I love to play the piano. I can’t remember a time before I played the piano and apparently I come from a line of piano players. When I started playing the piano around age 4, I only knew that my sister was taking piano lessons, that my mom sort of played the piano, enough to help out her singing, that my uncle, my father’s brother, played the piano a lot, and that my grandmother, my mother’s mother, had a big upright piano in her parlor. I don't remember anyone playing it, though.
When I started playing the piano, my grandmother would let me go into her closed-off parlor and play. It was always cold in there. Freezing in the winter. The piano was huge. It was an upright, twice as tall as I was. The keys were covered in real ivory. It was always slightly out of tune. To the left of the piano hung a small picture of several composers. I don’t know how old it was. I imagine it was there for most of the time since the house was built in the 1880’s.
I didn’t know until after my grandmother died that she played the piano in the church across the street, the church my parents were married in. Little did I know when I was four that I would follow in my grandmother’s steps as a church musician. After my grandmother died, and the family was distributing and selling her possessions, my family contacted me and told me that my grandmother wanted me to have the piano. This was impractical, since I already had a piano, and transporting this huge antique from Ohio to New Jersey was prohibitively expensive. I asked if I could have the picture. My parents took it and sent it to me. It now hangs next to my piano, in the same position it was at my grandmother’s house, to remind me of the connection I have to my musical ancestors. It served to bump me into practicing when I was young, and bumps me to this day to remember my mother who certainly played this piano many times, to my grandmother, who I never heard play the piano, and to any other of my relatives who may have played this instrument, sitting under the watchful eyes of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner. I only regret that the picture didn't include Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann.
Last night my husband and I went with our friends, Brian and Gregg, to celebrate their 27th anniversary at Agricola in Princeton. The “eatery” is described on their website: “Like all our favorite foods, Agricola is fresh, down to earth and full of ﬂavor. We think food is a universal language—it brings us together and nourishes us. In Latin, “Agricola” means “farmer” which embodies our farm to table spirit and our dedication to community and comfort.”
If you’re looking for a spectacular, comfortable, relaxing, delicious treat, get yourself to this restaurant! Everything about my evening was delightful. The restaurant is in that very old-style European building on the corner of Witherspoon and Nassau, just opposite the main gates of Princeton University. For years and years it was Lahiere’s. The rustic, farm-esque space is divided into small areas, so that it seemed that our table was tucked away in a special place all our own, even though the restaurant is quite large. The service was extremely good. Waitstaff and buss staff were quick and efficient. They were very friendly, too. The buss staff wore jeans and plaid shirts.
I started my meal with a Cloudy Days made of gin, campari, lemon, rhubarb, and egg white. The flavor of rhubarb took me immediately to my grandmother’s barn in Ohio and the thick patch of rhubarb that grew there. The four of us shared, for appetizers, grilled Shishito Peppers (We actually ordered it as a side dish, but the waitress pleaded with us to make it an appetizer, since we would enjoy it much more this way. She was correct), Local Mushroom Flatbread with spinach, ricotta cheese, a poached egg, and Pecorino Romano, and something that, once in a great while, takes your breath away when you eat it: Mushroom Paté. The smooth, rich paste came in a little jelly cup with an attached lid. We spread it on crusty bread, then topped it with black fermented garlic. The result was exhilarating. I first remember this kind of breathtaking eating experience with two dishes at The Gramercy Tavern in New York: Mushroom Cappuccino and Warm Chocolate Ganache. I hope that the next time I go to Agricola they will have this paté, or maybe something equally as delicious.
For my entrée I had Fried Green Tomatoes with pepper relish, Castle Valley grits, confit tomatoes, and buttermilk remoulade. In this delightful dish came together all the important things: flavor (spice, sour, sweet, tang) and texture (crisp, tender, moist, pliant, chewy).
For dinner my friend Brian picked out a stunning bottle of French Syrah: Entrefaux ‘Crozes-Hermitage,’ Rhône Valley, France, 2017. We stayed until the bottle was empty. We skipped dessert at the restaurant, not because they weren’t tempting, but because we had to bow to our tradition of walking down Witherspoon to Halo Pub for ice cream. It was a perfect ending to a wonderful celebration.
I’ve often wondered if all dads were like my dad. When I was little, I thought my dad knew everything. He could do anything. Build anything. Fix anything. That made it all the more difficult to see him as he passed the age of ninety, and his mental clarity started to fade, as he would forget how to get to his apartment, as he eventually had to live in a dementia facility, and as he died at the age of 94. At his funeral I gave this eulogy, and ended it by singing the Spiritual, Deep River.
I know dads are smart, and wise, and talented. But I wondered:
Do all dads draw?
I don’t think I have half the talent my dad did with a pencil, but I often find myself doing some of the same kinds of drawing, more for me like doodling, that my dad did. We both drew maps. Complicated, detailed, elegant city plans with roads and bridges, and stadiums, and rivers. He had a vivid, active imagination that I always wanted to have. His maps were much more detailed than mine, and much more artistic. I wish I had them. I would frame them and hang them on my walls. Perhaps it’s part of his and my genetic design, but we are both mapheads. When I see a map, I’m immediately drawn to it. And I think of my dad.
Are all dads artistic?
My dad was very talented with chalk and paint. We have a chalk drawing on our wall at home that my dad made. He used to paint beautiful lighthouse scenes on rocks and old barn wood.
Do all dads build?
I wonder if the new owners of our Beck Road home kept the many built-in furniture and shelves, or the cubbyhole storage everywhere. My dad’s shop in the basement with the jigsaw and the tools was his man cave. And he let me be a part of it at a very young age. I wish I had spent more time there as I got into my teen years, before I left home. I’d be a richer man.
Do all dads play?
I still make paper boats the way my dad taught my sister and me. You can see them on Instagram. Hashtag “paperboats”. It’s alarming how many people across the globe make paper boats and post them on Instagram. When we were at my grandmother’s house in rural Ohio, the three of us would make boats, then gather gravel to put in to weight them with ballast, head down to the farther bridge over the Blanchard River, drop the boats down into the water, run down the path through the woods along the bank, and stand on the closer bridge in town and wait for the armada to float under. If I had kids, I’d do this with them. I’d pass on the Mt. Blanchard, Ohio heritage.
He used to play this game with me and my sister. He would fold paper in fourths, top to bottom. We’d each draw a head at the top, then fold it over and pass the paper. The next person would continue down the upper torso without being able to see the head, then fold it down and pass it on for the lower torso, then the feet. The results were crazy and funny, but my dad’s were creative, and comical, like you’d see in cartoons in a magazine. I so wanted to be that creative. Even in silly little games.
Are all dads cultured?
He took us to the art museum, the Cleveland orchestra, Blossom Music Center, the opera, choir concerts, plays. He built sets for Mighty Goliath Players. We saw the Cleveland Orchestra play the 1812 Overture, complete with canons and fireworks at the newly-opened Blossom in 1965. And I vividly remember Robert Fountain conducting the Oberlin College Choir in dramatic choral concerts. I wouldn’t be who I am without that. Now we know why I do what I do with such passion.
Do all dads have a work personality and a home personality?
My dad could usually be described as quiet. He used to take my sister and me to Learwood Junior High School when we were little, on Saturdays. We would go in the gym. He would open a storage room filled with these little wooden squares with wheels and we would roll around the gym. Or wheel around on the chairs in the main office. One day my sister and I were with him at school. It must have been for a basketball game or a concert. There were other kids there. All of a sudden, this huge frightening voice yelled, “Get off that before you fall off.” We were terrified. Was that OUR dad?
Are all dads nurturing?
My dad made a wooden model of the Midway Mall for me to play on with my Matchbox Cars, complete with parking lots and lines. He later added a three-story parking deck with ramps. He also permitted me my own Barbie Doll, and giggled with my mom when my sister helped me on, at age four or five, with a dress and paraded me around the house.
I’ve come accept that, although it may not be in the same ways, all dads are talented, and smart, and creative, and wise, and nurturing. And I am ok with the fact that my dad treated other kids, and other people, with the same loving, nurturing care and concern that he showed his family, and we are all better for it.
