Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On 20 years without Laurie Colwin

Photo by Nancy Crampton
 I still remember the day I found out.  I was living in Eugene, OR, then, in my last year in graduate school at the University of Oregon.  For some reason, a day or two earlier, I'd felt the need to re-read one of Laurie Colwin's books.  I can no longer remember which one.  Happy All The Time, perhaps, or The Lone Pilgrim?  All I know is that the book was sitting on the kitchen table, and I was eating lunch and reading the New York Times.  And there was Laurie Colwin's photograph.  I stared.  It didn't make sense.  This wasn't on the arts page or in the book review column.  It was an obituary.  Laurie Colwin dead of a heart attack at 48.  I was heartbroken.

It's been 20 years since Laurie Colwin died, and I still miss her.  I never met her.  This was not a personal loss, except that it was.  Colwin was my first favorite writer as an adult, the first one whose books I read over and over, the first one I turned to for comfort and sustenance, the first one I wanted to be like.  By the time she died, she'd published 4 novels, 2 books of short stories, one book of linked short stories and a book of food writing.  Posthumously, a fifth novel and a second collection of food writing were published.  She'd written for the New Yorker and Gourmet, for Mademoiselle and for Playboy.  She'd won prizes, received glowing reviews.  And yet she was not an intimidating writer at all. You suspected, if you met her, that you would just gab and gab, as if you were old friends.  At least you hoped you would.

Losing Colwin was like losing a friend, and I am certainly not the only one who felt that way.  Several months after her death, I read that there would be a memorial service at Symphony Space in New York City.  I would still be in Oregon--there was no way I could attend.  But my friend Bill--whose departure from Eugene the previous spring had briefly wrecked me--was in New York, and I was determined that he should go for me.  Alas, he didn't.  (And, it turns out, it was so packed that he may not have been able to get in!)  But a few months after that, the memorial service was played on WNYC radio, and Bill taped it for me and sent me the cassette.  (Yes, it was a different world 20 years ago.)  He said that listening to the service made him wish he had gone.  I didn't say, "I told you so." I just thanked him for the tape, which I listened to instantly.

Because this is now, and not 1992, I googled "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" to see what would turn up.  And what turned up was a special 2009 issue of the New Haven Review in which there was a Laurie Colwin tribute.  (The link opens a PDF file of it.)   A number of essays from the memorial service are reprinted, and I read them for the first time since I'd listened to them almost 20 years ago.  Deborah Eisenberg and Anna Quindlen both read excerpts of her work.  Willard Spiegelman, editor of The Southwest Review, spoke of winning the cha-cha contest with her at their 9th grade prom in Elkins Park, PA.  Colwin's friend, novelist Anna Shapiro, read excerpts of letters Colwin had written.  (Colwin died before the advent of email.  What would she have made of it?  Would she still have sent friends a series of canning labels pasted onto postcards, as one friend mentioned? I kind of hope she would have.)  But what I remembered most clearly was the contribution of Peter Smith, then dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.   Smith had not known Colwin personally, but he had loved her books, and he was given the task of reading a few of the letters written to Colwin's husband and daughter after her death.  Because, it turns out, they received hundreds and hundreds of letters of condolence from Colwin's devoted readers, one of them from me.  My letter was not read at the memorial service, but more than anything, I was both heartened and humbled that so many other people were as stricken by Colwin's death as I had been, that so many people felt her loss so deeply. (For a more recent tribute to her, see this blog post.)

The original hardcover, 1978
The newest edition, 2010

 What remains, these 20 years later, are her books, all of which, amazingly, are still in print. (In his Washington Post essay on Colwin published in 2003, Jonathan Yardley points out how rare this is--and it is still true almost ten years later.)  And publishers, it seems, are still looking for a fiction writer who can match her combination of snappy dialogue, seemingly effortless prose, quick wit, a big heart.  Multiple times in the past 20 years, I've seen a new novel--a domestic comedy, perhaps, written by a woman based in New York or Philadelphia--with Laurie Colwin hopefully mentioned on the back cover.  I almost always read these novels, but I am also almost always disappointed.  These writers, these novels, might be good, but they are not Laurie Colwin good.  The publishers are looking for another Laurie, and maybe I am looking for another Laurie, but we will almost certainly never find her.

 The one writer I've discovered who feels like a spiritual cousin to Colwin is Barbara Trapido.  Trapido is a South African living in Britain, but she and Colwin were born within a few years of each other and share a love of the domestic detail, among other things.  Trapido's books are denser and more whimsical than Colwin's, but there is--in my mind--an essence that they share.  Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published in 1982 and highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.  I wonder if Laurie Colwin, a self-admitted Anglophile, ever read it.   

