Monday, November 26, 2012

Fear Of Floating

 It has been my experience that metropolitan New Yorkers are not traditionally water people. They don’t readily take to the sea and talk about things like jibs and mainsails like New Englanders do--they don’t hang ten on surfboards like Californians. They avoid the water: they travel through tunnels that have been burrowed miles beneath it, and navigate across bridges that have been built miles above it. 

We in my family were true landlubbers. I remember hearing stories of how my dad almost died on the boat coming to the U.S., and had he actually died, I’m not sure what really would have done him in--the seasickness or the falling into the water as he was hanging over the edge because of the seasickness. 

When I was much younger, the extent of my water activities was taking a bath. We were not beach people either, no surprise there--my mom hated the sand. I found no joy in splashing around in the murky waters of Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, and the thought of getting pulled under by riptides caused me undue paranoia whenever I got past the beachfront.  While the others were attempting to jump the waves and squealing with delight as a rush of seawater would come and send them tumbling, I adhered to the dilettante’s method of beach going, and would merely dunk my toes and search for shells. 

 Most of the memories I have of swimming pools come from my summers spent up in the Catskill Mountains. The pool’s side was a bigger draw, since that’s where we did our sunbathing. Our suntan lotion of choice was a very unscientific and now we know, dangerous, mixture of baby oil and iodine, and we slathered it all over our bodies. The iodine gave the concoction a rusty-red hue, and in turn our skin took on that color, as did our bathing suits and anything else it came into contact with. More time was spent outside the pool than in it. My friends would have diving contests and swimming races, but I would feign sleep, or be reading a magazine, and then merely go in for a dip. The water held no attraction for me, and I didn’t want to get my hair wet (the bane of a wavy-haired girl’s existence).

Moving to southern California, land of year-round water sports, and experiencing life from an entirely different perspective (and coastline), may have emboldened me slightly when it came to my fear (and dislike) of the water.  

When my boys were old enough to go away to summer camp, I wanted them to experience what I felt was a true East-Coast-on-the-West-Coast camp experience, and being near a lake was a large part of it. Visiting day was always a bittersweet time for me. The first glimpses of my boys--dressed in mismatched clothes, their skin turned golden by the sun, looking so much more grown up than when they left weeks before--were heavenly. There were hugs and kisses and introductions to new friends, and a celebratory lunch of burgers and fries and thick, cold shakes at Miller’s, the local eatery. 

When our hearts and bellies were full, we would head down to the lake for our ritual visiting day activities. And what was up till then a wonderful yearly event, would become for me something akin to torture. As I mentioned, I believed no summer camp was a true summer camp without lake access. What I actually believed was this access should be for everyone but me. Gone were the days when I could sit back and watch everyone else head to the waterfront. My sons would have nothing of it, and rather than disappoint them, I joined them--with great trepidation. It wasn’t so much the being in the water that frightened me, it was being in a large body of water, with nothing to hold on to and nowhere to plant my feet. 

It took every last jot of courage I could muster to get myself on the speedboat. I would very carefully choose who I wanted to go with—we were always part of a large group—and usually it was someone who I thought would be able to save me if I fell in and proceeded to drown. Very often, that person was our friend Seth. When Seth would take the helm, I knew I was in good hands.  After all, he’s a gynecologist...he delivered my son--has had many years dealing with breech births, c-sections, and episiotomies, of course the man could handle a water emergency! He signed an oath, which is more than I could say for the other non-MDs in the group. My friend Carrie received the well-sought after second-place on my list.  She, although not a medical practitioner, did grow up around boats and merely emanated a strong nautical vibe.

Are you wondering why no one on the list was a blood relative? I don’t think I really need to answer that, other than tell you that I wouldn’t trust my family to save me from drowning even if they had a life boat. My husband and I did such a good job of making sure our boys were fearless in the water that they were, in my opinion, too fearless--and too reckless.

It’s interesting that years later, the very thing that scared the heck out of me for much of my life, became a great source of comfort. After a full day of visiting my mom who was lying very ill in a hospital bed in Santa Monica, I would take the coast route to get home.  As my car would leave the city streets and edge closer to the Pacific Coast Highway, I could feel the burdens of the day beginning to lift. The medicinal smells of the hospital ward and the vision of mom curled up in her white and blue hospital gown and fuzzy blue slipper-socks would be blown out to sea as the salty air filtered through the car windows. What was left of the sunlight danced on the water like little prisms. I am so far away from that ocean now, but I realize how much of my sanity back then was owed to those drives alongside it. 

 My dog Dashiell and I walk along the Charles River here in Cambridge every morning.The weather has turned and the winterized pleasure boats we pass look as though they’ve been vacuum-sealed in white plastic. The giant white “glaciers” creak as they bob up and down in the frigid water. I’ve read that water is a great healer, and even the ancient Egyptians and Romans recognized that. I now believe for me, it is more of a mental than physical healer. And I finally have realized that I am so happy being near the water--just not in it.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fish Stew

The winds they are a-blowin’ and we in New England were just hit with our first batch of (thankfully little) snow of the season. Yesterday was downright raw, and a day such as that just begs for hot soup.

The silky, smooth purees of potato or butternut squash are perfect for the Thanksgiving table, and the hearty Italian meatball zuppa are great for when you’ve got lots of prep and cooking time, but when it’s late afternoon on a blustery day, and you decide you’ve got to have soup soon, those are not the perfect choices. 

Soup is one of the easiest things to make if you’ve got the right ingredients on hand. If you’ve got a bunch of bags of frozen veggies in the freezer and some boxes of good chicken broth in the pantry, a pot of hot soup can be yours in a snap. Throw in chopped tomatoes, and finish it off with some cooked pasta or rice and a sprinkling of dried herbs, and you’re good to go.

