Writing Without Madeleine

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Today is the day I realize how much I talk to Madeleine. I have lots of names for her: Mad Catter, Kittylicious, Maddie-Cat, Maddiecatscar, Maddietat, Cattertack, Madalina Catalina, Kitteous of Kat, Alarm Cat (AC), Sink-O de Kitty, Chucky, Fuzzy, Ball o’ Cat, SweetieCat, and just plain Maddie. She generally responds with purrs and snores, green eyes that know what I’m talking about, and with meows if she wants to change the subject back to something like “more pâté, please”.

 

Two days ago I found Madeleine in her newest favorite Amazon box—the one that delivered her last litter shipment—looking like she was asleep. It wasn’t unexpected that she wasn’t ‘just asleep’, but that didn’t keep me from melting into a puddle onto the floor beside her. Ray and I sat down on the rug beside the box (the box tipped on its side because she liked to lay half-in/half-out upon the little ‘porch’ that the bottom flap made), and we pet her for awhile, trying to talk, choking out favorite memories. We scratched the soft fur between her ears and under her chin the way she liked. We stroked the fur over her little rib cage. We hooked her claws around our fingers and played with the pads of her feet. Our fingers ran into the clumps of frizzy fur tangled on her hindquarters and underbelly that she never liked to let us groom well enough. We looked through our tears into her still-open eyes and hoped that her last seconds during the night were easy ones.

 

We left her there in her comfy spot and went about making breakfast as usual—it was Saturday, so poached eggs with smoked salmon and avocado. She was still there every time we glanced over, and it was easy to make ourselves believe if only for a little while longer that she was still with us, just asleep. Missing was that she didn’t come into the kitchen to twist under our feet at the first whiff of salmon.

 

It was a Day of Action, with sorrow and sadness certainly, but it served as a day of texting family, texting my BFF Beth who always understands, and taking care of the practicalities. Knowing this was coming—Madeleine was 15 and had been slowing down—I had researched pet cremation and set money aside for it. I cleaned out a drawer of the freezer, and Ray and I placed her into four plastic bags, one inside the other. I couldn’t bring myself to put her in random CVS bags that we had under the kitchen sink, so I chose four bags with perhaps a little more meaning: a bright green one that I’d had to use at Massachusetts General for my belongings when I’d broken my hip (from which Madeleine helped me recover), two Trader Joe’s bags (because what’s cooler than Trader Joe’s?), and a giant Ziploc with a label on it saying “On Writing Suspense” (a leftover from The Muse and the Marketplace, best writing conference ever that I was lucky enough to work for earlier this year). Her tiny body didn’t take up much of the drawer, and I was able to refreeze in the same drawer some Italian cookies from Bova’s in Boston’s North End.

 

I emptied and scrubbed out her litter box one last time and put it in the hallway where people in our building leave no-longer-needed items. (Management doesn’t like this, but we do it anyway, an unspoken tenants’ bartering exchange. One could furnish an entire apartment in under a year this way.) A friend with cats took the new box of litter and our last three cans of Whole Paws. I vacuumed up dust from between the planks of the floor where her litter box had been, I threw away the toys that she hadn’t played with for the last month, and emptied and washed all of her bowls of Meow Mix and water scattered throughout the apartment.

 

The Day of Action kept me whole. There was stuff to do. But the next morning Ray flew out to attend the funeral of a beloved uncle, and I was alone with only the absence of Madeleine. I catch myself opening my mouth to say something to her, call her, run something by her, or I expect her to materialize in the kitchen right as I’m about to make myself something to eat—she always wanted to eat at the same time, usually preferring that we give her some of ours or at least let her sniff and lick it before she decided she didn’t want it. Her spark of life has left our walls, and the emptiness is uncanny. How had I been previously so unaware that she had projected her essence into every cubic inch of our living space? It’s like a silence, but the void is more than an absence of sound. I can’t feel her think anymore. Or rather, she’s not sensing me anymore, like how she would know when I needed companionship or cheering up or a paw laid on my hand or a bump of her nose on my nose.

 

Two days ago Madeleine slept on the floor beside my writing table (a month ago it was up on the table beside my laptop in the jet of warm air blowing out from the power supply fan), listening to music while I wrote. Like me, she leaned toward French classical piano, permitting the occasional composition for organ by César Franck. A master meditator, she was always there to help us with yoga, especially with final relaxation. And, she could get into some amazing poses. Madeleine spent her first ten years as an outdoor cat at our farm in South Dakota, gradually moving herself in (her plot all along), until riding along with us in a U-Haul to Boston to become a full-time indoor cat. She put up with a leash and harness to do some touring about the city—a hit on the T and in the Public Garden—and even humored us by starring in a 48-hour video we made. (It’s pretty goofy, but still on YouTube.)