I post this on what would have been my dad’s 95th birthday. He was born in Findlay, Ohio and lived much of his life in Avon Lake, Ohio, where I grew up. On April 8, 2024, I plan to spend the day in one of those two places, celebrating while the total solar eclipse passes through both towns on his 100th birthday. My dad would have been delighted with that. So, I will celebrate the gifts of wonder and fascination with things scientific and mathematic that he gave me.
On the evening of my birthday, and the birthday of Janet, another member of our group, 22 of us took the tour bus from the hotel into the old town of Vilnius to a Lithuanian restaurant called Lokys. We had a private room. I enjoyed a Lithuanian dark ale called Švyturio Baltios. We toasted our birthdays, then ordered our food. My appetizer was Pickled Brown-Headed Boletus, which are mushrooms. These tender and bright flavored chunks of mushroom were served in a lettuce cup. I could have eaten three or four of these. They went very well with the beer. I sat next to our guide, Rasa. She had lots of stories to tell. The restaurant, I’m kind of sorry to say, featured meat from the hunt. One item was beaver meat. Rasa told us that in ancient Lithuania beaver testicles were dried, mashed, mixed with alcohol, and eaten as an aphrodisiac. I’m very glad to be vegetarian.
My entree was a mound of buckwheat with chanterelle mushrooms and peas. It tasted good, but was dry. I thought it would benefit from another binding ingredient like yogurt, or something like a tahini-vinegar sauce. After dinner we all toasted again with a local liqueur called Triple Nines. It’s an herb and vodka drink developed by pharmacists. I could still taste it as we crammed into our small bus to head back to the hotel. It was quite a memorable birthday.
On our first night in the lovely city of Riga, Latvia, Joe and I set off on the short walk to the Old City to find a restaurant. We turned the corner past the TGI Friday’s and saw a rather empty terrace at a restaurant called Muusu. We sat at a table on the sidewalk and ordered wine. My appetizer was a caramelized goat cheese bouchée. The base was chopped eggplant and pine nuts. The sauce was balsamic fig. I could have eaten more, it was so good. We enjoyed watching the many local people and tourists pass by our table. A live band was playing across the street. Their sound system was unbelievably good. It was rather cold that evening, even for the Baltic states. Electric heaters radiated their fugitive warmth, but it didn’t help.
My entree was a green pea and asparagus stew made with pearl barley, hard truffle cheese, spinach, and sun-dried tomatoes. The ends of the asparagus were left long while the bases were peeled and chopped. They gave an interesting crunch to the texture. Once again, I was delighted at how good the vegetarian options were. The ingredients must have been given much thought as to flavor, texture, and nutrition.
For dessert I got a Michael Cluizel chocolate cream cake. It had chili threads and vanilla bean sauce. I’m glad I took the plunge and got it. The flavor was rich and dark, and the texture, thick and creamy. If you chewed on the threads for a while the chili flavor came out in all its glory. I was so cold I had to wrap myself in the blanket that was draped over one of the chairs. But I was a happy vegetarian. With my dessert I ordered a tea. I usually don’t. I don’t drink anything with caffeine after about 2 in the afternoon, otherwise I won’t sleep. But I really wanted something hot. I ordered a lemon mint tea, expecting to get a bag and a mug of hot water, the way I usually do at home. The waiter brought the desserts, then a rather large, bulky teapot and a tea cup. In the pot, immersed in the water was a big basket filled with peeled chunks of ginger, several lemon wedges, and several whole mint leaves. With the tea was served a small cup of raw honey. This was the best surprise of the trip. I enjoyed it not just for the heat it provided.
I had to stop by this restaurant two more times the next day because I left my hat there after our meal. The staff kept telling me that they were trying to find out where it was from the cleaning crew. But they never found it. Somewhere in Latvia someone is walking around with a black cap with “Ireland” and a harp on it. More about the hat saga in another post.
For lunch one day several of us went to an Armenian restaurant where I had eggplant rolled up in goat cheese and walnuts. Another dinner was at an Uzbek restaurant called Uzbegims, near the hotel. I had beet soup that was hot, served with sour cream. Joe and I shared a pastry with pumpkin inside. It was so hot it took several minutes to cool enough to eat. It was good once we got to eat it. I also had three dumplings filled with cabbage, onions, and carrots. They were light as air with wonton thin shells.
On to Vilnius.
After breakfast on the boat from Stockholm, we landed in Tallinn, Estonia. We went on a guided tour of the old town, then headed for lunch on Raekoja Square at a restaurant named Kaerajaan, with outdoor tables under a canopy. Joe and I both had the puréed beet soup which I now have to find out how to make at home. I love beets. This soup was cold and so good. My entree was a pumpkin risotto layered on a portobello mushroom with arugula and goat cheese. We sat watching locals in native dress dancein a circle to live Estonian music. It was cloudy and cold, especially for July. On my chair was a fuzzy animal skin to keep me warm. Overhead was a heater that the waitress aimed at my head. I kept wondering what it must be like here in the summer, but then I remembered that it was July.
That evening we first tried to get into a restaurant that had been recommended by a friend who had just been to Tallinn on tour with the Rutgers Glee Club, but they were full. They sent us down the street to a brasserie called Tabac. Out in front was a loud group of British soccer fans singing God Save the Queen, since England had just won a World Cup game minutes before. Our waiter, Sebastian, provided us very entertaining help with our orders. We thought he was American because of his accent, but it turned out that he was Estonian, and had lived in California for a few years. I had a tomato tartlet with eggplant, mozzarella, and basil as an appetizer that was small and fragrant. The main course was the best I’ve had so far, which isn’t easy for me to say. It was a marinated segment of pumpkin that had been grilled and covered in peanut butter. Green beans and ramson (a type of garlic) salsa verde covered the top. This combination seemed odder to me than honey and pickles, but it was very good. Three other meat eaters at the table had this dish as well, and raved about it. For dessert several of us shared their two desserts: a sticky date pudding with white truffle stracciatella, and rhubarb and ricotta with an oatmeal cookie and vanilla ice cream. The tart sourness reminded me of the rhubarb dishes my mother and grandmother made. I love rhubarb, and appreciate it for its unique, sour taste. I dislike when people try to cover the flavor with excess sugar and other fruits. Not everyone liked the truffles, so I got to eat a good deal of that dish. Sebastian said if we didn’t like it, he would eat it. There was none left for him.
I have to say that I was beyond surprised and very happy with the plight of a vegetarian in Estonia.
On July Fourth I landed in Stockholm with the Monmouth Civic Chorus and my husband who sings with them. They will be performing in the three Baltic countries. I’ve gone along with them for fun and for a vacation. I admit I was apprehensive about eating vegetarian in this part of the world, but my discomfort was soon relieved. After we got to our hotel, Joe and I set out for lunch near the hotel. We found a sandwich shop that had high tables, and had the menu items handwritten on the wall tiles. We each ordered a soup and a sandwich. Little did we know that the soup alone would have been a meal. Two waitresses came to our table, set down the soups, then one of them said, “And you also had these,” half as a question, and filled with a slight bit of condescension. I had a puréed lentil soup with herbed cream. It was spiced perfectly. On the side was a huge piece of thick, firm bread topped with butter and what seemed to be an entire avocado. My sandwich was open-faced with another huge piece of bread, covered in butter, and mounted with a mixed green salad, and a mixture of grilled mushrooms. The mushrooms were grilled perfectly, where the body was moist and fully cooked, and the edges were dark and crisp. It came with a side of herbed butter. Apparently the Swedes like butter. I ate almost everything, partly not to further embarrass myself in having ordered two meals, and partly out of exhaustion from not having slept on the overnight flight from Newark.
