Sunday, August 31, 2008

Peachy Keen, Thanks For Asking

I was a very picky child. In fact, I was a very picky adolescent and young adult. Until about 5 years ago, I'd never tasted many basic foods. I'll save myself the shame of listing them here, but suffice it to say, tomatoes were there.

When I met Jeff he started exposing (read: force-feeding) me to many foods. At first the thought of curry or cucumbers terrified me, but that ridiculousness soon passed. Over time, and especially since I found the joy in cooking, I've come to learn that food isn't scary. In fact, it's amazing and delicious.

Nothing makes me happier than strolling through the grocery store or one of Toronto's numerous markets. Especially at harvest time. There's something extremely exciting about stalls full of local fruits and vegetables. It makes you swell with pride for the rich land and skilled hands that work it. You find yourself maniacally filling bags with rutabaga, swiss chard and other things you have no idea what to do with. It's like a culinary smash-and-grab, utter panic, feeling winter at our backs, knowing we'd better damn well enjoy this feast before we're back to food that tastes like truck.

Before driving up to the cottage this weekend, we went to St. Lawrence Market to stock pile fresh meat and produce. On Saturdays the market spills out on Front Street, around the corner and down Jarvis too. Buildings and makeshift tents full of local produce quiver, the smell of manure still pungent in the air. Purple potatoes and thick, amazing pints of berries everywhere.

But there's nothing quite like the local August peach. Fuzzy and sweet, heaped in baskets and little green boxes. My dear friend T.J. made the most delicious-sounding meal a couple of weeks ago, the details of which I can't remember because his dessert took my breath away.

BBQ Roasted Peaches with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

1) Slice a ripe local peach in half and remove the pit.
2) Brush with oil (I used canola; I wouldn't recommend anything with much flavour) and place on the grill for five minutes. Low heat.
3) Turn that beauty over and fill the pit-spot with brown sugar, dust with cinnamon and let it roast a little longer. Another 5 minutes or so. (I bet a dash of fresh minced ginger or a sprinkling of nutmeg would be nice too.)
4) Remove from the heat and mound with your favourite vanilla ice cream.
5) Eat it and remember the moment forever.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Who Do You Think We Are, The Rockefellers?

Every time the season changes, my mind turns to fashion. I think about my look for fall and other superficial things. If it were up to me, I'd hit the stores every July and stock pile fall and winter clothes like a squirrel.

As it stands, I grab bits and bobs throughout the year, as needed. I buy summer clothes in the summer, when they're cheap, and avoid anything new while snow is on the ground. As years go by, I spend less-and-less on clothes. I stretch my cost-effective (read: crappy) fabrics out over the course of several seasons, scraping the pills from my sweaters and jazzing up a stale pair of pants with a snappy new pair of socks. It's only at times like this, twice a year when the weather is moderate and lovely, that I'm desperate for clothes. I dream of new jeans and crisp button-downs. I look at magazines and get angry at the accessorized male models. Spring and fall in Toronto are like nothing else: comfortable and fashion-friendly. No smoggy humidity to combat, no slushy gutters to dodge. Just perfect for dressing. Add to this the Pavlovian back-to-school spending urges, and Labour Day Weekend is impossible.

Growing up, whenever my sister and I would suggest spending beyond our means (or if we stood with the fridge door open) my Dad would ask boldly, "Who do you think we are, the Rockefellers?" If he'd been a sitcom character, it would definitely be his catch phrase. It came in many forms; when he was in a good mood, it was funny. When he was in a bad mood, it was not.

We were never the Rockefellers, of this we were painfully aware. Though we weren't poor, we often acted like it. And not for food stamps or pity from the neighbours, we just lived below our means. My parents grew up in a time when money was hard to come by. My Dad lived on a working farm and knew the value of a dollar. My Mom, raised largely by a single mother, didn't have any extra. They plan to retire early and have done well for themselves, so the plan worked. Much to the chagrin of a kid who had to settle for Brooks running shoes.

Once a year, as September approached, we'd head to the mall where we'd scour the racks for fiscally-responsible clothing. While my friends arrived back to class wearing the coolest Hypercolor T-Shirt or Vuarnet sweatshirt, I hit the scene in something considerably less amazing from Bi-Way. In retrospect, I'm fine with this, but being 10 years old, it was torture. The brief pair of years I spent in the Husky Department (see: Fatty Fatty Two By Four, June 2008) created lasting memories, as you can imagine.