I recently stumbled upon a blog (reached through the same "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" search) written by another fan of Colwin's (one who actually attended her memorial!).  He writes of how he wanted to write like Colwin and a grad school professor told him to be careful.  The danger for him was writing characters like Colwin's--upper middle class, urban WASPs or assimilated Jews with old money and lots of things.  This was interesting to me because when I think about my own desire to write like Colwin, it's not her characters I wish I could emulate--though I do enjoy it that she's particularly good at prickly, complicated  women (see Misty Berkowitz in Happy All the Time and Billy De Lielle in Another Marvelous Thing).  It's more her spirit, her optimism, her way with the perfectly chosen detail, her humor, her dialogue.  Colwin's prose reads so easily that it seems that it must have been easy for her to write that way, but of course, it probably wasn't.  

Two brief examples.  In Happy All the Time, Colwin is describing the dauntingly accomplished dilettante Holly Sturgis Morris:

Holly could cook, do needlework, play tennis, and fish.  She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule and the restoration of paintings and china.  She could balance her checkbook to forty-five cents, make a perfect pie crust, identify most wild flowers in the northeastern United States, and bandage simple wounds.  She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps and knew the collections of most major museums.  Guido had once recited this list to Vincent, including the fact that Holly spoke French and Italian.

"Does she fly on commercial airlines?" Vincent had asked.

"Of course she does.  Why?"

"Anything short of a transport carrier would crash under the weight of those accomplishments," Vincent had said.
My favorite phrase in the whole thing--"bandage simple wounds." It's what still makes me laugh.

 And here's this brief bit from Another Marvelous Thing, a collection of linked stories that follows the love affair (and aftermath) of a pair of unlikely lovers, a gallant older man and a cranky younger woman.  From the first story, "My Mistress," originally published in Playboy.

In movies, men have mistresses who soothe and pet them, who are consoling, passionate, and ornamental.  But I have a mistress who is mostly grumpy.  Traditional things mean nothing to her.  She does not flirt, cajole, or wear fancy underwear.  She has taken to referring to me as her "little bit of fluff," or she calls me her mistress, as in the sentence: "Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life." 
A few pages later, we learn how they meet, in one of my favorite pickup lines in all of literature:

Billy and I met at a reception to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the journals to which we are both contributors. We fell into a spirited conversation during which Billy asked me if this reception wasn't the most boring thing I had ever been to. I said it wasn't, by a long shot. Billy said: "I can't stand these things where you have to stand up and be civilized. People either yawn, itch, or drool when they get bored. Which do you do?"

I said I yawned.

"Huh," said Billy. "You don't look much like a drooler. Let's get out of here."

My fiction favorites remain Happy All the Time, Another Marvelous Thing and The Lone Pilgrim, though I also have a soft spot for her first novel, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object.  (I alternate favorites, depending on my mood.)   Her two volumes of food writing (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) have a cherished place on my kitchen bookshelf.  I still consult her for advice on gingerbread, chocolate cake, Ismail Merchant's creamed corn.  She is less strong on precise measurements and much, much stronger on perfect details.  I would love Home Cooking for no other reason than that it includes the essay "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir."  But even less good Colwin is still better than much else.  When I lived in Delhi in 1993-95, I took her novel Family Happiness out of the American Center library more than once.  It's probably my least favorite of her  novels, but it was the only one they had,  and even lesser Colwin was desirable when Colwin was what I needed.

A month or so ago, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Northampton League of Women Voters book sale.  It's held every year in late September in the vocational school cafeteria.  Hardcovers are $1 and paperbacks $.50.  No matter what promises of restraint I make to myself, I always fill a bag.  This year I spotted, in quick succession, copies of Happy All the Time and The Lone Pilgrim, donated by the same person (I knew this by the initials penciled in.)  I snatched them up, and I gave them to my friend Janna, whose birthday was approaching.  It felt right to give them to Janna because Janna was 7 when Laurie Colwin died, and it seemed that the best present I could give her (well, along with a tart pan) was an introduction to Laurie Colwin.  I envy her her first encounter with Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, with Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz, lucky people who are lucky in love and can toast to a truly wonderful life without irony.

It's been 20 years without Laurie Colwin.  Her husband is now a novelist, her daughter grown. There is even an official Laurie Colwin website. And, the books are still in print.  There is some comfort in that.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Last Gasp of Summer: Easy Oven Roasted Tomatoes

 I know that summer is over.  There are flashes of red on the trees outside my window, an additional pile of blankets on my bed.  My window of opportunity to run late in the day is growing narrower.

And yet, there are still tomatoes.  Tomatoes at the farmers' market and tomatoes in my garden.  Not in the copious quantities of August, certainly, but as September has edged into October, summer into fall, there are still tomatoes.  I have made plain tomato sauce and roasted tomato sauce, this tomato soup and that tomato soup.  I've made several batches of luscious eggplant and summer vegetable gratin  (Quick, there's still time, but not for much longer!) And still, there are tomatoes.