Dinner that night was at the hotel, The Nordic Light. We are traveling with a group of about seventy people and our travel agent, so some of the meals are pre-arranged. I had requested that vegetarian meals be served whenever possible for all of the included meals through the tour company. A waiter came to me after the whole group had sat down, to ask me if I was one of the vegetarians. Apparently, there were three of us. I said that I was. He asked me if I ate fish. I wanted to be the snarky American and say that then I wouldn’t be vegetarian, but I just said, “No.”
My dinner was a marinated thick rutabaga slice that had been coated and deep fried, and a side of carrots and small potatoes. It was delicious. I was surprised that just a rutabaga “steak” would have such a tasty flavor and texture. After dinner about fifteen of the group went across the street to the Ice Bar. It was a room chilled to 20 degrees, walls lined with thick ice that had been sculpted with various Nordic designs, and filled with chairs, a bar, a Viking ship, and a throne, all made from ice. Drinks were served in glasses made from ice. We got a parka and gloves on the way in, but the glass still made my fingers hurt. I had a drink made from gin and elderflowers. Of course, there are pictures on Facebook. But I’m glad we only stayed there for fifteen minutes or so.
Lunch the next day was at an outdoor museum in the city. It had buildings from various periods of Swedish history, which included farms, stores, restaurants, and churches, and lots of animals. We ate at a stand with picnic tables. My hopes were not high. But to my surprise I found a chickpea burger with fries which I ate to the accompaniment of seagulls diving into the nearby garbage can for leftovers.
That evening we took an overnight ferry to Estonia. About eight of us had made reservations at a Russian restaurant onboard. We all ordered a vodka starter. We were given plates with sweet pickle spears and a dish with honey and sour cream. The waitress instructed us that we must dip the pickles in the honey and the sour cream. It was the Russian way. And so, we did. I must do this at home. Pickles and honey are a great combination. She soon brought the vodka chilled in frosted glasses. She saw that we had eaten all the pickles, so she said she had to bring more because the Russian way was to drink the vodka, spend a few seconds feeling the warmth of the vodka in the chest, then eat the pickle dipped in the sour cream and honey. And so, we did. My dinner was what has to be the best stuffed cabbage I have ever had. The leaves were cooked, yet still fresh and crisp. Inside I was delighted to find mixed vegetables and rice. The whole thing was covered in a very tasty, spicy tomato and sour cream sauce. After dinner we went on deck to see the sun still up in the sky, then went to bed at around midnight with the red-gold of the sun still brightly glowing on the horizon.
Another item that bumped me, as in being bumped along in your life as a pinball bumper knocks a ball quickly, often in a new direction, was a cookbook. I know it sounds odd. But hear me out.
My mother was a dietitian. Because of her I grew up analyzing everything I ate. At a very young age I became very aware of, and inquisitive of food and cooking. My mother was a great cook. I was naturally drawn to the things she would create. She encouraged me to shop with her, get to know what she was doing with the food, and eventually to cook with her, and on my own. One of the cookbooks she had, which I have had in my possession for about 30 years, is the Fanny Farmer Cookbook. This edition is probably from the mid-60s. I don’t know for sure since the cover and many of the first and last pages are long gone. The book is seriously browned, tattered, worn, and stained with greasy food remnants. I must have started looking at it when I was about 7 or 8. It was just about the time I got up the nerve to start trying to make things on my own.
What was special about this book? It was paperback and rather small, but loaded with good, intriguing, and easy to follow recipes. I must have made dozens of things from this book. It allowed me to express my sense of adventure. It provided me with many successes (and failures) in the kitchen. When other boys were getting accolades in sports and Scouts, I was baking cookies and liver loaf. My family was eating and enjoying (most of) what I made. It was a serious bump into my development as a person. It gave me a rewarding sense of accomplishment and a whole lot of confidence to do things in and out of the kitchen.
I miss my mom, but every time I cook, I think of her. She and the kitchen helped me rack up a lot of points.
Have you ever played pinball? Usually in a pinball machine there are round bumpers. When the ball hits one of these bumpers, the ball is propelled rather quickly in a new direction. The direction could be good, resulting in points, or it could be down between the flippers and the ball is out of play. Life has bumpers. We go along like the ball, trying to rack up points, and often hit a bumper that propels us, perhaps further down the path we were headed, or perhaps in a completely new direction.
I’m going to try to remember the bumpers I’ve hit. One comes to mind. It’s an album that I fell in love with early in my life, that I believe bumped me in a significant way, to be the person, the musician, that I am today. This album is Switched on Bach.
Switched On Bach is an album of music my Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) performed on the Moog Synthesizer, an early electronic keyboard instrument, by Wendy Carlos (known then as Walter) and Benjamin Folkman, released in 1968. Electronic music at that time was mostly experimental and avant garde sounding. The keyboard music of Bach, in the 60s, was mostly performed on the piano or organ. I’m not certain exactly when I got the album, but I was around 9 or 10. I had been studying classical piano for a few years, playing Bach, Mozart, and other classical composers. I can’t say I was ashamed, but I didn’t go around telling people that I liked classical music. I liked it a lot. I liked some popular music, but I couldn’t go around telling people that I liked classical music much more. I would play it at home on the piano, and occasionally in church or somewhere like that. I’m sure some of my friends thought it was cool. Maybe it was just the others who took piano lessons. But I was pretty quiet about the subject in general circles.
Then came SOB. (Switched On Bach). My mind lit up. I remember listening to it on my record player (remember those?) in my room. Over and over. Here was intricate classical music performed with these rich, wacky, weird, delightful, electric sounds. It was the coolest thing I had ever heard. This album united what I loved about the piano with everything that was neat and cool and above all, shareable with my friends. I could say I was a part of something that was really, really cool.
After that my study of classical music took on an energy and life that was new, vibrant, and headed in a definite direction. I knew I was going to study this thing called music and make of it something intensely important. I had been bumped. And I racked up a lot of points.
My husband and I were in Philly recently for my annual checkup at Jefferson Medical Oncology, a bustling area of the city, right in the heart of the Gaybordhood. Neither of us had eaten breakfast, so after my appointment (which was all good) I got on my Google Maps app on my phone and searched “breakfast.” I wanted someplace local, homey, and gayish. What better place than eating breakfast on the sidewalk on an unusually warm and sunny morning in April in the gayest part of town? We sat at a table for two and watched men walk by for the entire duration of our stay. Oh, and we did eat. And it was quite delightful (as well).
I had Root Vegetable Benedict. As soon as I saw it I said to myself, “I’m going to make this at home, and this is what I’m going to change.” Don’t worry, that’s a good thing. The dish was very good as it was. The huge plate had two squares of polenta on the bottom, topped with a large disc of roasted beet. This was covered with roasted corn, tomatoes, roasted potato cubes, yellow squash (bound to change in my version), two poached eggs, and Hollandaise sauce. It was an exciting combination.
When I make this at home, I will keep the polenta and roasted beet disc. What a great idea. I think I’ll try two smaller beet discs, one on top of each polenta square, place a poached egg on each of these, skip the squash (If you’ve read any of my other blogs about food, you probably know I hate zucchini), and keep the potato, corn, and Hollandaise. If this works out I see a Hairy Vegetarian video in the works.
The next time I’m in this area at breakfast time I’m sure I will come back to this place. I might have to try the Pecan Pie French Toast, or the Quinoa Porridge. I see that they have other locations in Philly and Miami.
Green Eggs Café is at 212 S 13th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107
I hope the title of this blog got your attention. This post is about toothpaste, sort of. Toothpaste is a very helpful part of the beneficial practice of tooth care. It’s loaded with good, tasty things that serve our health on a daily basis. The thick, mildly abrasive paste is most often in a tube with a cap. These are now usually plastic, making you have to squeeze and push the contents to the end to get them out. For much of my life, however, the tubes were made of tin or lead, and rolled up much like tubes of oil paint that artists use. As you rolled up the tube, it stayed in its new shape, keeping the contents of the tube pressed up against the capped end. You easily knew when the tube was empty, because the entire tube was rolled and smashed up against the cap. You could quickly see if nothing but a small coating was left that you couldn’t get out. There’s a saying that says, “You can’t stuff toothpaste back in a tube.” I’m not so sure.