 

Life will be easier in a practical sense without Madeleine. We won’t have to rush to make the bed in the morning to keep her out of the sheets, I won’t have to keep my laptop closed so she won’t throw up on it again, we can set the table without worrying about whether she’ll jump up and help herself to anything salty or buttery or with bones, there will no longer be cat hair to unstick from everything, there won’t be paw prints all over the bathroom sink and toilet lid, I won’t need to arrange for cat sitters when we travel, and I won’t have to worry about her when we’re gone, worry that she’s sad because we left her alone, worry that she’s not eating enough or being played with or pet enough. When we pack for trips, we won’t find her sleeping in our suitcases. She won’t be sniffing and tickling our faces with her whiskers at 5:30 in the morning.

 

Life will be simpler without Madeleine, but a little less wonderful. We have been a family of three with her for more than a quarter of our lives, and today I must try to celebrate that she chose to be our cat way back in the fall of 2003, adopting us, deciding to stay when we gave her tuna fish. It’s probably more like she chose us to be her staff, but it’s been a pleasure to serve her. In a few days, I will rent a car and drive with her remains to the crematorium near Plymouth, and while I have the car, take the time for some meditative hours along the beach gazing out over Cape Cod Bay, remembering the sweet, gentle being that gave us nothing but love for so many years.

 

Shakespeare, a Rainy Night, and a Broken Hip

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Macbeth is supposed to be a cursed play. I hadn’t remembered this when we walked across the street and down two blocks to catch a free performance. It was supposed to be outside, on Atlantic Wharf, but they moved all of us into the lobby of an office building on the wharf because of the threat of rain. We dragged our green hard-plastic chairs inside—you had to bring your own—and sat stiffly through the two-hour presentation.

 

HipBlogI’m not that good at Shakespeare, but I try. I like to pass myself off as some kind of literary geek, but I’ve never really studied the Bard and am only knowledgeable in the most popular of the popular lore surrounding the legendary playwright. The reality is that the language goes by too fast for me, I have to read the synopses beforehand on Wikipedia, and I’m always the last to laugh at the funny parts. I do accept responsibility for this, however. It’s not Shakespeare’s fault—I’m the one who needs to work on it.

 

The inside venue didn’t help. Whereas outside I could have smelled salty air and daydreamed during the parts I couldn’t catch, looking over my shoulder at Boston Harbor, inside in the lobby there was nothing to look at or smell, and the too-fast dialogue echoed all over the room. I strained for famous lines of dialogues, phrases that had crept all the way into modern speech, and did imaginary victory elbow pumps every time I caught one.

 

Two hours later with no intermission, we were happy to stretch and say, yeah, that was good. Two hours later, it was pouring down rain. Home was only three blocks away, so we ducked our heads, green hard-plastic chairs in hand, and plunged into the dark, shiny-wet streets.

 

As we crossed Summer Street in front of South Station, the walk signal changed on the other side of Atlantic Avenue—our street—meaning that we could take the broad intersection on a diagonal. I love getting the diagonal, love the whole idea of this sort of legal jaywalking that you get to do in Boston.

 

I yelled, We got the diagonal! and took a sharp turn to the right. I’d forgotten about the raised median—didn’t see it in the rain—and tripped. My left hip came down on the other edge of the median, with me half-laying in the street.

 

Ray said, Hey, you’ve got to get out of the street, but I couldn’t move. I started crying, knowing, already feeling, that something was very wrong in my leg. He scooped me up before the cars came and carried me to the expanse of sidewalk just outside of the train station. Two helpful onlookers grabbed the green chairs for us.

 

We stayed there on the sidewalk a few moments getting soaked in the rain, not knowing what to do, me sitting on the stacked chairs. I would try to stand up, at first okay on my right leg, but then my left leg would give out. I’d sit back down and sob some more.

 

Let’s at least get out of the rain, Ray said. He carried me into the deserted train station—it was a Sunday night—and made sure I could hold myself up against a wall while he went back for the chairs. I sat down in them again

while we contemplated the whole mess. Could I walk home? Our apartment was right across the street. I tried again and again, but couldn’t stand let alone walk. I thought if I could just get home I could sleep on it, and maybe it would be better in the morning.

We finally decided that I needed to go to the hospital, but then how? Too many decisions! Could Ray carry me onto the T? We thought about him carrying me into the elevator, through the turnstiles, then down two more elevators to the train. The hospital—oh crap, which hospital? There are ten hospitals within a mile of us!—was three stops away, then one elevator down, and a whole lot of carrying to the emergency room entrance. No way. Neither of us wanted to call an a

mbulance, already adding up the costs in our heads, so we settled on a cab. Ray flagged one down and carried me out. We left the green plastic chairs in the station, not knowing if we’d see them again.

 

At the hospital, after a relatively short wait by ER standards, X-rays confirmed that I’d broken my hip. Just under the ball, at the neck of the femur, it had cracked all the way through, and I’d need surgery.

 

GreenChairsRay stayed until 4 a.m., until I was stable and tucked in to spend a night in the emergency room before my turn in the operating room the next day. The T was closed down by then, so he had to walk home, but the rain had stopped.

 

We were both relieved when he found the green hard-plastic chairs still in South Station the next day. At least our story wasn’t as tragic as Macbeth’s.

 

(Stay tuned for updates on the hip recovery…)

 

 

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.

 

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!

The Lincoln Letter, by William Martin

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.
debbie-photogenic

 

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

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

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.

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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