six hours—and while I wouldn’t call it boring, nothing compares to the legendary stretch of winding asphalt on the 1, barely clinging to the cliffs overhanging the Pacific far below. The whole way isn’t that perilous, but enough of it is to make it a truly excellent driving experience.

Ray’s at the wheel now while I write in the car. I drove until Ragged Point, just shy of San Simeon and Hearst Castle, including the 26 miles between Monterey and Big Sur. They’re the famous ones, those 26—the official route of the Big Sur International Marathon—a killer footrace for those so inclined, but I prefer doing it by car these days. They’re not for the timid motorist, these twists and turns. At midday on a Thursday, the traffic’s not as heavy as on the weekend, but even on the best days, you can find yourself behind a few slower drivers. The wise choice is to just relax, relax while gripping the steering wheel, paying attention to every hairpin turn and harrowing drop-off into the Pacific—and enjoy the view! About an hour back, a black Honda Accord zoomed to within a foot of my back bumper and laid on his horn. We were already the eighth car in an uphill lineup. This cracked us up, and we yelled at him through the back windshield: Dude, chill out—you’re on the 1! He leapfrogged our car and started beeping at the next car. Incredulous, we laughed again like idiots, as he wove frantically, looking for a way to pass: If you’re in a hurry, why are you on the 1?

A few moments later, every car found its pace, and the traffic fell into an easy rhythm. We took the curves comfortably, crazily at an agreeable velocity for a 1997 Riviera with a supercharged engine. It’s on days like these when I really love my car, though it’s quickly becoming an ancient relic/grand old classic: lots of road-hugging power for screaming up the hills and yet still tight enough to not throw us around on the curves.

Today the windows are down because the A/C’s broken, and today I don’t mind. I don’t mind that the window’s down or that the A/C’s broken. It would have been 30 degrees hotter on I-5—thus influencing this route—and if we’d had A/C, I never would have agreed to the windows being down. The Grace Kelly ideal of scarf and sunglasses in a sexy convertible on a Riviera roadway sounds good on film, but I’ve never been a windows-down kind of girl. I have long, dirty-blond hair that gets curlier every day—downright frizzy in the ocean mist—and snarls up at the slightest breeze. The scarf would be wrapped around my face and sunglasses whipped from my head before even leaving the driveway. My dad once rented a convertible for a weekend that he and I had spent in Vegas many years ago, back when we’d both been in the Air National Guard, and I’ll never forget his disappointment when I didn’t want the roof down. I’ve felt horribly guilty about it for years, but I’m still not sorry that I didn’t have to rip all the knots out of my hair that night.

But I’m glad the windows are down today at this slow, but aggressive pace, so that we hear the waves crashing and the gulls screeching. My hair’s a mess, but I can smell the ocean and rejoice in the spectacle that will be over too soon even at this speed. It takes forever, yet it’s over too soon.

I have this fantasy of driving Highway 1 in its entirety—starting in Northern California where the 1 meets the Redwoods Highway—and coursing it south, past wonderful-sounding placenames such as Sea Ranch, Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Half Moon Bay; traversing the Golden Gate Bridge; beach-bumming in Santa Cruz; touring Hearst Castle; enjoying a sunset at Pismo Beach; waving a salute to my alma mater in Santa Barbara; spying on celebs in Malibu; entering Los Angeles at Venice Beach, hopefully not at rush hour; dipping into the ocean again at Huntington Beach; finishing the journey at Dana Point, just south of San Juan Capistrano—taking my time, camping in the car or my backpacking tent whenever I need to stop. I’ve thought about it a lot and charted the course on Google Maps, toyed with the idea of using my infantine filmmaking skills to make a documentary of the adventure. What should such a documentary look like? I don’t have helicopters at my disposal, so I can’t do dramatic shots swooping over bluffs into heart-stopping dives over the waves, but I’ll try everything else. Any ideas for what you think might be fun? I think I’d like to focus on the lesser-known segments of the route. Monterey to Big Sur is awesome and belongs in the film, but what about Sea Ranch and Pescadero in the north and…? Well, I was going to say several beach names in the south, but they’re all pretty famous, so never mind. They don’t round out my sentence very well.

That’s the fantasy anyway—making a documentary as a justification to drive all of Highway 1 at a leisurely tempo, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and maybe a visit or two with locals along the way. As if one needed justification.

We made it to Los Angeles that night—Ray, me, and the Riviera—cutting inland from the 1 at Ventura. How lovely to embrace my friend and her husband at the end of the day, welcomed into their home at the foot of Mount Wilson. I’ll most likely write much more about Beth* in future posts. [I’ve included many of our ‘French Camp’ exploits in my upcoming novel. I’m shooting for it to be available through Amazon at the end of 2012!] The only thing that matters tonight, though, is the abundance of wine, chocolate, and laughter among friends after an arduous day sur la route.

* Beth wrote an excellent blog about enjoying “The Journey”. Check it out here.

About Diane Sundstrom

It’s always hard to write a good “About me”-type of document. Am I writing a resume or listing my hobbies or naming off dates and hometowns? I’ve “been” many things, if one’s occupation describes what one “is”. I’ve held down jobs as an electrical engineer designing integrated circuits, writing test programs, managing projects; a college professor teaching math, French, and piano; a French translator, assistant to a former US senator; and I am now writing a novel. I don’t feel, however, that any of these positions has ever really defined me, and luckily these days it doesn’t seem to be as important to me to have a specific label. If it was, it would have to change every day!

I’m into a lot, and Sund’ Side Up is my “accountability” place, with a spotlight on the positive, on the “upside” of life. I love to travel, cook, play the piano, create photos and videos, and write stories, so a little bit of all of this will eventually creep onto my site. My unending goal is to experience as much life as is within my grasp. The technical side of me has been rather starved lately, so I’m teaching myself how to write the code for this website myself—because I needed one more project. (Let me know if something doesn’t work!)

My husband Ray and I have recently moved to Boston–read all about it in the recent “Boston” blogs! We spent the three years before that splitting our time between our family farm in Letcher, South Dakota, and an apartment in Los Gatos, California—two very different worlds. If I haven’t set foot on a plane, train, or boat at least every three weeks or so, I start to get antsy. I’ve moved around a bit, living in Ohio, Arizona, California, France, South Dakota, and now in New England, and as a result, my friends are scattered all over the world, and I wish I could hang out with more of them more often.

That’s it for now—there’s no easy way to sum up the “About me”. The page is still being written. The best way to really know about me is probably just to read through my blogs!