Today I realized that my life had been similar to that mostly empty, smashed, and rolled up tube. My former job, by relationships with my family and friends, my image of myself could easily be related to that scenario. Or at least that’s how it seemed. I had allowed situations to deplete me, empty me, roll me up, and smash me against my end. I’m not sure anyone intended to do this to me. I’m sure I had allowed much of it to happen. But I certainly felt depleted. The things the people around me used to replenish themselves weren’t working on me. It seemed that everyone around me looked at my mangled tube and wondered how I could be empty. How could I let this happen?
So, things need to change. I quit my job. I became self-employed. I’m still in a period of adjustment where I can heal and learn how to replenish. I’m learning how to stuff the toothpaste back in. Perhaps I need to replace the tube with a plastic tube that doesn’t get crushed. Perhaps I don’t need a tube. Maybe another container will serve me better. Maybe I can flourish as a mound of paste sitting out in the open. Perhaps the truth is that I need to see myself as something other than toothpaste. So, what would I do with a lump of it squeezed out onto the floor? Anyone want to brush their teeth? It’s an important part of a daily health routine.
Things fall apart. That’s what they naturally do. We can cry. We can mourn. We can celebrate. It depends on our perspective. But we can’t avoid the inevitable. Things also come together. Sometimes this is by design. Sometimes by chance. Sometimes unexplainable. Sometimes unnoticed.
When we are young we dream of what our life will become. It seems to be a scary yet exciting prospect for a well-planned, orderly life of reaping the rewards of what we have sown in our youth. I doubt this ever happens. Our lives always seem to be a haphazard stitching together of ragged remnants from success and failure, triumph and tragedy. And yet, we still dream.
I don’t know how to define my life. My purpose. My career. My reason for doing what I do. It was in tearing it apart that I have come to realize, at least to some extent, how it has come together. It was in undoing what I thought I was to have built up that I came to understand how the things I do have come together to define what I am. I recently shifted my career. I used to call it retirement. But I’m not retired. I never envisioned quitting work to move to Florida to golf day in and day out. When I was young I dreamed of being a performer. But it became evident that I didn’t have the natural facility it would take to do that as a career. At the same time, I dreamed of being a teacher. I went to school to become a teacher. I even taught music for five years. Then it was either grad school or suicide. I chose grad school and never went back to teaching school. After grad school I went into full time church music. I was always active in church music, but I’m not a very religious person. I like church. I like ritual. I like helping groups of people sing. But I never dreamed of spending years developing a career working for the church. So, I started my plan of undoing.
I got interested in yoga and became a yoga teacher. I got interested in other ways to promote health, and became a massage therapist. Then it came time to let things fall apart. I was convinced that my marriage would cause the church to fire me, as it had many of my colleagues and friends. But it didn’t. I had to quit. So, I did. And it was in this undoing that things came together. I started to realize how all of these things that I do come out of who I am. My breaking apart of my life was actually a coming together. I realize that I am a person who helps others to breathe well, move well, appreciate their bodies more, and use them with greater efficiency. It is though helping others as a teacher, as a church musician, and as a conductor, that I enable others to sing, play, and express in a healthy way. It is through yoga that I help others breathe and move and create a safe relationship between their mind, body, and soul. It is through massage that I help others relax, move, stretch, and appreciate their body for what it is, and for what it can become. The things that I do all have in common body and mind, but above all, breath. So, what do I do? I help people to use their bodies to breathe.
I get a special thrill when I visit or hear about a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. I get a similar charge when I eat at any restaurant that serves a great vegetarian meal, or even tries to. When I first started blogging about vegetarian dining in restaurants, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be negative. If I visited an establishment that wasn’t good, I just wouldn’t write about it. I will stick with that promise.
Last night my husband and another couple took me out to celebrate my recent appointment as director of the Garden State Philharmonic Chorus. They let me choose the restaurant. I hadn’t been to New Hope, PA in a long time, so I decided that we should revisit Sprig and Vine, self-labeled “Pure Vegetarian.” I remember the four of us being thrilled with the food when we had first eaten there. I just want to say that I really, really like this restaurant. Everything I say here is an encouragement out of love to keep me (and hopefully many others) thrilled by going there.
It was a Saturday night. We expected the town, on an October weekend with 80-degree weather, to be crowded. It was. But that’s half the fun of going there. We had reservations for 7 PM. We arrived at the restaurant at 6:58 and walked in the door. It was busy, but not completely full. There was no one at the receptionist desk, so we stood at the doorway. There was a staff member, perhaps a waiter, about 5 feet away behind a counter doing something. We stood at the doorway for 5-7 minutes. He never looked up. The woman I assume was the door receptionist was walking through the small restaurant tending to things at various tables. She passed by us several times and didn’t acknowledge us. Several other staff members passed by us, but no one said anything. The receptionist came to the stand by the door and stood silently looking down at the stand. We stood facing her for about a minute when she looked up and said, “Hi.” I mention this because the whole scenario set an odd tone to the evening. The four of us agreed that the overall experience felt aloof. In such a small restaurant I think it’s important to interact with people coming in the door in a rather immediate fashion. It creates an uplifting welcome, and colors the whole dining experience.
We were seated at a booth. Two or three minutes later weAQ got menus. The server came to the table. She never said her name. I don’t need to know her name, but it contributed to the nonchalance of the evening. We ordered four appetizers for the table, and each of us ordered the soup. After about ten minutes, we each got a bowl of Roasted Root Vegetable Puree soup. It looked fantastic, and tasted out of this world good. But it wasn’t hot. I found it odd that the soup came first, but I don’t know of any rules of order for pre-entrée dining. The apps were Garlic-Cashew Chips (tasty), Pickled Local Vegetables (good), Grilled Shishito Peppers (bland), and Edamame Falafel (delicious). Two of us had Paella, which was “saffron bomba rice, roasted corn, zucchini, fennel, sweet pepper, and cauliflower, grilled shishito pepper and cherry tomato, and green olive.” Those two plates came to the table while those two diners waited about five minutes before the other plates came, which were Kakiage Udon -- “tempura vegetables, udon noodles, nori-miso butter, spinach, corn, ginger aioli, togarashi” and my dish, which was Egglant and Black Lentil Curry -- "tomato-coconut curry sauce, lemon-curry leaf basmati rice, coconut-cucumber salad, pickled red onion, and cilantro." The two paella eaters said that their dish was bland. The udon eater enjoyed his dish very much. Mine was excellent, but I would have preferred much more spice. It was delicate. I’m not what I would think of as a delicate eater. But I imagine that many are.
We decided to walk into town for ice cream, so we skipped the desserts. They did sound good on the dessert menu, though. Would I go back? Perhaps. I wouldn’t go all the way (an hour and a half) to New Hope just to go to this restaurant. But I hope they stick around. The food is thoughtful and well-prepared. For a special occasion I like to be wowed. When I take meat eaters to a vegetarian restaurant, I want them to rave. And we need more vegan and vegetarian restaurants!
Sprig and Vine is at 450 Union Square Drive, New Hope PA
It’s about time I came out. Out, as in to everyone. I’m 57 and it’s about time. I know there are people who know. I display telltale signs. I let my hair down to people I know well. I know people know it about me when I go to places that are, well, comfortable. Where people like me are expected. Or maybe just tolerated. I can see in the faces of people I meet when their eyes cast downward and they suspect. But now is the time for everyone to know. I’m hairy. Yeah. And on the male scale of hirsuteness, I’m pretty hairy. It’s everywhere.
I feel better just saying it. And I’m proud to be hairy. I think if a man has hair, he ought to let it grow. It’s natural. Normal. Desired, even, if I dare say so. And frankly, I’m tired of the blatant put downs – the not-so-subtle insults – the sort-of secret whispers. I like my hair and people need to allow me my right to let it pulse in the breeze and soak up the sun.