Every summer, or at least most summers, I make an attempt at oven roasting tomatoes.  I've tried the kind that you leave in a very low oven for hours and hours.  I've tried the kind that you start in a hot oven and then turn the heat down as they cook, supposedly to replicate the Italian version in which tomatoes were roasted at the end of the day in a cooling bread oven.  (For more on the story, see The Splendid Table.)  I had fleeting successes but no recipe I tried became my go-to oven roasted tomato recipe.  (And given that I'm very loyal to my favorite recipes, as indicated by my list of tomato-based things I make repeatedly each summer, that's saying something.)  

But now, my flirtation with oven roasted tomato recipes may be ending.  I may have found The One.

In late August, I came home from a few days on the Cape with my brother, sister-in-law and nieces to find a heavy Amazon box waiting for me.  In it were the first six volumes of Canal House Cooking, a birthday present from my brother.  We'd had a long conversation about Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter, which I had just listened to on my iPod and he had read (on his iPad), and which we both thought was terrific.  (More on that in another post.)  I mentioned that I had looked up Gabrielle's sister Melissa, formerly of Saveur, and discovered that she was one of the women behind Canal House Cooking, which is a cross between a magazine and a set of small, lovely cookbooks.  My brother, to his credit, remembered that key detail, and with my September birthday fast approaching, he acted.  It was and remains a great present.  A subscription buys you 3 seasonal cookbooks in a year, beautifully designed, written and photographed.

Being a logical Virgo, I started with Volume 1, Summer, in a lovely shade of tomato red, and I went straight to the chapter called "Too Many Tomatoes."  And just for the hell of it, I decided to try their version of oven roasted tomatoes, which is less a strict recipe and more guidelines.  (You can roast them in a hotter oven for less time or a cooler oven for longer, for one thing, and there are no amounts set for anything.  "Make as many as you want to make," it instructs.)  I made, in the end, two cookie sheets worth.

I liked it that the recipe specifically called for plum tomatoes (of which I had many) and that it was light on the oil (the words "drizzle" and "a little bit"" indicated that). My tomatoes went in plump and meaty:

And came out hot and chewy:

In the past, I've put oven-dried tomatoes in the freezer for the winter.  Occasionally they get eaten, but more often, they sit in their little foil packets until the next summer, and then I toss them.  This year, though, will be different, because this year, I obediently followed the Canal House ladies' instructions and put them in a zip-loc bag very neatly, with a few basil leaves for flavor.  (Please ignore my dirty cutting board beneath my nice packet of tomatoes--I had been chopping tomatoes on it, after all, and I did wash it post-photo.)  (I should remember to do that before I take a photo next time, I realize.)

That night, pre-dinner, I toasted some country bread from the Hungry Ghost Bakery and spread it with some fresh goat cheese from Hillman Farms.  (Their goat cheese has been one of my favorite discoveries of the summer.)   I chopped up some of the newly oven-roasted tomatoes and put them on top.  There was no time to photograph them because we ate them too quickly, and then two more pieces almost immediately thereafter.  The tomatoes were sweet and savory both, not too oily, a perfect complement to the tang of the goat cheese.  They were also a perfect way to say farewell to summer and greet the fall with cheer, knowing that among the many tomato-based products in the freezer, there are several bags of these, a hit of summer waiting once winter has truly arrived.

Canal House Cooking Oven Roasted Tomatoes.  

 The recipe really is more a suggestion than an actual recipe, but the keys are to use plum tomatoes, to spread them cut-side up on a cookie sheet and to drizzle with a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  They recommend using a 325 oven for an hour and a half, or until the tomatoes have "shriveled up a bit and their juices have concentrated and caramelized somewhat."  I was cooking something else at the time so my first batch ended up in a 350 oven instead, and it was fine.  Use your judgement for how shriveled and concentrated you'd like them to be.  Mine cooked at the slightly warmer oven for about the time recommended. 

You can drizzle them with a bit more olive oil when they're out.  To store, pack in a bag or container with a bit more olive oil and herbs for flavor--a bay or basil leaf or sprig of rosemary,  They will keep in the fridge for a week or so and in the freezer for up to a year.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Smoky (late) Summer Soup #1: Tomato Bisque

A few weeks ago, I made a luscious batch of Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin for dinner, and Alex asked me, only half jokingly, if there was smoked paprika in it. No, in fact, there wasn't. But it wasn't unreasonable for him to ask, given that I'd been on a bit of a smoked paprika kick, making several batches of soup in a row that contained it.

This is one of those soups. I was already a smoked paprika convert before this. It's only been in the past year or two that I've discovered that its smokiness adds a layer of flavor and depth to vegetarian dishes. I've used it in my bacon-less version of Smoky Minestrone with parsley pesto, and it turned out to be the key in the kale and potato soup I still haven't written about yet. (I will, as soon as it gets a bit cooler out--it doesn't seem right to write about kale when it's still summer.)

