October 29, 2010

How I Learned to Cook

   Growing up on the West Coast in the 1960s, I depended on Craig Claiborne and Julia Child to guide my culinary adventures. Between their books and her television show, I learned how to cook.
   The Original New York Times Cookbook has been in my collection since before 1970; it is stained, dog-eared, and the covers are held on by rubber bands. I wouldn’t replace it for any amount of money. Why? Because the recipes are so thoroughly tested and so clearly spelled out that even the most intimidating recipe somehow became possible.
   I first knew the book was genius because as a college student, I made my first cheese souffle slavishly following the instructions — no innovation on my part. I had never even eaten one before, so I told all my friends to bring enough McDonald's money just in case it was horrible. After a green salad, successful cheese souffle, and chocolate dessert, we combined the money and sent someone out for a couple of bottles of wine to celebrate the evening.
   It became my “go to” wedding gift for over 20 years. If you don’t have a copy, get one. You won’t be sorry.

September 8, 2010

Moving Day

   Early in our life together, my husband and I moved so we could experience other countries and cities. We have never had the economic wherewithal to travel and stay in places for extended periods of time without jobs, so moving, finding employment, and settling in seemed to be the best choice for us. We've lived in some great places --- Bath (UK), Los Angeles, Portland (OR), Las Vegas, and San Francisco. Over time, we realized that San Francisco held a special place in our hearts. So, we are moving back. This time for good.

A Modest Proposal
   But the act of moving can be a real pain. The boxes, the tape, the moving van, yuuuch! There never seems to be enough time to go through all the papers and books, so we have just packed it all up, labeled the boxes, and carried them with us. Not this time. For this move, we are limiting ourselves to the few pieces of furniture that we delight in (and there are only 4 or 5 of these), necessary work and household papers, about three or four boxes of books each, clothes, basic linens, and some kitchen stuff. What doesn't make the cut, gets sold, given to friends, donated, or thrown away (depending on condition).

I Couldn't Do That
    Do you really love all of your stuff? Or are you just keeping it because it is yours? Understandable when the item is a body part, but not so much when it's just "stuff."
   For inspiration, watch a Hoarders marathon. Seriously. That will surely get at least one or two extra trash bags put out that week. Next, take pictures of all of your rooms. Believe me, just like you don't know how much weight you have gained or lost until you see a photo, you have no clear picture of your current living state until you see the pictures.
   First thing you will notice is the stacks of things hanging around. Is it just that you are working on a project and need this material out until you finish? Or is it because there is no room to "put away" these piles? If the latter, it is time to get to work. Either that, or you (1) move to a larger space, or you (2) spend $60 a month to rent a storage space to put stuff you will never look at again. A serious waste of money on both counts.
   Even if you don't move, this is a great exercise. Studies have shown that people get depressed when they live in a crowded environment. Time to cheer yourself up!

How to Start
   For the paper material (which is often the worst offender), buy some file folders, labels, file buckets, plastic file storage boxes (bugs don't like plastic), etc. This will help you organize what you intend to keep. Start small, working for an hour each time. If you do only three or four hours a week, you will have cleared out your place by the end of the year. And you will know where all your remaining important papers are.
   As for the rest, ask yourself:
   1.  Is it broken? How long has it been broken? Am I really going to fix it? Is it worth fixing? Be honest here. For example, no one really wants an old CRT television set. It isn't worth the effort to fix it or the storage space. Same goes for your old Commodore 64 computer.
   2.  For the kitchen and dining room: How many sets of dishes, glasses, and silverware do you own? How often do you use them all at once? If the answer is less than monthly, it would be cheaper to rent cutlery, glasses, and plates for the few occasions you need them than to rent a larger space to house these items.
   3.  Furniture: Unless you actually love the item at your Aunt Debby's or need to replace an existing piece of furniture, NEVER take a hand-me-down. It only crowds your house, and it prevents you from developing your own style. Live with a futon sofa and storage boxes until you can find or afford what you truly want to live with. And if you bring in one set of end tables, that means the existing ones have to go to a new home --- away from your house.
    4.  For the collectors: If you are overwhelmed by your collection of action figures, hubcaps, or manhole covers, time to make hard choices. Consider only keeping those items you go back to again and again and selling the items you like least. If for no other reason than you will have cash to acquire a new and better item. (After all, isn't the hunt more than half the fun.) If your collection is gynormous, consider renting a small storefront and starting a business. I'm serious.

