Monday, November 29, 2010

A Solid Mouthful of Christmas

That’s what our friend Hugo calls it, but really it’s just my chocolate fruitcake. I invented it in Baltimore in 1981. All my friends had warned me about fruitcake, but like the rebellious brat I was, I ignored them because during my senior year at Peabody, I found a recipe for chocolate fruitcake and how could that not be good? It waaaaas. That first fruitcake was heart-meltingly delicious, full of home-candied dried fruit and toasted nuts and rum and so chocolatey, complicated, soft and sweet. Yuuuuuuuuuummm.

Like many voice students at Peabody, I paid my rent by singing in a church choir. So for me, Christmas meant performing in what seemed like dozens of church and church-related programs. The Advent concert. The annual rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria for the Men’s Club at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roland Park. (The pay was a bottle of sherry in a gold box. I drank the sherry and made Christmas ornaments out of the gold box.) Christmas at St. David’s itself was a huge production – as paid choristers, my friends and I sang the Christmas Eve services, including the midnight Mass, gathered in my apartment afterwards about 2:00 a.m., ate potluck around my three-foot-tall, listing-to-one-side tree that I’d decorated in sherry bottle cardboard and popcorn, sang some more, and got back to the church by 7:00 a.m. to rehearse before the 8:00 and 11:00 morning services. Hey, who needs sleep when you’re twenty-two, eh?

So the year after I graduated, I decided I would make my new fruitcake for the all-night party. I’d prove to the world (at least to my friends) that fruitcake can be good. It’d start a whole new tradition.

After two hours of looking through every cooking magazine and scrap of paper I had in my recipe box (I have recipe boxes like other people have tax files), I had to admit that I had lost the recipe. Oh no! Now what’ll I do?

I’ll just re-create it. How hard could it be?

That was twenty-nine years ago. Thank goodness for the 1959 version of the Betty Crocker cookbook, because that’s where the basic recipe came from. Cooking is chemistry and you can’t just guess at ratios for leavening to liquid and flour. Then I started tinkering with the add-ins. The first few versions established that I like dried papaya and pineapple, more for the stained-glass window look than anything else, and that little dried green bits of citron were right out. By 1985 I was in a groove, the proportions and types of fruit and macerating liquid and nuts fairly well set, although the recipe was still scribbled (in pen!) in the margins of Betty’s fruitcake page. (I didn’t claim the recipe for my own and move it out of the cookbook until well into the computer age when I typed it out on my Mac Mini sometime in the late 1990s.)

But as I only made the cake once a year, tweaking just one or two ingredients each time, changes were slow to come. Each year I went through the same laborious process. Re-read the fruitcake story in Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. Make the pilgrimage to Sheridan Fruit to buy dried fruit and nuts in bulk. (Although when I was in grad school, I cheated and bought bags of pre-chopped fruit from Trader Joe’s. I still feel bad about that.) Dice and snip until my hands seize up and then warm the fruit gently in orange juice or rum and let it all sit for a day or three. Chop the nuts. Prepare the pans (this can take a couple of hours, but luckily I married a man a third of the way into my Fruitcake Life who took on this part of the job). Finally, finally make the cake itself, and this is where I kept trying to achieve the Perfect Chocolate Fruitcake Flavor. Some years I would come tantalizingly close to the intense chocolatey-ness I remembered, but then the cake wouldn’t quite stay together. Then I’d back off the chocolate the following year and get a more traditionally solid fruitcake, still okay but just…not…quite…right…

I made fruitcake through three divorces, two children, a Master’s degree, careers in singing and teaching, years as a private school administrator and grant writer and housewife-and-mother. I made fruitcake during the last years of the Cold War and in the days following 9/11 and through melting arctic and Antarctic poles and the disappearing ozone layer. Maybe the world didn’t get better each year, but the fruitcake did.