A brief aside about smoked paprika. I use this brand, Safinter, in the bittersweet variety. (There's also hot and just plain sweet.) I found it for around $7 at Whole Foods. When I was in New York recently, I paid a quick visit to Kalustyan's, that spice lovers paradise, and could have bought their store brand more cheaply. (In fact, I could have even bought 5 pounds for $75, but that seemed excessive, even for me.) Next time, I'm going to Kalustyan's at the beginning of my NYC day rather than at the end because by the time I reached there, I was somewhat overstimulated and lacking in focus. I wandered the aisles in a daze and left empty handed, which seems a shame. (Several hours spent eating Indian food, wandering the Union Square Greenmarket and restraining oneself from buying a kitchen's worth of dishes at Fishs Eddy will do that to you!)

Anyway, back to the soup. I already have a standard summer tomato soup recipe. I also have a winter tomato soup recipe, though it would be sacrilege to make tomato soup with canned tomatoes in August or September, during our fleeting fresh tomato season. Still, a change of pace is always nice. And when the very first tomato I picked from the garden turned out to weigh over 2 pounds (seriously, that's one big tomato), I decided to try this version. Deborah Madison begins her introduction to the recipe by saying, "One magnificent, giant Brandywine tomato that needed to be used right away tempted me to turn it into a soup, just to see how far a one-pound tomato would go." Since my magnificent giant tomato was also a Brandywine, it seemed like fate. I added a few less impressive tomatoes to the huge one and tripled Madison's recipe so that it makes 3-4 servings, depending on what else you're eating and how hungry you are.

One brief note: Madison has you put the soup through a food mill, which I did, but I also blended it in the immersion blender first. You could probably stop there, but this soup is especially nice smooth, and the food mill removes any stray tomato seed or bits of skin.

Whether your tomatoes are massive or modest, whether they come from your garden or the market, late summer is a fine time to celebrate them in a variety of ways. And a bowl of tomato soup and some bread and cheese, make a fine supper whatever the time of year. (More soon about that bread and cheese we had with this soup--there was a special, seasonal tomato twist that made it especially fabulous.)

The soup in its chunky, pre-immersion blender, pre-food mill state.

The soup now smooth. Yum.

This one I call Still Life with Zinnias and Cookbooks!

Tomato Bisque
Adapted from Vegetarian Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen

Serves 3-4
Preparation time 45 minutes

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 large or 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
3/4 tsp. Spanish smoked paprika (more to taste)
3 pounds of ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
2 slices of sandwich bread or 1 thick slice of bakery bread, torn or chopped into pieces
sprig of fresh basil or thyme
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. heavy cream or half and half

  1. 1.Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot, add onion and garlic and cook for several minutes, until soft but not brown. Then add the paprika, tomato, torn pieces of bread, basil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 cups of water. (You can add more water if it looks too thick.) Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer about 20 minutes or until the tomato has broken down.
  2. Puree the soup with an immersion blender and/or pass the soup through a food mill if you have one or stir through a fine sieve, pressing the juices out and removing the pulp. Return the soup to the stove, taste for salt, add more paprika one pinch at a time if you want more smokiness, and season with fresh pepper. Add cream or half and half last.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A brief appreciation of Jean Merrill

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2002, I went to a wedding with Alex. The groom was one of his work colleagues, and he'd waffled about whether we should go or not. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have, or, at least we should have skipped the reception (more about that later). But the one fabulous thing that came out of that August afternoon is that I got to meet Jean Merrill, the author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Pushcart War.

The ceremony was held in Skinner State Park, at the Summit House on top of Mount Holyoke, and we obediently followed instructions and parked our car part way up the auto road to wait for the shuttle. As cars kept passing us on their way to the top, though, we realized that not many of the other guests had followed the instructions except for one older couple whom we met while we were waiting for the shuttle. Their names were Jean and Ronni, and we chatted with them pleasantly as we waited at the side of the road. They looked to be in their late 70s and had clearly been a couple for many years. Ronni had long white hair and was lovely. Jean's hair was short and her manner matter of fact. When I asked her what she did, she told me she was a writer, that she mostly wrote children's books. I asked what she'd written. She paused and then said, "Well, the most well known one is probably The Pushcart War." I gasped. I gushed. I gaped. "The Pushcart War was one of my favorite books when I was a kid," I told her. And so it had been. I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to meet, by happenstance and not in a more formal setting--a reading, a book signing, a lecture--a person whose book I'd loved as a child. But here I was, and here she was, and I was delighted.