I was recently on a massage therapist FaceBook group page, reading a question by a therapist about how to treat men with hairy bodies, and was disturbed to read several comments like, “Nair,” “a razor,” and the like. I mean, would we be encouraged to discuss body size in the same way? No. It would cause an uproar. We would be told to treat all of our clients with respect. Well, as a client, and as a therapist, I was insulted, to say the least, and upset that people in the health profession were degrading a certain class of clients with humorless insults.
I got over it. I did make a comment on the page similar to that above, and one offender apologized to me saying that she was just trying to be funny. I answered her comment saying that if there were therapists who were disgusted by body hair, they should send those clients to me! I’d be happy to work with them. And their hair.
So what do I expect? To be treated like a normal person that no more needs to shave than another person needs to cover up. We all have parts of us that others would prefer not to see. But we can’t go around demanding that people hide things just to suit our personal tastes. And I assure everyone that the hair on my body will be at least as clean as the hair on their heads.
On July 1, 2017 I retired. Well, “retire” isn’t a good word to describe what I’ve done. I’m still working. I needed a word that means quit one career to pursue another, and the only one I could think of was “retire.” I worked for 34 years as a full time musician in the Diocese of Trenton, first as a music teacher, then as a full time director of music in three different parishes over the course of 28 years. It was a fun career. I got to make a living as a musician, which is what I set out to do. And I made a decent living for 34 years as a musician.
I get asked all the time why I gave up on a career that was fun, engaging, profitable, and sustaining. The answer I first give is, “Because I didn’t want to do it anymore.” It’s true. I worked, essentially, for the same company for 34 years. Who does that nowadays? And there comes a time when you just have to do something else. I needed to quit and follow another path while I was still young enough to. I turned 57 just after my “retirement.” Fortunately, I can go on my husband’s health plan. That was probably the biggest factor in making this decision. I’ve been a yoga teacher for 7 years, and that helped provide for me the idea that I could do something besides music. But that wasn’t enough. I went to school for a year to become a Licensed Massage Therapist. That was the final step in preparing for my grand exit from the church music scene.
But I haven’t exited totally. In fact, yesterday, September 10, was the first Sunday since my retirement that I didn’t play in a church. I always planned to be a substitute organist after I left the full time field. Summer is a ripe time for subbing. I’ve played every Saturday and Sunday since July. What’s good about that is I get to play once, maybe twice a weekend. Not 8 times. And in my life as a full time church musician I went to mass more than any other person I know. Many, many more times. It’s something meant for people to do once a week, or maybe once a day. Not 8 times. That’s what I really didn’t want to do any more.
Getting to be a sub has been enlightening. I get to meet all sorts of different people in different traditions of worship. I get to meet and listen to brilliant women in positions of authority and influence. I get to drive up to churches with rainbows painted on their signs along with phrases like, “ALL are welcomed here.” I get to talk openly about my marriage to people who see that as a strength, and nothing I need to hide. It’s also kept me on my toes, so to speak, having to pay close attention to liturgical sequences I don’t know by rote. I have to concentrate on playing hymns and service music I may or may not have ever seen before. I have to adapt to a wide variety of instruments of various ages, and in various conditions of repair and functioning. The whole process has made me feel elevated, and very self-confident.
I love massage, as well. I will always, first and foremost, be a musician. An artist. But learning about the body, and being able to help people relax and heal has been thrilling. As a musician I may never see the effect my work has had. As a massage therapist I most often immediately see the benefits my work has on the body and on the person.
I plan to share more about my “retirement,” and the opportunities it has brought.
Sometimes I do things people tell me I shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong. If it’s for good reason, like not stepping into wet concrete, or not going into shark-infested waters, then I obey. Considering, though, our fondness for giving direction to others, it can be wise, and even fun to do things that others may warn against. Last Saturday I gave a concert of music written by women. I wasn’t told directly not to do it, but I did get several inquisitive reactions when I told friends and colleagues of my idea, that smelled of criticism and censure. But I did it anyway.
The concert included works for chorus, performed lovingly by an excellent group of friends and colleagues, vocal solos, sung by me accompanied expertly by three friends on the piano, (not at the same time, of course, although I’ve done three at one piano before, and, as a matter of fact, I did sing one song with two people playing at one piano at this concert), piano solo, played by me, and organ solo, played by me, and my three friends who also played the piano. Three of the composers are no longer living. As I prepared for this concert I read biographies on these women. Each was often discouraged from pursuing any kind of career in music, and also told that women of a certain social standing shouldn’t perform or compose, or that women didn’t have the brains or the emotional strength to compose serious music. Yet each chose to compose and perform in spite of these warnings. And compose they did. Music comparable to what was being written by men at the time, and certainly well worth repeated performance then and now.
Those three women were Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann, and Amy Beach, known at the time as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach because her husband insisted that she use as much of his name as possible. We also performed music by three living women composers, who, as far as I could tell, were not discouraged from studying, composing, and performing music, nor from pursuing a viable career in music. Those three were Barbara Harbach, who obtained a PhD in composition from the Eastman School of Music, Emma Lou Diemer, who also obtained a doctorate from Eastman, and, incidentally, who turns 90 this November as she continues to compose and perform, and Joan Szymko, who is one of the most often-performed American choral composers.
As the concert ended I conveyed this to the audience, right after I sang Amy Beach’s song, “Wouldn’t That Be Queer":
"We often tell each other that we shouldn’t do things. Sometimes it’s for good reason, but all too often it’s for no good reason. Women being told that a career as a performer was beneath them, or not proper because they were female. Women being told they didn’t have the brains, the emotional fortitude, or the potential to be world-class composers of anything remotely serious. Men who are told something they do is not masculine enough. We like to tell each other what to do, or what not to do. It is my sincere hope that you will hear as much music in the future by women as you do by men. If I have done anything tonight to move us farther down that path, I will be happy."
Then after the concert, at a local restaurant with many of the performers, one soprano raised her glass in a toast and said, “To women.”
I raised my beer and said, “To doing things we’re told we shouldn’t.”
Seven Ways to Become Sound This Morning
1. As soon as you get up, take a deep breath. Inhale and let your belly expand, then your chest. Exhale and draw your belly in. You can also do this anytime throughout the day. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you periodically, and put a Post It note on your computer screen that says, "Breathe."
2. Hum. Yes, hum. If you're alone do it at a normal, soft volume. If you're not alone, hum so softly that only you can hear it. It's ok to feel embarrassed. That will only last a few seconds. Just make one long, soft "mmmmmm."
3. Raise your straight arms overhead. Don't worry about how high they do or don't go. Inhale up, exhale down. Start with just one.
4. Close your eyes and say to yourself in your head, "May I be happy. May I be strong. May I be healthy. May I live with ease."
5. As long as your eyes are closed, imagine someone you love. Say in your head, "May they be happy. May they be strong. May they be healthy. May they live with ease."
6. Imagine someone you have difficulty with. Say in your head, "May they be happy. May they be strong. May they be healthy. May they live with ease."
7. Inhale and stretch your arms out wide. Exhale and bring your hands to your heart.
I have to say that I’ve never eaten in a gym before. I wasn’t planning on it today. I was going to work out at the gym before continuing on to school (That’s the massage school I’ve been attending for the past year). I hadn’t eaten lunch, and I didn’t want to eat lunch at home right before I worked out, so I thought I would stop somewhere on my way to school, probably for a protein bar. I worked out as usual, even though I was a bit hungry, showered in the locker room, got dressed, and headed for my car. I knew that just past the main entrance was some sort of food place, but I had never been down to that end of the main hallway. Just before I turned to exit the building I decided to head down and check out what they had to offer, if they were even open. I approached a food counter, not seeing anyone around, and found a menu in a holder on the counter. My expectations in eating at the gym were not high, I have to admit. I figured I’d be called “Bro” a few times, and express dismay at my limited options as a vegetarian. As I started to read the menu, I heard a voice from an opening between the counter and the kitchen behind. It was a young man working in the back who assured me that he would be right with me. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I think it was a few protein shakes, and maybe burger or two. I mean, it’s in a gym. I did see a picture on the wall of the small counter area of a salad with shrimp on it. I can’t say it got my hopes up, but I was getting a little better feeling about my decision.