Last month, I read Truman Capote aloud to my children, my high-school-Junior son and my 27-year-old daughter. The three of us decided upon the ingredients for this year’s cake, dried apricots, cherries, and papaya. (They wanted hazelnuts, not almonds, but I forgot and in the actual baking, put in almonds instead. They are good children and forgave me.) Rum, instant espresso powder, and LOTS of chocolate. Maybe if we use chocolate extract to bump up the chocolate index, it won’t make the cake fall apart like the chocolate chips did that time. No pineapple this year and definitely no dried blueberries. The dried blueberries had been a little strange.

The next day, son Robin and I rode our bikes four miles each way to Sheridan Fruit to buy the fruit and nuts. We got a little lost because of the construction along 99 East, but we got there after overshooting and backtracking twice. And it cost more than I expected because of the bulk Jelly Belly display. You must suffer for your fruitcake. We stopped at the liquor store on the way home and bought a pint of rum, too.

The ingredients went into the dried fruit cupboard, stored inside a springform pan, which means don’t touch, this means you, this is the fruitcake stuff. Everybody in my family respects the fruitcake stuff.

Three weeks later, anxious weeks for my husband Ed who really, really believes that fruitcake should be made in August so it will age and doesn’t want to face the fact that I ALWAYS make fruitcake during the last week of November, I got started. Two days before Thanksgiving, I started chopping, macerating, sniffing and gloating. I love the fruit preparation part. Then the fruit sat in a covered dish out in “Fred,” our name for the uninsulated enclosed porch just off the kitchen that doubles as a second refrigerator, while we got through Thanksgiving Day and the aftermath. Two pumpkin pies, three types of cranberry sauce, two versions of stuffing, one for those who want to court E.coli and a non-fat casserole version, and two kinds of gravy. Fruitcake had to wait.

But finally, finally, the night after Thanksgiving, Ed prepared the pans with Crisco and parchment paper while I melted chocolate in the double boiler. It took awhile, because we had to decide how many fruitcakes and what size to make. You can’t give fruitcake to just anybody. Some people will not appreciate it and it will be wasted. We do have a few friends and family members who ask plaintively each year if they’re going to get one. Hugo, of course, gets one because of the time at the pub sing when I gave him a piece and he sighed blissfully, with that accent from his native England, “Now THAT’S a solid mouthful of Christmas!” And we have to make sure that we have enough. There’s the tree decorating evening, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to get through, and what if we run out?

Then I had to find the recipe. There’s tension about this, too, because I printed out my recipe a few years ago and now there are multiple copies floating around. Sometimes you can’t find the one with last year’s notes on it and you have to proceed without knowing what worked and didn’t work last year. To my chagrin, this turned out to be one of those years. Oh well. I’m sure the 2007 fruitcake was good enough, although I remember last year’s as being pretty good. Have faith in the process and forge ahead. This year, I added another tablespoon of cocoa and some chocolate extract, a new addition. I beat the batter until it fluffed up and changed color, a new procedure. Now we’re getting risky. (I can hear Han Solo shouting at Luke Skywalker, “Great, kid! Don’t get cocky!”) Hey, I’ve been making this thing for three-fifths of my life, I can take chances if I want to. Poured the batter over the precious fruit and nuts and called the family for the traditional stir. You must stir the fruitcake batter and make a wish for the coming year. While we were stirring, I stared at an eight-ounce package of Valrhona mini chocolate chips that I’d bought at DeLaurenti’s, a specialty food store in Seattle. THAT would make it chocolatey enough, you bet. Should I put it in? Robin, who works off-and-on as a prep chef in a high-end Italian restaurant, said decisively, NO. His sister Elizabeth, who has ten years on him and who as a prospective actress has more reason to live it up when she can, said yes yes YES. I decided that you can over-think things and dumped the whole container in.

Then I filled one good-sized loaf pan, two middle-sized pans, two small-ish pans and three really cute baby pans that I found at the dump last summer. (Don’t ask.) I put them all in a slow oven along with a big pan of hot water, and settled down with a timer and a bunch of West Wing episodes.

Ed tuned his melodeon. The cats duked it out for each other’s food. The kids went out for garlic fries and peanut-butter-marshmallow milkshakes and then came back to watch some Buffy. It takes a long time to bake fruitcake, and you have to keep checking them because there’s no going back. I usually use up half a box of toothpicks.