   As for us, we have become ruthless. Our motto these days, which we stole from Ice Age: The Meltdown, has become, "Do we really need to take this crap? I'm sure there's crap where we're going." Our goal is to only keep what will comfortably fit into a large studio or small one-bedroom apartment. Should be fun.

June 17, 2010

Dad and Me

Paper Moon had nothing on us 

    Although my dad and I loved each other, we certainly did not have a Hallmark card relationship. Long walks in the country, father/daughter teas, and hearts and flowers were for someone else. We hung out at ham radio shacks, haunted record stores for the latest vinyl, and had political “discussions” that had the neighbors quaking in fear. OK. We were a bit loud; but that’s Italian. However, when a teenage party got out of control, the drinking started, and the chaperones disappeared, I could give him a call and know that he would pick me up in a flash.
    Unfortunately, both my dad and I were pretty young when he died — he was only 46 and I was 22. We had known that he was on the way out for six and a half years, so we condensed our adult father-daughter relationship into a too-short time frame. We hung out together, we fought (Italian light entertainment), I ran away from home, and I came back. In between, we made many harrowing trips with him to the hospital emergency room. Mostly, though, we had fun. 

A Concentrated Education

    During the last two years of my dad's life, we spent endless hours in Italian nightclubs listening to mediocre lounge acts. He showed me what to drink and how to pace my liquor consumption. And he used the other club patrons and their behavior as a strange one-way mirror into the adult world. I was fascinated.
    Our favorite club was a place in Anaheim around the corner from Disneyland. We liked it because I could show up and sit at the piano bar by myself and no one would bother me. This was because the manager and bartenders looked out for the Italian girls like me and my friend Mary. If a guy even approached us before our fathers arrived, they were quietly told, “These are nice girls. You can send them a drink, but you have to wait for their fathers to get here so you can be properly introduced.” If anyone looked promising, we asked our dads to check them out. Of course, none of them were ever good enough to pass the dad test. But we didn’t care.

The Hustle
    Unfortunately, though, drinks and dinners out were pricey, and we didn't have much disposable cash. Dad was on disability, my mom worked at an aerospace plant, and I was an office drone at a big insurance company. We weren't poor, but we sure didn't have the kind of cash necessary to support our nightly forays into cafe society.
     One night, Dad suggested that we try a new bar. Someone had told him that it was a dive, but the bartenders were terrific and made their own mixers. This might have been true, but the place smelled like stale booze and cooking grease. I was pretty certain that, although the drinks were as good as reported, we were not going to linger over them.
    Just before we were to leave, Dad headed off to the bathroom, stopping to talk to some guy at the other side of the room. They chatted for a little bit and seemed to be staring at me a lot. As soon as their conversation ended, the man came over to my side of the room and began hitting on me. I tried to politely turn him down — like I was going to get picked up by someone while I was out with my father — but this fellow was amazingly persistent. Fortunately, before things got really ugly, my dad returned to the bar. Seeing him give me an emphatic head tilt (Italian sign language for "meet me at the car — now"), I excused myself, left the building, and headed out to wait at the car.
    A few minutes later, Dad joined me and handed me ten dollars.
    "What's this for?" I asked.
    "It's your cut."
    "Cut of what?"
    "Well, I just bet that jerk twenty bucks that he couldn't get you to go out with him."
    And like a bad comic strip, a thought balloon with flashing light bulbs appeared over our heads.
    It was our private joke. No one else knew that for the next year or so — until he became too ill to party — Dad and I would hit some sleazy dive (or two or three) and pull the same stunt. We made enough for dinner, drinks, and the occasional movie. We stayed out too late and confounded my mother with our seemingly endless ability to stretch our entertainment dollars.
    We had a great time.

 Originally published June 2009, La Voce News Magazine