I'd like to credit my parents with teaching me important lessons and respect for money, but that wouldn't explain my credit card debt and penchant for namebrand cereals. I think, for a time, I rebelled against their penny-pinching and acted like a Rockefeller. But isn't this what the college years are for? To drink too much, love too much, and spend too much money? That said, if I could turn back time, I'd keep walking past the tables in my college hallways, set up to exploit fresh young credit ratings. The bastards.

Times have changed and though I have a secure job and a steady income, I spend far less than ever. And I don't mind. Except when I'm trying to decide on my look for fall.

(Above: the Rockefellers, 1940s)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ambiguous Ambition

I'm part of a rather strange generation. It seems people my age run the gamut between renaissance-throwback artists and 80s-revival corporate-cogs.  I don't know exactly where I fall on the spectrum, but I've been thinking an awful lot about it lately.

I was at a cocktail party last week, surrounded mostly by the latter: a real go-getting group of consultants, executives, and other young ambitious people.  I don't care for conversations about market shares, particularly, so found myself somewhat bored until the wine kicked-in and I could privately snicker as people recited, what sounded like, lines from a Michael Douglas movie.  

I've never really considered myself career-obsessed.  I have no real desire to be the Vice President of anything or to climb any ladders.  If I'm not laughing throughout my workday or enjoying the company of my colleagues, what's the point?  If my job is to take up 30% of my day, it had better be a damn riot!  Don't get me wrong, I like to work and I like to do my job well, but not at the expense of my real life.  

Jeff and I have been talking about throwing it all away by moving to the Cayman Islands.  Sunshine, the beach, Vitamin D year-round.  Surrounded by happy people who don't own a watch or a Blackberry®.  We'd get fun little jobs at a coffee shop, maybe.  We wouldn't need much, afterall, and our day wouldn't be about work at all.  It would be about sunning ourselves or perhaps snorkeling or reading in the breeze of the ocean.  What could be better than that?  I'll keep you posted.

(A kid on the beach in the Dominican Republic, 2007)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Judy Judy Judy!

Musically-speaking, I'm a bit obsessive. I tend to listen to one thing for two or three weeks, and then switch to something else entirely. Yesterday a new phase began. Here comes a month-long period of downloading, high-kicking, and dramatic re-enacting.

Much to my boyfriend's dismay (he's this close to having his gay card revoked) I've been listening, non-stop, to Judy Garland's 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall. Last winter Rufus Wainwright released his version of the show, a song-by-song re-creation of the iconic performance. It's been on regular rotation since December, but it wasn't until yesterday that I got my hands on the original. You can hear the qualudes coarsing through her veins. How old school! How glamorous!

I've always loved a hopped-up diva, I mean, come on. And a musical? Obviously! My sister and I sang along with The Wizard of Oz, we busted "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" in-character (The Sound of Music) and dreamed of one day being adopted by Daddy Warbucks, just so Anne Reinking would introduce us to the cleaning staff at every opportunity. A dream! On that long list of things I want to do in life, perform on Broadway has a place. But, it might as well say "perform open heart surgery", because who do I think I am? Somehow, with no training and no God-given natural talent, I'm compelled to sashay across a stage. I'm no geneticist, but what gives? Someone's gotta find the correlation between gay and footlights. The missing link, indeed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tabling an Issue

When I started this blog, it was with a specific (yet broad) intention.  Pretty things, good design, the stuff my eyes happen to land on.  My first entry took a look at my living room and all the things I hoped to change about it.  I've done well; the CDs are packed away, I've accumulated some lovely new chairs, the terrible white rug is gone.  But there's more work to be done.

This past weekend Jeff and I hit up a bunch of second-hand stores in the bowels of South Western Ontario.  I find there are more interesting things in places where the demographic skews slightly . . . stylistically retarded.  People seem to give up the good stuff, and, in-turn, no one else wants it either.  So, there it sits for Jeff and I to stumble upon.  

We have a few items in-mind whenever scouring the shops: a new coffee table, a couch, and a rug.  On Saturday we found a great little coffee table to replace the miserable IKEA number I've had for several years.  The quality is a bit questionable - in fact, it comes complete with that faux bois laminate.  I know what you're thinking, but bear with me.  It has great lines, it's a great colour (adding much-needed contrast to our living room), it's in great shape, and it was $6.29.  