I learned little bits about her over those few hours--how she had gone to summer camp in Vermont with the groom's mother; how she and Ronni had 2 houses in Vermont not very far from each other, their summer house and their winter house; how Ronni was an artist and had illustrated many of Jean's books; how The Pushcart War had never been out of print; and how Tony Kushner, a friend, had attempted to write a movie adaptation of it and failed. (According to the New York Times, "The quirkiness and dense originality of the book — qualities that made Ms. Merrill’s epic tale so compelling — ultimately made adapting it as a film impossible, Mr. Kushner said.") I learned that she too had had a Fulbright Fellowship to India--hers, in 1952 to study folklore in Madras (now Chennai). My Fulbright happened nearly 40 years later, but both had been life changing.

Meeting Jean and Ronni was the best thing that happened that day. I was delighted and, really, genuinely thrilled at the happenstance of it all. And as soon as the library opened a few days later, I went straight to the children's section and took out The Pushcart War, which I hadn't read in probably 25 years. It didn't disappoint. Published in 1964, it's written as a history (in 1986) looking back at the famous Pushcart War of 1976, in which the pushcart vendors of the lower east side of Manhattan strike back against the truckers who are trying, through bullying, malice and dirty tricks, to get them off the streets. The pushcart vendors decide to fight back, first by embarking on the Pea Shooter Campaign, in which they blow tacks into truck tires via peashooters, causing the flat-tired trucks to block the roads, inconveniencing everyone, thus swaying the public to their side. The books is clever, quirky and funny, even if you're not analyzing it for broader social commentary (a la Waggish). It appears, sadly, not to be in print anymore, but I hope that will change.

As for the wedding, well, I'm not proud of what we did next. After the ceremony on the top of Mount Holyoke, we drove to the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst for the reception. The photos of the wedding party were taken, seemingly for hours. The not very expansive hors d'ouevres table was ravaged. We mingled as best we could, growing hungrier by the minute. We found our table and discovered that we were seated--not with Jean and Ronni, not with the bride's cool friends from the Peace Corps, not even with the groom's other friends--but with the minister, the bride's estranged father and a few other random people. We ate the sad salad and made strained conversation with our tablemates. We fidgeted with hunger and boredom.

And, now, I must say it. We had some whispered conversation between us. I left the decision entirely up to Alex, given that the groom was his colleague. He decided. I agreed. And so, dear readers, we left. We each excused ourselves to go to the rest room after the salad course, and we exited via the back door of the Inn. It was possibly the most deliberately rude thing I've ever done, but in the moment, it felt extraordinarily liberating. We ran happily down the street towards the car, breathing in the fresh August air, and then we went out for Chinese food.

That was the end of Alex's friendship with the groom, of course, but he doesn't seem to mind. When I think back to that day, I feel a twinge of remorse--yes, we probably should have been good citizens and at least stuck it out through the rest of dinner before making our escape--but I mostly remember my delight in meeting Jean and Ronni and grateful for the opportunity to have told her how much I'd loved her books. (I was also fond of her book The Toothpaste Millionaire, which I also read multiple times.)

Jean Merrill died, at the age of 89, earlier this month, according to her obituary in the New York Times. Ronni, her partner of more than 50 years, survives her. And in a strange twist, when I was googling Ronni's name, I found a photo of her taken by Jessamyn West, who was in David Foster Wallace's class at Amherst with me and whose remembrance of him I linked in this post. Jessamyn, apparently, was a tenant of Jean and Ronni in one of their Vermont houses. Small world, indeed. You can see some of Ronni's environmental art pieces here.

And in honor of Jean, I'd recommend a trip to the local library, where you should still be able to find The Pushcart War on the shelf. In Jean's honor and her memory, take it out and read about Frank the Flower, General Anna, Morris the Florist and the Pushcart King himself, Maxie Hammerman. You won't regret it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

To India and Back: A Belated Travelogue

At long last, this is the post that has been holding up all the other posts I might have written in the past few months. At first, I thought I'd just jump in here and start talking about kale soup or graham crackers, but that didn't seem right.

First of all, of course, it had been months and months since I'd last posted.

And second, in the middle of those months and months, I went to India.

Plus, one of the reasons I named this blog "A Life Divided" in the first place was that my life is divided between India and here, even though the "here" part makes up the majority these days. It didn't feel right to hop back into my parallel life and hop back again without a comment.

So, the kale soup will have to wait a little bit longer, as will the graham crackers, and an extremely belated travelogue will ensue. Perhaps this will be a lesson to me, and next time I'm in India, I'll post as I go along, eliminating the need for a long overdue catch up post.

So, here goes:

I was in India for most of January, almost 4 weeks in all, divided among Delhi, Benares and Goa. I'd agonized about the planning, but it all worked out quite well--8 days in Delhi (3 at the beginning, 5 at the end), 10 days in Benares and an even week in Goa, plus one long(ish) day of travel getting from Benares to Goa.

