Life at Hotel No. 9 went like this: breakfast was served at eight o'clock, featuring Wake Up Waffles, Let's Go Eggs, and a few dozen pots of Super Extra Coffee; afterward there never failed to be at least one fist fight in the lobby, but by the time peace was made and gauze was wrapped, the reason for it had been forgotten. The pool opened at ten o'clock, but fresh towels rarely made it up from Laundry before ten thirty, and the city children had to be chased out of the deep end anyway. At noon, lunch was only eaten by those who had nothing better to do with their day; most Hotel No. 9 residents slathered on their SPF 500 and grabbed a bottle of filtered water from their mini fridge and headed into city, because for those four hours each day it never rained and the shops were open and happiness, in general, was agreed upon.
Buses took everyone back to the hotel in late afternoon. Each was equipped with a small child who plodded up and down the aisle, demanding in a quiet hiss, "Tickets to Amsterdam, tickets to New York! Only three left, and then they'll be gone forever." You had witnessed a sly exchange between one of these young scalpers and a man who, later, you realized lived down the hallway from you. After he left, no one ever saw or heard from him again. Maybe that was a good thing, but nobody else wanted to find out.
At Hotel No. 9, dinner almost always featured Sleepy Spaghetti, and sometimes Relax Me Now Soup, and once in a while an Everything's Okay Salad Bar. After dinner there were never any fist fights. There was only the slow shuffling of residents back to their rooms, and doors clicking open and shut, and television sets crackling on. Yours tended to stay off. Each night you simply said a prayer, tucked yourself into bed, and watched the moon rise through your big oval window.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
I have news about the house hunt – we found one! For a while it felt like the right one would never come along, but then this house was listed. As with any house it's not perfect, but it checks off so much on our wishlist, the main appealing factor being that it was built in the 1940's and updated in the last few years. I also love that it has a good sized backyard (by city standards) and that I'll finally have an office instead of having to work in the corner of our bedroom.
After renting for the last ten years, it's sort of surreal to finally own a house. We've talked about it for years and have worked really hard to save for a down payment. Now comes the (hopefully) fun part of painting and decorating and making the space our own. Stay tuned for more updates.
I was too distracted to read very much this month, and most of my library books went back into the return slot with hardly a chapter read. But one I did finish was Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Most of it I enjoyed, and parts of it I really enjoyed. Like this, from "On Going Home", written about her daughter's first birthday:
In the evening, after she has gone to sleep, I kneel beside the crib and touch her face, where it is pressed against the slats, with mine. She is an open and trusting child, unprepared for and unaccustomed to the ambushes of family life, and perhaps it is just as well that I can offer her little of that life. I would like to give her more. I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother's teacups, would like to pledge her a picnic on a river with fried chicken and her hair uncombed, would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that. I give her a xylophone and a sundress from Madeira, and promise to tell her a funny story.
If you're a Joan Didion fan, do you have a favorite essay of hers? Or book? (The only other one of hers I've read is The Year of Magical Thinking, which was depressing but good.)
We said we were there for the wedding. Palmer wedding? asked the hotel clerk. No, we said. Flynn wedding. Sure enough, there were two banquet halls, one on each end of the ground floor.
"Wouldn't you hate that?" I asked Isaac. "Every time you had an anniversary, you'd be thinking, 'It's those other people's anniversary, too.' All your life."
"As opposed to us," said Isaac. "I'm sure nobody else got married that day."
"You know what I mean," I said. We were up in the room then, and I was counting all the wrinkles that my dress had incurred during the car ride. I brought the dress over by the window to get a better look, holding it up to the blue mid-morning light, but then I said, "Look, there they are," because I spotted their figures in the distance, out on the grassy knoll behind the hotel.
"Who?" asked Isaac. "The Palmers?"
I was about to say no, when it occurred to me that maybe it was the Palmers. It was too hard to be sure from this far away. All I knew was that there was someone in an ivory dress, and someone else in black. They were arguing, arms being thrown up in exasperation. Then the figure in black turned, and kicked at a rock, and left the bride standing alone, crying, on the empty hill.
All through the wedding I watched for a sign. I held my breath when they were asked Do you?, but they did not hesitate. They did their first dance, they cut the three-tiered white chocolate cake, they kissed on command when silverware clinked wine glasses. Later I snuck out, went down the long, mauve-carpeted hotel hallway, and peeked into the other banquet hall. It was, more or less, exactly the same, minus one thing.
"Where's the bride?" I tried asking someone, but just then a new song came on, and my question was inaudible. I backed out of the room. Headed back down the hallway. I was halfway there when she came out of a door, holding her long ivory skirt up so she wouldn't trip. Our eyes met.