At eleven o’clock at night, when I was so tired that I couldn’t remember why I was still conscious, kind of like childbirth, the last fruitcake came out of the oven. The smallest cake had been out for two hours at that point, and was ready for the taste test.

It slid right out of the pan, a good start. The parchment paper peeled off easily, no damage there. No burned edges. The cake looked almost like it had been steamed, softer than in previous years but my finger didn’t leave an indentation when I poked it. Good and solid. It smelled like Christmas. Carefully, I sawed off a slice. I’m alone in the kitchen and it’s MY fruitcake. I put the piece in my mouth.


That’s it.

After twenty-nine years, that’s IT.

I took Ed a piece. Yuuum. Robin and Elizabeth. Yeeeeesss.

This is the best ever, Mom.

So I will not hug this recipe close to me anymore. It is time to send my Fruitcake Child out into the world. My friends, here is my Christmas gift to you. May it bring you as much joy as it has brought me.

A Solid Mouthful of Christmas Fruitcake

You can change up the kinds of fruit and nuts and liquid, heaven knows I did. But this is the latest version and as far as I’m concerned, the best.

The reading of Truman Capote and the pilgrimage to a bulk store for dried fruit can be dispensed with, I suppose, but it just won’t be the same.

Plan on doing the work over several days, and allow four hours for the baking itself.

Step One

Prepare six cups of chopped dried fruit by cooking it over extreme low heat, preferably in a cast iron Dutch oven in two cups of liquid. Although I have included dried pineapple and golden raisins in the past, I recommend this combination:

2 cups dried apricots, diced
2 cups dried Bing cherries, snipped in half
½ cup candied orange peel
2 cups dried papaya, diced
A pint of rum. I like Bacardi’s Gold. Glug glug glug!
A cinnamon stick. This is to be removed after the simmering.

Stir it when you think of it, or when you want to inhale the Christmas smell. After it’s simmered for awhile (one to four hours, say), turn off the heat and let it sit. A day or two is fine. It sat three days this year, but it was out in “Fred,” so that was all right.

Chop a cup, cup-and-a-half of toasted nuts: hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, whatever you like. Put them aside. Once the fruit is done macerating, stir the nuts into the fruit mixture.

Step Two

Prepare the pans. This can be one big tube pan or several smaller loaf pans. If you have batter left over, you can even make cupcakes. Grease the pans with Crisco (I know, I know. Just do it…) and line them with parchment paper. When I line loaf pans, I just use one strip to cover the long axis of the pan and leave bunny ears hanging out on both sides. Then grease the paper. When Ed lines the tube pan, he uses Scotch tape to affix the paper to the inner tube part. Somehow, he does it so the tape is not in contact with the batter. I don’t want to know how.

Step Three

Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees.

Cream together:

1 cup shortening
2 cups packed brown sugar
4 ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate (I like Ghirardelli’s 60%, but really any baking chocolate will work)
4 tablespoons cocoa

Beat in:

6 large eggs

Add and beat in:

1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom, if you have any.

Add and beat in:

3 cups WHITE flour. Don’t get all crunchy and sincere and use whole wheat flour. It will not work. Trust me, I know.

Add and beat in until the batter gets fluffy and changes color from dark to light brown, scraping the sides of the bowl from time to time:

2/3 cup apricot preserves
1 tablespoon rum extract
1 tablespoon chocolate extract
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

Stir the batter into the fruit and nut mixture, and then stir in:

8 ounces of bittersweet, mini chocolate chips.

Really. Elizabeth says to do it and it worked out for us this year.

Make sure everyone in the family stirs it for luck in the coming year. Wishes made at this time have a better chance of coming true than wishes made at other times, except for birthday candle wishes.

Step Four

Boil water in a kettle. Then pour this hot water into a large lasagna-type pan. While you are waiting for the water to boil, pour the batter into prepared pans. Put the hot water pan on the bottom rack of the oven and the cakes on a rack above it.

Get out your timer and a box of toothpicks. The length of time that fruitcakes bake is much more art than science and you will have to rely upon your Curious Nose as much as upon the timer. I’ve found that fruitcakes bake for these approximate durations, but don’t blame the results on me if you get all precise and just use a timer for these treasures instead of paying attention.