My time in Benares, was, as always, interesting. I stayed, once again, in my beloved room 17 at Anami Lodge, right on Assi Ghat. I like Anami for many reasons--great location, family-run, cheap--but I like it better when I'm staying in room 17, which has a big balcony overlooking the river. I spent my first night in the much cheaper room 14 (250 rupees a night compared to 700 a night for room 17), but it was totally worth the money (about $9 a night) to shift once whoever was staying in room 17 realized that I was back and required it to be available.

Here is the sun rising over the river, viewed from my balcony, the one morning (my last morning) I was awake early enough to see it.

As there always are, in Benares, there were walks up the river. Last year, I saw someone having his portrait painted. This year, there were 2 Western guys painting what appeared to be either graffiti or an ad on a wall on one of the ghats.

Another day, I wondered through the gullis in Bhelupura towards the river, and saw this statue being sculpted before me.

When the man who I assume commissioned the statue saw me taking a photo, he insisted that I also take a photo of the photo the sculptor was working from. I agreed it was a good likeness.

As always, in Benares, in addition to all the walking, there was hanging out, and a lot of it. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have a more active social life there than I do here. There were dinners in and dinners out and a nearly infinite number of cups of chai. There were arranged meetings and accidental meetings and one 5 hour lunch date. There were endless hours hanging out in Harmony Books (more about that in a moment).

One of the lovely things about Benares is that I always make instant friends. Last year, it was Shagufta Siddhi, who sadly was away during this visit. This year, I was even luckier and made 2 instant friends. One was a hip woman from Bangalore named Navita (here with her charming daughter Shalu) with whom I shared that lovely 5 hour lunch.

The other was a Smith alum/UPenn grad student named Katy Hardy. Here is Katy posing in the stunning sari she was about to buy.

And here is the pile of saris Katy didn't buy. (Except actually, she did buy one of them in the end. It's also interesting to note that Katy's gorgeous sari was actually plucked from someone else's reject pile--the other woman's loss, clearly.)

One thing to note about Katy is that she speaks fabulous Hindi. I have lots of friends who speak excellent Hindi (all much better than mine, alas), but Katy's Hindi stood out, and not just to me. The evening we went sari shopping, the sari designer was so impressed by Katy's Hindi that he kept saying things that were supposed to be compliments but didn't come out that way. First, he told her that upon hearing her Hindi, he thought perhaps she was an Indian with a pigment condition. Later, he said that if he'd just heard her on the phone, she "could be 100% nagging Indian housewife," which was my favorite thing anyone had said for days. I repeated it probably a few too many times for Katy's liking, but I couldn't help myself.

And, as always in Benares, there were the hours upon hours I spent in Harmony Books. If I bought books to equal the time I spend there when I'm in Benares, Rakesh would need no other customers and I would have no money left, having spent it all on books. I was in Harmony every day I was in Benares, for chai and chat and catching up, for plan making and book browsing. (Rakesh, by the way, wrote an essay last fall for Publisher's Weekly about selling books in Benares; I was delighted on his behalf. The essay is here. How did this come about, I asked him? It turns out that the editor of Publisher's Weekly had wandered into his shop one day a few years earlier. Knowing Harmony, I wasn't at all surprised by this.)

But one day in Harmony stands out. I hadn't even been planning to go to Harmony right then, but I was walking past and popped my head in to say hello. There, I found Rakesh and Katy deep in conversation with a woman I'd never seen before--Asian features, British accent, Indian clothes. It became clear that she was living in Benares and volunteering. Katy informed me, in Hindi, that the woman had a monkey in her house. I thought, at first, that this was a bad thing, but it turned out that the woman had voluntarily taken in the monkey, a baby orphaned when its mother died on the electric wires. The monkey had been living with her for several weeks--he played in the garden during the day and slept in his own room at night. It was clear, though, that she couldn't keep him indefinitely and wanted to make sure he was reunited with his monkey brethren. To that end, she was trying to find a wildlife rehabilitation center to take him. And she had found one, except that it was in Orissa, which is not at all close to Benares.

So, the problem was not actually the monkey living in her house but that the woman didn't know the best way to transport the monkey to Orissa. Planes and trains were clearly out. But she wasn't sure enough about the road conditions to commit to hiring a car and driver to transport the monkey (with her as escort) to Orissa. It was, we all agreed, a conundrum. The woman had to go (to get back to the monkey, perhaps,) and Rakesh and Katy and I spent a few minutes pondering her situation.

And just when I was thinking that this was one of the reasons I loved Benares--because really, when else do I get to participate in a conversation about the whys and wherefores of monkey transportation?--and was about to leave Harmony to get on with my day, the door opened and a man stepped in. In a sonorous voice, he announced the imminent arrival of the director of the British Museum and his entourage.

Well, maybe it wasn't time to leave quite yet.