"Everything okay?" I asked.
She looked confused. Then she smiled, and asked, "What do you mean? Hey, you're Katie's cousin, aren't you?"
"No," I said. "I'm not."
"Well," she said, and looked impatiently up the hall.
"Never mind," I said. "Congratulations."
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
Many thanks for all the heartfelt comments on the last post.
The house feels so much emptier, but I have been keeping myself busy. I've donated some old books and clothes and deep cleaned the fridge. I've been catching up with friends. I've been paying so much attention to Rufus that he's sick of me, which just makes me want to cuddle him more, because he's even cuter when he's grumpy. And I've gone on walks when there have been warm days. There is color everywhere, all sorts of flowers sneaking out of the green. It seems like only yesterday there were none at all.
We had to say goodbye to Bodhi a few days ago.
He had been having health problems for months, but I didn't mention it here, because I just couldn't. I don't know – maybe I thought there was a chance he would get better. But there were too many problems, including a cancerous mass that was discovered when he mysteriously came down with pneumonia, and then there were issues with his spine, which eventually meant he could hardly stand up on his own or walk down the stairs without falling. We took care of him the best we could, but when his personality faded, and when he lost his appetite and stopped wagging his tail and stopped caring about his toys, we understood that it was time.
I'll be taking this week off from blogging, but I'll be back next week.
I would bake banana bread all the time if it wasn't so easy to overindulge in. If there's a freshly baked loaf sitting on the kitchen counter, I can't keep my hands off it. So, unsurprisingly, when I made a test batch of these mini banana muffins a few weeks ago, the same thing happened. "Just one more," I kept saying, popping another into my mouth. Again and again. Luckily this time around I have no choice but to leave them be, because I baked them for my best friend's baby shower tomorrow. (It's her first! It's a boy!)
Mini Banana Muffins (makes 48 mini muffins)
recipe from All Recipes
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup white sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350°F. If using liners, place them in a muffin pan. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, combine bananas, sugar, egg, and melted butter. Fold in the flour mixture, and mix until smooth. Fill the muffin liners* and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (And, of course, you can make these as regular sized muffins too; they'll just need to stay in the oven longer.)
*it's a good idea to do a single test muffin to avoid under/over filling an entire pan of muffins!
My favorite book this last month was The Old Man and the Sea. Now that I think about it, isn't it often read in high school? But I'm glad I didn't read it then, because a younger version of myself would've likely written it off as dull. The current me loved how pure and precise it was. Here are all my favorites from April...
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
Anthem by Ayn Rand
Two good things today: the prettiness of windblown blossoms everywhere, and my new pair of Avarcas arriving in the mail. (I haven't bought any new shoes for a long time, and I think these will be perfect for the spring & summer. Mine are the Classic Style Strap in brown.)
Over a number of years Helen had accumulated almost two dozen students, who cycled through her front door and then clumsily filled the house with music as she sat in a chair beside the lacquered piano bench. When a student didn't get it right after two or three tries, she moved to the edge of her seat and demonstrated the phrase on a higher octave. Sometimes the student hadn't practiced that week; those were usually the ones who were forced into the lessons (and whose mothers chose to listen in during the hour, and who tried to bargain with Helen over her weekly rate). Then there were the kids who truly wanted to be there, who practiced and thanked her and showed up on time when she arranged a recital at a retirement center in town. And then there was Karl, her only adult student, who she was in love with.
But Karl always forgot to play the E's flat, and he had an unapologetic weight to his fingers which made everything he played sound serious and sad. And there was the difficult detail, too, that he was married. Once when he opened his wallet after the lesson to write a check, a snapshot of a woman's face peeked out through a smudged plastic sleeve, staring directly at Helen. "Is that your wife?" she had asked Karl, feeling embarrassed when he said yes because her mind was already imagining what her own photograph would look like in its place.
"I'll see you next week, then?" he asked. He was heading toward the door.
"Yes," she said. "See you then."
This was a scenario she had considered: refer the students to someone else, sell the piano, throw away the sign that was out in the front yard, maybe cut her hair, or just dye it, and then go away. She would be someone else entirely, meet a man, wear a dress that clung to her hips, never again hear another beautiful sonata spoiled. She thought, vaguely, of Wyoming. Or Alaska; she had been there once, as a child. She wondered if she had a good enough winter coat. But then the next week Karl said, as he sat down on the bench, "You know, this is the highlight of my week, Helen," and that was that. She could not leave. Once he had said that, she could not do it.