Tube pan: four hours
Nine inch loaf pans: 2 ½ - 3 hours
Seven inch loaf pans: 1 ½ - 2 hours
Little pans: About 1 – ½ hours
Really cute tiny pans and cupcakes: I once had an oven that baked them in 45 minutes flat. My oven this year takes more like an hour, maybe even an hour and a quarter.

Check them with toothpicks before you take them out. The toothpick should come out clean when the cake is done, but it might not because of the sticky fruit or if you hit a pocket of chocolate chips. Check it twice.

The cakes will look dry around the edges and should have pulled away from the ends of the pan a tiny bit. Don’t let them brown though.

They should smell like heaven. You can carry one around the house and give everybody a sniff. This always makes me feel like a pre-Christian priestess with a votive offering. Or maybe I’m just being a bit braggy.

As you take out each installment, put the pans on cooling racks. Don’t take the cakes out of the pans, no matter how Curious you are, until they’ve sat for 15 minutes or so. The first tiny one can be a tester, that’s okay. And besides, you need to know if the parchment paper will peel off cleanly, right? Use a serrated knife to slice those first warm, fragile pieces. Be patient and slow in your slicing.

I like to loosen the parchment paper on all the cakes before I go to bed for the night, just to make sure it will not cement itself permanently to the cake, although I’m sure it wouldn’t. Pretty sure, anyway.

Once the cakes have cooled thoroughly (the tube pan will need to sit all night, and I sometimes get all 1950s and invert it on an old-fashioned glass Coke bottle or even a wine bottle), you can peel off the paper and wrap them in aluminum foil. Some years I wrap them in cheese cloth first and douse them in brandy or rum before wrapping them up – this is on the rare occasion that I actually do make them in August or September.

Put them somewhere cool for a month or so to age and meld. Mine used to sit in the cellar until we insulated it. Now we put them in “Fred.” Somewhere that stays above freezing but below fifty degrees would be ideal. Keep an eye on them. Sometimes one of the smaller ones will disappear.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Do What Nancy Says

So. The reason I went for a vocal assessment in the first place is that Nancy told me to do it.

Nancy is my voice teacher. You have no idea how proud I am to be able to say that. She taught the best and the most committed vocal students for decades, on both the West and East coasts. She’s sent more students to the Met finals, including the soprano who won the National Metropolitan Opera competition. She’s won it herself, and has sung at the White House, and when she goes to New York for a week there are students lined up to work with her. When she came out of retirement last year to teach a limited schedule, I was waiting outside on her stoop, panting.

And Nancy’s from Texas, and has a wicked sense of humor, and a realistic sense of who she is, and you do what Nancy says.

When you study with Nancy, you work with her accompanist, who happens to be a friend of mine. Signe and I have been friends for 35 years and, from time to time, have shared an almost telepathic bond. I once dropped an entire page and a half in a recital and there she was, right with me, even though the music was impossibly modern. We’ve seen each other through some pretty tough stuff. Signe plays like the pianist angels in heaven play. Not only does she play Brahms so that you want to sink onto the floor and sob aloud, she is probably the best accompanist I’ve ever seen. No matter how good you are, if you are singing with Signe, it makes you better.

So these two women, working together at the height of their powers, are my mentors and friends, in a very powerful Cosmic Sense. I see them at least once a week.

And as much as I love them and as much as I know they love me, I’ve felt a little guilty about taking up very much of their time. Because I’m in my fifties now, and even with the Big Arytenoid Scare of ‘10, I’m still not sure that I’m entirely behind this singing thing, and I’m going to be a club singer anyway so I don’t exactly need to be coached by the A Team. I’ve heard Nancy’s students, we gather in master classes fairly regularly, and they’re top-notch. They study with her because they are preparing for serious performing careers.

(I don’t feel very guilty. It’s akin to how you feel when you get away with eating half of your mom’s warm chocolate chip cookies, right off the cooling rack. Should have saved more for your brother, but ha! You got to them first.)