Here's what I say: If you hate what you've got, replace it with something, anything, better.  It's not forever, it's just for now.  As time goes on we can allocate more money to frivolous things like coffee tables.  And there's so much to be said for the hunt.  For months and years to come I will love looking at this little table, remembering the breezy August afternoon we poked around a dingy, small-town Salvation Army store, the concerned look on Jeff's face when he told me to "settle down", my excitement bubbling at the sight of it, the giddy-gay-levels all too much for the locals.  You just can't buy those memories at Barbara Barry.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Places I Won't Soon Forget

The weather in Toronto has been unseasonably cold and wet these past couple of days. Heading towards the middle of August, the thermometer quivers somewhere near 15°C. Strange. I suppose this makes me think of warmer places, sun-soaked instead of waterlogged.

This photo was a happy accident. We were on a bus to Havana, my eyes roving, happily clicking my shutter through a dusty window, wondering what I might get as we sped along the pot-holed highway. One man rode along with ease, while another pulled over to fix a chain or a wheel, or a spoke out of alignment. Almost comically duo-chromatic, this photo satisfies my need to coordinate. It's early-morning, the haze burning off over the inlet, Miami somewhere beyond that soupy horizon.

But what I see most is the man reaching into his breast pocket, I imagine pulling out a pack of cigarettes, surveying the damage to his bicycle, deciding what it needs to carry him on down the road. It looks like my Dad there on the Cuban coast. You see, to this day he'll only wear shirts with a pocket there over his heart, to carry his cigarettes. I'd recognize that reach anywhere.

Monday, August 4, 2008

My sister recently Ferberized her 1 year old. She was anxious about it, unsure whether it was the right course of action, as some overzealous mothers see it as cruel and unusual.

For those who don't know, Dr. Richard Ferber is an expert in infant sleeping patterns who developed a method for training babies to sleep through the night. He advocates placing the infant in his crib and, at ever-increasing intervals, allowing him to lull himself to sleep. The term "cry it out" comes to mind, though it's nowhere near that abusive, if done properly. Dr. Ferber encourages parents to enter the room to soothe the baby every few minutes, but without contact. Within just a few days of diligent parenting, the baby should be able to ease himself to sleep without much work at all. Fairly basic behavioural conditioning, right?

And, really, it's just the beginning of years and years of the same. Our parents aim to mold us by encouraging the positive behaviour and counting on our basic psychological foundations to kick in. We are, after all, creatures of habit. As we get older, however, other factors begin to work on us. For the first few years, you're basically holed-up with your parents, only their thoughts and feelings governing your behaviour. Then, as years go by, friends, bullies, teachers - a multitude of factors participate in the who you are of it all.

In my limited literate years, I've written many things about my Dad. Mostly in journals or on bits of paper, some sympathetic and kind, odes of boyhood adoration, others angry rants about a caricature. No single person in my life has had the ability to bring out such a range of emotion in me. My Dad has single-handedly provided me with both the best, and worst, aspects of myself.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think this is unique. The kind of tumult in my relationship with him is classic and boringly commonplace, as if out of a poorly-written coming-of-age movie. At times deeply connected and loving, often, though, we were at-odds. Like a dog dripping saliva, though, most of our interactions weren't based in reality, but rather, soaked in the history of our relationship. I'd find myself angry because his eyebrows flexed, a trigger out of his, and my own, control. He might get worked up because I scuffed my shoes against the pavement, really just a sensory thing.

That said, my Dad is a million things, not the least of which, nicer than anyone I've known. In that I think he resented my iciness. Not the kind directed at him, he got used to that, but more my reluctance to make friends with just anyone, like he does. He'd invite besuited gentlemen from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in off the street and I'd cringe as he offered them a beer. They would say no thank you, and he'd try a can of pop or some juice. Milk? Water? Anything at all? In my family, someone without a beverage in their hand couldn't possibly be satisfied. He would do anything for anyone. I can only hope a bit of that wore off on me.

A few weeks ago Jeff and I visited my parents. They recently moved out of the house where I grew up into a smaller house in a rural area. It's their house, not mine in the slightest, and it feels that way. I'm a guest, though the furniture is familiar. They're softening in all the ways people do when grandchildren appear on the scene. But I suppose I'm still a bit skeptical. Probably a test, I bought my nephew an oversized paintbrush and some water-based chalk paint for his third birthday. When Jack starting squirting cerulean blue all over the paved walkway in their yard, I watched to see if my Dad's blood pressure would rise visibly, the veins in his head protruding. But they didn't. He genuinely didn't seem to care. I was impressed, thinking back to the copy of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff I smugly bought him one Christmas.