Chowders are very popular here in New England, and they do have their place: they taste of the sea and are perfect for when you’re sitting at a wooden picnic table behind a tiny clam shack smack on the coast of Maine in July. I love the little round crackers you can float on top. But I’m a New York girl at heart and the tomato-based red chowders are more to my liking. I’ve been throwing together a simple fish stew lately that is a cross between a Manhattan Clam Chowder (without the clams) and Bouillabaisse, a Provencal fish stew. The soup can be made as simply or as complex as you prefer, depending upon the types of seafood you use--I’ve just been using haddock and shrimp, but adding mussels and/or clams can only burnish its flavor. The broth is light, making this dish reasonably low in calories, but the fish and vegetables make for a very filling entree. Add some toasted baguette and a salad and you’ve got a meal that just may soften the sting of the foofaraw going on outside your window.

Fish Stew (little round crackers are optional)
(adapted from Ina Garten)

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onions (1 medium)
  • 1 rib celery, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped fennel (1/2 large bulb)
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup good white wine

  • 1 (14-ounce) can plum tomatoes, with juice, chopped
  • 1 quart fish stock, or chicken stock
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped 
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 pound large, frozen shrimp, thawed

  • 1 pound haddock, cut into thick hunks
  • 12 mussels, cleaned (opt.)
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • Toasted baguette slices, buttered and rubbed with garlic

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or stockpot, add the onions, celery, and fennel, and cook until the onions begin to brown. Add the wine and scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Add the tomatoes with their juices, stock, garlic, and turmeric to the pot, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Add the fish, and mussels (if using), bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the thawed shrimp. Turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit covered for another 5 minutes. The fish should be cooked and the mussels opened. Discard any mussels that don't open. Stir in the orange zest, and salt, to taste. Serve ladled over 1 or 2 slices of toasted baguette.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dear 20-Year-Old-Self

This post is part of something my blogging buddies in a group called Generation Fabulous refer to as a “blogroll.” I’m complying with their request because I love them all, but please don’t ask me what I’m doing because I have no idea. (I think we’re all linking to each other’s posts...yeah, that’s the ticket!)

My birthday is in late September, so the summer before I turned 20, I was still technically 19, but I don’t believe that I was much different at 19 than I was at 20, so when I talk to my 19-year-old self, I’m talking to my 20-year-old self too. Got it?

That summer I was part of a large group of teens (remember, I was still a “teen”) who traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz and do some touring around the country. I had a “boyfriend” who shouldn’t have been my boyfriend because he was also someone else’s boyfriend, and I was fed up with him and everything else that was going on in my young, but very complicated life. And being the very dramatic young woman I was back then, I approached my parents and screamed that I just wanted to “get away!” When I proposed the idea of heading thousands of miles away with a youth group, my mom and dad balked at first, but I had the smarts to find a Jewish group (because every Jewish youth group is upstanding and righteous, and abstains from alcohol, drugs and sex--uh-huh). When the group I chose was “properly” vetted, they agreed and off I went.

I won’t go into detail about the summer, but it was quite eventful, from a 19-year-old ‘s point of view. It was a glorious eight-week vacation that consisted of working in the kibbutz fields and kitchens, touring on buses, sunbathing around the pool (remember, this was a Jewish youth group), and dancing in the bomb shelter-cum-kibbutz disco where the sweaty young soldiers and locals would try their best to grind the “sophisticated” young American, Canadian, and French girls. You might say the summer was a lesson in interpersonal relationships, so to speak.
letters of rec
Dear almost-20-year-old-self, 

There is a line from a book/movie that comes out many years from now, but it applies to you: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” I know you know that sometimes, but you forget those great attributes when it matters and that will drive you into a rut. Your lack of self-confidence will hold you back from many wonderful opportunities. I think the girl you are at 20 could probably teach the girl,and then woman, you become a thing or two about bravery and boldness. You went on this trip knowing no one, and yet the idea of spending eight weeks with strangers in a strange land seemed exciting to you. 

But that momentum doesn’t last, and you wind up having no direction once you get home. You fall back into the same patterns that you had been so anxious to get away from. I wish you would have asked more questions and sought out more mentors--people who would have given you direction. Find a career you will get great satisfaction from, and if you don't, then look again, and perhaps something in the "cooking field" (hint, hint) might be something you should consider.

You knew that you were capable of doing anything, but yet finding a boyfriend who would define your worth seemed more important too often (and boy, you did find some doozies). I wish you could have asserted yourself in so many of those relationships. But don’t worry, eventually you do find “the one.” It just takes you a while, and you come very close to not recognizing the signs.

And looking back through an over 30-year-lens I see you have difficulty recognizing signs...a lot. I know you were schooled on obsessing about what you didn’t have, as opposed to what you had, and I wish it wouldn’t have taken you so long to see the other side of that coin. But, know that it does flip...eventually.

I’m not telling you to be satisfied. I’m telling you to accept the good and change the not-so-good. Don’t settle, and (I know I’m sounding like your mom here) don’t be lazy. 

And oh, the places you’ll go. Embrace them and think of them as adventures, not trips to Hell. Because your attitude will affect your children--yes, children. They will be amazing, and when you are unhappy, they will be unhappy. 

And there’s one more thing: cut your parents some slack. Yes, they are the cause of many, many stressful days and nights in your future, but if you learn how to handle them and try to understand them a little better, you won’t suffer from agita all the time. They will eventually be gone, and you’ll make your peace with them, but sooner would be better than later for your physical and mental health.

Look to your future with wide-eyed, stomach-tumbling anticipation, not with dread. It will be a wild ride--enjoy it.

And one more thing...lose the Dorothy Hamill haircut. It’s not becoming, and it will be out of style very soon. And watch those steps at the Park Street T station...they’re a killer.