Last week, Nancy told me to prepare three or four jazz standards for my next lesson. I gathered 35 songs and prepared five of them. Overachiever! Double ha! See, I learned my lesson! I’m rolling on wheels now! New career as a club singer, three gold dresses and all! Who knows where this will end – I might stop biting my nails and get a manicure! I might even pop for the hair highlights! I’m relieved of the high wire act of concert singing, there’s no way I could do that now anyway. It’s a young person’s game, everybody says so. You can’t even take part in competitions, one of the main routes into the singing game, after the age of 35 – and I am way, way past my mid-thirties.

I have to admit to a tiny bit of trepidation because Nancy pointed a bony finger at me last Sunday and made me sing in the master class (not really, she just said in her warm, casual way, “Buh-ray-un-duh, you’re on after Claire,” but I’m telling you what it felt like), and I sang surprisingly well, and she came over to me later and said, “You have one of the great voices,” and I thought for a fleeting moment, is she really going to let me get away with just singing club songs or is there a little more Handel in my future? But then I thought, Nah.

Well. Four days later I brought in my list of 35 songs and five prepared pieces and we didn’t even glance at them. Signe was there. I’m always so happy to see Signe. But it usually means that Nancy has some repertoire that she’d like you to see. And it’s not going to be Stormy Weather.

She proceeded to introduce me to some of the most difficult, melismatic (think Queen of the Night on steroids) music I’ve ever seen. Bach arias about coffee, now that’s kind of funny! But it’s in a really problematic part of my voice and how many sixteenth notes are there on this page? Then some lovely 20th century Italian arias written in the antique style, okay, that’s fine.

Then she unfurled a piece of music and balanced it on the piano rack. It’s so old, it doesn’t have a title page anymore. Bits are crumbling off the brown edges of the score. I’ve never heard of this composer. He sounds like he’s from Japan or some Arabic country or Brooklyn or something. It’s a very non-standard size, even stranger looking than French music (French music publishers have never heard of 8 ½ by 11). I’m looking at sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, sixty-fourth notes. I don’t think I could even play the melodic line. Call that a melodic line? Signe starts to play it for me.

I can tell that when these notes are translated into the human voice, the effect will be otherworldly. The piano is a percussive instrument and vocal music, even when played by the most skilled and intuitive of pianists, can’t have the same effect on the listener as when it is sung, but I’m getting chills. What is this? There’s something about it that makes me think it’s Spanish, there’s that exotic blend of Mediterranean and Arabic that you find only in Spanish music, but I’m not sure.

Nobody has this music. It’s more than a collector’s item, it’s like finding the buried treasure on Neahkahnie Mountain off the Oregon Coast. It’s like being given the Mystic Black Diamond of Koh-ih-Noor or the ruby slippers. It’s impossibly difficult. I know that I said I would do what Nancy says, said it in front of a half-dozen of the best singers I know, but I just can’t do this!

Nancy is laughing. She has the warmest smile in the world. I have to disappoint her. “Nancy. I can’t sing this!” “Yayus, you can! You have NO IDEA what you’ll be able to do.” And Signe adds, “I can hear it now.”

It’s like going to a doctor because you have balance problems and she prescribes learning how to walk a high wire, because if you survive that, you won’t have balance problems anymore.

No, this is what it’s like. It’s like rowing out on the New York harbor in the middle of the night to have a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Statue of Liberty. You’re bobbing around out there in the dark, looking up at the green bronze giantess a thousand feet away, thinking deep thoughts. Suddenly her terrifyingly Athene-like head turns and she looks sternly at you. Her lamp ignites and the flame shoots straight up into the sky. The arm holding the lamp sweeps down in your direction and points the lamp right at you like a searchlight. You’re blinded, just like when you’re standing on the stage of the Hult Center and can’t even see the front row of the audience.

Like Charlie Brown, I scream, “AUGH!!”

So this music is sitting in my living room, waiting for me to go make copies of it. Signe is going to make a recording of the melody, both fast and slow, for practice purposes. I have my little tasks lined up. If I learn to sing this, there won’t be much of anything I can’t sing.