The problem is that Harmony is not a very big place. To illustrate this, I am posting a photo I took in Harmony in 2009. It has not gotten any more spacious in the intervening years.

The ensuing 10 or 15 minutes were very stressful for Rakesh and quite entertaining for Katy and me. Neil MacGregor, the British Museum director, came in along with several of his colleagues, and they began to browse the shelves, joining the several browsers already in place. Katy, meanwhile, decided to see if she could hand sell something to one of the Brits and in doing so, nearly gave Rakesh a coronary by attempting to climb up on the counter to get the book off of a high shelf over the door. I got behind the counter and took money and gave change. (I also stood on Rakesh's stool to get the book when Katy's attempt failed.) We chatted with the other customers while Rakesh paid attention to the VIPs, and after about 15 minutes, they swept out as quickly as they had swept in. Katy and I were quite tickled by the events, and Rakesh was just exhausted. In typical Benares fashion, I finally left the shop much later than planned, walked around the corner and ran smack into Navita and Shalu (see above) and ended up sitting with them for tea. My plans for the day were never completed, but I was perfectly content anyway.

Later, I posted on Facebook about the juxtaposition of events, monkey lady and British Museum dignitaries all in the shop within a 20 minute span, and one of my friends commented, "We're really going to have to step up our game here," which made me laugh.

So, as you might imagine, I was sad to leave Benares a few days later. It had been mellow and fun, relaxing and interesting, a bit of a whirlwind at the end (I haven't even mentioned the Bengali-German-British wedding we went to on my last night). Better, I figured, to leave before I was quite ready than to stay too long. And, after all, I was heading to Goa, where I would meet Andy and Janna, who had been there for several weeks already. If you have to leave a place you love, it's always good to have sun and sand waiting on the other end.

I had last been in Goa in 2004, where I'd spent a lovely week in Mandrem, in the north part of Goa. Why it took me 8 years to go back, I'm not sure. Not surprisingly, Mandrem is much more built up than it was 8 years ago, and Arambol, the next beach up, is nearly unrecognizable from the mellow, empty spot it was when I first went there in 2000. Still, while there may be more hotels and touristy shops and way more Russians than there were 8 years ago, the beach at Mandrem is still clean and clear and nearly empty, and that counts for a lot.

I made a tactical error at first and booked a guest house I'd found online. I won't name it, because it wasn't really their fault that I left after one night. I picked it because it looked cheap, clean and quiet, and it was, basically, all of those things. But it wasn't the place for me. First, I found the owner, whose baby the business clearly was, extremely annoying--the kind of annoying it's hard to overlook. Then, I woke up in the middle of the night to discover that it gets very chilly in the middle of the night if you're sleeping in a bamboo bungalow. Then, I woke up again at 7:30 sharp, when some nearby construction began--trees being wrenched from the ground and crunched up into sawdust, was what it sounded like. This would not have been pleasant at any hour, but it was especially unwelcome after having been up at 3 a.m. putting on pajama bottoms and sweaters. The final straw occurred when I opened the door and a snake slithered in. I knew it was probably just a garter snake, but I still didn't want it inside. The owner said the housekeeper would deal with it, and a few minutes later, she marched into my room with a big stick. I thought she would hook the snake on the stick and then toss it back into the garden. Instead, she beat the snake with the stick in my room, then tossed it outside, where she beat it some more. Poor snake. I felt very bad to be the cause of the snake's demise, and I was pretty sure that was the last night I'd spend there.

Thankfully, this was a problem easily solved. Janna and I went to the Villa River Cat, where I'd stayed in 2004.

Rinoo, the owner, remembered me and showed me the single room he had available--a very blue room, which I took instantly. By the afternoon of my first full day in Mandrem, I was settled into the blue room at the River Cat very happily, the poor dead snake a rapidly receding memory.

You can't tell from this photo how blue my room was, but trust me that it was very, very blue.

My first morning there, I was awoken by roosters outside and, amazingly for a night owl such as myself, saw bits of another sunrise through my tall, tall windows.

The River Cat is aptly named. In the back, beyond the lovely veranda and the garden, there is, indeed, a river:

And on that lovely veranda are cats.

Lots and lots of cats:

There were 9 kittens in all--5 bigger and 4 tiny--and 2 mama cats. Only one of the kittens had a name, the all black one whom Rinoo had named "Shoe Polish."

I was convinced that Shoe Polish being named made him (or her) more friendly. Here, s/he consented to use Janna's lap as a napping station:

Janna, as you can probably tell, was thrilled. And even more so a little while later when one of Shoe Polish's siblings arrived:

Here's the aerial view:

Janna and I spent quite a bit of time on the veranda, playing Scrabble, drinking tea and watching the kitten antics. (Kitten on the table, the chairs, in the hammock, on the steps, etc.) I even had to partake in a kitten rescue mission. Two little girls staying at the hotel were so enamored of the tiny kittens that they brought three of the four of them upstairs and were swinging them on a swing, while the mama cat paced and yowled on the veranda downstairs. (I was the mean grown up who said, "You have to take them back downstairs." One of the girls immediately said, "It was her idea," pointing to her friend. I was not swayed.)

