Do we all fall into contemplative moods in the weeks leading up to our birthdays, or is it just me?
One thing I’m pondering is the fact that the neighborhood seagulls wake me up lately at 4:30 or so. They caterwaul overhead, starting before dawn, screaming bloody murder at one another in the sky. City seagulls! They sound like Southie mothers shrieking, “SEAN, you betta not end up like ya fuckin FATHA!!” and “Bobby O’Houlihan, if I catch ya I’m gonna SKIN YA ALIVE!”
When I look out the window, I can see one of them on the rooftop across the street, strutting along the peak, shrieking its head off, probably at another gull on another rooftop, waiting for a response, then shrieking back.
The British aren’t coming. They have no predators to warn one another about, that I know of. The sun isn’t even up yet; what urgent news could there be to impart? How is this productive? How does this advance their cause in the world? Why aren’t they down by the water, catching fish and nourishing themselves?
Seagulls are mysterious, I conclude every morning. Then I put in earplugs, pull a pillow over my head, and go back to sleep.
Inside the house, during this fresh, sweet, blue-green-gold Maine summer, I’m passing my days with four solid goals in mind: train for the 10K race in September, finish the Moose book, judge the Kirkus literary contest, and get my driver’s license. Every day, I try to make progress on three out of four fronts. And it’s working. I’m learning to parallel park, and today I’m going to take us on the Interstate. I’ve knocked almost all the books off my third of the list and am about to move on to the other two judges’ picks and the late entries. I’m starting to write the chapter about lobsters in the Moose book, and, in a stroke of perfect timing, today we’re going up north to Phippsburg to go out on the boat with our lobsterman pal, Ethan.
The first time I ran, at the beginning of June, I kept losing my wind and had to slow to a walk till I caught it again. Every time I go out, I can run a little farther, a little faster. I ran four miles on Friday evening, from our back door to the end of the Eastern Prom and then back to Bam Bam bakery on Commercial Street, then I walked the rest of our daily route home; eventually, maybe by the end of August, I’ll be able to run all 5 ½ miles at one go, even the uphill part at the end.
In my experience, that’s how things get done: by increments and daily practice. I don’t know any shortcuts.
It’s not the most exciting summer anyone’s ever had, to put it mildly, but internally, it is life-changing, even radical. To focus so completely on four worthy goals at once, to have the time and liberty and discipline to pursue them all to the fullest, and to feel myself able and capable of doing so, is a profound experience of fun, adventure, and satisfaction.
As an unexpected consequence, other, necessary, important aspects of my life are shifting, changing, and improving—some in explosive bursts of revelation and almost involuntary action, others in a deep, underground way I’m hardly aware of until they manifest themselves, and some a combination of the two.
I’m turning 52 on August 22, and in all the years since I was old enough to drive, although I’ve had four learner’s permits and even learned to drive 25 years ago, I have never once taken a driving test; something always prevented me, probably my own fears. This time, I’m going to do it.
And this time around, I’m writing a book I want, rather than need, to write, a crucial distinction. I am very glad I wrote “Blue Plate Special,” but as I worked on it, I sensed, beyond the chronology of my own life, another interesting (to me) idea for a book about my happy life in New England and the current economic reality of food in this country and the intersection of those two things. I had to write that other book to get to this one, and I did, and now here I am. Writing this book makes me happy, excited; writing that one was painful and anxiety-inducing. But every book has its own trajectory, and nothing can be rushed.
In 2002, I ran the New York City marathon. I completed it in 3 hours and 58 minutes. I find it hard to believe now, but never having run before, I had set a goal for myself of under four hours, and I achieved it, in spite of a hospitalization for hyponatremia, IT band problems that required physical therapy, and severe pronation that was resolved finally with handmade, expensive orthotics.
And then, after all that trouble and expense and commitment, I stopped running immediately after the marathon—until now, 12 years later.
Training for the 10K race feels small by comparison, but it’s not, it’s something else entirely. The marathon was a one-off thing, intended to help me recover from a profound depression following 9/11. This upcoming race is not the point. Running is the point. And I hadn’t intended certain side effects of running, but I’m drinking much less alcohol lately (one ice-cold low-alcohol sorghum beer is nothing short of divine after a run and a shower, but that’s it, I’m done), eating differently and less (almost no red meat; two smallish meals a day), sleeping more deeply (seagulls aside). After the race, I plan to keep running and see what other good things might happen, even if it’s only increased wind and stamina. At almost-52, those might be the best things I could ask for.
And despite the masses of piles and rows of books around my clawfoot tub and on the downstairs bookshelves, I’m happy to spend a few months reading so many good novels and story collections. Running, writing, reading, driving. And Pilates, and smaller writing deadlines, and sneaking purely-for-pleasure reading, and walking Dingo. That’s my summer.
Meanwhile, I’m not cooking much, not thinking about food except as it relates to the Moose book. It takes a lot for food to recede from the forefront of my mind. I wonder how and when I’ll come back to my lifelong love affair with it.