At the last master class, I told Nancy that I was fifty-four, just as if she didn’t know it, just so she would know that she shouldn’t waste her time on me. And she said, “Perfect timing!”

I guess it is.

Lights. Camera. Action.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Getting Old As My Mother

George Harrison was a genius.

The first time I heard him sing this line, I thought I knew what it meant. Ha! That was twenty years ago. What did I know?

I fell into sudden, uncontrollable weeping the other morning because I tried to say the words, “I’m getting old now and I’m afraid of dying,” and I could hear my mother’s voice saying the exact same sentence a few years ago.

A close friend told me that I was getting more harsh with him, being critical and snippy, and that it was hurting his feelings and more than that, wearing him down, after a close and foundational friendship that’s lasted a couple of decades. I wasn’t even aware. I’ve struggled all my life with my shoot-from-the-hip manner, working to temper it with empathy and slowed reflexes, and can point proudly to a warm circle of friends and students as proof that I’ve succeeded, but apparently the closer you are to a person the easier it is to let yourself be…a natural bitch? I don’t want to be this person.

I remember my mother saying, “I don’t want to be this person.”

Yes, and I remember saying to myself, “I don’t even think she’s aware when she’s being critical and harsh.”

I would say yikes, but that’s being funny and this isn’t funny.

If you don’t want to be happy, don’t tell my husband what your heart’s desire is. (This works for me, our children, and the friends who’ve tried it – I don’t know if it would work for you, but it might.) Because the minute he knows what your heart’s desire is, he starts trying to figure out how to get it for you.

A year ago, I wrote that if I had just a year to live, I’d get enough sleep. Well, that wasn’t rocket science. I sleep more now. Several days ago I wrote about my perfect day, the one where the first action of every Endless Day was to pick up a hardbound journal and start writing. I swore that if I ever retired (this is defined, for me, as nobody needing to eat in the morning) I’d have mornings like this. Boy, I thought, this would be heaven, but then I thought that probably I’d get to the actual heaven before I felt that I didn’t have to get up and make breakfast for everybody. For the past week now, Ed has brought me coffee and oatmeal, our kids have gotten themselves out the door, and I’ve been writing, learning new songs, and building a web page…from six in the morning until about noon. Then I get up.

Yep, it’s heaven. But it’s confusing. I do have a list of goals, wouldn’t know how to go through a day without one, but Ed pointed out that the list is too long to finish in a day or a month and I shouldn’t worry too much about a timeline. After a lifetime of breaking goals down into tasks and creating a scope and sequence of work, and scheduling the tasks into little fifteen minute increments in my calendar, it feels funny to swim from thought to concept to essay, to these lyrics and that jazz arrangement. Yesterday I spent half an hour on a website entitled, “The Fifty Most Sexy Women Over Fifty.” It’s important. I want to be a club singer and have to believe that I’m not all washed up. Then I went to Red Light, a local consignment store and bought three really tight gold dresses for $68. Then I came home and sang along with a bluesy accompaniment to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and put together a list of songs for a coaching session.

This is my job now?

I’d like to say that I haven’t been so snippy in the last few days and that I’m more tuned into what’s coming out of my mouth. I can say that I’m trying. And as much as it hurts, it’s good that I have friends who will tell me that I’m hurting them. I’d like to think that the harshness comes from a place of disappointment and feeling like it’s too late to create a life that fits – and that when I’m given the chance to live that life, the sharp edges will melt away. Last night I heard myself saying, “This was a great day.” I don’t say that very often.

Working on it, working on it. In the meantime, just in case they don’t all know it already, and while I still can, this is what I want to say to those closest and dearest to me, especially my mother,

I wish you shelter from the storm
A cozy fire to keep you warm
But most of all, when snowflakes fall
I wish you love.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Endless Day

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what it is I want out of life. I’ve had a little extra time to think, and realized that I would have a better chance of getting what I wanted if I only knew what “it” was, so I’ve been asking myself, “What do I WANT?”