A different young man, Timmy, came out to the counter from the kitchen and asked me what I wanted. I think he put it more like, “What can I do you for?” or something like that. I explained that I didn’t eat animals, and noticed one or two vegetarian items on the menu. He said that he highly recommended the Vegetarian Wrap. I looked at the description and told him that I would try it. An older man, Demitri, came out from the kitchen and asked me what sides I wanted. Even though they had brown rice and beans listed, he said that they didn’t offer that any more. So I chose the brown rice. Turns out he’s the manager of this food establishment which operates inside the gym.
While I waited for them to prepare my meal another young man appeared at the kitchen window. Turns out this was Mike, the chef. Demitri asked him to explain to me what was in the wrap. Mike appeared delighted to tell me that he put hummus on the wrap, then he sautéed peppers, onions and several other things that I don’t remember because this whole exchange was getting more and more interesting, and took my mind off the ingredients. He described with enthusiasm the way he cooked the food and then at the end put in raw spinach to delicately get warmed and wilted by the hot vegetables. Then he asked if I wanted cheddar cheese with my wrap. I said, “Of course!”
I had quite an interesting exchange with Demitri about him growing up in Greece, and how Mike was always singing, and since I was a musician, did I need backup singers. You get the idea. It was quite unexpectedly pleasant, considering what I was expecting by having lunch at a gym.
Mike eventually brought out my wrap and rice. I ate the rice first. It was delicious. Very nicely spiced. Demitri started listing the ingredients when Mike said, “And do you know the special ingredient? The most important ingredient?” I must have appeared dumbstruck. He said, “It starts with an L.” I asked if he was sure that he could tell me his secret without killing me. He said, “It’s love. The most important ingredient.”
Ultimate Grill is inside The Robert Wood Johnson Fitness and Wellness Center, 1044 US Highway 9, Parlin, NJ 08859
Who doesn't like a little excitement? I love to be excited about food. Not just excited at the prospects of satisfying hunger, but excited by the potential of the experience of eating itself, and then being excited by the process in many aspects. I remember well the thrill of the smell and the intense flavor of a well-cooked meat. I can easily say that such fervent emotion is not as easy to come by as a vegetarian. The passion I have for being a vegetarian is profound. However, often I find I'm not easily titillated by quickly prepared meals of my own, and even less often by what I find in restaurants.
Today my excitement was aroused in anticipation of and in the process of eating a simple lunch while on a quick trip to Miami. I'm here in Miami now just after a weekend conference of the Ocular Melanoma Foundation with my husband, Joe. After the charge we got with our very first Uber ride from the hotel near the airport to the beautiful city of Coral Gables, we took the advice of Joe's local cousin to try out Seasons 52. The inside and outside of the place is inspiring. My eyes were comforted and delighted by the abundance of mahogany, stone, and deeply-colored cloth. The acoustic environment was perfect for quiet conversation. We sat in a booth near the bar and perused the menu. Our very helpful waiter, Nathalie, directed our attention to the Miami Spice week special tasting menu. Joe ordered that with a flatbread Margarita pizza, and a steak salad. There was no vegetarian entree with that, so I had the Autumn Vegetarian Tasting Plate. I ordered an appetizer of Blistered Shishito Peppers. As Joe was eating his pizza I feasted on a bowl of these little peppers I picked up by the stem. Nathalie said that I might be lucky and get a hot one. They were like green pepperoncini with thinner skin. The taste was mild and pleasing, which complimented the covering of Sonoma goat-feta cheese, lemon aioli, and sumac. The salt grains were on it, delighting the tongue rather than flavoring the dish. I was tickled that one of them was hot, kind of like a poblano. After munching on all the peppers I ate the roasted corn in the bottom of the bowl, which was bathing in the melted cheese and aioli. Nathalie called it "succotash." It was an exciting experience. Rich and flavorful. A constantly interesting mix of spice and texture.
For my main course I experienced a tender fennel-roasted onion. It did indeed remind me of the way I often steam fennel, then grill it to just char the outer layer. This onion was coated with savory breadcrumbs. Next on my plate was a kohlrabi steak. Nathalie verified my suspicion that it was a round of kohlrabi that had been marinated (for four hours in a cilantro marinade) and cooked (baked) then grilled on the fire. The texture was perfect, just resisting the tender slicing of my fork. I need to make this at home. It was draped in asparagus that was perfectly cooked and crisp. It was definitely something from the earth, not a can or a bag. On that was a delightful salsa, just hot enough with a complexity of spice and texture. Finally I made my way to a small cast iron dish of vegan paella. Soft, warm, spicy, and delicious. I guessed that the bottom of the pan was layered with a spicy seitan. I was wrong. Nathalie checked with the chef. It was Chorizo Tofurkey.
I had to have dessert. I chose Peanut Butter Torte. This was a small glass of chocolate cake, chocolate bits, peanut butter mousse, peanut tuile, and peanuts.
This whole meal appeared to me to be well thought out, with the diner in mind. The experience was a progression from one delight to the next. Oh, what a little forethought and spice can do! I will definitely check out another Seasons 52. I was excited to learn they are located throughout the country.
Seasons 52 is at 321 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, FL, www.seasons52.com
Lunch today was exciting, but dinner tonight was an adventure. We would soon see whether that was because of the food, or other factors. It's our last night in Miami, the conference is over. All our old and new friends are gone. My husband Joe and I googled vegetarian restaurants in Miami and found a gourmet vegan restaurant. I was thrilled that he wanted to go. It was a bit farther than lunch was, and would be a $17 Uber ride one way. We had gotten a $15 off our first Uber ride coupon from the conference, so we were back on Uber to a small island off the shores of Miami Beach. The car stopped at a long, walled driveway leading up to a rather ritzy looking apartment building in a rather posh looking neighborhood. No signs. No restaurant. We got out of the car and walked up the steep ramp and around the building until we found a door. The attendant told us that there was indeed a restaurant in the building and asked us to sign in. We were directed to the rather weathered, wood paneled elevator, made our way to the mezzanine floor, and wound around to the back of the building.
The restaurant was an odd combination of bare light bulbs, white plaster, huge glass windows overlooking Biscayne Bay, the Port of Miami, and the high rises of Miami Beach, in a 70's kind of condo building with a yellow Formica'd bathroom. It felt very 70's. We sat out on the terrace since it was a cool (for Miami) breezy evening. It was also odd that we were the only diners not smoking. All of the diners had chosen to eat outside. I thought that perhaps those who chose to eat vegan would also choose not to smoke, but apparently I was wrong.
The menu was four sheets of paper on a clipboard. I was fraught with anticipation with the idea that I could order anything on the menu and not have to worry if it had meat in it. This would not be like the previous Thursday evening at the Cuban restaurant where my entire table had a ten minute discussion (mostly in Spanish) with the waiter and owner about what I could eat on their menu that didn't have meat in it. Their best offering was the chicken soup. The waiter offered to pick the chicken out of it himself. The font of the Full Bloom menu was small and curly, so we had to read it by the light of our iPhones. Seeking the flavorful and exotic, I chose to drink a Pirates on the Ship, which was a tasty blend of gin, grapefruit, and jalapeño. It was rather good: not too tart, not sweet at all, and just spicy enough. Well, that was true until I foraged around the ice with the straw at the end of my drinking experience, managed to latch onto a piece of jalapeño, started biting it not knowing what it was. That was hot.
Joe and I shared an appetizer of Black Bean, Avocado, and Sweet Potato Sliders. They were delicately spiced. I guess I need, at times, to ramp down my expectations so that I can enjoy life's subtleties. The little burgers were good. And my tongue and lips were still tingling from the jalapeño. I wasn't sure what to expect from a Slider. The bus boy had previously brought us shot glasses of gazpacho. I began to wonder if those were the sliders, based on my experience with raw oysters in a shot glass, but it turned out to be more like the White Castle variety with a much more healthy bent.