Furthermore, on this Sunday afternoon (despite my near-sociopathic ability to escape being on the receiving end of anything thrown) I found myself in a wide triangle with my Dad and Jeff. A frisbee sailed through the air between us. As I tossed it at my Dad, right into his hands, I held my breath. How will this go? We hadn't attempted anything like it in what felt like a thousand years. When I missed a catch, he didn't scoff or appear disappointed, just laughed and kept on playing. Another piece of the angry little boy in me dissipated, though it took a moment to shake my Pavlovian instincts. A few throws later I turned my back to see what Jack was up to, and felt the sharp crack of a Frisbee in my spine - I turned to see my Dad laughing hysterically. I didn't storm off into the house crying, but, rather, laughed right along with him. It was funny, after all.

As the years march on, I spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out who we've become and how we'll relate to each other now. No longer a kid, I want my parents to know who I am as an adult. By the same token, I'm eager to know who these middle-aged people have been all these years, and who they will evolve into. I think we're navigating well, growing pains easing and simple joy taking its place.

(Above: My Dad as a boy, 1960)

Friday, August 1, 2008

I like hosting parties. I like mixing drinks, ensuring nary a glass runs dry, monitoring the comfort and enjoyment of all. I like creating party-specific playlists, music mixes that might satisfy each person on the guest list. I like setting the scene and choosing a signature beverage. I like greeting and introducing friends who haven't met yet. That kind of thing.

Someone asked me yesterday if I'm able to have fun at my own parties: I think I can, but I definitely go into Party Planner Mode, and it becomes almost a business, the overseeing of an event such as this. If I could get away with a clipboard, I likely would. Perhaps it's a dormant desire to be Jennifer Lopez, I'm not sure, but, for me, this is fun.

I got to thinking: I know I'm a good customer - Never needing too much help in the fitting room, always a good tipper at the end of a meal - and people tell me I'm a good host. But am I a good guest? What moves someone to the top of the invite list? And what moves them off of it altogether? Let's investigate.

1) Show up at the proper time. Where possible, I think people should arrive remotely near the start time indicated on the invitation. Sometimes the party has a plan, a storyline, if you will, and it's important that the host has some control over that. Also, a party that happens in waves never really gets its legs - If 10 people arrive late as 10 others are leaving, the natural energy shifts. This can be detrimental and disappointing to the host and to the overall success of the party.

2) Don't come empty-handed. I couldn't imagine going to someone's house without something. While a bottle of wine is absolutely great, I'm thinking it's time to expand my own horizons by bringing something more exciting. Maybe you know the host well, and they mentioned a distinct and frustrating lack-of-melon-baller situation. That would be thoughtful. Never expect the host to serve what you have brought. If you're anxious for them to enjoy that spankin' fresh Beaujolais with you, bring two. For advanced users: If you know the host well, always give them a quick call before you arrive to ensure they don't need anything. Sometimes whiskey goes down faster than first anticipated and the signature drink could be at-stake. Friends don't let friends run dry.

3) Survey the room. Decide where you fit in. Don't insinuate yourself into a group that appears overly familiar or invested in their conversation - If they are a group who met in high school, you might not want to get stuck in a reunion-chat. Boring and awkward for everyone. Allow your host to introduce you to a pair or a group that might work - If your host has done his work, he'll already have a place in-mind for someone like you.

4) What kind of party is this? Figure out where you are. If there aren't teenage girls drinking Labatt 50 on the stairs, you're not at a frat party. If there aren't Greek symbols on the door, you're not at a frat party. Do not treat any party like a frat party unless it is, indeed, a frat party. If you get your first drink from the host, assume all subsequent drinks will arrive in your hands that way. Unless you're a close, intimate friend of the host, it is in bad taste to get drunk and start playing bartender. I think the term I'm looking for is douchebag.

4) Be a polite conversationalist. It's hard to explain basic social skills, so if they don't come naturally, perhaps look into a class at The Learning Annex. Don't talk about yourself too much (Yes, I recognize the irony in this; blogging itself so deeply narcissistic.) Allow others to inquire rather than imposing yourself upon a relative-stranger. Speak at a normal volume. Don't discuss hot button issues - No host or bystander wants to see a Rosie-Elizabeth-debacle erupt in the dining room. Avoid the obvious: religion, politics, and circumcision. If a conversation with another guest is stalling, use any number of great excuses to move on. Do not beat a dead horse or cling to the hope of making this work. Move on. The party depends on it.

5) Know when to leave. If your host is extinguishing candles or donning a sleep mask, you've overstayed.

A party is only as good as its guests, so if I haven't taken the fun out of it, please do enjoy attending your next function. And the fall season is just around the corner, so why not try the delicious Ginger Snap Martini pictured below.

(My signature holiday beverage, December 2007)