At night, after hours of the house being quiet, she took a seat on the bench. She let her fingers lay on the keys for a long time before playing. Sometimes, even, for a full hour, periodically checking the clock over her shoulder. How long it felt when she was alone; how quickly it passed when Karl sat beside her. Finally, when the hour was up, she played.
Fiction Friday is an outlet for experimentation while I slowly work on becoming a novelist. Read the rest of the stories here...
I recently did a fun freelance project for Wisconsin Cheese, developing a recipe that showcased their cheese and then filming the recipe. I decided on a three-cheese flatbread because a mix of different cheeses is more complex and tasty than just one, and it's great as a quick, easy appetizer. So, here's my recipe + the video!
(Video credits: raw footage shot by me, all editing done by Wisconsin Cheese.)
Wisconsin Three-Cheese Flatbread (approx. 8 appetizer size portions)
1/2 pound fresh, store-bought pizza dough
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup Wisconsin Mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup Wisconsin Gouda cheese
1/3 cup Wisconsin Parmesan cheese
6 fresh basil leaves
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
Preheat oven to 450°F. Grate the Wisconsin Mozzarella, Gouda, and Parmesan cheeses, then mix together in a bowl. Stack the basil leaves, roll, and slice into 1/4 inch wide strips. Set the toppings aside. Roll out the fresh pizza dough into a 6 x 12 inch rectangle, approximately 1/8 inch thick. Place the dough on a foiled-covered baking sheet. Brush the dough with olive oil, then sprinkle the shredded cheese on top. Add crushed red pepper flakes, if desired. Bake the flatbread for approximately 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is starting to brown. Remove from oven and top with the fresh basil. Slice into eight pieces and serve.
When she arrived, they were tearing down the stage, packing up the equipment into hardback cases, sweeping clean the parking lot. She approached one of the sweeping men. Gently cleared her throat. 'Scuse Me, she said. Is Oleander nearby? She had a package for him, she explained, tapping the butcher paper wrapped tube tucked under her arm. The man shook his head. She kept walking. She asked another sweeper and was answered with a shrug. But he is here, right? This was met with another shrug. She almost grabbed him by the shoulder, wanting to demand a real answer. But she knew what would happen. She'd done it before, gotten into a fight, had a permanent note added to her file.
Ah: there. She spotted his feet dangling off the back of one of the semi trucks. Slowly she walked around a mound of trash – which, she noticed, was made up of a lot of crumpled Magic Fries wrappers and burnt matches and neon business cards – and went around the back of the truck, clearing her throat again, and then saying: Delivery for you, sir. I just need a signature right here... while holding out the tablet and a pen, and trying not to look directly in his eyes. When he handed back the tablet his hand briefly touched hers. His skin was warm. He mumbled something that sounded like a thank you. Or maybe it was: now leave. You never knew with him.
She turned to go. She walked away from the truck, passed the sweepers, and looked back only once: just long enough to see the bright light glowing in the corner of her eye, and hear the laughing that echoed afterward.
What I read in the last month: exquisite dystopia, quirky POV, modern poetry, tales that unfolded and unfolded, and lots of beautiful descriptions of buildings. I already want to read some of these again. Here are my favorites from March:
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long
How about you? Read anything great recently? I'm always looking for more to add to my 'to read' list on Goodreads...
Making fries from scratch is one of those "kind of time consuming but fun nonetheless" recipes. We ate these last night with hot dogs (okay, a veggie dog for me; I don't like hot dogs) and this amazing broccoli slaw (which is already one of my favorite recipes and I've only made it twice). Anyway, back to those yummy fries. Here's my recipe...
Baked French Fries (serves 2-3)
2 large russet potatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
any other seasoning you like
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400°F. Wash and peel the potatoes. Slice into small strips (they can be as thin or thick as you like; just keep their size as consistent as possible and bake longer if your pieces are thicker). To prevent the fries from sticking together when they bake, soak them in a bowl of cold water for at least ten minutes, then drain and pat dry with paper or cloth towels.
Toss the sliced potatoes with the olive oil, paprika, garlic powder, and any other of your favorite seasonings. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown and crispy, turning halfway through. Season with salt and pepper and enjoy!
Serge was always telling me useless facts about food: did I know that Worcestershire sauce was made from anchovies, bones and all? Had I ever heard that coconut water, in an emergency, could be used as a substitute for blood plasma? They were the sort of arbitrary statements that sounded like bad pick-up lines coming from anyone else's lips, but when Serge said them, in his honey-thick Belgian voice, they were somehow endearing. That, and the fact that his enthusiasm was genuine. There was all this stuff out there that nobody knew. It was like he was discovering it before anyone else.