My entree was Cashew Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli in Butter Sage Sauce. I was glad we had the Sliders. The plate was just about six or seven small ravioli. Nothing else. But it was nutrient dense food. I was not hungry after the meal. The ravioli were great. Again, very subtly spiced. There were whole sage leaves in the sauce. I really enjoyed those.
We opted not to have dessert. We looked at the menu and Joe said, "Vegan dessert? What's the point?" The waiter brought him a small regular coffee with steamed milk, I think as a consolation. Joe said that it was thick enough to chew. If I had had it, which I would love to have had, I would have been awake with a pounding, flopping heart for three days.
It was an adventure. More because of the trip to the posh islets of Miami Beach and the oddity of eating in a condo building than for the food.
Full Bloom is at 11 Island Avenue, Miami Beach, FL, www.fullbloomvegan.com
A vegetarian-friendly sounding menu doesn't guarantee a satisfying meal, and a vegetarian-unfriendly one doesn't forebode a bad one. I have been to Papiemento on the island of Aruba before, and I can't tell you what I had. But I do have pleasant memories of the place. It is a stunningly beautiful outdoor setting, nestled in an 19th-century Aruban farmhouse. Many small tables surround an elegant blue swimming pool. The other tables are scattered beneath tropical trees that fan out in all directions. Basket lamps hang from branches. I wonder what they do if it rains. It did rain lightly when I was here four years ago, but we didn't get wet. This year the weather was perfect for an outdoor dining adventure.
The menu offered a cream of mushroom soup, but no other vegetarian dishes. But I didn't worry. I knew something good would happen. I started out with my new favorite tropical drink, a Caipirinha, made with fresh, muddled limes, and a Brazilian rum-like liquor. I was in charge of the wine this time, and I selected an old vine Zinfandel. I've already had enough white wine to drink for the rest of the year. Yes, I know, the night before was only one glass. But since I'm in charge, it's going to be red. I dislike white wine, but I hate zucchini more, so my friend Brian insisted that I tell the waiter I'm allergic to it. So I did. He said that the chef could offer me a pasta dish with vegetables and a red or a curry sauce. As I chose the curry, my friend Gregg blurted out, "And he's allergic (big emphasis on allergic) to zucchini!" The waiter asked me if I would eat yellow squash, which to me isn't much different from the green kind. I told him that I would eat it, but I'd rather not. He looked at me intently for a few seconds, then left.
My soup was delicious. Creamy, but not at all salty like the mushrooms I had had the night before. The wine came. It was perfect. Dry. Smooth. And red. Yes, red. A deep, dark red. The kind that belies the old in old vine. Not long after the soup was gone a Caesar salad came. I should say, "Caesar" because the dressing was mild and bland, kind of like ranch. Not that I've had ranch recently. Then came a large black bowl with just a few pieces of penne, lots of yellow and orange pepper slices, two huge and thick asparagus stalks, and broccoli di rape, all in a light coconut curry sauce. I was riddled with delight. I guess my allergy to zucchini will be taking hold.
After the main course I took a trip to the men's room. I include this here because it is one of the highlights of a visit to this restaurant. Not to diminish the food or decor in any way, but there's a palm tree growing in the men's room, right up from the cement floor and out a hole in the ceiling. There's a sign next to it asking guys not to, um ... water it.
As others at my table ordered dessert, I asked the waiter for a Mamajuana. His eyes lit up. He brought the bottle and proudly showed it to me and the rest of the table. The bottle was filled with what looked like wood chips. Mamajuana is a liquor from the Dominican Republic. It's made of red wine, honey, and over forty herbs, spices, and roots and bark from various tropical trees and shrubs. It was delicious, and made my lips numb. I'm sure it's illegal in the US. I will find out when I get home. Aruba is indeed One Happy Island.
Papiemento is at Washington 61, Noord, Aruba
It's Friday morning. Our last full day in Aruba. It's 7:50 and the sun is brightly shining. This hasn't happened in a few days. I want to go immediately to the beach but I go to the 8 am yoga class, hoping the sun will burn off the bugs, or at least make them seek shelter in the bushes. Alia, the yoga teacher from the previous two classes, smiles a wide smile when she sees me. We talk about how I felt after the last class. We talk about the restaurants I've gone to, and the classes she is taking to finish high school. Yes, she is that young. I'd say twenty since she is attending night school. One other woman who has only done Pilates and not yoga before comes to the grass. We begin.
The class is hard, but faster than the previous classes. I think it is because of the bugs. Most of the class is standing poses, again, I think, to keep us above the bugs. Although we do some arm balances near the ground. I contemplate holding my breath, but I decide against it. A bug is dangerously close to my nose. I snort to shoo it away. I snort a few more times in a steady rhythm so that everyone thinks I’m doing a yoga breathing technique called “Skull Shining Breath.” But I stop because I feel silly pretending. I do something she calls Fallen Angel. I stay in it for about a second and then fall. "Beautiful!" Alia says. But she's looking directly at me.
After a very sweaty class I say goodbye as I tell her I'm leaving tomorrow. She gives me a hug. I'm glad I got up for class. But I'm also glad to be going home. I feel rested and rejuvenated.
It's Wednesday morning, my sixth day of vacation. I didn’t go to the yoga class on Monday morning. I'm at the 8:00 yoga class on the grass now. It's very cloudy and looks as if it will rain any second. Alia, the yoga teacher, is happy to see me. I am her only student. She asks me if there was anything I want to focus on. I say that I like arm balances. Here we are doing them. I think we are going to go through them all. I only know of fifteen or twenty. I bet she knows arm balances that I’ve never heard of. She seems excited that I can do them. I'm just happy to be pushed a little to do things I haven't done in a while.
Since it's just the two of us, I talk to Alia during the class. I tell her how I'm doing. She offers me encouragement. There are several poses I only approach doing. Nothing as deep as she does. Then again, I'm 55 and when I was her age that I'm guessing is not much more than twenty, it would be almost ten years before I would even start a yoga practice. I'm comforted by that. I'm also a little proud as I notice people walking by the grass spot where we sweat. I notice it is the men who are looking. I entertain the idea that they are looking at me with envy because of my practice, not because of the young woman I'm sweating with.
It’s good to do things differently while you’re on vacation. I could get used to having someone tell me what to do.
It's Friday the Thirteenth, and my first morning in Aruba. I saw on the board last night when we got to the hotel that there was a yoga class at 8 this morning. That's 7 New Jersey time. I haven't done yoga that early in the morning in years. But I'm on vacation, so I get up at 7:30 and start walking around the beach area near all the hotels near mine. I don't have a mat. The class is on a patch of grass near the beach. At about 7:50 I pass by the place and see a young woman sitting on a yoga mat on the grassy patch surrounded by bushes and small trees. I go around to the opening and step onto the grass. She sees me and gives me a sort of pained look, as if to say, "What are you doing on my lawn?" I ask her if this is the yoga place. She says, "Yes," and I take one of the four mats sitting by the opening and roll it out near her. It's very windy, and I have a hard time hearing what she is saying, but I do clearly understand, "You're really early." I guess she's not used to anyone coming to her grass class before 8. People who come here must always be in vacation mode. I take advantage of our alone time and find out that she teaches at a studio about a five minute walk from the hotel. Her favorite class there is Hot Hatha, something like Bikram. She asks if I have any experience doing yoga. I say, "Yes." That's all she needs to know. Three women show up just in time for class. She tells us that the class will be gentle.
Turns out she likes Ashtanga, and leads us through most of the first series. Ashtanga Yoga is what I'd call a rather aggressive form of the practice. My experience with the first series is that it's a lot of forward bends that my tight male hips and legs find extremely challenging. Women don't seem to have much trouble with those, so I set myself up for a rather painful time. I do ok with most of the moves, even though I think I can hear my muscles creaking. I hope the wind rushing through the palm trees covers it. The women and the teacher don't seem to be looking my way at all. I'm safe.