When I do, I plan to make Moroccan chicken for Brendan with one of the intriguing spice packets I just got in the mail from Laura, a reader in Oregon, who made it for her now-fiancé, George, on their first date. She told me in her letter that when people ask when they’re getting married, she answers, “One of these days.” That’s what Brendan and I always say. That’s another goal, the best one.
Yesterday, Brendan and I took a break from working and had ourselves a party. We watched the last World Cup game with tequila-grapefruit cocktails and ham-and-cheese sandwiches on toasted gluten-free “rye” bread with a shit-ton of mayo and mustard. After the game, we took Dingo for a long walk down the road. We humans swam in the lake in the total solitude while Dingo lay on the beach under the picnic table.
We walked home, fed Dingo, and sat on the porch for a while watching the dragonflies troll through the air like beautiful, predatory machines, eating mosquitoes. While the huge moon rose, we sat at the table with the kerosene lamp lit and played a few cutthroat rounds of Spite and Malice with the two humidity-softened old decks of cards and drank cold vinho verde and ate pasta with fresh tomato sauce, again.
It was the best pasta of any kind I’ve ever had, hands down. Brendan made it, of course. As always, he used gluten-free penne from Italy and made a fresh tomato-garlic-basil sauce with lots of garlic, hot red pepper flakes, and grated parmesan. It was so good last time, silky and rich and garlicky and savory, but somehow, this time, it was even better; it was divine, superb, memorable. This time, he used ripe, flavorful Roma tomatoes instead of regular, and he swears that made the difference. Whatever the case, I moaned YUM and made other guttural animal noises as I ate. The cook took this as the highest praise, as he should have.
We were deeply asleep before midnight. I woke up at 7:45 this morning with a start; I had slept the entire night through, a rare and lucky occurrence.
Possibly because I was so well-rested, and possibly because I had set myself certain goals and deadlines, today, unlike yesterday, was a day of achievement and forward momentum. I reached the halfway point on my new book, How to Cook a Moose, which is about living in Maine, with as much local history, food lore, and information as I can reasonably cram in. I want to have a draft done by summer’s end, and now I think I can do it.
We also ran to the beach and back two times, once in the late morning, once in the early evening, for a total of six miles, and we swam twice, too. Our Scotch Club has decided to run a 10K race as a team in September. The race is appropriately (for us) named the Trail to Ale, and there will be drinking when it’s over, so of course Brendan and I have been training as well as we can for it. We want to uphold the Scotch Club’s hoped-for reputation as badass drinkers who aren’t afraid to sweat. So we’ve been sweating a lot this summer. Running on the unshaded sidewalks of Portland is harder than running the wooded, soft dirt roads up here, even though our route up here is much hillier; I get winded easily when I overheat, and the sun feels hotter when it glances off asphalt, and the breeze isn’t nearly as cool down in town as it is in the mountains, even on the Eastern Prom, on the trail along the bay.
So we’ve made a little bit of progress in our speed and endurance during our sojourn here in the farmhouse. However, true to the Scotch Club’s unspoken motto, “Run then Drink,” we have not cut back on our nightly consumption of wine. Nor have we slacked off on our ability to enjoy and consume a certain quantity of food, which we view as our reward for all that exertion.
Just now, after our second run and swim of the day, we came home to a barking-mad Dingo, who is too old to keep up with us when we run, and who overheats easily on muggy days, but who can’t understand why he can’t be with us every second of his life. He was mollified by his dinner; he’s still cool and wet from his bath, napping soundly at my feet under the table. The sky is cloudy; a thunderstorm is on its way, maybe not until tomorrow, but we can already feel it.
Brendan is making another vegetable pasta, because all this running is making us crave carbohydrates, or something: this time, it’s leeks and spinach, both of which we happened to have in the vegetable drawer, so instead of going out, as we’d planned, we put on the well-worn Paolo Conte CD (he’s a gravel-voiced Italian crooner who I confess can make me swoon a little) and poured some ice-cold Albarino, and then I sat down to write this blog post even though I don’t have much to say except that it’s summer, and this is a hard-working but lovely one.
And Brendan is making dinner again, lucky me. First, he steamed an 11-ounce package of baby spinach briefly until it wilted. Meanwhile, he chopped three cloves of garlic and cleaned and chopped the bottom halves of three leeks. Then he chopped the spinach roughly. While the water for Le Veneziane fettuce heated, he sautéed the garlic in olive oil and butter, then added the leeks. When they were soft, he added the spinach with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes. After five minutes, he added another bit of butter and turned off the heat.
“This dish wants fat,” he says. “It’s rich. Do not skimp on the oil and butter.”
He’ll serve it with finely grated parmesan cheese and a simple salad with a vinaigrette. I’ll shuffle the two decks of cards, which I can do as fast and expertly as a Vegas dealer (apparently it’s because I’m a first-born, says Brendan, although why that is I have no idea), and we’ll deal out a game of Spite and Malice. The moon will rise, we’ll drink more wine, and then, by midnight, we’ll be sound asleep again.