"Guess what food dynamite is made of," said Serge one evening. He was on the computer, reading one of a seemingly endless supply of More Amazing Facts About Food! articles online.
"I haven't a clue," I said. He waited for me to guess. I shrugged.
"Peanuts," he said, after a beat, his eyes widening.
"I don't believe that," I said. "I think someone just makes some of this stuff up."
He motioned for me to read it with my own two eyes, as if that would convince me. I leaned over his shoulder and read, adding a little ah-ha at the end. I kissed the side of his face, just above the jagged line of stubble. I said: I'm going to order in. You want the usual?
If I'm counting right, I haven't seen him for seven years. But I still remember those facts he rattled off. His voice recites them to me when I grocery shop, or times like now, when I'm standing barefoot in my stuffy kitchen preparing beef brisket. A bottle of Worcestershire sits open on the countertop, sauce clinging to the lip. Anchovies... says Serge in my head. This image I can't get out of my mind: all those fish and their glistening thin bodies and their tiny eyes, an endless number of them swimming against the current.
Anchovy bones, he whispers.
"Stop," I insist, trying to forget. I picture Serge on a train, and the train speeding away into the distance, until it's just a speck. A trick my therapist taught me, if you have to know. At first I'd been skeptical. I'd asked: but what if the train comes back? And my therapist had said: well, maybe it will. In fact, it probably will. But at least it's gone for a while.
It's been ten weeks since I started writing the first draft of my novel, and I think I'm about 40% of the way through it. I no longer have any doubt that I can finish it. It's just a matter of putting in the hours and staying focused. In time I will tell you about it in more detail. At this point it is still too messy and raw. So I'll just say this much: it's set in the Pacific Northwest. It's multi-generational and partially coming-of-age. It is, at its essence, a sequence of love stories.
I am so enthralled by the habits of writers: Nabokov and his index cards, Capote lying down, Hemingway standing up. This is a great post to read if you, too, find that kind of thing interesting. In the last ten weeks, I've done my writing in one of two ways. The first is in bed, right after I wake up or right before I fall asleep. Beginnings and endings of days are nicely meditative. The second is sitting at a desk or table. Hot tea helps. So do earphones and music that makes me feel nostalgic or sentimental or energetic or whatever type of mood I need to slip into for the scene I'm working on.
The best part of all of this is that I no longer have that terrible procrastinatory thought that goes: "One day, when I'm writing my book..." It's a thought that has passed through my mind hundreds if not thousands of times. But not anymore.
Every Saturday afternoon our stepmother drove the four of us to the ice arena in Somersville. If you got in trouble that week, you'd still get to come, but you weren't allowed to skate. Take Gemma, who'd stolen a ten dollar bill out of dad's wallet: she'd been properly scolded, had to pay him twenty dollars back, and at the arena she was forced to watch us from the benches shielded by sheets of plexiglass. "This is so stupid," she sulked, when I stepped out of the rink to peel off one of my three sweaters. "Why did I even have to come?"
But we both knew the answer to that. It wasn't really about us skating. It was about our father having some peace and quiet in the house. He'd been working on his novel for almost a year, and these Saturday afternoons were the only time he truly got any work done. Each time we got back from Somersville, the stack of typed pages on his desk had grown the slightest bit taller. The stack was held down by a paperweight that looked like a crumpled up sheet of legal paper, a Christmas gift from the year before.
"Can I read it?" I'd asked once, and he'd said, "When it's published," then shooed me out of the room.
But how could I not? I convinced myself that I had a right to. And if you thought about it for long enough, I had an obligation to read it, really, because what if our house happened to catch fire in the middle of the night, and he wasn't able to save his manuscript, and he'd be forced to reconstruct it from memory? If I read it, too, his task of rewriting wouldn't be so daunting. I could help him out. So there: it was practically a necessity.
In the end, Gemma wormed her way into my plan, of course. Getting involved in things was her specialty. After two hours of searching we found the key to the study, went in, snatched the first twenty pages, and read them as quickly as we could. Then the next twenty, and the next twenty. We were done with what he had written so far in just enough time to put everything back in its place.
"The kids in the book..." I said to Gemma, grabbing her by the arm before she ducked back into her room, "That's not – that's not us, is it?"
She understood what I meant: that the kids sounded a lot like us – ice skater aficionados, four sisters. But these kids in his novel were awful. They were bratty. They whined all the time. One of them had even gotten hit by a car because she didn't check for traffic before running out into the street. Who would write something like that?