I do happen to notice that the teacher and I are the only ones who get up and balance on one leg in Bird of Paradise, a rather difficult pose, especially on the uneven grass. I try not to look smug as I glance at the limber thirty-something women as they fumble around on the grass, looking as if they are trying to scratch their back upper leg with both hands, trying to get into the pose. Fair is fair. They probably saw me in not too few awkward moments as well.
I have never been happier than I am now to end the class in Sivasana, that quiet, lie down and pretend you're dead pose at the end of class. Well, dead except for the bug that flew up my nose and got stuck halfway down the back of my throat. The teacher must think I'm convulsing. That's a sensation I can't quite describe.
This class will be given three more times while I'm here. I'm not sure if I will go. It depends on what time we all agree to go to breakfast. I guess I'm now officially in vacation mode.
I'm not hard to please, even as a vegetarian in a tourist spot. But there are a few things that will make me very happy. Put me on the menu. Acknowledge that I exist and that I lead a legitimate, honorable lifestyle. Give me flavor. Prepare and present my food with the same care as you do the other dishes. Give me something other than pasta and zucchini. That’s just a few requests. It seems pretty reasonable.
Tonight was a truly spectacular meal. I have been to the Screaming Eagle before, and I'm certainly glad that we came back. The dining room is striking. White walls with hanging white cloth banners dividing up the room into sections. Our waitress was Dutch. Very attentive, friendly, and helpful, but she was all about us and not about herself. I started my experience with a Bombay Sapphire martini with three of the most perfect olives. The appetizer I chose was a soft artichoke heart, warm, and creamy, buried under a mound of mixed greens and warm goat cheese, with a honey walnut dressing. The waitress winked at me when I ordered it. It was actually fun to eat. My entree was a stuffed Portobello mushroom. The cap was perfectly cooked, topped with a layer of steamed spinach, and on top of that a gratin filled with flecks of spinach as well. The cap sat on a bed of tarragon and truffle risotto. Each layer was a separate adventure of flavor that harmonized into a very satisfying mix of textures. It's apparent that each element was prepared with the utmost care. Even the balsamic reduction was artfully drawn on the plate. Three tomato rounds were grilled nicely, topped with just the right amount of oregano.
For dessert I passed on the chocolate ganache cake, and opted for a flight of three new Macallan Scotches. A perfect ending to a perfect meal.
The Screaming Eagle is at J.E. Irausquin Blvd. 228, Eagle Beach, Aruba.
My parents made me gay. I’m certain of it. As I look back on my life with them, I discover several clues that expose their blame. I’m ok with it. It’s just nice, finally, to be able to figure out exactly why I turned out this way. Here are the clues that I’ve found:
When I was four my sister thought it would be a good idea to put her little brother into one of her outfits. I don’t blame her for my gayness in the same way as I blame my parents. She was only six, after all, and hadn’t yet figured out the implications of crossdressing. On this particular day she put me in a cute little ruffled one piece she had, plopped a frilly little coordinating hat on my head, and dragged me downstairs to show to my parents her dolled up little sibling. They thought it was the funniest thing. But it was a good funny, not bad funny. It was the kind of funny like when you get melted marshmallow on your face when you make S’mores, not the uncomfortable funny like when you pee your pants. I think this dress up incident was a major factor in the next clue.
Soon after this, my mother started giving her old dresses to my sister to play dress up. Well, actually, I don’t remember her giving them to my sister, but simply leaving them in our play room in a box. You guessed it -- the dresses ended up on me somehow. And, you know, my parents never so much as flinched when they saw me in them. Nope. Not so much as a disapproving glance came from them. I confess that I haven’t worn a dress since I was about seven, but their tolerance for such behavior during my tender years must have pinked my color spectrum. I know it.
When I was eight they made me take piano lessons. At the age when I should have been outside learning how to play ball with the boys, I was inside practicing the piano. It was just such an excommunication from activities that would have solidified my straightness that must have caused permanent damage. So, not knowing much about sports, I was left to play dolls, and hopscotch, and Monopoly, and build forts in the woods, and rake leaves into pretend houses with the girls in my neighborhood. And we all know what that can do to a little boy!
When I was about eight my parents did something drastic that must have tipped the gay scales for me. The Cleveland Orchestra had just opened their summer home on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, the Blossom Music Center. I had been to concerts before, but they had never been as engaging and as much fun as this one that my parents subjected me to. The concert was conducted by the legendary and dynamic George Szell, and included the Overture 1812 by Tchaikovsky complete with fireworks bursting in the sky and cannon being shot from the surrounding hills, all timed to the exuberant music. This spectacle showed me that classical music was fun as well as serious. And also very gay. I think I knew that then. They also took me to see the Oberlin College Choir directed by Robert Fountain. I remember that concert vividly. The singers were having such a good time. And the conductor was very spirited, flailing his arms around, making demonstrative faces. It all seems so obviously gay to me now. It did, however, inspire me to want to direct choirs. And we all know how many gay choir directors there are!
In seventh grade when we had to pick a foreign language to study, they let me pick French! Nothing butch like Spanish. No. Or coarse and manly like German. No. I was destined for nasal vowels and Coq au Vin. And speaking of Coq, they let me learn how to cook, and grocery shop, and garden. My mother let me organize her pantry! What gayer thing could I have done as a little boy? And furthermore, I could bake better than most girls I knew. Such damage.
During those turbulent and formative college years my condoning parents let me bring a few of my boyfriends home with me on breaks. And they had the nerve to allow us to pal around. They even enjoyed it. Also, my parents were indulgent enough to tolerate my being involved in two or three long-term relationships. As I think back on them now, and as I suspect I knew all along, it would have been best if I had avoided these particular alliances. I remember once when I forced myself to tell my parents that I was “moving out” on one of them, my mother pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, “You didn’t have a falling out, did you? We like him.” Don’t worry; I’m not talking about the nineteen-year relationship I’m in now with my husband! This alliance I am glad I didn’t avoid. Through all of this coming and going of men, they never asked the question, and never judged me for the men I associated with. Hell, I never even told them that I was gay. I didn’t want them to suffer for their responsibility. They don’t deserve that. I took that suffering upon myself.
Ultimately, I have determined that my parents’ indiscretion must have led to my expressions of gayness in such things as becoming an organist, a choir director, a church musician, and a tap dancer, and becoming the gayest of all gay things a man can become, a yoga teacher! Now that’s gay.
I don’t harbor ill feelings toward my parents for their responsibility in all of this. No. Things could have been much worse. But it is a relief to know how such events that they encouraged could have led to my gayness. And such gayness it is! Oh, Mom and Dad.
I won’t declare Selfless September a failure. It wasn’t. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I did accomplish one thing, and it has had an impact on my overall health and wellbeing. I have stopped calling other drivers bad names while I drive. I still yell, a little, but a lot less than I ever have before. I say things like, “Let’s move it,” and, “Really? You had to cut in front of me?” But I have lost most of the urge to say terrible things about these other drivers. I feel better while I drive, and I’m in a better mood when I get where I’m going. I even feel better about the other drivers. The focus is off of them, and it’s on me and my driving. I feel like I’m more a part of a community of drivers than I feel like a maverick among fools. This feels permanent. I don’t want to go back to the old me. As for other ways of being selfless, I’ll take this as a step in the right direction, and hope that October can bring something even deeper. I could call it Obliging October, I suppose. Or Forgiving Fall. Any suggestions?
This is going to be a lot more difficult than I thought. I’m trying to act less selfishly for the month of September. It’s almost half way over and I’m not getting very far. When I drive I have stopped saying out loud nasty names for the people driving in front of me. So maybe that’s a major accomplishment. I still think them sometimes. And I did say a few things out loud to the people driving in front of me, but they weren’t terrible things, and certainly weren’t derogatory names. I said things like, “Someone’s got to go,” and, “Really?” So I have to say that I feel much better already. Not vocalizing nasty things has caused me to think them less. I still tailgate. Even if the driver in front of me is going the speed limit. I have to stop that. My intention is to be forgiving and to let people manage driving in their own way without me trying to change their behavior. I have a long way to go.