This summer feels like childhood again, back when school was out, and all I did was what I loved most: read, write, eat, swim, nap, laze around, and see friends. Tomorrow, our friends Emily and John are coming with their adorable two-year-old daughter, Tug, and the next day, Jami and her puggle, Sid, arrive, and although it’s supposed to rain while they’re here, there’s plenty to do inside in the summertime, especially with a two-year old and two dogs in the mix. We can drink cocktails, kibitz, play cards, cook, eat, and watch Tug, Sid, and Dingo all try to figure one another out. This will be fun.
Yesterday, we came to New Hampshire for the weekend. I drove us here, because this is the summer when I will finally get my driver’s license – I am determined. I did all right, although I’m still fine-tuning my steering technique, and I got honked at in a roundabout for being daft. After being a passenger all my life, it’s refreshing to be honked at for being daft. For decades, I’ve made fun of other drivers from the safety of the passenger seat, exactly in the spirit of a non-soccer-playing fan opining on the World Cup. It served me right to be honked at. Once I’d threaded my way out of the roundabout, I pulled over to the right with my blinker on and let five cars go by me, feeling the presence of karma in the hot, humid air.
Finally, I pulled our old algae-colored Subaru into the spot in front of the barn, put the car in Park, and turned off the engine, having successfully completed the single longest drive (an hour and a half, with a quick stop at Hannaford, during which I practiced parking and unparking) of my life. Dingo mooed with excitement until we let him out of the car; this is his favorite place on earth, as far as we can tell.
As we carried groceries and bags toward the house, we saw the view of Dundee Mountain’s lush green slopes, just past the barn, tiger lilies in the foreground – I think I might have made a little happy mooing sound of my own. We haven’t been here since March. We came into the house, which was stuffy and smelled faintly of wood smoke, and went around opening curtains and windows, stowing our stuff, putting groceries away, looking out the windows at the mountains, the unmown fields, the familiar landscape so radically changed from the black-and-white sepia-tinged scene of ice and snow of a few months ago.
After we’d eaten a quick lunch of leftover black lentil salad with the pickled jalapenos, red onion, and radishes I’d made to go with chicken tacos last week (a winning combination), we put on our bathing suits and set off toward the lake. We turned off the dirt road onto the steep path to Brendan’s aunt’s dock, walking downward through clouds of blackflies and mosquitos. At the lake, we stripped off our clothes and ran to the end of the dock and plunged into the clean, chilly-then-warm water, which was full of little wavelets and covered with a thin scrim of pollen.
Dingo plumped himself down on the dock and watched us, and then, once we’d swum away, he retreated to the shrubbery, where I could see his triangular head and bat ears as he spied on us through the shifting leaves; he won’t swim, no matter how hot it gets. He used to bark at us to come back whenever we went into the water, but in recent years, he’s evidently become resigned to our demented behavior. Now he just sighs with disapproval to himself from a distance.
By the time we got back to the house, we were hot all over again. The afternoon stretched out, the haze deepening, the heat baffling our ears like sound insulation. We took cool showers and dressed in as little as possible and tried not to move. As the sun went down and we got hungry, we tried to imagine what we could possibly want to eat on such a day.
“I know,” said Brendan. “I have the perfect thing.”
He put a big pot of water on the stove and poured us each a small glass of rioja with several ice cubes. When the water boiled, he plunged ten medium-sized ripe tomatoes into it for three or four minutes, until their skins split, then he took them out and peeled (but did not seed) them. Meanwhile, he peeled and chopped a heap of garlic.
In a deep skillet, he poured some of the olive oil retrieved from the stash of bottles in the cupboards over the fireplace; it comes from his family’s olive trees in Tuscany, and it’s the best I’ve ever had, and every time I eat it, I feel insanely lucky.
I sipped my wine and spaced out, looking out at the mountains, while Brendan sautéed the garlic for a scant minute, then added the chopped tomatoes along with all their juice and some salt and pepper and a smidgen of crushed red pepper. He let the sauce cook down for twenty minutes or so until it thickened, then added a handful of chopped fresh basil at the very end.
He tossed the sauce with a pound of gluten-free penne rigate, made from rice and imported from Italy (Rustichella d’Abruzzo, but Le Veneziane, or really any gluten-free pasta from Italy, is also incredibly good).
While he threw together a simple salad, I poured us some more rioja and added ice. We sat at the table in the pressing heat and devoured everything with moans of pleasure until the pasta dish was empty and all I could do was run a finger along its bottom to dredge up every molecule of that sweet, savory, beautiful sauce.
After dinner, cool air started to blow in with far-off thunder and lightning. The storm was slow in coming, and its approach was dramatic. We went outside and watched from the porch as the darkening sky became saturated with electricity, echoing booms of rolling thunder and white-hot lightning cascading through the high clouds, blinding explosions of streaking brachioles of light that illuminated everything for several beats then faded. Over the fields, fireflies were winking and glinting.
When the hair on our arms prickled from the combined chill and electric charge in the air, we figured we’d better go in. We turned off all the lights and went into the downstairs bedroom and sat in the bay window seat, watching the light show, gasping like theatergoers at a great production of “The Tempest.”