And I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really want is the Endless Day. Not the Never-Ending Day, that’s different. The Never-Ending Day, even for a Lady of Leisure like myself, is full of making breakfast, lunch and dinner for four people, shopping, planning, cleaning the bathroom, writing (but somehow that doesn’t count because then I don’t have time to sell anything), coaching voice students, listening to and learning music (that doesn’t count, either, if I don’t then perform it), paying bills, checking e-mail, working out, doing laundry, raking leaves, pulling weeds from between little rocks, planting garlic, manipulating my son into doing his homework and then remembering to turn it in.

In contrast, the Endless Day goes like this: Wake up. Drink coffee while writing with a fountain pen in a large hardcover journal. Read until starvation forces me out of the bedroom. Eat breakfast. Read some more and think about taking a nap, maybe really taking a little one but probably not. Get dressed. Take a walk, maybe to a place that has more coffee and probably a newspaper. Listen to music on the stereo.

The whole day goes like that – read, write, eat, nap, walk, read some more. It would be even more perfect if I didn’t have to waste time sleeping at night. I suppose it would be okay to start talking to people, nice people, people I like, after the first day and a half or so.

I was looking at this description of The Endless Day and realizing just how out of it I apparently am. This isn’t how life is lived any more. There’s too much interaction with the real world in my Day. We’re talking about writing with a pen that you hold in your hand, books that have weight and are held in the lap, feet hitting pavement, not a treadmill.

More and more lately, I’ll arrange to spend time with a friend and we will sit or walk while my friend bends their face close to … a small electronic device that has everything interesting in the entire world in it. We’ll be in Disneyland or a restaurant and the most interesting thing is to check the weather on the iPhone, or find a review of a record or a restaurant, or check e-mail, or take a picture and post it on Facebook so their seventy-two friends can share this moment. Another friend has got a game room with a ping-pong table – but it’s covered with laundry, because the kids are playing ping pong on the Wii. The nearby used book store doesn’t purchase children’s books anymore. There’s not very much call for them. Kids either don’t read or they want a Kindle.

I like to sit and listen to records with friends – remember that? Sounds like something you’d do after the taffy pull. But there’s something about having the same sound waves washing over skin, drumming into hearts, and your eyes meeting.

So they can keep their little fifteen-inch back-lit world. I’ll keep the rest of it, the impact of my feet on pavement or trail, the long views, the hand holding the chopping knife, Pete Seeger’s voice vibrating the length of the living room, the warmth of my husband’s hand, the weight of the book in my lap. Especially if I can have it all for an Endless Day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Angels in Portland

I'm a rationalist. You can tell that some of my ancestors are from Iowa -- show me, who did the study, was it peer-reviewed, was there a control, were the subjects self-selected? I don't believe in miracles.

So here's the thing. On September 20th, I went in for a vocal assessment and saw a devastating video of my vocal structure and heard the words, "There's nothing I can do." I cried for a week. After two weeks of blank grieving, I asked my walking buddy, "When will I feel better?" (I'm also impatient with all natural processes.) She answered, "When you start a course of treatment."

All right. A Plan. I need A List! Now we're in business. I made appointments: naturopath, acupuncturist, speech pathologist, voice coach. I took homeopathic remedies and researched food sensitivities and did the vocal equivalent of physical therapy exercises. For two more weeks.

On October 18, I watched a new video of my larynx. Absolutely no pathology to be seen. We're looking at a textbook-perfect larynx. I hear the words, "The nerves have regenerated."

In less than a month.

As Emily Litella of Saturday Night Live would say, "Never mind!"

What do I do with this?

Be fearful that life seems so random, both the good and the bad?

Give thanks (thank you. THANK YOU)for a gift that I never appreciated before?

Be ashamed that I created a big hoo-ha and it turned out to be a big nothing?

Notice the love and support that came from friends, family, and strangers? That was a lesson, all in itself.

Make plans to use my voice (My Voice!!) in every style and venue that I ever craved to try?

Wonder who's pulling the strings? Sometimes I think there really are small snickering household gods who like to kick my booty and make me pay attention. They live behind the woodstove, they listen from behind the siding. Or is there really a Bigger Plan?

Yes to all of the above. In the meantime...

I'm going to get a Handel on this. Then I'm going to fly me to the moon and sing among the stars.