Gemma shrugged. It could be, she said. But probably not. "Don't worry about it," she said. "It's just fiction, after all."
I didn't read as much as I had hoped to this month, mainly because we've been consumed with house hunting. Right now Seattle real estate is very competitive – houses go from newly listed to sold in a matter of days. We actually found a house we loved last weekend and put in an offer... but in the end, there were six other people who wanted it too and we were outbid. I know we'll find another one soon, but still, I can't help but be a little disappointed. Anyway, here are my favorite reads of February, including a classic I first read back in Junior High and felt it was due for a re-read...
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Sea Change by Jeremy Page
The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert (poems)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
She was gone by the time he came back. She'd left the map on the countertop, creased and faded green and all in French, but it was the best he was going to get, and it was better than the ones he'd gotten in the past. The girl had spoken all in French, too, come to think of it – no wonder he hadn't understood a word. Le Trésor, she kept saying, pointing to an unmarked point on the map. Ici. Ici.
Where she had disappeared to, he hadn't a clue. This kept happening, people appearing, people disappearing. Giving him directions. Telling him things in foreign languages, handing him keys that disintegrated after a single use, sending him on and on. The last girl had led him through a parking lot and pointed, expressionlessly, to a little red car, which was now idling out in the driveway in front of the house.
He left the house, map in hand. He flattened it out on the passenger's seat, backed out of the driveway, started down the endless switchbacks. Finally they spit out onto a long, straight highway lined with cacti. According to the map, there were close to a hundred miles of it. Le Trésor, the girl had kept saying. It seemed like it should be so obvious. And yet.
It was almost dawn when he reached the end of the highway. It ended, just like that: there was highway, and then there was not. Where there should have been asphalt, there was a door. He killed the engine. Sucked in the hot, dry air of the desert. Walked to the door. He walked around it, too – but it was the same on both sides. At eye level there was a small gold placard engraved with the words Please knock and below that another one that read Dr. Woo, MD. He raised a fist to knock. For a moment – hardly even a full moment, more like half a moment – he wondered if he shouldn't. Then he let his fist fall on the echoing wood, knocking, knocking.
I made these rosemary crackers yesterday afternoon and then immediately came down with Just One More syndrome – you know, where you keep telling yourself that you'll only have one more cracker and then stop eating them, no, wait, just one more, and so on. Eventually I did stop myself... right before dinner time. Anyway, the key to making these crispy is to roll the dough as thin as you can – even consider using a pasta maker, if you have one. Enjoy!
Easy Rosemary Crackers (serves 4)
recipe from Epicurious
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary plus 2 (6-inch) sprigs
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup olive oil plus more for brushing
sea salt to taste
Preheat oven to 450°F. Mix together flour, chopped rosemary, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center, then add water and oil and gradually stir until a dough forms. Briefly knead dough gently on a work surface.
Divide dough into 3 pieces. Keeping the remaining dough covered, roll out the first piece as thin as you can on a sheet of parchment paper. The shape can be rustic. (The thinner you roll it, the crispier it will be!)
Lightly brush the dough with additional oil and scatter the remaining rosemary leaves on top, pressing into the dough slightly. Sprinkle with sea salt. Slide the dough (still on parchment) onto a baking sheet and bake until pale golden, about 8 to 10 minutes. Repeat with remaining two pieces of dough. Let them all cool, then break into cracker-sized pieces with your hands. Store in an airtight container.
What are you up to this weekend? We got our pre-approval letter today and needless to say are excited to start looking at houses in person. Bodhi is requesting a big backyard and Rufus wants a bay window for quintessential napping time. Stefan wants a media room. And me? I'd love a bright office, a little garden, and some kind of reading nook. Yep, that all sounds just about perfect.
You how pieces of a book can get stuck in your head, and then stay there for weeks after you've finished reading it? This is what's been in my head lately, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers...
Why hadn't the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.
And later, when she's working on her own music...
She had worked on music in this notebook all the winter. She quit studying school lessons at night so she could have more time to spend on music. Mostly she had written just little tunes – songs without any words and without even any bass notes to them. They were very short. But even if the tunes were only half a page long she gave them names and drew her initials underneath them. Nothing in this book was a real piece or a composition. They were just songs in her mind she wanted to remember. She named them how they reminded her – 'Africa' and 'A Big Fight' and 'The Snowstorm.'
Hi! I'm Rachel, and these are bits of my days and things I like. I run the shops Elephantine and Mignon, am working on a novel, and live in Seattle with my husband and two cats. Read more about this blog here...
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