I made an instant friend in Goa as well, an American woman living in Sweden who was there on holiday with her (sort of) ex-boyfriend and her 5 year old daughter, who grew fond of me over the couple of days we hung out and gave me the parting gift of many magic markered drawings, including one of my own hand and, my favorite, a purple (vegetarian) dinosaur with big teeth. My new friend was shocked when she heard that I was returning to Delhi for 5 days before I went back to the US--why go to Delhi if I could stay longer in Goa, she asked, not unreasonably. I told her that my Delhi was more fun than her Delhi, for one thing, and that the thought of going directly from tropical Goa to New England in January, with no transition, seemed unnecessarily harsh. It would be good to have to wear a sweater again for a few days before I had to wear a winter coat.

And so, after a week of sun and sand and sea, of lovely fresh fish and fresh fruit, of kittens and also a roly poly puppy, the incongruously named "Big Boss" who'd been adopted by the folks at a local restaurant, I regretfully left Goa to return to North India and then, a few days later, North America. One thing is for certain--I will not wait another 8 years to go back.

And there, really, my travelogue ends. Delhi was Delhi. I hung out with Sunil, lunched with Rasil, strolled with my friend Janet, conferred with the tailor, ate chole bhatura at the Bengali Sweet House, hopped on and off the Metro and ran around buying tea and gifts and more tea and snacks and just a few more cushion covers for my blue textiled living room.

And then I came home, and now, a few months later, I'm already thinking about my next trip.

There is a brief addendum. Janna stayed on in India for 6 or 7 weeks after Andy and I left, and one of the places she visited was Udaipur. I'd given her the name of the Ganesh Art Emporium, a funky shop run by an artist named Madhu Kant Mundra. Over the years, I've bought many, many Ganesh postcards from him as well as refrigerator magnets, tiny framed pictures of an elaborately dressed Krishna ("Krishna in his party frock," Abby calls them) and other sundries. The walls of my living room hold four framed prints of Madhu's, including my favorite, the Buddha in a boat rowing across a blue, blue sea . Janna had indicated that she'd found something for me there, but I had no idea what to expect until she came home in March and handed it over. When I saw it, I laughed and laughed, and immediately began to plot its place on my walls.

The Buddha with kitties. How apt.

The End.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On not blogging 31 days in a row

For the past three years, May 1 has signified the beginning of the WordCount Blogathon, in which a large and diverse group of intrepid bloggers agrees, en masse, to post every single day for the month of May. I decided to participate in the Blogathon the first time on a whim. I was in my first months of blogging, and I thought it might give me a jumpstart. The second year, I participated with intent, having learned some key lessons about what it meant to commit to blog every day for a month (Plan Ahead!). Last year, my third year, I decided at the last minute, filled with just a bit of trepidation.

All three years I really enjoyed participating in the blogathon, even with the inevitable feeling of hopelessness at the beginning of week 3 (2 1/2 more weeks of this, really?) and the exhaustion at the end, and the feeling of just not having one more interesting thing to say. Not even one. Still, I enjoyed the camaraderie, the discovery of new blogs I enjoyed reading, the guest post swaps and occasional theme days (it had been decades since I'd written a haiku).

The one thing that the blogathon didn't help me with, though, was becoming a more regular blogger. The blogathon gave me the structure and discipline to blog every day for a month--but not to blog regularly throughout the year. Of course, the blogathon is not to blame for that--I am. But one of my original goals in participating was to get myself on a regular blogging schedule, and that never happened. I am as haphazard a blogger as I ever was, even more so now, given the nearly 6 month silence here.

So, as May arrives once again (How can it possibly be May already?), I've decided that there will be no May blogathon for me. That doesn't mean there won't be blogging, however. What I've decided to do is less ambitious but possibly more important to my future blogging life. This May, I'm going to do what I meant to do all along with the blog and blog not daily, but regularly, at least once a week. I'm hoping by the end of May to have a bit of a rhythm, to feel excited about blogging forward into June and July rather than exhausted.

The first post will be the embarrassing one--the very long delayed post about my January trip to India that I meant to finish and post several months ago. Even as I've pondered other posts, I've thought, "No, I can't post about x, y or z (or, in this case, graham crackers, kale soup or mujadarra) until I get that damn India post up." And there it still sits, mostly written, in draft form, unposted. So, I'll start with that and then see where the rest of the month leads me. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading some of those brave bloggers who are participating in this year's blogathon and cheering them on from the sidelines as I mosey through the month.

Happy May!